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David Hall

By Sean Cubitt


There is a school of thought that black and white photography gives somehow a more satisfyingly realistic picture of the world, and though video still struggles to achieve the density of image of a 35mm frame (let alone that of large-format photography), it shares something of that realism.

It is as if the machinery of video seems too simple, too direct, to be capable of lying. Instead, when it lies, it tells you so, like a child trying to act a part - one thinks here of Wegman's Selected Video Works, especially the singing torso. But like the child, monochrome was very self-conscious, a quality that returns throughout David Hall's work in the medium.

When, after working through his earlier video works, you come to This is a Television Receiver, there is a sudden burst of colour that asks what is (or what was) monochrome as a TV format? Now it is obsolete as a broadcast medium, what were its virtues? What precisely was its materiality for those decades when monochrome was television? Maybe it's too soon, or more likely it's already too late to quiz the black and white image, and maybe it always was painted the colours of imagination. But then again, describing those earlier images as 'black and white' is a polite fiction. There was no video black at all back then (and many argue there still is not), but a palette of soft and softer grays.


Consider the specificity of Hall's Vidicon Inscriptions of 1974 and 1975. Chip cameras no longer give us comet tails, and the burn of a flare of light on the old tube cameras has gone.

But here preserved are the traces of ghostings, perhaps most poignantly in the installation documents where the mugging of participants is at once improvisationally real and yet caught already in a moment simultaneously of capture and decay. The work is about the materiality of the screen technologies of the day, for sure. It is also, especially in retrospect, an elegy for the passing of time - the time of the gesture as it fades from the screen, the time of technologies that have their moment and pass away. Shakespeare's Sonnets promised immortality: more realistically, these records promise ephemerality. Their conception of the moving image as always and necessarily on the brink of death - of becoming nature morte, the oxymoronic 'still life'. For Hall, in these pieces, the moving image and the kind of technologically latent 'pause' effected in their inscriptions seize life indeed, but drain it too. This elegant paradox only shows itself to be the more significant, the more manufacturers labour to remove such artefacts from new generations of machine.

Like most of Hall's installations, this is a theatrical piece in the sense established in the art critic Michael Fried's 1967 attack on minimalism. For Fried art that set up the artwork as an object, as sculptors like Donald Judd were doing, was theatrical because it addressed a spectator in a particular situation, because it subordinated the art to the audience. Most of all, unlike the abstract painters he admired, it was because for Fried the experience of minimalist objects persisted in time. Fried is not wrong in his description, only in his evaluation. He liked an art of instantaneousness and shape - a timeless art, and one addicted to space. Hall, without abandoning space, is never therefore ready to abandon duration.


The Situation Envisaged (1978), A Situation Envisaged : The Rite (1980) and A Situation Envisaged: The Rite II (Cultural Eclipse) (1988/90) all work very much in time, even though they present us at first with a monolithic sculptural presence of almost totalitarian proportions.

Yet the remnants of signification that stream from behind the black quarter-circle plinth in the earliest version, out of the henge-like circle of the second, and the black pillar in the third not only float with the penumbral ephemerality of the aurora; they leave their own inscriptions, but this time stripped away from the corporeality that earlier works still registered. Now this inscription too fades away, but leaves an enhanced sense of what is possible, what else can be done. The work exists only for its spectator, as a theatrical moment, to the extent that it is a situation in which the art is not somehow inside the artwork, but exists in the domain between the work and the beholder, never entirely the property of either.

This is not to say the work is interactive - it isn't - or even merely open to interpretation, - which every artwork is. In his essay Fried criticised any work of art that did not contain in itself the reasons why it is so and not otherwise, whose reasons, indeed, subsisted to some extent outside itself, in the way it manifested in space and especially in time. Just as the Television Interruptions of 1971 and 1993 required television as the place in which they were installed, and the television receiver as the place where they were witnessed, so the Situation Envisaged series demand their place and time. A photograph, even a video of the installations are merely documents, and to that extent perhaps instantaneous: the works themselves are interruptions of empty homogenous time, empty homogenous space, interruptions in the time of viewing, art as interruptions of art.

While some early video work - that associated with the journal Radical Software for example - was anti-television, Hall was part of a longer and deeper involvement with broadcast, to which The Situation Envisaged, A Situation Envisaged: The Rite and the later work A Situation Envisaged: The Rite II (Cultural Eclipse) (1988-90) belong. This practice of involving the viewer in acts and moments - situations - runs through the interactions of Vidicon Inscriptions and Progressive Recession, in which CCTV cameras directed viewers not to the screen in front of them but to another displaced, from which they would be referred to another and another. To return to Fried, the purpose of such actions is not to engage the viewer in contemplation of a closed object whose meaning and sensation are already completed within the work. On the contrary, it is to suggest that there are other situations inside or alongside television where television can be otherwise - and that to travel there is more exciting for the audience because each individual work is only ever the beginning of another vector away from broadcast.


Which is what in some sense I take to be the burden of Hall's 1990 commission for Channel 4, Stooky Bill TV, that wry dialogue between John Logie Baird and his dummy ('Stooky', by the way, comes from corn stooks, and refers to the way Bill's hair stood up on end).

As Stooky Bill gradually opens up the vista of a television entirely devoted to himself, the doubling commences. Maybe we already have a TV run by and containing only dummies? Or maybe we have let the dour Scotsman's technical rationality rule the roost too long, and should devote ourselves to a fantastical television? But the doubling also runs between the video tape on which it plays and the mechanical Baird televisor reconstruction on which it was made, with its characteristic vertical scanlines intersecting with the horizontal scans of electronic TV.

