I was lucky enough to take in Renée Lear’s Renée Taking a Sip of Water (Human and Video in Motion) at Trinity Square Video (Toronto) today, and felt compelled to think through a few things afterwards. What follows is very much incipient (with respect to my thinking) and ill-informed (with respect to my knowledge of the piece)…which isn’t an apology, but I reserve the right to invoke it as one if necessary.
The exhibition’s didactic describes the work as follows:
[This is] a companion piece to Renée’s video performance Time not a video, where Renée engages in a super slow motion daily practice in order to become video. In [this work] Renée enacts a banal activity from her slow motion practice, effectively combining human movement with the slow and fast frame rats of the video camera and the slow and fast playback times of video editing software.
The piece is presented on two large television screens mounted beside one another, with each screen featuring multiple iterations of Renée sitting and taking a drink of water (with minor variations); there is also a three-line text on each that describes the playback variation currently being shown on that screen (e.g. Renée moving in slow motion/videoed at normal speed/played back at normal speed). I’ve posted a (camera-phone) image below to give a general impression. As the piece moves along, each video works through the various possible combinations of movement/video recording/video playback happening at a slow/normal/fast rate.
The piece is gorgeous and brilliant in ways that I can’t (and won’t try to) capture. Beyond that, though, it helped me to complete a couple thoughts, one from my early days as a composer and the other pertaining to Mark Hansen’s reading (in New Philosophy for New Media) of Robert Lazzarini’s sculpture-installation skulls. With respect to the first, I remember quite clearly when I first began studying music composition as a specifically written practice; I’d improvised earlier in my life and could read music well enough to learn to play pieces, but for me learning to write music was almost coincident with learning to read in a robust way (i.e. with learning to read music in the way that I can read text, as a kind of transparent medium). The point is, notating music felt like I was manipulating a machine that was outside of my ‘natural’ thinking process, so that my creative process was about channeling relatively coarse interactions with a code that greatly exceeded my ability to account for it consciously (in this sense, it was a kind of cybernetics). One of the frequent and most banal results of this was that I would conceive of a piece spatially, only to be shocked when it was realized in performance: a page of music written at 184bpm looks like it is formally equivalent to one that is written at 42bpm, but takes roughly 4 ½ times longer in performance…and this extra time has a real and undeniable impact on the shape of the piece.
Truthfully, though, these surprises were one of the things that I quite liked about composing: the discrepancy between the piece as a visual-conceptual apparatus and the performance as an ill-formed, meandering, mis-timed, aclimactic mess was something to marvel at in lieu of any real talent in the Romantic sense. This difference, I’ve always thought, was such a productive one that it might even qualify as the piece itself in the case of my work. And that is why I was so struck by the way that Lear’s piece plays out its temporal combinatorics: whereas I’d always thought the marvel was in the translative difference of processing musically, with Lear’s piece I heard the strange asymmetry in its own right and it was all the better for it. That is, the conceit of working through the combinations is simple enough that it isn’t productive of a difference that is sited in the performance of the piece; instead, the formal weirdness—and it is manifestly weird to move through these variations—is right there to behold and be held by in the durational moment of viewing. If part of the charm of processual work is the incipient awkwardness that inheres in any translation, this piece palpates that potentiality—the not yet undertaken undertaking that calls forth the question of form in the first place—in a manner that precludes the (at this point exhausting, anyways) question of origin in favour of a kind of history to come…we know, after all, precisely what is coming and how, but we don’t know where it is coming from (which is why Lear tells us how each variation is made, because there is no risk of us actually understanding this making except in the most banal sense).
Approached differently, I might say that Lear’s making herself a component of the combinatorics (i.e. striving to “become a video”) isn’t just an aesthetic choice (though it is that too) and isn’t just about problematizing the boundary between person and machine, it is more importantly a choice about just how such boundaries are constituted. Thus, because she crosses that threshold by crafting a register where she, the video recorder, and the video playback are functionally equivalent Lear perfectly demonstrates the way that a political language of attunement moves (for better and worse) from the distance of criticism to a kind of bodily affection. Form isn’t an enveloping structure in this work, but instead a capacity to entrain.
Which brings me to the second response that the piece provoked in me, relating to Hansen and Lazzarini’s skulls. Put really simply, Hansen argues that the skulls—which feature compound mathematical distortions derived using algorithm-based operations such as mappings and translations (Wikipedia)—do not represent the algorithmic distortions from which they are derived, but rather—because they make it impossible to ‘resolve’ the image from a single perspective—take the viewer up in a proprioceptive strangeness that makes clear the fundamental weirdness of the computer’s topology. That is, we get an embodied sense of just how different the computer’s embodiment (in the sense of an ongoing articulation of system-environment difference) is from our own, such that computational sense-making is also understood to be fundamentally different from human embodiment (which, for Hansen, points to the limits in approaching such technologies through Derridean grammatology, which approach he argues turns a radical difference into a relative one). In short, the disorientation that is catalyzed by skulls is for Hansen not simply a product of difference and differal, but is instead fundamentally and specifically adscititious.
I accept that argument to a point, and diverge from it in ways that probably don’t matter here. What struck me while looking at Lear’s piece, though, was that I was being drawn into something analogous but not quite the same, and that something pertained directly to Lear’s aforementioned thinking through her practice as an effort to “become video.” This is surely what she’s doing, but it strikes me that the change is less a categorical one than a practice; the accent is on “practice in order” rather than “to become.” That is, it isn’t incidental that Lear didn’t so much become video as learn to become video, where learning is a process of entrainment that is bodily precisely because it is outside of oneself…it is the technical element that is in us but not of us. That is, what it means for Lear to “be video” is to be—quite literally—caught up in the latter’s tempi and machinations precisely in so far as these point to a technical system that acts through her when she envelopes it and envelopes her as she acts through it. So of course, the video also becomes her; what’s a becoming to do, after all?
The artfulness of the work is, of course, that none of the above really means anything to it…except perhaps to attest to the fact that it demanded a response from me, and quick.