The Affective Index in Video?s Depiction of Desire

Integrating the polarities of high and low culture, the image in contemporary photography and video’s tensions between distance and intimacy that has been exercised through allusions to reminiscent longing for the Other.

In the visual arts, the domain of emotional attachment has always comprised at least two aesthetic horizons. One operates in the role of mirror, the other of prism, or perhaps kaleidoscope. The first, evincing the general concern with all that is socially constructed and sanctioned in any historical epoch, is the archive of works that reflect less Platonic instantiations of Love than the societally accepted portfolio of what can, in the profound space of longing, be respectfully enunciated, displayed and enacted. This of course is the world of high art, expression in the parameters of the sublime that we take, for example in a German context, from Goethe, Schiller, or Rilke. The second domain for affective realism is less prominent. It documents the nightside of emotional intensity, the fire of longing unconstrained by and unresponsive to moral structure. Far from finding expression in starkest terms, this second realm of emotional characterization has a rather protracted development in the work of artists and movements that saw no need to reflect social mores, but rather to refract, distort, and even effigy them as hypocritical restraints on an otherwise essential human spirit whose Sturm und Drang, to recall one version of it, merits nothing less than the vindication of its suffering and alienation in the full light of a new artistic day. It was in literature that Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé found a means for such refraction, a language of expression that promoted itself from the mimesis of ritual feeling to the antagonistic refutation of the stagnant “ritualized”, of the implicit in all that is unspoken, all that is culture.

It is with the end of high art’s hegemony and its concomitant co-optation into popular culture that the first domain of emotional expression is gradually replaced by the second. And while popular art incubates within its own environment in the form of full-fledged media that include among others the radio program, the television show, and the comic book, the venues of high art — the museum, the gallery, and the academic publication — encounter a new tension in the attempt to accommodate the “low” within the “high”. Of course, the fit is ultimately incommeasurable, high art, we know since Kant, revolves on distance, which is to say, ineluctibility through notions of taste, while Low is about closeness, or the reach for immediacy through performance. The art of distance can afford to be mediated by costume, ritual and language that traverses all of a culture’s history. The art of immediacy derives impact by jettisoning all the signs of historical determination; they play no role in the depths of true personal longing.

And so this distance-immediacy dialectic becomes taken up as a principal problem for artists whose optic lies on the tangent of the morally or socially acceptable. The moral problem might include treatments of sexuality that have been eschewed by the High Art ethic. The compass of social problems might point, among other places, to the nodes of inner experience that, when documented “up close and personal”, transgress the traditional function of art as a framework for appreciative abstraction. The array of recent examples of each is an almost unbroken string since at least the 1960’s, even assuming we ignore the work of Dada artists four decades before that.

At one end, corresponding to reactions to moral code, several techniques have been employed as gambits on the distance-immediacy polarity. Since the distance of sublime appreciation remains central to high art, it cannot be circumvented. But since the immediacy of popular art’s freedoms offers relevance and expressive latitude, it remains too alluring to ignore. One recurrent solution, stylistic obfuscation, tackles the handling of the visually explicit; the image that is too salacious or extreme becomes manipulated into near-unrecognizability through compound methods of, shall we say, aesthetic degradation. Robert Heinecken, trained as a printmaker and working as photographer, was possessed by a predilection for this approach, exposing the subject through cross-montage and negative overlays that retain both aesthetic distance, through the suggestive character of the images, and aesthetic immediacy, through the evidence on sustained view of a more seamy source of the material itself. Not surprisingly, much of his practice could at the end of his life be characterized as occupying a resolutely contrary position, even among photographers. As synopsizes Andy Grunberg in  Heinecken?s New York Times obituary, the artist?s “hybrid integration of photographs with other mediums was a rebuke to the aesthetics of conventional photography”3. The impact of this is all the more evident when we imagine what an wide-ranging set of practices and concerns the term “conventional photography” had come to embrace by the 1980?s.  Heinecken?s Mansmag of 1969, a starkly colored superimposition of offset lithographs in the form of a booklet recalls the impact of Warhol?s Disaster series, but with sensuality rather than death as its thematic center.


Robert Heinecken,
Cream 6 Single
photo emulsion on canvas, framed
signed, dated and titled on verso in pencil
30 x 40 in / 76.2 x 101.6 cm
Susan Spiritus Gallery


Robert Heinecken
From the series Are You Rea
Gelatin-silver contact print from magazine
8.5 x 6.5 in.
Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Robert Heinecken
From the series Are You Rea
Gelatin-silver contact print from magazine
8.5 x 6.5 in.
Rhona Hoffman Gallery

The artistic breach of moral code through convolution of image proves relevant to artists who questioned and contravened social codes as well. In video, the first social code to be broken is the fourth wall, destroying high art?s rule of aesthetic distance by having the artist address the viewer directly. Vito Acconci?s video work during the 1970?s adopted this as a signature technique, with the insistence of intimacy reinforced by the extreme close-up of the artist. Few of the many relevant instances in Acconci?s oeuvre were as salient as Centers, a 1971 performance in which the artist?s iconic insistence on the inclusion of the viewer into the work is conveyed by the unadorned, sustained act of pointing. A year after the work was completed, Acconci described the action as “Pointing at my own image on the video monitor: my attempt is to keep my finger constantly in the center of the screen—I keep narrowing my focus into my finger. The result turns the activity around: a pointing away from myself, at an outside viewer.?2 It was this mise-en-scène that Rosalind Krauss saw not merely as a framing device but as the very structure of the video medium, yet one whose aesthetics she derides as narcissistic through and through. “As we look at the artist sighting along his outstretched arm and forefinger toward the center of the screen we are watching,” she writes, “what we see is a sustained tautology: a line of sight that begins at Acconci’s plane of vision and ends at the eyes of his projected double.”4 In an argument where one kind of finger pointing underscores the basis for another, she indicts the medium for an abstract kind of narcissism, that is, not as mere self-aggrandizement but as a production logic that folds onto itself.

