fence transparency

This text is by Vagner Mendonça Whitehead in his capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.  

Action Verb Tense

Vagner Mendonça Whitehead

English is not my first language, but it is one I have spoken the majority of my life. In my early stages of learning I was impressed by the economy of English: one arrangement of letters serving many syntactical purposes: verb conjugations with minor modifications, nouns that operate as adjectives and verbs, et cetera. Later in life, as my knowledge of English deepened, the best descriptive compliment I could give to English is its malleability, which is simultaneously inspiring and problematic.


Because Portuguese is my first language, I approach English as one potentially does when encountering an arrangement of discrete objects in a museum display; each word has to be carefully considered individually, as well as their collective effect in a group (Haim Steinbach comes to mind). Often times, some concepts escape literal or metaphorical translations, and I have to remind myself what I believe it to exactly mean.

The term “essay” is one example, which, for the longest time, meant absolutely nothing to me (imagine how fun it was to go through an undergraduate college degree in the U.S. without fully understanding what it meant). To be completely honest, I am not even sure if I know what it really means today, decades later. My first insight into the term came when I encountered the compounded term “photo-essay.” I immediately connected it to the Playboy magazine spreads I peeked at as a teenager (which were termed as ensaio fotografico). Even the word ensaio for me was puzzling in that context (Portuguese), because to me it meant “rehearsal,” as in a theater dress rehearsal, but nothing textual or visual such as a set of photos or words (though of course theater is both textual and visual). My personal working understanding of essay now means the working through of a problem or notion with words (and images), which is what I will attempt here.


While my knowledge of English evolved, so did the many trends and phases of language itself. While I used to “go to a party,” now I can simply use “party” as a verb (goodbye “go to”), though to party nowadays could also mean something else altogether in a given subculture (such as doing drugs as entertainment); never mind the absurd twist in my head back then of what could possibly constitute a “political party” (they all looked so miserable, not fun at all).

Language as culture fits and reshapes itself to fit very specific needs for a select group of people. This process has many layers and subdivisions. While my first language is Portuguese, it could be said that Brazilian-Portuguese is a better designation. I’d go even further and say that I speak in Paulista-Brazilian-Portuguese when I do, though some of my friends may even say that I speak a Mooca-Paulista-Brazilian-Portuguese with an American-English twang (it is funny to note that my parents’ accents are different from mine, given they grew up elsewhere in that country).


By this point you may be thinking “what the hell does this have to do with art?” My immediate answer to this wondering would be “what does it NOT have to do with art?” In my practice as both an artist and educator of art, I see little to no separation between language/culture and art production. One informs the other, and one shapes the other. Together, they form a partnership that moves one’s voice and expression forward. As such, some consideration on the descriptive nature of language, its contingencies and permutations, may be worth considering in a variety of art practices and studies. The role of translation, from body to medium, from thought to action, from thought to medium, from mental image to physical form or manifestation, and so forth, is also crucial, whether one speaks more than one language or not.

I studied photography in the early 90s in college, and immediately became fascinated with the implied violence in the language of this medium. Many linguistic expressions for photography relate to operating firearms, such as “shooting,”  “cocking,” “snapshot.”  Other interesting photographic terms (to me) are “burn,” “dodge,” “crop,” “tone” and “mount.” But the gun-related ones greatly puzzled me because quite often English and Portuguese have very literal correspondents (such as correspondentes and “correspondents”), but not here. “To shoot” is translated as atirar, but in Portuguese we use the term tirar for the act of making photographs, which literally means “to remove or take off.”  I am open to consider that the letter “a” somehow got colloquially dropped in the time of photography’s existence in Brazil (often letters get dropped), and unintentionally the meaning changed for people in my generation who did not know the history of evolution of that language. But maybe the intent, the act, and the gesture of photography in that culture came from a different place.


Looking back, this confusion between atirar and tirar might explain why I often turned the camera towards myself and undressed in front of it, and shied away from documentary practices (or looking towards others), as I was then more comfortable with my masochistic and exhibitionistic tendencies than interacting/damaging strangers. It is funny to also think of how the term for “developing,” which translates as revelar, actually means “to reveal” and not to grow or expand (as the terms developing literally translates as).


But I digress.

