The Devil You Know and the Angel You Don't



'Video: the devil you don't know' Mesh Spring, 1: 5-7 (1994)

Report on what’s being said in Melbourne about video

Often as not, video appears as an instrument of total surveillance. Films like Batman and Sliver present us with scenes of a dark man sitting in a den—a spider whose web extends through a multitude of video cables. For him the world is piped back onto the screens that render everything visible all the time. Video theory mirrors this kind of abstraction. Fredric Jameson writes about video while on the high ground of Hegelian dialectics, from which the ‘postmodernisation’ of planet Earth can be seen in its broad sweep:

[video’s] machinery uniquely dominates and depersonalizes subject and object alike, transforming the former into a quasimaterial registering apparatus for the machine time of the latter and of the video image or ‘total flow’.[1]

From Jameson’s position (in the binary tower), video reduces all hierarchical distinctions to the process of total flow. This undermines any possibility of thematisation: video is intrinsically ‘pointless’.

As a highly mobile medium, video introduces itself to galleries, courts, clubs, homes, beds—wherever there is watching to be done. Should we expect the ‘postmodernising’ effect of video to be the same in each of these situations? What Jameson’s viewpoint overlooks is the simple matter of where video is being seen. Despite his eclectic interest in cultural forms (shopping centres, films, novels) Jameson is guilty of the very sin he attributes to others: reification. It is the height of cultural imperialism to expect video to remain the same in its effects regardless of its changing context. To redress this imbalance, I present this report from a recent series of forums on video in context.[2] Three locations were chosen for examination: the art gallery, real life, and the cinema.


John Hughes, Heather Barton and Tim Mathieson

John Hughes, whose films include the documentary on Walter Benjamin (One Way Street), was one of the first Australians to introduce video to the art gallery. Hughes cast himself as a contender to the mantle of the ‘Barry Jones of cathode ray democracy’, or the ‘Philip Adams of the margins’. Unlike the more aesthetic concerns of video installations, Hughes’ use of video is overtly political. His work with Peter Kennedy in the late 1970s includes coverage of the sacking of the Whitlam government. He allied his work in the 1980s with the ‘community development’ projects involving public radio and television. Hughes linked video to the traditions of trade union banner-making and in doing so brought into question the apocalyptic fantasies of the video age.

Video theorist Heather Barton looked to the more formal qualifications of the new medium. Drawing on European curatorial perspectives, she explained the provenance of video in the formal garden—a space in which motility (the relationship between a moving body and its surrounding space) is more relevant than perspective. The break with tradition was found in the operation of the surveillance camera whose real action works against the possibility of aesthetic distance. One of the effects of Barton’s paper was to reveal a noble lineage for the apparently orphaned video, rather like a Charles Dickens’s plot.

Tim Mathieson pursued the genealogy of video further. Mathieson asserted that, more than anything, video is a child of war, particularly the second world war—a birth whose experience is renewed in the operations of CNN during the Gulf War. Further back, Mathieson linked video with those devices, such as perspective, whose design is ‘to cheat fate of distance’. The contemporary experience of this today was identified by Mathieson as the treadmill of video-taped television programs whose act of viewing is eternally put off till tomorrow. While video remained the son unable and unwilling to follow in his father’s footsteps, Mathieson proposed a nanny to mediate between the two. Placing video in a family romance was an enterprising attempt to give the medium some ground in subjective experience.

None of the three points of view agreed with the modernist celebration of video as unprecedented temporal, or non-objective, art. Instead, video was linked with previous art forms: street banners (Hughes), formal garden (Barton) and perspective (Mathieson). Such a lineage counters the diabolic entry of video as prophet of radical transformation and shows the more specific histories into which video is drawn.


Jock Rankin, May Lam, Ted Colless

In his self-professed position as ‘gatekeeper’ Jock Rankin (Head of ABC Television News in Melbourne) filters the amateur videos that might become official news. While making it seem like ‘a dirty job that’s got to be done by someone’, his examples of ‘newsworthy’ non-professional videos contained a surprising consistency: they were all forms of evidence used against members of the police force. The Rodney King bashing, a police bashing in a Perth Watchhouse, and police mockery of aboriginal deaths in custody—these are all incidents where tools of the law have been introduced to counter the individual excess associated with its execution. Here, video likes to present itself as the ‘good’ counter-spy, exposing corruption within.

Video as a force for ‘democracy’ is also the idea presented by certain students of popular culture. For these, video has made the production of film accessible to all, leading to entirely new genres such as the wedding video and the children’s birthday party. Theorist of romance, May Lam, found that the wedding video was an inherently difficult cultural product to theorise. The risk was always to condescend, to patronise and to hold up to ridicule—showing how these ‘unique’ moments cascade in a dull repetition. Lam pointed to the division of gender roles in wedding videos: the groomsmen act the goat while the bridal party ‘get more romantic, reflective treatment’. Looking to their most positive role, Lam showed how video offered the man and woman who bond on this occasion a vehicle for their romantic imagination: ‘wedding videos become an extension of amorous discourse in offering up a couple—as stars of their own show—to the affectionate scrutiny of each other’. For those who spend their lives in the audience, lit by the glitter from the stage, video is the once in a lifetime chance to take the stage. If the stage is only inhabited once, will it be anything else than an imitation of what has already been there? We’re left after Lam’s paper wondering not only about the liberating potential of a ‘karaoke culture’, but also why we have such anxiety about the popular use of media technologies.

