Subtle Intensities of the Unexpected

by Kathleen MacQueen

In his novel White Noise, Don DeLillo writes, “The world is full of abandoned meanings. In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.” Is this chance or sensitivity? Is it potential or exaggeration? Is it retrieval or making? Is it recognition or creativity? Is it sight or observation?  The abandoned meanings could be the white noise of our existence – specific frequencies, ambient sound, discarded text, news bulletins, extraneous or misdirected social media messages, suspicions, psychological detritus, neglected opportunities, or arbitrary relations. It might also be a diamond in the rough.

Artist Peter Campus has spent decades seeking out the unexpected within the apparent, not only in his work but also in his teaching. His curatorial practice is recent though he has been practicing it in other ways his entire career: evident in the artists he has supported in critique sessions, juried award determinations, friendships, and mentoring. He has an eye for subtlety; he supports nuance. Is it chance that brings one individual into the sphere of another? Many of the artists in the exhibition cite Peter Campus as the one chance that was crucial to their path as artists – chance aligns the spheres, commitment maintains the link.

The six artists in this exhibition are linked by medium, theme, and curatorial perception yet they span the entire history of video art. The careers of Beryl Korot and Jaime Davidovich corresponding like Peter Campus to the first years of video art as an analog medium, while Jason Varone and Alejandro Cesarco have produced work only in the digital era of the new millennium with Nayda Collazo-Llorens and Seoungho Cho bridging the generational spectrum. Is this chance? Is this a video show?

In “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”, a seminal essay on the new medium of video art from 1976, Rosalind Krauss considered the psychological condition as not only the subject but also the medium of video. Video is simply the equipment, in her view, of a psychological medium, exposing the circular relation of self to a projected image as a repetitive atemporality rather than the temporality of change. Hers is a Lacanian understanding of narcissism in relation to the process of analysis. She notes, however, that the work of Peter Campus maintains a relationship to the pictorial surface as a space external to the self. This exteriority extends the possibility of the medium as an investigative tool rather than a self-reflexive meditation. Nonetheless, Campus admits in a 1999 interview with John Hanhardt for Bomb that “the interior examinations became overwhelming…” and it was necessary for him to move from an interior to an exterior relation to representation. What held resonance for Campus was nature and it was through his investigation of landscape and the natural world that he returned to video, by then a digital medium.

As a digital medium, video has far more connections and associations to technology than its initial identity aligned with television. Digital is vernacular as much as it is technological, its uses social and political, natural and scientific. Its codes refer to all codification, systems of translation that both delimit and expand communication. As such digital is a medium of language, an exchange of what we observe, experience, and share. The six artists whose works make up this exhibition translate experience visually; they freely mix old mediums with new media and their concerns are clinical, critical, and personal. There is no single thread but there is a subtle weave.

Seoungho Cho – NEON 2 (2010) and Elliptical Intimacy 2 (2010)

Is there pain in beauty or beauty in pain? I don’t regard this question as simplistic so much as philosophical. It is a question of being. “At what cost do we tell the truth of ourselves?” asks Michel Foucault. At what cost do we forge a commitment to art and aesthetics? At what cost do we (re)produce? It has been remarked that the groans, cries, and heavy breathing of childbirth reflect the ecstasy of love. And the inverse: what is behind the silent hammering of incessant flashing images of lights, crowds, patterns, colors, clouds, and textures in your piece Neon 2, Seoungho Cho? Who is the solitary man who walks silhouetted as a shadow caught within the frame of your eye and the duration of your temper? You, who dare make this aggressive confrontation with another, are also very gentle. Calm and fury, obsessive and thoughtful, personable and reclusive – we contain bright flashes of insight and also the confusion that blends momentary revelation with the long, drawn out process of reflection.

Cho admits that it takes him years to produce a work such as his Neon series, currently comprised of seven four-channel installation pieces. He has been working on it since 2007 and feels not one set is complete until installed, determined by the time and space of an event. Each series has an underlying landscape motif – trees, desert, sky – elements of life on earth yet the works are at the same time extremely unnatural with their artificial color, rapid-fire editing, and loose patterning between the channels that is neither synchronized nor harmonic. He speaks of the inspiration of René Magritte’s painting, The False Mirror, from 1928 that juxtaposes eye and sky. He speaks of the meaning of Plato’s Cave as an allegory of reflection and reality, belief and certainty, and the knowledge afforded by sensation versus sight.

