Re-experiencing Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970)

Across the room, you see a long and tall plywood wall. This plywood wall that confronts you becomes the exterior as soon as you peer around its corner and learn that two such facing, parallel walls delimit a narrow interior space, a 30-foot white hallway. The structure appears as plain and self-evident as the plywood and plaster material the walls were made of, but at the end of the hallway you can see two boxy television monitors. They suggest that this space is something to be entered, that there is something to see at the end. And so, without instructions but at a loss for what else to do, you enter.

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Immediately, the space feels closer to your body than you would have imagined. Your peripheral vision is full of blank wall space stretching around and up above you. Moreover your hand inadvertently stretches out and brushes the dry plaster. So too could your hips and shoulder if you wanted them to, but instead you withdraw, sidle, protectively. You feel your feet fall, one after the other, and you can track your movement against the passing surface of the close walls. Your shoulder brushes the wall, and then your hip. It’s inevitable, and you continue forward, the only possible direction.

The physical sensation of passing through does not last long, no more than ten seconds, and even during it you are preoccupied by the glow of the two screens stacked on the floor at the far end. You quickly discover that the cold, bluish light illuminates a scenario uncannily similar to your own current situation. Long tunnel-like spaces are visible on both. But it is hard to understand what you see there, so much so that even though you have been staring at them on this walk down the corridor, when you get to the end you have to bend down to view them better.

Initially you wish to discard the bottom image by your feet; it’s merely an empty hallway, just like the one you saw before you walked down the corridor. But the top image by your knees doesn’t align with anything you saw; it contains a figure. It contains you—your clothed back and hairstyle. You turn; there is a camera on high at the far end of the corridor where you started. You look back at the monitor; there is the back of your head, your crouching form. You turn your head slightly; your head turns. If you turn further, you imagine your face would appear in the monitor, but you could no longer see it if your own gaze looks back down the hallway. How stupid, you think, as your stare at your back. That is indeed all there is to see. Not nearly as rewarding as your image from the front would seem, and strangely disorienting as you see yourself as if you were separate, other. Which of course you are not, as you were reminded by your physical journey down the corridor bumping into yourself at every step. Maybe even worse, as you look down again, you see a video of the empty corridor even as the presence of your feet in the same glance testify to your presence within it.

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This strange doubling (tripling?) of space, of a space with which you are so intimately familiar, runs counter to your physical experience of it, echoed by your thighs now urging you to stand up. The bottom because your lived experience of the corridor is of an inhabited one, and the top because your view was one of immersion and movement down the corridor. You thought you were penetrating the space rather than receding in it. There is some trickery afoot. While you now understand how the camera positioned at the beginning must logically film you from behind, there is no sense of discovery, as the illuminated screens promised, but rather a rebuff. The split-perception of the space suggested by the monitors deny the centrality on your viewpoint by not matching your own visual of the space. The upper monitor models a split sense of self, that is, a view of you from the outside in contrast to your own, formerly unselfconscious gaze as you walked down. The lower monitor eliminates you entirely. Instead of you, you see the long perspectival lines of the tunnel converging at the monitors. You recall what you saw when you stood at the entrance. Somehow your viewpoint has become a vanishing point, as what was once empty and distant but now inhabited and present still presents a mirage of emptiness. Despite the elision of these two oppositional points, the perspectival space still stands. Rather than reifying your gaze, this experience of Nauman’s corridor has obliviated it, and with it, something of your own personhood, so central is a viewpoint to one’s conception of self. Naturally, in such a situation, you choose self-preservation, and you begin to exit the disquieting environment.

When you turn your back to the monitors, you know you are turning your face to the camera directed at it, so that an image of your face is now staring at your back. But it is futile to try to turn and see yourself, for you will only disappear. So again, you walk down this narrow path, hemmed in by wall. You try to ignore, not be annoyed with, this live recording camera by reminding yourself that just as you can’t see it, nobody else can, since the corridor only allows for one and, for those who await their turn, your body blocks the view. Its utter futility makes you wonder why a live feed was set up in the first place. Clearly your presence was required to activate the space, and the perverse gazes of it, and there was no other way to experience it. Yet this surveillance is unwatchable by you, the only available watcher. Rather than having become enlightened by exploring the space, you have merely followed a proscribed path. But to what end, as an unhappy game? Or, did you merely became the figurative subject in someone else’s picture?

You step out; the space expands. You have achieved the exterior, normal world. You command the space with your vision, a vision that allows you to take in the other art objects in the room. Those long receding lines of the corridor again present the easy conquest of enterable space and the centrality of your view, as indeed you thought artworks traditionally did. And yet that disorienting experience suggests you were wrong to think you had so clearly apprehended the corridor at a glance. The suggestion of illumination on those glowing blue screens did not materialize. Other factors, of the body and of surveillance, came into play, but in ways that denied knowledge. You look back. Hauntingly, you know that the bottom screen still shows—now correctly—an empty hallway, even though you cannot see it perfectly from this distance. You reason that the other screen must now similarly and correctly display your erasure. A minor gain from the experience is that you have visualized your disappearance, a view that is, in fact, knowable without camera-aided vision or bodily perception, a view that you now possess again as you look back down the corridor. Somehow these technologies, which replicate and increase man’s visual capacities, have shown you not just the limitations of the knowledge they can create. They also show their ability to manufacture and extend blind spots, making you question whether the world as such does not play similar tricks.

 

Learn more about Live-Taped Video Corridor on the Guggenheim’s website.


