Image: Installation view (with Michael Mahalchick, Brook Hsu, Sarah Kurten, Sofi Brazzeal, Michel Auder, Nicolas Guagnini, and Dawn Kasper) of The Split, GRIN, Providence, RI, 2017
Lecture and Screening:
An Introduction to Video Wake
National Audiovisual Institute at the Orion Cinema
2018, March 3
Transcript of Lecture:
When the MOBIUS program offered me a fellowship early this year, I couldn’t help but think of the mobius strip — which is named after the German mathematician and astronomer August Ferdinand Möbius— a surface with only one side and only one boundary, meaning it has only one side and one edge. The inside is the outside. The outside is the inside. Similarly, the beginning is the end. The end is the beginning.
The MOBIUS program, similarly, allows the opportunities for a topological approach to curating. Approaching my use of time with the MOBIUS program, and to build upon this, I am reminded of Hegel’s notion of Development: in itself, out of itself, in and for itself.
I thought it only natural to use my time with MOBIUS to focus on the idea of videotape — as analog videotape (as opposed to digital video formats), is indeed a Mobius strip. An infinite loop, where all information folds onto and into one-another.
Video is a medium that I have dedicated a dominant portion of my curatorial practice on since I first started organizing screenings in 2007. My original interest in video art perhaps first came from necessity. Living in Wisconsin, much of my early curatorial practice was shaped by restrictions in geography: I was drawn mostly to working with video, or non-visual work such as sound, since, as a transmutable medium, the files could be transferred easily through the mail or over the internet, which became my lifeline to the artists that I couldn’t necessarily schedule studio visits with. We could correspond via email, phone, and video chat. With the rise of YouTube and Vimeo, it became even more accessible.
This has opened up limitless opportunities for me to work with artists from all over the world working in a variety of media. I don’t like to think of time or place as boundaries within my curatorial practice. Yet, here I am with this gift, in Helsinki, with the opportunity to learn more about how video has been treated and used and how it has evolved in a country that is world-renown for its video artists, and even more widely known for its innovative uses of technology.
Today, I will be presenting two videos: Verbranntes Land by Mika Taanila, and to finish, we will view a very rare video piece by an artist named Paul Ryan from 1971 titled “Video Wake For My Father”. This lecture is also based off of an exhibition that I am currently working towards, titled “Video Wake”.
Often, I think about the life and death of a medium (that is, analog video) over such a short time span (from roughly the 1968-2005). Videotape records are no longer being produced, and the machines that assist in viewing the product, namely VCRs are totally removed from production.
Thinking of this, I grapple with my own feelings toward how much effort should be put into both its conservation and attempts to present these works in their original format; how much of this is actually possible and will not be a futile attempt towards catching sand through our fingers. Furthermore, I think about how can we use new technologies to try our best to archive these time-based and materially-specific artworks from 1960s-early 2000s. And finally to make this cycle even more problematic, I also question the effort put into conservation, specifically conservation of video or digital formats, since each stage of digitization will eventually become out-of-date and will need to be updated, potentially endlessly, moving into the future.
Outside of the realm of technologies, I am also interested in art as artifact. One of the first things I did upon arrival in Finland was to visit the Kansallismuseo. I am interested in how an artwork, or a significant movement, will resonate in ten, twenty, 100, 5,000 years... It’s extremely difficult to step outside of one’s own perspective to posit future readings of an artwork, artist or exhibition. On top of that, it’s even more difficult to treat time-based or immaterial work as artifact. Thanks to the internet and the digitization of art (and its archives), we are able to compress centuries’ worth of art into very short segments of time and compact spaces, such as a web page or catalog. I see my research as an exercise in constantly expanding and contracting: expanding my knowledge to think in thousand year spans while contracting time so that I may view as much work as possible (again, using resources such as the internet or art fairs to further contract the time).So, thinking about Video, and its relatively short history, is it already dead?
A Wake is a ritual of observance to mourn perhaps the death or end of someone or something. What I propose to hold a Wake for is the medium of analog videotape. This idea stems from the original transcript of Paul Ryan’s “Video Wake For My Father.” Until tonight, I have never seen a copy of this artwork. Ryan reproduced excerpts of the transcript in his book “Cybernetics of the Sacred”, which was published in 1974.
