Thursday, December 8, 2011

Filmmaker Peter Rose: Video Art in a Public Space

Bryn Mawr Film Institute is partnering with the University of the Arts Film/Video Department to present a unique display of video art past and present in Bryn Mawr Film Institute's arcade.

Peter Rose, whose work is currently featured in the new exhibition space, gave a fascinating speech at the December 1 art opening about the role of video art in the public arena. For your edification, his thoughtful remarks have been reprinted below.

Video Art in a Public Space
By Peter Rose, Experimental Filmmaker and University of the Arts Faculty Member

Once upon a time, making films was difficult -- a considerable variety of technical skills were required, it could be costly, and it took time, but it was relatively easy to imagine your audience. There would be a mass of people in a darkened room, sitting in some kind of rapt attention, and it was an occasion for a kind of collective dream. (Godard has this wonderful line about how when we go to the cinema we don’t think, we are thought...) The past thirty years, however, have seen both a simplification of the material and technical necessities of the medium and a vast and confusing elaboration of exhibition possibilities.

How are people seeing work these days? Will they see it in a theater? On an iPhone? On their computer? Can we determine how the image will look or what it will sound like in the viewing context? Can we count on any sustained attention? How can you possibly make work not knowing how it will be presented. Parenthetically, I suppose it’s somewhat analogous to asking Bach if he could imagine the B Minor Mass being played on an iPod. I don’t think he’d be thrilled, but then more people have had an encounter with his music than would ever have heard it in a concert hall, so I guess it’s a trade-off.

Still from Rose's "The Geosophist's Tears" (2002)
Let’s approach the matter from the perspectives of Time and Mind. When we see work in a theatre we have a bounded sense of time. We know when the work begins (assuming we’ve arrived on time) and we have a sense of how long it will last. So we have an internal map of our passage through time, we can locate ourselves on that map and we have an anticipation of some kind of closure. But we are carried along on this journey in a passive way. Too, most narrative films have an implied three-act structure so we have an unconscious sense of dramatic development--it’s like listening to a sonata where you’ve got an ABA structure. You know where you’ve been and where you’re going. Time is linear. And, for better or worse, it’s a shared, collective experience. We become, however intermittently, part of a responsive group mind and our responses are inflected by that participation. And if films are made by vast industrial enterprises, as they usually are, it’s a many to many transmission. Also, of note, is that the producers and exhibitors have some control over viewing conditions--there are relatively standard levels of illumination and sound reproduction.

Opposed to this is our experience of time watching work on the web. I'm thinking not so much of what we see on Netflix, which usually conforms to the kind of experience I’ve outlined here, but to the experience of time when we look at YouTube or Vimeo. Usually these works are shorter, less narrative, more purely visual or sonic. By virtue of both the brevity of their presentation, the alternate nature of their idiom, and the control offered by the encounter we have an entirely different sense of time. We don’t always quite know what to expect but we can usually anticipate some kind of visual spectacle, an encounter with perverse wit, or some satisfaction of salacious curiosity. There is no scale to the experience--we may be looking at it on a computer monitor, or viewing it on an iPad or iPhone. It’s a mental rather than physical encounter. We stand outside it and encounter it as a kind of moving, illuminated object. Not only that but viewers are free to follow links, to interrupt their viewing without penalty, so there can be no presuppositions about the sustained nature of attention. And the artist has no control over ambient light, screen brightness, sound reproduction, etc. Notions of suspense, sustained observation, patience, duration, and, perhaps, metaphor go out the window. And it’s all quite private. I’m reminded of some commentary offered years ago about television. Usually thought of as a mass medium--considering the broadcast end of it--it’s usually an experience had by a few people, alone, in their living or bedroom, so it’s a many-to-one proposition. In this case, on the computer, given the fact that single artists are usually responsible for what we see, it’s a one to one transmission. But most importantly we viewers are in control; we can start over anytime we wish. Watching work on a computer is not quite like being told a story, it’s like holding the story in your hand and being able to play with it. Time is a bit more flexible and the mind involved is just our own.

