Contemporary Art Visual Culture
In order to discuss connections between a theoretical reading and a piece of artistic work, this essay will focus on the essay ‘Video Projection: The Space Between Screens’ by Liz Kotz (2004) in relation to the video installation Stampede by Roman Ondak (2011). It will first of all outline the key points of Kotz’s argument, including how she focuses on the potentials of video art to challenge some of the assumptions and effects of cinematic theoretical traditions. After sketching out some of the examples she gives to back up her arguments it will turn to a close reading of Ondak’s work, which is currently installed at the Modern Art Oxford museum. While the work can be seen to illustrate and expand some of the points that Kotz makes, it also goes further, critiquing some of her analysis and suggesting new functions and potentials for video based practice. It will be argued that, against Kotz’s assumptions, Stampede uses its own banality as video to draw attention to and critique assumptions such as the importance of participation and the incorporation of political events into contemporary artworks and their institutional settings.
Kotz’s essay (2004) discusses a range of contemporary video-based art practices, focusing on similarities and differences they show from other forms of screen-based media such as television and film. She discusses the desire of video art to get “beyond the box” (p.101) as fundamental to an understanding of its installation and effects today. By this, she means that video work increasingly takes place not within the framework of TV style monitors, with their associated significations of popular media culture, but through installations as spectacular sculptural objects. She then goes on to discuss some effects of projection, especially its capacity for distortion and illusion as well as representation, “by their nature projected images elicit fantasy: we see things that are not there” (p.102). She argues that film theory has traditionally focused on the traditional cinematic experience of the cinema viewer in a fixed space in a dark room watching a giant screen in front of their eyes. This has led to the formulation of specific concepts of spectatorship based on what she describes as “psychic mobility paradoxically dependent on physical immobility” (p.102). While the body is still, in other words, the mind works to identify with and be affected by images on screen in a certain way. Kotz’s argument is that contemporary video art installations, through their different modes of display, can challenge the assumptions that film theory makes about the way that the subject is positioned:
With their greater mobility and technical flexibility [than traditional cinematic viewing], emerging video-based ‘screen practices’ would seem to offer rich possibilities for rethinking and restructuring these core relationships – between viewing subject, moving or still image, architectural space, and time – that are so fundamental to modern visual culture. (p.102)
Video art within the context of the gallery or museum, in other words, has the potential to force a rethinking of issues such as space and time, the body and the relation of the subject to the image. She then goes on to give multiple examples of artists who have done this. Stan Douglas uses multiple screens to disrupt vision, for example (p.103). Diana Thater has mixed natural light with projections to draw attention to the illuminating power of light itself within the projection (p.104). Other artists such as Eija Lisa Ahtila have used capacities of gallery installation to create new forms of cinematic narrative (p.106), while Douglas Gordon’s slowed down version of Psycho draws attention to the conventions and effects of cinematic time (p.106). Many other examples could be found to further the claims she makes. Christian Marclay’s The Clock for example, by editing together sections of films containing clocks and then playing the footage in real time is another example of the drawing attention to processes of time inherent to cinema and to artist’s manipulations of it.
The work I will focus on here, however, is Roman Ondak’s current video installation at Modern Art Oxford, Stampede (2011). Kotz discusses how the familiarity of the ‘black box’ space in the gallery – a dark space used to recreate a cinematic mode of viewing – has dampened some of the potential effects of the critical and sculptural capacities of video (p.109). Ondak’s work, on the other hand, not merely rejects the black box format but actively subverts it by using it within a different context. The work forms part of Ondak’s solo exhibition covering two rooms. Upstairs is the sculptural object Time Capsule, which is an exact replica of the escape shaft used to rescue the trapped Chilean miners last year. Downstairs, viewers are funneled through a dark claustrophobic space, emerging in a dark room where one wall is a video projection of more people squashing into presumably the same space at a different time. They start coming in slowly and then faster and faster adding to the feeling of claustrophobia in the room. As the viewer’s eyes adjust to the light it turns out that the room is not so small, there is a lot of space around and the video is a single screen at the end of the space, filling one wall. In the video, people loiter around in the space, chatting calmly and then gradually leave. It has the general effect of more an amble than a stampede. In grainy black and white, it signifies that it was shot in the dark and is shown with night vision but the lack of people crashing into walls or each other confuses this reading, suggesting the graininess is more of an effect added later. The work has a lot of different effects. In one sense, it is impossible to not make a connection between the two works, reading into the video projection a narrative of being trapped underground suggested by the reference to the mine escape upstairs. This recalls Kotz’s analysis of Steve McQueen’s work (p.107) where documentary aspects of ‘real life’ are incorporated and combined with the formal features of cinematic and video art. For Steve McQueen this was research into a diamond mine, while here the mine context is suggested but in a different way. It is also quite different from the claims Kotz makes for McQueen’s work (that he “compellingly introduced present-day historical experience” (p.109) ). While the Chilean miner context may be alluded to, the video itself makes no direct reference or documentary signification of the event, focusing entirely instead on a group of people, who look like gallery-goers funneling into the room. They look relaxed and carefree, taking photos on their phones and chatting. There is none of the terror and depression one would associate with being trapped underground for a long space of time, providing not so much a continuity but more of a contrast with the realism of the sculptural work upstairs.
