PRINT May 1996


IT’S EASY TO FEEL ABANDONED if not somewhat put off by Diana Thater’s video installations, to be left, that is, with the uncomfortable feeling of having missed the point. Thater’s quasi-cinematic environments are immediately engaging—full of color, movement, imagery, and special effects—but they are also elusive.

Initially, the projection fields seduce us with their dazzling opticality and monumental scale, but a certain emptiness reverberates at the core of Thater’s work, as if apart from technical wizardry and the peculiar sensation of being enveloped by panoramic imagery, there really weren’t much going on. This nagging sense that something is missing results, in part, from the installations’ pervasive silence, broken only by the droning of projectors, and, in part, from the difficulty of linking the surrounding visual fragments into a narrative whole. Yet it is precisely this lack at the heart of Thater’s purely visual theater that sets everything in motion. Using a variety of distancing devices that rupture full, sustained absorption with the video projections, Thater activates what lies beneath the surface of things.

Thater’s work is unarguably aligned with the tenets of structural film—the emphasis on real time, the mixture of abstraction and representation, and the interest in the perceptual avenues opened up by cinematic space. She draws equally from first-generation Conceptual video art, such as that produced by Peter Campus, Bruce Nauman, and Dan Graham, which insists on the apparatus as a means of dismantling representational mechanisms. As much as Thater shows herself to be a conceptual-minded structuralist, she breaks rank by accommodating the viewer in her video projections, which colonize the installation site itself, literally enclosing us in filmic space. Thus Thater’s self-reflexive formal strategies move beyond figuring the act of seeing to staging viewers’ desires and physical responses within the very fabric of her spectacular environments.

Grainy, layered one on top of the other, Thater’s video projections echo the structuralist preoccupation with the means of production, but her use of seemingly unedited footage that is blurry at the edges and characterized by degraded values also conjures a more immediate association: the home movies of our childhood. In this way, we are teased into subjective identification with the series of repetitive actions that unfold against lush natural scenery. All is disarmingly familiar, as if we had visited these places before, had met these people, had held the camera ourselves: views of Monument Valley and Death Valley (Abyss of Light, 1993) resemble special-prize snapshots; reedy marshes and grassy fields whiz by (Late and Soon, [Occident Trotting], 1993); figures walk aimlessly through snowy woods at dusk (The Bad Infinite, 1993). But our reverie is interrupted by a dizzying array of technological manipulations that stress the limits of the projection apparatuses. Panoramic sequences whirl around the gallery at high speed or slow to a rhythmic, real-time pace; images track images, misaligned and out of sync; color frequencies are tuned all the way up or down to separate monochromatic channels. Swept up in the vortex of these special effects, viewers experience a certain disorientation—vertigo, dizziness, even, perhaps, a fleeting sense of disembodiment.

These perceptual distortions are exacerbated by the transparent gels that cover the windows at projection sites, as if Thater hoped to erase the boundary between inside and outside altogether. The gels match the colors of the video spectrum, and their complements. How dreamlike the outside world becomes in cyan, how unnatural in magenta, how very “other nature” it suddenly appears. The effect is quite stunning, all the more so for the simplicity of the gesture. It’s as though Thater wants us to feel what it’s like to be inside cinematic space, the apparatus, and our own cognitive processes—all at once. Eschewing anything as self-contained as an actual projection screen, she enlists walls, windows, doorways, and ceilings to do double duty as walk-in, live-in cinematic space, adapting her installations to each exhibition area so that the projections are scaled to the architecture. The irregularities of “real space and time” awkwardly poke through the seamless skin of these moving pictures, while the kinetic imagery subsumes architectural space, drawing the viewer inside its frame.

In the midst of this psychically charged space, Thater places her technical equipment—apparatuses that consist primarily of laser-disc players and three-lens video projectors (with red, blue, or green filters)—unceremoniously on the floor. As the viewer walks between the projectors’ light beams and the surrounding images, calculated errors of interruption occur: a shadowy silhouette, larger-than-life, appears within the continuously shifting footage. Up there, vying for our attention, is our supposedly autonomous self moving in the half-light amidst giant sequoias in The Bad Infinite; or galloping across country in Late and Soon (Occident Trotting). (“Occident” is the name of the horse photographed by Eadweard Muybridge for his “Locomotion Series,” 1881.) Unwittingly, we are thrust on stage, front and center, as cinematic spectacle. Migrating from real body to cinematic phantasm and back again, we are no longer simply viewer but now artist as well, charged with a central aspect of image production. We must consciously determine the extent to which we will walk in and out of the range of the projection beams, and enter into the “live action” of prerecorded and remixed events. In the midst of publicly displaying ourselves—sampling roles as varied as artist, interloper, exhibitionist, and voyeur—yet another possibility presents itself. With our transformation into a hulking, monstrously distorted, color-fringed image, we become allied with the omnipotent eye of the mechanical other.

