Legacies of the Television Age

The screen-based performative works of Joan Jonas, Keith Sonnier, Adelle Mills and Miranda July are investigations into transmission and translation of information. They consider the space of the monitor, using the screen as a mirror and a mode of communication, the transmission of ideas between a viewer, a performer and a screen, and the gaps and limitations between the perception and reception of movement and information as conveyed through visual broadcasting.
Often using her own body as their subject, the video works of Joan Jonas from the early 1970s connected the video monitor and performance art. Left side right side, 1972, saw her using the video as a mirror through simple, repeated gestures, and in Vertical roll, 1972, Jonas revealed the peculiar mechanics of the technical aspects of television transmission as a structural device for her performance:

Video as we used it was personal, and the personal was political … The video monitor’s screen or the projected image was another mask for the construction and deconstruction of persona. Here there was also distance – even in the close-up. I did not act, I behaved. I performed activities. In a belly-dancer’s costume, I jumped in and out of the bar of the vertical roll like frames in a film going by. This out-of-sync dysfunction of the television – the rolling pictures – presented on the screen parts of the body, never as a whole. I had begun to dance with the TV.1

Jonas has described accessing the Sony Portapak for the first time, and the conceptual opportunities opened up for her by the new video technology:

In 1970, in Japan, I bought my first Portapak and began to work in video. The Portapak (a big heavy camera and reel-to-reel deck) was not often used for art-making at the time. Some artists had begun to use it in the last few years of the 1960s, and artists such as Nam June Paik had worked with broadcast television in the early 1960s. It was definitely outside the mainstream commercial art world and television industry. The Sony Portapak was an appropriate tool for artists, who usually worked alone in their studios. It could be hand held. The technology was simple, and it did not require a crew. It was black and white … The video camera did not have a history for me to refer to … Video allowed for the immediacy and the continuity of television’s live broadcast, while also allowing real-time, ongoing viewing via a monitor. It was simultaneously a recording medium. Video offered a continuous present – showing real-time actions, and incorporated a potential future, re-viewing and reusing actions thus recorded … The monitor, at that time a critical factor of video, is an ongoing mirror. I explored image making with myself as subject: I said ‘this is my right side, this is my left side,’ and the monitor shows a reversal. I made a tape about the difference between the mirror and the monitor … I worked with the qualities peculiar to video – the flat, grainy, black and white space, the moving bar of the vertical roll and the circle of circuitry formed by the Portapak, monitor/projector, the artist.2

The video works of Keith Sonnier from the early 1970s also investigated the inherent characteristics of the medium, often employing a mix of recorded and live broadcasting techniques, and were characterised by their unique ‘definition of the inter-relationships of colour, surface, space and material’, as art critic and curator Bruce Kurtz wrote.3 In a 1974 catalogue of the works of Keith Sonnier published by Castelli-Sonnabend in New York, Lizzie Borden described the parameters and effects of his video work TV in and TV out, 1972, and its superimposition of shots from network television and a studio performance:

TV in and TV out is a situational videotape shot with two cameras and taped in front of a monitor. One performer (Suzanne Harris) couldn’t see her own image, while the second performer (Tina Girouard) was in the control room with Sonnier, although these positions change during the tape. The performer who is isolated from her own image and from the TV set is dependent upon the other, who has microphone contact with both the control room and the isolated performer … The necessity for communication is intensified by the frequent switching of television stations, when one performer can respond to only audible cues. The soundtrack includes the dialogue between the performers and Sonnier as they discuss the situation and respond to what they can see or hear of the TV programs. As in Sonnier’s other tapes, props such as light bulbs and a record disc are used. The objects within the video space are often manipulated as puns on the special effects generator. For example, a bulb is displayed through a piece of cardboard with a rectangular hole, mimicking the quadrants possible through special effects. The camera’s focus on the TV screen and then on a performer within a quadrant parallels the commercials heard on the soundtrack. As in many of Sonnier’s other tapes, TV in and TV out is unedited. However, there is much off-screen information that extends, by implication, the video space into the control room. Consequently, the tape is about modes of signalling and transmitting information, sometimes involving a psychological interchange between the performers as they continuously switch roles.4

Kurtz also wrote of the colour effects employed by Sonnier, which were unusual at a time of largely black-and-white broadcast:

This live image is colorized by a device which adds color to a black and white image and in turn manipulates the color. Colorized color is more opaque and less three-dimensionally tactile than synthesized color, but it is tactile in its video scan-line texture.5

The overall effect of live changes to the colouration in Sonnier’s videos is a gradual shifting between the appearance of three- and two-dimensionality, which constantly alters the viewer’s perception of the work’s surface.

