The Non-Event of Sound in Video Art

published in Scan No.1, Sydney, 1989
reprinted in catelogue for Video Logic, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2008

Origins of Objects

To talk of video art is to talk art history. Generally, the workings of modernism; specifically, the environment of post object art. Video art has been consistently (or repetitively) presented in terms of electronic media, technological adaptation, social interaction and phenomenological perception; channeled through conventional artistic discourses of translation, improvisation, aesthetics and experience. The interesting thing, though, is how video art grew out of a post object environment.

To outline this, we must trace the origins of attacks on the object. The primary germs were developed in dada and surrealism. The dadaists played at switching objects while the museum curator wasn't looking. Their instead of objects signified not the absence of an art object, but its removal, its replacement. The surrealists played with objects themselves, with their actuality. If the dadaists were vandals and kleptomaniacs, the surrealists were fetishists and obsessives, gazing into objects to ponder their own subjectivity. The point is that while dada and surrealism provide modernism and post object art with the erotic Of polemics (dadaist plays with manifestos) and the polemic of erotics (surrealist plays with auras), objects were integral to both practices.

The Post-Object Environment

Post object art is the Woodstock of modernism: a massed gathering of methods, processes, systems and performances all attacking signs (the museographic instatement of the artist, the artwork, art) by celebrating a liberated signification (the radical contextualisation of the same). To extend the analogy, the youth counter cultures and subcultures rejected formality while the progressive and radical art movements rejected formalism. The analogy, of course, is cynical: the family tree of post object art (earth works, body performances, street events, ephemeral materialisations, conceptual games, technological statements, new/experimental music, sound sculptures, self generating systems, etc.) is geneologically linked by virtue of a shared denial of the cultural status of the art object. Hence, post object rhetoric and discourse is ultimately a play with ontological status forever reflecting upon the presence and essence of.... objects. Not art objects In a cultural/social/historical sense, but (in Eastern fashion) things where all manner of physicality and materiality can be comprehended ind experienced as totalities, entities, wholes. Artistic execution was thus redefined as expanding, extending, exploring and experimenting with what were previously perceived as the ontological limitations of art materials, art sites and art objects.

Progressivism in art (which true to the connotations of the word is marked across the seventies) could be re termed anti-cultural and meta social: ignorant/neglectful of how art is unromantically fused with multiple modes of cultural production, and/or desirous of a programmatic interaction between social and artistic dialectics. Video as one of the more profitable survivors of the post object environment (which has now been well capitalised see Beuys) carries its heritage well. Not just its links to modernist painting, but also certain anti cultural and meta social overtones. While the latter is mostly confined to documentary practices in video (for public television and similar sites and projections) the former mostly defines the cultural snare video art has been caught in for some time.

Cultural Lack in Video Art

Having now digested two decades of the original formations and developments of post object art and their subsequent tendencies and strategies, it is not surprising that a reaction exists against video art that ponders on (i) the nature of the medium, (ii) its effect on the human senses, and (iii) the role of technology in the construction of the artwork. This is not to say that all video works exhibited within art contexts are bankrupt and devoid of merit, but that the overall ideology and mythology of dominant video art discourses and practices (those most directly linked to post object aesthetics and philosophies) is largely responsible for the bad image video art has gained across a range of cultural and artistic contexts especially considering the much touted potential the video medium has/had for addressing contemporary issues. To pick an example, Nam June Paik's sixties monitor sculptures evidence the aforementioned three major video art tenets but those early works are also as much to do with (i) the sociological role of television, (ii) the iconic status of the TV set, and (iii) the construction of cultural imagery. Unfortunately, art history largely chooses to not write the cultural ramifications of such work, bowing more to the maturing artist figure whose later works chose to muffle these resonances.

