PRINT December 1970


Experience shows that human beings are not passive components in adaptive systems. Their responses commonly manifest themselves as acts of personal creation.
—René Dubos, Man Adapting

SINCE HIS FIRST PROVOCATIVE New York exhibition at the Castelli Gallery in 1968, Nauman’s work has become increasingly complex. We are no longer able to take refuge in art-historical analogies to Duchampian esthetics or reference to visual affinities with the work.of Johns, Oldenburg, or “process” art. Nauman’s roughly-built acoustical and performance corridors; his elusive camera/monitor pieces; his unenterable channels of air current; “dance” pieces and slow-motion single image films—all seem to defy our habitual esthetic expectations. To encounter one of these pieces is to experience basic phenomena that have been isolated, inverted, taken out of context, or progressively destroyed.

Nauman does not represent or interpret phenomena, such as sound, light, movement, or temperature, but uses them as the basic material of his new work. Our responses to the situations he sets up are not purely physical, however. Man alone among animals is able to symbolize, to respond not only to the direct effect of a stimulus on his body, but to a symbolic interpretation of it. This interpretation (and its emotional or psychological corollaries) is conditioned by all other experiences a person has had, and which he involuntarily brings to bear on every new situation. Each person will, therefore, respond to the physical experience of Nauman’s work in a different way.

Nauman carefully constructs his pieces to create a specific physical situation. Although he is no longer interested in ways of making art nor in the “interpretation” of a made object, he feels it is still important that a piece be neither over-nor under-refined. In this way focus can be directed to the experience and our response to it, rather than to the object itself.

The structures of sound and movement as a basic function of human behavior and communication are the phenomena which provide not only the artist, but the linguist, the anthropologist, the philosopher, and the social scientist with the sources of our knowledge of man. These are Nauman’s concerns, and he sees his art as more closely related to man’s nature than to the nature of art. This attitude is evidenced by his evolution from the making of objects and the recording of activities, to his present concern with manipulations of phenomena.

He has utilized progressively intricate “extensions” of the human body, the same extensions that man has evolved in order to live, to communicate, and to adapt to his environment. They range from writing which extends language and the telephone which extends the voice, to complicated mechanisms like the computer, allowing memory and calculation far beyond the capacity of any human source.

Because Nauman’s earlier work consists of visual puns, verbal plays, and manipulations of non-art materials, the intent of this work largely resides in the objects themselves. Recently, by dealing with the ways things are experienced instead of how they are made or perceived, the intent of the work is realized only through the physical involvement of the spectator. To this end, Nauman has investigated a wide variety of modes of communication, each of which is increasingly complex in the responses it is capable of effecting. They include language (both spoken and written); non-verbal sounds, both natural (breathing, walking) and artificial (clapping, making music); physical gesture (facial expressions, body manipulations, dance); and the extension of any or all of these by artificial or technological means.

Our bodies are necessary to the experience of any phenomenon. It is characteristic of Nauman’s work that he has always used his own body and its activities as both the subject and object of his pieces. He has made casts from it (Hand to Mouth, Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at 10 Inch Intervals, etc.) and manipulated it (in earlier performances using his body in relation to a T-bar or neon tube, as well as in the holograms). He has made video tapes of his own activities (Bouncing Balls in the Studio) and films of parts of his body being acted upon; Bouncing Balls and Black Balls are slow-motion films of Nauman’s testicles moving and being painted black. He has questioned, in various pieces, his behavior as an artist and his attitudes toward himself as such. He has contorted his body and face to the limits of physical action as well as representation. By making audiotapes of himself clapping, breathing, whispering and playing the violin, he has also explored a range of noises made and perceived by his own body.

This concern with physical self is not simple artistic egocentrism, but use of the body to transform intimate subjectivity into objective demonstration. Man is the perceiver and the perceived; he acts and is acted upon; he is the sensor and the sensed. His behavior constitutes a dialectical interchange with the world he occupies. Merleau-Ponty, in The Structure of Behavior, stresses that man is, in fact, his body, despite the essential ambiguity of its being at once lived from the inside and observed from the outside. Nauman has used himself in this way as a prototypical subject for the pieces. These works are meant, essentially, to be encountered privately by one person at a time. Where earlier the artist was the subject and object of recorded situations, now it is the spectator who becomes both the actor and observer of his own activity.

