Technology and Distance

by Simon Biggs, 1987

Catalogue essay for the exhibition Technology and Distance

Premiered at AIR Gallery, London, 1987

Toured to Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada

Technology is generally believed to bring us closer to the things we wish to know, possess or communicate with. Like language in general and artifacture in particular (of which technology is part) the artifact can be regarded not only as an expression of the circumstances that led to its production but as a window both upon the world with which its producers are concerned and those producers. The plural values engendered within things includes their status as media. Recently developed technologies such as telecommunications, television and computers evidence this well. Although it may be the case that technology allows access to the world in an unprecedented fashion it can also be seen that technology functions as a mediator of experience and action, thus allowing that the opposite may be the case and suggesting a problematic internal dialectic.

Artists, as producers of meaning and artifacts, are often concerned with the issues arising from these characteristics within the things they use and make. In particular, those artists utilising materials and media of recent development address these properties not only within their work but in the choice of means. Discussed here is the work of five contemporary video artists whom can be seen to be dealing with the dualistic nature of their shared medium, if not always directly then obliquely. The multiplicity of forms and objects with which these artists are concerned evidences the complexity of their means and the manifold levels at which this process of technologically formed distance can function.

Distance, constituted as the space between things, can be seen to function not as an absence but as that territory where the relationships between things are formed and the dynamic of experience generated. This space is not so much a dimension to be addressed in quantitative terms but rather something defined by that which forms it, the things it mediates. Distance can thus be regarded as similar to a subjective contour where the characteristics of the things surrounding it define its qualities. These qualities may be psychological or geographic, experiential or metaphysical.

With distance viewed in qualitative rather than quantitative terms the notion that technology may reduce, or expand, it would appear not to be the immediate issue. It may be that technology alters the characteristics of this space in more subtle ways. If through technological intervention or envelopment an aspect of that which constitutes a distance is eliminated or suspended then the result may be the generation of new or different elements that function equally to create distance and form the dynamics of this space, suggesting that technology's transformational rather than reductive properties are the issue here.

No media is passive and the nature of any such structure, technological or otherwise, is to introduce into the relationship between the two poles of the vector which describe it characteristics not necessarily part of the desired signal. This idea is largely the product of research into Information Theory (initially applied to the study of media by Marshall McLuhan), its central argument being that any system will produce noise as part of its entropic nature, thus polluting or qualifying any information passing through it. Although “noise” may have been essential in the study of mechanical or indiscrete systems as discrete and digital systems are developed they are approaching "noise-free" conditions, thus rendering this concept somewhat limited.

This would tend to suggest that much of the discourse around the media that was developed by McLuhan (1) and his peers during the sixties and seventies will become difficult to sustain or, at best, will be seen of limited application. Certainly, McLuhan's influence did not extend to all media forms but tended to be applied chiefly to those technologies that emerged contemporaneously with his ideas. For example, his impact on film theory was comparatively insubstantial when seen alongside that of Structuralist literary criticism. However, in the case of video, a medium of similar vintage to McLuhanist media theory and obviously closely related to the primary object of that analysis - television - such ideas have continued to dominate the critical discussion of both the medium and its applications. Therefore, as video moves into its third decade as a definable medium the question as to what approach is to be taken to a critique of its dynamics and manifestations remains open.

Rather than focus on the internal characteristics of a medium as a means for definition and address it may be more rewarding to look at the relationship between producer and receiver, and thus work backwards to a view of a particular mediating technology or system. If this approach is to be taken then amongst the immediately evident models would be included certain aspects of psychoanalytic practice, concerned as it is the psychodynamics of things or the relationships, in this case, between producers and receivers (recognising a certain ambivalence in this division of roles). Of particular relevance would be that work focusing on the relationship between the individual and their most significant other, what Melanie Klein has designated Object Relations (2).

In psychoanalytic discourse this significant other has generally been regarded as another individual (although Freud and others have worked on the inanimate when dealing with the fetishistic) and although the media appear to deliver a multitude of representations of potential individuals it may be that an attempted analysis of distance, as created and deployed through technology, can be initiated by ascribing to the media (or technology) the characteristics of significant other.

