Steve Reinke: 100 Videos
Reinke's voice offers us an oblivion, a delirium, that is peculiarly Canadian. If Americans are television and movies, Canadians are radio. Reinke's is a voice without range, always set at medium, its entire expressive register limited to a few mild bursts of acceleration. There is nothing flashy here, nothing of the diva in this voice, nor would you ever want to hear him recite Shakespeare. If Reinke's voice is perfect, it is a perfection that brooks no variation. He offers you a five star dinner, and it will be just the same night after night. Like the uniform of Beuys. The silk screens of Warhol. Reinke's voice is the monotone of the inner dialogue, the siren call of conscience, all dolled up in a fantasia of seduction, intractable, compulsive and omnipresent. Like every voice of conscience it never stops. Or never for long. This is both its strength and its sadness. Its pathos. This is a voice that can only promise seduction, endlessly, pitilessly. The voice of the maternal superego. It is not only dangerous, but a sound that presages violence and annihilation. I speak about this with another Mike, who has never seen the work of Steve Reinke, but doesn't need to, he has voices all his own. He explains it to me this way: what if you were assured a night of perfect sex? Here's the catch: the next morning, the firing squad is waiting. You have to die. Who would ever make this choice, knowing the cost of pleasure? The truth is, at different points in our lives, almost everyone. What impels us towards the night of pleasure, consequences be damned, is the voice. Go on. Go ahead. It will be fun.
The voice coaxes and reminds you. It urges you to enjoy and then to suffer the consequences. It eggs you on towards annihilation. In the cartoons, an angel perches on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Both voices whisper into the ear of Porkie Pig offering conflicting advice. But the voice of conscience is not divided, it is one voice, containing both angel and devil. Besides pathos there is sublime terror.
Steve has a voice that dangles the veil, though it never fully arrives. It never manages, in the end, to offer a totalizing satisfaction. It never consumes or ravishes its listener, content instead to maintain the steady ascent, borne along an effortless breeze, permitting an intoxication without drunkenness, sex without organs.
Joan tells me that she likes to provoke him, make him angry, just so she can hear that mellifluous voice ring down a little longer. Even when he is in the full bloom of his rage, she assures me, his voice continues to comfort and charm. I know what she means. Steve is a victim of his voice. Steve's voice is a predator of pleasure, and its first outlet, the first person who had to annihilated, who had to be gotten out of the way so it could fully assert itself, was of course Steve himself. Now, he can only stand idly by while it takes control. It has spoken in his place for so long, only his closest friends can tell the difference between the two.
end only when he is dead, and his talking, his tireless mastication of
language, is the only way he has to forestall this certainty. It is a
vigil he keeps with his mouth, and few have managed it as smoothly. There
is a plinth already set aside in his name at the National Gallery where
his vocal cords will rest forever in an embalming pitch. We may rest assured
that DNA scholars will be able to grant new generations the torso of Brad
Pitt along with the voice of Steve Reinke. In the face of a terrifying
and incomprehensible future, this may be our only armour. Our last stand.
The Early Years
Only days after his birth, without understanding what was being said at all, Reinke began to imitate the sounds everyone made around him. Just a few weeks old, he recorded and played back, already made to bear the burdensome expectation of prodigies in the prison house of language. He appeared not quite human, had already taken the form of a medium whose birth would coincide with his own. This much was clear: he wasn't born to make video, but to become it.
Reinke assumed all of his early incarnations — the talking baby, the devoted son and shy adolescent — with the élan of a born mimic. Few could have guessed that the gulf between a word and its meaning, between the compulsions of an inner life and its presentation to others, was growing ever wider. In his earliest years he favored an appearance that was low resolution, he always seemed a little "out of focus," even when viewed up close, hazily rastered, like images produced by early Sony portapacks. When Gertrude Stein wrote "There is no there, there," she might have been describing Reinke's early years, or for that matter, video itself.
Reluctant to assume the certainties, the position taking, that having a personality necessarily entailed, Reinke seemed instead a kind of static, a temporary interference in the circulation of meaning. As a child he longed to be invisible, to live without marking his place, though transparency would continue to elude him. Even as an artist he would continue to sign, to leave his work with a signature, the name from which he has never fully recovered: Steve Reinke.
One point should be made clear here. He is not trying to escape himself. That happened long ago. He knows better than any of us that instead of ideas we have head shots, and that in place of information we have personalities. For years he was a keen student of personality, realizing at last that most of us clung to our identity the way a monk might devote his life to a single book. Testing the limits of personality, Reinke assumed one after another, leaving each behind in the vapor trail of the wanderer. The reader. Each of Reinke's incarnations flickers inside an appearance so wanting in outstanding characteristics, that he is able to assume almost any guise whatsoever, the perfect mirror of his interrogators. This is how he speaks of those who would receive him in casual conversation. The interrogators.
