First Edition of VTape’s Tales From the Crypt
Video art programme running Nov 28 - Dec 20, 2008, at Vtape, Toronto, Canada
F r o m F o u n d a t i o n t o F i x a t i o n: video art and the face
F r o m F o u n d a t i o n t o F i x a t i o n:
video art and the face
C u r a t e d b y K a i t l i n T i l l – L a n d r y
A face on video, like on no other medium, holds the potential to shift from face as surface - a surface that can be added to, with features that can be stretched in any direction, exaggerated, and manipulated - to the face as a portal into the subject/artist’s psyche and inner dialogue.
Experimentations with performance on video in the early 70s lead to the understanding of the metaphoric and psychological capabilities which now inform current video work. And recently, there has been a trend in contemporary video in which primary concepts of exploration are addressed with additional elements of contemporary technological advancements in editing and post-production effects. Inherent in these editing advancements that are being brought to vintage exploration of self on video is a reflection on our current socio-cultural condition in comparison to that of the 1970s. Specifically, it is the readdressed concept of a restricted framing of the face, which allows for a revaluation of how the relationship between artist, video as medium, and the viewer has changed.
Immediately, video lends itself so well to self-portraits and experimental explorations of the face, because of its unique properties of instant playback, ease of recording, and potential to manipulate the image. Instant playback is the foremost difference between film and video and allows the artist to have complete control over their images by watching them on a monitor in real time. This control lessens the obstacles associated with film, that is; to plan, script or to carry out other self-conscious tendencies.(i) The opportunity to explore the psychological properties of a human face, via being able to watch oneself in real time, blurs temporal defining lines by adding an attention shift “from an external object- an other- and invest[s] it in the self."(ii) In addition, video is interpreted by viewers as closer to reality because of its roots in broadcasting and TV, in comparison to film, which is associated with properties of cinematic mise-en-scène.(iii) Recently, increased ease in manipulating ones own image through accessibility to, and advancements in editing and effects, places video as a more accurately descriptive form, like language, which is malleable enough to execute abstract and detailed intentions.(iv) Artists using video in the 1970s did not have the post-production options that are available today. Framing, props, and gestures during performances were used in conjunction with the technical properties of the camera to explore the face as universal and personal subject.
The face in time-based imagery, as a metaphor as well as the face and camera working as team to communicate an unconventional message, rose strongly from performance/body art and feminist art. In 1972 feminist artist Martha Wilson used makeup to change the appearance of her face in front of the camera for Deformation. On black and white video, Wilson employs light and dark shades of make up to exaggerate her perceived flaws. A monitor is used as a mirror on which she watches herself-transform. The act of recording is used as a device to reach out to the viewer. Confronting self-image and beauty rituals, Wilson narrates her aims and actions throughout; underscoring that her performance is not only for herself, but also to connect with the viewer.
One-year prior, Vito Acconci’s Pryings explores feminist issues from a contrasting angle. The twenty-two minute tape records an endurance performance in which Acconci attempts to pry open the closed eyes of a women (Kathy Dillion). The rigorous performance tires the viewer, and the piece ends unresolved. Like Wilson’s work, a close up on the face (Dillion’s mostly) is maintained throughout the entire duration; in part, this is tied to technical restraints. Quite different from Wilson’s video though, Pryings, exploits the metaphoric potential, held within imagery of the face, to address issues of the inner and outer self. In addressing feminist concerns: Acconci’s open eyes, and hands directly on Dillion’s face, creates a rigorously physical embodiment of the male gaze. Her eyes unseeing, Acconci confronts the closed-ness of her eyes, as he and the camera actively look.
