OCHAM'S ELECTRIC RAZOR

 

 

Artists have employed the production tools of television for a decade, producing a body of work that is as interesting for its scope as it is for its lack of focus. Much of the work has been produced as part of an overall attempt to use the radicality implicit in the newness of the form to push on the edges of a medium whose language was generated by the popular arts of radio and the cinema. What has become clear at this point, however, is though video was once considered a diversionary tactic in the sixties phenomena known as the dematerialization of art, video as a radical issue has disappeared.

 

In its place “video" artists now work in an altogether reasoned context, exploring complex interactions including the mapping and collaging of the relationship between conciousness and the environment. In this pursuit, the artist assumes a shamanistic stance, engaging a language for fine distinctions and producing new metaphors based essentially on a direct relationship to the empirical.

 

Within this context known as “video art," artists have clearly abandoned the devices of formalism that form the underpinning of the contemporary art characterized by simple re-stating of numerical schemes culled from naturally occurring series like the Fibonacci numbers, or other progressions. What video artists have developed is an intricate form of realism based on the kind of observational attitudes generated by the medium. Video has functioned as a foil for formalism in that the medium has been capable of generating and sustaining the kind of ideational growth usually written off as beside the point. In understanding video art's peculiar realism then, it is important to see that the artist validates his subjective point of view, while subverting thetrivialization of art as “information.”

 

To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, what is significant in the attempt to understand the new media is not any medium's claim to artness, but the generalized level of questioning of the implicit in secured cultures that follows the introduction of entirely new ways of seeing, comprehending and representing reality. Unlike traditional painters and sculptors, the artist working with video is relatively disinterested in the articulation of surface and mass; he is free to pursue articulations of time using the visual language generated by observation (distinct and of itself).

 

Frank Gillette has, for the past ten years, worked towards his attitude of mind, employing a variety of media (principally video and "instant" photography) to produce what the artist once termed "experimental epistomologies." His interests center around the role of the observer in the relationship betweent time, observation, and environment as an interactive hierarchy. In a series of live installation works and multiple-channel recorded video environments, Gillette has produced a body of complex yet highly refined works based on the principle of parsimony so frequently employed by the medieval philosopher William of Ocham that it was known as his “razor.” Gillette's working hypothesis, clearly based in an economy of means rooted in the observable world has allowed him to explore the core of cognition—our ability to differentiate between (as Gregory Bateson put it) “learning and learning to learn.

 

Though informed by an appreciable degree of irony and skepticism, Gillette's video and photo works have been celebrations of the levels of beauty found in landscape perceived (by the artist) as an endless system. Since his live video works of the early seventies like Track/Trace (1972) he has used video as a metaphor for the neurological process of observation and recollection. In Track / Trace the viewer of the work confronted his own image in a continuing progression of time-delayed replays set into a system of rotating vantage points. The effect of the piece was partially the result of confronting the notion that one might experience several disparate points in time and space simultaneously. The piece directly relates to video works of the same period by Peter Campus, Bruce Nauman and Nam June Paik in which the viewer's pre-conceptions of time's links to behavior are challenged.

 

Though ostensibly involved in landscape study, Gillette's real interest is in the transmission of aesthetic anxiety by identifying and addressing the experience of time as a function of belief. Few video related artists have dealt with the peculiar problems of scale in video as has Gillette. Using a single repeated action—the quick pull away—with a slow tracking pan the artist is able to generate a deep sense of peace as well as a kind of psychological agitation that follows prolonged periods of silent observation.

 

First apparent in works like Tetragrammaton (1972), Gillette has created a vocabulary of means tied to his painterly mind-set, yet precise enough to function as phenomenological exploration of perception. In this early work, six channels of black and white videotaped studies of Eastern Long Island tidal marshes, dunes and other similar ecologies were combined in three triangular arrangements of ten monitors each, set in a large circle. The work attempted to create a thoroughly scored situation directly combining visual and audible elements into a matrix representing the perceiver's reception, rather than activating it.

 

In his use of a videotape environment as an experimental epistomology, as in the conducting of any experimental situation, the experiment must be constructed out of a clear understanding of logical types. If perception is seen as of the universe but not the universe itself, then the experimental situation must somehow allow the viewer to isolate his perception analogously to the artist's intent. Perception must be constructed, to use Gillette's terms, as “subject to the working hypothesis of specific organisms evolving within the biological conditions of their time." In other words, the viewer's perception of time—so rigorously structured in Tetragrammaton—needed to be reconsidered in relation to the socio-biological metaphors of randomness and indeterminacy.

 

Gillette employed this idea in his 1974 work Quidditas, a three-channel color study in which the CapeCod ecology was observed with a comparatively limited vocabulary of shots that seem to represent the continued development of his lingua franca. These sections were edited into a series of elements of varying duration and were combined for a three-channel playback. This time the mix was presented in such a way as to allow for random juxtaposition of the observed natural exchanges. The inclusion of this random character represented a significant step in development of Gillette's video work.

 

Gillette's inclusion of random factors in the playback of his pre-recorded pieces represented his commitment to the use of time as a filtering device, a tool for developing observational strategies and ultimately as an expressive element. In Quidditas one experienced an enhanced sense of nature that belied the cold electronic images actually presented. The natural processes of video observation are seen as both synchronous with and independent of the observed phenomenon.

 

In the new work Aransas, however, that heightened sense—itself a remarkable achievement—is again recontextualized in an even more general scheme. It is essentially a strategy for perceiving a natural environment using a shooting score and a set of pre-arranged time correspondences to choreograph a landscape study of undeniable impact and beauty. Time, in this work, is not used as a metaphor for existence but as a phenomenological device, similar perhaps to Bruce Nauman's use of a physically constructed corridor to restrict and direct the behavior of the viewer of his 1969 mixed media work Performable Corridor.

 

In Aransas, Gillette revels in the subtleties of nonnarrative, non-cinematic, non-literary time in the way that the Impressionists reveled in pure color. In the videotapes he corrals time, manifesting it as the proscribed experience of observed space. In the SX-70 photosets he extracts instants and presents them as asynchronous fields, out of time's flow, though coordinated more like music than cartographs. In his use of both media the artist is sensed as a perceptual presence, an absentee performer whose initial observations and subsequent mediations are transferred in a manner as direct (and potentially mystifiable) as the action painter. The viewer of the work is rewarded for the difficult process of observing with a direct feeling for not only the sumptuous Texas landscape, but for the quintessential role of time as the central element of all environment.

 

David A. Ross