The telephone is designed to facilitate communication and yet it qualifies this process in ways such that it affirms distance between its users. The social and psychological baggage with which we approach this device mitigates our understanding and use of it. The telephone, as an expression of our own need for distanced contact representing a form of self-affirmation, compounds this dynamic. Hermetically sealed within a protective technological cocoon we avoid the requirement to address the other on any but our own terms. The telephone may go unheeded in self-absorption and yet without the contact which it represents the notion of the self becomes uncertain. In the work of John Adams (UK) the telephone can be regarded as a metaphor for interpersonal dynamics in general and specifically as referring to the self's own dualistic nature and the author/reader relationship as mediated by a technological artifact.

The role of the phone in Adams' "Stories" (1982) is to bracket the presence of the tape's subject; the author seated before a semi-reflective screen where he recounts various stories. Imaging the screening of the self behind a window that is also a mirror the telephone is thus in turn also conceptually bracketed, taking on the qualities of a surface that dulls our perception of the exterior whilst only partially reflecting the interior, allowing a world of ambiguous and mixed characteristics to emerge.

As the seated figure allows the telephone to ring unheeded we are witness to this isolated characters reflections on various life-events, his stories. However, the reality of this experience seems tentative as the object of his address remains obscure, Is Adams's monologue directed to his partial self before him or to some imaginary other (perhaps ourselves) on the screen's obverse; or is it to some hybrid of the two he speaks? Perhaps he is addressing a vacuum, the author's greatest fear and yet perversely an at least partially desirable solipsism. Given this uncertainty regarding the relationships between author (as speaker), their means and their audience, as well as the unverifiable status of the recounted stories as to either their truth or source, the rendering of the self with which we are confronted appears destined to implode in a self-created vacuum; into that space that is concurrent with distance.

Although a deceptively simple tape, composed as it is as a single tableau-vivant incorporating only a telephone, table, seated performer, semi-reflective screen and a few other details (that includes a partially glimpsed video monitor reflected upon the screen) 'Stories' is a complex and subtle work where the slightest inflection of the camera 'eye' can shift the tentative relationships between its components. Through the use of the telephone Adams explores the metaphorical potential of technology, thus allowing reflection upon both his subject and the medium itself.

A question that emerges here is whether technology exists as it does because we need to place ourselves relative to it and via it to the other, or whether our condition is the product of this technology? If such technology did not exist would we need to reinvent it so as to realise this desire for de/individuation or is this need a product of its existence?

The telephone, as a relatively simple device, contains the essential elements of all communications technologies and in that simplicity functions well as metonymic of the general ambience of which it is a genealogically privileged part.

Telecommunications technology, having arisen from the relatively primitive form of the telephone, has become almost unrecognisable as a member of the same family. Its complexity and scale are overwhelming and the nature of the communications it facilitates is, in many ways, radically different. If the telephone focuses our attention on one-to-one relationships, simple dialogue, call and response, the satellite and computer networks that constitute our present communications systems disallow the relative intimacy and immediacy associated with the telephone, replacing it with a far more open field of potentialities; a field that although open is so difficult to deal with conceptually or accommodate within the imagination that in its relationship with its user that user becomes lost (or processed) in the myriad signals. The self is threatened by the existence of a system that affirms the non-specific other, negating self as the product of a binary gestalt.

Within this situation the individual is rendered mute, not so much from an immediate loss of will to be but due to the uncertainty generated when the object's relationship to the self is suspended. If you like, it is not dissimilar to the self's de-differentiation into a mass-media subconscious, but a subconscious that is quite different to the one postulated by McLuhan, being neither malign nor benign but entirely indifferent and thus accentuating this dynamic marginalisation of the self.

