A collaborative effort about visualizing the history of video art exhibitions is providing video art artists and video art exhibitions.
The project allows the user to see the movement of video art as it crossed continents and decades. Information about specific exhibitions is visible in mouse-over of each circle. The lines of movement are color-coded for each artist, and move in the direction of the art--if an artist showed work in New York and then in Paris, the lines will move from one city to the next in the proper direction. The chronology slider at the bottom ties this movement into a specific timeframe. The map is zoomable, which allows more information about important exhibition sites (such as New York City) to be visible.
You can check the map from this link: http://www.visualizing.org/visualizations/mapping-video-art
I found this video the other day and thought it tied in well with what we're reading. It's just a simple but fun video.
You'll have to click the link above, the picture is just a picture...
The An-Archic Device is something between toy theatre, street altar and peepshow: a small-scale stage model, a blinking automata, an audio-visual machine, that produces physical and anarchic dissociation by means of laughter. Based on Antonin Artauds theater manifesto „The Conquest of Mexico“, The An-Archic Device deals with Mexico as a space of otherness and as a subjective heterotopia. Following Artaud, Mexico becomes the playground for an examination of danger and fear along the site, where each subject is set back to its self in its relation to the world. A coin starts the device.
See video : http://vimeo.com/12216101
If they could choose, where would domesticated crickets choose to be?
Living outdoors in the midwest winters is not a a survivable option for Acheta domesticus (house crickets), but perhaps they still yearn for the pastoral grasslands and woodlands experienced by their wild relatives. Actual nature would be a bit harsh for these crickets, who are raised in climate-controlled tanks as food for reptiles, so I have constructed a safe bubble for them.
This enclosure provides an artificial landscape and provides a simulation of motion through it. Through the use of a computer interface, the crickets are able to "interact" with their projected environment by chirping. Each chirp advances the panoramic, cricket-eye-view video footage of outdoor scenery.
The Body, the Image and the Space-in- Between
This article focuses on the prominent anxieties generated by television broadcasts of musicians from the 1930s onwards. It explores three specific issues: first, a concern that television images of performing musicians are detrimental to the experience of music; second, negative judgments about the consequences of television sound quality; and, third, fears that musical value is undermined by the distracted character of television reception. Focusing on these particular points, the article also raises a series of more profound questions about how various strategies of looking and listening influence our understanding of music.
Throughout human history music has been made, enjoyed and interpreted with visual imagery, whether the live spectacle of performing musicians, the dynamics of drama, the still scenery of sculpture, pictures and architecture, or the more recent moving images of the mass media. It was only during the late nineteenth century that recording allowed sounds to be detached from the sensory context of their creation. Yet, since that moment of separation, when sound momentarily seemed 'invisible' (the intrusive presence of musicians finally eradicated),1 music has continued to be enjoyed with some form of accompanying visual imagery: videos, photos and album sleeves; explanatory text; or the arbitrarily encountered views of life that accompany home listening or music on the move with a personal stereo or iPod. For centuries, music has been understood within the rituals of sacred devotion and secular festival, as public entertainment, when relieving the drudgery of paid or unpaid labour, when enduring the routines of consumption and, more generally, as an accompaniment to the prosaic rhythms of everyday life. As television pervades ever more private and public spaces, so it continues to integrate music and image not as an aberrant modern mass medium finding ever more ways of corrupting the purity of music, but as participant in the latest episode of a much longer story about the continual interplay of the audible and visual in human cultures.
Television was and is the starting point for this article. My discussion has grown out of an initially narrower study of the representation of performing musicians by broadcasters, and research into the quite practical problems they encountered when incorporating music into the developing schedules of television. From the earliest days broadcasters believed that television could provide great opportunities for musicians, whilst being aware of the difficulties entailed in translating a performance to the small screen. In this article I follow some of their dilemmas as television adapts to music and as music is incorporated into television, and I assess a range of concerns about whether television images are detrimental to the experience of music. I also survey judgments about the [End Page 310] consequences of television sound quality and trace anxieties about the impact of the domestic setting of television reception.
These narrow points of focus have been difficult to contain and the project has led me towards a range of broader issues. So, woven throughout this article are more general questions that are explored more tentatively. Three in particular may be signalled at the outset. First are questions about the many ways in which music is related to practices and beliefs about visual culture and ways of seeing (how the meaning of music is often implicitly subsumed under ideas about the visual). Second are questions about the diversity of public behaviours and beliefs adopted when listening (and not listening) to music: too often composers, musicians and musicologists have understood the meaning of music according to assumptions about a very particular type of attentive listening. Third, the article raises questions about the patterns of appreciation, evaluation and use through which music becomes embedded into public and private life. This is a dynamic series of experiences that various writers have attempted to evoke via notions of 'everyday culture' or 'everyday life'.2 For Richard Shusterman this type of musical activity can entail a 'pragmatist aesthetics' which challenges 'the modern ideology of autonomy, disinterestedness, and formalism on which aesthetics was established'.3 In focusing on the significance of television in these musical practices I will highlight how those involved in broadcasting have sought to represent and respond to music and musicians as part of the more general way in which they have contributed to the mediation and packaging of the world around us. In the process, attempts to present musical performances according to realistic criteria are continually held in tension with the way in which television not so much neutrally mediates the real world to us as continually constructs a version of the world.4 In the process, television contributes to the creation of new musical experiences, as much as it might repackage existing performance practices.
Public television broadcasts in the United Kingdom commenced on 2 November 1936, and from the beginning music and musicians were a prominent feature of [End Page 311] programming.5 On the first day of transmission, following a brief opening ceremony, the service began with a variety show. It featured Adèle Dixon, billed as a 'musical comedy star'; Buck and Bubbles, a black song-and-dance act from the United States then touring Europe; the Lai Founs, Chinese jugglers; and the newly formed BBC Television Orchestra led by Boris Pecker.6 Within two weeks the first operatic extract had been broadcast, consisting of four scenes from Albert Coates's Mr Pickwick, transmitted between 3.35 and 4 p.m. on 13 November, prior to the première of the opera at Covent Garden on 20 November. During the following year 14 operas were broadcast in a similar way. Ballet featured very early, as did ballroom dancing, singers, instrumentalists and a range of variety acts, cabaret performers and dance bands.7 The BBC was also responsible for rare television appearances by the jazz pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum, and the programme Starlight featured such acts as Manuela del Rio and Sophie Tucker (although no longer appearing in blackface, she was still known as the last of the 'red-hot mommas'). Light music found a place as theme tunes, interval music and accompaniment for test-card transmissions. The earliest BBC programmes attempted to be visually interesting and entertaining whilst representing a broad range of performers and musical styles.
Broadcasts in the late 1930s occupied only two hours per day (3–4 and 9–10 p.m.) and were received by a small audience. Most people did not watch at home but in public viewing rooms, mainly those of retailers, or in the few hotels with television.8 Those who had access to a television set could receive programmes only within a 35-mile radius of the transmissions from Alexandra Palace in North London, and only 280 television sets had been sold by the end of 1936.9 By 1939 television was broadcasting about three hours per day, and it was calculated that 23,000 homes had a television set. As Britain entered the Second World War, television services were abruptly halted at noon on 1 September 1939, freeing the airwaves for military use. Transmission recommenced on 7 June 1946, but television became a widely adopted domestic medium only during the 1950s. In 1948 the number of sets being viewed was approximately 200,000. By 1952 it reached nearly 2 million, and by 1954 over 4 million.10 [End Page 312]
Although television took its place as a public entertainment medium only gradually, many of the issues that concerned broadcasters, critics and musicians during the 1930s have enduring relevance in debates about how music should feature on television, and about the impact and consequences of the appearance of performers. From the beginning many commentators enthusiastically embraced television as the facilitator of an educated and informed viewer capable of participating in a new form of public dialogue. More specifically, it was hoped that television might encourage a more imaginative approach to musical performance. The idea that the combination of music and television offered great potential and new possibilities was a feature of numerous early commentaries in newspapers and periodicals. During 1927 in the USA, radio entrepreneur David Sarnoff proclaimed that television would herald a 'new art . . . as boundless as the imagination'.11 A few years later in the UK, an editorial in the Radio Times two weeks before transmissions commenced advised its readers: 'You will be watching the beginnings of a new art.'12 A similar emphasis on 'new art' appeared in the same publication when broadcasts recommenced in 1946. Recalling the early days of broadcasting, Ernest Thomson wrote: 'There was literally nothing else like it. Television isn't cinema, it isn't a peep-show, it isn't a toy – it is a new art medium which does something never achieved before, something difficult to describe.'13
Equally excited was Denis Johnston, BBC Programme Director, again writing in 1946: 'Television is a new art providing almost unlimited opportunities for new discoveries.'14 This theme continued in articles, reviews and commentaries throughout the 1950s. It cropped up again during the 1980s, partly in response to the introduction of music video, and as various interests contemplated the possibility of more television channels. Rock musician Peter Gabriel and cultural theorist Sean Cubitt were arguing that music video could be developed as an art form, not just a promotional tool, and one that (in typically postmodern fashion) could bridge or dissolve the division between high and low culture.15 These desires for a new art were not substantially different from the hopes that had been expressed for television and music back in the 1930s and 1940s.
Yet the introduction of television during the 1930s also produced anxieties. Some feared its potential as a vehicle for propaganda (across Europe many people were acutely aware of the activities of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler). More specifically, with regard to music, there were concerns that television would merely provide a poor imitation when judged against 'live' music experienced in the presence of performers. In one of the first ever reviews of an opera on television [End Page 313] a writer for The Times was disconcerted by the way that 'doll-like Marionettes let forth at us immense voices' and concluded that, although revealing much potential, it was unlikely that television would be anything more than a 'substitute for the real thing'.16 The perceived tension between creative opportunity and unimaginative imitation was still being discussed 50 years after these initial anxieties surfaced. In 1984, Thomas Hartman and Francis Routh pointed an accusing finger at the BBC when arguing for the potential of television as a disseminator of new music, and also when emphasizing the perennial problem of the relationship between a real event and its representation:
Good television, which all can acknowledge, is more likely to be achieved with new music than with old. The reason for this is that music of the past bears the encrustations of history. We know too much about it already and it is far better performed straight, in the concert hall. Why should TV compete with the concert hall? Yet the BBC panders in this way to an assumed consumer. Moreover, it is with the music of the past that concert promoters cater for the mass market. So again, why should TV tamely follow suit? There are audiences ready and waiting for new ideas and forms, and it is to these audiences that TV should attend.17
At the time, Hartman and Routh were the latest advocates of the idea that television provides great opportunities for musicians. Although these potentials had so often been vaguely defined (television providing the opportunity for a somewhat nebulous 'new art'), Hartman and Routh argued more clearly for something new and distinct, a shift away from the familiar conventions and repertoires of the concert hall. Why should television be saddled with the historical burden of following the live experience, they asked? Musicians, composers and broadcasters should be thinking about new 'ideas and forms'.