Ordinarily we are unable to experience both things simultaneously—at least, not without a mirror and an extraordinary degree of self-consciousness. At the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles Nauman set up a series of wallboard panels running parallel along the length of the gallery. Cameras and videotape monitors were set up in such a way that a person walking the length of one corridor and turning into the next would see himself on a monitor only as he turned the corner. The space set up is longer and narrower than most spaces we find or make for ourselves. The corridors therefore occupy an ambiguous and uncomfortable realm between too much space, which creates feelings of isolation and disorientation, and too little space, which causes cramping and tension. In this case, both are experienced simultaneously. At the same time, the image on the screen further disorients the viewer because he sees himself at a distance, from below and behind. He is prevented from being intimate with himself because he is not even allowed to meet his image head-on. Ordinary experience of the space between man and his image is the frontal, 12 to 16 inch space we normally allow when looking into a mirror.

Like most of his work, this situation does not deal with a concept of space, but with the sensation of it. Its effect goes beyond that of a purely physiological reaction to become a highly charged emotional experience. It is similar in feeling to the impact of seeing, but not immediately recognizing yourself in the reflective surface of a store window as you pass it.

Other pieces deal more specifically with the physiological and emotional effects of time. Even according to the most stringent scientific analyses of time, pure (or absolute) time cannot be measured, because every lapse of time must be connected with some process in order to be perceived. We define time, therefore, according to our experience of it. When looking at a static object, the phenomenon of time, of how we perceive something, can be separated from what we are looking at, which does not change. In Nauman’s slow-motion films, he uses uncut footage, taken from an unchanging vantage point. In them, a repeated simple change occurs in the object itself, while the way we perceive it does not change. Bouncing in the Corner, Bouncing Balls and similar films confound our experience of time by a transference of the functions usually assigned to objects and phenomena.

The performance pieces, which Nauman says have duration, but no specific time, operate in a similar fashion. For example, two dance proposals require a performer to work on one exercise for ten to fourteen days before giving an hour-long performance of it. One process involves the use of the body as a cylinder, in which the dancer lies along the junction of wall and floor facing into the angle formed by them. He straightens and lengthens the body through its center into the angle. A second piece uses the body as a sphere, curled into a corner. The dancer attempts to compress his body toward the central point of the sphere, and then toward the corner. Changes in movement during the performance would be barely perceptible to the audience, but the discrepancy between our normal expectation of how long it takes to perform or perceive a given activity, and Nauman’s distension of that time, creates extreme tension.

Other kinds of tension resulting from the physiological effect of changes in pressure on the auditory system are used by Nauman. One such piece is an acoustically paneled corridor whose two walls converge. Another is a parallel, staggered group of 8-foot acoustical panels to be walked between. Nauman has pointed out an analogous situation existing in nature, when certain winds or approaching storms can create even minute pressure changes in the atmosphere, which are said to account for widespread emotional instability and increased suicide rates in a given area.

The “emotional overload” that he is interested in can be partly accounted for in these kinds of terms, but is also due, in a less definable way, to how much of his own ideas and feelings he has been able to incorporate into the work—to how personal it is. For him, this quality is essential, even if it is impossible to measure or evaluate.

I think when you attempt to engage people that way—emotionally—in what you’re doing, then it’s difficult because you never know if you succeed or not, or to what extent. In other words, it’s easier to be professional, because then you can step outside the situation. When you bring things to a personal level then you’re just much less sure whether people can accept what’s presented.*

Since the emotional responses to each piece differ according to the receptor, it is almost impossible to name them; loneliness, delight, anxiety, surprise, frustration, serenity and other private feelings provide the sensory poetry of this work.

Even a long time ago, when I was painting, I could get to a point where everything worked except for one part of the painting which was a mess, and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. One way was to remove that part of the painting. The other way was to make that the important part of the painting; that always ended up the most interesting.

THE ARTIST’S CONCERN WITH MAKING the “difficult” aspect of a work its focus need not be seen as perversity or artistic sadism, but as a viable working method. For example, Nauman has stated that art generally adds information to a situation, and that it seems reasonable to also make art by removing information from a situation. In fact, sensory deprivation experiments have shown that only the essential information needed to identify a thing tends to be picked up from a surrounding group of stimuli.

One of a group of pieces operating on this principle consists of an empty sealed room and an accessible room. An oscillating picture of the open room and its occupants (if any) is projected onto a monitor in the sealed room. Spectators witness only the videotape of the closed space, rather than the expected image of themselves. The elimination of extraneous material here clarifies the work’s intent by making its focus immediately apprehensible.

Mixing up two kinds of information which are similar but not quite the same is still another means of effecting sensory dislocation. For instance, at Galleria Sperone in Turin last year Nauman made a piece in which touching one wall of the gallery produced the sound of that touch on another wall. He relates this phenomenon to the use of skew lines in mathematics,where two non-parallel lines are situated in relation to each other in space, but never meet.