A number of artists have, in the last ten years or so, set themselves the task of addressing the impact of what is still a very new and for most of us mysterious technology. Sadly however, very few have produced work of any significance as most seem seduced by either the modernist rhetoric that still pervades its environment or the resultant hi-tech romanticism. Often it would seem these artists have discovered little more than how to make an especially expensive phone call. Not surprisingly when the technology is used with more interesting intent and results it is by an artist who has made the subject of marginalisation a central issue in their work, particularly when that artist has been the subject of such marginalisation on two counts, as a woman and as part of the Palestinian diaspora.

In 'So Much I want to Say' (1983) Mona Hatoum (UK) relates this process of marginalisation of the self in the media to more general notions of such a dynamic (sexual, racial, cultural, etc). Employing via slow-scan video, a technique whereby video signals are encoded for transmission along telephone cables or via satellite systems, an the artist (female) is seen gagged by a pair of hands (male?), attempting to speak. However, the only words we hear are the repeated voice-over '…so much I want to say…'. The visual characteristics of the medium, the regular intervals at which the image is updated and its low-resolution and grainy black and white aspect, enhance a sense of threat with associations of surveillance technologies and the rhythmic litany of endlessly repeated words.

The elements of marginalisation active here are multiple and function on a number of different levels. The technology's relationship to the patriarchal structures from which it was born and designed to serve and the hegemonic forces of a Western dominated media system relative to the Third World who, as in the West, are glued to their telly's and the ensuing devaluation of diverse alternatives in favour of the mono-cultural, relative to which the self is predicated, are particular cases profiled by Hatoum's use of this medium. As such, notions of difference, as between male and female, viewer and artist or media and user are seen to be deployed not to facilitate definition or communication but to describe and implement the established patterns of power and the representations merging from them, thus engendering the loss of meaning where marginalisation occurs.

What has been discussed so far has been in terms oriented around the relationship between users of a media and in particular where that user is engaging another via their chosen medium. Technology, however, is also understood to bring us into a closer and more sophisticated relationship with the world at large and in particular with the natural world. The use of the word 'natural' is problematic under any circumstances but in a world where technology has re-rendered the differentiation of the natural from the cultural it is even more so.

Technology has certainly altered the way we perceive the world, not only in what we see, or choose to observe, but in the way we see it. The very idea of 'observation' is a product of the same cultural paradigm that has given us the technological means to do so, and to observe is certainly not a cultural given. The distinction between Medieval and Humanist models are sufficient to illustrate this. Prior to Descartes 'to be' was undoubtedly the root verb whereas since then it could equally well be 'to know'. Although technology has effected the way we see the world it does not necessarily follow that we are closer to it or have advanced on previous paradigms in its address. Rather, there has been a shift which it is possibly dangerous to ascribe value to, at least in the general sense. Nevertheless, the general belief that we have in fact advanced in some manner is widely held and remains questioned by only a minority, artists included.

For Bill Viola (USA) in his work 'Anthem' (1985) the world has been encased in a technological sarcophagus. Rather than an anthem this piece resembles more an elegy, for a sense of loss pervades the work; the loss, amongst other things, of a relationship between ourselves and our world which, like all relationships, contributed to how we define ourselves. Viola's piece reads as extremely problematic as the artist's position appears, at times, ambivalent - an ambivalence perhaps the product of the realisation that the artist's position is implicated actively in the processes he is evidencing. Notably, in Viola's more recent work 'I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like' (1986), the artist has begun to reclaim some of the territory in this regard, as if the moral paralysis that can result from such a conundrum has finally resolved itself into a new certainty (3).

To state that Viola's project is primarily concerned with ecological issues would be to unreasonably narrow the reading of the work, as would a formalist interpretation (for example citing influence from John Cage). 'Anthem' pivots on the simulacra, or rather oscillates, drawing associations between the natural environment, social dynamics, the body, representation and technology. There are no judgements deemed viable nor conclusions posited, and yet the work is not entirely ambivalent. Rather, the artist, recognising the problematic nature of their subject and their relationship to it, as well as the lack of precision inherent in such generalisations, realises how this renders their project innately paradoxical and thus seeks a vision encompassing these complexities, suggesting that a plurality of readings are possible. By this means Viola also suggests the multiplicity of possible relationships between self and other, culture and nature, which technology tends to compromise through its homogenising tendencies.