Yet very few musicians, composers, songwriters or performers seem to have used television to develop a distinctively new art form. Regardless of genre (big-band, operatic, rock, symphonic, chamber), musicians and television personnel have tended to treat television as if it were a neutral lens, rather than a transformative medium that can redefine, or develop innovative types of, musical performance. Attempts to challenge conventions or develop a new aesthetic can be cited as the exceptions that prove the rule, as suggested by Michael Chanan when referring to the Not Mozart films made for the BBC and visual effects used in the transmission of a piano recital by Saar Television.18 In the remainder of this article I shall explore some of the practical and ideological reasons why an imaginative audio-visual television art has been so slow to evolve. At the same time, I will be highlighting how a focus on television can alert us to more general tensions between music and visual, and contrasting approaches to listening that are pertinent to the experience, study and analysis of music. I hope [End Page 314] this will prompt further questions, research and discussion about the connections between music and visual imagery, and the quite concrete way in which music is embedded into our public and private lives.
From the first days of broadcasting many programmers and critics were concerned that television images would be detrimental to the experience of music (both classical and popular). Such anxieties were informed by a particular aesthetic of art-music listening, consolidated during the nineteenth century, whereby music became valued for its invisibility, according to ideas about its apparent structural purity and lack of referentiality. There is a long history of attempts to render music invisible in Western cultures, whether this has entailed the concealing of choirs or chanting monks in Christian churches, or the hiding of musicians in medieval mystery plays or Elizabethan masques.19
In the early years of television a preference for invisible music-makers cropped up in commentaries, reviews and articles where it was claimed that the performance of symphonic music specifically was not suitable for television. Although a belief in the value of listening without the distractions of the visual gained currency in the latter part of the nineteenth century prior to the introduction of the gramophone, recorded sound clearly allowed a quite radical separation of sound from visual context. Beliefs in the elevated value of invisible music gradually became more pervasive throughout the early part of the twentieth century and took hold amongst an influential group of critical listeners and classical music critics – those who invested heavily in gramophones and joined gramophone societies. Many continued a practice that was increasingly adopted in concert halls during the second part of the nineteenth century: they closed their eyes, hoping to experience the music more intensely and intimately.20
During the period when recordings were becoming more available people were not only closing their eyes in the concert hall. Many now closed their eyes at home in an attempt to achieve an equally intense and intimate musical encounter, often one that entailed an imaginary journey to the ideal concert hall. The visual was blocked off, but only in order to replace the domestic environment with an imaginary one which idealized musicians. This is exemplified in the following letter written by A. J. Penfold of Littlehampton to the Gramophone in 1935:
May I suggest to those of your readers who have not already done so, to play their gramophone with eyes closed – to lose sight of their surroundings, their room, their gramophone – to visualise, with their mind's eye, their favourite concert-hall – with its conductor, its [End Page 315] serried rows of players, even to the timpani up on high! They will be hearing from a more or less back seat, but they will be THERE, and hearing the record far more intimately than they ever heard it before.21
Listening to music with the eyes closed became connected with two desires that are distinct but often tangled. The first is an attempt to imagine the music being performed in ideal conditions with ideal(ized) musicians. Such a perspective entails what might be thought of as a more middlebrow attempt to appreciate the music as produced by real musicians in a real place. If such a desire chimed with the growth of 'music appreciation' in the early part of the twentieth century, it elicited only contempt from those whose aesthetic involved an attempt to engage with the structures of pure music. A desire for a form of concentrated 'structural listening' united such apparently contrasting figures as Eduard Hanslick, Heinrich Schenker and Theodor Adorno. And Kierkegaard was not the only philosopher to give weighty intellectual backing to the idea that music should be solemnly appreciated with closed eyes.22
A belief in the purity of music, uncontaminated by the visual, was applied not just to art music. It went hand in hand with the serious intellectual appreciation of jazz and became an integral aspect of rock ideology during the late 1960s and 1970s, when concentrated attention was often given to rock music in darkened rooms.23 Unlike art music, rock was formed in and through the modern electronic mass media and burgeoning consumer culture. Simon Frith has noted the irony that rock music depended upon television for its formation and dissemination to a large audience, yet was frequently defined against television. This was notable when many (mostly male) rock musicians, journalists and fans positioned themselves against the home (preferring 'the street') and against the visual pop codes of music television in the early 1980s.24 The idea that no images should accompany and impede our experience and understanding of music was a reaction to the use of choreographed dancing or film to accompany [End Page 316] rock music on television from the late 1960s, and one of the initial responses to music videos.25
This was not simply a high-art aesthetic, developed during the nineteenth century, adapted and then used to criticize television. It also arose as a direct response to seeing musicians on television. On the one hand there have been high intellectual principles at stake here (the apparent purity of music); on the other, there have been more visceral reactions to the appearance of the bodies of musicians.26 Such concerns began to be expressed when the BBC was conducting test transmissions. A. P. Herbert wrote, in the Listener, of what he called 'the plain singer'. He remarked that 'the decent darkness of the wireless has been a godsend to them'.27 A BBC document from 1937 entitled 'Television Advisory Committee Comments on Programmes' considered cabaret performers, and the Director of Television declared: 'Many of the better artists are dreadful to look at.'28
Broadcasters were also concerned about dance bands. In a BBC memo dated 11 August 1947, Cecil McGivern, Television Programme Director, wrote: 'Dance bands are generally not good television and we simply must cut down the number of times we use them.' McGivern despatched another memo seven days later, on 18 August:
I think they are poor television and am trying to keep the number of appearances down to the minimum. This is bound to give rise to questions and probably complaints by dance band leaders. Our answer is, of course, 'Provide a visual show and we'll put you in.'29
Here, in a slightly different way, are some of the anxieties that emerge as television adapts to and incorporates pre-existing styles. Dance music was by definition created for dancing, whether those responding to it were waltzing around their living room or jitterbugging in the Hammersmith Palais ballroom. It was not performed for people giving musicians their undivided or even primary attention.
Television forced jazz and big-band musicians to become more aware of their image. Singers, announcers and instrumentalists who had become used to [End Page 317] performing in the recording studio or for radio broadcasts were given strict instructions about their visual appearance. They were told about the patterns and colours of clothes that would televise better than others. Musicians were instructed not to wear gold watchbands or jewellery. Studios used very bright lights at the time and instrumentalists were warned about the undesirable effects of shiny instruments. The magazine Downbeat advised musicians who were to appear on television: 'Don't polish your horn.'30 Performers were asked to be aware of any habitual mannerisms. In 1948, the trade magazine Variety mentioned an announcer who was 'scratching various parts of his anatomy on a recent telecast – something he may have gotten into on radio'.31 In response to these pressures many bandleaders took acting lessons, and bands incorporated novelty songs and humorous routines into their repertoire.
Three years later, writing in Opera for the People, Herbert Graf argued that opera was ideal for television as a form of 'musical-dramatic art'. But he was concerned that orchestral and operatic performances might not benefit from what he called 'the magnifying eye of the close-up'.32 In reflecting on his productions for television, Graf advocated the economical use of close-ups to highlight details of the facial expressions and emotional gestures of singers. However, when it came to the orchestra and to instrumental passages, he was less convinced of their utility:
In television the close-ups of the performing musicians reveal details that more often detract from the musical content than enhance it. The gestures and facial expressions of some conductors and players may reflect their interpretation of the work, but those of others, interesting in themselves, perhaps, may produce the opposite effect.
In a radio broadcast of Wagner's 'Siegfried Idyll', for instance, the listener hearing the beautiful passages of the solo violin and the individual woodwind instruments can make his own imaginary picture of the romantic peace and the twittering birds in the deep forest; but in one telecast of this work I witnessed the close-ups of the musicians' somber, bespectacled faces diminished the possibility of any such poetic illusion.33
Nearly 20 years later, John Culshaw, then head of music at BBC TV, was contemplating the possibility of televised performances being made available to consumers on videotape. In the wake of this new technology he wrote in the Gramophone during 1970, asking about the consequences of visual repetition:
People today buy records with the conscious intention of playing them many more times than once; and people tomorrow will only buy video if there are very good reasons for watching more than once. What can be perfectly valid and useful on transmitted television is therefore not necessarily valid and useful for replayable video. Do you really want [End Page 318] to see that oboe player with a pimple on his nose every time a certain phrase comes up in a Beethoven symphony?34
Concerns about the influence of the physical appearance of musicians when performing did not arise simply as a response to television, but the arrival of television exaggerated, accentuated and focused a set of more general anxieties about musical understanding that had been developing over a much longer period. As Richard Leppert has noted in his study of music and representations of the body over a 400-year period: 'Whatever else music is "about", it is inevitably about the body' – whether or not that body is visible.35 For Leppert this has resulted in a set of contradictions generated by 'the slippage between the physical activity to produce musical sound and the abstract nature of what is produced'.36 Although Leppert perhaps overstates the importance of forms of visual representation of the body for dealing with and resolving the paradoxes of music, it might be possible to think of the attempts made by television programmers to deal with the problems of transmitting music and image as part of the same history of tensions and contradictions – although it seems to me that the apparent contradictions or paradoxes are never resolved. As musicians, musicologists and music fans we will continue to live with the tensions between the physical and abstract character of music. This will perhaps be particularly acute on television, where something has to be seen, and at some point this must inescapably be the bodies of musicians.
Not only has the programming and critical appreciation of music on television been judged according to the physical appearance of musicians, but it has also been informed by a series of beliefs about musical and visual realism. Never mind that the oboe player has a pimple on his nose; at the crucial moment when the oboe has a brief solo we do not wish to see the clarinettist – that's the assumption. This is an aesthetic, an educative and a technical issue. It is aesthetic in that it is informed by assumptions about the value of presenting musicians realistically. Yet achieving it requires considerable technical skill and equipment; therefore the effect of realism has to be actively created. Musicians do not spontaneously appear as 'real'. In producing a sense of reality, programmers became concerned about the contrasting perspectives suggested by the music and the visual image and the potential for a type of cognitive dissonance – giving the impression that oboe sounds are produced by the clarinet. There is also an educative issue here in terms of the BBC's mission to contribute to public knowledge by giving the viewer a tangible sense of how music is made, or an opportunity to identify with the performer. Hence, the ideological tensions [End Page 319] those programmers began grappling with when transmitting broadcasts were compounded by the technical difficulties of transmitting sound and image simultaneously (and this was on top of concerns about the 'telegenic' qualities of performing musicians). All this became condensed into a recurrent dilemma that can be traced throughout the history of television: should a close-up in the visual seek to be consonant with a close-up, as it were, in the music?