“If you make the lines very close,” he says,

. . . it’s the point at which you get to an optical illusion. Even though you understand how it works, it works every time. It’s sort of the way I felt about how these pieces worked. Touching and hearing later, there were two kinds of information that occurred that were very close. You couldn’t quite separate them, and you couldn’t quite put them together. And so the experience has to do with that confusion that occurs. It’s very hard to understand why that turns out to be a complete experience, but it does.

Another method used by Nauman in Second Poem Piece is to radically alter the sentence “YOU MAY NOT WANT TO SCREW HERE” by progressive removal of words. Differences in the degree of information, and changes in our emotional response to each line occur immediately upon reading (i.e. participating in) the work. By removing semantic information until the words “YOU WANT” are left, the degree of emotive content is increased.

In the audiotapes of breathing, pacing, clapping and playing violin scales, sounds are differentiated from “noises” by periodicity, which arouses the expectation of pattern in the listener. Intent is thereby revealed through rhythmic structuring. In another tape, he whispers over and over, “GET OUT OF THE ROOM. GET OUT OF MY MIND.” This highly charged message, delivered regularly and repeatedly, confuses us because we generally associate repetitive messages with a low expressive content.

In a performance at the Whitney Museum last year, a similar situation was structured by using an abrupt, emotionally charged movement. Nauman, his wife Judy, and Meredith Monk each stood about a foot away from respective corners and bounced the upper part of their bodies into them repeatedly for an hour. In both kinds of work, Nauman is also interested in how a movement or sound becomes an exercise, how an exercise becomes a performance, and how specific responses to the performance can be controlled.

IN SOME INFORMAL AND UNPUBLISHED notes entitled Withdrawal as an Art Form, Nauman describes a diverse group of phenomena and possible methods for manipulating them. He is involved with the amplification and deprivation of sensory data; with an examination of physical and psychological responses to simple situations which yield clearly experienceable phenomena; with our responses to extreme or controlled situations, voluntary and involuntary defense mechanisms, and biological rhythms.

Among his notes, there is a plan for a piece which is, at present, impossible to execute:

A person enters and lives in a room for a long time—a period of years or a lifetime.

One wall of the room mirrors the room but from the opposite side; that is, the image room has the same left-right orientation as the real room.

Standing facing the image, one sees oneself from the back in the image room, standing facing a wall.

There should be no progression of images; that can be controlled by adjusting the kind of information the sensor would use and the kind the mirror wall would put out.

After a period of time, the time in the mirror room begins to fall behind the real time—until after a number of years, the person would no longer recognize his relationship to his mirrored image. (He would no longer relate to his mirrored image or a delay of his own time.)

This piece, he says, is related to a dream which he had a long time ago, and could only be done eventually with the aid of a vast computer network.

The experience of such a room, were it possible to build, would slowly alter the way in which we, as human beings, know ourselves in relation to the world we inhabit. If what we know of the world is the sum of our perceptions, and our physical, emotional and intellectual reactions to our environment, then to effectively manipulate these factors is to effect a virtual change in that world.

Nauman’s work continues to explore these possibilities. Like the mirror piece, the computer and the dream exemplify the polarities of man’s nature, and consequently of his art.

*All statements by Bruce Nauman are taken from taped interviews with the author, made during August, 1970.


Bruce Nauman: Notes And Projects

It has been shown that at least part of the information received by the optical nerves is routed through and affected by the memory before it reaches the part of the brain that deals with visual impulses (input). Now René Dubos discusses the distortion of stimuli: we tend to symbolize stimuli and then react to the symbol rather than directly to the stimuli. Assume this to be true of other senses as well . . .

FRENCH PIECE (August, 1968)

1. Piece of steel plate or bar four inches by four inches by seven feet, to be gold plated, and stamped or engraved with the word “guilt” in a simple type face about one or two centimeters high. The weight will be about three hundred eighty pounds.

2. If the bar cannot be plated, the plain steel bar should be stamped or engraved “guilt bar,” the letters running parallel to and close to a long edge.

3. Both pieces may be made.

lighted steel channel twice
leen lech Dante’I delight light leen snatches light leen lech Dante’l delight leen snatches leen leche’l delight Dantes light leen snatch light leen snatch’I delight Dantes leen leech light leen leech’I delight Dantes leen snatch snatch leen leen leeche’l delight light Dante

When I want to make a painting of something covered with dust or in fog should I paint the whole surface first with dust or fog and then pick out those parts of objects which can be seen or first paint in all the objects and then paint over them the dust or fog?

