To Watch: an intransitive verb

Esther Milne

I was lookin back to see if you were lookin back at me
To see me lookin back at you
Massive Attack

‘Observation’, it seems safe to say, has made it to zeitgeist status. Whether it’s the bizarre phenomenon of watching the making of Man Down (the ‘film’ shot by Big Brother inmates) or the maddeningly abstract formulations of Niklas Luhmann (German sociologist and ur-reflexivity theorist) observation is the critical stance of choice across a range of artistic practices and cultural sites. The video art program Wet and Dry explored this cultural trope—the “lingua franca of hyper referentiality” (curators)—with edgy wit and a disquieting aesthetic. Curated by Ian Haig and Dominic Redfern, the event brought together recent work from a diverse set of Australian and international screen-based video artists.

Wet and Dry was organised conceptually according to a number of technological, formal, and thematic criteria and the trope of observation played itself out in different ways over the 2-night screening. For many of the pieces within the Wet program this meant self-consciousness about the pop-cultural heritage of video art. Ferrum 5000 (directed by Steve Doughton), for example, clashes Busby Berkleyesque references with images that recall The Residents together with 50s sci-fi ‘green goo’ iconography. And I Cried by Cassandra Tytler makes observation an explicit concern in its exploration of ‘celebrity’ and the longing for stardom. Drawing from televisual culture, with an obvious fondness for 50s crime narratives and 60s set design, Tytler’s piece is both homage to and critique of the ‘cult’ of the image. Video diarist supremo George Kuchar is, of course, rather a cult figure himself. The 2 works screened, Culinary Linkage and Art Asylum, are poignantly kitsch studies of trash culture and TV land: “beautiful people emoting” as Kuchar puts it. Emoting is something Kuchar does extremely well. But it’s not quite the emotion of Sunset Beach. His sensibility is pitched somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Eddie the Egg Lady—the excruciating passage of time and the pathos of bodily function. Sadie Benning’s Aerobicide, a music video for the band Julie Ruin is, ostensibly, a critique of sales pitches, focus groups, motivation seminars, target audiences and the rest of the corporate grammar of consumerism: the “Girls Rule (kind of) strategy” to use their ironic phrase. But the video looks so goddamn good—gaudy colours, modernist architecture and fluorescent office lighting—that it’s hard to resist the urge to join in the whiteboard fun. And pleasure, as all good visual culture theorists know, is intimately connected with the business of ‘watching.’

The Dry program brought fresh, albeit vexing, interpretation to the ‘scopic’ desire of screen-based art practice. Hood by Klaus vom Bruch explores the spectral and uncanny forces behind visual iteration and feedback. A woman’s face is caught mid-glance as she turns her head. The shot is played again and again, till you get the sneaking suspicion she is actually looking back at that which plays her back. Mesmerising and intractable, this image, her slightly anxious face, her gaze, forms a self-referential loop from which it is difficult to disengage. If Hood is slightly vexatious in its attention to the materialities of screen culture, its quiet insistence to look at rather than through the interface, then Joseph Hyde’s Zoetrope is relentless. Here, we find Laura Mulvey’s theories on the pleasure of visual phenomenology pushed to ear splitting and pupil constricting extremes. Zoetrope seems almost pornographic. Yet there are no undressed bodies, no unexpected flashes of flesh to excite our carnal appetites and hence shame the viewer/voyeur. No, what is pornographic about Hyde’s work is the way it focuses on observation sans object. Twenty-one long minutes of raging, screaming feedback and migraine-inducing white noise creates claustrophobic soundscapes and optical distress. Zoetrope transforms the romantic experience of watching something (narrative development, character formation, scenic construction) to the somatic reality of neurological response. Watching becomes an intransitive verb. Theoretically very pleasing; corporeally—not so much.

One of the last works screened was pleasing on both counts. Conceptually adroit and visually stimulating, Involuntary Reception by Kristin Lucas is about a woman afflicted with an “enormous electromagnetic field.” The formal arrangement of the video is double imaged, reflecting her ambivalence about technological mediation. Because of her extreme sensitivity to electromagnetic signals this character, played by Lucas, can crash computers, read people’s minds or make cats fry as she explains in a beautifully sparse, monotone voice: “Yeah, I’ve had a pet before. You just have to be careful not to…pet them. Because that just builds the static energy and…I guess the static charge was just too much for her…I’d start petting her and the static would build up. And then one day…it was just too much. Love kills. Love kills.” Indeed, a fried cat is iconic of this video art program itself: half wet, half dry, disquieting but compelling to watch.

Wet & Dry: International video art, curated by Ian Haig and Dominic Redfern, presented by City of Melbourne & Centre for Contemporary Photography, Cinemedia @ Treasury Theatre, Melbourne, Sept 21 & 22

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 32

© Esther Milne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001