We commissioned Mark Aerial Waller to create a film programme for the Whitstable Biennale 2014. Mark is an artist, and also organises film evenings as The Wayward Canon. His curated programme for Whitstable Biennale 2016 was screened at the Horsebridge Arts Centre, and featured works by contemporary artists, interspersed with clips from the 1970s TV sci-fi detective series ‘Sapphire and Steel’. This is an essay Mark wrote to accompany the film programme.
Please take a seat or lean as you like, this place is also called The Wayward Canon, it’s a film club that I started at the turn of the millennium. It used to create a context by which people might obliquely understand my own films, then it became more to do with the construction of participation and what it meant for the audience to be there. It used to be quite distinct from my own work. Nowadays it feels that I have blurred the boundary a bit. I am placing other artists’ works, specifically television and online video into the space of this institution and giving you the option to be Sapphire and Steel for an hour, or more, if you like. Sapphire and Steel were characters from an underrated science fiction television show. Their job was to investigate temporal aberrations and then put them back into shape, but they got trapped inside the show, in a petrol station back in time. I am continually working out how to keep enough space and time around us, to keep laughing, like the dolphins and the cats!
“All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension … Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.” (Sapphire & Steel, 1979)
When we encounter an art object we approach it through physical space and through the cognitive organisations of perceptions into abstract thought and language. This is the Association Area. It is both an architectural space and an internal area of the cerebral cortex. The architectural use of the term is mainly directed at prison design, the association area, ‘public’ space where inmates experience controlled socialisation. Simultaneously, the association areas of the cerebral cortex are the regions that plan actions and organise perception, processing basic sensory stimulation and sending signals on to higher orders of thought.
In the 1950s and 60s Museum spaces were seen by a new generation of conceptual and video artists as repressive structures and works within them deprived of context. Two artists in this exhibition, Vito Acconci and VALIE EXPORT were part of this new generation. EXPORT (2012) states in an interview “We had to argue for new aesthetics, new modes of operation, new ways to present. Above all we felt it necessary not to perform or exhibit in museums or galleries, but to work in underground experimental spaces instead, or the ‘public realm’, as its now called, in those days we called it ‘street actions’! Nowadays we see museums as public space too, but I didn’t want to appear in museums, since I saw them as repressive, not authentically public.” Acconci (1990) also continues his questioning of the spatial structures of control: “The establishment of certain space in the city as “public” is a reminder, a warning that the rest of the city isn’t public.(…)The space that was made public began as its opposite. This was space that was never meant to be public at all; a royal space or a presidential space.”
Just as Acconci and EXPORT were redefining the autonomy of the artwork and person in relation to the city, they were also redefining their relation to the electronic image. VALIE EXPORT’s Raumsehen und Raumhören, (‘Space Seeing, Space Hearing’) (1974) is radical and exciting in its display of the liberating potential of video and electronic music, representing herself teleported across physical space. However, she questions the medium as a technology for control of the body in time and space, where we are coerced, by our tendency to understand sequential images as narrative, into believing her body is dynamic, even though she is just standing still, doing nothing, maybe even minding her own business in a time well before video surveillance. Vito Acconci’s Association Area (1971) produced what he later called a “magic circle” cut off from the viewer. He and a colleague blindfolded and ear plugged, attempt to imitate one another’s actions through intuition and concentration, whilst a whispering voice issues instructions, beyond their earshot. Inside this circle, the work became about the relation of the two men who are “possibly coming to some kind of unity with each other ” (Macdonald, 2010). It is important to the consideration of the work that there is a distance to the audience. The distancing is not necessarily a failure in connection as Acconci states, it actually heightens the audience’s role in the work, as we are asked to occupy the role of investigator, to deduce the rules of this rather occult activity.
This “magic circle”, a separation between the audience and the subject continues in the fetish videos of Wet Canuck, aka Wet Soldier, who has regularly posted his videos to the web since 2003. The actions he carries out are seemingly banal, devoid of overt eroticism and sexualised gesture. He immerses himself fully clothed into water, in buckets, baths, lakes, rivers and a swimming pool. The videos document the relationship between the water, him, us, and the clothes. The clothes, rather than his clothes, as they are often costumes chosen as a result of online comments and requests. The video shown here, Raiders Jacket, Ecko Jeans, in the Pool (2010) typifies his relation to clothing, either combat military fatigues or fashion street wear and trainers in excellent condition. The costumes suggest a desire for the types of men who may wear them, perhaps on a Saturday trip to the mall. By wetting them, Canuck diminishes their normative high street value, desecrating their capitalist desire and baptising them with his own personal erotic desire. The clothes are not only symbols of a relation to capital, to consumer segments and to the politics of military street wear, but also physically practical for his immersion and buoyancy. The jacket is well suited to trap air, becoming momentarily tumescent, making dual associations to eroticism and a floatation/gravitational experience as he bobs and rises in the surrounding fluid. As he starts to enter the water he performs an exaggerated slowing down of movement, extending the moment of contact in an effort to concentrate on the sensory changes, looking to the cuffs as they absorb the fluid medium. Then, importantly, he makes occasional mannered stares directly to camera, in recognition perhaps of his narcissism and meeting the gaze of the online audience, then swiftly returns to gaze back at his clothes, directing us back to his immersion in physical sensory hedonism.
Wet Canuck’s videos contain a radical intent shared with Acconci and Export, but instead of making work with the intention of diagrammatising and testing the conditions of art, the knowledge is used for hedonism. His videos perhaps actualise the theoretical concerns of minimalist (literalist) informed video practices, such as Acconci’s and some of Export’s. Melanie Marino (1999) writes in relation to Acconci:
“Already perceived by Clement Greenberg in ‘Recentness of Sculpture,’ the experience of presence in literalist art as described by Fried derives its effect from the expansion of the aesthetic field to the outside, to include an other but not in order to be absorbed into the work, but to become subject in relation to the image as object.”
