Part of the 2015 Curatorial Incubator
In Perpetual Search for the Self
A curated screening
March 6th - April 9th, 2015
David Askevold, It’s No Use Crying (1972) 3:30
Kate Craig, Delicate Issue (1979) 12:30
Colin Campbell, True/False (1972) 9:00
Tom Sherman, Envisioner (1978) 3:00
Elizabeth Chitty, Telling Tales (1979) 26:00
The entire 2015 Curatorial Incubator Catalogue can be found here.
(edited by Peggy Gale)
Since the publication nearly forty years ago of Rosalind Krauss’s canonical article, Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism, her words have continued to resonate within critical discourse on video art. My selection of works for Vtape’s annual Curatorial Incubator takes Krauss’s text as a point of departure to discuss works from the same period, the 1970s, in Canada, and includes works by David Askevold, Kate Craig, Colin Campbell, Tom Sherman, and Elizabeth Chitty.
Krauss describes narcissism in her article as the primary aesthetic element uniting video works of the 1970s. In Krauss’s account, the video medium facilitates a type of narcissistic affirmation, wherein through real-time feedback via the presence of the video monitor, the artist is presented with an instantaneous re-presentation of his or her own image. According to Krauss, the closed circuit of the artist and the immediacy of the projected image causes a misrecognition of self-image, which frustrates an impulse to confirm one’s presence. Krauss aligns this narcissism with a type of vanity she saw as endemic to video art as a form. As she maintains in her text, self-regard is “the condition of the entire genre” (50). From this concept of narcissism, Krauss concludes that the videotape recorder in its directness and immediacy summons the mirror as its primary aesthetic and conceptual metaphor (Maureen Turim in “The Cultural Logic of Video” collapses this concept referring to the apparatus as the “video-mirror” (337)). The video camera offers a mirror to its user/subject, making way for an exploration and expression of content that is largely self-evaluative in nature.
The legacy of this proposition can be felt in the fertile dialogue that has emerged linking narcissism to autobiographical experimental video, wherein the analogue monitor is positioned structurally and fundamentally as a reflective surface. This proposal extends into the present in relation to the digital screen.
From the vantage point of 2014 I feel compelled, as a curator who came of age in the past decade, to observe the parallels or continuations apparent in Krauss’s notion of narcissism. This narcissism prevails in contemporary culture, whose primary modes are dominated by the pursuit of an articulated self through net presence and personal branding. It has been widely observed that today, digital media offers an outlet for self-representation within a paradigm that facilitates the very public narrativization of one’s own existence. With the pervasiveness of YouTube culture and self-documentation through various social media outlets, this age of “selfies” seems to point to a narcissism continued into the 21st century.
It stands then that the perpetual questioning of the self is a preoccupation that is not unique to the decade in which these works were created. As an impulse, it may be more closely related to a particular age and stage of both artistic and personal development. Each work in the selected program marks an early stage in the artist’s career. It seems that the compulsion to locate the self prevails over time. The tools through which this impulse is interrogated and enacted is predicated on the evolution of technologies.
It is acknowledged here that narcissism as a conceptual metaphor has been extrapolated beyond Krauss’s original sense and in some cases has done away with the attendant monitor so essential to Krauss’s original analysis of early experimental video. For the current program the term has been opened up into a conceptual and cultural lens through which to analyze these pioneering works. It is true that narcissism enfolds dimensions that go beyond those explored by Krauss, and numerous theorists have found the term a potent locus of consideration. In the early 20th century Freud related narcissism to a primal fear of death. Lacan furthered Freud’s psychoanalytical propositions, expanding on the notion of the mirror stage in relation to self-construction, ego-stabilization, and the pleasure of looking. Narcissism expands also to more banal modes of interrogation, particularly in relation to online self-promotion.
The video camera – whether analogue or digital – remains a self-reflexive device, an instrument for self-construction, presentation, and reflection. An emotional honesty runs through these five works, as each artist enacts a laying bare of the self through self-observation. They share many formal qualities including the use of long, unedited takes and minimal camera angles or movements characteristic of early video. Some rely on sync sound while others offer voice over dialogue, where the voice of the artist dominates. Each of these works has an autobiographical component, particularly in the video artists’ use of themselves as the primary subject or image on screen. The resulting works are at once diaristic, critical, austere, and distorted as the artists search for identity through their various performances for the camera.