Paul Klee wrote: "Now objects perceive me."
Most of Steve's engagements, his emotional life, his heat, rests with the dead. There are a few composers (although he prefers the big pop sound of the seventies), a painter or two but mostly there are writers. He speaks with them not in order to have the last word, always the prerogative of those who survive, but to raise from the dead a living book, rescued from the library, the auctions at E-Bay or worse, the classroom. He does not examine these books, he lives them, he throws himself into them. Because he knows that soon there will be no one left to read them. Oh sure, someone will always be able to pick up a book and go through the motions, jerking his/her head from left to right over miles of letters all lined up in a row, like a firing squad. But to really read the book is to feel it as an echo of all the books written before it, and more than that, to find between its covers a model for consciousness. Let's be clear about this: he is not looking for a description of another life, to live vicariously through another's adventures or to gain experience through the safe remove of fiction. For Reinke the book is the thing itself, the embodiment of a way of being. If there is a sadness in this love, it is because he knows that the video tapes he makes with such abandon are helping to hasten the end of the book. He can feel the book falling apart in his hands, even as he reads it. It is difficult for him to enter the library without the sense of accusation, of outrage even, coming from the shelved volumes, pained to be handled by someone who has dedicated his life to destroying the thing he loves. This much is certain: Reinke's video work is hastening the end of the book. And no one could be more apologetic than Reinke himself, who is the author of every book he reads.
Reinke's work, tirelessly verbose, has relieved him of the need for speech. As a student of the aphorism and the epigram he finds the vagaries of daily conversation painfully contrived. And he's developed a habit he can't escape. While others are talking, he imagines their speech in the pages of a book: he transcribes their conversation, he imagines that everyone around him reads compulsively from a script, and for the most part, he finds this text hardly worth reproducing, frankly dull, and badly in need of editing. Instead, he prefers the act of writing. He likes to go to cyber cafes with a buddy, and write e-mails back and forth across the room. He is no fan of oral culture. He is the book, and beyond it, the machine that produces the book. Don't get me wrong, he's not a recluse by any means: he has many friends, though this word makes him uncomfortable. Instead, he prefers to think of his intimates as volumes, sharing the same shelf, standing upright together, leaning into the same alphabetical wind.
for Steve is a reminder of the necessary solitude we all carry with us,
at every moment; and the hope that conversation carries, that this solitude
could be washed away, or forgotten through the momentum of a shared sentence,
seems little more than repression. Denial. Community is only the beginning
Steve's earliest memory is not a vision, a bearing of witness but a sound which accompanied him every day of his life. It accompanies him still. It is the shriek wrenched from him in the moments after birth, which he terms his "ejection." "I was squeezed out, ejected, just like a videotape," he remarks, and his mother confirms this. "It was like pushing a button, it happened that fast." In Reinke's vernacular she is "the player," the "hard drive" or more obviously "the mother board."
The sound of Reinke's first memory would never leave him, gaining instead a curious, even perverse kind of momentum in the years to follow. This scream underlies all of today's contemporary art, and certainly all of the movies. Beneath each picture lies a shared, naked need. Look at me! At me! Pay attention to me! The wiles of conversation are not enough. The daily exchange of glances, the small spotlights of friends and acquaintances are somehow wanting. Something is not fully borne in the everyday, some lingering darkness (is it talent? genius?) waits to be discovered and embraced. Perhaps in the end it is exactly this: the utterly unique and fantastic subjectivity of an individual.
Here lies the paradox: while the primal cry may be the genesis of personality, the individual finds his/her fullest and most satisfying expression only when this cry is separated from the body, when it lies outside of its maker, as an object. A thing to behold. This new genre of objects exists primarily to be seen, demonstrating a narcissism of objects. If its purpose lies in its visibility, we can still surmise, wrapped inside the attention each object requires, the primal cry of the maker. Look at me! At me! The codes of attention — the mid-career survey, the catalog essay, the festival screening — are all part of a subterranean architecture designed to assuage the wounded subjectivities of viewer and viewed.
Perhaps this is overstating the case. Perhaps this reveals only the bent of this writer, this writing, now as you are reading it. Perhaps it is not artists at all, and even less Steve Reinke, who imagine that their words form a kind of voyage, a road leading into the vanishing point of personality. Perhaps I have to concede after all the unutterable difference between us, and offer a more likely conjecture, that Reinke's work issues not from compulsion but from duty, and that its effects do not reform the vagaries of an inner life, but instead constitute a class of objects designed to apprehend their viewers. Paul Klee wrote: "Now objects perceive me." Perhaps Reinke's work is not designed to edify its maker after all, but to destroy him.