In 1962 the BBC published an Engineering Monograph, The Broadcasting of Music on Television, which summarized some of the technical and aesthetic principles that had been developed since the 1930s. The following instructions have proved to be one of the enduring principles of televising musicians:
If the camera approaches an orchestra player – still more if it comes into close-up – an immediate contradiction of sight and sound is precipitated if the part he is playing cannot be easily distinguished by the ear; yet at the same time it would be clearly physically almost impossible, and artistically quite intolerable, if the sound perspective were constantly to be changed. The onus here must rest on the producer, who should avoid close-ups unless they are musically motivated i.e. unless the instrument concerned has a real solo.37
The aim is to match the visual and sound perspectives to give the illusion of 'reality'. Such an approach privileges a notion of visual realism over that of audio realism. It assumes that television must have a real relationship to the music in terms of what the camera shows us. Yet the visual perspective offered by television is only partly grounded in realism. No viewer could ever gain access to the multiple, composite visual perspectives offered by television. This is apparent when viewing just a few seconds of a broadcast of the Proms or Glastonbury Festival, for example.
Yet broadcasters have come to believe that viewers will direct their attention to whatever instrument is most salient to the ear, as if music audiences are similar to those following the ball in a tennis or football match. This has led to an approach to televising music driven by an obsession with the 'musically motivated' close-up. Nicholas Cook is just one writer who has highlighted how this can disrupt rather than enhance the musical experience:
One's musical enjoyment of a televised concert can be disrupted by the kind of over-enthusiastic picture-editing in which the oboe cannot echo the clarinet's three-note motif without the two players appearing in turn upon the screen in monstrous close-up: the disruption of the musical experience is the result of the facticity, so to speak, and the spatial proximity of the players being thrust upon one.38
However, it is not always clear just where the 'musically motivated' close-up should be directed, particularly during ensemble passages when no one instrument or voice is prominent. It is during these moments that orchestral broadcasters privilege the authority of the conductor. Television helped create what [End Page 320] Theodor Adorno, many years ago, called the 'celebrity conductor . . . a twentieth-century musical fetish'.39 Formative influences here were the NBC television broadcasts of Arturo Toscanini. In 1952 it was estimated that the television audience for Toscanini's broadcasts in the United States was 10 million. Kirk Browning directed them and quite consciously wished to emphasize the conductor as a charismatic figure presiding over the entire orchestra. At the time Browning explained that he aimed to 'treat these telecasts primarily from the point of view of the Maestro's conducting'. He wished to 'eliminate' the 'detail shots of the brasses, strings, woodwinds, and so forth', as he thought these a distraction, undermining the authority of the conductor.40
The common alternative to showing the musicians or conductor (or rock musicians and vocalist, for that matter) is to pan around the auditorium (or festival site). However, this is usually in darkness and thus sustains interest only for a fleeting few seconds. Of course, the architecture and ambience of the event are part of the illusion of realism. Yet, when auditoria are featured prior to performances, the images of empty seats being filled and people chatting can be equally uninspiring.41 Until the end of the twentieth century these details were received on a small television screen, and even the larger home-entertainment systems, with their apparently superior sound quality, merely constructed another simulacrum of an idealized big event. As a result, any detail of a dark auditorium can be lost, whilst the actions of musicians and conductors can appear exaggerated owing to the size of the television screen.
If screen size seems an obvious limitation when presenting musicians according to a realist aesthetic, then so too is sound quality. For much of its history television has been associated with small, poor-quality speakers. This characteristic has often been emphasized by those writers who have argued for television's detrimental impact on music. Simon Frith is just one commentator who has written of television's limitations here, observing that
most people's television sets have poor sound quality . . . Even now that digital recording is the norm few people have – or seem to want – good television sound. They do not want it because television is not primarily a sound medium. The musical experience is by its nature enveloping. Music may have a specific source of origin (the orchestra; the CD player) but it is heard as being everywhere (in the concert hall, in the room). As listeners we put ourselves into the music, and as radio became more portable so music became something to take with us, to change our sound environment. Television cannot offer this sort of musical experience whatever its sound quality.42 [End Page 321]
Frith's argument is representative of a position adopted by numerous commentators. However, it is by no means clear that television sound quality is experienced by the public as an impediment. Here a focus on television provides pointers to more general questions about how people gain pleasure from various listening strategies in different situations. Early judgments about television sound were quite different. During October 1936 the BBC was broadcasting test transmissions, and HMV and Marconiphone were demonstrating their new television receivers. The Gramophone then, as now, employed a technical expert who reviewed sound equipment in terms of its sonic quality:
These demonstrations proved conclusively that television is entertainment, and they also gave a hint as to what we may expect of the television sound transmissions. Both the HMV and the Marconiphone instruments exhibited musical characteristics the like of which we seldom hear from any ordinary radio receiver or radiogramophone. They were really outstanding.43
Early radio reception suffered from signals wandering off and from static interference. Television sets had to be separately tuned to visual and sound signals. Yet the sound was considered superior to that of radio and gramophone recordings.
An equally positive appreciation of television sound can be found by thumbing through the BBC's small-scale surveys of audience views, at the Written Archive Centre in Caversham. During the 1930s the live transmission of music on radio and television was considered to be of better audio quality than gramophone recordings. The sound of television was still perceived as good nearly 20 years later. An audience research report from February 1954 concluded that the findings were 'a tribute to the completeness of the illusion created by sound in TV programmes . . . more than half (56%) had nothing but praise for the sound in television'.44
As the above implies, viewers were not unanimous in their praise. The most common complaint concerned the way in which a realistic attempt to convey the dynamic range of music resulted in certain passages becoming too loud, often provoking viewers to get up and turn down the volume (there were, of course, no remote-control devices). As the report concluded, 'viewers . . . desire the full range of musical tones though not the volume. In these respects it is clear that they demand less realism in the sound than in the picture.' Viewers objected to the fact that music became too loud, even though the aim of broadcasters was to present a realistic audio perspective.45 Again, this is both a technical and an [End Page 322] aesthetic issue. First, a considerable amount of technological skill, knowledge and sonic manipulation is required just to give a realistic impression of music coming to us unmediated, as it were. Second, aesthetic judgments (or pragmatic judgments with aesthetic consequences) are being made about the fidelity and character of the music by programme directors, composers, musicians, singers and audiences. Here, in the domestic context of television listening, the aesthetic judgment of producers and listeners does not necessarily coincide.
The critical appreciation and the academic analysis of music often assume an ideal listener who is attentive to melodic, harmonic and rhythmic detail, and who receives a sonic perspective acquired from within an engulfing three-dimensional space. This assumption is readily apparent in a whole range of books and journals, irrespective of whether the approach is that of traditional musicology or of the 'new' or 'critical' musicology, and regardless of whether the writer is concerned with art music, jazz or contemporary pop music.46 The analyst of art music often assumes a listener (and indeed a musically literate reader) attentive to the finest nuances of an ideal performance and score. In studies of popular music, the writer often presupposes a listener located in an ideal sonic space, attentive to textural and timbral detail (even here the analyst often assumes the relevance of conventional notation). Yet such ideal listening conditions and a comprehensive sonic awareness are far removed from how many people actually experience music, whether listening to recordings or attending a performance. On an anecdotal level, over the years I have often been surprised by different domestic speaker arrangements I have encountered. I do not think it that unusual to find people who profess a love of music to have their speakers perched together on a shelf in the corner of a room, or partly hidden behind sofas on the floor, or located high up by the ceiling. These are people who would never think of partially obscuring the screen by placing a chair in front of their television. Equally, they are unlikely to place the television high up near the ceiling – for that novelty you have to go to a cheap hotel or university seminar room.
In his history of the 'acoustic cultures' and techniques of listening that allowed for recorded sound to be developed and accepted, Jonathan Sterne [End Page 323] has highlighted how approaches to listening have changed historically in relation to technologies and social circumstances.47 He has, like a number of recent scholars, argued that sound production, hearing and listening should be central to social history and historical sociology. When gramophone players became portable during the 1920s, and when the use of transistors shrank the size of radios during the 1950s, these technologies were not used for creating engulfing musical experiences. They were taken out into the country, or to a beach, or to a city park, or placed in a car. The radio or gramophone occupied a place in a particularly modern soundscape, an ambience that R. Murray Schafer has characterized as 'lo-fi', where 'individual acoustic signals are obscured in an overdense population of sounds'.48 These technologies were listened to in a world full of other noises – planes, trains, cars, sirens, machines, the hum of heating, alarms and so on. The engulfing experience of the personal stereo or car hi-fi is relatively recent. Recorded music has often been enjoyed in sonic environments where it is difficult to register fine details with any clarity.
For many people, significant musical pleasures have been obtained from small transistor radios and monophonic gramophone boxes (within or away from the home), or from listening to a live low-volume performance of a folk singer or string quartet, attending to a jazz performer amidst chatter from tables or a bar, or even viewing a distant rock band in a windy field. Such experiences often entail a sonic quality far removed from the immersion gained from a personal stereo, or quiet contemplation between two speakers. And we can adopt various listening strategies, shifting attention, moving from distracted to highly attentive listening and stopping at various points in between. We may shift our listening and concentration at a live event, and this is perhaps even more inevitable in the varied private and public places in which we listen to music.