Self-observation and self-mediation through the transmission of imagery is at the heart of Acting, doing created by Adelle Mills in 2013. The artist established a pattern of performances designed as exercises in translation and mimesis between herself and subsequent performers, who only saw one another via video monitor. Mills described the specific parameters that she established for the work, and the shifting roles and responsibilities of each performer to follow the steps of ‘acting’ and ‘doing’, as follows:

The room in which the filming took place had its own standard monitor on a high mobile-stand. The monitor was switched on during each recording so that the participants could view themselves in the live sense as they moved through the space. The room was equipped with a row of stacked chairs at the rear of the shot. The chairs were not ‘used’ by the participants per se, as this was not instructed and so their non-use became a norm throughout. The male participants were provided with six instructions.

The first instruction was for the participants to wear plain clothing. This plain ‘uniform’ was at each participant’s discretion and varied across the individual choices for appropriate performance wear. The second instruction was for each of the three/four male participants to arrive individually on the hour, every hour, across the duration of the day of filming. The filming began at 1 pm and ended 4 pm. The third instruction was for the participants to watch the footage made from each previous performance upon arrival into the hired room. The watched footage was always the ‘doing’ footage, and the ‘acting’ footage then recorded became the copied act that was intended to be presented against the series of blueprint performances … After the participants each watched, reviewed and absorbed the previously recorded footage of the last person ‘doing’ a performance, the fourth instruction was for the participants to perform their ‘acting’ routine.

Where the ‘doing’ performance was determined by the participants’ own improvisation and self-direction, the ‘acting’ routine was intended for the participants to undertake a memory exercise whereby their movements were determined by the previously watched footage of the last person ‘doing’. The ‘doing’ act is more free and self-improvised, whereas an ‘acting’ act is something innately restricted, taught and somewhat clumsy. The participants proceeded to watch their own live-fed image on the monitor as they moved through the space. Referring to their memory to determine the nuanced movements of the previously watched footage the participants undertook my direction for ‘acting’.

For the fifth instruction the participants proceeded to self-direct their own movements for the ‘doing’ component of the performance. The sixth instruction entailed the participants being asked to leave the performance space as they wished. This would mark the close of each of the participant’s ‘doing’ act.6

Adelle MILLS
Australian 1987–
Acting, doing 2013 (excerpt)
two channel colour high definition video, silent, 29 min 28 sec
Courtesy of the artist
© Adelle Mills
The performances, played as a dual-screen presentation, force a visual comparison between the artist and the performers and encourage contemplation of the differences that emerge in the translation of each performance, as well as the uncanny similarities between them. The separation between the stages of recording, reception, performance and, significantly, the places in between those stages of transmission which allow for elements of chance, reveals what Pip Wallis has described as ‘the “gap” of interpretation, or misinterpretation, that lurks in all our interactions’.7
Miranda July’s The Amateurist, 1998, creates a complex presentation of virtual relationships, as a ‘professional’ woman monitors an ‘amateur’ woman over several years. Making no actual contact in a physical sense, the monitoring occurs entirely through video surveillance, with the characters communicating via a technical strategy of knobs, dials and code. In a world of increasing social surveillance in public spaces, and information surveillance through the tracking of online interactions, the video is a paranoid vision of technological ‘entrapment’. July plays both characters herself, and has discussed the process of presenting the various ‘types’ of women:

The Amateurist alternately adores and rejects three familiar tropes: the sick and examined woman, the starlet/stripper, and the genius/talentless woman. As a performer living with a chronic illness who has been both a child actress and a stripper, I choose not to speak with an autobiographical voice, which would, in itself be yet another cliché (the confessional). Instead, I create women who are predictable amalgamations of single types … What I choose to say with these figurines is much less articulable, though no less familiar. The prescribed lines dismantle themselves with mutual interrogation and this process releases fumes of true loneliness, relentless strength, insatiable desire.8

  1. Joan Jonas, ‘Transmission’, in Judy Malloy (ed.), Women, Art and Technology, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2003, pp. 126–7.
  2. ibid, pp. 122–3.
  3. Bruce Kurtz, ‘Video is being invented’, Arts Magazine, Dec.–Jan. 1973, p. 38.
  4. Lizzie Borden, ‘Keith Sonnier’, in Liza Bear (ed.), Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films, Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films, Inc., New York, 1974, p. 125.
  5. Kurtz, p. 39.
  6. Adelle Mills, email to the author, 2 April 2015.
  7. Pip Wallis, Loosley Speaking, Gertrude Contemporary, <http://www.gertrude.org.au/docs/loosley-speaking.pdf>, accessed 20 April 2015.
  8. Miranda July, ‘The Amateurist’, Video Data Bank, <http://www.vdb.org/titles/amateurist>, accessed on 22 Jan. 2015.