It is by now a commonplace that the role of art in the casting call of life is the training of attention. Our bodies have openings to admit the world — the ears for hearing, the eyes for sight — and the story of art is describes how our ancestors opened to the world. The history of our seeing hangs in the museum, and contemporary art similarly aims to re-jig the place that lies between beauty and beholder, what cyberfolks like to call the interface.
As a boy I watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas obsessively, keying on the scene which suggested the cause of the Grinch's problems: he had a heart seven times smaller than anyone around him. Even his dog, partner in the sado-masochistic struggle which occupies most of this animated short, is shown to have more heart than this miserable creature. Years later I understood the particular significance this scene held for me. I had been granted an attention span seven times smaller than most humans, or at least, most humans at the time when the original Grinch was made. By the time the re-make had come around, things had changed considerably, some global warming of the synapses had quickened the pulse of so many viewers I was no longer alone, just a part of that crowd hoping to tune in, turn off, drop everything. But take someone like Mike Snow, Canada's best known, most respected, blue chip conceptual artist. Mike Snow has no reception problems at all. Mike's attention span is almost infinite, he can sit in perfect quietude and watch scratches accumulate on a strip of film for hours. He is the embodiment of a very refined kind of Zen consciousness and I respect him for it, I bow to him for it, only I don't want to watch his movies. They go on too long. When I watch Mike's films, I can feel them trying to kick all the junk out of my head, all the grocery lists and petty anxieties. In order to do this, he resorts to an old Western gunslinger's trick: he's going to outwait me. He's going to stare me down until I give in. But in the end it's no use. The grocery lists and petty anxieties are my personality. I cling to them with everything I've got and leave the theatre unmoved.
I ran into a friend who seemed always cramped up with disappointment.
His body had been shouting, "The end is near" for all of his
twenty-eight years. Only today, his face is lit up with something like
happiness. He had recently been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder,
offered a modest script of Ritalin, and within days he had been able to
sit alone at his computer playing Firestorm. Never before, he told me,
could he manage the concentration required for such an elaborate killgame.
I nodded gravely. Attention deficit disorder is hell for anyone who wants
to get in some serious gaming time. For more severe cases, only the real
thing will do: television itself. So I pitied my friend, because I knew
that with his new attention span he had been taken out of the flow of
things, he stood outside, in a lonely sort of place where he would be
condemned to himself, the only sober face in a world of drunks, a permanent
outsider who would, as the years went on, lose the knack of fitting in,
and finish his life embittered and powerless. What was that old line from
the 60s commercial? "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature."
Whenever I walk into the ivory basement of an art gallery, my heart starts racing. I can't help it. It's like being caught behind people on the steps to the subway, the presence of others urges me to walk faster than I normally would, so that I can stay out of the way of strangers. I arrive at a gallery always breathless, heart racing, my right hand twitching, already wanting to seize a remote control channel changer that is nowhere to be found. What I enter is a specialist's world, an orthodontist's convention of micro-speach. Attention is rapt, the tone is serious, the air thick with gestures that could never be understood outside this congregation. I arrive as an unsponsored delegate, hoping always to have my habits of attention re-tooled, but leave most often with some vague sense of satisfied obligations. I've done my duty, taken my vitamins. The doyens of pleasure have not yet made a home here.
Fortunately, along with a microscopic attention span, I have a nearly infinite capacity to forget, so continue to manage semi-regular forays into that parallel universe of replicants and reproduction known as the art world. It was there I first encountered the work of Steve Reinke. It was a video, mercifully brief, and when it was finished I was filled with an uncommon hilarity. The only sense I retained from it was its humour, the color blue, and of course, the grain of that magnificent voice. I longed to return, and began a daily pilgrimage, performing a task I had not indulged since grade school, committing a text to memory. The truth is, my memory is digital, it's either on or off, either I remember everything or nothing at all. I was determined to hold onto this experience, and recount it for you here. The text of what was to be the first of The Hundred Videos.
Was it because I was so recently diagnosed that I found this tape so irresistible? Steve had managed to convey, somehow, everything I had hoped to communicate about this inscrutable intruder, which had divided my life and body, forcing me to accept, as the radical root of my new personality, the very thing which was bent on killing me. Reinke's tape offered me the only possible solution. Laughter.
