PRINT March 2004


The most common spatial application of video is now projection, but in the 1970s, the medium’s first official decade, its dominant sculptural configuration was the closed circuit. In this earlier moment, artists as diverse as Dan Graham, Peter Campus, Bruce Nauman, and Joan Jonas established feedback loops of live cameras and monitors into which viewers could wander: Sometimes their images were replayed to themselves in altered form, as in Campus’s works, and sometimes spectators encountered their displaced projections on a short delay or in kinesthetically disorienting environments, as in installations by Nauman and Graham. In the case of Jonas, the artist’s own performance actions were doubled and reframed through successive generations of mediation. More recent works of projection tend to hug the architectural envelope rather than produce a second informational circuit within the container of the gallery. The sophisticated narrative refractions or dilations that artists like Stan Douglas and Douglas Gordon accomplish, for instance, wrap solid walls in vast surfaces of information. The eclipse of closed circuit by projection thus performs an inversion whereby video is transformed from an apparatus within a space to a new electronic skin that engulfs architectural elements. Considering both the growing practice of treating building facades as flickering surfaces of advertising and the proliferation of architectural metaphors in theorizing cyberspace, this shift has a certain historical logic that is reinforced by the fact that high-quality flat projection, which is requisite for the new planarity of video, has only recently become available to artists.

These explanations suggest a benign and even inevitable evolution from closed-circuit video to projection, but ultimately they tell only part of the story. Projection undermines one of the most progressive effects of the closed-circuit apparatus: its conceptualization of spectatorship as interactive, even if the interaction afforded is the arguably passive one of inserting one’s body within a media circuit in order to view it relayed back to oneself, often in distorted form. Projection reintroduces a more conventionally theatrical mode of spectatorship in which the audience remains outside the media feedback loop rather than participating as actors within it. Unlike Hollywood cinema, however, video projections, which are typically fractured across several screens, tend either to accelerate the pace of edits or to slow them dramatically, thus undermining any illusion of coherent action and serving to disrupt a viewer’s smooth absorption within a narrative. Indeed, in this regard as well as in its adherence to the planarity of the gallery wall, video projection is as much heir to the traditions of modernist painting as it is successor to closed-circuit video. The seams between multiple screens in a projection may function like Barnett Newman’s zips or like the joins of discrete canvas panels in certain works by Ellsworth Kelly. Like many practices of postmodern photography, from Cindy Sherman to Jeff Wall, video projection invents a way to introduce figuration into the rigorously flat virtual space that had been associated with modernist painting. (Pop pursued a similar project by different means in the ’60s.) If we dispense with the fiction that what we call painting coheres as a single medium and instead sort various aesthetic works according to historically specific notions of surface and space, then there may be as much justification in discussing Stan Douglas alongside Barnett Newman as in linking him to Dan Graham’s closed-circuit installations of the ’70s.

The major consequence of projection’s shift in spectatorship lies in its weaker acknowledgment that the video apparatus (including its commercial manifestation as television) is a machine for reproducing social relations. In Graham’s Time Delay Rooms (all 1974), for example, or his Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay of the same year, groups of random viewers are forced to see themselves interacting with one another: Their coincidental cohabitation of a room is made into a spectacle of community while, simultaneously, the playback of their personal image is alienated from them. The instantaneity of mirror reflection and its promise of narcissistic gratification is thus both initiated and frustrated in a manner homologous to television programming, in which identification is solicited from the viewer but subtly deformed by channeling all desire into the desire to buy products. In video projection the viewer is made more passive both in her consumption of spectacular imagery and in her ability to intervene within the space of the screen. Nonetheless, her loss of access inside the video circuit is partly compensated for by a resurgence of the phenomenological radicality invented by modernist painting. Newman’s zips functioned as a kind of primal cut out of which the possibility of coherent form could emerge, just as the refracting seams between screens in a work by Stan Douglas or Gillian Wearing serve as a black hole of figuration (and information) into which continuous actions may disappear and reappear.