Television seems to challenge the concentrated, attentive listening that is assumed to be most conducive to experiencing music, yet which characterizes very little music listening in our highly mediated social lives. A recurrent concern, voiced by critics, composers and programmers, is that television audiences can be continually interrupted and are not fully attentive. For many broadcasters and musicians the domestic setting of television reception has appeared as villain. It is perceived to undermine the rebellious spirit of rock as much as it is deemed to undercut the serious intent of showing opera on television. This was an issue that concerned Benjamin Britten when he was writing the opera Owen Wingrave, commissioned for television by the European Broadcasting Union [End Page 324] (EBU). Interviewed in the Gramophone in 1970, a year before the broadcast, Britten said:
The medium presents one with a whole new set of problems. You have to persuade viewers to take the occasion seriously. On the other hand, you can't really calculate for those who are bored, arrive late, or are interrupted by the telephone. You can't keep repeating the plot, like a cricket score or something. Then there's the whole problem of making singers seem credible on television. So with Wingrave, we are really working hard on the acting side.49
Britten's approach to composition assumed an audience giving their undivided attention (he wanted the public to 'take the occasion seriously'). Yet, the respectful viewing and concentrated listening associated with the modern concert hall are relatively recent and culturally specific. As Jeremy Tambling has argued, also writing of opera on television,
There is something artificial and repressed about the Modernist claim that the work of art should be absorbed in concentrated contemplation. In some ways, we have gone back to eighteenth-century opera when no-one listened attentively to a piece throughout (and when arias, overtures and ensembles could easily be moved from opera to opera), or to nineteenth-century opera before Wagner first dimmed the house-lights at Bayreuth, to ensure audience concentration.50
Tambling's argument about the historical specificity of a peculiarly Western modernist approach to appreciating art music is echoed in a similar point made by Michael Talbot:
In the eighteenth century . . . an opera was treated more like a floor show at a night club. The expectation was that patrons would come to it several times in the season and assimilate it in stages (alongside such other activities as eating, gambling and gossiping) . . . patrons often visited more than one theatre in the same evening before ending up, as likely as not, at the casino.51
James Johnson's Listening in Paris outlines how, between 1750 and 1850, audiences 'stop talking and start listening'. Johnson charts the political circumstances and class changes that led to the emergence and consolidation of a set of bourgeois conventions that entailed restraining bodily responses, listening in silence and minimizing applause.52 Hence, listening is shaped by broader social relationships, collectively shared assumptions about the most suitable way to appreciate music, and within this context by the specific listening strategies that [End Page 325] may be adopted by individuals alone and in small groups. With this in mind, I am tempted to propose an ironic reversal of the old distinction between active and passive audiences, a dichotomy that numerous scholars of television have shown to be clichéd and misleading.53 The audience in the modern concert hall and opera house, and even rock concert, can be viewed as relatively passive. They are attentive to music in a darkened hall with few distractions other than the performance. The classical musicians are often distant. Without small binoculars, it is often impossible to see details of their bespectacled faces or pimpled noses.
At the rock concert this problem is alleviated by the use of large television screens, which allow audiences to see the Rolling Stones in a huge stadium and dream that they might be in the front row at a small club. A writer in The Times reviewing Bob Dylan's London concerts during 2003 remarked that 'the lack of large video screens in a venue the size of Wembley Arena was carrying old-fashioned working practices a little too far'.54 The ironies are multiple here. The listener attending the 'authentic' live concert requests the 'inauthentic' screen to help his enjoyment of the event. Here we have the passive television viewer transposed, restricted in ways he would not be in the living room, sitting in the dark, requiring a close-up framed visual of Dylan's performance.
Television audiences are not usually in the dark, and are actively engaged in a range of other activities such as eating, drinking, gossiping, reading a newspaper, flirting, playing with the kids.55 The sound can be muted or turned down low, and varying degrees of attention can be given to the visual. The listener can move between rooms whilst paying attention to the sound. Studies of television reception suggest a highly active, but not necessarily fully attentive, audience, engaged in all manner of viewing strategies.56 Historically, a vast amount of music has been broadcast to actively distracted audiences. This is what so disconcerted Benjamin Britten. Yet, as I now want to suggest, it is integral to television's possibilities.
For many people an inspiring, life-changing musical experience has often been associated with the television screen. One legendary moment was the appearance of Jimi Hendrix on the Happening with Lulu Show in Britain on 4 January 1969 – an event that has become etched into the popular memory of many people. John Walsh referred to it in his column in the Independent newspaper during October 2003 when taking issue with its exclusion from a list of great musical moments produced by Mojo magazine:
Jimi Hendrix and his band turned up as guest stars, started playing their first Top 10 hit, 'Hey Joe', live, and screeched to a halt in the middle of it. 'Uh, we're going to stop playing [End Page 326] this, uh, rubbish' Jimi said 'and play a tribute to Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker', and launched into 'Sunshine of Your Love'. It was over in four minutes but it left me stunned. The dervish of rock guitar appearing on the Lulu show! (Like Picasso turning up at an exhibition of flower paintings in Penzance). A rock star saying he didn't like his own record! A chap saying 'rubbish' when he so obviously meant 'bullshit!' . . . It was the truest moment of rock'n'roll attitude I'd ever seen on TV, and it was anarchy right there in the living room, and it was going out live.57
Much has been written about Hendrix's stage performances, particularly at festivals, and his impact on the sonic and gestural aesthetics of both popular and art music. Yet equally significant were those moments when Jimi inspired 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds in front of the television – inspired them to find out more, to pick up a guitar, to listen to rock music.
There is a more general point here. Television provides access to musical experiences for those who cannot attend a live concert. This may include children and youths who are too young to gain admission to dance clubs, pubs or theatres. It could include the very old, and people who are limited in their mobility. It may involve people who are simply too geographically distant from the venue of a comparable event. I have found a number of similar accounts of individuals being moved, inspired or changed in some way as a result of a musical performance encountered via television. For example, journalist Andy Gill, writing of when, 'as a callow pre-teen', he saw the sequence of Bob Dylan dropping cards featuring keywords as an accompaniment to Subterranean Homesick Blues, recalled: 'The effect was immediate and, it seems, permanent. Nothing I had heard before had prepared me for this torrent of verbiage, with its mysterious frames of reference, its impenetrable slang and its sheer acidic bite.'58
There are other obvious examples in writings about popular music (from Elvis Presley to the Sex Pistols, from Madonna to Goldfrapp, from John Coltrane to Public Enemy). But there are similar stories about classical music. For example, John Robert Brown has written of a moment from the Proms that he found unforgettable, moved by the type of close-up that many have found distracting:
Close-ups of perspiring faces and bulging veins make for good drama . . . I've never forgotten seeing the shaking fingers of a British clarinettist caught in a close-up as he embarked on a taxing cadenza during the last night of the Proms, long ago.59
Back in 1967, Christopher Whelen, writing in the Composer, reflected on two new works he had written for television. He acknowledged the domestic context, like Britten, but suggested that the challenge of television is that the home [End Page 327] viewer and listener are a source of constraint and potential, like any form and its conventions. In contrast to some of the judgments I cited earlier, he wished to embrace the possibilities of television. For Whelen, musicians who work with television must engage in 'a re-aligning of the musical imagination, piercing through the small screen – and into people's houses. The musical mind must become the camera; must utilise the scatter-shot sweep of the camera – make it a musician's camera.'60 Just what a musician's camera might be is not clear – it is open to definition and constant re-definition. Since Whelen was writing, there have been intimations of what it might entail in some of the more imaginative combinations of sound and image in music video and in film, particularly in the way rap musicians have drawn sounds and imagery from audio and visual sources, and the way directors such as Spike Lee and Spike Jonz have built their art upon the interplay between the rhythms of speech, music, sound and image.
Television can allow for a range of aesthetic practices, but it is particularly conducive to an aesthetic of overstatement, exaggeration and excess (as implied in the examples above). This characterizes much rock and pop music. But it is a characteristic of opera and of much Romantic, modernist and, however disputed the term, postmodern repertoire. Over the years, many dramatic musical moments have leapt from the television screen, and they have had little to do with technical editing skills, hi-fi quality or the truth of television's relationship to a real event. Excess, exaggeration and drama make good television because this is not the real world, is not the concert hall, or the opera house, the rock gig – and because it is being received by an actively distracted audience. It does not have to be realistic, a point that has a certain irony when we consider the plethora of so-called reality television programmes that have come to dominate television schedules. The television performance does not need to be perceived in terms of a clear beginning, middle or end. It can be continuous with, but can also wilfully disrupt, the television viewing experience. The broadcasting of musicians on television still has the potential to provide dramatic episodes that pierce the flow – the flow of television, and the flow of the daily routine. This is perhaps a clue to its artistic potential.
However, I do not wish to overstate the prevalence of, nor necessarily to valorize, an aesthetic of excess and exaggeration, either for creating watchable television or for contributing to the cultural value of an artwork. From the earliest days, television has been conducive to another type of musical aesthetic, one of understatement and unobtrusiveness. Earlier in this article I mentioned in passing that a considerable amount of music on television has accompanied the still image, as opposed to the moving image: for example, the test card which was shown for much of television's history, or the images that accompanied interludes. The music here was chosen for its ability to function as both background and foreground, to be heard attentively and ignored. From 1936, the BBC compiled lists of recordings to be used in intervals, and an early memo from that [End Page 328] year stated that light music used for 'intervals or for illustration' should not include vocals or vocal choruses.61
The test card and interludes that featured so much during the early years of television provided an opportunity for many composers who have now been recognized for their contribution to light music. This music has become popular in large part owing to the way in which, in recorded form, it can be used in a range of domestic contexts and public places.62 There are similarities here to what has generically become known as ambient music. In principle this is not the same as muzak or background music. Muzak is designed to be background. Ambient is composed to permit different listening strategies; it allows for different levels of attention. Proponents of ambient music, most notably Brian Eno, have argued that this type of music can be actively used in different environments or situations, depending on our concerns and activities at the time.63 It is not just background. This sort of music serves many domestic functions, and it is ideal for television. Over recent years a type of ambient light music, associated with artists such as Brian Eno, Aphex Twin, Moby and Air, has featured extensively on television. It has frequently been included to enhance or add sonic momentum to visually predictable programmes featuring sports, gardening, holidays, cooking, home changes, makeovers and so on. In the practical way in which they are used and incorporated into people's lives, the distinctions between light music, muzak and ambient music are by no means clear cut. Here again, over time, there are continuities in how such less obtrusive music has been incorporated into the television schedule.
The aesthetic and social consequences of invisible musicians unobtrusively contributing via television to the ubiquity of music in our lives moves me to further issues beyond this immediate article.64 In this article my main discussion has focused on musicians who are visible as performers. Yet, as is so apparent when a television set is turned on at any time of day or night, music with no musicians present is also integral to the ambience, narrative structures, rhetoric and argument of television programming.