'Anthem' envisages a world raped by technology, with sexualised imagery of snakes sinuously penetrating trees and pump-action oil wells violating the soil, distanced by definition. The isolation and fear expressed by the repeated image of a Munch-like screaming girl, intercut with images of freeways, forests, high-tech medical operations and industrial landscapes does not seem to suggest the situation is unnatural, for that would be to entertain a set of very complex contradictions, but it certainly leaves a sense of things going quietly out of control - if ever they were in control. Viola seeks to uncover the tragedy of the human condition relative to our environment (technological and natural), the self-destructive tendencies that are possible, on the evidence, innate in our constitution, avoiding didacticism in favour of the poetic.

'Anthem' addresses the creation of distance relative to ourselves for in encasing the world (and thus our experience of it and ourselves) with our artifacts we not only affirm our existence and distance regarding one object of our fear/desire but also that of another, the self.

The work of Judith Goddard (England) can be seen as closely related to Viola's project in a number of ways, both in terms of apparent subject matter and the imagery she uses). However, her work is far more specific and focused in its intent, addressing itself less to the problematic and adopting a rather more didactic and critical mode of approach. The distinctions that are suspended in Viola's work are in Goddard's sustained, particularly distinctions such as culture/nature, allowing the address of the iconic and symbolic attributes of technology and thus creating an opportunity for the artist to relate it to the phallocentric qualities of our signifying systems, particularly the architecture of technology, or perhaps the technology of architecture.

In 'Electron' (1987) the planet, our environment, has been ensnared in the physical manifestation of our vision of it, a technological web which disallows us any traditional or alternative modes of access to it. Goddard's environment hums with power lines and is obscured by industry, a situation where landscape is regarded in terms of its use or exchange value but rarely for its own value. Images of insects trapped in amber can be read as references to the (lost) state of nature, its fall from grace, or as a metaphor for our own status as prisoners of our own inventions.

'Electron' exists as a single monitor video tape, but in its original form it consisted of seven monitors, each encased in a steel block and arranged in a circle, reminiscent of Druidic henge's, in the Dartmoor forests of Devon. In this context, and with its associations of symbolic architectures, Goddard suggested another possible relationship with the natural which was not predicated upon use or control but rather sought to reclaim the pre-Christian set of attitudes that engendered the Earth with the role of 'mother'. Thus although Viola also sought to engender his vision with a sexuality Goddard has established a critique of phallocentric vision through reference to technology, architecture and symbolic systems and suggest an alternative mode of address.

The idea of reclaiming for the Earth the role of 'mother', and thus investing it with the value associated with the first and possibly most significant other in the development of the self, is particularly interesting when seen in contrast to the interventionist (male) qualities of technology. However, such clearly delineated gendering of things are problematic, to say the least. While they may be handy reference points they are simple generalisations which avoid the potential for a polymorphous ascription to things. Can such a fundamentally Sadean view of the relationship between artifacture and nature be sustained? De Sade's vision of the machine as primarily a means of torture, of victims always innocent and nearly always ascribed as feminine, is contrasted similarly against a 'mother' nature to which the innocent victim can, and does, retreat. Such clear distinctions of victim and oppressor, innocent and corrupt, have a comic book quality in their simplicity, for in practice things are not so clear that fixed values can be ascribed to them.

One of the most enduring images of the feminine 'other', heavily invested with sexuality, is Goya's 'Maya', a reclining nude that seduces and envelopes the viewer. In 'Still Katastrophe' (1986) Astrid Heibach (West Germany) utilises this image so as to bring into question the established codes of gender as reproduced through media representations. Heibach focuses her attention on her own medium, video, so as to address distance in relation to communication and the transferential aspects of the viewer/artist dynamic or, as in this tape, that between two lovers. Which of the two characters, the male or the female, are real and which is the video 'other', or are both a video simulacra? For Heibach the author/reader relationship as mediated by the artifact, whether it be technological or otherwise, is a metaphor for all human relations and she seems to suggest that the manner and the medium of the act of communication (transference) is problematic and artificial, a humorous exercise in tautology.

