Iain Cameron's Diary
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2004-04-04 - 8:10 a.m.
Julia Stiles in yesterday’s Guardian brightened up the morning and paved the way for some more digging, esp on Professor Stephen Partridge who seems to explain the link between Talkingbirds in Coventry and David Cunningham. His biography includes the following:
“Stephen Partridge is a media artist and producer. He was in the "landmark" shows of the 1970s including the Video Show at the Serpentine in 1975, the Installation Show at the Tate gallery in 1976, The Paris Biennalle in 1977 and the The Kitchen in New York in 1979. He has also curated a number of influential video shows: Video Art 78 in Coventry; UK TV New York; National Review of Live Art 1988-90; 19:4:90 Television Interventions; and the touring tape packages Made in Scotland I,II, Semblances , Passages. He has worked with the artist and composer David Cunningham since 1974.
He has lectured since 1975 in a number of art colleges, established the School of Television & Imaging at DJCAD, and is presently Professor of Media Art and Associate Dean of Research & Enterprise at Duncan of Jordanstone College.”
The odder thing is that the Deleuze commentary that I am reading is by James Williams who also teaches at Dundee University in the philosophy department – and there seems to be a connection between the ideas within Repetition and Difference which Williams is explaining and the kind of aesthetic experience that Talkingbirds and Cunningham/Partridge offer. For example an interaction with a CDROM could easily yield superficial repetition but the aim seems to be to reveal the difference within repetition that the Deleuze wishes us to see - a provocative difference which pushes us into an exploration of the uncharted domain of possibilities.
Indeed the non-passive nature of the aesthetic experience that the CP CDROM offers is profoundly Deleuzian. It is because we are doing something which may or may not trigger a repetition that we are more like to discover the true differences between episodes that stem from the intensities which are peculiar to our own specific situation as we use this art. You could see the CDROM as an engine for provoking Deleuzian insights.
Of course maybe Williams and Partridge never meet up over coffee or anything.
I sometimes say that there are two extremes – at one end, everything is itself and not another thing – and at the other everything is connected to everything else. Deleuze is interested in this opposition but much more in the “other” pole.
One his tropes is the idea that pushing into something new is “beyond the pleasure principle” and really an echo of the death instinct within us all.
My main point of engagement has been “This is a Sentence” by Stephen Partridge and David Cunningham which SP theorises as follows:
“This is a Sentence is the latest of the language and text-based works started in 1972 as artists books such as - "There Are Some Things You Can Only Do In Private" - to video tape pieces - "Easy Piece" and "Sentences" and broadcast - television pieces - "The Sounds of These Words" .
The CD-ROM work brings most of these works together and explores new ways of presenting them to, and challenging the viewer/consumer/user. It also features the long standing collaboration between myself and David Cunningham and most of the works we have done together over the years.
Many of the video and television works made from 1972 to date have involved the use of David's soundtracks, either specially commissioned for the work as in "The Sounds of These Words" or in response to an existing soundwork as in the 1982 series "Soundtapes". On the CD-ROM many of these works are 'revisited' in changed versions or as clips, alongside new sound and image constructs which develop the overall theme of the self referential or tautological sentences that lay at the heart of the work.
The CD-ROM is broadly based around white-on-black short pieces of text, which act as both the interface to the interactivity and are the work itself. The sentences vary from the obvious and reflexive - "at the end of this sentence is a full stop" - to the contradictory - "this is not a sentence" - through to self referential statements - "these letters constitute these words". The sentences are also found within the video works referred to above and thus become recursive and tautological. The sound work(s) interfere, interpret or expand the navigation and discovery of the work. The work though at times playful, is not game oriented, there is no goal or "right" way forward. Indeed the work uses many semi-random clusters of sounds, texts and images so that is probably not possible to experience the same pathway twice.
The work was started in 1995 and a prototype entitled "Nonsense, No-sense, Sentences" was produced on Hypercard and distributed as part of Merseyside Movieola's (now known as F.A.C.T.) "Toy Box" CD-ROM in the same year. Since then David and I have worked on the piece for a few weeks each year in between other projects and so it has evolved and grown.