I am thrilled tonight to be able to screen a copy of this video, which to be totally honest I have been trying to track down for some years. The reason I could not track it down is complex, but in the end, it turns out that the tape, up until very recently, only existed in its original format, on VHS tape. The ZKM Center for Media Studies in Karlsruhe, Germany recently took care of Paul Ryan’s entire archive and digitized a portion of this piece.
The original piece is 12 hours in length, and only a portion of the tape has survived. What we will see tonight is a 21-minute excerpt of the full piece, whose names comes from an actual Wake that Ryan was holding for his father, who had just passed away. In Ryan’s own words:
“The funeral mass was an atrocity of insensitivity and I bolted. Three days later, I went to the Raindance loft, replayed tape of my father I had made while he was alive and shouted and wailed and carried on in front of a recording camera all night long. In effect, I produced a spontaneous, twelve hour Video Wake For My Father.”
However, before viewing this Paul Ryan piece, I’d first like to present a video by Mika Taanila, Verbranntes Land, from 2002. While watching this piece, I’d like you to think (and literally view) the easy pace at which videotape degrades and think about the consequences.
Verbranntes Land, 2002
I want to recognize and pose a question that I am not quite ready to answer, however it is still worth posing: how necessary is it and how many resources should we, as curators, conservators, and historians, put into saving, archiving, and digitizing works recorded on videotape? This is part of a larger question about conservation of art, and specifically how we view this field of expertise moving into the 21st Century, as museums and conservators increasingly are charged with the responsibility of overseeing the care of new and even more radically immaterial mediums and technologies. So we must ask: Is art permanent, or ephemermal?
I’d like to read an excerpt from an interview between curator Kelly Schnidler and Mika Taanila on the occasion of his 2013 retrospective at KIASMA:
“There is a question of balance between these disappearing formats (VHS, audiocasettes, etc) and our future world. I do not think that I have a strong preference of one format over another. I love the fact that what we have now is a rather chaotic and random existence of various formats from different eras simultaneously. Those archeological layers are fantastic. One question with these smooth digital tools is the accelerated speed of work efficiency. We can copy digital files faster than our mind can adapt to what is being seen and heard. The overload and anxiety of too many unwatched files is constantly around the corner.”
Taanila reminds us that analog videotape is like the human mind. It degrades. It forgets. Not everything is preserved. That’s what makes us human.
While preparing for this lecture, and during my time in Helsinki, I was fortunate enough to spend time at KIASMA watching the extraordinary videos works by artist Korakrit Arunanondchai (If you have a moment, I encourage everyone to see the show and really take the time to watch each piece in full. The exhibition closes this month). In one of Korakrit’s highly elaborate and choreographed videos, Painting With History In A Room Filled With People With Funny Names 3, the omniscient narrator —actually the artist’s mother— reads something along the lines of the following:
“The age of standard definition video is over -- HD helps us come closer to the beings we want to be…
A connectivity equal to an escape...
In the near future, The projection of the sun functions as the sun.
The projection will become our reality, until it stops
Nice dream we build together, right?”
These words evoke a sort of ironic hopelessness that is far from the utopia that we might have imagined at the advent of technologies like video, live broadcast, and the internet, etc. In my curatorial practice, I am interested to investigate the medium of videotape, and to trace its application in the arts (or otherwise) and highlight the contrast between its private, utopic use in the final decades of the 20th century, through to its dystopic social-use of video formats in the first decades of the 21st century to the present.
The early work, primarily made between 1968-1993, represents a form of production focused on input, distributed within an enclosed loop, mirroring both the topological nature of the medium, and also the intimate and communal sites of production and presentation. This includes iconic video works such as: John Baldessari, I am making art, 1971; Dan Graham, Past Future Split Attention, 1972; Dara Birnbaum, Mirroring, 1975; Richard Serra with Nancy Holt, Boomerang, 1974; or Michel Auder, My Last Bag of Heroin, 1986.
These are simply some examples of the early video work I illustrate. Conversely, the contemporary work, generally produced after 1993, and even more so after 2005 (the year YouTube was founded), represents a form of production focused on output, distributed within an open and instantaneously linked network.This includes works by artists including: Jayson Musson, Petra Cortright, Talia Chetrit, or K8 Hardy.This dystopia is even further personified when artists are using social media formats like SnapChat or Instagram, for example in the work of Amalia Ulman, Alexandra Marzella, or Jacque Louis Vidal. This "spectacle of the self" epitomizes the ultimate colonization of subjectivity by what Guy Debord first described as an external force, defining the Society of the Spectacle.
