New York

Juan Downey

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

By now the forms of TV are powerful as much because of their familiarity as because of their unswervingly simplistic view of things. In Information Withheld, 1983, as in his earlier The Looking Glass, 1981, Juan Downey borrows aspects of the structure of a very familiar TV genre—the cultural documentary—and proceeds to weave through them a

The larger screen of a UNEX sign, the future, dateline 1984, with an opti richly textured argument about a subtle subject—in this case, the ways in which people use signs, and the relationship between signs and art. Moreover, these tapes are the first two parts of a projected series of 13 segments called The Thinking Eye, in which, Downey told me, he intends to examine “how we project order onto space—how we symbolize.”

Downey constructs his argument from a broad range of references, in shots that command attention both for their high degree of craft and for their intuitive connection to the question of signs and symbolization. He begins by presenting the signs on New York fish stores; proceeds to footage of himself in Egypt, asleep in his car, until children wake him to play Luciano Pavarotti on the tape deck; goes into a discussion of the derivation of letter forms from signs for animals; and so on. This collage of evidence is most often presented in a relatively unmediated way, with only environmental sound or music to make clear the significance of a particular scene. In other cases explanatory comments are provided by Downey or others, including art historian Leo Steinberg, who in one section analyzes Michelangelo’s Doni Madonna, 1503, noting that “still pictures are quite likely to keep the mind restless, since they thrive on information withheld.” The autobiographical strain evident in all Downey’s work appears here as well, most pointedly in a scene of a barber shaving a man’s head; in a voice-over Downey describes how, as a boy, getting a haircut would make him vomit. This somewhat irrelevant recollection is connected to the theme of the tape when the barber explains that “in the old country” the red and white stripes of the barber pole signified “blood and bandages.”

Revealing his personal relation to his topic in this way serves to further expand the territory of experience that Downey stakes out for himself. Unlike Kenneth Clark and John Berger, who in their TV essays Civilization and Ways of Seeing deal with art as a privileged category of symbolization (whether to exalt it or debunk it), Downey treats it in the context of more mundane things like road signs and advertising. Moreover, he gives his material a degree of autonomy, in many cases allowing scenes to present themselves rather than using them simply to illustrate a text. In most sections there is no narrator to function as a caption to the visuals; even when a narrator does appear, Downey will frequently cut him or her off in mid sentence in the editing.

This disjunctive montage gives Information Withheld a zippy energy, as it leaps around the world (from New York to Egypt to Chile), cutting across habitual categories of thought to link disparate scenes and ideas. The free-form acrobatics of the structure reflect Downey’s intention to present the project as an interactive videodisc; the 28-minute tape is comprised of sequences of a minute or two each, which could be called up by a viewer in any order, using any criterion—at random, by the country in which the scene was shot, by whether or not it has a narrator, and so on. However farsighted it may be to try to anticipate new technology, an unfortunate side effect of Downey’s decision to adopt this bitty structure is that his information never coheres into a larger overall pattern but remains a series of brilliant snippets, which outline the topic but don’t fill it in much. In the tape, this episodic quality is somewhat overcome by the sequence Downey sets up for the individual sections. But the interactive videodisc promises to be essentially a filing system, which will not in itself provide a narrative order capable of helping a viewer understand the information it contains. In its capsulized structure Information Withheld suggests two other TV genres: TV news and, of course, commercials. In these it is not information that is withheld, but meaning.

Charles Hagen