The 1990s is undoubtedly a watershed period for video art. The close relations between video and “television” ever since the inception of videos, was beginning to collapse at this moment, and the projected image came in and started to take over with its extensive application. From Documenta 9 in 1992 onwards, projection works began to appear in considerably large numbers at international exhibitions. The more “cinematic” experience they offered presented a challenge to earlier modes of video art, and compelled art critics, curators, and institutions to reconfigure the outllooks of moving image art. However, the sudden rise of projections also caused a lot of controversies and debates, especially surrounding the new aspects of “public-ness” and “entertainment” that projection engendered with its “advantages”—the flexibility of scale, the ability to fit with the architectures and the spaces, and its unparalleled immersive viewing conditions—what’s experienced in exhibitions thus went far beyond the reach of what monitor-based single-channel videos or video installations had been able to provide. On the other hand, the “traditions” of videos were also greatly challenged. The“utopian dimension” that video had long stood for—its “anti-media” and anti-ideological hegemony practices, and imbued with self-referentiality its explorations of subjectivity—all performed through its application of a unique “feedback” mechanism, gradually came to be superseded by the fictional and the illusory inherent to projections. Lying entangled behind the “hard” monitor and the “soft” light of the projection, are confrontations of conflicting matters—of concepts and narratives, of materiality and de-materiality, of the “white cube” and the “black box”, among many others.
Yet the adoption of projection in contemporary art is definitely a “good thing” if seen in light of its being the medium of cinema. Museum has come to be a new base for cinema to retrace its own history and explore its possible futures. “Gallery-based cinema” has preserved the legacies of cinema through adopting the form of projection, and in depriving it of its supposedly enclosed “media specificity” it was brought into dialogues and confrontations with other media on site of the exhibitions, and it has henceforth produced a more “hybrid” form of contemporary cinema. Nevertheless, when observed from another perspective, it shall be acknowledged that the overpowering apparatus of cinema is bound to cast a “shadow” as it disperses and pervades In a round-table discussion entitled The Projected Image in Contemporary Art, Hal Foster proposed that the prevalence of films in contemporary art has led to a “reformatting” of various other practices. In here lies a possible point of action for us to go in the “opposite direction”,which makes the point of departure for the exhibition Anti-Projection—we’ll rewind it back to the time before projection, and thereby to retrace certain key features of “classic” video aesthetics.
Admittedly, the legacies of video art have largely come to be left behind. Granted the term is nonetheless carried along and video goes on to interact with other media forms in developing new subject matters. Yet precisely due to none other than this very fact of its continuous standing as being “present” that the distinctive discourse and history of video art per se either gets seriously undermined or fades into the obscure backdrop when integrated into new practices. This particular situation may be attributed to various contributing factors, namely the updating and becoming obsolete of the technologies, the changing and transforming media environment, and the museums’ tending towards becoming more and more “industrialized”, etc. The dynamical, informational and material bases upon which video art came into being (i.e., cybernetics, analog technology, and monitors) seem to be making their “withdrawal” from our everyday world, which therefore seems to account for the waning away of classic video aesthetics—since at the end of the day, its radicality has fallen in the current era of the digital and the Internet. Just as now more often than not we come to substitute the term “moving image” for video—at one end this has certainly helped clarify certain misconceptions, and effectively holds with integrity the overwhelmingly labyrinthic and intricate phenomena across the field, while at the other end the term “moving image” as used here would be far from being “impartial”–given that in its coming from the Deleuzian theoretical context, the coinage of “moving image” is primarily rooted in “cinematicity”, and has rather little to do with whether Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon or Marshall McLuhan. As is widely acknowledged, video has its basis in television—assumedly cinema’s “competitor”. And its “ontological” ground involves a closed-circuit system: basically, a television station that feeds a never-ending streaming, a TV set that receives real-time signals, and as well a VCR which supports instantaneous replays and re-recordings. For many scholars, the power of video lies in none other than its being the terminator of the cinematic modernist dream, and superseded it with a model of discontinuity, heterogeneity, and chaos, as Rosalind Krauss pointed out: video “could not be theorized as coherent or conceived of as having something like an essence or unifying core… it proclaimed the end of medium specificity.” In other words, as a born “post-medium” art, video resists any theorized “ontological” delineation. According to Fredric Jameson, as Postmodernism’s most distinctive art, video blocks its own theorization, and this blockage has in its own right become the one and only theory –meaning that video is to great extent a “tactical” art.