In an iconic 1970s work that excludes the eyes, Robert Bowers's Kiss (1974) opens to an extreme close up of the artist’s mouth and lower half of his face; his mouth holds a shell. In the span of five minutes the viewer sees a snail tentatively creep out from the shell and carry itself off Bowers's face, exiting the frame. The extreme close-up acts with the face as landscape and snail as prop to show intimacy between a male face (as signified by a moustache) and a vulnerable creature. The stillness of the frame is associated with a still photograph, and the single motion of the snail sets off the image. Close-ups on the face have been long articulated in film analysis as instrumental for the translation of human emotion.(v) With the advent of video and its application in art, time-based investigations of the face exemplify explorations of human nature and deep curiosity around the medium. Pre-editing and pre-effects, the described tapes all use close shots of the face with imaginative and to-the-point tools (makeup, endurance performance, and the prop off a snail shell) to explore the relationship between self and medium.
Fast-forwarding thirty years, many contemporary video artists’ are revisiting the face as subject, referencing pioneer artists’ approaches to the face, or finding renewed relevance in the face. The medium itself as a technology has changed immensely, consequently altering the very properties in which it functions. Alice Evensen’s Self-Portrait (Made-up) (2005), bears similarities to Martha Wilson’s Deformation, in her use of makeup, and subversion of beauty rituals. In contrast to Wilson’s single shot take, Evensen splices the video into many short shots, editing out the act of applying layers of make up onto her face. The viewer is left with a slow evolution of a kind of still image of Evensen’s face becoming increasingly covered with make-up. A point is reached where multiple hanging fake eyelashes creates a humorous image but the continual re-application of makeup over previously applied layers becomes grotesque. The ability to edit the work has informed the concept. Evensen does not narrate her actions as Wilson does; the position of the viewer changes. The viewer is left guessing the internal narrative that Evensen does not vocalize.
The theatrical surface of the face is also explored in Jeremy Bailey’s Full Effect (2005). Rather than the application of makeup onto the surface of the face, rudimentary computerized effects are used, eventually covering his face. The tape begins with Bailey confessing to the camera that he is having trouble expressing the way he feels. He tries out different effects on his own image, at first subtle, vertical flipping of the image of his face, then colour tints, and then more extreme neon colour replacements. Recorded through a camera attached to a computer, the video footage is both input into the computer and output on the monitor. Reflecting Bailey’s image back to him; effects are added on the video in real time. The effects are used so naturally and seamlessly it is as if they were in fact makeup in his hands. Bailey becomes more emotional as his image deteriorates. The video exploit’s the duality of the face as both theatrical surface and portal to within; accomplished through the ever closer relationship between human/ artist and recording technology.
Dana C. Inkster experiments with narrative and identity in The Art of Autobiography: Redux I (2006) through the use of an extreme close-up on a set of eyes. The lids of the eyes are still and the centers are animated in motion with an overlay image of flashing colour and lights and a dancing silhouette. Explored in a narrated voice over, a young woman unknowingly flirts with a reflection of herself. The viewer is brought in through the eyes, into an internal monolog that investigates lesbian and ethnic identity.
In a different approach of the visual potential of the face and eyes Liz Knox’s The Contest (2004) includes the entire face in a close-up frame. Knox plays directly with the properties of the camera and the metaphorical connection to the eyes rather than personal investigation of identity and the inner self. The camera is personified as Knox positions herself in front of the camera to have a staring contest with its unblinking monocular gaze, leaving the viewer strangely displaced. Designed to lose, Knox “is determined to win,”(vi) keeping her eyes open as best she can, but only for a few trials. The interruption by a passerby on the public sidewalk, where Knox has positioned herself, confronts the isolated relationship she attempts to form with the camera.
The piece evokes ideas of impatience in comparison to more lengthy performances with unblinking eyes like in John Watt’s Peepers (1972). In Peepers, Watt stares into the lens attempting to not blink, his efforts eventually gives way to a tear which drops onto the surface of the lens, making the viewer aware of the space and time as well as the physical presence and position of a camera under Watt.(vii) The properties explored in this early work are reflected in Knox’s The Contest, in a playful execution without rigorous endurance, which touches upon conditions of social isolation.