Pierre Huyghe’s Streamside Day Follies, 2003, is significant because it spans the antinomies of closed-circuit video and video projection and therefore offers an opportunity to evaluate theoretically the current status and potential of video sculpture. Streamside Day Follies consists of a single-channel video projection centered on the opening festivities of Streamside Knolls, a planned suburban neighborhood in Fishkill, New York. At Dia:Chelsea, the tape was screened within a pavilion literally constituted from the walls of the space in which it was exhibited (or at least white planar segments that, in their “receded” state, rested close against the gallery walls). These segments were fitted into curvilinear ceiling tracks, and they slowly—one is tempted to say mournfully—convened from their resting places in three separate galleries to create a five-sided enclosure in the largest space on Dia’s fourth floor. All but one of the corners of this irregular pentagonal space were impassable, causing viewers either to congregate in advance within the precincts of the ad hoc theater or to enter through a single corner. As the wall segments moved away from their original positions they revealed an iridescent verso whose subtle glow had been visible from the side. Where these segments had rested, faint green line drawings were revealed like afterimages that had somehow been transferred from the iridescent surfaces recently facing them. For me, the televisual glow of these greenish surfaces functioned as a metaphor for the projection itself, suggesting a conflation of architecture and media (rendered as the two sides of a single plane). Under this interpretation the pavilion, which housed the projection on the one hand but whose outer walls also signified the infinite play of electronic information, functioned both as the container of moving images and as an edifice made from its planar elements—a kind of inside-out projection. Such reversals are reminiscent of the perceptual aporias of Dan Graham’s reflective pavilions, and indeed, Dia curator Lynne Cooke told me that Huyghe explicitly wished to position his “encampment” directly beneath Graham’s pavilion on the rooftop of Dia’s Chelsea building.

Allusions to Graham notwithstanding, the pavilion in Streamside Day Follies is composed of opaque planes—more like a tent or a house of cards than the perceptually undecidable structures Graham organizes through combinations of transparent and reflective surfaces. In these latter, the viewer is disoriented in his or her mapping of space, whereas in Huyghe’s installation, it is the walls themselves that are made strangely tipsy and unstable while audience members understand clearly that they are to stand or sit on the floor inside the newly delineated arena in order to watch a video projected cinematically onto just one surface. Why exactly the entry and exit of these walls should feel so melancholy (and this was my response all three times I witnessed the work’s folding and unfolding) is difficult to express—its delicate sentimentality is easily spoiled by words, but I think it must derive in part from the temporary nature of the enclosure and the profound sense of loss we experience on discovering that even those embodiments of solidity, the very walls around us, are as restless as we. This poetry of personal loss and private melancholy is lined with something steelier and more insidious: a metaphorical embodiment of the massive ongoing privatization of public space. Graham’s installations and pavilions (like the video environments of his colleagues) stressed the permeability of boundaries between inside and out, private and public; but like an architectural tumor, Huyghe’s pavilion metastasizes from surrounding gallery walls, and, once in place, its precincts are as well defended as a multiplex theater’s. The eruption of this private screening room within ostensibly public museum galleries thus carries a third, art-historical dimension of melancholy: It demonstrates the privatization of spectatorship encoded in video projection’s adoption of a theatrical mode as opposed to the commitment to interactivity that had characterized closed-circuit installations.

The video at the core of Streamside Day Follies explores such processes of privatization in narrative form. The work centers on a festival, designed and orchestrated by Huyghe, to commemorate the opening of an actual suburban community that, like so many such places, is artificially sited on an area of land scraped out from the surrounding forest. It would be easy for an artist (and perhaps even easier for an artist who, like Huyghe, is not American) to stage and film such an event with great condescension. But while the tape has its satirical moments, it also conveys respect for the emotional current that runs through it. The video is organized according to two overlapping rhetorical structures: on the one hand, a series of oppositions between “virgin” forest and the housing development that supplants it, and on the other, the procession of events staged as the celebration itself. Huyghe makes no effort to veil his pseudo-anthropological nature/culture distinctions: The first section of the tape opens with idyllic shots of landscape and forest animals and ends by showing a deer wander into a house under construction, like Bambi expelled from the Garden of Eden into a suburban living room. Later, at the festival itself, legions of children are dressed in costumes impersonating the animal “innocents” of the early scenes. These structural oppositions revolve around the axis of the celebratory day itself like a double helix, while the representation of the Follies just as straightforwardly embraces suburban kitsch, ranging from simulated pussy-willow branches made with marshmallow “blossoms” to a guitarist/vocalist singing the Streamside theme song off-key on a makeshift stage. In Huyghe’s embrace of such blunt images he paradoxically directs us to see through the hackneyed tropes of middle-class America rather than to accept them at face value. What one glimpses through this looking glass is the impulse to build civic institutions within the privatized space of a planned community.