In 1989, Steve made a short tape called "Excuse of the Real," which showed some grainy, occasionally looping home movie footage of a family gathered beneath the Christmas tree. All the while a voice (that voice!) talks about a proposed AIDS doc. This was the first in a very long series which would take him a decade to complete, and which he named 100 Videos. "I want to complete one hundred videos before the year 2000 and my thirty-sixth birthday. These will constitute my work as a young artist." Arriving at a moment when most self-respecting medianauts were hailed as poohbahs for dishing out one tape a year, this was a considerable raising of the bar. And he hadn't been out hawking the family silver either. This work had been done on the cheap, this was thrift store goods, and he was bringing it in by the kilo. It was smarter, faster, shorter and more entertaining than anything around it, filled to bursting with ideas.
A friend once confided to me that the reason he finds so much contemporary art exasperating was that it continues to talk about talking. Paintings about painting. Sculptures about sculpting. "After a hundred years of this, I know what the medium is!" he is telling me, visibly shaking after his fourth espresso of the afternoon. It gives his speech a trembling, slightly out of control quality that he feels endows him with authority. Mostly he makes people afraid. The waiter has stopped coming to our table for instance, though he doesn't really notice. He makes each point by stabbing the air between us, as if re-opening a wound that threatens to close. "I want art to say more. I want the work to address something beyond itself."
Steve might have been nodding right along with him. He's never been drawn to art about art, offering the work as a test case of a minutely controlled expression. Nor was he concerned with the transformation of a unique individual into a furiously eccentric style. The stoniness of a piece of stone does not move him. He has left modernism behind.
Steve had great hopes for video when he began. He wanted to make videos that could be fun and useful. He loved reversible jackets, or pens with compasses attached, so you'd always know what direction you were writing in. Sofas that turned into beds. He never had a lot of money, he's never manage to cut a big slice of real estate off for himself, so it was important to him that the few objects he possessed could perform as many functions as possible. He wanted to make a video you could eat after watching, box covers that could inflate to become pillows or life preservers. He worked on a tape that was so strong you could tow a small car with it, but which was also light and delicate enough to wrap a child's birthday present. Video wasn't just for watching anymore, it would become, in Steve's hands, a Swiss army knife of the soul, its multiplex protrusions quickly unfolding to meet any emergency.
Still, it has to be admitted, a lot of The Hundred Videos look pretty crappy. They are badly lit, often shot hastily, in poor conditions and low resolution, with extremely minimal sound work, often featuring nothing more than a voice, or at most, a voice with a single instrument on the music track. This is not work that pretends to be cinema: iconic, larger-than-life, teeming with the luxuries of image and sound. This is temporary work. Fragments of something. Each suggests a small, neo-scientific excursion into some aspect of understanding, with the tapes offered as evidence and hypothesis, the viewer as witness.
Steve is not afraid to fail. We all make mistakes, he seems to say, and here's some of mine. After all, it's only video. And as soon as it's over, there will be something else. One of the small joys Steve offers in The Hundred Videos is to watch him fail, then see him get himself up off the carpet and try again.
You never have to look far to find other's mistakes. You're probably living in one right now. Architecture, like all endeavors requiring big cash, has a massive failure rate. If there were a tax put on ugly buildings, our level of social services would rise to unprecedented levels. Contrary to popular belief, money attracts failure, the more that's invested in a project, the higher the possibility for catastrophe. Money is inherently conservative, and the kind of hedging that large accumulations of capitol require most often ensures bad design and overcoded exchange.
Steve's work, by contrast, is extremely cheap to produce, so his failures are never extravagant. Steve fails pretty much the way he succeeds, with a light touch, rarely managing to take you up to heaven, but never spending too much time in the other place either. To all of his failures, he applies a strict principle of moderation.
Each film/vid is a moving ensemble of parts which requires unities expressed through time. Most art hopes to arrive at this state and freeze it up in a moment which can be returned to over and over, the lone still point of a changing perception. But movies require that this unity be reinstated again and again, to achieve, as one wag would have it, truth twenty-four times per second. Video of course has upped the ante. Comprised of alternating fields of vertical scans, video offers half truths sixty times per second.
Most cinematic expression is occupied by a viral replication of media rhetoric, a visual Esperanto which permits global visibility. Artists' work insists on a much more personal use of grammar, and while the number of wrong turns has multiplied, so has the possibility of useful mistakes. Inventions.