Histories of twentieth-century music have, in general, tended to ignore television. Even histories of rock music, which came to prominence with the aid of television, have not told us much about the importance of the small screen. [End Page 329] Equally, studies of television have often devoted little attention to music. One of my aims in this article has been to begin uncovering some of the neglected ways in which television has been important in the history of music-making and listening, and to highlight some of the issues and problems raised by television as performing musicians became an integral part of television programming from the 1930s onwards. I have also indicated throughout how listening to television raises questions about how we understand and study music.
In Beyond Structural Listening?, Andrew Dell'Antonio has sought to challenge the taken-for-granted ways in which a particular listening model has become a disciplinary commonplace within the study of music, and a pedagogic staple of undergraduate music education. Whilst I believe that close attentive listening to music is exceptionally valuable (for music-makers and listeners alike), a study of television suggests that musicians and composers might have much to gain from thinking about the multiple ways in which their music can be listened to and incorporated into our lives. Again, this has implications for the analysis and interpretation of music. Ola Stockfelt has argued that we should seek to understand the 'modes of listening' adopted by different groups and individuals in contemporary societies, acknowledging the plurality of postures deemed adequate for different contexts and genres.65 Television (and the further histories of listening it begins to reveal) in turn challenges some of our assumptions as analysts and researchers about what people attend to when they listen to music.
The era when music seemed abstract and invisible – to be isolated on the printed page, or the recording or in the darkened concert hall – has passed. The possibilities for a new musical art (the potentials I referred to earlier in this article) have only increased since those optimistic pronouncements were made in the early part of the twentieth century. Music has a much more significant living future outside realistic relays from the sombre confines of the concert hall or the rebellious rituals of the rock gig (although there will perhaps always be a place for the pantomime of pop – particularly on television). Musicians, composers and creative artists of various kinds are gradually becoming more aware of the numerous ways in which music can contribute to the sonic architecture of our mediated world.
Keith Negus ([email protected]) has worked at the Universities of Leicester and Puerto Rico and is currently based in the Department of Music at Goldsmiths College. His books include Producing Pop (1992), Popular Music in Theory (1996), Music Genres and Corporate Cultures (1999) and Creativity, Communication and Cultural Value (2004), the latter jointly written with Michael Pickering.
I would like to thank the two anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions, which helped me clarify some of the ideas presented here. Special thanks to Katharine Ellis and my Goldsmiths colleague Tony Pryer for their very careful and constructive critiques of an earlier draft.
1. See Sean Cubitt, Timeshift: On Video Culture (London, 1991), Chapter 3: 'Stars Get in your Eyes: How Music Became Visible Again'.
2. See Michael Pickering and Tony Green, Everyday Culture: Popular Songs and the Vernacular Milieu (Milton Keynes, 1987), and Iain Chambers's discussion of 'everyday life' in Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Pop Culture (London, 1985).
3. Richard Shusterman, Performing Live (Ithaca, NY, 2000), 4. See also idem, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Oxford, 1992).
4. The idea that television is actively constructing a version of the world rather than simply representing what is 'out there' is an idea that has been developed and elaborated in various ways by scholars studying the media. Notable contributions to this trajectory of thinking include The Manufacture of News: Social Problems, Deviance and the Mass Media, ed. Stan Cohen and Jock Young (London, 1973), and the various writings of Stuart Hall, in particular 'The Determination of News Photographs', ibid., 226–43; 'Culture, the Media and the Ideological Effect', Mass Communication and Society, ed. James Curran, Michael Gurevitch and Janet Woollacott (London, 1977), 315–48; and 'The Work of Representation', Representation, Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Hall (London, 1997), 13–74.
5. Experimental television broadcasts had been demonstrated from the late 1920s and into the early 1930s. The first public broadcasts were in Britain. In the USA public broadcasts commenced during 1939 in New York City.
6. These descriptions are from the first Radio Times television supplement, initially distributed only in the London area with the edition published on 30 October 1936.
7. Details can be found in copies of the Radio Times held at the British Library Newspaper Library, Colindale, London.
8. The BBC circulated lists of locations where television could be viewed.
9. Asa Briggs, A History of Broadcasting in the UK, ii: The Golden Age of the Wireless (Oxford, 1965), 611.
10. The figures cited in this section are approximate estimates derived from BBC Handbooks. For a discussion of such figures and attempts to measure the audience see Asa Briggs, A History of Broadcasting in the UK, iv: Sound and Vision (Oxford, 1979), 239–43.
11. Cited in Joseph Horowitz, Understanding Toscanini (New York, 1987), 270.
12. 'The Coming of Television', Radio Times (23 October 1936), 5.
13. Ernest Thomson, 'What is this Television?', Radio Times (17 May 1946), 3, 23.
14. 'What You Will See on your Screens', Radio Times (7 June 1946), 24.
15. Peter Gabriel is quoted by Simon Frith in 'Making Sense of Video: Pop into the Nineties', Music for Pleasure (Cambridge, 1988), 205–25 (p. 214). See also Cubitt, Timeshift.
16. 'Opera by Television: Mr. Coates' Pickwick', The Times (14 November 1936), 10.
17. Thomas Hartman and Francis Routh, 'Today's Music on Television: A New Art Form', Composer, 82 (summer 1984), 6.
18. Michael Chanan, 'Television's Problem with (Classical) Music', Popular Music, 21 (2002), 367–74.
19. I am drawing here on some of the discussion in Richard Leppert, The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation and the History of the Body (Berkeley, 1993).
20. James Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley, 1995).
21. 'Correspondence and Gramophone Society Reports', Gramophone (September 1935), 175.
22. Timothy Day, A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History (New Haven, 2000), 205. For an extended critical discussion of the history and problems of structural listening see Rose Rosengard Subotnik, 'Towards a Deconstruction of Structural Listening: A Critique of Schoenberg, Adorno and Stravinsky', Deconstructive Variations (Minneapolis, 1996), 148–76. See also Beyond Structural Listening? Postmodern Modes of Hearing, ed. Andrew Dell'Antonio (Berkeley, 2004). Philosophical arguments against structural listening can also be found in James Levinson, Music in the Moment (Ithaca, NY, 1997).
23. I write more from experience than scholarly citation here. During the early 1970s it was quite common to arrive at a friend's house or flat and find him or her sitting in the dark listening to rock and pop music. I assume we were not that unusual.
24. For a discussion of the 'ideology of rock', a belief that rock music emerged independently of commercial interests and consumer culture (before being co-opted) see Simon Frith, The Sociology of Rock (London, 1978), and Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock 'n' Roll (London, 1983). For specific commentary on rock and television see Simon Frith, 'Look! Hear! The Uneasy Relationship of Music and Television', Popular Music, 21 (2002), 277–90.
25. This point is mentioned by Andrew Goodwin, Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture (Minneapolis, 1992), 1–20.
26. A further irony can be noted here: those sitting in the darkened room listening attentively to the gramophone or classical radio broadcast were still, at this time, a minority when compared to the vast numbers of working-class people who were flocking to the cinemas being built in cities and towns during the 1920s and 1930s. Beliefs about the purity of certain types of musical experience were gaining currency at the very same time as the moving-image media of film and television were growing in popularity and connecting previously discrete sounds and images in ever more numerous ways.
27. A. P. Herbert, 'Some Thoughts on Television', Listener (2 September 1936), 421.
28. 'Television Advisory Committee Comments on Programmes', 27 April 1937, File T16/207/1, Television Advisory Committee 1935–40, BBC Written Archive Centre, Caversham. All BBC archive material cited with permission.
29. TV Light Entertainment Memos 1937–51, T12/230/1, BBC Written Archive Centre, Caversham.
30. Quoted in Murray Forman, 'One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount', Popular Music, 21 (2002), 268.
31. Quoted ibid.
32. Herbert Graf, Opera for the People (Minneapolis, 1951), 222.
33. Ibid., 219–20.
34. John Culshaw, 'The Outlook for Video Music', Gramophone (September 1970), 399.
35. Leppert, The Sight of Sound, xx.
36. Ibid., xxi.
37. The Broadcasting of Musicians on Television, BBC Engineering Monograph 40 (London, 1962), 7.
38. Nicholas Cook, Music, Imagination and Culture (Oxford, 1990), 153.
39. Quoted in Horowitz, Understanding Toscanini, 236.
40. Quoted ibid., 273.
41. This point was well illustrated with humorous extracts by Richard Witts in a Saul Seminar, British Library, 4 November 2003, 'Talking About "Talking About Music": The Presentation of Music on BBC Radio and Television'.
42. Frith, 'Look! Hear!', 279–80.
43. 'Trade Winds and Idle Zephyrs', Gramophone (November 1936), 263.
44. 'The Sound in Television Programmes', BBC Audience Research Report (8 February 1954), VR/54/54, BBC Written Archive Centre, Caversham. Based on a survey of a viewing panel of just under 500 people (644 sent; 481 received).
45. This raises another set of questions about what realism in sound might be, debates that resurfaced with the additional dynamic range introduced by the CD when compared to vinyl recording. The increased range allowed recording engineers to accentuate the contrast between very quiet and loud passages, leading to complaints being made about how this attempt at sonic realism requires intervention from the listener: if you turn up the volume for the quiet sections, then you might have to jump up to turn down the louder passages later. The complaint here is similar to that made by respondents surveyed about television sound during the 1950s. Full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of the present article, although I would acknowledge the following remarks by Carl Dahlhaus: 'it is uncertain whether . . . "musical realism" is an objective entity with an integrity which will stand up to examination, or merely the illusion of an object, generated by verbal usage' (Realism in Nineteenth Century Music, trans. Mary Whittall, Cambridge, 1982, 10).
46. It is clear, for instance, from looking through back copies of this journal or, to take two further examples, Popular Music and Journal of Musicology.
47. Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC, 2003). For various approaches to listening and audio cultures see The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back (Oxford, 2003); Robert Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording (New Haven, 2004); and Clive Brown, Classical and Romantic Performing Practice, 1750–1900 (Oxford, 1999).
48. R. Murray Schafer sets up a distinction between a pre-industrial or rural 'hi-fi' soundscape and a more industrial and urban 'lo-fi' soundscape. See The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, VT, 1994), 43.
49. 'Benjamin Britten Talks to Alan Blyth', Gramophone (June 1970), 29.
50. Jeremy Tambling, 'Introduction: Opera in the Distraction Culture', A Night in at the Opera, ed. Tambling (London, 1994), 1–24 (p. 15).
51. Michael Talbot, 'A Venetian Operatic Contract of 1714', The Business of Music, ed. Talbot (Liverpool, 2002), 10–61 (p. 25).