The tactic of videos extend in two directions: on the one hand, it relates to the social, the ideological, and the communication effects, as in the “anti-television” practices of the early video art groups, or as one may refer to David Joselit’s brilliant treatise in which video is seen in light of the “feedback” effect in the commodity-network of the capitalist system . At the other end of the spectrum is a tactic which engages with an inherent logic of video, namely its “narcissistic” attribute. This classic claim has been most enduring ever since it was first put forward. And Krauss, with exceeding eloquence, read video as a “psychological mechanism” rather than a physical one: the artist’s body is “bracketed” in between the two machines (the VCR and the monitor) which have the courses of recording and playing concur. As “mirror-reflection” operates, the separateness between that of the internal and the external‘s vanquished, and the distinction between the subject and the object gets effectively dissolved. The Other is henceforth transformed unto the Self. Works embracing this Lacanian self-encapsulation, or say, self-referentiality, carry on well into these days, and here video assumes its “psychic” power, generating a site of spacetime fusion amidst the images, sounds, and bodies all in refractions of one another, and providing the individual with its “doppelgänger” in the sense of the psychoanalytic.
However, in the latter half of the essay, Krauss came up with three “exceptional” logics tangential to what was just discussed, one of which is the “installation forms of video which use the medium as a sub-species of painting or sculpture”. Drawing on the early practices of Peter Campus, Krauss aligned these works with Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings, and furthermore with minimalist sculptures, proposing that these constitute a body of work which engages with the audiences’ perceptions, making them acutely aware of the illusory pictorialism in which they are caught. However, Krauss nonetheless still regarded this as but a “psychoanalytic strategy”. As a matter of fact, Krauss’ s reading of video has always been rather neglective of the part that’s played by the installation per se, and the over-emphasis placed on the psychoanalytic lineage of video has led to her constant reduction of the setting into but a “mirroring” situation. And seen within this context, what’s essentially material of video thus gets merely considered as the psychologistic mechanism ensured or extended. In effect, the video installation/sculpture happens to be the very medium capable of joining the two fundamental tactics discussed above: within the field it generated, the body inside of the image interacts with the viewer on the outside, and the site is therefore no longer a private space, instead, it is converted into an involving, open, and communicative public space.
Video installations/sculptures cannot be seen as a product developed out of the single-channel videos—since they are not. As a matter of fact, its point of departure was in as early as the very first days of the emergence of the particularly heterogeneous, comprehensive and entangled artistic field to which it is part of. It can be found in Nam June Paik’s 1968 TV Chair, and later the same year in Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider’s Wipe Cycle. Gillette named the latter as a “video mural” constituted of nine television sets, in which the viewers would see live images of themselves intercepted with pre-recorded TV broadcasts. Overall, this piece embodies no longer just one single mirror image, besides inviting the viewers to enter the process of a certain interactive “liveness”, it attempts to display compounded mirror images, or namely the “mirror mural” model. Another illustrious example would be David Hall’s celebrated 60 TV Sets in the year 1972, and the subsequent installation of its upgraded version 101 TV Sets (1975) in the Serpentine Gallery’s The Video Show (1975) delivered the entire space into the state of a quasi “house of mirrors “. In various cases, we keep finding ourselves encountering the TV sets/monitors employed as sculptural constituents. Not only do they function as image generating devices, but also are “facilitated” as “building blocks”, which can be constantly disassembled and (re)assembled. While at the same time their looks and designs, the ways in which they could be combined and fitted, as well as their very relations with the architecture are placed and explored within the mediated experiences of the media in these works on the whole.
Video installations/sculptures are based on the basic forms of the everyday media appliances such as the TV sets/monitors. As these forms, be it of an electric appliance or of a piece of furniture, are adopted, the artists yet attempt to block the image-machine aspect of these “ready-mades”. As (it) is pointed out by the scholar Margaret Morse:
While video installation as a form is not directly related to or dependent on the institution and apparatus of television, it is just as hard to imagine the art form as it is to imagine the contemporary world without television. Not only do we live surrounded by images, our built environment and even our natural world has largely passed through image-culture before rematerializing in three-dimensional space. Thus, though they completely overpower the art form in size and reach, television broadcasting, cable, and the videocassette as usually consumed are each but one kind of video installation that is reproduced over and over again in a field of open and otherwise unrealized possibilities. The materialization of other possible apparatuses allows us to imagine alternatives and thus provides the Archimedean points from which to criticize what we have come to take for granted.
Video installations/sculptures, evidently, are among the alternatives inferred to. In fitting TV sets/monitors into new physical modes (“video murals”, ”video frescoes”, “video reliefs”, “kinesthetic paintings”, etc.) so as to distinct themselves from the original functions of the devices, they gained a strong “presence” in the “reality” space. This kind of presence differs from the enclosure built up by the single-channel or the two-channel works in that it highlights inviting the viewers to enter the “here” and “now,” and hereby the experiences involve not only the images and their contents, but as well all the formative elements like colors, lines, and lights, etc. The visuals and the audios here function as but surfaces or “passageways” in bringing the body into a kinesthetic system constituted of various ontological planes, namely the spatial, the temporal, and the material. In fact, video installation shared the same course of development as that of the “sculpture in the expanded field ” from this period in its pursuit of a “performative” mechanism which involves the subject. Within this mechanism, to the TV sets or to any other objects in the works are attached some material texture, be it of an “imaginative” , “alternative” or “conceptual” nature. This texture makes a clear “manifesto”: not only is it to resist the pictorialism of the two-dimensional visual field, but it’s also to reflect on the mass image culture in the sense of the communication studies.
