PRINT September 2013


Still from Frank Gillette’s Symptomatic Syntax, 1981, video, color, sound, 27 minutes 20 seconds. Photo: Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

THE ONLY INSTANTLY RECOGNIZABLE thing is water. It must be water, unless it is some other translucent fluid that catches the light and puts objects in motion. Not that the movement is very dramatic. Whatever natural phenomena are caught on this videotape—ferns? Small buds? A butterfly wing? Torn petals?—seem to feel no obligation to provide any sense of action, much less to explain themselves. On first impression they come across as minor contingencies on a picture plane. A tangle of billowing red and white shapes remain locked in a vibrating standstill until interrupted by a brief flickering darkness, imposed by the video editing system. As the image returns, some crumpled red objects float sideways across the monitor, ceremonially swirling toward each other, before darker and more complicated stuff takes over. We see hard edges, sharp protrusions, and shiny surfaces, bulging armor that might put some alien military division to shame: A horseshoe crab, evidently, but on screen it is mainly a piece of terrifying organic machinery that just sits there, exposing grayish, slimy insides. The water pushes tiredly against its lower end. The camera angle shifts, but no new information emerges.

To view Symptomatic Syntax, 1981, a twenty-seven-minute-long video work by Frank Gillette, is to be implicated in a concerted interaction between technical, biological, and human time loops that was one of the key preoccupations of the Raindance media collective founded in 1969 by Gillette along with Paul Ryan, Michael Shamberg, and Ira Schneider:This was the “media ecology” famously promoted in their 1970–74 journal Radical Software. At the same time, Gillette’s video implicates the viewer in a project of monitoring—the mode of perception that philosopher Stanley Cavell identified specifically with television. In film we perceive a world recorded, separate from us, even if we may want to be part of it and secretly hope that it cannot exist without us. By contrast, televisual perception is proximate: Its constant stream of live signals keeps us connected to a here and now that is understood as this world, our world, no matter the distances of transmission or the temporality of programmed contents.1 And these signal streams facilitate a mode of observation that is anxiety ridden: The world is constructed as a precarious entity whose survival seems to depend on our constant watchfulness. (From this perspective, the ecological sensibility of the late 1960s and its image of a fragile little planet threatened by excessive human activity could also be seen as a by-product of televisual modes of keeping track of life itself, through technologies that seem to attain the status of living entities.)

The point of view in Symptomatic Syntax is, more precisely, that of surveillance. A still camera takes in the scene below, registering its events in a disinterested manner. Electronic disturbance intervenes as the image or angle shifts abruptly, as if produced by a closed-circuit multicamera system and a set of automated switches. Surveillance systems are, indeed, intensifications of the general condition of televisual perception: They make evident its structural relation to anxiety and control. Still, the construction of life, nature, and the world in Gillette’s work is far from obvious. In fact, a peculiar and complex convergence is at work here: the profoundly dynamic link between environmental monitoring and early video art. For here the reduction of the world to a precious object or icon—the crisis version of Marshall McLuhan’s global village—is counteracted by the proliferating contingencies between monitoring systems and the world.

These may, of course, be the normal effects of monitoring, since surveillance cameras tend to capture enigmatic, passing shapes that are often difficult to discern. But in Gillette’s work the strangeness of what is monitored is of a different order. The video takes on another life, as if engaging a set of uncategorizable forces that explode normal gauges of mediation and measure: At exactly what distance will the objects of this world start to make sense to us? In what time frame? Related to which preconceived patterns, which memory systems? A biologist might have precise ideas about such questions and choose to observe nature through a microscope or a satellite depending on the scientific argument at stake; if collaborating on a TV nature documentary, she would inscribe the observations in a coherent narrative. But a video surveillance system is not a biologist, and its environmental engagement is based on technical properties that seem random when compared with the established scientific, journalistic, and artistic forms of natural representation. One such technical element is sound: Symptomatic Syntax constantly wavers between the “realistic” sound of running water and the type of indefinite ambient noise that only recording with a microphone will produce. What we encounter here is above all an emergent world, one that is emphatically multifarious and expansive, even monstrous. It is fitting, too, that the sound track includes references to John M. E. McTaggart’s essay “The Unreality of Time” (1908), an argument against any unified ontology of temporality. For to track such a world is to confront, head-on, the fact that it is also invented by the velocities of video monitoring—by microtemporalities and techniques of frequency modulation that are at odds with any human sense of time.