The featured works are representative of a particular moment in Canadian experimental video art. Since the emergence of the form the artist’s body has been central, due in part to the very conditions of video technology wherein the artist can work alone, without a camera operator. As Peggy Gale recounts in her article “A History in Four Moments” video art in the 1970s frequently featured the video-maker as the single figure on screen, while Kay Armitage suggests that the viewing of video art is itself a typically lonely endeavour (72).
Helmut Friedel further notes in his text, “Video Narcissus – The New Self Portrait” that, “It is precisely this aloneness of the video artist that is a further essential reason for the creation of a very intense, intimate dialogue between the artist and the camera in which the artist is described, presented, and shown, unobserved from the outside” (121). This aloneness is illustrated poignantly by David Askevold, It’s No Use Crying (1972) in which the video art pioneer’s upside-down face commands the screen. In a demonstration of strained self-control Askevold resists the urge to blink for the duration of the recording. He maintains eye contact with the viewer, as mediated by the camera. Ray Charles’s plaintive song provides the soundtrack setting the tone for the entirety of the artist’s performance. The black and white image, achieved in one take, is at once austere and intimate. This work, like the others, is unrelenting in its openness, prioritizing honesty above beauty in its rough and simple aesthetic.
Dot Tuer describes the viewer in relation to autobiographical video artworks as “a distant witness to the complexities of self-interrogation/self-recognition that unfold under the all seeing electronic eye of the video playback machine” (107). In Kate Craig’s Delicate Issue (1979) the viewer is invited to observe the artist/subject with discomforting closeness through a series of extreme close-ups of various – sometimes unidentifiable – parts of Craig’s body. The viewer may recognise hair follicles, freckles, and then an eye turned on its side. Yet despite this attempt at full physical disclosure the work offers very little in the way of personal revelation. Craig’s soothing voice guides the viewer as she asks., “At what distance does the subject read?” The physicality of the video is heightened by the sound of a beating heart and deep breathing throughout. The camera, acting as intermediary, translates the body into subject as well as object, yet even with the camera’s close proximity, the artist’s identity is made no further legible. In the camera’s extreme closeness, the body and by extension the artist’s identity is rendered disfigured, ultimately offering a mere surface description of the artist herself.
Craig’s questioning of the camera’s ability to translate truth reflects a general skepticism of the camera’s representational veracity that emerged in the 1970s. Through the use of the camera each artist attempts to achieve clarity, but further obscurity is often found instead.
Colin Campbell’s True/False (1972) is one of the artist’s earliest works, and is, according to Peggy Gale, exemplary of the confessional form which came to prominence in the 1970s. In True/False Campbell explores his personal identity through a series of disclosures while questioning the camera’s ability to translate such intimacies. Recorded in a single 15-minute take, a young Colin Campbell appears in the video as the single figure positioned in profile, in a plain and anonymous setting. In an exercise of self-presentation that verges on self-obsession, he offers a list of sixteen statements pertaining to his personal life. Following each confession — I still masturbate — I snort coke — I recently attempted suicide — he pauses, claiming the disclosure to be true, then false. With a palpable deliberateness in pacing (Campbell seems to swallow hard at multiple points in the performance) the validity of the claims seems to reduce in importance as the viewer begins to focus instead on the self-portrait Campbell creates through his testimonial. Following this list of pronouncements, which he both confirms and denies, he turns and faces the camera, repeating the same list, now confronting the viewer directly. Through his reliance on video as the mode of direct communication the artist problematizes video as a form capable of conveying (personal) information faithfully.
In Tom Sherman’s video, Envisioner (1978), the artist similarly questions the faculty of text to translate truth while exploring his own articulations of his self-image. The work begins abruptly with a quick flash of the artist’s mustachioed face followed by a series of statements. To begin, Sherman admits in a monotone voice that there is “instability in my self image”. He seems concerned not only with his own self-presentation but with the private and public behaviour of his acquaintances. He critiques the superficiality of conversation while conceding his own flaws. Words, from the beginning of each assertion roll down the screen. The first sentence from each phrase repeats until he moves onto the next clause. The artist’s portrait is intercut at intervals throughout the 3:00 minute video, offering a momentary vision of the artist’s identity. The work ends with Sherman’s assertion that “It burns my ass to hear people advertising their one of a kind identities”.
