Between Cinema and a Hard Place: Gary Hill's video art between words and images.

by S. Brent Plate, 2003


So what is left but the business between hands. On the one, to dig (deeper); on the other, to bury (deeper) ... And if the right hand did not know what the left hand is doing....

--Gary Hill (1)

WHAT IS VIDEO ART? Rather, where is video art located? Or, perhaps, what are its borders? What are its influences, confluences, and confusions? What limits it and defines it? How does video art speak about itself? For my purposes here, I would ask, who is Gary Hill? Or again, where is Gary Hill? Or, still again, what is Gary Hill between?

Hill's video art does not sit easily within an art historical perspective, nor does it rest well within an already unstable history of video art. The history and nature of video art is problematic because it is "between cinema and a hard place," as the title of Hill's 1991 video installation suggests. Hill--and other video artists--can undoubtedly be shown to be influenced by art movements such as conceptualism, Dadaism, performance art, as well as the history of film, but what will be of concern here is the unique and singular location of Hill's art. What is significant with regard to Hill's art is that his influences stem from poetry and philosophy as much as they come from anything within an art historical field. Therefore, to place Hill's art necessitates a perspective from which linguistic elements are taken into account as well as those of the visual arts.

To begin to show the distinctive nature of Hill's video art, the first half of this article is an analysis of his video installation, Between Cinema and a Hard Place. This installation acts as a self-referential questioning of the status of Hill's own video art and serves to show why an approach to Hill's practices must come from nonvisual as well as visual fields. Once a relation between Hill's video art and the verbal fields of poetry and philosophy are established, I turn to examine his art within the context of other visual arts, showing parallel developments between video art and the related media of television and film.

On a broad level then, this article suggests that an understanding of Hill's status as a "video artist" must take into account particular relations between language and image both intrinsic and extrinsic to his art. I argue that it is within these relations that Hill's singular place is constituted within the discourse of video art and the broader discourse of art history. Furthermore, the idea of "influence" from one field to another is shown to be too banal, and what must be accounted for are the radical disruptions that occur when a particular sign-system is transposed into another sign-system, in other words, when a text is taken up in a visual artwork, or vice versa.

   Between Cinema and a Hard Place
   Each of [Hill's] works is found to be singular and sweeps the
   general technique called video along in an adventure that renders
   it irreplaceable, but irreplaceable among other irreplaceables,
   other unique effects of signature, even if it puts to work many
   other things, many other "arts" that have nothing to do with
   --Jacques Derrida (2)
   The sense in which Gary Hill's videos are conceptual or image-text
   art done in video form is the sense in which the boundaries of a
   medium have long ago disappeared, but for our institutional need to
   --Maureen Turim (3)


Hill's video installation, Between Cinema and a Hard Place (1991), is a self-questioning self-referential art piece. (4) The installation is technologically, philosophically, and imagistically complex. Formally, it comprises twenty-three video monitors of various sizes (stripped of their casings): twelve thirteen-inch color, five nine-inch black-and-white, and six five-inch black-and-white. The multiple monitors are conjoined through a computer-controlled video-switching matrix that also brings together three audio speakers for an aural component.

Exposed wirings and picture tubes, and the otherwise sparse layout of the installation give an impression of simplicity, of a "stripped-down" video installation. One might think that Hill has taken video apart, exposed it and taken away the framings that separate it from the space of the museum and viewers; the video installation turns into a video "expos-ition." Unlike television, cinema, and most video installations (including Hill's), Between Cinema and a Hard Place allows the viewer to see behind the scene, to realize the amount of infrastructural wiring necessary to put the final image on the screen. While technology disappears in most interactions with a screened image, Between Cinema and a Hard Place turns the technology inside-out, rips the guts out and displays the entrails.

Looking closer at the formal setup, Hill's expos-ition is essentially composed of four monitor groups. The first group is made up of the nine thirteen-inch monitors along the back row which function in synchrony with each other, transposing images from monitor to monitor. An image of an object (e.g., an image of the moon or a stone) may appear on the far right screen and seemingly move between screens toward the left. While the monitors work in harmony, a distinction is maintained in that each monitor is shifted slightly, pointing in a different direction, and each monitor has been adjusted to give off a slightly different hue than the others. Similarly, the second group--five nine-inch black-and-white monitors to the viewers' right--function together and are slightly shifted, but the images are not as abstract as they appear in the first group. There are even some motion scenes, e.g., the cutting of an apple. The six five-inch black-and-white monitors directly in the middle-front form the third group, again displaying related images between them. Yet the images on these screens are all form and contrast; there are barely any clear figures or objects to focus on. Finally, the three thirteen-inch color monitors on the bottom left provide the most detail. The two side monitors generally correspond with each other as the middle monitor shows abstract images that appear somewhat akin to those in the other monitor groups, however not in harmony with any other monitor.