Likewise, the more interesting video art produced in the last decade at least acknowledges the major determinations of video which constitute it as a multiplied medium: television, cinema, photography, satellite feeds, computer and digital interfaces, advertising, video clips, domestic video hire, etc. (See my review of 58 international video art tapes screened in the 1987 Melbourne Film Festival for Filmnews Vol.17, No.7, August 1987). More importantly, I'm not saying 'Down with the post object! Up with the post modern!' (self professed postmodernists are the hippies of today). Rather, video art has been/is narrowed due to certain ways of thinking art. As a form, video art is about 90% art (romantically privileging the subject) while in terms of the totality of the video medium, video art makes up probably 10% of video production options (most of which have non art views of the subject). My argument is that this multiplied nature of video (as a cultural form of communication multiplied across a range of sites) sets up major discursive conflicts with attempts to explore the medium's ontological status and its technological quintessence.

Experimentalism in Video Art

We now get to the start of this article which is also its end. Sound in video art? There isn't much I can say, although there are a number of reasons why. Two short essays in the AFI National Video Festival of 1986 in Los Angeles have a similar effect of starting something only to immediately end. In Anne Marie Duguet's article titled Be A Musician, You'll Understand Video she makes the important observation that artists like Paik, the Vasulkas and Viola "all worked first with electronic music and shifted easily to video. The perceptual end results differ, but the mode of exploration doesn't change". But by interpreting such cross overs from electronic music into electronic visuals, as an important contribution to the videographic conceptualisation of the sound image fusion, she appears nescient of the unseverable ties that constitute experimentalism as a condition of the post object environment, and which in turn join the practices of experimental music and video art.

Experimentalism is most notably related to the field of musical composition, process and performance, with the likes of Cage and Partch (among others) providing core philosophical views on the event of sonority and its positioning within man world relationships, that man is only ever experimenting when he composes in order to see what becomes manifest. It is thus no surprise that Bill Viola's article The Sound Of One Line Scanning (note the title's Zen reference) in the same AFINVF catalogue outlines the dominant precepts of experimental music: a harmonic interaction between physics and metaphysics with an implied utopian ideal of a global, planetary music defined by physical il fundamentals. While Viola's breakdown of sonic phenomena ire astute, his training of them indicates an introspective savouring of purity in the vorld inherited by Cage's importation of Zen concepts into the European model of musical composition: "some of the most basic physical phenomena studied by acousticians reads like a set of mystical visions of nature".

Promotion of Nature in Video Art

Now, It you've been following this twisted, synchro modernist lineage from (a) dada to surrealism to (b) its various offspring in the post object environment, to (c) video art's inception and development within said environment, and (d) its conditions of experimentalism which have (e) a musical heritage cf. Cage et al, there is little I feel that can be said about sound in video art that does not already coincide with and feed into established discourses in experimental music discourses that predominantly outline paths of discovery to the awareness of the expanded scientific observation of the nature of sound.

Sound (the very word irritates me in its attempt to suggest total experience) in video art could possibly be the form's most limited and debilitated aspect, considering how dialectics on the sound image nexus have been explored and/or proposed in the cinema (see and hear Gance, Fischinger, Eisenstein, Riefensthal, Duras, Godard, Straub, Robbe Grillet, Demy, Tati, Pasolini, Leone, Welles, Berkeley, Hitchcock, Lee, Jones, Brakhage, Snow, Kobayashi, Altman, Coppola, Scorcese, Meyer to pick a few) and music videos (too numerous and fragmented to list briefly). Granted that notions of narrative and industry might be viewed as problematic to the purist pursuits of experimentalism in the arts, such a view should surely acknowledge that the space of video art (in its anti cultural mode) in the post object environment is precious, ponderous and privileged. For all the play with objects, for all the erotics of scientific inquiry, for all the diffusion of cultural difference into a global essentialism, experimentalism, experience has redefined nature in abstract terms: a head space.

The dichotomies presented throughout this article are apparent in that experimental approaches of post object art pose a view of nature in basic opposition to structuralist applications: the latter pose nature as a cultural concept while the former pose nature as a scientific phenomenon. Structuralism analyses and deconstructs where the experimentalism observes and interacts; the former deals with the closure, rupture and mobilisation of texts while the latter deals with the examination of physical objects, physicalities and objectivities. Starting by ending, this central opposition in conceptualising artistic/cultural production reinverts the irony of Paik's TV Buddha to give us an image not of mass media consumption, but of video art production.

Text © Philip Brophy.