In Paul Ryan’s crucial 1974 text, "Cybernetics of the Sacred,” he poses a caution towards our reliance on hyper-connectivity in our increasingly fragmented society. In this seminal 12-hour "raw" video piece, Video Wake for My Father, we explore Ryan's appeal to preserve our collective humane intimacy. He felt that video could be used as a tool for this. As Ryan has stated:
"There are two negative effects of using video in our present fragmented society that I know of: Corruption of memory means simply that you tend to forget everything else about an event except that which you record and replay on tape. Displacement of intimacy means that relating to people "live on tape" can have a tendency to drain away the normal capacity for intimacy. One moves in a vicarious experience of intimacy with an electronic image that cannot respond in real time. "
Only ten years prior, Guy Debord's words resonate in a significant way:
"Isolation underpins technology and technology isolates in its turn.”
So, to mediate on that thought. Technology can help those who are isolated, or have previously been isolated, to connect in new ways, socially, and beyond. However, it’s important to admit that we have reached a point where there are those who have become hyper reliant on this technology, in turn, isolating themselves from IRL, what we can quickly refer to as “in real life”.
I’d like to quickly point out the rapid evolution and technological arch in the consumer availability of home video products. The Sony Portapak was introduced to the consumer market in 1967. The first Sony Portapaks, although easier to use than film, were heavy, cumbersome, and only allowed up to 60 minutes of recording. Although it was available to consumers, it was mostly used by artists, journalists, and casually for home videos, among of course many other uses. Only 40 years later, we’ve witnessed the cultural and societal domination of video in our lives with the introduction of the MacBook and the Apple iPhone (introduced to the consumer market in 2006 and 2007 respectively) and still the majority product with a built-in video camera, used and distributed globally.
Allow me to take a survey: Who here in the Audience has a camera lens on their phone? ….
In a way, the Sony Portapak was just as revolutionary as the Apple iPhone, however it is clear that the iPhone has spread like a virus and has become a machine, or piece of technology, that many cannot imagine to live without at this point.
Paul Ryan rallied for users of video technologies to auto-process and auto-correct, to confront the video camera with confession and stream-of-consciousness raps. In other words: to lay it all out there. Considering the over-saturation of images and overabundance of outlets with which to record and broadcast, in our image-centric age where self-presentation is constant and mainstream, I’d like to ask: To what capacity can we share, and have we shared too much?"
I’d like to return to Hegel one more time:
“Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself only insofar as it exists in and for another self-consciousness; that is, it exists only by being recognized.”
In contrast to earlier format video use, the contemporary work made with personal devices such as the laptop camera and the iPhone lens, these formats introduce digital examples where the "self" is the subject and the site of production is the site of distribution and reception. The iPhone has consolidated these functions through the mediation of social media sites such as Instagram. The dissolution between production, distribution and reception has brought these moments to converge at an instantaneous point, creating a new reality mediated by images. In the words of Debord, these images "proclaim the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say social life, is mere appearance." I proclaim that the 'spectacle of the self' is a negation of life, and I critique the camera's contemporary role as a vacuum of reality.
Paul Ryan professed that this new technology, videotape, could and should be used for human good. I believe however that Ryan, as well as other pioneers of this medium approached the camera with a naive and courageous sincerity. In contrast, contemporary artists, such as Korakrit Arunanondchai and the Finnish collective Sorbus (who I’ve had the pleasure to meet with this week) perhaps accept that these new technologies and social medias are controlled by a dystopian system, with no clear direction out; they approach the camera with a sincerity of cynicism.
To conclude, I want to bring it back all the way to 1971. What we’re about to watch is the only surviving excerpt of this piece that I have ever seen. This video except is an example of how Paul Ryan wanted people, artists, anyone, to use video and video feedback.
In many ways, Paul is foreseeing the idea of “Vlogging” or video-blogging. He advocates for video footage that is raw, unedited, and totally sincere. In light of the video blogging you might be used to seeing, whether through the internet or social media like snapchat or Insta-stories, I encourage you to keep his intent in mind while watching this piece, while also understanding the context in which it has changed in the half a century since it was created.
Video Wake for My Father (excerpt), 1971