In English, I also perceived a subtle violence, or, at least, some negativity, in the choice of verbs that relate to tools I apply to my expanded art practice, now and then, and am still confounded by their evolution as well.

It has been a relentless pet peeve of mine when students in my Video Art classes refer to their activity as “filming,” although they have probably never seen or touched actual film in their lives. It is also quite possible that they have never interacted with traditional videotape either. I sometimes bring to classes a strip of film and delineate its physical characteristics, because I believe it gives conceptual depth to their future choices, in addition to historical context for aesthetic or formal properties (as well as the language they may use thereafter). Film is clear. Film is dependent on chemical processes and optical devices. Film requires specific apparatus (a particular kind of projector to fit the format) in a specific type of setting (a screening or darkened room). By holding a developed filmstrip, one can actually get a sense of what may or may not be projected. The experience of watching a film (think of a cinema theather), is that of anonymity, disembodiment, where, in order to enter the filmic space or narrative, one’s own body must dissolve into the darkness (unless one wants to be hated, there is also a social contract as far as how one must behave in such setting, much like a library, hospital, church, or art museum). The same cannot be said about video. The magnetic tape of video is opaque. Although also optical and equipment-dependent, there is an immediacy with video-making that is absent from film, because it can be immediately reviewed upon recording, not requiring time-consuming chemical processing. Unlike film, video can also be seen in completely lit rooms, and with different levels of formality (say in an airport gate or a family room). Video is often continuously broadcast or played, and a viewer’s interaction needs to be planned if an intended beginning is necessary (this of course has drastically changed in the last decades, with DVRs). In many ways video is a sports team, it is an informal engagement, vulnerable to but accepting of chance and changes; it is one that is ripe for interruptions and interactions, as it does not suppress them, but accommodates them.


Two of my favorite artists actually employ the physical aspect of their time-based medium of choice as a formal element, rather than a means to present images and sound in time. Christian Marclay’s Tapefall, 1989, and Rodney Graham’s Torqued Chandelier Release, 2005, both deal with the medium and the apparatus, as well as the loop. Of course, in these works, the aesthetics and formal qualities of their pieces go hand in hand with their conceptual explorations (in fact, they are dependent on them).

Tapefall consisted of a large scale (for today’s standards), reel-to-reel audio tape player placed at the top of a high ladder, with audio tape (recorded with the sound of trickling water), spilling down and up, from a puddle of unspooled and (re)spooled audio tape. The closed circuit and the distortion provided a generative audio and visual experience. Both medium and apparatus formed an image or presence (with subtle sound and large scale), for a viewer to contemplate. The subtle sound of tape rubbing against tape (and if one gets close enough, its distinct smell), and the shiny surface of the tape, against the recent-but-nostalgic tape deck, also pulls together a close timeframe, relatable to one’s lifetime (if one is under 50). Graham’s Torqued Chandelier Release provided more disembodied experience. A darkened room contains this piece (I have seen it in person more than once, in slightly varied setups), which is extremely loud. The noise comes from the film projector itself, which sits about 10 feet away from the projection, in a pitch black room, opposite from the projection screen of a crystal chandelier, filmed also in a dark environment, as it spins one direction (either really fast or coming close to a full stop, depending when one encounters it), before it unravels in the opposite direction. In real life, we can imagine that eventually the chandelier would come to a complete stop, but given that the filmstrip is looped onto itself, this eternal process is suspended (with movement) in time. By comparison, the film projectors used in this piece, seem quite ancient, because of its scale and steampunk-ish (it’s big, it’s loud, it’s hot, and it seems unnecessary, like a steamboat or engine train). Depending on the situation, the room where it is presented also changes in time, as the heat of the projector, with the heat of other viewers, makes one more aware of their bodily presence in relation to the work (also aided by the fact that one’s eyes adjust to the darkened room).

Both deal with an expanded notion of sound and image-making, which is perhaps another way to problematize the sequentiality of language in relationship to the contingency of meaning, since in a loop we are always stuck in the middle. Both art works also create an interesting bodily relationship with its audience, given their scale in relationship to human height, as well as their relationship to the space they are displayed. These characteristics, in my view shared by both pieces, reminds me of Rosalind Krauss seminal article on video and Video Art, where she states “The body is therefore as it were centered between two machines that are the opening and closing of a parenthesis” (Krauss, "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism". October. Vol. 1: Spring 1976: p. 52), though of course she was speaking of the space between camera and screen with the body of the artist in the middle, and not between two art pieces and the audience interacting with either or both.


