Corpus Loquendi / Body for Speaking:
Body-centred video in Halifax 1972 - 1982
Corpus Loquendi/Body for Speaking is a traveling exhibition of thirteen videos curated by Jan Peacock. Despite the show's title, the place of the survey is not really Halifax, but the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design which, at that time, was situated about midway between Halifax and Manhattan. And the period surveyed is not really an entire decade: ten of tapes were produced between 1972 and 1976, nothing for the rest of the seventies, then three tapes — a sort of addendum — from the early eighties.
When I was a student at NSCAD a few years ago I had a job transferring the school's collection of 3/4" video to VHS. This included a lot of work produced at the university, "vintage video" made with a porta-pak and single-tube black-and-white camera. (Probably some other student had transferred the same works from reel-to-reel a decade earlier.) In general, I would watch the first few minutes of each tape and then do something else, glancing occasionally at the monitor to make sure the dubs were okay. Although I've always had a soft spot for work produced at this time (early-to-mid seventies) it seemed to me work that didn't generally warrant — or even expect — to be sat through in its entirety.
So I came to this exhibition with definite expectations. I had seen (all the way through and paying attention) five of the works and probably dubbed another five. I thought the show would be interesting as an historical survey, but didn't expect to get excited about or engaged by most of the tapes.
So coming across the thirteen works in corpus loquendi has been something of a revelation. This is partly because of the exemplary job Jan Peacock has done in preparing the catalogue materials. Most of the credit however has to go to the high quality of the individual tapes. I admit I was something of a snob: I expected the four tapes by famous American artists — works which have entered the tenuous canon of video art — to be the high points of the show. Although, of course, I don't like all thirteen tapes equally, every one is incredibly strong. But this is a short review, so I'm not going to talk about the famous tapes (Vito Acconci's The Red Tapes, Dara Birnbaum's Pop-Pop-Video, Dan Graham's Past/Future Split Attention, Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen). I also won't be able to discuss another two of the tapes (Dorit Cypis' Exploring Comfort, Eric Cameron's Numb Bares) or Peacock's curatorial essay.
The earliest tape is Doug Waterman's Shuffle. Although Peacock refers to it as a classic of early conceptual video work, I'd never heard of it. The performer repeats a simple action for the duration of the reel (thirty minutes): he scrapes his feet on the carpet building up a charge of static electricity. He then leans down and touches the bare tape on a reel-to-reel recording the action. The electricity de-magnetizes the tape causing a burst of snow, though on playback this snow occurs before he bends over to touch the tape. Alternately boring and mesmerizing, the snowy blips take on a significance far outweighing their clearly delineated cause. Peacock describes it more poetically: "a body reaches out to affect the future trace that it leaves in the world." Another work of Waterman's that deserves to be a classic — if it isn't already — is described in the catalogue. It's an exhibition called Room temperature adjusted to body temperature in which the temperature of the gallery was maintained at 98.7F for the show's duration.
Three works by Martha Wilson are also performance-based. Two of them follow a structure whose economy and directness I appreciate: she gives a little monologue saying what she's going to do, and then she does it. "In early June 1972 I captured the soul of Richards Jarden in a colour photograph. As soon as I ingest the photograph I will recover the identity that was drained from me in the past and we will be of equal power." And then she proceeds, methodically and without apparent concern for the toxicity, to eat the photograph piece by piece. Her final work is called I make myself up in the image of perfection, I make myself up in the image of deformity, in which she applies make-up to bring out her worst features, slowly transforming her face into a grotesquerie.
Wendy Geller credits Martha Rosler's Semiotics of the Kitchen as influencing her own 48-Hour Beauty Blitz, but this performance for the camera also reminds me of Martha Wilson's tape. With deadpan fury Geller documents herself undergoing the instructions in Glamour magazine for a weekend home spa. It may sound like a boringly straight-forward and pedantic tape, but its sharply funny as Geller plays through her doubled role as woman-wanting-to-be-beautiful and feminist analyst/consumer advocate, or, as Peacock says, "both researcher and lab rat."
I have an on-again off-again relationship with the work of pioneer video-artist David Askevold. Perhaps to a greater extent than any other Canadian video-maker his work is unrelentingly elliptically experimental. Many of them are strange diffuse works — nebulously authored — in which memory exists as the obfuscation of desire. My Recall of an Imprint from a Hypothetical Jungle is one of the easier ones to engage with. The visual elements are obscure — you can't tell what you are looking at, but it shifts around like some animal landscape. The voice-over is one of Askevold's — and for that matter all the second-generation conceptualist's — first forays into what was soon to be called story art. Its the story (which Askevold re-constructs from a conversation on a train with two newly returned Viet Nam vets) and Askevold's increasingly ominous delivery that gives My Recall its considerable visceral power.
Ian Murray's Nova Boetia-Another World, made in 1976, marks the end of the single-take performance-for-the-camera works. (Its always seemed strange to me that once technology becomes available to artists they must use it, even if it means completely switching the type of work they used to do. At any rate, as soon as editing equipment became available, the majority of work produced was conceived to need editing. Yesterday's single-take performances were out.) Murray interviews a young academic whose obsession with Another World interferes with her teaching duties (ethics, Dalhousie). The raw interview material is interesting, but its Murray's interventions — which still manage to look slick — that push the work into examining a cycle of authored/mediated subjects.
In Susan, Susan Britton presents herself as the (self)-authored/ mediated subject. In this mock-umentary Britton profiles herself as a prostitute. Although the gesture of taking on a persona in video is a common one, Britton's performance is so compelling and clever I find myself watching this video over and over again (well, three times).
Also compellingly addictive is Ed Slopek's Plato Non-A. According to the artist, the tape "reproduces the clinical conditions necessary to test for the critical thresholds at which flashing lights are able to induce epileptic seizures. The artist (an epileptic) is seen being subjected to varying strobe-light frequencies. The resulting document of his reactions is a vivid chronicle of facial contortions, agitations, and shudders uncontrollably triggered by light." In the video it appears that Slopek is watching tv with a strange stubborn willfulness, unable to tear himself away despite the deleterious effects of such extended viewing. But then, you'd probably look not much different if you were to view Slopek's tape, particularly if you'd also just seen the other compelling and often brilliant works in corpus loquendi.