Each of the four clusters displays images that oscillate between photography and cinema, and hence also cause a disruption and reorientation of time and space. For example, there are instances in the installation where images are displayed of woods passing by. An ordinarily stationary tree is transfigured when a stationary camera is placed in a moving vehicle and focused on the stationary trees. Trees are put in motion. That movement is furthered by the appearance of the trees moving not only from side to side within the frame of the monitor, but seemingly moving between the monitors as well, the image "jumping" from one screen to the next.

Or again, time and space are reconceived through the use of the abovementioned dual-flanking monitors of the fourth monitor group. Here, two close spatial locations are displayed at the same time, as if two proximate cameras were recording at once. Neighboring moving images provide a relation between the two monitors, but at the same time the viewer sees a slightly different space in each. While the other monitor groups show an identical image on monitors that are shifted in various directions, these two monitors display an image that is not identical but similar, and here the images are slightly shifted.

What is raised through these relations between neighboring monitors is a series of questions regarding the time and space existing between the creation of the video and the display of it. Were there two separate cameras recording in proximity to each other? Is that the same image moving between screens on the back nine monitors? Did Hill intend these relations? The answers to these questions do not matter here. What we have to deal with is the installation itself, the time and space of viewing. The video installation, far now from being an "expos-ition," continually causes the viewer to interrogate the time, space, and technology that make this installation an artistic medium. Reflecting on some of Hill's installations, curator Chris Bruce has stated, "What you get if you get time as an essential organizing structure is the thrill of expectant consideration and the idea that possibility, unpredictability, shift, random meaning, or surprise can be more than mere subjects in art, but actual occurrences as well." (5)

At the same time, if the viewer stops long enough in front of the installation, she or he is pulled into a rhythmic flow of words and images. A soft-spoken voice is heard on the overhead speakers, reciting some poetic text. The rhythm of a masculine voice flows well with altering images on the monitors. The viewer is put, as Hill considers, "inside the time of speaking. Every syllable is tied to an image; suddenly words seemed quite spatial and the viewer becomes conscious of a single word's time" (6) The initial harsh and laid-bare sight of wires and assorted monitors gives way to a calming rhythmic sensation. Inviting one to let one's mind go, the images mime the spoken voice in its movement, and the words spoken disappear into the sound of the words spoken. The formal nature takes over; the viewer is lost in the passing woods. Between Cinema becomes some sort of contemplative space where words, images, time, and space are fused, lost, and reoriented.

As a multimediated poetics, the installation seeks to take up Hill's constant interrogations between image and word. Influenced in part by the poet George Quasha (they met in 1976 and have collaborated from time to time), Hill has consistently produced art works which, through meticulous editing, form a poem of images and words. Such poetry is best seen in the 1989 single-channel videotape, Site Recite, where "still life" images are edited to correspond to a spoken voice. The videotape ends with an image looking out from inside a mouth, and the words, "Imagining the brain closer than the eyes." Hill's harmonizing of image and word establishes a unique style of poetry, offering what Michael Nash calls "a new form of writing." (7)

Even so, Between Cinema and a Hard Place is poetic and critical, but it is not a narrative. What occurs alongside the poetic rhythms is something like Gregory Bateson's notion of a metalogue: "A metalogue is a conversation about some problematic subject. This conversation should be such that not only do the participants discuss the problem but the structure of the conversation as a whole is also relevant to the same subject." (8) This definition is not arbitrarily placed on Hill's installation, for Hill has acknowledged Bateson's influence. Bateson's work was important for Hill--as it was for many early video artists--reflected especially in his videos of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The "participants" in the conversation here are the video monitors and their images, the spoken voice, and the technical apparatus of the installation. The "problem" is that of video art, and particularly, the nature of video art, that "thing" between cinema and a hard place. As metalogue, the problem of the nature of video art is taken up and partially transposed through "images of nature," i.e. trees, rocks, fields, the moon, or domestic scenes like a close up of an apple being prepared to be cut. And through this, the relation of technology to nature is brought to the surface.

At times it might be tempting to see Hill's installation as an expressionistic representation of nature--a geographical space in which the viewer's body listens and sees--but the nature involved is fragmented, displayed across numerous screens, a nature which finally allows little or no access. In spite of the overall inviting and natural rhythmic elements in the installation, it is only through the use of technology, editing, and a multifaceted installation that aesthetic appeal comes at all. A romanticized nature is at the farthest remove from the technologically sophisticated video production. Yet nature and technology are enmeshed and inseparable.

