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Black Boxes and Art in Time and Motion
Marina Benjamin on an Kate Meynell's Eat and vampire s eat for the catologue of an group exhibition held at Kettles Yard, Cambridge 1992

To claim our age as the age of video has a ring to it that is faintly ridiculous; it fails to resonate with the kind of 'new world' possibilities that are elicited by the mere mention of microchips or superconductors. Video technology has been a victim of its own functional success - a success that has allowed it to be tamed and domesticated, removed far from the cutting edge of scientific discovery. The video now comfortably takes its place in consumer culture beside the washing machines, televisions, hi-fis and other sundry electricals at Rumbelows. Even its magical power as generator of illusions has been harnessed to serve the fantasies of a mass culture hungry for escape from the mundane world. A genuine living-room opiate, it pacifies and mollifies, sugaring rather than sweetening our daily lives.

Because video is overwhelmingly identified with the pulp end of mass culture using it creatively is almost by definition to subvert. The domestication of video has thus lent video art a revolutionary edge that throws the medium back on itself and makes the familiar unfamiliar. When video art was in its infancy it suffered all the restrictions of novelty; the new can shock and challenge but it cannot circumscribe meaning. When video artists made installations that deconstructed the medium they ran all too often into the limitations of self-conscious self -ref erentiality and obsession with the technology. The domestication of video by contrast has given video art an 'Other' against which to define itself, a context to address even through denial, and a culture to reclaim.

The video installations in this exhibition reappropriate video from the mass-market by denying us our culturally-determined expectations of the medium. They disturb and disorientate by making us aware of the illusions we crave; by using multiple monitors they offer us fragmentation where we expect unity; and their repetitive loops of concept-led imagery tease us with non- narrative sequences where we expect a story. Each of the three installations deftly weaves multiple view points and multiple contexts into a thematic unity that is truly postmodern because it is heterogeneous. In Frankensteinian fashion they forsake the integrity of the whole for a creation hewn from disparates with its sutures still visible.

Forging a further link between video art and postmodernism the artists fully exploit the power of video to violate the disciplinary categories of traditional art. They all contain classical elements; Monika Oechsler tackles portraiture, Katharine Meynell takes on still life and Judith Goddard negotiates abstract art. Yet they all remould these elements in time and motion - an alternative context that allows portraits to depict shifting identities, still life to accommodate movement and abstract art to form a backdrop for the intermittent intrusion of precise form. Continuing in iconoclastic vein the exhibition nurtures video art's potential to undermine the Romantic myth of the artist as spontaneous creator. The solid presence of video monitors make visible what is generally concealed in art, namely, the manufacturing process. The monitors draw attention to the cultural and technological components of art; they enable, mediate and communicate the artist's vision; they are part of the art and simultaneously artifact; they sculpt the spatial terrain of the installations for which they are vehicles and they insist that the artist's relation to the art is that of director rather than creator. In one fell swoop Classical ideals and Romantic deification of creative genius are put to bed.

Monika Oechsler

Monika Oechsler's contribution to the exhibition, In the House of Love, plays on the physicality of the video monitor as part of its exploration of gender, identity and desire. The five video monitors each featuring a talking head are encased in human-sized aluminium covers. They are literally embodied. The cold reflective surfaces of the metallic cases conjure up images of coffins or body freezers thus nipping in the bud any tendency to anthropomorphise the monitor-case entities. What they conceal is not life, but death, hollowness and void. Reality lies in the surface alone, stylised and polished. Only a ghost lies in the machine.

The characters on the four central monitors engage in a verbal game of free association that points to the problems of communication between the sexes and reveals men's struggle to maintain the social and sexual order in the game of life. The intrusion of images of one of the women blindfolded and spinning, graphically portrays women's resistance to comply with fixed notions of femininity. Woman is decentered, forever orbiting her own identity, her non- linear path always bringing her back to herself. The blindfold signifies the disenfranchisement of women within a culture that defines them as unseeing objects of the male gaze. Blindness is represented as a metaphoric death to which women are condemned. Indeed the glass-encased blind person's stick can be construed as a memento mori. The House of Love reverberates with intimations of death, execution, victimisation and suppressed violence that find explicit expression in the body - target. The intrusion of images of the men in shooting glasses and earphones signify the veiling of voyeurism and a masculine refusal to listen. The audio-visual miscommunication, heightened by the strobing and freeze-framing of the characters, serves to question the ability of words to embody meaning and the adequacy of the body as the container of identity.

The board game designs painted on one-way mirrors suspended from the ceiling of The House of Love complement the verbal repartee. They echo the undercurrents of competition, risk and power struggle between the characters, as well as hinting that playing by the rules has a domestic analogue in the oppressive rule of the father. Since rules are made to be broken the game hints at the possibility of transgression and rebellion.

The fifth monitor occupies a recessed space of its own, a pride of place, reserved for screening the 'judge' who lays down the law. As law giver and patriarch he is outside the fray. His authority, like the rule of the father, is distanced, elevated and beyond question. The identification between man, father and law giver becomes disturbingly clear when the 'judge' undresses. His threatening presence shifts from the institutional to the personal domain, from the apparel of the law to the naked body of the man. His reading of a death sentence seems to hold in check any temptation to break the rules of the game. The House of Love is a contested space at the level of the real and imaginary. It embraces the private sphere of domesticity, sexuality and desire while the public sphere of law and order fights for squatters' rights.

