I See You Seeing Me

by Madeleine Peck
I must admit, when it comes to video works, I am something of a Luddite. That is to say, often, I don’t really get it. Perhaps it’s a conditional failing on my part, because I have notions of traditions and narrative commingling to produce linear expectations of craft and story.
However, as cultural and anthropological documents, the videos not only illuminate the ethos of the times in which they were created, but also theoretical trends and technological capabilities. As such, it might be accurate to say that as far as tangible evidence of a period, film/video has it over just about everything else.
In considering video works, it can be instructive and entertaining to consider the social and cultural milieu in which they were created. Under this rubric, the pieces in the current MOCA show: Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art, that exist both as artworks and social documents those considered here.
Most obviously the Jonas Mekas piece, Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol (1963-1990) gives the viewer a glimpse into the proscribed artifice presented by The Factory. Of course, Warhol and his coterie were posing and preening for the film, artfully arranged heightening the (even then) extant impression of artifice, exclusivity and sexual ambiguity.
The literal centerpiece of the show, Tiffany Holmes’s Your Face is Safe with Me, (2005) is looped directly into the museum’s security system, thereby laying bare the viewer’s inherent participation, though usually discrete, in the inner workings of the institution. As a work, it parodies both security systems and video games.
Video as intrusion is certainly a part of the larger view of the surveillance works included in the show. However, none is quite so confrontational as Vito Accondi’s Centers (1971). In the piece, the artist stands framed in the camera from the shoulders up, pointing his finger directly at the center of the camera, and by extension, the viewer. His face furrowed in concentration, Accondi’s piece is an aggressive stance bordering on anger. With his frizzy hair, receding hairline and vaguely disappointed air, the work upsets viewers perhaps because of the perceived temerity to present himself, in all of his “unglory,” as the subject of his own work…one where he transforms the relationship of viewer and viewed.
Lobby 7, (1999) Jill Magid’s self-surveillance work places the artist in the main lobby of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hijacking the schools surveillance system. Armed with a lipstick tube sized video camera, Magid runs it under her clothing and through her hair. The tension in the piece comes from the macro-views of the artist herself. How far will she go, what will she reveal? Innocuous body parts become suggestions of sexuality, and indeed, for those who wait long enough, there is a glimpse at her most private self.
Though video works are not disputed as artworks, as art objects, they defy “objectness.” So Jim Campbell’s piece, The Library, (2004) merges surveillance with an object. The piece, is custom made electronics comprised of digital tools translating empirical information relating to the passage of time with an LED surface. The Library is ghostly and aesthetically appealing with historic overtones.
Taken as a whole, the Balance and Power is unsettling, less because we are being surveilled-that is a foregone conclusion-and more because of the opportunity to reflect upon one’s own place in the camera-regulated world in which we live. And the possibilities this presents for {ahem} less than distinguished representations of one’s august self.