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Dragging out the HDMI cable – how to watch video art at home

1 April 2020

In Bruce Nauman’s film Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1 (1968), we see the artist standing a couple of feet away from the corner of his studio, slowly rocking back and forth, slamming his body against the wall and ricocheting back up again. Over and over again. For an hour. It’s utterly mind-numbing – almost sublimely so. After a time, the dogged repetition, coupled with Nauman’s decision to have the camera turned at a 90-degree angle, makes of this simple action a kind of abstraction. One’s focus shifts back and forth: between seeing a real human body impacted by hard surfaces, growing tired, maybe bruised, and seeing no more than a series of lines and angles in constant motion, like a kinetic sculpture or mechanical toy.

Many of Nauman’s films from this period – including Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1 and the similarly unvarying Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), Violin Film No. 1 (Playing the Violin as Fast as I can), and Walk with Contrapposto, all completed in 1968 – are available to watch online via UbuWeb, the free archive of avant-garde art.  Together, they seem to exemplify that ‘illusion of freedom inside four walls’ which Marcel Duchamp wrote of in a letter to Maria Martins of 1946, both in the way Duchamp’s phrase summons the utopian sense of liberation offered to the artist by isolation in the studio; and in its claustrophobia, its sense of enclosure and entrapment. A feeling that we have all, over the last few weeks, grown more familiar with.

Lore (still; 2019), Sky Hopinka.

Lore (still; 2019), Sky Hopinka. Courtesy the artist

As the coronavirus lockdown has forced more and more ‘non-essential workers’ across the world to stay at home, galleries, too, have been moving their exhibitions online, swelling the existing ranks of digital art collections like Kenneth Goldsmith’s longstanding UbuWeb project. I’ve been avoiding the virtual walk-throughs (as well as friends’ Zoom-based ‘virtual pub’ meet-ups). They only seem to make me miss the real thing all the more. But film and video work seemed like a safer (read: less weirdly alienating) bet. After all, a screen is a screen is a screen, right? Well, sort of…

I was reminded of Nauman’s work by a series of films recently uploaded to Instagram and Vimeo by the gallery Kate MacGarry, highlighting the work of Malawi-born artist Samson Kambalu. Like Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1, Kambalu’s films frequently consist of a fixed frame within which the artist performs ostensibly mundane yet quietly surreal actions, like walking across from one side of the frame to the other, sitting down in deckchair, circling a bandstand, or attempting to fly. Unlike Nauman’s films from the late ’60s, work like HTUERYAB, Todtnauberg I, Opera IV, and Early Flight by Kambalu (all 2019) are very short, often no more than a TikTok-friendly minute. They also tend to take place outdoors, in historically loaded locations like Bayreuth, home of Wagner’s Festspielhaus, and outside Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin at Todtnauberg. After an hour spent bouncing off the studio walls with Nauman, I was grateful for the (virtual) fresh air.

With its static frames and sepia tones, Kambalu’s work shares a fascination with the aesthetics of early cinema with films by Tanoa Sasraku, whose exhibition ‘O’ Pierrot’ opened at Lux in London on 7 March only to close again and move online two weeks later (until 1 May). The film O’ Pierrot (2019) itself plays on the centuries-old tropes of the Commedia dell’Arte to explore race and power, myth and minstrelsy in modern Britain, employing an aesthetic reminiscent of Georges Méliès’s early silent fantasies and the radical film-making of the 1950s and ’60s underground (in particular, Kenneth Anger’s own harlequinade, Rabbit’s Moon, which also happens to be available on YouTube). Shown alongside it, Whop, Cawbaby (2018) feels more intimate, almost diaristic, as the artist records herself struggling to build and erect an appliquéd paper flag on the greying, windswept hills of Devon. Together, the two films suggest a struggle to assert one’s identity amid a quite literally hostile environment.

O’ Pierrot (2019), Tanoa Sasraku.

O’ Pierrot (2019), Tanoa Sasraku. Courtesy the artist

But the films that have been really getting to me are the ones which brought bursts of light and colour into the room. Sky Hopinka’s Lore (2019), from the ‘INDIgenesis Online’ film series hosted by the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, has the artist’s hands in silhouette moving cut-up fragments of photographic transparencies on a screen, overlaid with gently drifting music and prose poetry, to dazzling and seductive effect. Joan Jonas’s Mirror Improvisation (2005), shared online last week by Amanda Wilkinson (the gallery is running a rolling programme of week-long video ‘screenings’), is a playful, almost picnic-like frolic in the countryside with props, a small dog, and two mirrors, bright sunlight glinting off the reflective surfaces.

Watching Jonas’s dizzying, almost psychedelic film got me thinking about viewing context again. Mirror Improvisation was intended to be part of a larger work called The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, involving props, live music, more dogs, and the artist herself performing, along with projections of other films. Here I was watching it at home on a mid-sized LED screen. Even the films by Hopinka, Sasraku, and Kambalu, if viewed in a gallery, would have probably been surrounded by lab-like white walls, preceded and followed by all the tiny rituals of gallery-going, not crowded by my bookcases and pot plants, the big window in the living room looking out on to the London skyline.

As I have scarcely left the house in the last two weeks, the various screens in the flat have become my only real source of information about the outside world. Artworks now find themselves squeezed into a slot between the news, social media feeds, and bad Netflix shows. I had originally clicked on to the Nauman collection on UbuWeb on my laptop while idly browsing. But exploring the specially curated online shows at the Walker and Lux, it felt important, somehow, to drag out the HDMI cable and switch to the TV. It was a small difference, but a difference nonetheless – and it made me all the more conscious of the curatorial decisions that go into showing moving image: projections versus flat screens versus cathode rays, and so on. In a trivial way, plugging that HDMI cable into my computer gave me some sense of agency in my encounter with the work. And right now, I’ll take all the agency I can get.