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
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.
ECONOMY >>>>> MALLEABILITY
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.
ESSAY >>>>> REHEARSAL
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).
PORTUGUESE >>>>> ENGLISH
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.
SHOOT >>>>> REMOVE
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).
DEVELOP >>>> REVEAL
But I digress.
FILM >>>>> TAPE
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).
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.
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?
RECORD >>>>> TAPE >>>>> ACQUIRE >>>>> CAPTURE
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.
PICTURE >>>>> 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?
MOVIE >>>>> VIDEO
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?
CITIZEN >>>>> CLIENT >>>>> CONSUMER
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?
VIEWER >>>>> PARTICIPANT >>>>> USER
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?
RETOUCH >>>>> PHOTOSHOP