Marino’s analysis of “body as space” video art practices raises the question of the formation of the subject, the relation between the viewer and the space of art, that in turn invites us to rethink the notions of privacy and publicness. From the confused, then irate YouTube comments for Wet Canuck, it appears that the video resists entry, duping the uninitiated viewer into false interpretation, yet solicits attention to deduce the parameters of his joy.
Often works of video art have only been seen partially or as reference images, due to works’ duration and general availability, the rest remains in anticipation or imagination, supposed actions, implied by glimpses at fragments. This can be also be said for the underrated TV series Sapphire & Steel. The detective/operators in the 1979-1982 SF television series were sent out to handle temporal irregularities of imperceptible danger. “It was pure fear,” says series writer PJ Hammond, “there was no blood, no knives, no shootings… Just fear alone. Everyday items that turn against us and scare us, that’s what I wanted to do. Objects that we love dearly, our toys, our nursery rhymes… that’s going to provide the chill.” Sapphire & Steel occupied an unusual part of British television history, shared with confused Fonz fans watching Becket’s Happy Days or a nine-hour marathon of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. The program sets a demanding relationship with the viewer. Sapphire and Steel Assignment 6 takes place in an Edward Hopper like tableau of a deserted petrol station, situated in a temporal cul-de-sac where the ‘elements’ finally realise that they are the subjects needing special assistance, for they are the ones about to be placed in an eternally damned trap. This trap isn’t the one they were expecting; a box of travel chess, it was the petrol station itself, the space of the narrative, they were thinking in the wrong scale, concentrating too much on the supposed subject. Writer PJ Hammond defends his decision to close the narrative in on them, to make what he calls, a dark ending, “I think characters have to win the right to win, if you like.”
Simon Martin’s work Carlton (2006) uses a film (that he made) of the iconic bookshelf designed by postmodern architect and designer Ettore Sottsass as a means to reflect on its relation to the viewer, the time of its making, the artist and the location of subject. It is a tribute to the thoughts and ability of a man, who at seventy years old managed to radically change the design of interiors and public spaces worldwide. Sottsass wrote “I believe that the future only begins when the past has been completely dismantled, its logic reduced to dust and nostalgia is all that remains.” The bookshelf is made from a wide variety of laminates, the film reflects this fractured materiality, also bringing together high and low values of art and culture, nostalgia and the here and now. The voice heard from the speakers accompanying the film seems to be speaking on behalf of and beyond the film, tangential to artists’ own subjectivity. It reflects on Sottsass, the philosophy of his design group, Memphis, the effect of this on the public, then centrally, the ontological position of the bookcase:
Or Is it also about an object turning away from itself, that thinks that one day it would like to be a sculpture, an object that holds memories and feelings, a totem that speaks of ritual function, sacrificial exchange and ritual purpose.
This area of reflection suggests that the subject is really in flux, it’s not just about us or the film, or the bookcase or Sottsass, but about all this and us together. Carlton is all that its totemic form identifies with, it itself operates as a fetish.
Eva Stenram’s photographic series pornography/forest_pics (2004-12) initially looks to be a series of forest landscapes with small clearings, some with blankets or clothes laid out reminiscent of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The people are gone, but the title, the clothes, vehicles and tools suggest inhabitation. The pornographic objects have been overlayed, replaced by iterations of background pixels to build up a site without target. We could think back to Acconci’s Seed Bed, where the artist is hidden, masturbating beneath the raised gallery floor, to consider the object’s latency/presence dialectic within minimalist discourse. This is a photograph though, not a continuous live event, where the traces of the bodies suggest they have been left in the past. The viewer needs to find a new register, “The vanishing of the subject reminds us…The subject is no longer master of the image in the imaginary relation” (Mariño, 1999). Surrealist Roger Caillois writes about the mimetic behavior of animals in relation to a loss of ego in Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia, first published in the journal Minotaure in 1935. He argues that it is not the instinct for survival that is instantiated here, but a drive at the level of the organism toward likeness. The animal dissolves itself into its surroundings. “To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis. It ends by replacing them…. [The individual] tries to look at himself from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is the ‘convulsive possession.'” Here the pornographic bodies had the potential to be objects of our viewing, but became part of the surroundings, placed into mimicry by the artist. The forest, or “the dark space where things cannot be put” is activated by their disappearance. The forest possesses the bodies, giving a sense of potential malevolence to the images. So the images cause the viewer to establish themselves again as detectives, to deduce something from apparent lack of subject.
I don’t think that the viewer is the main subject being questioned here though, throughout the various relations of the programme. It could be interesting to think of Wet Canuck, who may have successfully navigated the dichotomy between public/private and the trap of control/controlled, commodification/customer by converting brands into fetish, re-inscribed for a joyful relationship to the trap without becoming infantilised. We can all find the space and time to be cats and dolphins.
– Mark Aerial Waller, 2014
Mariño, Melanie (1999) PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 21.1, 63-74 Caillois Roger (1935) Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia in Minotaure Export, Valie (2012) Interview conducted by Agnieszka Kubicka-Dzieduszycka, [online] https://vimeo.com/58209268, Accessed 14/05/14 Acconci, Vito (1990) Public Space in a Private Time in Critical Inquiry ,Vol. 16, No. 4 (Summer, 1990) , pp. 900-918,Published by: The University of Chicago Press Design Museum. Ettore Sottsass. [online] Available at: http://designmuseum.org/design/ettore-sottsass. [Accessed 07 December 12]