Video as a Performance

by Michał Brzeziński

When we say ‘I promise’ or ‘please’ uttering the word is at the same time performing an act. Jacobson called this the performative function of language. A similar example can be found in art. A performance does not refer to anything and does not require an interpretation. It is a gesture in itself, not a sign of a gesture. It is an art object. It is not like the theatre.

Can video be categorised as a performative medium? Is the gap between media and performance too wide to be bridged? The medium is always merely a medium – an object that refers to something. Video is a medium in which the specific gestures and actions of performing art appear fuzzy on the surface (in its semantic net) and preserved on the inside. It is thus logical that due to the nature of its subject (technology) video cannot fulfil an autotelic role. In most cases video is used for documenting performances or land art. However, this is merely documenting an action – it is not an action in itself. Video performances (which are actions created for camera) focus on the parts that are described by film theory as an apparatus, and within this the video plays an active participatory role. However, the other part of the apparatus – the measures and actions preceding the projection – is the dispositive. This dispositive is much more significant for the presentation of art than the apparatus, for within the video dispositive the installation becomes a sculpture, and this makes us notice its relation to space. However, in all relationships the video is merely the subject. It may become a part of the performance or installation, but the video in itself is a finished object, unless the presentation includes a live action as was the case in Robakowski’s TEST1 (1971) in which he used mirrors to reflect pure pulsating light from a film directly into the eyes of the audience. Also worth mentioning is TABLEABLE (2004) by Artur Tajber. In this work the artist performs the same gesture in front of screen as his image on the screen, with which he blurs the boundaries between the two dimensions, thus trying to include the video image into the performance. The on screen performance is thus no longer a performance. A quotation of the action can in itself have the rank of the performance. The video and performance appear to be in contradiction even though it should be noted that video-performances are commonly considered as emerging works, in which the actions and statements take place for the camera as the only audience and then they are projected onto screens. Thus, the apparatus or dispositive becomes an active participant in the action; however the camera merely plays an active role of a passive spectator.

Performance derives from the fine art tradition that disputed the nature of media art. However, it should not adapt its language and transform into theatre. Performance artists should not invade this process with theatrical gestures (this will result in the transfer of theatre gestures. In theatre, like in feature film the mise-en-scene is a part of the entire structure of meanings), for their effort should confront the question as to how to obtain the performative value of the medium, i.e. the video. Video forces the transition of thought from the mise-en-scene to the mise-en-page. This is a sign of equality between the image (video) and action (performance), similar as in Jacobson’s performative speech (in which to say something is to do something). Once again we should allow history to try and answer this theoretical question.

The idea of performance can be successfully transferred from film to video despite the fact that the performative role of the medium appears in the artistic practice in the film ‘Lucifer rising’ by Kenneth Anger (1972). In his theory the film is a ritual, thus he does not focus on watching or meditation, but on the magical action of archetypal forces.

A slightly different perspective is offered in Vito Acconci’s Theme song (1973) which depicts intimate situations in which the video is a screen that separates us from the camera’s artistic action. The main theme of his work focuses on the technological barrier that divides the viewer and the artist. This barrier fragments the world and engulfs us with the Freudian castration complex. We have to become accustomed to the fact that it is impossible for us to join a media spectacle, thus we end up with masturbation at best (Seedbed 1971). In the work ‘Theme song’ the spectator does not come close to the artist, he does not sit with him and participate in his intimate space even though he is constantly being invited to do so by the artist.

Another way of obtaining the image may be through its non-semantic effect that it has upon the viewer, his body and mind, but not on his awareness. The perception threshold of 25 frames per second is a frequent theme that appears in countless works. These works deal with the issue of time in which the “after-gaze” of the images are revoked from the awareness full of a chaotic sea of impulses (that are subject to the sense of vision), and the time necessary for reading or contemplating the image. A similar strategy can be found in works such as Calligrams (1970) by Woody and Steina Vasulkas which focus on the interface between technology and human sensitivity. Similar to the music in artistic practices the video refers to the anomaly of circuit branding. In a performative video the form does not try to turn the attention of the viewer to anything outside of the performance; it does not attempt to reveal the truth about technology, nor transform itself into meaning, thus it becomes the sole essence of art. We could say that the video is a performance if it is autotelic, if it affects the body and mind of the viewer beyond the cultural meanings of the code, if it refers to the process of forming the image as a creative process that appears as an interface between man and machine, and finally, if the viewer reflects on the process.

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