Two forces work within the nature of the installation: attraction and repulsion. Through rhythms created via technology, the viewer is allowed some aesthetic access and is reaffirmed in his/her space. But it becomes the same technology that keeps the viewer distant, from bypassing the screens and getting to the "nature" of nature. For the technology calls attention to itself and makes viewers remember that they are not in a pastoral setting but in a museum space in front of state-of-the-art video technology.

And here we reach a transition from physical to metaphysical elements. "Nature," as pastoral images of the countryside, turns to nature, as in the "essence" of things. And here too, it must be revealed that the rhythmic voice in Hill's installation is not reciting poetry after all, but rather parts of Heidegger's philosophical essay, "The Nature of Language." The inaccessible nature of the imaged countryside becomes the inaccessible nature of the heart of language.

The dual play of nature in Between Cinema and a Hard Place is not a strange play to Heidegger, for in his essay, metaphors of "walking in the country" are used throughout. Though highly philosophical, the article gives an air of pastoral poetry and works well as a spoken text in Hill's installation. Heidegger sets up an invisible geography, a nature scene, in which we are to walk along, to listen, and hear language give itself to us. In this nature-space, poetry and thinking are neighbors. Like the twin video monitors of the fourth group, poetry and thinking see the nature of things from similar but slightly different perspectives.

"The Nature of Language" is a tri-part article concerning, as one might surmise, the nature of language. Yet, as in much of Heidegger's writing, it is not nature as we in the western philosophical tradition have come to think of it; it is not an exploration to understand the essence of language. What Heidegger sees in the nature of language is a set of relations. Within a particular geography, his exploration seeks out what exists at the limits of language, "where word breaks off no thing may be," to quote the poem analyzed by Heidegger in the article. (9)

There are two levels of language. There is the nature of language, something overwhelming and beyond our control, to which we can only come through an experience. The experience of language is one in which "something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us." (10) To experience it is not to find an end, a telos, a stopping-point, but to be caught up in the experience along the way. "Along the way" is the location of the other level of language, speech, our everyday language that allows negotiation and functioning in the world. This second level of language is the very language Heidegger must use in his essay, and the very language that may allow us to experience the other level. "But when does language speak itself as language? Curiously enough, when we cannot find the right word for something that concerns us, carries us away, oppresses or encourages us." (11) Language is the closest to the nature of itself when language itself falls away, when the presence of words approaches an indescribable absence. Hence the need for poetry, for ways of using language indirectly, for skirting around a subject. Again, not the thing itself, but the neighbors.

In Heidegger's geography, thought and poetry are neighbors. In the past, poetry has typically been exiled from thinking due to centuries of western logocentrism, a belief in thought as calculation, ratiocination, Reason, Word of God, et al. In such a space, thought cannot neighbor poetry. But Heidegger recreates the neighborhood, sets out to desegregate the country, sets the differing perspectives of poetry and thought together. Heidegger is clear that "we must discard the view that the neighborhood of poetry and thinking is nothing more than a garrulous cloudly mixture of two kinds of saying in which each makes clumsy borrowings from each other." (12) Like Kristeva's notion of intertextuality (as opposed to most interpretations of it (13)), a trans-position occurs, a violent clash that does not leave things settled.

This clash is what Heidegger reckons with. He analyzes poetry through critical thinking, and does so with the quasi-poetical undertones of rhythmic language and continual questioning. Questions that begin his writings resurface, are reanalyzed, and reformulated. This is the way thinking progresses. It is a circular movement, not linear. Significantly too, it is a poetic movement, and not merely philosophical. To come to the "nature of language" entails a coming around, a movement along the way which has no final definitions and no final answers. Such are the thoughtful themes taken up by Hill. The intrusion of Heidegger's philosophy into the rhythmic space of Hill's video installation is a radical interruption, perpetuating and restructuring questions of the nature of language, the nature of the relation between language and image, and the nature of video art.

To conclude this formal analysis of Hill's installation after an excursus on Heidegger's article, we may consider that what is going on amongst the clusters of monitors is a display of neighborliness. And this neighborliness is constituted primarily by and through relations between time and space, word and image. Through the recitation of Heidegger's questionings in "The Nature of Language," and through the display of terminals, disrupted and turned, Between Cinema and a Hard Place begs the viewer to place it. The attempt to define and historicize Gary Hill's "video art" becomes a difficult task as long as we are looking for its essence. The truth is relational, and Hill's work is always found "between" things.

The title of the installation itself is a self-referential questing after the nature of video. Where is Hill's video art? Between cinema and a hard place. It is always between, defined, if at all, by its edges. To come to an understanding of Hill's video art one must therefore come to an understanding of what resides at the edges of it, of understanding its neighbors. As we have seen, Hill's artistic practices are neighbors to poetry and philosophy, and therefore place it outside the traditional bounds of art history. But Hill's video art has other neighbors too, neighbors more in line with art historical investigations. Turning now to explore some of these relations, I examine the location of Gary Hill within a broader history of video art and video art's closest neighbors, film and television.