It is difficult to describe Neon 2 – the rhythmic shift of images between the channels is variable, the images themselves repetitive but capricious. Cho feels little consternation watching this work – he often edits four works at a time, reduced 25% to fit his screen – I feel anxious, even nauseous. At the same time, I am filled with a sense of wonder that so few images (I am certain there are few though I cannot enumerate them!) can be so beautiful. For Cho creates a firestorm of intensity that like anger I can barely sustain. There are however alternating intensities: the alienation of Neon 2 subsides into the sensual play of Elliptical Intimacy 2 as the artist through the haze of insomniac restlessness finds joy and pleasure in the sensual caresses between a hand and the soft glow of light.

Beryl Korot – Florence (2008-09)

Insight and repetition offer a link between the work of Seoungho Cho and Beryl Korot. “We sing the weave,” confess the weavers of Kashmir. The loom follows a musical pattern instrumentally, extrapolating code into a visual language of repetition, persistence, consistency, and duration. While the steam engine ushered in the industrial age, the loom, as Korot points out, was the technological discovery of the information age though it is one of the first tools ever developed by and for human hands. Thus it has sustained Korot’s practice as an artist from the early 1970s as a manual, digital, conceptual, and metaphorical structure. It provides the literal fabric of her paintings and the conceptual structure of her video work with a minimum of four threads to bind the composition.

In Florence, Korot interleaves the natural phenomena of snowstorms and waterfalls with excerpts from the writings of Florence Nightingale. Nature is the backdrop of a story of courage and resilience. The one-dimensional 19th century icon of care giving becomes in Korot’s poetic layering a complex, determined woman certain of her calling. Historically, Nightingale castoff fear and expectation to commit to a purpose larger than her restricted upper-class duty to marriage and family would have proscribed. Korot considers neither an historical, nor a public Nightingale but a private, intimate Florence named for the Italian city where she was born and shaped by the tragedy of war she strove to mitigate.

“If not for the story to tell / I would never enter the world again” – words tumble down the screen, individually and in groups, accumulating like leaves under the tree or bodies on a battlefield. Eschewing linear narrative, Korot gives us the relations of words side-by-side as well as above and below. Words enveloped by sound, blanketed by visions of wind and rain. “Occasionally the roof is torn off / the windows blown in / IMAGINE” – imagine! “If not for the story to tell…” At what cost do we tell the truth of ourselves? Korot, through the vision of Florence, gains the necessary distance to tell a profoundly intimate experience of fear, desire, and conscience as a portrait and a landscape of personal understanding. The world is full of abandoned meanings – Korot picks them up again – all is not lost, all is not forgotten so long as one discovers a viable context of strength, both internal and external.

“Women dream dreams which are their life / without which they could not live.” The imagination of women can change history, Korot encourages, if we are only willing to take the chance. The philosopher William James, contemporary to Florence Nightingale, suggested that within any of life’s circumstances lay the possibility of many outcomes until chance comes along and determines one, eliminating all others. “To sleep, perchance to dream…” Hamlet’s soliloquy provokes a fear of death but for Florence to dream was her passage to save lives.

Alejandro Cesarco – The Two Stories (2009)

Alejandro Cesarco’s piece, The Two Stories (2009), was shot on 16mm black and white film stock and transferred to digital video to simplify editing and projection. Its endless, subtle gradations of gray, its extreme clarity and softness of light, and the transparent dimension of space would not have the same quality even in high definition video. We see only an empty room in a house; the camera caresses the surroundings much like Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, does in the opening scene of Cries and Whispers (1972) investigating walls, corners, windows, furniture, and objects for evidence of the home’s guests and inhabitants as well as the existence of memory. Lending vitality to inanimate objects is the skill of motion pictures but it is also a celebrated feature of Uruguayan writer, Felisberto Hernández, whose short story “Nadie encendía las lámparas” (1947, “No One Turned On the Lamps”) is the inspiration for the work.

“I thought of the innocence with which the statue had to represent a role it did not understand,” considers the narrator. Unlike in Bergman’s film where the passage of time is marked by the sound of wind in the leaves and the ticking of a clock, there is no ambient sound (no white noise) in The Two Stories where the gentle voice of the narrator reveals not the text he reads but the distractions he encounters in his awareness of audience and surroundings. The story text is subtext to ruminations that deflect the narrator’s sensual response from individuals to the lush tapestry of the walls, the silence of the photographs of dead loved ones, and the coy suggestive pose of the statue in the garden. What is being read? Who is reading? Presumably the text of the narrator but also the entire ambience of the setting, including sunlight, the attention of the listeners, and the detached alienation of the narrator (both author and reader) to his text.