In a final thought, the face is used by Nolan Natasha to examine transgender identity and the TV as a powerful mode of connection, association, and relation through characters in mainstream entertainment. Nolan Natasha’s Self Portrait (2003) opens to an extreme close up of the lower part of the artist’s face and mouth. Shaving cream is applied to a clean face, and Natasha begins to shave. The accompanying audio is of the artist’s voice, digitally lowered, and repeating in overlay “you think I want to be a guy”. The video cuts to a close up shot of the artist’s legs and underwear, with continued variations of the phrase overlaid with other lyrical words alluding to identity concerns and transgender identification. Then the audio delivers “I just wanted to be Darleen”, and the theme song to “Rosanne” (a popular American TV sitcom which ran 1988-1997) is abruptly added to the continuing narration. The image of the artist gives way to rescanned footage of the “Roseanne” character Darleen entering the set’s living room, then cutting to black (the audio continues). The last shot in the video is of a rescanned close-up of Darleen’s face and upper torso. The rescanned footage includes the TV’s frame, and though diverging from the face itself, the ‘close-up’ framing is maintained on the small TV, which then provides the close-up image of Darleen. As Natasha actively compares her own fragmented image to the short clips of Darleen’s image on the TV, the viewer is reminded of how television and popular culture can play an indelible role in the formation of identity. And further, how an intimacy can form between life and images on a television screen.
In the 1970s many artists approached the face as a point of focus within the unlimited possibilities of video as a new medium. Over thirty years later we have a different world, with widely accessible video technology, yet similar social and cultural concerns and new works mirroring vintage video pieces with particular focus on the face.
Perhaps the resurgence of interest in the self-presented face is not such a surprise. Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism, the title of Rosalind Krauss's (1976) essay, invokes self-examination as an enduring theme, dating back in western history to at least the ancient myth of Narcissus. Krauss claims "…The object (the electronic equipment and its capabilities) has become merely an appurtenance, and instead, video's real medium is a psychological situation, the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object- an Other- and invest it in the Self." The artists of today have much greater access to the technologies required for more elaborate post-production (or, in Bailey's case, instantaneous production) strategies. Thus these elements are available to be incorporated into the conceptual tools available to the artist, (rather than the mere 'appurtenances', as Krauss suggests, they once were), in the investigations of self, image, and social identity.
iiKrauss, Rosalind. Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism. October, The MIT Press. Vol. 1, (Spring, 1976), pp. 55
vClover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 1993. pp.168.
viVtape. Online Catalogue; Liz Knox, Compilation. Retrieved online at
viiGale, Peggy & Lisa Steele, Eds. Video re/View: The (best) Source for Critical Writings on Canadian Artists’ Video. Art Metropole and Vtape, Toronto. (1996).
Additional Sources Used
1. UBU WEB. Film & Video: Vito Acconci. Retrieved online at
3. Vtape. Online Catalogue. Retrieved online at
4. Hanley, JoAnn. The First Generation: Women and Video, 1970-75. Catalogue. Independent Curators Incorporated, New York. (1993).
5. Bellour, Raymond. Eye for I: Video Self- Portraits. Catalogue. Independent Curators Incorporated, New York. (1989).
6. Ravenal, John B. (with essays by Laura Cottingham, Eleanor Heartney, Jonathan Knight Crary) Outer & Inner Space: Pipilotti Rist, Shirin Neshat, Jane & Louise Wilson, and the History of Video Art. Essays & Catalogue. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia. (2002).
7. Holmes, Pernilla. In Your Face. ARTnews. (June 2007). Retrieved online at http://artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=2292
8. Greyson, John. Waiting For the Sky to Fall. from Surface Tension, Essays On Video By: John Greyson, Scott Sorli, Irmgard Emmelhainz, Daniel Cockburn, Mike Hoolboom. Essays Commissioned for the Vtape Video Salon, September 2003 – May 2004, Toronto. (2005).
10. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. NewYork, Routledge, 1990.