Because of the serial nature of his production, Steve has produced a kind of democracy of mistakes, finding a way to share the blame, spread the rot, so that it falls more easily and lightly. And while he was amongst the very first to do so, he finds himself now joined by many others, inspired by his example, who have similarly taken on a production in parts, segments, chapters, interlocking episodes. The burden of failure has been lifted a little for everyone, though few have managed to turn it into an asset like Steve has. Failure is Steve's ace in the hole.
Steve shares many of his mistakes with others of his species, other artists similarly devoted to the pixel, other kings and queens of the cathode. Their work also has a lightness, but it is not gratifying, not pleasing, the way Steve's is. I wonder why. I look at so many other's work and find only hastiness, an absence of research, of engagement, a shallow delivery, a misunderstanding of even the most elementary principles of how picture and sound move together. Somehow, all this is forgivable in Steve's work, just as it is unforgivable in all those who surround him, who provide a setting, a background for his efforts. He is the exception who proves the rule.
engagement is not with primary experience, or the translation of that
experience to an audience: I feel sad, feel my sadness, now you are sad.
Instead, he is interested in describing how we have come to ideas of sadness.
Because these ideas are grounded in a speculative and fanciful, imaginative
and hypothetical pata-physic, he manages to elude both the rigors of scientific
taxonomy, and the weigh stations of empathetic narrative. Steve is not
the Harper's Index, and he's not a soap opera. He's describing our descriptions
of the world. The material that he delivers to us is already a re-presentation;
it is a picture that has already been looked over, its emotional content
expunged, or left as a kind of hang-over. It's true his montage is weak.
His grasp of sound/image articulations are extremely narrow, his cinematography
indifferent at best. In all this, he is no different from his peers. But
because of the way Steve's work is framed, none of this matters. The bodies
and photographs and TV clips that make up Steve's work have already made
someone cry. Now these moments are being re-circulated, gathered up again
so that we can watch ourselves watching. He opens up a place between a
thing and its naming, and here is his genius: it doesn't matter what the
"Sleep" is the most terrifying of all the 100 Videos. It marks a terrifying moment of transference from Steve, the prodigal ghost of the Reinke family, to Steve the object, the first object of The Hundred Videos. Make no mistake, these are centurions, warriors custom-built to destroy their creator. Here is the revenge of a digital Frankenstein, permitted at last not just a slow bloodletting of its inventor, but more than this, the conversion of its author into a medium, a machine of reproduction. Paul Klee wrote, "Now objects perceive me."
Steve and Tom had lived together for just over a year in their boytown micro-bachelorette before Steve began The Hundred Videos. They had met two years earlier, in San Francisco, in an unlikely bathhouse tryst with French philosopher Michel Foucault. After a satisfying three-way they left the bathhouse, convinced they would never see one another again, only to meet up less than a week later, at the LA Airport, boarding the same plane. As it turned out, both Tom and Steve lived in Toronto. While neither were superstitious, these chance events seemed too precipitous to ignore, and flush with the promise of sexual utopia, they resolved to move in with one another.
Tom was cute, Steve was smart (if promiscuous) and together they made a handsome couple, everyone said so. For a year all was well. But Tom's most erotic moments with Steve inevitably followed Steve's weeping, which was unreliable at best, and had stopped altogether in recent months. Tom soon turned his attention to the lonely waiter at Zelda's, a boy born for disappointment and heart break. Worse still, as Steve plunged into the project, the abyss, of the 100 Videos, it seemed that the only way he could respond to this crisis of love, was to produce another tape. It showed his partner, Tom, sleeping, rendered in extreme close-up, as only a lover, an intimate, might imagine him. While Tom's eyes were closed his ears remained open, unwitting receptacles for a grotesque experiment. Were Steve's emotions part of a distant country he had left behind in pursuit of his work? Is he asking us to watch, right here, right in this video, while he turns into something no longer fully human? Is art the cost of love? And have I, as a viewer, a voyeur now not only of this tape but of their intimacy, occasioned, even demanded, the end of their relationship?
This is how easily it turns into fiction. With a few keystrokes melded together, the proper names inserted, details offered which could only be true, because they are so exact. Of course, all this, all that has already been written, and is about to be written about Steve, is a lie. I never met Tom, and can claim to know nothing of their relation. Neither have I met Steve, nor do I know anything about him, except what even the most casual of observers may glean from watching his The Hundred Videos. Steve is my necessary fiction. He is what comes between us, though I can't say, not anymore, having gone this far, whether he is my invention, or yours.
It is a commonplace that all media artists pillage moments from their own life to make their work, that each maker's body of work constitutes a thinly veiled autobiography. Curiously, these presumptions are rarely applied to mainstream directors. Few imagine that Quentin Tarantino is a homicidal killer, for instance, while anything that Steve writes, no matter how farfetched, is imagined to be little more than diary transcription. The failure to raise capital, to produce expensive pictures, equals a failure of the imagination.