The Tasmanian writer Ted Colless considered the more solitary use of video. His story ‘Terminal Crash Fear’ was set in the dark frustrated corner of the far flung island. It’s a place of abalone fishing where: ‘Every road, if you drive far enough, is a cul de sac.’ The action involves a man from Sydney who has come down with his girlfriend and his beloved Cadillac to work on the boats. One day his girlfriend smashes the car in very peculiar circumstances. Colless showed video footage of the camera’s point of view as the girlfriend raises the camera to her eye while driving. Colless dwelt on the boyfriend’s subsequent obsession—studying every frame of the video to find the exact spot in time when the car wrested control from the driver. The Tasmanian theorist drew us into the totalising obsession with this split moment in time captured on video. Colless deflected us from the ‘socio-political’ implications of video to consider the particular hungry eye behind the camera. This reflection was wrapped in a quote from Marshall McLuhan: ‘men are the sex organs of technology’.

Video at the bashing, the wedding or the car crash provides a window out from the immediate event, offering hope that something might be recovered from the past: the wrongs redressed, the present made nostalgic, or the fleeting encounter with death frozen forever. These scenarios reveal how the video medium is drawn into the desire to transform what is private into a public spectacle, where it can be held still in the shared light of day. In this capacity, video resembles film but with some critical differences.


Stephanie Bunbury, David Odell, Adrian Martin

For Stephanie Bunbury, the camera creates a distance between the viewer and the world. Video is the medium for the worst kind violence: that ‘drained husk of the corpse, dry violence that spooks the world.’ Bunbury has in mind the films of Atom Egoyim and more recently Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video. Video was a suspect device for Bunbury: ‘Like the microwave, it’s a bright new toy that cuts corners from old rituals. Like the computer, it’s eased itself into the creases of family life.’ Bunbury celebrated the capacity of video in film to create a space beyond goodness. Like the video camera in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, it provides the monster with his own gaze—not one mediated by public morality such as television or newspapers. This video offers a diabolical contract: a chance to exempt oneself from the laws others must obey.

For the mathematician David Odell, video is an ‘uncanny guest’ (Nietzsche’s epithet for nihilism). What distinguishes video from film, according to Odell, is the absence of anxiety. The ‘apparatus’ of cinema involves a panoptic arrangement of audience and projection box for which the basic emotion is desire. Its emotional register touches on awareness of death and intense filmic pleasure. Video is by contrast infinite:

There the cinema image is precious in every sense, television is profligate with its images, hence those scenes so popular in movies and in real life of great heaps of TV sets all showing the same thing, and hence the TVs in bars and clubs which hardly anybody glances at. The value of the video is precisely zero, or so it insists, which is why it wants to show that it goes into one infinitely many times.

Odell’s vision of video in film has about it a mystical fascination with the infinite space on the other side of cinema, akin to the Lacanian Real which exposes itself on the reverse of the Symbolic.

From this dark background, Adrian Martin stands forth as a well-lit figure of optimism. Martin heralds our ‘user-friendly’ age when video is brought into the interests of individual self-expression. The apotheosis of the ‘good’ video is seen in Sally Potter’s Orlando, whose hero travels blithely through history, encountering characters like steps in a path of individual independence. Martin points to the film’s finale, where Orlando is seen through the lens of a video camera held by her daughter, below the hovering figure of an angel (Jimmy Sommerville). Martin’s optimism follows Jameson’s trust in the path of history, though it keeps closer to the ground of actual film practice. Whereas Jameson’s future entails a rupture of boundaries, Martin finds a homeland after the wonderings of modernism.

The dual nature of video is most evident in the examination of video in film. Like the ghost costume, its tragic horror can turn quickly into a gentle comedy.[3] On the one hand, its diabolical nature is revealed in the pervasive manner of its appropriation of real life experience into abstracted episodes that suck life into an infinite black hole. And on the other hand, video offers a popular medium for making public certain statements and interventions that open possibilities for political and personal action which might be precluded by official forms of expression. Whether these two faces can be separated is an open question. What does resolve itself after these contributions is the necessity of choice: which video do you want to have in your life: the apocalyptic cannibal or the do-it-yourself handyman adviser?

Up in the tower with Jameson, one is not called up to act. Down on the ground, any picture of the world implicates oneself in a course of action. Whether video looks like an angel or the devil depends on where one stands.  It seems important to understand the other side: the force of good can be used to enslave, and evil can be a seductive fantasy. As Dostoevsky remarks of psychology in The Brothers Karamazov, video is a double-edged sword.

[1] Fredric Jameson Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism London: Verso, 1991, p. 76

[2] `Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself' -- an exhibition and series of forums organised by MIMA, June 1993

[3] What might be useful in understanding video is the kind of historical perspective used in looking at video in the art gallery. For instance, how does video in film relate to the use of letters in novels (as prose segments that have been diverted from the discursive flow and folded back into the plot)?