Wu Meichun, a curator who played a significant part in the early Chinese video art, while discussing the 1996 exhibition Image and Phenomena in an interview, relates:
Back then in 1996, video art was indeed the only (possible) thing. It was a time when almost all the artists working in the field of video art hung around in a relatively small circle in which people knew and had influences on each other‘s practices. Add to this the fact that people were generally working with poor technical support, and opportunities for exhibits were seriously lacking—it’s no over-exaggeration to say that video shorts enjoyed close to no possibilities of being exhibited. There was neither any film festival for shorts nor would they be picked up by public TV stations. Yet for video installations, they were actually able to enjoy a few opportunities to be shown in exhibitions amongst other installation works.
Wu’s words actually testify to the kind of “particularity” of video installations back then: arguably, it could be said that video installations then were rather differed from “video shorts”, and were on more intimate terms with installation art, or one could say that they were received by the art system under the category of installations. The scenario as is reflected here is worth chewing over. Chinese video art of the 1990s was still in its early stage, very limited in its number of participants and of works produced, not to mention that artists then very often had no more accesses to relevant information than through catalogues brought in from overseas, and could only come to build their understanding of this moving image art through texts and images. Even under circumstances as such, works and practices then still were abundant with a variety of artistic endeavors both experimental and adventurous in nature. The twenty-year lag behind the West did not intimidate or bound the artists, instead, their attempts to surpass in this set-up what had come beforehand were inspired and fueled up. It was precisely in this “twilight zone” state of confusions, and in the absence of any clear or self-evident lineage, and nonetheless in its fearless march forward that video installation gained an edge over single-channel video in obtaining a more immediate space to carry out its agenda and fulfill its ambitions. The transition of Chinese video art from single channel to multi-channel and video installation was remarkably short. In the case of Zhang Peili, for instance, briefly afterwards having produced three all richly performative pieces (30×30 , Hygiene No.3 [ 1991], Water—Standard Version from the Ci Hai Dictionary ), Zhang realized Children’s Playground (1992), the very first multi-channel video piece in Chinese video art history. Despite the extremely limited resources at their disposal—the lack of equipment, the shortage of funds, and the technological lag—artists working with video art had overcome all kinds of difficulties, and set out to build relatively complex systems in their attempts to reflect the media and social environment they were surrounded with. In Anti-Projection, discrete works answer to this theme.
In Zhang Peili’s Assignment No. 1 (1992) and as well in Focal Distance (1996), a large number of monitors are lined up to construct a linear structure that appears as highly “rational”. The superimposed, the gradated, and the progressive relations between the images are like ratiocinations and analysis of reality, while the industrialized looks of the TV monitors (i.e. the highly uniformed contours and colorings ) also strongly add to this “sense of order.” This emphasis laid on regulations is reminiscent of a series of highly conceptual paintings and installations of Zhang in the 1980s. In Assignment No.1, the post-production after-effects through computer processing of the recorded procedure of blood sampling betrays a “painterly ” abstraction. This can also be found in Focal Distance, featuring eight monitors respectively appointed to display simultaneously the following: the original footage, the video obtained from a shooting at this footage, and successively six videos each as well a video of the prior video—acquired from the same shooting process repeated. Eventually the street scene as seen in the original footage becomes so blurred that no more concrete forms are still discernible on the screen beyond black and white blocks of abstraction. One may here recall Stephen Partridge’s notable piece Monitor (1975), yet other than the application of a “pseudo-realtime” to achieve a “tautological” effect as in Patridge’s case, Zhang Peili engaged the “non-realtime” to illustrate the generation mechanism of video images: the original image appears as in a monitoring perspective, yet as the camera captures the recorded and displayed images the same way it would work to capture “reality”, the time in reality is henceforth brought into the time system of the video circuits, and reality is thereby “gradually reduced” into a sheer image absolute, with the “monitoring” effect also thoroughly dissolved. The repetitious moves in adhering to certain sets of instructions or rules here do not necessarily bring about homogeneity, but rather total differentiation. Similar to that as in Assignment No.1, resolutions are here applied as more like some particular kind of “paint” or a material substance, caught in the process of performing regular self-erasure implemented by concepts. These two works as discussed above are both expressive of Zhang Peili’s consistent attitude towards materials in his practices: whether it’s the texture of an image or if it’s the contour of the material constituent, it could only gain legitimacy in a spacetime of the conceptual, and hence to be granted a stage on which it may draw the spotlight.