Yet Thater offers no seamless equation of viewer and camera. Using several High-8 video cameras at once, usually stationary and placed close together, she records the same scene from slightly different perspectives. When edited (layered, spliced, and divided, either in or out of sequence), the combined footage presents a multiplicity of vanishing points that obliterate both the conceit of a first-person cinematic consciousness—whether that of auteur/camera or spectator/voyeur—and the disembodied, mechanical eye of the fixed camera favored by structural filmmakers. From such techniques a narrative is structured in which the viewer is cast in the principal role—that of a subject who never stabilizes either as a physical entity or as a controlling consciousness. With every visual effect—divergent points of view sewn together so that the stitches show; a panorama of moving images in which the viewer’s digital analogue appears—the subject, both the seer and what is seen, materializes within the projection field as incomplete, always in the process of becoming.

This post-Modern tale of subjectivity and narrativity unfolds at the slippery, open-ended margins of things where the technological meets the imaginary, where the world of objects becomes pure fiction. The viewer as, alternately, auteur, cinematic construction, and desiring subject, intervenes in and shapes the story of China. At a show ground, two white wolves, coached by their trainers, execute a routine whose ultimate goal is that the wolves sit still, which, as it turns out, is nearly impossible for them to do. At the shoot, Thater’s cameras were turned on before they were taken out of their cases and ran continually while the crew mounted them on stationary tripods arranged in a circle around the performance arena. Each camera recorded the wolves’ many attempts at the exercise, as well as anything else that transpired within their field of view—including the image of the camera directly opposite. In the editing process, the tapes were manipulated to produce a flow of unrelated temporal sequences and repetitive actions, and programmed to play on six video projectors simultaneously, which, when installed, were, as the cameras had been, arranged in a tight circle at the center of the exhibition space.

Though China is named after the younger, female half of the performing pair, the idea for the imagery came from Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves,” in which Red Riding Hood decides to join the pack rather than be eaten by it. As viewers we must adopt a similar survival strategy. Just as, during the shoot, six cameras encircled the wolves, in the installation the wolves surround us in predatory fashion. They cease to be animals in training for Hollywood movies, safely up there on the screen, and recover something of their bestial nature. The fleet of cameras, too, seem to take aim not only at the viewer but at the projection equipment itself in a staged battle of the apparatus and its other.

This dual role of the technical apparatus, this inversion of cinematic space and real space, increases the complexity of the viewer’s position, fostering an awareness of, to quote Thater, “the experience of [China’s] being made and being shown.” While such a statement suggests tautological closure, if the narrative extends from images to structural devices to the installation as event, and from there, to the viewer, whose subjective engagement is figured in the “making and showing” process, closure is nowhere on the horizon.

Thater drives this point home in a series of supplemental works she refers to as “indexes,” which she writes each time she produces a video installation. The indexes present a framework of ideas, laid out in alphabetical order and cross-referenced. Some entries bear a direct relation to the project, providing information or directing us to topics of related interest; some, as Thater says, represent “leftover” ideas; others are deliberately misleading, even absurd. Characterized by Thater as “false narratives,” as if to suggest that if narratives are present in her videos they are only obliquely related to what she presents here, the indexes become another means of pushing the work to its structural limits. Playing with the literalist/absurdist dimensions of early Conceptual texts (the certificates, the statements, the “official” documents), the indexes break open the self-reflexive circle that is a principal tenet of Conceptual art, structural cinema, and early experimental video by adopting a confessional guise: instead of closure, they offer full disclosure.

What we get is a seemingly infinite array of associations and alternative story lines. The index for The Bad Infinite contains no entry for Sequoia National Park, even though that is the setting for the snowy forest scene we see in the video installation. Instead, it dwells on three women: Jane Muir, a fictional female explorer of the American West; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who gave us Frankenstein; and Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre. These characters never appear in the installation (or even in its title), yet the index provides scattered details of a fictional relationship between the three. Each woman is referenced or cross-referenced to entries related to the theme of “untamed nature,” and each is indexed to the entry “the monster.” In addition, entries on dreams, demons, deformities, modernity, and Romanticism abound. The index ends with “woman, see also camera,” which suggests the extent to which Thater’s subject has been borrowed from feminist theory. This final entry also hints that the viewer’s position parallels that of the women in the index, all of whom share quite similar desires yet are traumatized by monstrous constructions of their own making—nature in its erotic fury, Frankenstein, the mad woman in the attic. This link between viewer and monster—both in the installation and in the index—spawns a forensic examination of the body of art. Thater’s work—replete with expressions of trauma and jouissance—emerges as a textured enactment of the impossibility of a unified self, offering only an array of briefly glimpsed, distorted reflections, and posits narrativity as inextricably tied to the fissures and unmatched layers of the projections. By hybridizing the experiential and the fantastic, courting distraction while demanding perceptual acuity, Thater offers a visual pastiche that brings into focus a sliver of the liminal present we call post-Modernity.