Mainstream movies are the avant-garde of capitalism. The Normandy Beaches of the last century have been swapped for multiplex screens, and soon, the orbiting satellites of a fully digital Hollywood. Movies are the perfect tool of capital, quickly raised on a forcefeed of Yankee bullion which they obligingly disgorge across the screen in a series of money shots. Before selling their automobiles, their sneakers and hamburgers, we are sold the movies. They are the sweetener, the prelude, preparing us for the conversion of everyday life into pictures which can be bought and sold. Movies are the NASDAQ of the imagination.
In the world of moving pictures there is no middle class. There is the ubiquitous aristocracy, the stars of cinema, kept on permanent display, and then there is the underground — national cinemas the world over which attempt to share in the dream of multi-national capital. Artists' work exists on the fringe of this fringe, having already yielded the possibility of return, of the buying and selling of pictures. This oblivion of capital (or should it be named denial? repression?) is presumed to be autobiographical, following this simple equation: no money equals no imagination. Because both mind and camera are organs of reproduction, if one is found wanting the other must surely follow.
As a result,
before sending on his latest tape, Reinke advances me a simple, enigmatic
e-mail: My mother is not dead.
always a remove between Steve and the world he lives in. When experience
or encounter reaches Steve's organs of reception, he slows them down,
he waits, withholding judgment. In this way, he opens up a place between
himself and the primal reflex of reaction. If he appears affect-less,
it is because he is still processing, waiting for a reaction to occur
That Steve finds distance an aphrodisiac, even the necessary prelude for arousal, is hardly surprising. He shares this trait with almost every male on the planet. What is remarkable is how he has turned this erotic talisman into a quality of attention. It is exactly this distance, this space he wears like others don a uniform, that has made him an artist. This is a vocation which has not been chosen, but which has arisen out of necessity. He is unto the raster born. His art tries to overcome this distance, but the very act which tries to cross the gap, only makes it larger. Steve is condemned to this distance, and to the art which maintains it.
There was a moment, no longer than that, when this distance could be exactly measured. It was precisely one hundred videos long. And then 101. And then 102. Now, many years after the 100 videos, and after the release of its successors, any measuring is pointless. The divide has been swallowed, it exists within the man himself. It has reproduced Steve as an effect of the abyss. Slowly, inexorably, it has marked him inside and out. Even his organs, the knots of tissue and cartilage, the pathways of the circulation system carry the tattoo, the stain.
When he dies, the grave of Steve Reinke will be empty.
There are others who carry this distance inside them. Sudden accelerations of fortune are usually responsible; a hit record or best selling book can be enough to turn the trick. In these instances, the grotesque inflation of the image, a single face splashed across a newsstand, is enough to reduce its subject to a media effect, a simulacrum or false copy. The personality is triangulated, there is no longer 'I' or 'you,' but 'he,' 'she' or 'they.' Celebrities can speak of themselves, with no hint of irony, in the third person. "He wants a milkshake." "She's going for a walk." These are the people of People magazine, reduced to ciphers of themselves, forced to go through the motions, to copy the life they used to have, when they were only human.
no celebrity. No gateway of photographers greets him on his daily morning
walk. His strict allegiance to marginal practice has ensured that he will
always fly well below the radar. But he shares a condition with the best
known people of our time. He is already doubled, divided. His The
Hundred Videos are a map of this divide, and if there is a terror
in this reckoning, this summing up, it is the terror of recognition. This
is what we are becoming. Here at last is evidence of the long rumoured
change in consciousness which will be borne by future generations. Paul
Klee wrote, "Now objects perceive me."
You can't just walk down to the local video store and ask for Steve's The Hundred Videos . Because his work isn't everywhere, it's nowhere. That's the mass media for you. It's digital, it's all or nothing. So I can't really assume you've seen anything by Steve, nor could I assume that, even if you wanted to, even if you threw everything away, burned your credit cards, sold the car, quit your job, and set off in search of Steve's work, that you'd ever find it. I'd never be able to know whether the fragile and obscure networks devoted to these rare forms of fringe media will survive long enough for you to see the 100 Videos. No, it's worse than that, and I hate to be the one to say it, but sometimes our marginality is all we've got, so we don't want people to find us. We set up signs which can only be read by the initiated, produce maps intelligible only to those who already know the way. What I'm saying is, the very networks designed to make this work visible may make it impossible for you to find.