In Elizabeth Chitty’s video, Telling Tales (1978), the artist further examines the inadequacy of the camera as interlocutor while presenting and constructing her personal image. Over the work’s 26:30 duration, the artist experiments with the conventions of narrative while offering the viewer a story that is non-linear and incomplete, through a chaotic composition of momentary characters, failed telephone calls, and articulated demands made by the artist to her viewer. To begin, a news report of a nuclear meltdown fills a room with white noise as a couple makes out on a couch, unmoved by the drama of the broadcaster’s message. Text scrolls over the screen as the artist’s voice is introduced. She begins to tell her story, but admits immediately to the insufficiencies of her recounting. The video returns again and again to Chitty, sitting in a studio space outfitted with multiple television monitors and audio recording devices. These are the tools that she deploys to tell a fragmented tale of characters and to play out a cast of tenacious personae, which together offer a portrait of herself. At a certain point she instructs the audience to “have your answers sheets ready.” A series of oblique questions follow, relating to news events, political leanings, and eventually to personal inquiries regarding an unnamed girl, presumably an iteration of the artist. It ends with the question – “Could she balance her behaviour with her self image?” Chitty then performs a spirited version of I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. Armed with gold lamé pants and a myriad of low-fi video effects, the performance is earnest and austere, but with the absence of a visible audience the performance seems utterly self-involved.
She then rifles through a collection of cards, indexed alphabetically, the actions immediately displayed on screen. Here Chitty enacts the very behaviour Krauss diagnosed in her historical essay. The artist immediately witnesses the image of her actions, through the video monitor. In this case however, she captures not her face but her hands, a seeming denial of the vanity of the feedback loop. She relocates to a private room, touching herself passionlessly for the camera. The moment, though brief, extends back onto the video screen, where Chitty cooly watches the scene that has just occurred, an allusion perhaps to the masturbatory efforts of the video artist. She then (seemingly impulsively) flips through the pages of a women’s magazine called Look with the heel of her shoe. The video ends as Chitty puts on a trench coat and sunglasses, exiting the scene as she proclaims, “She was always telling tales”.
This, the most chaotic work in the program, demonstrates the artist’s attempt to negotiate an image of herself within a pool of saturated media. The fragmented scenes together offer a partial representation of the artist’s self image.
Each artist in this program carves out a self-portrait while acknowledging the inadequacy of the camera as a tool for reflection. It is here that the Narcissus myth most potently takes hold, wherein the effort to see one’s reflection is perpetually undone. As Narcissus reaches into the water to behold the image of his own likeness his reflection is immediately and perpetually destroyed. In many ways the allegorical framework of the self-infatuated Narcissus betrays the generous and questioning self-presentation offered by each artist in their works. Almost all performed in solitude these works stage each artists’ negotiation of the self on a spectrum that ranges from self-control to self-doubt. In their search for the intangible self through the articulated representation of their physical bodies as mediated by the camera, they demonstrate a youthful obsession with one’s own appearance underpinned by a sage consideration of its ephemerality. Through their performances the artists suggest the impossibility of faithful representation due to the limitations of the camera apparatus, yet they remain undeterred in their efforts. The location of the elusive self through available technologies continues to prevail in the 21st century, as we may see in Narcissistic modes across time.
Armitage, Kay. “The-Body-That-Disappears-Into-Thin-Air: Vera Frenkel’s Video Art.” In Mirror Machine: Video and Identity. ed. Janine Marchessault. Toronto: YYZ Books, 1995, 67–88.
Friedel, Helmut. “Video Narcissus – The New Self-Portrait.” In Video by Artists 2. ed. Elke Town. Toronto: Art Metropole, 1986, 113–124.
Gale, Peggy. “A History in Four Moments.” In Mirror Machine: Video and Identity. ed. Janine Marchessault. Toronto: YYZ Books, 1995, 55–66.
Gale, Peggy. “The Use of the Self to Structure Narrative.” In Videotexts. Toronto: Published for the Power Plant, Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1995, 83–95.
Hill, Chris. History of Video Art. San Diego, CA: U Readers, 2013.
Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” October 1. (Spring, 1976), 50–64.
Spielmann, Yvonne. Video: The Reflexive Medium. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
Tuer, Dot. “Mirroring Identities: Two Decades of Video Art in English Canada.” In Mirror Machine: Video and Identity. ed. Janine Marchessault. Toronto: YYZ Books, 1995, 107–128.
Turim, Maureen. “The Cultural Logic of Video.” In Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art. eds. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer. New York: Aperture, in association with the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990, 331–342.