Technology, most often regarded as developed by men and thus engendered with their values, has been seen as invading the female space, as in medical technology and as with domestic television. There is little doubt that the television constitutes an invasion of personal and domestic space to such a degree that the notion of home (as shelter) in defining personal space has been violated and thus altered. In many cultures the relationship between home and gender would seem to suggest that the gender based characteristics of television in relation to personal space are distinct between the sexes. Adams, a male artist, also seeks to engage this issue with his display of a 'blue movie' on the partially glimpsed video screen mentioned previously, for here the television is seen as an object designed to represent male fantasy, regardless of the multiplicity of its users.

The most common manifestation of the television is in the home, and the manner in which we are constituted to the televisual other is formed partly in relation to this context. Here the relationship between producer and receiver is quite distinct. The psychological dynamic between author and reader is the central issue to be addressed in gaining access to both the artist's intentions and the reader's interpretations. It is in the constitution or disintegration of the self, its affirmation or rejection, for both the author and the reader, relative to the artifact, that the process that is art finds its value and reason. As such, it can be seen as a task primarily founded upon a psychological integration, involving a transferential component as its primary dynamic and it is in this territory that the address of the media itself is perhaps best executed.

In respect of television this dynamic between self and other, as displayed explicitly in Heibach's work, is constituted as a de-personalised or de-individualised voice which shifts the role of reader to that of viewer or receiver. The authorial voice of television is in direct contrast to its presence in video art for it has become plural and unfixed. Even if we are left with the impression of a singular and integrated voice, as unqualified information and a succession of selves are received into the personalised space of the home. In such a context the manner in which the viewer views, or undertakes the differentiation of self, is distinct from that entailed in the address of other media forms.

For the television viewer the self is distanced from its personal affirmation and overwhelmed with the models established within media norms. The traditional nodes of confrontation and recognition, upon which such differentiation is reliant, disintegrate in the multiplicity of received signals.

Each of the technologies addressed by the artists discussed here, whether the telephone, telecommunications, industrial networks or television, to a greater or lesser degree sustain this process of disintegration and distancing of the self from its recognition in the mirror surfaces of its significant objects. The pervasive nature of television and its capacity to enter the most private of spaces, where the self is most likely to confront itself, along with its representational role, lend a particular intensity to this process, for the television other has become so multiplicitous and ambiguous in its constitution that the mirror it represents is transformed, distorting and fragmenting the coherency of established reflections and marginalising the self as a distinct entity.

The position of video art in relation to this is complex as many of the same signifiers are existent in each medium. However, one critical distinction can be made that allows clear definitions to be drawn. As noted previously, the authorial voice of television is plural whilst that of its viewer singular (in the cinema this process can be seen as reversed) whereas with video a different dynamic can be discerned. Here the authorial voice and the viewer's voice are both singular, lending the medium an immediacy and intimacy that is equally seductive and potentially opaque. In its programmability and domestic scale video invites active participation from the reader that invites comparison more with the book than any other media.

For the video artist the problem is to place their voice alongside that of the viewer rather than attempt to appropriate it. For the viewer the opposite is the case. It is the inverse dynamic, obliging an extra effort from the viewer than they have been conditioned to accept by television, that video's value is to be found. It is also this which will continue to ensure the marginalisation of this medium and disallow it a larger audience which is generally unwilling to engage in the extra effort involved. Of course the question remains as to the value of larger audiences and as to an evangelical approach to the medium. To what degree does the scale of an audience inform the meaning of a video piece, as it might a news broadcast? Being a highly personal medium video art would appear to involve a function of distance unto itself.


1. McLuhan, Marshall (1964) The Medium is the Message

2. Grosskurth, P. (1986). Melanie Klein: Her world and her work. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

3. Biggs, Simon (1987). Dreamtime, in Mediamatic V2 N2, Amsterdam.