I feel that the notion of interactivity is largely spurious - CD-ROMS are neither more nor less "interactive" than any other medium. What interested me in the form initially was its intimacy and its ability to bring together sound, images and text in a cohesive and integral whole. I was also attracted to the crude quality of quicktime video - reminiscent of the early video days. Having worked with videotape since 1972 when it was a black and white reel to-reel format, I was struck by the similarities of problems of working with an almost 'fragile' medium - needing great care and what are now called 'workarounds'. There was also a sense of freedom and control in being able to create work entirely in one's studio again - on the so-called 'desk-top'.
The earliest work represented on the CD-ROM is "Easy Piece" from 1974 which was recorded in a single take - simply fading up and out the caption of the word "easy" (Letraset on white card) at the same time as a woman's voice repeating the word roughly every 20 seconds. There were no edit suites for reel to reel videotape at that time - you simply chose the best 'take' in a work like this. "Easy Piece" has been re-mastered a number of times, including electronic graphics over the original voice.
This caused confusion when Rudolf Frieling, the curator of the Mediathek at ZKM, wished to purchase the work in 1995 and I could not track down for some six months which version he had specified. Although the piece was originally planned as an installation it was not until 1996 that a version was shown as intended - on a nine-inch black and white 1970s Sony monitor standing on top of a five foot high plinth with the screen three feet from, and facing the gallery wall 5. By this time the work and the monitor had both acquired a 'patina' which gave added resonance, and coincided with a re-newed interest by a younger generation, in the early video work of many artists. As the CD-ROM was by then quite advanced and incorporated these early works, this interest gave added encouragement.
Shortly after making "Easy Piece", I became aware of David, who was on the foundation course at Maidstone College of Art. He played me some sound work which varied from ironic takes upon the Phil Spector "wall-of-sound" to various minimalist sketches which appealed to my sense of soundspace.
Being no different to a typical artist working with video or film I of course asked him to "help" on the sound for my next works. This started off with him being a sort of engineer but progressed to him delivering up soundtracks to works including "Interlace". I can't remember which came first on this - his sound grabbed from a news report on the coup in Portugal - or my visuals culled from some BBC 'talking-head' interview. In any case this set the pattern for the next 20-odd years. I would either receive some sound works from David which I might or might not work with - or I would ask him to make some specific sound or soundtrack for a specific piece of work. His involvement would come in peaks and troughs and would have an often ambivalent quality to whatever I was working on, although he always responded to the challenge or request that I made him.
The CD-ROM features a number of video pieces that we have worked together on. "Soundtapes" was made in response to a cassette full of soundworks sent to me by David sometime in 1981. The ones I used were titled "Voice", "Body", and "Rapid". David went on to use them as different versions on the CDs "Ghost Dance" and "Voiceworks" and forgot about the versions he had sent to me-although he did use images from "The Sounds of These Words" for the front and back covers of "Voiceworks". "Voice" became "Idiolect" and a new version of this re-united work appears on the CD-ROM.
The most important and relevant (to the CD-ROM) of our collaborative works is however "Sentences" . In the easiest of the one's to describe a jumble of letters dance along a line on the screen and then settle to state - "these letters constitute these words". The action is repeated until a second statement - "these words constitute this sentence". The soundtrack features the saxophone of Peter Gordon another long-term collaborator of David Cunningham's and seemed peculiarly apt to the dancing of the sentences like the keys of sax.
From the broadcast television piece "The Sounds of these Words" short clips are used as reactive 'clicks' and other sections mirror the main sentences at the heart of the work. For a catalogue which accompanied the subsequent tour of the work in the series "Television Interventions" I wrote that:
Words fascinate me, they often seem to lose their meaning when repeated or analyzed and become 'only sounds'.......
I am also interested in how when a piece of film or tape is played over and over, and at different speeds how it too looses its original 'meaning'. I thought it might be possible to combine these two interests in one work which would also be relevant to the idea of an intervention in broadcast television. The sound of a woman speaking combined with close-ups of her face and mouth are manipulated in post production. The soundtrack is further developed by David Cunningham, using tape loops and sampling techniques of only the woman's voice. The text is created and manipulated in 3D by using Quantel's Cypher caption generator.
The text in "The Sounds of these Words" repeated the sentences used over the years with specific words and phrases appearing to come out of the woman's mouth.”
