Los Angeles

Dan Graham and Mowry Baden

Otis Art Institute

Dan Graham has a considerable standing among video artists, but, from two works (Yesterday/Today and Present Continuous Pasts), at Otis Art Institute, it’s hard to see why. Could be it’s my inability to sympathize with the laboratory rat syndrome, wherein the spectator/participant is (condenscendingly) beckoned into a behaviorist cubicle, proffered another hoary ol’ time-space conundrum, and asked (by implication) to cogitate some more on the nature of consciousness. To be sure, the artist is shielded from self-exposure by appropriate, grant-application language:

Where the mirror psychologically fixes self-perception on an imagined ego seen by others, alienated from private consciousness and the experience of present behavior, an effect of videotape replay is to make perception of consciousness and experience contiguous. . . . On video the difference between intention and actual behavior is fed back on the monitor and immediately influences the observer’s future intentions and behavior.
(Dan Graham, Present Continuous Pasts, 1974)

And we’re left with the mannered art world authenticity of monitor, camera, dry-wall, and mirror to carry the effect. (On radio talk shows, they simply tell you to turn down your radio when calling in, so the eight-second delay won’t garble your thoughts.) Pasts consists of a room with two mirrored walls, a TV camera peeking down through a hole from high on a wall, and a monitor fixed so that one sees it, then a reflection of it, and a reflection of the reflection, and so on, in the mirrored wall. Between what the camera records (you and your friends) and its appearance on the monitor lurks a four-second delay, another delay before the reflection of the monitor reacts, and a third lag before the reflection of the reflection, and (again and again) so on. Of course “the observer’s future intentions [sic] and behavior” are “influenced”—but in anything but the predictable (or quantifiable) way all that operating-room gear would suggest. Only if you stand and gaze at the monitor—not sniff around the cell to examine the mirror fasteners or line up the studding bulges—does the device act upon your “future intentions”; even then, it’s a tossup between doing your own solo Busby Berkeley routines (which I did, with a “cast” of only five, since a CTR’s fidelity breaks down after four reflections) or simply counting off the delay, or wondering just what the hell is missing that would make this business transcend Psychology 334A, “Perception and Motor Movements.” Tragedy? Comedy? Wit? Irreverence? Anything?

Yesterday/Today is a little better, if only because it’s a little drier—if you’re going to be laid back, lay back:

A video monitor in a public place displays a present time view of the visual activities in a second, nearby, room. The visual scene on the monitor is accompanied by an audio playback of sound tape recorded from the second room one day before at exactly the same time of day. As the room is nearby, the spectator may directly enter its real space.

The “nearby room” is the student lounge, with molded plastic chairs, an American flag, a pingpong table; occasionally, a barely ambulatory student drifts by with a small bowl of atrophied Jell-O or a Coke. Not much is going on there today, and, judging from the audio emanating from a Celestione 120 speaker, not much went on yesterday, either; the past-present juxtaposition is no more unnerving than the dubbing in a Mexican vampire movie. It’s dull enough in the lounge itself, but the video hands you the worst of two worlds: the unedited real-time drone of “real life” and the electronic de-juicification of it through media.

Mowry Baden, the other environmental artist in the exhibition, knows quite a bit about perceptual psychology, to the point where he realizes that art based on textbook experiments needs a little poetry to avoid the kind of electrodism plaguing Graham. Up a few steps you go, down a short corridor, then turn left into a strange, octagonal room. The middle of it is filled with gravel (Baden says gravel seems “soft” to him), a wooden walkway about 30 inches wide follows the perimeter, and the ceiling is natural muslin or canvas—on the whole, symmetrical, even, quiet, ever so slightly understated. But there’s a catch: the whole thing tilts. From my kinesthetic log, the doorway platform of the walk and one segment to either side are “level” (all this is relative, you realize), but the segments ninety degrees from the entrance tip downward, and continue downward for another couple of segments on either side—the eighth, opposite the portal, being lowest. Baden’s point—no, more than a “point,” an esthetic premise—is that we “feel” this tilt, since all other clues to plumb are missing; it’s a nice idea, well done in general, but cut short by, say, 30 percent through detailing. Desiring an unantiseptic grey-beige ambience, Baden regrettably leaves the wall board unpainted—leaving intact the pencil true-lines and visible rows of nail heads. The tightness of taping and painting (they do make grey paint) would have been more worthwhile than the ’70s “out-frontness” of naked carpentry. It’s an odd omission, since everything else (like the width of the walkway, or the spotlights outside the door, shining on top of the cloth ceiling, two hooded with tinfoil and two bare) is so lovingly measured. Nevertheless, it’s impressive enough.

Peter Plagens