   Myths, Histories, and Im-media-cy
   The question "What is video art?" seems to imply that the medium
   must somehow legitimize itself as an art form. But the real
   question is not whether video is an art form but how video changes
   definitions of art.
   --John Hanhardt (14)

Like most theories of origins, video art has a mythic beginning. The creation myth many like to claim for this art form has Nam June Paik as its founder. Christine Tamblyn recounts the archaic event:

   In 1965, the Sony Corporation began marketing its newly developed
   consumer-grade portable video camera/recorder in the United States.
   The Korean-born artist Nam June Paik rushed out to buy a machine
   from the first shipment. On his way home from the store, his cab got
   caught in a traffic jam caused by a procession to greet Pope Paul
   VI, who was visiting New York. Paik made an instantaneous tape of
   the event, which he showed later that evening at the Cafe a Go-Go.

And with the creation myth comes a heterogeneous discourse of video art history. Most articles on the history of video art mention the difficulty of actually tracing it. (16) The influences, it is realized, are socio-political as much as they are artistic, and charting any sort of linear history is a near impossible task.

There is also hesitancy toward the effort at creating a history. As Martha Rosler has stated, "Historical accounts are intent on establishing the legitimacy of a claim to public history." (17) To accomplish legitimation through the act of histoncizing would be to subject the "object" (here, video art) to an institution by defining the nature of the art form, what is at its essence. But institutionalization is the very thing that early video art tried to escape. Early video saw itself as a vanguard operation, offering alternatives to the static art of the museum space, as well as offering alternatives to commercial television.

Hill, I have suggested, remains clear of defining the nature of his art and providing a history (and hence a justification) of himself. Between Cinema and a Hard Place gives suggestions (beginning with the title) that it is pretending to justify and define itself, but definition quickly tumbles into the obscurity of self-referentiality and critical questioning. The installation serves to show that poetry and philosophy are as much Hill's neighbors as video art history. In a similar way perhaps, early video art was influenced by socio-political concerns as much as it was by performance or conceptual art.

Intriguingly, Hill contributes verbally to the discourse of video art history in the "Video Histories" section of a survey of video art, Illuminating Video. Hill's writing is a dual-columned, poetic text entitled, "And if the Right Hand did not know what the Left Hand is doing," in which poetic musings merge with critical questions about the place of video art. Like the installation, playfulness and critical questions meet, and faint attention is paid to a definition or history of video art. Rather, as in Heidegger, history is circled, questioned, and re-questioned. Hill ends the "article" with a choice between two words, between two pages, between words and an image. On the left side the word "YES" with a playful discourse on the nature of the word "yes"; on the right side the word "NO" with a photo by Hill "in the moment a TV is turned off." (18) Is there a history? On the one hand yes, on the other no.

Like many avant-garde projects, early video art wanted to collapse art and life, "making audience and producer interchangeable." (19) With the technological apparatus in place, video art was in a better position to do so than any previous avant-garde. The tools of mass media (e.g., the Sony Portapak) were now actually available to the general public. And "as art became politically and socially engaged, the distinctions between art and communication blurred." (20) With a current of optimism regarding technology in the 1960s, video supplied a technology used by many as a new form of underground press. McLuhan's prophetic utterances about a global village (reflected literally in one early video collective in New York naming themselves "Global Village") became foreseeable when mass-distributed media was attainable.

Aside from the social implications, Paik and his Portapak entered an art world where performance art, earth art and process art were making claims. Here art was a process, not a product, as in Mel Bochner's claim not to be "making art," but "'doing' art." (21) The Dadaist's Cabaret Voltaire and early '60s performance art (e.g., Allan Kaprow's "happenings") had already begun to shift certain perspectives of art reception towards experiencing art as an event: art happened, and when it finished it could not be repeated. But with video art, the "event" of art could be recorded and immediately re-seen.

As a quasi-documentary, quasi-technological show off, Paik's original video art of the Pope hardly seems like art. But at the time, the new video technology opened up a brand new form of artistic exploration. The "gimmick" was the immediacy of the medium. Into the art world stepped an art created and given back in "real time." Gregory Battcock claims that this sense of immediacy is "commonly regarded as a major quality that has shaped the development of video art," (22) and Dan Graham considers video art to be "a present-time medium." (23) While Graham and Battcock are thinking specifically here of "live" video--with the camera turned on an event and simultaneously watched on screen in another or the same location in a closed circuit--in many ways, video can be thought of as a "present-time medium" even in its quick turnaround of taping and showing (as with the Papal procession).