Partridge quotes from some 1995 Cunningham stuff :
“Perhaps a better word than 'interactive' is 'unfinished', with particular reference to Richard Rorty's use of the term 'final'; using 'unfinished' to cope with change, doubt, indeterminacy. The open situations created by, for instance, John Cage or the Fluxus group are both philosophically and, when viewed from the classic perspective of the Renaissance, unfinished.
An object-based society will by its very nature perceive a time based structure as an object and will exert as much control as possible over the form, content and performance of, for instance, a piece of music to try and make it repeatable or 'finished'."
Partridge continues: "Cunningham was also attending an Arts Lab at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, and we were getting interested in looking at our history - the works we had done together over the years. Some of it was in a sorry state - on open reel videotapes, and as we tried playing them, they would disintegrate on the VCR, allowing us one chance to copy to a new format. We had discussed how the CD-ROM should be non-interactive in the sense that he describes in the quoted notes above, and how we should use our old work to re-invent the past. Maybe even forge our old works. Also we both thought that screensavers might be an avenue to explore.
David wanted to know as little as possible about the software, but just enough to make a frustrating non-interactive, interactive, unfinished piece which he called "colour". This work involved rectangles of colour appearing on the screen and only sometimes if you clicked the mouse did something appear to happen. You could never be sure, so you could hardly interact with the mouse, but you could interact with the work as a whole. His own explanation of the work (before it was 'finished') is quoted below:
"My own approach to making a CD-ROM along these principles would initially be a disc with 10 or more sections, each of which, when launched, produce a moving screen image and sound. This, however, will never be the same twice, that is, there is no fixed start to the process of generating the image. The 10 sections would be differentiated by some factor of the nature of the imagery, perhaps the kinds of colours (pastels, transparencies, dark/light, primaries), the speed of change, the design of the generators (for instance, producing hard edged, blurred or organic shapes) and so on. Similar differentiation would apply to the sound. (Which he never wrote- SP )
It is different to a recording, it is not necessarily repeatable. Unlike putting on a record, the viewer/listener will not get the same thing twice, although they will be in the same general area.
In this form it is little more than a domestic distraction, moving wallpaper. There is, of course, a demonstrable need for moving wallpaper as we near the millennium."
As the piece progressed throughout 96-8 David's contribution especially on the sound grew and he also became irritated with some aspects of the work, especially if it looked as though I was trying to give it an aspect of progression or finishedness. My own views, however closely mirrored David's but this was not always apparent as I was always showing him a prototype, and my own limited knowledge of the programming meant it was just easier to have a beginning for instance, so that I could at least 'handle' and debug the work. “
I would imagine that most of the diary writers and many readers will recognize this kind of long term intermittent project with some of threads of continuity and some lurches.
Its interesting that in Britain some universities manage to provide a home for anf facilities for experimentally oriented artists who want to use new technology. As far as the US is concerned I find it easier to think of artists working in the same way and out of a similar tradition using corporate sponsorship or private money – I have mentioned them before – Cindy Sherman, Laurie Anderson and Bill Viola.
Cunningham works with John Greaves who has worked with Peter Blegvad - I have a CD of a 1977 collaboration between the two which I picked up 2nd hand in Greenwich one day along with a French project based on Rimbaud's poetry which includes a John Cale track. There is a phrase on the Greaves CD "The fountainpen that Nijinsky designed in the asylum". This phrase has a natural rhythm to it and so I ripped it and - under the influence of the Cunningham-Partridge CDROM which I had not long purchased I started messing with it and eventually it ended up in Cubasis as the core of a piece.
I also note the Kent connection - and the thread from Daevid Allen's involvement in the famous So What cut-up exercise that Terry Riley did in Paris through to his subsequent involvement in the Canterbury scene.
Another observation is that these tenuous threads are Deleuzian - at least as Williams explains the philosophy - in that there a chain of episodes where material is repeated but the repititions provoke further experiment to create what might be an unfolding narrative. The question of how such a narrative is constituted and sustained is pretty tricky.
Fluxus is nowadays seen as an overarching movement across time and space - it was happening at the end of the 50s and I read that Fluxus episodes are still taking place today. And of course it crops up in places like the Detroit Institute of Art and from time to time in the Ikon gallery in Birmingham.