Hire a dancer or dancers or other performers of some presence to perform the following exercises for one hour a day for about ten days or two weeks. The minimum will require one dancer to work on one exercise for ten to fourteen days. If more money is available two dancers may perform, one dancer performing each exercise at the same time and for the same period as the other. The whole may be repeated on ten or fourteen day intervals as often as desired.

(A) Body as a Cylinder
Lie along the wall/floor junction of the room, face into the corner and hands at sides. Concentrate on straightening and lengthening the body along a line which passes through the center of the body parallel to the corner of the room in which you lie. At the same time attempt to draw the body in around the line. Then attempt to push that line into the corner of the room.

(B) Body as a Sphere
Curl your body into the corner of a room. Imagine a point at the center of your curled body and concentrate on pulling your body in around that point. Then attempt to press that point down into the corner of the room. It should be clear that these are not intended as static positions which are to be held for an hour a day, but mental and physical activities or processes to be carried out. At the start, the performer may need to repeat the exercise several times in order to fill the hour, but at the end of ten days or so, he should be able to extend the execution to a full hour. The number of days required for an uninterrupted hour performance of course depends on the receptivity and training of the performer.

Goedel’s Proof
1931: On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems. 1) If a system is consistent then it is incomplete. 2) (Goedel’s incompleteness theorem) implies impossibility of construction of calculating machine equivalent to a human brain.

Film Set A: Spinning Sphere
A steel ball placed on a glass plate in a white cube of space. The ball is set to spinning and filmed so that the image reflected on the surface of the ball has one wall of the cube centered. The ball is center frame and fills most of the frame. The camera is hidden as much as possible so that its reflection will be negligible. Four prints are necessary. The prints are projected onto the walls of a room (front or rear projection; should cover the walls edge to edge). The image reflected in the spinning sphere should not be that of the real room but of a more idealized room, of course empty, and not reflecting the image projected on the other room walls. There will be no scale references in the films.

Film Set B: Rotating Glass Walls
Film a piece of glass as follows: glass plate is pivoted on a horizontal center line and rotated slowly. Film is framed with the center line exactly at the top of the frame so that as the glass rotates one edge will go off the top of the frame as the other edge comes on the top edge of the frame.The sides of the glass will not be in the frame of the film. Want two prints of the glass rotating bottom coming toward the camera and two prints of bottom of plate going away from camera. The plate and pivot are set up in a white cube as in Set A, camera hidden as well as possible to destroy any scale indications in the projected films. Projection: image is projected from edge to edge of all four walls of a room. If the image on one wall shows the bottom of the plate moving toward the camera, the opposite wall will show the image moving away from the camera.

You must hire a dancer to perform the following exercise each day of the exhibition for 20 minutes or 40 minutes at about the same time each day. The dancer, dressed in simple street or exercise clothes, will enter a large room of the gallery. The guards will clear the room, only allowing people to observe through the doors. Dancer, eyes front, avoiding audience contact, hands clasped behind his neck, elbows forward, walks about the room in a slight crouch, as though the ceiling were 6 inches or a foot lower than his normal height, placing one foot in front of the other, heel touching toe, very slowly and deliberately.

It is necessary to have a dancer or person of some professional anonymous presence.

At the end of the time period, the dancer leaves and the guards again allow people into the room.

If it is not possible to finance a dancer for the whole of the exhibition period a week will be satisfactory, but no less.

My five pages of the book will be publicity photographs of the dancer hired to do my piece, with his name affixed.

Manipulation of information that has to do with how we perceive rather than what.

Manipulation of functional (functioning) mechanism of an (organism) (system) person.

Lack of information input (sensory deprivation) = breakdown of responsive systems. Do you hallucinate under these circumstances? If so, is it an attempt to complete a drive (or instinct) (or mechanism)?

Pieces of information which are in “skew” rather than clearly contradictory, i.e., kinds of information which come from and go to unrelated response mechanism. Skew lines can be very close or far apart. (Skew lines never meet and are never parallel. How close seems of more interest than how far apart. How far apart = Surrealism?

Withdrawal as an Art Form
Sensory Manipulation
Sensory Overload (Fatigue)

Denial or confusion of a Gestalt invocation of physiological defense mechanism (voluntary or involuntary). Examination of physical and psychological response to simple or even oversimplified situations which can yield clearly experienceable phenomena (phenomena and experience are the same or undifferentiable).

Recording Phenomena
Presentation of recordings of phenomena as opposed to stimulation of phenomena. Manipulation or observation of self in extreme or controlled situations.

• Observation of manipulations.
• Manipulation of observations.
• Information gathering.
• Information dispersal (or display).

Marcia Tucker