With a minimum of editing, the subjectivity of the artist behind the art was erased, the artist, viewer, and medium all collapsed into an event. What such immediacy provides for is precisely the sense of im-media-cy, a performance "without medium," no between. But paradoxically, and this must be accounted for, it is through the technological medium itself that this came to pass.

Hill's first forays into video art were right in line with this immediate and processual conception. In 1973, while attending the Art Students League in Woodstock, N.Y., Hill borrowed a video camera from Woodstock Community Video and began experimenting. He says that "Video allowed a kind of real time play, the possibility to 'think out loud.' Here was a process immediately accessible and seemingly a much closer parallel to thinking." (24) For a couple of years he worked at Woodstock creating video pieces. In these early videotapes Hill was already exploring the relationship between sound and image, but in keeping with the socio-political engagement of video art of the time they also contained an ecological focus. His first installation was entitled Hole in the Wall (1974) and was a real time closed-circuit loop where a monitor was set up to simultaneously display what the camera viewed. The immediate playback was the essence of the art itself.

At the beginning of his career, and throughout his later work, Hill has regarded technology as the key force that establishes his video art as a medium. While the final product may induce the viewer into an "im-mediate" contemplative space where the material nature of technology disappears, the wires on the floor of the museum are soon remembered, and the viewer becomes all too aware of the power of technology. Hill himself queries:

   How do the ever-increasing technological possibilities bear upon
   the medium? To which we might fold the question back on itself and
   suggest that perhaps what's called for is a loss of technology--a
   recognition of fallibility, and openness to the possibility that
   the nature of the question might only arise authentically within
   the cybernetic milieu of video itself--the poetics as they occur.

Technology and the medium of video are bound and rebound to each other so that the one cannot escape the other. For a "poetics" to occur, it may be necessary to "suspend disbelief," (26) to momentarily put aside critical reasoning, while always recalling with Heidegger that poetry and thinking are neighbors.

Technology itself becomes, in Hill's work, a medium to be worked with, a malleable substance affected by both producer and viewer. It is used to make itself disappear, but never long enough to eliminate its twin component of thought. Furthermore, as John Hanhardt states, Hill "transforms the technology of video, carting it away from the conventional categorization and usage of art and television and into the intimacy of the artists' studio and imagination.... Hill has recovered the place of language and origins of technology in a metaphysics of techne." (27) Hill reasserts the medium of video and, as Hanhardt suggests, this is tied to technology itself as well as the "place of language."

To further comprehend the technology of Hill's video art, it is again necessary to ask after video's neighbors, in this case television and film. Within the brief following account of video's relation to television and film, I suggest that what is particularly important in these relations is the status of another relation, that of language and image. It is finally the use of language, mixed with images, that sets Hill's practices apart from other video practices. And it is through the relation of language and image that the criticality of thought merges with the poetics of the aesthetic medium.

A comparison of video with television and film will also reveal an historical progression in the development of video art. That is, early video art (roughly 1965 through the 1970s) can be (and has been) compared to television and the socio-political dimensions of mass-media. But as video matured and became established as a "legitimate" art form through the 1980s (whether it wanted to or not) it took on formal aspects which are better compared with related developments in film.

Word and Image in Neighboring Technologies

   [I]f it is an "art," that, and an absolutely new one, especially
   with regard to the analogues that are painting, photography, cinema
   and television, and even the digital image, what would compose this
   irreducible difference, that very thing?
   --Jacques Derrida (28)
   Is video the nonsite of television? Is television the obscenery of
   --Gary Hill (29)

It is perhaps television which is the nearest technological neighbor of video. Hanhardt argues that

   the body of post-1965 video art was profoundly influenced by the
   work of a few artists who had appropriated the television as icon
   and apparatus in the years preceding 1965.... Television (and later
   video) was not coded by traditional art-world categories and, like
   film before it, offered a new means for reproducing and transforming
   the world around us through recorded images. Because television
   was seen as a mass medium, its possibilities as a flexible
   electronic and real-time medium were barely explored or recognized
   in the years before artists gained access to a portable video
   technology. (30)

Hanhardt especially thinks the early video of Paik (and others like the German artist Wolf Vostell) made a somewhat successful raid on the domain of corporate television, appropriating the technologies for creative image making. (31)

Theorizing on this, one might speculate that in video art, as with Freud's "uncanny" (unheimlich), the familiar and the strange are contained together. The familiar is that friendly blue glow seen through windows all over the country as one walks by homes late at night. Lynn Hershman has said that "[t]elevision appeals to the quiet intimacy of one's home. Sitting relaxed in a comfortable chair and perhaps sipping a beer are part of the properties." (32) Joined to this comfortable medium is the idea that television--like much of industrial cinema and photography--banks on a notion of "realism," intriguingly defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard as art whose

objective is to stabilize the referent, to arrange it according to
   a point of view which endows it with a recognizable meaning, to
   reproduce the syntax and vocabulary which enable the addressee to
   decipher images and sequences quickly, and so to arrive easily at
   the consciousness of his own identity as well as the approval which
   he thereby receives from others--since such structures of images
   and sequences constitute a communication code among all of them.