Was Stooky Bill, the phantom presence of the lost mechanical television principle, driven out as surely as Baird was by EMI in the competition to establish a national standard for broadcasting? Were both Baird's utopian communitarianism and Bill's poetry of the imagination binned in favour of the instrument of persuasion that TV was to become for governments at first, and then for corporations? And what of the ventriloquising of Stooky Bill, who is never referred to as speaking in the standard histories of television? What of the actor playing the unseen Baird? How does this 1990 performance exist in relation to the meticulous reconstruction of the old technology? Unlike the image it is clearly recorded on modern equipment, a disjuncture as radical as any of the more clearly stated ones in the Television Interruptions. The lip-synching of Bill, dependent on an extra generosity on the part of the audience for whom Bill is already only visible by an act of kindness, is one of the illusions which Richard Baker has already denounced for us in his script for This is a Television Receiver (1976). Like the monochrome tape which it replaced, and the monochrome broadcast whose end it celebrates in suitably ironic notes, the vertical 30-line scan of the televisor is a technology already gone under earth's lid.

And yet even this hyper-illuminated dummy, flattened by the brilliance of the lights even before being smeared across the screen, attains a kind of depth when broadcast by Channel 4 in the UK.

The heavy glass of the old screen under the lighter perspex of the new one is disseminated across a million receivers. This depth is only apparently spatial, however, because what in fact creates the gap is the time between Baird's Soho experiment of 1925 and the banality of late night TV in the UK in 1990. The possibility of another television, a road not taken, a parallel world in which Baird won the BBC contract and Stooky Bill was as famous as Mickey Mouse? The sheer clarity of the actors' voices builds a bridge between the two times, a flavour of historical reconstruction. Ears are far less forgiving than eyes when it comes to illusion. But then again, Stooky Bill's point is that illusion is in any case the condition of television: the only real illusion is to believe that it is anything else.


What is so interesting about the trajectories taken in David Hall's work is that already by the 1970s it had gone beyond the neo-conceptualism that fills the art collectors galleries.

The lessons of minimalism that Fried described so accurately, even if he valued them wrongly, moved with Hall's video work towards questions as rich with ambiguities as Duchamp's Fountain, moving beyond the art-for-art's-sake nirvana of the 'neo' into a questioning of the practices and functions of both video and television. In tune too with the traverse between minimalism and the counterculture, Hall was always prepared to accept the game of illusion if it is the only game in town. He uses it for art in his early sculptures and in the film Vertical (1969), and watches it roll through the logical permutations of its self-presentation in This is a Televison Receiver. Among the later TV Interruptions, contexTV recites once more Magritte's 'ceci n'est pas une pipe', for all its commercial-art thinness still an iconic statement of modernity. The crux has always been the meaning of 'ceci', the 'this' of 'this is not a pipe'. Is it the written statement or the painting? Or is it in some way the model from which it was painted? The question of being - of how things are, in what ways they exist for themselves and for us - is one of the two great questions at the core of philosophy West and East. The other is, what is the good life: what is virtue, how should we live together, what are our responsibilities, how can we live well? Mostly the two questions are kept apart. But in Hall's works the problems of being and perception, their endless paradoxes, their endless renewals of possibility are themselves the form of the good life. A life is good that's spent contemplating these things. But even more so, investigating being and illusion, absence, disappearance, forgetting, erasure and traces, is a way of understanding that this real life is not the only life, and that a better or at least a different one lies alongside it, the depth of the screen away.


The thought moves through that iconic tape This is a Television Receiver.

In many instances it will have been seen on a video display unit rather than a TV, as a recording rather than as broadcast. It casts an assertion that has the partial validity of a historical document: true at the time, in the way that it was once possible to say 'television is black and white'. But what is the 'this' of the title? And how does it manage to speak in the present tense and in the positive, where Magritte was constrained to use the negative? Not once, but three times, as the image is re-recorded from an oblique angle, the 'this' changes, from a hard close up, rather closer than usual on British TV of the time, to a visibly distorted view which nonetheless brings out the curvature of the screen. Finally it changes to a distortion reminiscent of some of the Vasulka's electronic manipulations, though achieved entirely by analogue means. The final 'this' is perhaps the one that most effectively suggests that 'this' is the machine on which you are watching. It loops back to the initial intervention, with the well-known broadcaster and his voice, so closely associated with the authoritative version of the news from the BBC, in the colours that had been available only to those investing in colour sets for a mere eight years. That colour too would eventually shift out of the red, green and blue towards a patchwork of white highlights, near-black shadows, and a narrow range of browns. This suggests the clumsiness of a colour palette itself, incapable of capturing real light (true 'blue' for example is too close to the edge of human sight, and so too dim to work on TV screens) but all too readily accepted as accurate. That palette would be on display differently in Hall's Situation series as radiant and inexplicable light divorced from the work of picturing. What Television Receiver does to prepare the ground is to quiz the capacity for meaning of the ordinary broadcast, and at the same time to reveal the work that goes into making it, if not possible, nonetheless functional.

For the fact is that the image does signify, despite everything we think we know about it. A physicist of my acquaintance once told me that the only explanation for the functioning of a cathode ray tube was that we live in the one of all the possible universes in which an electron fired at the screen arrives at its destination. Like video artist Nam June Paik distorting his receivers with magnets, Hall reconditions the video image as a product of unique possibilities, unmapped opportunities, alternative histories and multiple universes. As the image floats free of its anchorage in the apparent screen, taking on geometries of its own, other spaces open, just as other temporalities do. In this pictorial world, not even the fact of death is enough to quell the proliferation of other ways of being.

Sean Cubitt's most recent books are The Cinema Effect and EcoMedia, he teaches at the University of Waikato, Aotearoa, New Zealand where he lives with his agoraphobic dog.

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