PRINT November 1976

Dan Graham: Appearing in Public

DAN GRAHAM WAS A GALLERY director before he was an artist, and from the beginning his art treated the theme of its own presentation. At first it was a matter of avoiding galleries altogether, of using the magazine system to bypass the gallery system. Sometimes he seemed to be leaving open the option that the erstwhile art dealer had only turned art writer. But when the piece was a list of the number and type of words that are necessary to set out that particular list of words, then the writing collapses into the content, the article into the art, and the author comes out almost by default as the artist.

When the success of his art brought him back into the art galleries he used a similar approach. Live relayed video images are accompanied, in one recent work, by recordings of the previous day’s conversations. The work again turns in on itself, but self-reference has found a social equivalent in self-consciousness.

It is now quite some time since Bruce Nauman was first accused of narcissism, and just a few months ago another writer pronounced narcissism the essential subject-matter of video art. Dan Graham’s video is not about that sort of self-consciousness. Whereas Peter Campus’s installations may find the viewer musing on the miracle of his own existence, Dan Graham’s are more likely to leave him wondering if his fly is zipped up—or just what it was he said to Susan Gibson in that other room where the tape-recorder is still switched on.

A piece I saw at St. Lawrence University last year was more elaborate. Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay had cameras on top of monitors facing mirrors on the end walls of the gallery. Each camera was hooked up via the time delay mechanism to the monitor at the opposite end of the room. The camera picked up the view of the room through the mirror and sent it five seconds later to the far monitor. Through the far mirror it was picked up again and sent back, a tiny image in the center of the screen, a full ten seconds after the event.

The permutations are quite complicated and, on entering the room, one may pause wondering where to begin. Suddenly one glimpses oneself in the near monitor entering the room and pausing wondering where to begin.

The piece was set up so that the lighting from lights high up in the ceiling was very generalized and lowlight-level cameras had lenses stopped right down. The image came out very flat but also very suave. Figures were reduced to silhouettes rather like the architectural drawings that Dan Graham sometimes uses as illustrations of his work. It was not unflattering but, somehow, in that context, it was not particularly flattering either. The installation must have cost a tidy sum to put on, but all that equipment and all that grant money from the Creative Artists Public Service Program somehow left a result that looked like an improvised solution on the cheap.

The broken mirror was an accident that could have happened to anybody; they had to replace it with two smaller ones that did not quite match up. But then the cameras did not come to quite the right height and they had to put books underneath, and they had to stick it all down with pieces of grey tape that follow the cables all the way across the floor. And as one contemplates that quite unusually cool, low-definition image those awful bits of sticky tape somehow stand in the way of one’s self-esteem. In that context the image comes out simply as information. Yet as it settles into mimicry of our own inactivity it prompts us to move again in search of more information.

In its variety the piece is very rich. The exceptionally flat video image is well matched with the full-color stereoscopy of the mirrors and the monitors’ static framing with the mirrors’ shifting fields of vision, responding to our own movements around the room. And then there are all those combinations of mirrors through monitors and monitors through mirrors, of instantaneous reflection and five- and ten-second delays.

It takes a bit of working out, and when several people are in the room the outcome is predictable. Eventually everybody seems to realize that if they move really quickly they can get from the camera to its monitor at the far end of the room while their image is still there. When they all try to do it at once, the subtlety of the information system clashes head on with the beg-your-pardon lunacy of the social situation.

Other pieces have a way of panning out like that too. One of the early articles, Homes for America, was constructed round a quite exquisitely beautiful set of photographs that were already becoming known independently as Minimal photography. (Ironically, Arts Magazine omitted them when they published the piece in 1966.) Configurations of bland rectilinear shapes pull the photographic image to the verge of becoming pure form, but also to the point of maximum tension between the virtual flatness of a depicted wall and the actual flatness of the page on which it is printed. As essays in photographic structure, they attain an extraordinary refinement, and yet their subject is tract housing—commercial exploitation, standardized building methods and the aspirations of a popular taste, all on different levels. When he did produce the article it centered on these issues.

Between the writings and the video installations there was a period of performances. In TV Camera/ Monitor Performance, 1970, Dan Graham rolls over a stage holding a video camera that relays the rolling image of his audience to a monitor at the back of the room. According to his own account, the piece is primarily about the interplay of closed feedback systems, but it also involves the disorientation of his audience. That is not just a matter of physically turning round, but of the breach of social conventions that prescribe the roles of performer and spectator. When, in another piece, he describes the responses of the people in front of him, it comes perilously close to the act of the stand-up comic trading insults from the stage.

There are works in other media, as well as works that are presented in other sorts of situations. Most of them deal with structures of information that turn in on themselves more or less self-referentially, but information is construed at the deepest level as the articulation of human behavior. The interface of private and public concerns him most. Put a want-ad for a definition of detumescence in Screw and that may seem a reasonable place to solicit that sort of information, but Dan Graham got no replies because nobody wants to admit to reading Screw. Such insights protect the private man in a public place. Confuse the issues by setting one of the pieces out of line and the prospect of chaos looms.

A video proposal of a year or so ago was contrived so as to invite passers-by to peer through the window of a house. A lot of the work is, in one way or another, architectural. Homes for America is, after all, about architecture. But then architecture very literally articulates human behavior and domestic architecture very literally marks the boundary of that which is public and that which is private.

Homes for America was, nonetheless, a piece of writing; the recent work deals with real live people in actual spaces. To that extent the development is logical; the deeper levels of implication are progressively identified with the material embodiment of the art. But in the total accounting there may have been a loss as well as a gain, or at least the danger of such a loss. The residual benefit of Dan Graham’s article-writing phase was his “in” with the art magazines, enabling him to publish his proposals and, in effect, to act as his own critic. That may have been a mixed blessing. The early writings were spiked with wit and irony, but his descriptions of the installations are dry and jargon-ridden. The art itself is always better than that. A peculiarly human quirkiness saves it from its own pretensions. Sometimes this is part of the published strategy, but in the end it has to do with Graham and the way he is, and it comes out the way it does because he is the one who did it.

Eric Cameron is director of the graduate program at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.