Images of realism allow easy identification and recognition by working with pre-established conditions and constructions of the world and self, ultimately leading to the passivity of the viewer (sipping his or her beer). Video art, on the other hand, does not allow such passivity. Video art is a stranger in a familiar box, the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing.

Working within a culture in which commercial mass media provide the familiar rules of representation, video art has pushed through to its own rules, challenging the predominant modes of perception as practiced and presented in commercial television. Video art is familiar enough in form to be recognized by many ("Look, that's a television!" says the viewer anxious to find an object with recognizable meaning in the postmodern museum), but the content subverts the perception as if from within. Using technologies similar to commercial television, video art causes a constant resituating of the viewer-object relation; it undermines perceived notions of perspective; and, at some level, provokes a viewer's response with the viewer's own body and sense of self.

To argue this point further, and to point out one particular method video has used to accomplish this, I turn to a comparison with film, focusing on the parallel incorporation of language by both film and video. In avant-garde film a shift has been noted from modern/structuralist film to postmodern/poststructuralist film. After experiments with the image itself, (34) language has returned in "poststructural film," leading film theorist Peter Wollen to contend, "Language is the component of film which both threatens to regulate the spectator, assigned a place within the symbolic order, and also offers the hope of liberation from the closed world of identification and the lure of the image." (35) As with the realism of television, film also "threatens to regulate the spectator," but with the relation of image and language comes the possibility to break out of the closed world.

Similarly, video art in the 1980s moved from an "aesthetics of boredom" (which Jameson optimistically sees "as a precious symptom of our own existential, ideological, and cultural limits" (36)) to the use of "entertaining" elements in the art piece. Among others, one of these elements was a greater use of language, and even certain levels of narrative. As Michael Nash sees it, "This concern with language and particularly words in recent art video can be better understood as a fundamental shift away from fine-art formalism toward poetry's triumph of content over form." (37) It may be too much to say that poetry is a triumph of content over form, but as poetry, language does not give regulation to a spectator, nor does it assign a place within the symbolic order.

Furthermore, it is not only the language element of video art that acts poetically, but the images themselves that stir movements in the symbolic order. If language takes the form of a realistic narrative (as defined above by Lyotard), then the viewer is reaffirmed within the symbolic order and change cannot occur. But the image may likewise regulate the spectator into a singular and constant perspective, and language may provide the needed break from the lure of the image. What is involved in the art of Hill is a radical eruption within and between language and image, what Kristeva terms a "transposition" between fields: "the destruction of the old position and the formation of a new one ... the passage from one signifying system to another demands a new articulation of the thetic." (38)

The relationship between poetry and thinking for Heidegger was not a cozy, amenable relationship, and in the same way, neither is the relationship between language and image. Rather than banishing all other media and searching for a pure distillation, video art of the 1980s--like poststructural avant-garde film--brought several media together in a finished product. This combining of media, this contamination of purity and autonomy, continues the attack on realism instituted by early video art's response to commercial television, but does so in a more subversive way because it undermines the realism of both words and images. There is no place left to retreat into a lulled sense of complacency; the critical faculties of the mind are never allowed to totally shut down.

To move toward concluding my examination of Hill and his technological, philosophic, and artistic neighbors, I further consider the relation of image and language within artistic practices. As Hill developed his skill as a video maker, he also began to take notice of poetic elements. (39) When Hill met the poet George Quasha in 1976, Hill's interest in language was sparked. While early experiments dealt with sound qua sound, by the late '70s this sound began to take on linguistic elements, with speech and language embodying that sound. (40)

Text and Image

   [Video art] is a "new" visual art that ... appears to be one of the
   most discursive, and not only with discourses but also with textual
   forms that are heterogeneous among themselves, whether literary or
   not (Blanchot, the Gospels, for example), that seem to be altogether
   at odds with such a working, with what one thought "video" art had
   to be.
   --Jacques Derrida (41)

In an exhibition on Dada and Surrealist word-images, Judi Freeman makes the case for word-image relations to be seen as a particular element of the avant-garde because of their disruptive power, and "the persistent presence of language in art equally indicates that today's artists share with their Dada and surrealist counterparts the belief that often words, incorporated into visual imagery, can send multilayered messages more readily than visual imagery alone." (42) This notion is furthered by John Welchman in his article from the same exhibition:

These works [Dada and surrealist artworks] sometimes exceed and
   sometimes deny analysis, but they always disturb it. Word-images
   demonstrate this disturbance with particular effectiveness, however,
   by virtue of their signifying not just from two codes but from two
   complex systems of signs: words and images. (43)

Again, we are back at the Kristevan notion of transposition.