52. Johnson, Listening in Paris (quotation from p. 1).
53. For a recent discussion of the issues entailed here see Karen Lury, Interpreting Television (London, 2005).
54. David Sinclair, review of Bob Dylan at Wembley Arena, The Times (17 November 2003), 17.
55. For just two examples of work illustrating this see David Morley, Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies (London, 1992), and Roger Silverstone, Television and Everyday Life (London, 1994).
56. See Morley, Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies, and Lury, Interpreting Television.
57. John Walsh, 'Tales of the City', Independent (16 October 2003), 7.
58. Andy Gill, 'Blood on the Tracks: A Critic's Obsession', Independent (3 March 2004), Review section, 12.
59. John Robert Brown, 'The Vision Thing', Classical Music (12 April 2003), 43.
60. Christopher Whelen, 'Thoughts on Television Opera', Composer, 24 (1967), 17.
61. BBC Internal Memo from 'Tel. P.M.' (16 November 1936), File T16/207/1, Television Advisory Committee 1935–40, BBC Written Archive Centre, Caversham.
62. Andrew Lamb, 'British Light Music: Sound Good, Feel Good', Gramophone (November 2002), 34–8.
63. See the definition and discussion of ambient music in Brian Eno, A Year with Swollen Appendices (London, 1996). See also Mark Prendergast, The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Trance – The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age (London, 2000).
64. For a discussion of the pervasiveness of music in our lives see Anahid Kassabian, 'Ubiquitous Listening', Popular Music Studies, ed. David Hesmondhalgh and Keith Negus (London, 2002), 131–42, and Joseph Lanza, Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening and Other Moodsong (London, 1995).
65. See Ola Stockfelt, 'Adequate Modes of Listening', Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity, Culture, ed. David Schwarz, Anahid Kassabian and Lawrence Siegel (Charlottesville, 1997), 129–46.
CRITICISM [Volume 45, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 109-127]
So what is left but the business between hands. On the one, to dig (deeper); on the other, to bury (deeper) . . . And if the right hand did not know what the left hand is doing. . . .
—Gary Hill 1
WHAT IS VIDEO ART? Rather, where is video art located? Or, perhaps, what are its borders? What are its influences, confluences, and confusions? What limits it and defines it? How does video art speak about itself? For my purposes here, I would ask, who is Gary Hill? Or again, where is Gary Hill? Or, still again, what is Gary Hill between?
Hill's video art does not sit easily within an art historical perspective, nor does it rest well within an already unstable history of video art. The history and nature of video art is problematic because it is "between cinema and a hard place," as the title of Hill's 1991 video installation suggests. Hill—and other video artists—can undoubtedly be shown to be influenced by art movements such as conceptualism, Dadaism, performance art, as well as the history of film, but what will be of concern here is the unique and singular location of Hill's art. What is significant with regard to Hill's art is that his influences stem from poetry and philosophy as much as they come from anything within an art historical field. Therefore, to place Hill's art necessitates a perspective from which linguistic elements are taken into account as well as those of the visual arts.
To begin to show the distinctive nature of Hill's video art, the first half of this article is an analysis of his video installation, Between Cinema and a Hard Place. This installation acts as a self-referential questioning of the status of Hill's own video art and serves to show why an approach to Hill's practices must come from nonvisual as well as visual fields. Once a relation between [End Page 109] Hill's video art and the verbal fields of poetry and philosophy are established, I turn to examine his art within the context of other visual arts, showing parallel developments between video art and the related media of television and film.
On a broad level then, this article suggests that an understanding of Hill's status as a "video artist" must take into account particular relations between language and image both intrinsic and extrinsic to his art. I argue that it is within these relations that Hill's singular place is constituted within the discourse of video art and the broader discourse of art history. Furthermore, the idea of "influence" from one field to another is shown to be too banal, and what must be accounted for are the radical disruptions that occur when a particular sign-system is transposed into another sign-system, in other words, when a text is taken up in a visual artwork, or vice versa.
—Jacques Derrida 2The sense in which Gary Hill's videos are conceptual or image-text art done in video form is the sense in which the boundaries of a medium have long ago disappeared, but for our institutional need to categorize.
—Maureen Turim 3
Hill's video installation, Between Cinema and a Hard Place (1991), is a self-questioning self-referential art piece. 4 The installation is technologically, philosophically, and imagistically complex. Formally, it comprises twenty-three video monitors of various sizes (stripped of their casings): twelve thirteen-inch color, five nine-inch black-and-white, and six five-inch black-and-white. The multiple monitors are conjoined through a computer-controlled video-switching matrix that also brings together three audio speakers for an aural component.
Exposed wirings and picture tubes, and the otherwise sparse layout of the installation give an impression of simplicity, of a "stripped-down" video installation. One might think that Hill has taken video apart, exposed it and taken away the framings that separate it from the space of the museum and viewers; the video installation turns into a video "expos-ition." Unlike television, cinema, and most video installations (including Hill's), Between Cinema and a Hard Place allows the viewer to see behind the scene, to realize the amount of infrastructural wiring necessary to put the final image on the screen. While [End Page 110] technology disappears in most interactions with a screened image, Between Cinema and a Hard Place turns the technology inside-out, rips the guts out and displays the entrails.
Looking closer at the formal setup, Hill's expos-ition is essentially composed of four monitor groups. The first group is made up of the nine thirteen-inch monitors along the back row which function in synchrony with each other, transposing images from monitor to monitor. An image of an object (e.g., an image of the moon or a stone) may appear on the far right screen and seemingly move between screens toward the left. While the monitors work in harmony, a distinction is maintained in that each monitor is shifted slightly, pointing in a different direction, and each monitor has been adjusted to give off a slightly different hue than the others. Similarly, the second group—five nine-inch black-and-white monitors to the viewers' right—function together and are slightly shifted, but the images are not as abstract as they appear in [End Page 111] the first group. There are even some motion scenes, e.g., the cutting of an apple. The six five-inch black-and-white monitors directly in the middle-front form the third group, again displaying related images between them. Yet the images on these screens are all form and contrast; there are barely any clear figures or objects to focus on. Finally, the three thirteen-inch color monitors on the bottom left provide the most detail. The two side monitors generally correspond with each other as the middle monitor shows abstract images that appear somewhat akin to those in the other monitor groups, however not in harmony with any other monitor.
Each of the four clusters displays images that oscillate between photography and cinema, and hence also cause a disruption and reorientation of time and space. For example, there are instances in the installation where images are displayed of woods passing by. An ordinarily stationary tree is transfigured when a stationary camera is placed in a moving vehicle and focused on the stationary trees. Trees are put in motion. That movement is furthered by the appearance of the trees moving not only from side to side within the frame of the monitor, but seemingly moving between the monitors as well, the image "jumping" from one screen to the next.
Or again, time and space are reconceived through the use of the above-mentioned dual-flanking monitors of the fourth monitor group. Here, two close spatial locations are displayed at the same time, as if two proximate cameras were recording at once. Neighboring moving images provide a relation between the two monitors, but at the same time the viewer sees a slightly different space in each. While the other monitor groups show an identical image on monitors that are shifted in various directions, these two monitors display an image that is not identical but similar, and here the images are slightly shifted.
What is raised through these relations between neighboring monitors is a series of questions regarding the time and space existing between the creation of the video and the display of it. Were there two separate cameras recording in proximity to each other? Is that the same image moving between screens on the back nine monitors? Did Hill intend these relations? The answers to these questions do not matter here. What we have to deal with is the installation itself, the time and space of viewing. The video installation, far now from being an "expos-ition," continually causes the viewer to interrogate the time, space, and technology that make this installation an artistic medium. Reflecting on some of Hill's installations, curator Chris Bruce has stated, "What you get if you get time as an essential organizing structure is the thrill of expectant consideration and the idea that possibility, unpredictability, shift, random meaning, or surprise can be more than mere subjects in art, but actual occurrences as well." 5 [End Page 112]
At the same time, if the viewer stops long enough in front of the installation, she or he is pulled into a rhythmic flow of words and images. A soft-spoken voice is heard on the overhead speakers, reciting some poetic text. The rhythm of a masculine voice flows well with altering images on the monitors. The viewer is put, as Hill considers, "inside the time of speaking. Every syllable is tied to an image; suddenly words seemed quite spatial and the viewer becomes conscious of a single word's time." 6 The initial harsh and laid-bare sight of wires and assorted monitors gives way to a calming rhythmic sensation. Inviting one to let one's mind go, the images mime the spoken voice in its movement, and the words spoken disappear into the sound of the words spoken. The formal nature takes over; the viewer is lost in the passing woods. Between Cinema becomes some sort of contemplative space where words, images, time, and space are fused, lost, and reoriented. [End Page 113]
As a multimediated poetics, the installation seeks to take up Hill's constant interrogations between image and word. Influenced in part by the poet George Quasha (they met in 1976 and have collaborated from time to time), Hill has consistently produced art works which, through meticulous editing, form a poem of images and words. Such poetry is best seen in the 1989 single-channel videotape, Site Recite, where "still life" images are edited to correspond to a spoken voice. The videotape ends with an image looking out from inside a mouth, and the words, "Imagining the brain closer than the eyes." Hill's harmonizing of image and word establishes a unique style of poetry, offering what Michael Nash calls "a new form of writing." 7
Even so, Between Cinema and a Hard Place is poetic and critical, but it is not a narrative. What occurs alongside the poetic rhythms is something like Gregory Bateson's notion of a metalogue: "A metalogue is a conversation about some problematic subject. This conversation should be such that not only do the participants discuss the problem but the structure of the conversation as a whole is also relevant to the same subject." 8 This definition is not arbitrarily placed on Hill's installation, for Hill has acknowledged Bateson's influence. Bateson's work was important for Hill—as it was for many early video artists—reflected especially in his videos of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The "participants" in the conversation here are the video monitors and their images, the spoken voice, and the technical apparatus of the installation. The "problem" is that of video art, and particularly, the nature of video art, that "thing" between cinema and a hard place. As metalogue, the problem of the nature of video art is taken up and partially transposed through "images of nature," i.e. trees, rocks, fields, the moon, or domestic scenes like a close up of an apple being prepared to be cut. And through this, the relation of technology to nature is brought to the surface.
At times it might be tempting to see Hill's installation as an expressionistic representation of nature—a geographical space in which the viewer's body listens and sees—but the nature involved is fragmented, displayed across numerous screens, a nature which finally allows little or no access. In spite of the overall inviting and natural rhythmic elements in the installation, it is only through the use of technology, editing, and a multifaceted installation that aesthetic appeal comes at all. A romanticized nature is at the farthest remove from the technologically sophisticated video production. Yet nature and technology are enmeshed and inseparable.