 

Curating “do it UGA”

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Installation view

I had the chance to give a gallery talk last week about do it UGA, a show I curated with fellow art history graduate student Brooke Leeton at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, and it gave me a chance to think back about the whole process. I first came across do it at a one-night event hosted by tranzit in Budapest; I was fascinated by the artists making food, drinks, drawing on walls, and dancing—all based on other artists’ instructions. do it is a curatorial project of Hans Ulrich Obrist who, beginning in the 90s, began to ask artists to write instructions by which other artists could make a work of art. The instruction-based art project has spawned many iterations around the globe, functioning as a kind of open-source, proliferating and ongoing project. Working off the 2012 do it: the compendium book, my co-curator and I asked seven artists to select an instruction from this collection of 200+ instructions by artists from Marina Abramovic to Franz West.

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One of the questions I was asked was about the amount of trust we put in the artists, as we planned a show with no idea as to how it might materialize until the very end. And in a sense, that’s true, and at times was a cause for anxiety. Normally, a curator might do studio visits and ask for specific works or pieces from a body of work to be shown. Not only were we not starting from objects, we framed the project to the artists as a way to step outside their normal practice and experiment. In doing so, I feel we were working better with the nature of the project: instructions-based art is totally different from the normal, self-driven approach to making and it offers a chance to play and reconsider process.

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Instructions might seem like rules, specific and limiting to creative freedom, and thus against the grain of art itself. On the contrary though, the works the resulted from this show speak more of interpretive freedom and the inevitable personal mark attached to things we make. We placed an orange photocopy of the instruction from the book next to the artwork interpreting it, so viewers could see for themselves both the starting and end points. In the photograph above, on the right, is a board with two telephones that connect to a total of six telephones, part of Courtney McCracken‘s installation that provides elaborate mechanics for communal performing of Stephen Kaltenbach’s simple instruction: “Start a rumor.” All of the works have a similarly interesting degree of separation from the instructions.

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Many of the works were performative in nature, and the presence of the artists during the opening helped activate the space and suggest the freedom to interact (that even got, rather gloriously, misinterpreted at one point as guests started drawing on the walls). Above is a photograph of a dance performance by Hilary Schroeder, following Joan Jonas’s instruction that begins “dance with a large piece of chalk.” Below is a photograph of Allan Innman, who created the beauty mark that accentuates both the wall of the exhibition and his own face, adding a bit of wry humor to the Beauty Marks instruction by Hreinn Fridfinnsson.

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A final performative aspect of the opening occurred when I and my co-curator picked up brooms and swept confetti “evenly distributing it along one wall,” to signify the end of our contribution to the show, Amalia Pica’s do it (party). This instruction appealed to us, because, as we rather cheekily say in the exhibition hand-out, throwing a party and cleaning up afterword is “curating in a nutshell.”

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James Turrell’s Roden Crater

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Site plan of Roden Crater

Although I only learned about the Roden Crater a few weeks ago, this large earthwork has been installation and land artist James Turrell‘s major project since 1974.  His works typically include creating spaces and sensory experiences through an almost tactile manipulation of artificial and natural light. The Roden Crater, an extinct volcano near Flagstaff, Arizona, is being subtly reshaped and fitted with underground tunnels and rooms, some carved with “skyscapes” (openings that frame and seem to shape the sky). This ambitious project is still under construction, and few people have seen it outside models, drawings, and photographs. Turrell has stated that he wants to link visitors with the celestial movements of planets, stars, and distant galaxies, saying: “In this stage set of geologic time, I wanted to make spaces that engage with celestial events in light so that the spaces performed a ‘music of the spheres’ in light.” A lot could be said about this project, but I’m particularly struck by the way the site as a whole resembles an eye.

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Roden Crater

The artist has also said: “Roden Crater has knowledge in it and it does something with that knowledge. Environmental events occur; a space lights up. Something happens in there, for a moment, or for a time. It is an eye, something that is in itself perceiving.” With the latter comment in mind, I think it is fascinating to consider how light and knowledge are connected to the eye and the gaze. The crater is in part a naked-eye observatory, on a scale that puts it in dialogue with the heavens even as it reverses the traditional gaze of the all-seeing eye of the Judeo-Christian God who looks down on earth. In art history, this notion has been represented by a tradition of God as a disembodied Eye. From the medieval period onward the eye of God was invoked to represent all-seeing divinity and the Holy Trinity. A form of this symbol where the eye is enclosed in a triangle, often called the Eye of Providence, proliferated and was repurposed during the Enlightenment for secular, man-made knowledge. The power of the much-used symbol stems from the privileging of vision and its association with knowledge. Regardless of whether an eye was literally present, the implicit gaze of religious art in both Western and Eastern Orthodox traditions has been a divine, watching one.

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Crater’s Eye Plaza

Considering the power structures implicit in the gaze (at the Roden Crater, a man-made and God-like eye on earth staring up to the heavens) is fascinating not just historically but in today’s surveillance-prevalent society. Ancient monuments such as the Incan and Egyptian pyramids, which Turrell cites as an influence, were scaled for a privileged aerial viewpoint that once belonged only to God. Historically this privileged view became accessible to man through maps, which were once valuable luxury items. Now the aerial view is available to society en masse courtesy of Google Maps and Google Views, reinforcing Foucault’s notion of the surveillance society. While Turrell might seem to be creating a monument along ancient lines, contemporary societies’ changed relation to the aerial view complicates this understanding.

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East Portalt

While the site itself features tunnels, rooms, viewing stations, and the crater’s eye plaza already, as well as a small guest house nearby, Turrell is still working on the project. He is 71 years old, and it is unclear whether the project will be finished in his own lifetime. Once it is open, visitors will be restricted to small numbers at a time, but I for one would certainly love a chance to walk through and experience this strange modern megalith.

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Crater’s Eye