Through the recitation of a complex philosophical text by Heidegger (or Blanchot or Wittgenstein in other installations) Hill pulls both linguistic and imagistic registers together, but does not allow one to subsume the other. Within many of Hill's video artworks, the image and language coexist, working with and against each other, constantly challenging the static perspectives of the symbolic order. And this is done through use of images and words which are already diverse and disruptive in their own fields.

If, as Foucault states, "the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation," (44) then Hill's video art may extend the relation even further; the determinate message and meaning of the artwork never finalizable, never brought to a close. One may read the language, but the images disrupt; one may read the images, but the language disrupts. Once caught in the web of relations in video artworks like Hill's, closure seems impossible. Hill states that "although my art is based on images, I am very much involved in the undermining of those images through language." (45) And when Hill uses self-questioning texts like Heidegger or Blanchot in his video, he is also questioning the place of language.

Gary Hill's video art responds to a plethora of influences stemming from such diverse fields as television, conceptual art, performance art, cinema, linguistic philosophy (Wittgenstein), metapoetry (George Quasha), and Continental literature (Blanchot). Within a singular artwork like Between Cinema and a Hard Place, several of these fields come together to form an unstable dialogue revolving around a particular problem, in this case the place and history of video art. Furthermore, these fields are incorporated into particular media--i.e., moving images, still images, spoken words, printed language--which multiply the dialogue's implications. It turns, as I have suggested, into Bateson's notion of a "metalogue."

And these fields are not simple harmonious neighbors making "clumsy borrowings from each other." (46) Neighbors they are with particular relations between them, but their relation disrupts the stable given order when two or more get together. Every interaction leaves the other permanently changed. And it is precisely at this point that Hill's artistic practice singles itself out from both philosophy and video art. His practices do contribute to philosophy (and do not just borrow from it), but they do so using video images and therefore disrupting an otherwise linguistic field. But his practice also contributes to the visual arts, specifically video art, yet disrupts this order as well through the transposition of philosophy and poetry into an otherwise visual field. Reiterating the quote from Derrida given above (p. 110), Hill's art is "irreplaceable, but irreplaceable among other irreplaceables, other unique effects of signature, even if it puts to work many other things, many other 'arts' that have nothing to do with video...." (47) Hill's place as a video artist is unique, and he is set apart from other unique video artists.





Texas Christian University


(1.) Gary Hill, "And if the Right Hand Did not Know What the Left Hand Is Doing," in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (San Francisco: Aperture and the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990), 92.

(2.) Jacques Derrida, "Videor," trans. Peggy Kamuf, in Passages de l'image (Barcelona: Centre Cultural de la Fundacio Caixa de Pensions, 1991), 178.

(3.) Maureen Turim, "The Image of Art in Video," in Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, ed. Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 47.

(4.) Thanks are due to David Nienhuis of Seattle Pacific University for helpful insights on my analysis of the installation.

(5.) Chris Bruce, "Looking at Time," unpublished paper (given to the author, c. 1994).

(6.) Gary Hill, "Interviewed Interview," in World Wide Video (Art & Design profile no. 31) ed. Johan Pijnappel (London: Academy Group, 1993), 64.

(7.) Michael Nash, "Vision after Television," in Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, 391.

(8.) Gregory Bateson, "Metalogues," in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972), 1. Bateson's influence can be seen, for example, in Hill's 1984 videotape Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia) which takes its name and the entire metalogue from an article by Bateson in the above cited book. Cf. also Gary Hill, "Site Re:cite," in Gary Hill, ed. Chris Bruce, et al. (Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, 1994), 48.

(9.) The poem is "The Word," by Stefan George.

(10.) Martin Heidegger, "The Nature of Language," in On the Way to Language, trans. Peter Hertz (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 57.

(11.) Ibid., 59.

(12.) Ibid., 90.

(13.) Heidegger's statement may recall the notion of "intertextuality," put forward by Julia Kristeva. Intertextuality in common usage has been transformed into just such a "clumsy borrowing" from one text to another. Kristeva states "this term has often been understood in the banal sense of 'study of sources,'" and she thus opts for the term "transposition" (Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Leon Roudiez [New York: Columbia University Press, 1984], 60). Kristeva's early notions of it were much more heterogeneous, disrupting between sign-systems.

(14.) John Hanhardt, "Expanded Forms: Notes toward a History," in World Wide Video, 19.