Two forces work within the nature of the installation: attraction and repulsion. Through rhythms created via technology, the viewer is allowed some aesthetic access and is reaffirmed in his/her space. But it becomes the same technology that keeps the viewer distant, from bypassing the screens and getting to the "nature" of nature. For the technology calls attention to itself and [End Page 114] makes viewers remember that they are not in a pastoral setting but in a museum space in front of state-of-the-art video technology.
And here we reach a transition from physical to metaphysical elements. "Nature," as pastoral images of the countryside, turns to nature, as in the "essence" of things. And here too, it must be revealed that the rhythmic voice in Hill's installation is not reciting poetry after all, but rather parts of Heidegger's philosophical essay, "The Nature of Language." The inaccessible nature of the imaged countryside becomes the inaccessible nature of the heart of language.
The dual play of nature in Between Cinema and a Hard Place is not a strange play to Heidegger, for in his essay, metaphors of "walking in the country" are used throughout. Though highly philosophical, the article gives an air of pastoral poetry and works well as a spoken text in Hill's installation. Heidegger sets up an invisible geography, a nature scene, in which we are to walk along, to listen, and hear language give itself to us. In this nature-space, poetry and thinking are neighbors. Like the twin video monitors of the fourth group, poetry and thinking see the nature of things from similar but slightly different perspectives.
"The Nature of Language" is a tri-part article concerning, as one might surmise, the nature of language. Yet, as in much of Heidegger's writing, it is not nature as we in the western philosophical tradition have come to think of it; it is not an exploration to understand the essence of language. What Heidegger sees in the nature of language is a set of relations. Within a particular geography, his exploration seeks out what exists at the limits of language, "where word breaks off no thing may be," to quote the poem analyzed by Heidegger in the article. 9
There are two levels of language. There is the nature of language, something overwhelming and beyond our control, to which we can only come through an experience. The experience of language is one in which "something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us." 10 To experience it is not to find an end, a telos, a stopping-point, but to be caught up in the experience along the way. "Along the way" is the location of the other level of language, speech, our everyday language that allows negotiation and functioning in the world. This second level of language is the very language Heidegger must use in his essay, and the very language that may allow us to experience the other level. "But when does language speak itself as language? Curiously enough, when we cannot find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us." 11 Language is the closest to the nature of itself when language itself falls away, when the presence of words approaches an indescribable absence. Hence the need for poetry, for ways of using language indirectly, for skirting around a subject. Again, not the thing itself, but the neighbors.
In Heidegger's geography, thought and poetry are neighbors. In the past, [End Page 115] poetry has typically been exiled from thinking due to centuries of western logocentrism, a belief in thought as calculation, ratiocination, Reason, Word of God, et al. In such a space, thought cannot neighbor poetry. But Heidegger re-creates the neighborhood, sets out to desegregate the country, sets the differing perspectives of poetry and thought together. Heidegger is clear that "we must discard the view that the neighborhood of poetry and thinking is nothing more than a garrulous cloudly mixture of two kinds of saying in which each makes clumsy borrowings from each other." 12 Like Kristeva's notion of intertextuality (as opposed to most interpretations of it 13 ), a trans-position occurs, a violent clash that does not leave things settled.
This clash is what Heidegger reckons with. He analyzes poetry through critical thinking, and does so with the quasi-poetical undertones of rhythmic language and continual questioning. Questions that begin his writings resurface, are reanalyzed, and reformulated. This is the way thinking progresses. It is a circular movement, not linear. Significantly too, it is a poetic movement, and not merely philosophical. To come to the "nature of language" entails a coming around, a movement along the way which has no final definitions and no final answers. Such are the thoughtful themes taken up by Hill. The intrusion of Heidegger's philosophy into the rhythmic space of Hill's video installation is a radical interruption, perpetuating and restructuring questions of the nature of language, the nature of the relation between language and image, and the nature of video art.
To conclude this formal analysis of Hill's installation after an excursus on Heidegger's article, we may consider that what is going on amongst the clusters of monitors is a display of neighborliness. And this neighborliness is constituted primarily by and through relations between time and space, word and image. Through the recitation of Heidegger's questionings in "The Nature of Language," and through the display of terminals, disrupted and turned, Between Cinema and a Hard Place begs the viewer to place it. The attempt to define and historicize Gary Hill's "video art" becomes a difficult task as long as we are looking for its essence. The truth is relational, and Hill's work is always found "between" things.
The title of the installation itself is a self-referential questing after the nature of video. Where is Hill's video art? Between cinema and a hard place. It is always between, defined, if at all, by its edges. To come to an understanding of Hill's video art one must therefore come to an understanding of what resides at the edges of it, of understanding its neighbors. As we have seen, Hill's artistic practices are neighbors to poetry and philosophy, and therefore place it outside the traditional bounds of art history. But Hill's video art has other neighbors too, neighbors more in line with art historical investigations. Turning now to explore some of these relations, I examine the location of Gary Hill [End Page 116] within a broader history of video art and video art's closest neighbors, film and television.
—John Hanhardt 14
Like most theories of origins, video art has a mythic beginning. The creation myth many like to claim for this art form has Nam June Paik as its founder. Christine Tamblyn recounts the archaic event:In 1965, the Sony Corporation began marketing its newly developed consumer-grade portable video camera/recorder in the United States. The Korean-born artist Nam June Paik rushed out to buy a machine from the first shipment. On his way home from the store, his cab got caught in a traffic jam caused by a procession to greet Pope Paul VI, who was visiting New York. Paik made an instantaneous tape of the event, which he showed later that evening at the Cafe a Go-Go. 15
And with the creation myth comes a heterogeneous discourse of video art history. Most articles on the history of video art mention the difficulty of actually tracing it. 16 The influences, it is realized, are socio-political as much as they are artistic, and charting any sort of linear history is a near impossible task.
There is also hesitancy toward the effort at creating a history. As Martha Rosler has stated, "Historical accounts are intent on establishing the legitimacy of a claim to public history." 17 To accomplish legitimation through the act of historicizing would be to subject the "object" (here, video art) to an institution by defining the nature of the art form, what is at its essence. But institutionalization is the very thing that early video art tried to escape. Early video saw itself as a vanguard operation, offering alternatives to the static art of the museum space, as well as offering alternatives to commercial television.
Hill, I have suggested, remains clear of defining the nature of his art and providing a history (and hence a justification) of himself. Between Cinema and a Hard Place gives suggestions (beginning with the title) that it is pretending to justify and define itself, but definition quickly tumbles into the obscurity of self-referentiality and critical questioning. The installation serves to show that poetry and philosophy are as much Hill's neighbors as video art history. In a similar way perhaps, early video art was influenced by socio-political concerns as much as it was by performance or conceptual art. [End Page 117]
Intriguingly, Hill contributes verbally to the discourse of video art history in the "Video Histories" section of a survey of video art, Illuminating Video. Hill's writing is a dual-columned, poetic text entitled, "And if the Right Hand did not know what the Left Hand is doing," in which poetic musings merge with critical questions about the place of video art. Like the installation, playfulness and critical questions meet, and faint attention is paid to a definition or history of video art. Rather, as in Heidegger, history is circled, questioned, and re-questioned. Hill ends the "article" with a choice between two words, between two pages, between words and an image. On the left side the word "YES" with a playful discourse on the nature of the word "yes"; on the right side the word "NO" with a photo by Hill "in the moment a TV is turned off." 18 Is there a history? On the one hand yes, on the other no.
Like many avant-garde projects, early video art wanted to collapse art and life, "making audience and producer interchangeable." 19 With the technological apparatus in place, video art was in a better position to do so than any previous avant-garde. The tools of mass media (e.g., the Sony Portapak) were now actually available to the general public. And "as art became politically and socially engaged, the distinctions between art and communication blurred." 20 With a current of optimism regarding technology in the 1960s, video supplied a technology used by many as a new form of underground press. McLuhan's prophetic utterances about a global village (reflected literally in one early video collective in New York naming themselves "Global Village") became foreseeable when mass-distributed media was attainable.
Aside from the social implications, Paik and his Portapak entered an art world where performance art, earth art and process art were making claims. Here art was a process, not a product, as in Mel Bochner's claim not to be "making art," but "'doing' art." 21 The Dadaist's Cabaret Voltaire and early '60s performance art (e.g., Allan Kaprow's "happenings") had already begun to shift certain perspectives of art reception towards experiencing art as an event: art happened, and when it finished it could not be repeated. But with video art, the "event" of art could be recorded and immediately re-seen.
As a quasi-documentary, quasi-technological show off, Paik's original video art of the Pope hardly seems like art. But at the time, the new video technology opened up a brand new form of artistic exploration. The "gimmick" was the immediacy of the medium. Into the art world stepped an art created and given back in "real time." Gregory Battcock claims that this sense of immediacy is "commonly regarded as a major quality that has shaped the development of video art," 22 and Dan Graham considers video art to be "a present-time medium." 23 While Graham and Battcock are thinking specifically here of "live" video—with the camera turned on an event and simultaneously watched on screen in another or the same location in a closed circuit—in [End Page 118] many ways, video can be thought of as a "present-time medium" even in its quick turnaround of taping and showing (as with the Papal procession).
With a minimum of editing, the subjectivity of the artist behind the art was erased, the artist, viewer, and medium all collapsed into an event. What such immediacy provides for is precisely the sense of im-media-cy, a performance "without medium," no between. But paradoxically, and this must be accounted for, it is through the technological medium itself that this came to pass.
Hill's first forays into video art were right in line with this immediate and processual conception. In 1973, while attending the Art Students League in Woodstock, N.Y., Hill borrowed a video camera from Woodstock Community Video and began experimenting. He says that "Video allowed a kind of real time play, the possibility to 'think out loud.' Here was a process immediately accessible and seemingly a much closer parallel to thinking." 24 For a couple of years he worked at Woodstock creating video pieces. In these early videotapes Hill was already exploring the relationship between sound and image, but in keeping with the socio-political engagement of video art of the time they also contained an ecological focus. His first installation was entitled Hole in the Wall (1974) and was a real time closed-circuit loop where a monitor was set up to simultaneously display what the camera viewed. The immediate playback was the essence of the art itself.