Differed from the works of Zhang Peili, Chen Shaoxiong’s Seesaw (1994) deliberately carries out a critical “assemblage” of reality—three television sets and a gun are allegorically put together, transmitting signals of anxiety, alertness and instability behind a seemingly “integrated” state—yet the gesture is a provocative one, A fluorescent tube on which the flickering words ”see” and “saw” rotate gets shattered every time a gunshot’s heard—this setting loops on the TV screen positioned in the center, while the two TV sets flanking it each displays an image sequence in which the scene keeps wavering up and down. Though the material constituent of the installation assumes a triangular structure, and thus admittedly suggests itself to be fairly steady, still the montage of the unsteady images, the installation of the hanging gun and the gunshot sounds nonetheless sharply exerts tension and an intense sense of precarity—while the installation itself is not actually engaged in any physical seesaw-movement, yet to the viewer it’s still crystal clear the information and sensation it intends to relay. This approach was also implemented in the artist’s subsequent Sight Adjuster series, in which one finds a reminder of the “dystopian”, hinting at the secrets kept behind the disciplining of the optic.
In both Hu Jieming’s Home? (1998) and Yang Zhenzhong’s Fish Bowl (1996) there are close-ups of the human face. In general, early video works portraying the body and the face would be labeled as “narcissistic”, but this aspect of narcissistic performativity either gets partly resolved through the process of being integrated into installations, or is delivered from an closed state to a state of open communication. The material constituents in both of the two works—the door and the fish tanks—are kind of metaphorical, and in both cases they constitute “screens” in front of the filmed body. The body displays itself through these materials, yet is also shaped by them, as if it has undergone as well a process of being “sculptured”, in addition to its being “represented.” The images can only be seen through a tiny keyhole or the rising bubbles, and vision is thus put through a double “dilution” physically and semantically. The material constituents become the medium in between the viewer and the monitor. On the one hand they rub against the images, while on the other hand they turn the gaze into something opaque, and bring the position of the viewer into processes of the productions of the work’s meanings.
Quite similarly, in Wang Gongxin’s Baby Talk (1996)—the only projection in this exhibition—the vertical projection light is not anymore cinematic, it instead generates a screen of fraility and ephemerality. The flowing “milk” in the crib disturbs the stability of the projected image, and the vortex formed and the noises it caused also effect a “disordered“ audiovisual experience—this disorder can be attributed to the incessant alteration of the meaning of viewing as it has to move through the various medium of the light, the liquid, and the bed, before it finally reaches the screen. In other words, the existence of the material constituents in this work is the “mechanism” set in place by the artist to convey concepts. As the viewer’s gaze “moves through” the different materials, the conceptual occurs. What may as well be extended here is the fact that in the early adoptions of projection devices, it is not at all cinematicity that the artists were after, rather, they were more attentive to exploring the capability of projections in providing a more dynamic and penetrable screen. And this seemingly immaterial (projection) screen actually embodies in itself as well a certain materiality and a sense of volume, and is often situated in the midst of other materials—a strategy in proximity to this may also be found in Yang Zhenzhong’s Shanghai Face (1999).
In contrast, the material constituents in the two works of Zhu Jia are both “hidden” within the video images. Whether in the camera’s probing into the closet or in its “looking out” from inside of the refrigerator, we are forced into having repeated encounters with those everyday objects that are blocked in between our line of sight and the image, and it’s as if our gazes are intimately “caressing” them. Even though neither Wardrobe (1992) nor Repeat on Purpose (1997) present themselves as video sculpture, yet they nonetheless distinct themselves from single-channel videos in general—coming from the interaction in between an “anomalous” camera viewpoint and the eventual monitors that display them. Zhu Jia’s practices at this stage intends to reconstruct the visibility of the everyday through the intervention of videos, and thereby to trigger an alternative kind of material perception—reflective of a spirit which shares a lot of common ground with that of early avant-garde cinema. The screen here can no longer be seen merely as an image-displaying surface, and becomes more akin to a portal into another world.
Anti-Projection does not attempt to be a completely historical retrospective, rather it devotes itself to exploring the logics and specific strategies in which the artists practicing early video art engaged with, such as how were visuality and materiality allocated in proportion to each other within the complex processes of the production of meaning, and how effective connections amongst images, installation designs, and viewing were established. Admittedly, the “traditions” of video art before projection have gradually come to be forgotten. Nevertheless, as an important stage of media art, it still has its archaeological relevance- just as this exhibition would showcase to its audiences: one can instantly get a sense here of how moving image—all the way from the era that though materially lacking still was saturated with inspired creativity, up into our current overly-mediated age—has all along functioned as a most significant channel through which we have established connections with the world.