You can think of us, guardians of the secret, as everyone you have never met. We're a small group, and we don't know so much really, but we're trying to hold onto what we have. And we don't want you in. If you don't already know, we're not going to help you. We've re-arranged our lives so that everything we do, everything we say to one another, is a code designed to make sure that you never walk into the clubhouse. We never wanted to run the whole show, never had big plans, but we're not letting go and that means we have to draw the line somewhere. That line stops at your laptop.
The truth is, if you ever find yourself, through some Herculean effort, in front of a Steve Reinke video, you might not recognize it at all. It might be playing right in front of you, only you'd think it's a bit of dust caught in the projector. You might have seen his work a thousand times already, only you didn't know it, because it looked like something else, all that data flotsam no one pays any attention to. In order to keep Steve's work from an uncaring public, we've designed delivery systems which don't look like video at all. It might appear as a matchbook dropped out of a stranger's pocket, a passing taxi, the night sky. There's no way to know for certain. Unless you've already seen it.
I didn't use to feel this way. In the past, the most important thing for me was to raise the flag. To use this writing as a pointer: Hey hey! Lookit this! But by then I was already so hip to that small part of the mediaverse which had snagged my attention, everything I wrote came out in a kind of babel which was just as obscure as the work itself. I wanted to write as a kind of advertisement. Only I couldn't afford the prime time placements. Never got the diction down. It wasn't a question of selling out, it was a question of selling in, and no one was buying. I've been writing these adverts for about ten years now, part of a new kind of broadcast, a narrowcast say, that wasn't designed to reach most of the people most of the time, but only a few. Perhaps, in its most perfect state, my narrowcasts could reach just one person, and that would be enough.
I have to admit to myself this possibility: you might be that person.
To repeat: because Steve is not a player, a drive, an accumulator of capital, there's no way to really see his work. So writings of this kind are typically given over to lengthy descriptions, narrations of seeing, which allow you to look over my shoulder. To see what I see. Or at least: to see what I write. Writings like this, when they're done well, become a kind of Reader's Digest version of the thing itself. This requires, naturally enough, a rigorous re-viewing of all available materials, an exhaustive précis of critical positions already assumed, and an interpretative map that can be laid over the raw thing itself, made to disgorge an obliging series of statistics, of commonly held features which have come to be recognized as typical. Instead, all I can offer is an apology. I've tried on several occasions to start sentences like: What finally unifies Steve's manifold expression in video is... Or: The use of colour in Steve's videos is... Only there's no little dots after the last word. There's nothing. I try to write, but my computer refuses. Even when they come to me, the grand récits, the bow that wraps it all up, whenever I punch the keys, nothing happens. Nothing.
Steve's work when I saw it. It gave my brain an erection. I swam around
in it, not knowing what it was, just happy knowing that there was so much
of it. Steve had uncovered something like the place where videos came
from, or the place which separated the videos which had yet to be made
from the videos already made. But when I go back to look at them now,
they're not quite the same. The jokes aren't quite as funny. The colors
duller and uninspired. The soundtracks a little thin. That's when I realize
that I'm not looking at Steve's work at all. I'm seeing Steve's work the
way you would see it, and that makes me uncomfortable. Because inevitably,
the perfect memory of this work, and most importantly, the happiness which
accompanied this memory, is being taken away from me, replaced by the
cool stare of a stranger. An onlooker. A casual passerby. I feel I have
to make a choice between your desire and mine. Imagine yourself at my
work station. What would you do?
Steve never wanted to make the best video, not then anyway. That only happened later, after The Hundred Videos were finished. He'd never practiced his Olympian turn on the stand, modestly bowing to receive the honours his long hours, his solitary, had given him. Instead, one video was simply a prelude to another. Steve's was a serial production. Typically ideas, phrases, borrowed television moments, all jammed in the same synaptical flow which would eventually find release in small magnetic fields all their own. His accumulation of videoss was likewise never intended to produce a monumental architecture, an imposing edifice that would stand as proof of the maker's largesse and wisdom. Offered a retrospective at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Steve was horrified to see that the organizers had scheduled his work in a single time slot, as if it were a film. His panic was soon calmed by the friendly bar staff who waited just outside the cinema, busily pouring drinks and serving chocolate, and soon enough the patrons flowed from the cafe to the cinema and back again, stopping in each place to refuel, waiting for lulls in the conversation in order to step back into the projected light. The Hundred Videos is 4.5 hours long, and was never intended as a main course, an epic journey, but instead as a series of short appetizers, each whetting the palate with a taste for more.
