Saturday, March 9, 2013
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Foucault, in his annual lecture series at the Collège de France in 1978 under the title Security, Territory, Population, elaborated the dispositifs of surveillance and subjectification familiar to readers of Discipline and Punish and The Will to Know with a greater emphasis on something that he considered to be relatively recent: the technologies of security. The disciplinary regulation of normality and abnormality has, Foucault argued in these lectures, altered its focus from the production and control of normalized individuals to the administration of quantifiable populations in delimited territories based on large-scale analysis and prediction.
The title of given to this lecture series is important as it serves to highlight the thematics of Hope Peterson's installation at RAW Gallery, The Night is a Moat. This installation is the latest articulation of an ongoing series of investigations into security, territory, population, surveillance and precarity under the title Threshold Economics begun in 2009. (Other findings from this artistic project have been exhibited as part of the My Winnipeg show in Paris, Sète, Ottawa and Winnipeg). All of the work in this series involves hand-held camera footage of the artist's apartment and its immediate nocturnal winter environs, accompanied by a mélange of amplified sounds all-too-well-known to any apartment dweller: steam-radiators clanging and hissing, cars passing by, muffled voices and footsteps, a constant mechanical pulse/whine.
In the case of The Night is a Moat, the sense of enclosure (both protective and claustrophobic) that pervades the works comprising the Threshold Economics project is further augmented by the gallery space itself – a basement, with its lights turned particularly low which requires viewers to take a moment to allow their eyes to adjust to the dark. A large video screen is mounted in a curtained-off area, thereby making it not immediately visible from the gallery's entry, as the sound reverberates throughout the bricked room. At first exposure to the environment produced by Peterson's installation, we are posed a question, or, rather, exposed to a mystery. What is happening? This sense of being involved in the investigation of a mystery is underlined by the title of the installation, which evokes noir radio serials of the 1940s – an important source of inspiration to the artist. It is here that the affect of noir mystery combines with the thematics of security, territory and population by means of two main features in this exhibition: the deployment of surveillance and the police.
Peterson's camera work primarily functions in two imbricated ways: as mimesis of CCTV and as hand-held personal recordings (as one would record a car accident or an assault, for example, on one's iPhone). Both of these modes of surveillance – call them the corporate and the subjective – are ubiquitous in the contemporary socio-political configuration; Peterson's usage of both surveillance modes is complex. On the one hand, we have the personal mode: the “occupant-subject,” apparently confined to her apartment, peers through security keyholes to record ominously-lit men standing in corridors or (as we will come to later) being led away by the Winnipeg police. At other times, the occupant-subject looks through windows, often with what seems to be some trepidation; more often than not, the streets are deserted and we are treated to imagery that are almost sensuous in their treatment of light, shadow, colour and form. (Trees silhouetted in the night sky, multi-coloured lights from cars and streetlamps, parking lots whose cover of snow give them the appearance of planes of pale blue). I say almost sensuous; the video image has the graininess that characterizes footage shot on a cellphone or the like. (This is a deliberate effect on Peterson's part, as the footage was, in fact, shot in HD). When the streets are not empty, there are overtones of violence: a woman walks to her car at speed, as though fleeing someone; a man and woman have a heated argument that threatens to become physical; policemen arrest a man, ask questions of a woman, smoke cigarettes as they wait. Two complementary consequences can be drawn: the occupant-subject is in a territory that is (or is perceived to be) threatening to her. However, she is (or perceives herself to be) in a protective zone; she is not exposed to the violence she records. (It is in this context that it should be pointed out that the audio component of the installation is, despite being reminiscent at times of David Lynch's Eraserhead, actually becomes soothing and womb-like after sustained listening.) The night is indeed a moat, that is, a protective apparatus designed to keep a territory secure.
“...and always cops.” We have already noted the presence of the police on a few occasions now: taking a man in the apartment into custody, standing outside waiting. For Foucault, the development of the idea that the state should have a police force as distinct from the diplomatic/military apparatus is essential in securing a territory internally by constructing a population (a quantifiable entity with predictable tendencies) out of a group of heterogeneous people. As in Foucault, the police serve an ambiguous function in The Night is a Moat. On the one hand, they are, as one might expect, part of a disciplinary apparatus; the police lead away a criminal, defined as “someone who is lead away by police.” They survey the neighbourhood, standing by their cars with lights flashing. (The section of the video when the cops are standing in the snow smoking cigarettes as if waiting for something to happen is one of the more chilling moments in the work.) On the other hand, the sections when the police are on screen are actually few and far between, the majority of the video spent meditating on the landscape. William Burroughs is reported to have quipped that “a fully functioning police state needs no police,” and so it is with The Night is a Moat: the absence of police is affected by their presence, which is to say, the disciplinary function of the police is transformed into an auto-security feature of the landscape itself. The sophistication of Peterson's analysis of the contemporary structures of surveillance, security and population-control is all the more remarkable for the modesty of its means – image, sound, space. Thus we can only hope to ask her again: Watcher, what of the night?