Still from Paul Ryan’s Coastal Chreods, 2005, video, color, sound, 27 minutes 5 seconds. From the Earthscore Notational System, 1971–. Photo: Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

Such forms of insight—produced at the intersection of cybernetics and systems theory—gave a whole new twist to the idea of environmental responsibility. More recently, they have led to calls for the abolition of the very concept of nature. As scholar and environmental philosopher Timothy Morton argues, the focus on “nature” as such is symptomatic of a form of ecological piety that refuses to take into account the mediation that is part and parcel of the biological/technical world: The love of “nature” actually holds nature at arm’s length, as an object apart.2

If the work and writings of the Raindance media collective and their many associates did not exactly spell out this last argument, their specific sensitivity to crisis still produced a mode of direct involvement in nature that was technical, material, and pragmatic through and through. Ryan used the term “video perception” in order to underscore that whatever was produced by the video camera was not a static representation but a live and constantly shifting “taking in” of the world itself, shaped by the technical/perceptual apparatus—just as the human nervous system always already shapes the visions that seem to just “hit” the eye. Such perspectives complemented Gillette’s repeated emphasis on the future-oriented dimension of memory, against all nostalgic tendencies to stabilize the past through historical representation. Nature was neither a “condition” to which one should return, nor a separate entity whose need for protection could simply be proven with accurate scientific representation. Rather, both the imagination of environmental crisis and the means to crisis management lay in constant perceptual and aesthetic involvement, a nonstop innervation of the senses that enforced a new type of feedback loop, so to speak, between industrialized humans and their larger biological world.

The problem was how such innervations might be effectively shared. How—hopefully—thousands of individual nervous systems might be interlinked in such a circuit. Where Symptomatic Syntax opened onto the perceptual experience of a complicated and disquieting biotope, Ryan wanted to create something both more systematic and more distributed.

In the early 1970s, he conceived of an approach to this problem with his Earthscore Notational System, a conceptual scheme that could be used to construct various ecological projects. One such application was the Ecochannel Design project, a television channel that would constantly broadcast images of nature from a number of locations. Over time, this image stream would pick up behavioral patterns in individual ecosystems—what biologist C. H. Waddington called chreods, or “necessary pathways.” Identifying such chreods might provide the basis for a notational system through which to interpret an emergent natural world. A writing system of sorts, Earthscore was still essentially a perceptual syntax: The idea was to facilitate a veritable “orchestration” of perceptions, so that a collective of TV viewers would start to intuitively see and feel both regularities and critical changes in the environment. Ryan called it “a short cut to ecological sanity by way of aesthetics,” since knowledge about possible damage to the ecosystem would no longer be comprised of disembodied facts hurled at you by specialists and activists, but would instead be part of a shared sensorial apparatus. Subtle but symptomatic changes in water flows, plant growth, or spawning behavior might become as much of a conversation piece as a sudden rainstorm, and perhaps generate as much hurried action.

IT MIGHT SOUND LIKE a project doomed to fail. Given the ever-more monolithic channeling of TV perception into the feedback loops of entertainment capital, the Ecochannel—and the Earthscore Notational System as a whole—obviously came across as a particularly high-minded form of utopianism. And given the guerilla habits of much of the ’70s counterculture—attacking institutions and corporations at the macro level, feeding off antagonisms—a project built around precisely the type of aesthetic attachment to the very apparatus that was the driving force of capitalist media did not have much political leverage. Today, however, Earthscore’s mode of action and reflection (if not its technical solutions) may seem less quixotic. As “Kyoto” and “Copenhagen” have become depressing shorthand for the failure to produce political and legal consensus on efficient environmental action, thinkers as different as Gernot Böhme and Bruno Latour have argued for increased aesthetic and perceptual sensitization to the issues at stake: Facts need feelings in order to mobilize real feedback, to create atmospheres in which to expand. And today we know, for better and for worse, the technologies of tracking and coordinating the most microscopic sensibilities, the “likes” and “dislikes” that make up vast informal communities. No political theorist in her right mind would now ignore the tangible reality of these volatile clouds of psychological attachments and the various environmental systems to which they belong.

No matter how the monitoring mode of perception and its relation to the environment will be understood in an age when the once-monolithic thing called television is multiplied and displaced to ever-newer platforms, media formats, and programs, Earthscore and Symptomatic Syntax remain monuments. They are vital reminders of a time when “video” was not yet an art form or a mode of image production, but a kind of quasi-living material that managed to present itself as a facilitator of intimate relations—or complex, reflexive continuities—between one form of biological life and another. For a brief moment, video became the name for a distinct effort to rethink social dynamics from the ground up, so as to transform the very notion of political action.

Ina Blom is a professor in the department of philosophy, classics, history of art and ideas at the University of Oslo.


1. Stanley Cavell, “The Fact of Television,” in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation, ed. John G. Hanhardt (New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986), 192–218. See also Mary Ann Doane, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 220–39.

2. Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).