I recently encountered an art piece at Butter Projects during their UNEARTHED exhibition that reminded me of Marclay’s work. Conceived by Bridget Frances Quinn, with collaborators Chris Reilly, Lauren Rossi, Caitlin Drinkard, Chad Gilchrist, Kevin Putalik, Rachel Thompson, and Michael Collino, Traffic Chorus, 2015, (fig. 1) presents an audiotape arrangement on a movable wall, that displaces the trajectory of the tape into a pattern. Like Tapefall, the audio playing apparatus was placed at a higher ground, though this time a set of headphones, hung on the side of the movable wall, made the audio being played available to gallery goers (here I am not sure if the term “viewer” is most appropriate, though there is visual interest; calling them “listener” might also be reductive). Aside from the changes in the tape itself (given its reflectivity, all wrinkles and imperfections became visible, also accentuated by knobs that intertwined it, since at times their off-angle positioning provided a distortion to the tape’s path). Conceptually, this piece incorporates the notion of location, relocation and dislocation, as participants recorded their chanting (which attempted to mimic traffic noise) in an urban intersection (a traffic island). What I enjoyed during my interaction with the piece was the inability to see the piece as a whole (or its façade), while listening to the audio from the headphones (which was actually nice, in its scratchy, murmuring aspect), and overhearing the gallery noise. My whole vision of the piece was actually quite distorted from the official gallery documentation (below), as stepping away from the piece without visual interruption was not possible. Of course I loved the shiny brown surface of the tape, which is as much a nostalgic response for me, as it is aesthetic.

figure 1
Action Verb Tense Traffic Chorus
Traffic Chorus, 2015, by Bridget Frances Quinn, image courtesy of Butter Projects

Until the digital revolution, video technology had some limitations, which were incredibly explored by early video artists (simultaneity, decentralization, immediacy, electronic distortion, time-based performative space, to name a few). The act of employing video in one’s practice has/had also many metaphorical and poetic possibilities, and their change might be an interesting reflection on a larger cultural context as well. From recording (which is now so quaint in so many ways, and relatable to the still-used term of “memory” when speaking of digital device storage space), to taping (which perhaps might only make sense to a generation who made mixed cassette tapes), to acquiring (an early term for digitizing video in computer editing platforms, already hinting in sophisticate consumerism), to capturing (the most common term a few years ago, tracing itself back to photography’s  “decisive moment” maybe). Where have we moved from and gone toward?


Through the years I have heard many photographers and scholars speak on how the advent of photography changed the way in which people dreamt. Not all of us dream the same way: some of us dream in color, or in black and white, some from a first-person/shooter perspective (seen from our eyes), some as third person (in front of the eye/camera), and most of all, always (it seems), non-linearly. I often wondered how people dreamed before photography entered the collective consciousness, if their dreams resembled cathedral or cave paintings or other sources of visual information (or if their dreams were purely textual and auditory, words in the dark). I bring this up because I wonder if our removal from truly understanding the photographic connection to cinema might have changed the way we perceive how images are formed within time. In traditional cinema, 24 photo-based, grainy silver images formed one second of motion; in traditional, magnetic video, 29.97 frames per second (with screen lines for resolution), made up what we saw as continuous moving footage. If we consider the slowing down, or fast forwarding of both traditional film and video, the making up of the moving image is somewhat revealed (lines become visible, frames may come out of alignment, or edges revealed, etc). If one has lived through the time when cinema was filmic (chemical), and video was lined, then this perhaps can inform how one forms their visual consciousness. But what happens now that digital moving image (pretty similar for both video and film/television and cinema) does not glitch the same way? If one slows down, or speeds up digital media, the appearance of irregular square or rectangular shapes or blocks disrupt portions of an image (one can also notice this, at times, on the black portions of moving images that are streamed in low definition), which do not quite follow the grid-like arrangement of pixels (which is a actually portmanteau for “picture elements” – the word “pixel”), in a digital still camera (it is way more random). This is, funny enough, called artifacting, the gerund conjugation of what used to be a noun, with a very different meaning. My impression is that this new glitching is way more fluid, as if emerging from vagueness to sharpness (like an object emerging from a liquid substance, of the liquid crystal of the LCD screen). The repetition of sequence seems to have been replaced by the morphing of substance, from one state to another, rather than from one place to another. My wondering makes me want to think that perhaps this new generation of artists (and people in general), will have a different understanding on how images are formed, which may in turn completely change the way they think. And dream.