Katharine Meynell

Katharine Meynell's Eat Video is extraordinarily powerful at a gut level, indeed it is centrally concerned with all that is visceral, carnal and illicit in the world of flesh and sexuality. Meynell uses the symbolic power of food to contrast the rituals of cleanliness and formality that attend the preparation and display of food, evoking images of the protective mother, with the taboo connections between food, flesh and contamination. The dinner table wall projection is eloquent in its formality, dishes are neatly laid on white cloth, all is pure. This is the realm of manners and taste, of bourgeois codes of behaviour and politesse. As the little girl skips across the table, picking at the foods, the viewer senses that a transgression is occurring, that the untouchable is being touched. As innocence personified, the girl is blissfully unaware of overstepping an invisible line; the tension arises because her presence alerts the viewer to their own hypocrisy, to their everyday denials of the visceral and sexual resonances of food.

Facing away from the projection these carnal connections are made explicit. Five monitors foreground the five dishes in the projection against a background that teases out their metaphoric connotations. Some are overtly sexual, others more textured. The sweet potato resting on a folded pile of laundry overlays images of fast-moving trains and highlights a contrast between the homely, feminine aesthetic of domestic quietude and the relentless, hard and fast pace of the public sphere identified as masculine by the train-phallus. On another monitor a bottle of sterilised milk is ringed by brain-like walnuts as if to enhance milk's promise to nourish growth. Behind this a child attempts to pull out a milk tooth - the first rite of initiation into adulthood - and bloodies its mouth. Blood and milk become synonymous as vital juices of life and growth.

The naturalistic soundtrack, uncomposed and discordant, is particularly provocative in vampire s eat. As the viewer approaches, a seemingly innocuous chair, sounds of slurping and squelching can be heard. These are the sounds made by a mouth licking and sucking the glass screen of a small monitor sunk into the seat of the chair. The inarticulate lips that mouth no words, that literally speak in tongues, confront us with the zero of nothingness and remind us of the silencing of women in patriarchal culture. When the mouth becomes bloodied, the symbolism begins to operate at a more primal level; instead of desiring rational speech, the mouth seems simply to hunger. The need to consume, to ingest, carries sexual overtones; woman as blood-sucker, lamia and castrator of men are all prefigured. The mouth becomes confused with the vagina and anus. vampires eat is a groping but not grasping seat of unlearning.

Judith Goddard

Judith Goddard's meditation on light and vision, Descry is a highly aesthetic installation resplendent in colour. Her arc of seven monitors are awash with the visible end of the electromagnetic spectrum. The seven colours of the rainbow flood the screens from corner to corner, and bleed into one nother - a process that reminds us that colour is not in the eye of the beholder but a function of the transformative power of light; it is a matter of wave lengths. The arc of monitors cup a lone monitor on which an eye operation is screened. The operation involves replacing the eye's own lens with an artificial lens, Diopta 23. This allusion to man's ability to imitate nature is reinforced by the presence of a glass lens suspended in front of the monitor. The installation reveals how technology can not only re-create the process of seeing but also light itself, bringing to mind Keats' complaint that Enlightenment Newtonian optics destroyed the mystery of the rainbow. The title of the installation is germane to its visual play. To descry means to catch sight of, to dimly discern; etymologically it has less in common with scientific observation than with scrying, that is, crystal ball gazing. A dialectic between the scientific gaze and mystical vision, between vision and visionaries, is intelligently exploited. The soundtrack which features a woman humming the Japanese Cherry Tree Song adds to the mystical feel of the piece, the woman's presence is unmistakable yet ethereal, her ghostly presence is in spirit not body. Her feminine voice echoes deeply ingrained cultural associations of light with purity, spirituality and goodness, and implies a darkness hiding ignorance and evil under the cover of night.

Goddard has managed to contain a great deal of analytic, almost scientific, content within an installation that retains a holistic, 'close-to-nature' atmosphere. Lest the viewer is lulled into mistaking artifice for nature, she has introduced humorous and ironic elements into the piece which return the viewer to an awareness of experiencing an illusion. Feathers and gold leaf blow across the screens, images of exploding fireworks make a periodic appearance, even a fish swims along the arc of monitors.

To conclude I want to reflect on the obdurate, opaque and inscrutable physical presence of the video technology, particularly in view of the customary identification of science and technology as masculine. In reality this identification is beyond dispute, the world of science is male-dominated - the laboratory as a sanctum of masculinity has only recently been infiltrated by professional female scientists - and the power of technology has been aligned with men's attempts to preserve man-made meanings in a man-made world, most disastrously with the manufacturing of the atomic bomb. Yet in the realm of the symbolic the video lends itself to another interpretation which can be clarified, ironically, by a scientific analogy: the black box. The term black box, aside from being an apt description of the video, is used by cyberneticians to designate items of machinery or sets of commands that are too complex. A black box is something about which the scientist need not bother his head, save from knowing the input and output. Only the input and output count. Like Pandora he has learnt not to open the box. The black box model lends video technology an unknown quantity by mystifying the image-generating process within. In the realm of the imaginary the video becomes an incubator, a feminised womb-like space nurturing creativity. But more importantly the black box model enables us to side-step issues of technology by giving us license to concentrate on its output, in this case the art of video installations.

Marina Benjamin
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