Doug Davis

Fischbach Gallery

Two years ago Doug Davis began an article on video with the statement: “The esthetic possibilities inherent in video have hardly been thought about at all.” Davis wrote about the potential of video like Jack Burnham used to write about other collaborations of art and technology, with lots of predictions about radical innovations soon (but not quite yet) to be upon us. As nearly as I can tell, it’s time to start thinking.

Davis’ recent exhibition of video pieces dating from 1970 does little more than outline a few of the possibilities, and the most impressive element throughout is the video equipment itself. Street Sentences (1972) reflects a current and widespread use of video, documentary. In it, Davis asks passersby in Washington Square Park to “say a sentence for television” with results that wouldn’t make the six o’clock news. In the Santa Clara Tapes, he executes a number of actions specified in the titles of these short pieces: Knocking, Digging, Breaking, Reaching, Falling, Stopping, Lighting. In the first, hands tap, knock and then beat, with increasing frenzy on a panel of glass. The glass is invisible; only the sound and the flattening of Davis’ palms indicate its location. In Digging the camera focuses on a reclining female nude, moving over her body, closer and closer each time, until the image becomes very strange and indistinct, disappearing completely as contact is made. By the third piece, Breaking, things are fairly predictable. When Davis starts taping his own image reflected in a large mirror, the suspicion that he will ultimately move forward and smash the mirror with the camera proves absolutely correct. In Reaching, the poor camera is lowered over the side of a building (twisting, turning and causing the whole image to do likewise), toward a pair of hands beckoning from a window. The camera finally reaches the hands, which grab it and cover the lens. Blackout again. And so on, through a series of foreseeable dénouements. The video seems to become a hapless persona, a camera-cum-handtool, recording the actions it performs. Davis’ work centers around the spatial entendres that would occur to almost anyone given a video camera to play with. The same objection applies to Going In in which Davis with a video and Jud Yalkut with a film camera simultaneously record each other’s movements on a roof, projecting the results side by side in the gallery.

Studies in Myself II, a very beautiful color tape, seemed most blatant in its technology, pinpointing the problem of its use. The machinery, some kind of video-teletypewriter, is briefly amazing. Typed words appear on the screen (letter by letter, typos and all) over an image of Davis doing the actual typing at the machine. As Davis puts it in one of the first sentences to appear: “I am typing out these words from my mind to your mind while I am thinking of them.” It is instantaneous, simultaneous stream of consciousness. But Davis is not James Joyce, and the narrative is never very engrossing. What is more interesting is the machine itself, but ultimately there doesn’t seem to be much you can do with it. Its spontaneity is wasted; no writer is going to improvise anything worthwhile, it’s too fast, and it’s too slow for other kinds of improvisation. A machine which will print the spoken word over the image of the person as he actually speaks (or better yet, as he thinks it) must be in the work somewhere and would be more to the point. But either way, the outcome is still totally dependent upon the abilities of the user and have little bearing on the level of technology.

I realize my attitude is pre-McLuhan, but in any art form Davis’ kind of instantaneousness can only go so far. The artists who are investigating the possibilities of video are doing it with the kind of deliberation and control with which work of complexity is always developed. Their investigations become more interesting as the deliberation increases and consciousness (theirs and ours) of the purely mechanical characteristics decreases. Davis, in his writing and his art, substantiates only the potential of video. It is true that technology changes our notion of time and space by accelerating and complicating our perceptions of it, but, in the raw, it doesn’t change our notion of art or of the kind of experience it provides.

Roberta Smith