Through my teaching I have tried my best to standardize the use of the term “video” as a verb. Students have often heard me ask in class “when will you be videoing your next project?” Or “was that videoed in midtown?” (it is interesting to point out that Microsoft Word accepts both videoing and videoed conjugations as correct terms). Some of them use it, some of them do not. I cringe when I hear someone using “filming” in the incorrect context, but often bite my tongue. My concern comes from the fact that many students and young practitioners seem to operate in generalizations these days, and that by using vaguely related but incorrect terms, their concept of message will be weakened (because a lot of the interpretation will be left to the person encountering their work – it is always dangerous to assume others will care about our work as much as we do. This is very similar to the frequent misuse of the term “modern” for “contemporary” in many current reality television design programs; NPR even did a story on this a few years ago (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113795227). I find that employing modern to mean “good” or “current” strips the word of its historical weight, and may exclude people who actually know what modern means. I recently received an email for a call for participation, where a regional institution used “modern” instead of “contemporary”, to describe the condition of something done in our current times; I decided that was not something I would personally pursue.


Even though English surrounded me at a very early age (with people speaking it, or music playing on the radio, or television programming), I did not begin studying it on a regular basis until the fifth grade. As an exchange student in the U.S. in 1990, I began to realize that much of what I had learned was incorrect. I was extremely puzzled by the discovery that the word “picture” could be used for both still and moving images, and images made by hand and by machines. For me, pictures could only have been made with cameras up to that point (as I learned the word “picture” when I learned the question “may I take your picture, please?”). The word “movie” was completely endearing to me, almost cute, as I connected it to the verb to move in the diminutive (which to this day I do not know if that is the origin or not, but I think of a movie now as pictures that move); we used the equivalent of cinema (cinema) and film (filme) interchangeably to mean movie.


Next time you are on social media, please pay attention to how moving images on the Internet are described. I have seen both in English and French the use of “video” to describe digitized chemical/cellulose film. This is a new trend or a cultural shift. There are many great examples of  “turn of the 20th century video of …” large cities, such as Paris, New York, et cetera, which were clearly made with film (specially since video wasn’t invented until mid-century), another of Palestine pre-1948 (Google these words and you will see beautiful but heart-wrenching cinematic imagery predating television by many decades). Film has a look, a texture, and certain proportions that the barely-trained eye can identify; the same goes with early video, in terms of contrast, fluidity of movement, sound synchronicity, etc. The word “video” comes from the Latin, and its conjugated form means “I see.” Perhaps now that both film and video have foregone cellulose and tape, and all lens-based moving imagery meant to be shown continuously is made with differing resolutions of digital capture, the focus has shifted (back) to vision, rather than movement?


At one recent gathering of artists and educators in my home institution, I began to ponder the nomenclature of our interactions. College used to be a place where educators formed “citizens.” That notion was replaced with the thought of students as “clients” (my actual experience at the later portion of my education), the ones whom we cater the college experience towards, the ones who are always right, as the adage goes. Students now, more then ever, seem to be prepared for a “consumer” culture, where they often choose from a set of options that fit their desire or taste (I was reminded by a colleague that students now place their courses, during online registration, in a shopping cart). What does it say, about us as a culture, where citizens have morphed into clients and consumers? How is that reflected in our political times?


Similarly, in the art world, the so-called audience has trans-mutated from viewer to participant, and now, with the slow but sure merging of art and design, into users. What does it mean to call a person that relates to our production a user, versus an “” Have we relegated art and design production to disposability? Have we removed pleasure from the art experience?


Now that Photoshop is a verb, used by people who have never used the Adobe software, what will happen to the poetic term “retouch?” When will we ever touch again an image? Will we continue to be touched by images as well?



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link - issue 22: November 2015