It is well known that democracy in the United States is skewed toward the middle classes, whose members vote in far greater proportions than the poor. In an election year it is impossible to overlook the frantic efforts of both major political parties to appeal to the sort of citizen who might live in a town like Streamside. President Bush, for instance, has proposed spending $1.5 billion to promote heterosexual marriage (which some of us thought was already well publicized). The event that Huyghe organized and filmed in Streamside Day Follies belongs to such a middle-class suburban milieu. It probes both the desire for and the perhaps doomed efforts to produce a public sphere within a suburban development (indeed, according to Cooke, Huyghe has proposed developing a permanent community center there). This ambition to build social purpose out of the notorious anomie of suburban life is not without irony: In the video, a town supervisor proclaims that Streamside Day is an instance of “art, the environment, and economic development sharing a stage,” but the stage she speaks from is attended to by virtually no one. While it’s easy to deride the Pollyannaish optimism that could consider Streamside Day even a protopolitical event, it may well be worth entertaining all options in a society whose public sphere is in tatters. Huyghe traffics in clichés because these clichés are fundamental to contemporary political speech. His tape is heartbreaking, not because of some broad parody, but because of the film’s realism, even pragmatism. Both in his narrative video and in the pavilion he devised to screen it, Huyghe exposes the double edge of American “communities”—that they are, often, as much the realization of marketing concepts as they are the building blocks of a public sphere.

To use a now discredited term borrowed from Joseph Beuys, Huyghe practices a form of social sculpture that, in the Anglo-American art world, was most aggressively and successfully undertaken during the ’70s and ’80s by artists such as Hans Haacke, Mary Kelly, and Jenny Holzer. In different registers each of these figures accomplished what Fredric Jameson has called “cognitive mapping”—Haacke in his palpation of capital flows, Kelly in her specification of gender roles as normative discourses, and Holzer in demonstrating the collapse of stable subject positions in public speech. Streamside Day Follies belongs in this company, and yet, like the inversion of projection and closed-circuit video it performs, Huyghe’s work embodies two other reversals with regard to these earlier figures: First, it relaxes their commitment to counterspectacle (or to an anti-aesthetic) by optimizing the stagecraft of moving walls on the one hand and narrative cinema on the other. Haacke, Kelly, and Holzer’s critique of spectacular commercial speech was conducted either by limiting discourse to its most neutral forms (such as typescript and bureaucratic photography) or by turning spectacular imagery against itself through contradictory or subversive content. Huyghe’s embrace of spectacle is profoundly ambiguous and, one suspects, ambivalent, too: He is not quick to condemn its pleasures or to proclaim its crimes, but, rather, he allows both sorts of emotional response to ripen into melancholy. Second, Streamside Day Follies suppresses the emergence of a strong classed or gendered oppositional position. Indeed, while Huyghe’s installation invites the art world to confront its own prejudices about the bankruptcy of suburban life, and while he gives ample evidence to substantiate such a condemnation, something bewitching persists in the world of Streamside Day Follies. One might regard Huyghe’s video as a kind of “documentary” version of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, in which social mapping is transmogrified into an alternate fantasy realm where power, gender, and public speech are “perverted” (no condemnation implied here) rather than “subverted.” In my view Huyghe’s perversion is his embrace of sentiment, which recent art has taught us to despise or condescend to while the “American public” continues to speak its language apace. If there is a political message in Streamside Day Follies, then, it lies in Huyghe’s impossible hope that the sentimentality enveloping places like Streamside might somehow be perverted to social rather than merely personal ends.

David Joselit is professor of art history at Yale University