He had been so careful after all, to remove any trace of the hero from his scheme, and treating his work as cinema risked admitting one last superman into his practice: the audience.
in a medium that is disappearing even as it asserts its primacy, its ubiquity,
Steve understands that video can exist only as a kind of prelude, a waiting
room, for the new forms of audio-visual pleasure that will one day accompany
a new kind of human being. There will be no use for heroes then. The sticky
unguent of personality holding strangers in its thrall. He knows that
he will not live long enough to see the face of this new human being,
or to insert himself into these new machines of hearing and seeing. But
he is not without consolation. It would be enough to know that he was
clearing the ground so that some new seed could take hold. His radical
gesture, as an artist, is that he has built nothing, he has only taken
away, removed some of the detritus which might keep the future from rooting.
Paul Klee wrote, "Now objects perceive me."
art of the twentieth century is not one which is easily survived, or even
completed. The ghosts of projects by Stein and Pound and a hundred others
lie in ruins, abandoned fragments of ambition, summary works which never
yielded to the allure of closure. There are others who managed, by dint
of patience or luck or prodigious genetic inheritance, to produce some
memorable something — a canvas, an epitaph in emulsion, which shuddered
through the traditions of the non-traditional, swept up the storm of the
moment and re-cast it into objects to behold. My friend, a high school
gridiron hero, calls it "moving the ball down the field." The
question is: what about after? Or even: how do you know when it's done?
Not the end of the work itself, that much is clear, but when is it finished
inside? The secretion of enzymes, the clearing out of intruders, the entire
molecular level of creation devoted to the production of a single idea:
when does that end exactly?
The next thing Steve did is probably the most difficult task an artist can undertake. It is the secret key to the success of any successful enterprise, though you'll find no articles written about it, no tracts or manifestos, no critical checklist to draw out. There's no way to teach it, and it's impossible to demonstrate. Not only that, but everything in our culture tries to keep it from happening. After completing The Hundred Videos, Steve did exactly nothing. He sat back. Taking stock. He watched time slow down around him.
There are certain days in the life of a writer where everything flows. You turn on the computer, and the words can't come out quickly enough, drawn by the irresistible lure of the machine itself. There are other days when the construction of a single sentence is like triple-bypass surgery. Serious writers work both days, managing the downhill speed plummet, and the uphill muck slog with some measure of grace. But when the days of mud turn to weeks, or worse, when the words manage easily enough, only they don't have quite the same edge, and sound more like they belong in an instruction manual than a novel, then you know it's time to stop. There is a time for writing, and there is a time for not-writing. But such is the lean of our culture that we privilege only the former, in the personal factories that we have all become, only production counts. It is very difficult to learn not-writing, not-art making, not-doing. Think of all those years in elementary school, high school and beyond. Who knew you could fail recess?
When he was working on The Large Glass, Marcel Duchamp took a seven year intermission, allowing his sculpture to "collect dust." An essential and integral part of the process. When the seven years were up, he wiped off the dust and picked right on up where he'd left off. For artists, Marcel Duchamp is the patron saint of nothing.
Doing nothing is not the same as nodding in front of the television for weeks at a time with an IV drip of tequila. Doing nothing means hanging up the gone fishing sign on the input-output box. No talking, no friends or television, none of the familiar noise and static which passes for everyday life. It means being actively engaged, in the verb sense, in the making and doing and becoming of nothing. It means allowing the world to float through you, as if you weren't even there. It is a state of transparency which falls just short of madness. Who would ever willingly become a ghost, in his/her own lifetime?
As you can imagine, doing nothing is not the easiest thing in the world for someone whose just pulled 100 Videos out of the deck. After almost a decade of non-stop playback, Steve was more used to making videos than breakfast. Sure, his switches are a little worn, cables frayed. But that voice, not the one that comes out of his mouth but the other one, the one behind his speaking, the one that insists on signing his work, this voice had never stopped. Until now. Until the project was finished. Each of The Hundred Videos has been offered to this voice, the way old Greek warriors sacrificed a part of the herd before battle. All of his attentions have been moving towards this still point, when the voice which used to accompany him, and then swallowed him whole, creeping through him like a virus, would one day stop. For years he had been no longer himself, only a vessel for this voice, the meat that this voice could animate. But now, in this brief intermission between makings, he would work harder than ever at what others could imagine only as a vacation, a rest, though nothing could be further from the truth. What he hoped for in this respite was not a return to the prodigy of his youth. He had abandoned the promise of returns, the solace of nostalgia, when he began the 100 Videos. He is no longer himself, nor his audience, nor the person he is about to become. At last, he is ready. Ready to make art. Until the day arrives when this too will be have to be left behind.
dies, the grave of Steve Reinke will be empty.