The work, then, functions in a more self-aware way than Kotz proposes for McQueen. It doesn’t merely draw attention to and critique elements of film form as in the structuralist work she discusses (p.110-111) but operates as a broader self-aware critique on the banalisation of politics and real word material when it is reduced to participatory art experience. It is precisely the gap between the actual terror of the mine collapse and the playful interaction of the gallery goers squashing into the space that gives it its real impact. The video, it turns out, documents a performance at the gallery opening where people were invited to crush into the space. It functions then as an effective ‘performative’ recreation of this event – not only representing it but making viewers of the video feel as if they were there, re-staging it through the medium of video. It does draw on some of the points that Kotz makes. It is an immersive experience (p.107), for example, using the light of the projection itself as fundamental as it provides the only way of seeing anything within the otherwise dark space. It uses no speech but uses the gallery wall to naturalise the rectangle of the screen as an architectural feature (p.106). Beyond these features, however, the video does have more impact. The physical effect of walking through the dark corridor into the space is admittedly quite minimal, absolutely nothing like being trapped down a mine. But then this, really, is the strength of the piece. So many people, in the video are so desperate to ‘participate’ in the work by filling the room that the work is stripped of any actual relation to the escape shaft upstairs, becoming instead a critical self-commentary on the meaninglessness of much participation in contemporary art and the desire to be part of, rather than just watch, a video. Kotz points to how video has been used to attract new audiences to galleries and museums (p.108) and this is not only done here but also, in a self-aware way, drawn attention to. A critique is suggested not only of the desire to participate in an artwork but also the desire to be filmed inherent to contemporary visual culture (YouTube for example), emphasized through the people in the film making films of themselves being filmed on their phones while they are there. More than an experience, this makes the film, at least partly, a self-aware commentary on processes of documenting, re-enacting, filming and being filmed. Kotz discusses how video, rather than challenging the art market by refusing to make sellable objects, is now a fundamental part and feature of institutional discourse (p.109). This again is true in this case, but also drawn attention to. The public museum may well demand participation as part of its funding remit as much as the commercial gallery demands sales. Participation, here, is reduced to its bare bones of hundreds of people obliviously squashing into an empty room. Kotz critiques the claims made for video art practice, “which unquestioningly assume that newly immersive video spectacles provide genuine forms of desublimatory, anti-disciplinary experience” (p.108). This is reductive, she argues, videos are not necessarily political and critical but part of the institution, sometimes functioning mainly as an advertisement for spin-off work such as prints for sale (p.109). There is nothing obviously for sale here but the work does show how it can advertise other things – an artist’s or museum’s political or community engagement for example. While she concludes that it is difficult to define video art now, she defines it primarily in terms of flux, the way it overlaps with other media, the way it aims for aesthetic impact and lacks critical self-questioning of itself (p.111). The overlap with other media is important in Stampede, but it is most striking in its complete lack of aesthetic impact. Confronted with a screen of people filling into a room the response is underwhelming. It is this, however, against Kotz, that allows the work to have self-aware critical impact, illustrating the divide between the politics of real life events and the desires and demands for participation and interaction in the art event.
Ondak uses video in a number of ways. It provides a way of documenting a performance. It becomes an effective way of not only replaying that performance but also of re-activating it so that future viewers can become part of the performance itself. It is used as part of a sculptural installation, providing the only light at the end of a dark tunnel and then the affective impact of the claustrophobic enclosure it suggests. It is also used in terms of self-aware critique not only of the video medium but of operations of contemporary conceptual art and public work as a whole. In this sense then, it goes beyond video to become a post-medium critique. Against Kotz’s argument it uses the failures of video as a spectacular and seductive media to comment on art and its institutions more generally.
Bibliography and Videography
Kotz, L. (2004)‘Video Projection: The Space Between Screens’, in Z. Kocur and S.Leung (eds.) Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985 (2005) Oxford: Blackwell, pp.101-116.
Ondak, R. (2011) Stampede, digital video installation, installed at Modern Art Oxford for exhibition Roman Ondak: Time Capsule, 12/3/2011-20/5/2011, Oxford, UK.