“Once years ago, I was reading a story in the parlor of an old house.” In the text a story is being read but we do not hear it; in the film an audience is invoked but we do not see it. Between object and observation, between text and silence, between projection and existence is motion and time – what Giles Deleuze sees as the organizational principles of cinema. Rosalind Krauss’s analysis of a “collapsed present” in early video art becomes a “disjunctive present” in digital video three decades later. It is a present tense in which the subject is physically absent but metaphysically made manifest through a questioning of ambience: what is left in the world, how fragile is existence, and where is tenable ground from which we can name ourselves and our relations to others? Cesarco’s story is contiguous to Hernández’s story – an allegory of reading – in his own words, “a rather ‘shy’ work of art as it directly addresses the discomforts of its own presentation.”

Jaime Davidovich – Bridge (1998), View from the River (1998), View from Above (2000), View from the 12th Floor (2000), Leaves (1998-2011)

Jaime Davidovich also considers the disjunctive alliance between subject and presentation. He proceeds quietly, taking pleasure in common daily experience and though working in video since the 1970s, he is indebted to landscape painting as inspiration, particularly the Hudson River Valley painters of the 19th century. Four of the works exhibited are “views” – a particular way of looking that through framing selects a satisfying picture. It has been suggested that the trend of walking tours favored by Romantic poets such as Keats, indeed tourism itself, was triggered when painters such as Constable considered landscape as a viable genre and not just the background setting for religious painting. In other words, artists selected “views” judging a landscape for its compositional viability. Still, one can also imagine that Constable discovered the inverse, i.e., aesthetic satisfaction in looking at landscape. “Painting is but another word for feeling,” he wrote his friend John Fisher in 1821.

Nearly two centuries later Davidovich relishes the conflict between mediums, between art historical and avant-garde practice, between the uniqueness of the object and the multiplicity of digital medium, and between material preciousness and the ephemeral motion of time. For painting creates stillness – a meditative state – while video as a practice is a collusion of movement and time – an active state. In referring to his work as “conflictivism,” Davidovich plays between opposites. In four of his works exhibited here – Bridge, View from Above, View from the River, and View from the 12th Floor – he has painted four small canvases, floated them in box frames, placed them on the floor, and projected moving images in “real time” onto them. Cars cross a bridge, ships navigate New York Harbor, pedestrians and vehicular traffic negotiate an intersection. These are commonplace activities that defy our interest yet Davidovich suggests that much can be discerned through the patience of observation – the pattern of movement, the direction of light, the energy of a moment – to pause, reflect, and only then pass by.

Leaves is painted directly on the wall in gold leaf while a projected image of leaves swaying in early summer light blends with the gold to create a luminosity to rival Monet’s lilies. This is not the preciousness of a commodity object but of an icon in which the merit of the saint is relative to the value of the material used to create its icon. There is subtle irony to the artist’s approach – his work is small, placed low at the crease between wall and floor – one must stoop, bend, or crouch to discern the fluctuation within each image – the works demand a Zen-like commitment of suspension. To observe is to yield to the sway of the branches, the pull of the tides, and the play of light against shadow – to paint is to feel – to video, from the Latin videre, is not only to see but also to comprehend!


Jason Varone
– Dromospheric Pollution (2011)

The love of landscape in both its physical form and its aesthetic representation connects the work of Jaime Davidovich whose grandchildren sprawled on the floor to comfortably view his installation in progress and that of Jason Varone born shortly after Davidovich had purchased his first video camera. They share a passion for continuity as well as irreverence toward tradition but their approach to the digital medium reveals the understandable distinctions of their generations. While Davidovich is mindful of the complexities that small gestures and modest efforts offer, Varone reaches as broadly as network communication allows.

Specifically, he utilizes social media to narrowly focus his investigations and also to bring in as much material as his net can gather. Varone creates what he calls videopaintings – a relationship between cartoon graphics painted and text projected directly onto the wall. In a recent work entitled Inclement Weather (2009-2010) iconographic clouds like thought bubbles in cartoons rain Twitter feeds culled from the internet using hashtags such as: #iranelection #haiti #justinbieber #hurricane. This current installation entitled Dromospheric Pollution (2011) collects headlines and, rather than running them horizontally like the lower thirds on the bottom of a cable news screen, Varone diagonally projects the news tickers (aka crawlers) as if they were drone missiles exploding into smoke plumes, linear ink drawings whose drips remind us that while military action is now conducted from the reaches of the troposphere, human interaction still requires manual intervention.

War, economics, and the environment are all topics of news headlines; they are also the subjects of Varone’s art, sometimes with an emphasis on war or the environment but often recognizing that all three systems are interrelated. But headlines are the stuff of sound bites designed to draw us in, stimulate our anxiety, and provide little substantial information. They are the “Pop” in Lichtenstein’s appropriation of comic book and advertising iconography. As he reflects our social and political universe is there an incentive toward active resistance? By Varone’s own admission, his news is “bad news” – it can be overwhelming if it isn’t filtered. The irony provided by the childlike innocence of his line drawings mask the destruction designated by the crawlers – a tense standoff between the tolerable and the intolerable.

