Every presentation of a work of video art can be understood as a kind of live performance, an immaterial, temporal experience, characterized by uncertainty and instability. In the same way that no single live performance can ever be exactly replicated, no viewer can ever have the same encounter with a recorded work more than once. Even if all the elements of the presentation do not change–the recorded content, the equipment and objects involved, the setting–there is an inherent variability in the composition of the work every time it is presented/created. This is due, in part, to the unpredictable effects of time on the viewer’s perception and memory. For this reason, even when familiar narrative elements are employed, the discourse around performance and video art is limited to a series of fluid impressions that remain with the audience after the event is over.
Because of this, video and performance are simultaneously the most non-commercial art forms and the most dependent on the public. While their temporal nature makes them resistant to commodification, video and performance require an audience to be actively present in order for the work to be actively present. This necessity of the element of shared time challenges traditional notions of the self-determination of the viewer in the visual arts, as the artist dictates the duration of the audience’s perception, requiring (rather than inviting) them to interact with the work in this added dimension.
Given that video and performance exist in this fourth dimension, these works are capable not just of carving out space for themselves, but they can actively affect the way individual audience members experience time. The use of repetition and monotony–elements which are so ubiquitous in contemporary video and performance art–only compound the uniquely subjective nature of this effect. In some cases, an image or phrase repeated over time can dismantle what may at first have been easily comprehensible. But it may also have the opposite effect, as something which seems strange or opaque at first becomes recognizable only when it has been encountered repeatedly or slowly over the course of time.
In preparation for Space/Time Berlin, the curators are considering the following works which approach the mediums of performance and video in dramatically different ways. As we will be showcasing new pieces from contemporary artists and performers, we are not asking for direct responses or variations on these pieces, nor will these artists necessarily be featured in the festival. This is simply the starting place for us. We are interested in how these artists manipulate time through the use of repetition, monotony, and other temporal constructs, and in the resulting effect on the audience’s experience of the work over the course of time.
With Water Basins (2014), Sebastian Stumpf documented himself floating face-up in public fountains, pools, and ponds, situated in the shadow of commercial and corporate structures. As the images are always dynamically composed, the audience’s first response is to examine the video as a static picture. But Stumpf’s seemingly lifeless body cuts through the stillness of these scenes like a chaotic (if slow-moving) instrument of time. As a viewer, to be actively present with this video is to switch back and forth between these modes of viewing, in one moment seeing the unmoving architecture; in the next, seeing the artist’s body given-over to the currents of still waters. The effect, in this case, is a feeling of self-abandonment, freedom, and respite in the action/inaction of the artist. Is this meditation or an act of passive resistance?
In Peter Roehr’s prescient Film Montage I-III (1965-68), the artist created sequences of short loops from found, often commercial, footage. These audio-visual phrases seldom last more than 10 to 15 seconds, however within those few seconds the audience’s assumptions about the meaning and content of these images is stripped away, through strict, mechanical repetition. In each successive viewing, these otherwise unremarkable fragments are revealed to contain a vast expanse of ideas, emotions, and aesthetic dimensions. In demolishing assumptions and stripping away context, the hidden qualities of the material are revealed.
With Dara Birnbaum’s YouTube-ready Technology-Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-79), the artist created a patchwork narrative by cutting together clips from the 1970’s TV series, Wonder Woman, replacing soft-fades between scenes with jarring, disjointed cuts, and rising climactic action with tedious, repeated moments of anti-climax. In this new narrative context, Birnbaum exposes the sexist hypocrisy of the series–and, by extension, the popular appeal of it–while reveling in its kitsch and absurdity. The result is a pointed political statement which also happens to be deeply entertaining.
Perhaps less explicitly performative than the other video works listed here, Yishay Garbasz’s Futaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone (2013) uses a still camera to record an empty street-crossing in the evacuated Futaba district following the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Like with Stumpf’s Water Basins, the audience’s first response to this video is to examine the composition as one would a painting of a still urban environment. But, unlike Water Basis, there is something that prevents the viewer from floating along with this deceptively serene image: the constant beeping of the artist’s Geiger counter, monitoring her radiation levels. As time passes, the invisible threat and the magnitude of this human-made disaster starts to shift into focus.
A more explicitly performative take on this theme (or perhaps simply more exhausting) is Vito Acconci’s Centers (1971), in which the artist faces a camera, his arm and finger extended towards the center of the camera’s lens, as if pointing through the screen at the viewer. With a run time of nearly 23 minutes, this impossible attempt at sameness tests the physical limitations of the performer, as well as the patience of the viewer. As Acconci’s gaze grows ever more manic under the strain of his effort, the meaning of this aggressively accusative gesture evolves over time. The longer the viewer remains present with the work, the more implicated they become in the performer’s self-inflicted torment.
Ida Müller and Vegard Vinge’s approach to “Total Radical Fiction” tests the limits of what is possible in live theater with its aggressive use of duration and repetition. In the hands of Müller and Vinge, time becomes a tool in which to dismantle language and destroy archetype. Scenes in which physical or linguistic action are repeated ad nauseum are not merely used to disrupt a narrative, they are the narrative. As a viewer, the experience is at times euphoric and at other times maddening, depending on how long a single gesture, action, or archetypal situation has been repeated. In the moment of viewing, one’s subjective response is determined almost entirely by primal–rather than intellectual or logical–factors.
In his multi-stage work which combines live and recorded performance (Abidance, 2014), contemporary artist Peter Clough fragments the experience of the audience by isolating them in different temporal and aural spaces, and then manipulating access to those spaces. As the single-channel video switches between dynamic POV shots and static establishing shots of Clough’s performance, the artist is in complete control of sound and image. However the resulting work is as much about what the artist cannot control, as what he can. The experience of the audience watching an audience watch a performer is dizzyingly self-reflective, as one is not just engaged in the actions of the performer, but also in the engagement (or non-engagement) of the live audience.
In the spirit of these works, Space/Time Berlin is issuing an open call for video art and live performances of all kinds to take part in our ongoing program.
Visit our call for works page for more information on how to apply.