San Sebastian

The San Sebastian International Video Festival

In only its second year of operation, this festival has established itself as one of the most important events on the video circuit. In 1983 it featured over 100 works (including official and special presentations), exhibiting an impressive flexibility and range of selections and underlining the wealth of video production that is currently being confined to a distribution ghetto.

The word “video,” of course, denotes an emphasis on the visual, and much of the short history of the field has been given over to exploring the potential of the electronic image. The San Sebastian festival, however, featured a number of works which pointed to the current interest in aural and rhythmic possibilities as illustrated through the editing of voice, music, and image. Certain works were structured around the notion of the text as a concrete element of discourse. Three French-language tapes were particularly concerned with this double articulation of sound and image: Joelle de la Casinière’s Grimoire Magnetique (Magnetic code, Belgium, 1982); Pierre Lobstein’s Annonce pour quelques images disparues à venir (Announcement for several lost images to come, France, 1983); and Jean-Paul Fargier’s Paradis Vidéo (France, 1983). The latter features writer Philippe Sollers reading one of his texts at breakneck speed for one hour, while his image is integrated into accompanying scenes of exotic locales. These scenes bear more a tangential than a direct relationship to the words themselves; both text and image, however, through what seems an infinite description of emotions, places, qualities, and things, have a self-generative quality. Yet finally a dualism informs this work. While the spoken text and the combination of images amply demonstrate their ability to simulate a state of mind (paradise) for the reader/viewer, they also point to the separation that exists by being placed in that state through the image and remaining outside it through language.

Paradis Vidéo, as an example of first-person discourse, may also be approached through the concept of narcissism and its relation to the idea of the mirror image. The most fully realized tapes in this area were those of Klaus vom Bruch, from West Germany. Each work screened (Propellertape, 1979, Das Duracellband, 1980, Das Allientenband, 1982, and Charmant Band, 1983) featured a repetitive succession of images and sounds, combining documentary war footage with shots of vom Bruch, his gaze frequently directed at the camera. In Das Allientenband, for example, vom Bruch virtually uses the video camera as a mirror, taking off his sweater, combing his hair, etc., as images of a bombed-out landscape are alternated. Narcissism, in its overdeterminism, is extended to imbricate the personal and the historical.

Vom Bruch’s work is an attempt to fuse seemingly disparate elements in order to open up their connotative potential, but its proposal of a cumulative reading of successive scenes adopts a commonplace narrative strategy. While this strict, seemingly unproblematic narrative style is easily adapted by the cinema, video has so far been the more concerned with its formal permutations. Stephen Littman’s Smoker Tapes (Great Britain, 1983), for example, charts a progression from scenes which strongly resist interpretation to the final emergence of a fiction with the addition of each scene. In Robert Cahen’s Juste le temps (Just enough time, France, 1983), images of a landscape become more and more abstracted through the use of colorization, yet they also become charged with a fictional structure when revealed as shots from the point of view of a “character” on a train. Robert Wilson’s Stations (France/U.S., 1983) presents a succession of fantastic images which fracture the realistic context in which its nuclear family operates. Claudia von Alemann’s Der Frauenzimmer (The woman’s place, West Germany, 1982) takes the opposite approach, transforming a series of mundane kitchen actions to a level of expressionistic gesture. The result is devastating in its equation of formal rigor and physical repression.

Both Elsa Cayo’s Qui vole un oeuf, vole un oeuf (Who steals an egg, steals an egg, France, 1982) and Michael Klier’s Die Reise (The trip, West Germany, 1982) utilize “neutral” footage to explore methods of narrativization. The former sets up a situation in which the artist is taped by a surveillance camera while shoplifting items from a supermarket; the latter also uses a surveillance camera, taking blurry, black and white shots of fog-enshrouded streets, traffic, people approaching the entrance of a house, etc. While Klier’s use of melodramatic music invites a pseudo-narrative reading of the shots, the images themselves retain a minimalist innocence. Both Klier’s anonymous sequences and Cayo’s antiperformance establish a complicity with the viewer based on the expanded possibilities of each successive reading.

If any one tape could illustrate the richness and complexity of the work shown at San Sebastian, it might be City of Angels, by Marina Abramović and Ulay (Belgium, 1983), in which the same combination of minimalism and essentialism which animates their performances is reflected in their video portraits of Bangkok natives. In a stunning last shot, we see all of the subjects of the previous portraits gathered together on a mountain top, with a turtle crossing the frame providing the only motion. Yet, the scene, despite its stillness, is never static. Like the entire work, its motion lies in its movement from segment to segment, each redefining the other, making the tape, and our understanding of it, a continuous work-in-progress.

Michael Tarantino