“Dromosphere” is Paul Virilio’s connection between modern warfare, the media, and the movement of global interference taking place in the troposphere (where turbulence and mixing influences the upper layers of the atmosphere). Dromos provides an analogy to speed, race, competition, and war. In a conversation with John Armitage in 2000 in which they discussed the Kosovo War, Virilio said, “Whoever controls the territory possesses it. Possession of territory is not primarily about laws and contracts, but first and foremost a matter of movement and circulation.” Circulation occurs in the 21st century extremely rapidly in the upper layers of the atmosphere through satellite transmissions. It is responsible for war but as collective demonstrations in Iran and revolution in Tunisia have proven the rapid dissemination of information is also responsible for change. While not (yet?) a public intervention, Varone’s archiving and dissemination of data is an active consideration of the problems confronting anyone’s belief in continuity.

Nayda Collazo-Llorens – Unfolding the Triangle (2011)

In Nayda Collazo-Llorens Unfolding the Triangle (2011) the interstices begin to reveal themselves – topography, text, drawings, and video span across the wall as clues of a detective trying to solve a case. Past colludes with present, code mingles with description, and physical evidence confronts transcendental sensibility as she follows a trail of mysterious sightings, disappearances, accidents, and other untested phenomena within the triangle that alludes to the overlap between the artist’s own points of biographical connection and vectors of the notorious Bermuda triangle, a loosely defined geographical region marred by unsolved crimes of natural or supernatural origin.

Tape forms a reflective abstraction of the topography of the ocean floor providing an anamorphic grid to support the evidence as well as a directional narrative unfolding across time and space. Just as in the work of Jason Varone, humor and anxiety co-exist in the cumulative process of managing excess data comprising fact, mythology, and paranormal. Collazo-Llorens charts the space between event, perception, memory, and psychological recovery. Medium as Rosalind Krauss suggests is also the intermediary of communication between the subject and the unknown (either normal or parapsychology). Collazo-Llorens’s video component of three small screens the size of hospital monitors containing short loops of abstracted sound and blurred imagery gives the impression of how a patient coming out of a coma begins to make sense of the sensations that provoke consciousness.

A friend once said to me, “I feel as if you are back.” Lying, I agreed for I only partially comprehended his suggestion. It would be in fact two more years before I was back and by then my world had changed irrevocably – I was alien to my own existence. Such upheavals occur when we withstand a shock – a bullet through the brain, a startling revelation, or a physical disturbance. We exist in altered form until another shock jolts our sensory receptors into recognition of a sterner but truer reality – an awareness of who we are in relation to others and the world that exists not for one but for all of us. This marks an end of the claim of narcissism on the soul and the end of video as defined by the psychological condition.

Where is the space for failure, remorse, anxiety, and vulnerability in our interactions that connect us to each other? These positions are just as much part of what it means to be human as strength, resilience, and fulfillment, yet they isolate and provoke the construction of barriers both physical and psychological. Collazo-Llorens builds a text of alienation – of being alien – as an existential process of identifying what it means to be human. This unfolding of space between geographical coordinates is also an exposure of the vectors that chart personal experience. The term vector expresses a quantity with both direction and magnitude. It describes at once the course of aircraft, a gene transfer agent, and a disease-transmitting organism. Conceptually, a vector is an expansive movement, pulsing outward as a sound wave, a set of gestures, or a directional flow. It envelops as it unfolds suggesting the possibilities of abduction or simply the release from a constricting embrace.

Mythology suggests that artists are self-centered, egotistical, and narcissistic; reality suggests otherwise. By Chance, A Video Show is neither by chance nor about video: it joins six artists not by circumstance, medium, or formal approach but through a kind of humanist position that considers experience over time. This is curator Peter Campus’s sensibility that supports the artist whose work takes time to create, develop, and receive; it is durational work. It favors subtlety over spectacle, understatement over declaration, and patience over gratification. It requires a willingness to sustain a position for the long term; it is a commitment to engage with others and to be of (not simply in) the fragile world that remains the vector of our existence. Once years ago, I was reading a story in the parlor of an old house. Because there are always at least two stories to tell we enter the world again in an effort to retrieve abandoned meanings and discover the unexpected…

References:

Don DeLillo, White Noise (New York: Viking Press, 1985).

Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” in October, vol. 1 (Spring, 1976): 50-64.

John Hanhardt, “Peter Campus” in Bomb 68 (Summer 1999), http://bombsite.com/issues/68/articles/2236 (accessed January 24, 2011).

John Armitage, “The Kosovo War Took Place in Orbital Space: Paul Virilio in Conversation” in CTheory, October 18, 2000 (http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=132 accessed January 24, 2011).