At the beginning of his career, and throughout his later work, Hill has regarded technology as the key force that establishes his video art as a medium. While the final product may induce the viewer into an "im-mediate" contemplative space where the material nature of technology disappears, the wires on the floor of the museum are soon remembered, and the viewer becomes all too aware of the power of technology. Hill himself queries:How do the ever-increasing technological possibilities bear upon the medium? To which we might fold the question back on itself and suggest that perhaps what's called for is a loss of technology—a recognition of fallibility, and openness to the possibility that the nature of the question might only arise authentically within the cybernetic milieu of video itself—the poetics as they occur. 25
Technology and the medium of video are bound and rebound to each other so that the one cannot escape the other. For a "poetics" to occur, it may be necessary to "suspend disbelief," 26 to momentarily put aside critical reasoning, while always recalling with Heidegger that poetry and thinking are neighbors.
Technology itself becomes, in Hill's work, a medium to be worked with, a malleable substance affected by both producer and viewer. It is used to make itself disappear, but never long enough to eliminate its twin component of thought. Furthermore, as John Hanhardt states, Hill "transforms the technology of video, carting it away from the conventional categorization and usage [End Page 119] of art and television and into the intimacy of the artists' studio and imagination. . . . Hill has recovered the place of language and origins of technology in a metaphysics of techne." 27 Hill reasserts the medium of video and, as Hanhardt suggests, this is tied to technology itself as well as the "place of language."
To further comprehend the technology of Hill's video art, it is again necessary to ask after video's neighbors, in this case television and film. Within the brief following account of video's relation to television and film, I suggest that what is particularly important in these relations is the status of another relation, that of language and image. It is finally the use of language, mixed with images, that sets Hill's practices apart from other video practices. And it is through the relation of language and image that the criticality of thought merges with the poetics of the aesthetic medium.
A comparison of video with television and film will also reveal an historical progression in the development of video art. That is, early video art (roughly 1965 through the 1970s) can be (and has been) compared to television and the socio-political dimensions of mass-media. But as video matured and became established as a "legitimate" art form through the 1980s (whether it wanted to or not) it took on formal aspects which are better compared with related developments in film.
—Jacques Derrida 28Is video the nonsite of television? Is television the obscenery of reality?
—Gary Hill 29
It is perhaps television which is the nearest technological neighbor of video. Hanhardt argues thatthe body of post-1965 video art was profoundly influenced by the work of a few artists who had appropriated the television as icon and apparatus in the years preceding 1965. . . . Television (and later video) was not coded by traditional art-world categories and, like film before it, offered a new means for reproducing and transforming the world around us through recorded images. Because television was seen as a mass medium, its possibilities as a flexible electronic and real-time medium were barely explored or recognized in the years before artists gained access to a portable video technology. 30 [End Page 120]
Hanhardt especially thinks the early video of Paik (and others like the German artist Wolf Vostell) made a somewhat successful raid on the domain of corporate television, appropriating the technologies for creative image making. 31
Theorizing on this, one might speculate that in video art, as with Freud's "uncanny" (unheimlich), the familiar and the strange are contained together. The familiar is that friendly blue glow seen through windows all over the country as one walks by homes late at night. Lynn Hershman has said that "[t]elevision appeals to the quiet intimacy of one's home. Sitting relaxed in a comfortable chair and perhaps sipping a beer are part of the properties." 32 Joined to this comfortable medium is the idea that television—like much of industrial cinema and photography—banks on a notion of "realism," intriguingly defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard as art whoseobjective is to stabilize the referent, to arrange it according to a point of view which endows it with a recognizable meaning, to reproduce the syntax and vocabulary which enable the addressee to decipher images and sequences quickly, and so to arrive easily at the consciousness of his own identity as well as the approval which he thereby receives from others—since such structures of images and sequences constitute a communication code among all of them. 33
Images of realism allow easy identification and recognition by working with pre-established conditions and constructions of the world and self, ultimately leading to the passivity of the viewer (sipping his or her beer). Video art, on the other hand, does not allow such passivity. Video art is a stranger in a familiar box, the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.
Working within a culture in which commercial mass media provide the familiar rules of representation, video art has pushed through to its own rules, challenging the predominant modes of perception as practiced and presented in commercial television. Video art is familiar enough in form to be recognized by many ("Look, that's a television!" says the viewer anxious to find an object with recognizable meaning in the postmodern museum), but the content subverts the perception as if from within. Using technologies similar to commercial television, video art causes a constant resituating of the viewer-object relation; it undermines perceived notions of perspective; and, at some level, provokes a viewer's response with the viewer's own body and sense of self.
To argue this point further, and to point out one particular method video has used to accomplish this, I turn to a comparison with film, focusing on the parallel incorporation of language by both film and video. In avant-garde film a shift has been noted from modern/structuralist film to postmodern/poststructuralist film. After experiments with the image itself, 34 language has returned in "poststructural film," leading film theorist Peter Wollen to contend, [End Page 121] "Language is the component of film which both threatens to regulate the spectator, assigned a place within the symbolic order, and also offers the hope of liberation from the closed world of identification and the lure of the image." 35 As with the realism of television, film also "threatens to regulate the spectator," but with the relation of image and language comes the possibility to break out of the closed world.
Similarly, video art in the 1980s moved from an "aesthetics of boredom" (which Jameson optimistically sees "as a precious symptom of our own existential, ideological, and cultural limits" 36) to the use of "entertaining" elements in the art piece. Among others, one of these elements was a greater use of language, and even certain levels of narrative. As Michael Nash sees it, "This concern with language and particularly words in recent art video can be better understood as a fundamental shift away from fine-art formalism toward poetry's triumph of content over form." 37 It may be too much to say that poetry is a triumph of content over form, but as poetry, language does not give regulation to a spectator, nor does it assign a place within the symbolic order.
Furthermore, it is not only the language element of video art that acts poetically, but the images themselves that stir movements in the symbolic order. If language takes the form of a realistic narrative (as defined above by Lyotard), then the viewer is reaffirmed within the symbolic order and change cannot occur. But the image may likewise regulate the spectator into a singular and constant perspective, and language may provide the needed break from the lure of the image. What is involved in the art of Hill is a radical eruption within and between language and image, what Kristeva terms a "transposition" between fields: "the destruction of the old position and the formation of a new one. . . the passage from one signifying system to another demands a new articulation of the thetic." 38
The relationship between poetry and thinking for Heidegger was not a cozy, amenable relationship, and in the same way, neither is the relationship between language and image. Rather than banishing all other media and searching for a pure distillation, video art of the 1980s—like poststructural avant-garde film—brought several media together in a finished product. This combining of media, this contamination of purity and autonomy, continues the attack on realism instituted by early video art's response to commercial television, but does so in a more subversive way because it undermines the realism of both words and images. There is no place left to retreat into a lulled sense of complacency; the critical faculties of the mind are never allowed to totally shut down.
To move toward concluding my examination of Hill and his technological, philosophic, and artistic neighbors, I further consider the relation of image and language within artistic practices. As Hill developed his skill as a video maker, he also began to take notice of poetic elements. 39 When Hill met the [End Page 122] poet George Quasha in 1976, Hill's interest in language was sparked. While early experiments dealt with sound qua sound, by the late '70s this sound began to take on linguistic elements, with speech and language embodying that sound. 40
—Jacques Derrida 41
In an exhibition on Dada and Surrealist word-images, Judi Freeman makes the case for word-image relations to be seen as a particular element of the avant-garde because of their disruptive power, and "the persistent presence of language in art equally indicates that today's artists share with their Dada and surrealist counterparts the belief that often words, incorporated into visual imagery, can send multilayered messages more readily than visual imagery alone." 42 This notion is furthered by John Welchman in his article from the same exhibition:These works [Dada and surrealist artworks] sometimes exceed and sometimes deny analysis, but they always disturb it. Word-images demonstrate this disturbance with particular effectiveness, however, by virtue of their signifying not just from two codes but from two complex systems of signs: words and images. 43
Again, we are back at the Kristevan notion of transposition.
Through the recitation of a complex philosophical text by Heidegger (or Blanchot or Wittgenstein in other installations) Hill pulls both linguistic and imagistic registers together, but does not allow one to subsume the other. Within many of Hill's video artworks, the image and language coexist, working with and against each other, constantly challenging the static perspectives of the symbolic order. And this is done through use of images and words which are already diverse and disruptive in their own fields.
If, as Foucault states, "the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation," 44 then Hill's video art may extend the relation even further; the determinate message and meaning of the artwork never finalizable, never brought to a close. One may read the language, but the images disrupt; one may read the images, but the language disrupts. Once caught in the web of relations in video artworks like Hill's, closure seems impossible. Hill states that [End Page 123] "although my art is based on images, I am very much involved in the undermining of those images through language." 45 And when Hill uses self-questioning texts like Heidegger or Blanchot in his video, he is also questioning the place of language.
Gary Hill's video art responds to a plethora of influences stemming from such diverse fields as television, conceptual art, performance art, cinema, linguistic philosophy (Wittgenstein), metapoetry (George Quasha), and Continental literature (Blanchot). Within a singular artwork like Between Cinema and a Hard Place, several of these fields come together to form an unstable dialogue revolving around a particular problem, in this case the place and history of video art. Furthermore, these fields are incorporated into particular media—i.e., moving images, still images, spoken words, printed language—which [End Page 124] multiply the dialogue's implications. It turns, as I have suggested, into Bateson's notion of a "metalogue."
And these fields are not simple harmonious neighbors making "clumsy borrowings from each other." 46 Neighbors they are with particular relations between them, but their relation disrupts the stable given order when two or more get together. Every interaction leaves the other permanently changed. And it is precisely at this point that Hill's artistic practice singles itself out from both philosophy and video art. His practices do contribute to philosophy (and do not just borrow from it), but they do so using video images and therefore disrupting an otherwise linguistic field. But his practice also contributes to the visual arts, specifically video art, yet disrupts this order as well through the transposition of philosophy and poetry into an otherwise visual field. Reiterating the quote from Derrida given above (p. 110), Hill's art is "irreplaceable, but irreplaceable among other irreplaceables, other unique effects of signature, even if it puts to work many other things, many other 'arts' that have nothing to do with video. . . ." 47 Hill's place as a video artist is unique, and he is set apart from other unique video artists.
Image: (Production stills): Roni Mocán
Text: Jessica Lagunas Writing About Para besarte mejor The Better to Kiss You With & Artist Statement
New York, 2003
Single-channel digital video
57 minutes 48 seconds
Digital C-Prints, 16” x 20” each