But what about seeing displays in Times Square, for example? Is this different? In Times Square you can decide not to look, to move to another location, to shift your gaze. Advertisers seek only to grab your attention for an instant--there is no ambition to secure an engagement that takes time and there is no sense that something is unfolding that requires duration to understand. Time is, in a sense, incidental- experience comes in glimpses rather than via an attentive gaze. And of course even though we’re usually in a crowd the experience is quite singular--the shifts in our attention constituting a kind of private editing. And, following up on my earlier observations, given the industrial scale of the enterprise, it’s a many to many transmission.

Still from "Odysseus in Ithaca" (2006), another piece by Peter Rose
How about video installation in a museum? If you go, for example, to PAFA to check out the new Bill Viola installation you’ll find that there is no beginning or end to the work. Three flat screen monitors present us with images of various people passing through tactile veils of water. The meaning lies in metaphor rather than drama; there is a sobriety and a scale that is quite unlike the experience on the web. The work involves sustained duration but it is cyclic and so unlike a theatrical experience. We tend to pay attention to linear time--at least in this culture--one thing usually comes before another, it doesn’t both come before and after. So even though we don’t have control of the flow of time as we do on a computer, we can enter at any arbitrary point and still come to feel some sense of resolution or closure. Too, however briefly, there are small sets of other people in the space jockeying for position (we had an interesting conversation in my class last night about the implications of putting a bench in a viewing space...) and so there is a kind of moving collectivity involved. Much of this work is by individual artists so now it’s a one-to-many proposition and, not incidentally, the artist usually has much control over the viewing environment.

And so now we come to the issue of video images in public space. We’re walking across a plaza somewhere, or we’re standing in a lobby, or we’re on line at the airport and we see an image on a large screen. It’s not an ad; it’s not a public service announcement; it arrests our attention without disclosing anything about duration--we don’t know how long it will last, where we have come in, whether it will repeat or not; and we know nothing of intention--it’s not selling us something, it’s not a logo; it’s probably not a story. It’s a kind of spectacle, taking the word to mean both a public event and an aid to seeing. What can we compare it to? I propose the following: in an increasingly, and to my mind distressingly, mediated world, wherein our experience seems less and less to derive from tangible physical experience and more and more to be conveyed through representations of experience; a world in which, for example, when I give my students the assignment of studying a physical action and analyzing it from a cinematic perspective, I often get complexly edited little films about people sitting on couches and using their remote controls to look at images on a screen. In such a world, the encounter with an image of scale and unknown duration may resemble nothing so much as our former encounters with mysterious natural events: dramatic weather, solar eclipses, signs and omens glimpsed in the irrational conjunction of events. Like these, the images seem a little anonymous; it’s not a one-to-one or a many-to-one or a one-to-many proposition, it is, to quote Glen Gould, a zero-to-many transmission. Maybe it’s more like a visitation than a message; it offers us not the consolation of a collective dream or the reinforcement of private taste or immersion in an underwritten art event, but rather a subversion of what we think goes on in the world, a respite from the mercilessly forward movement of time and history, a quiet shock, an interval of curiosity and wonder. And maybe, on that basis, it’s legitimate to call it art.

Since 1968 Peter Rose has made over thirty films, tapes, performances and installations. Many of the early works raise intriguing questions about the nature of time, space, light, and perception and draw upon Rose's background in mathematics and on the influence of structuralist filmmakers. He subsequently became interested in language as a subject and in video as a medium and generated a substantial body of work that played with the feel and form of sense, concrete texts, politcal satire, oddball performance, and a kind of intellectual comedy. Recent video installations have involved a return to an examination of landscape, time and vision. Rose has been widely exhibited, both nationally and internationally, having been included in shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Biennial, the Centre Pompidou, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Film Society at Lincoln Center, and the Rotterdam International Film Festival. He has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Pew Foundation, the Independence Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and is fond of writing descriptions in the third person. Peter is also a professor in the Media Arts department at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia.

No comments:

Post a Comment