Hope Peterson – The Night is a Moat
RAW Gallery of Architecture and Design
290 McDermot Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba
18 October – 10 November 2012
all images stills from Hope Peterson's Threshold Economics (2011), save the second gallery image which is courtesy of Robert Szkolnicki.
Friday, December 21, 2012
Monday, October 22, 2012
The importance of the transition from analogue to digital in the realm of video art cannot be overestimated; new understandings of the status of the digital video image were seized with a mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety by artists seeking to explore the seemingly endless transformative and malleable qualities of the digital image – its capacity to be altered, its capacity to be transmitted telematically and its capacity (or lack thereof) for representation.
These are some of the issues to which video artist Lei Cox addresses in his work. A recent (partial) retrospective of his career, Twenty-Six Years Later (a journey to fiction and back), presented a selection of Cox's work from 1985 to the present and included a variety of Cox's single-channel and installation video work. However, the centrepiece of the exhibition was a triptych entitled Being There, itself a composite of three separately produced but related video works Catching Sight of Sputnik 2009/11, Race 2010/11 and Auto Race 2010. This triptych took up the major part at the end of the gallery, its centrality signalled by the relative size of the projections (each segment taking up an entire wall) compared to the other works which were mounted at a distance from the central installation on much smaller screens with headphones in order that they not interfere with the sound of the larger works. The implication here is that the triptych serves as a kind of summation of Cox's work to date. The question then becomes what is this summation is being offered here, and to what future does it point?
To begin, descriptions of each of the separate videos. Catch Sight of Sputnik 2009/11 is a characteristically mordant exploration of space-travel conspiracy theories (e.g. the moon-landing was staged by Stanley Kubrick etc.) In this video, Cox performs a series of dance-like manoeuvres – literally, one small step followed by one giant leap over and over again – in an apparently lunar landscape under a fantastic star-filled sky at one point traversed by a retro-futuristic rocket ship. Gradually, an important transformation occurs: the lunar landscape gradually reveals itself to be a terrestrial desert, with an all-too terrestrial blue sky above it. Throughout this revealed fakery, Cox continues his Neil Armstrong dance.
Race 2010 continues the retro-futurist demystifications of Catching Sight of Sputnik in a more deflationary manner. A single, diminutive toy robot struggles to navigate its way across a desert landscape (as with Sputnik, shot along the Salt Lake Flats in Utah). The robot, ill-suited to movement against so uneven a terrain, frequently falls and must be restored to verticality by Cox until the robot-toy finally exits the frame. Such slow, jerky movement is contrasted by the last video in the triptych – Auto Race 2010. In this video, Cox drives at speed in a pick-up truck in the same desert as the other two works. He described, during his artist talk at the Gurevich Gallery opening, his activities as a sort of large-scale tracery – with the movement of the truck scoring patterns on the earth that followed the patterns of celestial events.
In all three of these videos, Cox explores the malleability of digital and “real” space by emphasizing scale: whether the quotidian scale of a truck driving helter skelter through a desert plain, through to the pathos-ridden miniscule scale of a toy robot, to the astronomic scale of the faked moon-landing of the Sputnik video. As in all of his work, Cox places himself in each of these videos, but in different relations to the framing space: he is unseen in the truck tracing patterns that are only visible from an air-born view-point (significantly not shown in the Auto Race work); he is the giant figure picking up the toy robot (such that only Cox's arm and leg are seen); he is the miniscule figure leaping around a deserted planetary surface, gradually increasing in size as the extra-terrestrial reveals its terrestrial reality until he almost takes up the entire space of the screen.
What is the function of these changes of scale? I would suggest that two things are happening here. On the one hand, the human body – specifically Cox's body – is digitally endowed with certain extensions of its ability to manipulate its environment by means of its malleability, thereby giving an unprecedentedly inventive analogy to Marshal McLuhan's well-known theorization of the essentially prosthetic nature of technology. On the other hand, there is a significant extension of the the nature of the digital image itself. The alterations of scale do not occur only at the figural level (the artist's image) but also occur at the level of the ground against which the figure impresses himself. While it is generally held that the flatness of the digital image enables its malleability – as Flusser suggests in his book Into the Universe of the Technical Image – Cox, by telescoping both figure and ground, striates the smoothness of the digital image by compelling it to reveal, in a suitably sci-fi formulation, its hidden dimension.