(15.) Christine Tamblyn, "Video Art: An Historical Sketch," High Performance 37 (1987): 33.

(16.) See the introductory essays in Resolutions and Illuminating Video. Recent studies specifically on video installation art include: Julie Reiss, From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999); and Erika Suderberg, ed. Space Site Intervention: Situating Installation Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

(17.) Martha Rosler, "Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment," in Illuminating Video, 42.

(18.) The photo is entitled, Offering. See Hill, "And if the Right Hand ...," 98-99.

(19.) Rosler, "Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment," 31.

(20.) Deirdre Boyle, "A Brief History of American Documentary Video," in Illuminating Video, 51.

(21.) Mel Bochner, "ICA Lecture," unpublished paper, 3.

(22.) Gregory Battcock, "Introduction," in New Artists Video, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978), xvii.

(23.) Dan Graham, Video, Architecture, Television (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1979), 62.

(24.) Hill, "Interviewed Interview," 64.

(25.) Hill, "And if the Right Hand ...," 93, 96.

(26.) Indeed, Suspension of Disbelief (for Marine) is the title of another of Hill's installations (the original phrase being Coleridge's). This installation might serve as a suggestive metaphor for the relation between poetics and critical thinking. In this silent installation, flickering images of fragments of bodies (a male and a female) scatter across a row of video monitors. The bodies appear to move closer and closer to each other until the point where they seem to be intertwined. But owing to the nature of the technology of video, complete confluence between the bodies is finally foiled; these bodies are already fragments of bodies, and the fragments are displayed on physical video screens. It may be possible, hence, to understand poetry and thinking as neighbonng bodies in Hill's video art which the technological medium inserts itself between, keeping them at once together and separate.

(27.) Hanhardt, "Between Language and the Moving Image: The Art of Gary Hill," in Gary Hill, ed. Chris Bruce, 66-67.

(28.) Derrida, "Videor," 178.

(29.) Hill, "And if the Right Hand ...," 97.

(30.) Hanhardt, "De-collage/Collage," in Illuminating Video, 71, 72.

(31.) See especially, Hanhardt, "Film and Video in the Age of Television," in Image World.

(32.) Lynn Hershman, "Reflections on the Electric Mirror," in New Artists Video, 38.

(33.) Jean-Francois Lyotard, "Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?" trans. Regis Durand, in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 74.

(34.) Giving a brief history of avant-garde filmmaking J. Hoberman sees the modernist avant-garde filmmakers of the 1960s who were influenced by structuralism--notably Michael Snow and Stan Brakhage--to be working toward a purity of the image by banishing language and turning instead to a self-examination of the materials of filmic production. See Hoberman, "After Avant-Garde Film," in Art after Modernism, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 59-73.

(35.) Peter Wollen, "The Field of Language in Film," October 17 (Summer 1981): 54.

(36.) Fredric Jameson, "Video: Surrealism without the Unconscious," in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 72.

(37.) Michael Nash, "Video Poetics: A Context for Content," High Performance 37 (1987): 67. While Nash's comment concerning language in video may be true, I would not want to be too hasty in claiming video to be content over form. For, as was seen earlier, one of the radical elements of video as an avant-garde practice is the use of its technological form. Form and content must be considered in a word-image analysis.

(38.) Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 59-60.

(39.) Going to the Art Students League in Woodstock, N.Y., Hill initially worked with sculpture, especially exploring the possibilities of sound within sculpture. He worked with steel welding rods which had great sonic possibilities. His interest in sound eventually got him into experiments with tape loops, feedback, etc.

(40.) Soundings (1979) is an early examination of the sound of language and image. At the beginning of this single-track videotape, an acoustic speaker is shown while a narrator rambles with word-plays on the "nature" of sound. As this progresses, a hand enters the picture, dumping sand into the speaker's cone (which, the viewer finds out, against first perceptions, is lying horizontally on the floor). Then, as the voice-over continues, it becomes apparent that the sound is coming from the speaker because the sand begins to jump with the vibrations of the speaker cone. As more and more sand is poured on to the speaker, the movement of the sand in conjunction with the sound vibrations is altered. Eventually, the whole speaker is covered with sand and the sound of the voice becomes almost unintelligible.

(41.) Derrida, "Videor," 178.

(42.) Judi Freeman, "Layers of Meaning: The Multiple Readings of Dada and Surrealist Word-Images," in The Dada & Surrealist Word-Image, ed. Judi Freeman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), 54.

(43.) John Welchman, "After the Wagnerian Bouillabaisse," in The Dada & Surrealist Word-Image, 69.

(44.) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Random House), 9.

(45.) Hill, "Interviewed Interview," 66.

(46.) Heidegger, "The Nature of Language," 90.

(47.) Derrida, "Videor," 178.


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