Vito Acconci

This is the tautology that opens a portal for unifying both the distance of high art with the immediacy of popular art when video and later photography assume a new kind of subject in performance – the artist himself or herself in self-revelation. For here, in this novel fount of expressive enthusiasm, the affordances of a new medium – video – meet the boundless potentials for exploration of a new kind of subject – the artist-as-asubject – in a scheme of practice where both are completely open and entirely flexible, available, and responsive to new directions. This is not the artist?s self-portrait of Rembrandt or van Gogh, that is, not an opportunity for the encapsulation of painterly technique. Rather, this expressive direction, emerging from but transcending the recursive terms of tautology, centers rather on the problems of medium-analysis, self-analysis, and, as mentioned at the outset, analysis of social code. Thus we can make sense of Pippilotti Rist?s bond with the medium as not only melding the inner landscape of artist and medium, but through the medium?s own techniques, produces in us a gaze that has focused on either figure or ground but never on both, and never on medium itself as a ground, with the contingency of the artist?s being as its figure.  The artist can, through this channel of articulation, say what could never be said before, as if two messages were conflated into one, in one, documenting the intimacy of lovemaking on one hand through the distance of medium destruction of the other, as in Carolee Schneemann?s classic Fuses, a subjective narration akin to a dream sculpture commemorating her relationship with James Tenney. The fleeting moments of togetherness evinced in the film are, as if to remind us of their momentary nature, blended with the artifacts of the film?s own destruction through various means. The impossibility of absorbing one story without the other answers in the affirmative a question that Schneemann presumably posed in one of her notebooks, “”How can I have authority as both an image and an image-maker?”5

Schneeman_FusesCarolee Schneeman

Painting, sculpture, and photography were blends in the work of Hannah Wilke in self-exploration, all pointing to a new use of medium and now-engaged personal voice that together give new meaning to the word “assemblage”. That even today Schneemann?s performance work is argued as an early “catalyst for the emergence of feminist consciousness”1 is rather unfortunate, as the gender innovation argument entirely occludes how her performance and video work conjoined the distance-intimacy chasm more poignantly than any artist of her generation, a contribution of significantly greater historical import.

Rist_Homo sapiens sapiensPipilotti Rist
Homo sapiens sapiens
Installation view at Chiesa San Staé
Photo: Heiner H. Schmitt jr

It is in this context that I turn to two recent videos of LanaZ Caplan, whose blend of practices has explored a range of practices that fall under what ought by now be called biographical media. As part of a series of music videos called “The Break-up Album”, the first, After you?ve gone, effects its triple media overlay as an object of attention through song, performance, and artist. In the tradition of the conceptual technique of explicit intimacy, Caplan , in synchronized doubled montage, sings inaudibly to a second synchronization with the playback of the eponymous song composed by Henry Creamer and Turner Layton and recorded by Bessie Smith. The song?s roots are located in the historical birth of popular culture, not high art, in 1918 it was first performed by Al Jolson, and subsequently recorded by an astonishing parade of luminaries, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bessie Smith, Marion Harris, Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, the legendary Quintette du Hot Club de France, Cal Tjader, Johnny Hartman, and even Shirley MacLaine, among others. Thus, Caplan?s use of this song evokes an emotional pedigree of sorts, the domain of emotional attachment for which love lost finds many expressions. The appropriation, however, is not of the song but of a Bessie Smith recording, itself recoded to the performance of the artist?s lips in extreme close-up, and, as if recalling the aesthetic tautology that Krauss finds within video?s logic, Caplan appears not once but twice, layered in the signature avant-garde kaleidoscopic over-placement, repetition and non-scenery, and closeup of lips we find interspersed throughout Léger and Antheil?s 1924 classic Ballet Mecanique. Caplan?s overlay also recalls Alice Prin, better known as Kiki of Montparnasse, the protagonist of the earlier performance whom Man Ray had often photographed.

Caplan_AfterYouveGoneLanaZ Caplan
After You’ve Gone

ManRay_KikiMan Ray
Kiki in Man Ray?s Apartment, rue de la Condamine
vintage gelatin silver print
5-7/8 x 4-1/2 in.
Zabriskie Gallery, New York

Acconci?s line of persuasive “reasoning” with the viewer, insufficiently explored, is taken up in Caplan?s second video, lovefool, with the artist posed off-center in neurotic high pitch and Cyndi Lauper regalia, uttering directives like “Love me. You don?t have to love, just say you love me.” As the “Love me” command repeats, gradually being mouthed through more insistent and grotesque mannerism, and the sentiment it could evoke is snuffed out, the work is an interrogation of what underlies the emotion itself when obsession, one of its principal ingredients, comes to dominate the relationship. The perception of insistence for intimacy fosters an equivalent sense of distance, each destroying what becomes obvious in its absence: the caring that fuels love itself. Such is the supplication that the artist sings, or lipsyncs, to the Cardigans? hit single lovefool; the plea for deception that is evident in the lyrics? refrain (“Love me love me / say that you love me / fool me fool me / go on and fool me”) is emphasized by Caplan?s acting of a jilted lover whose self-pity takes on a demeanor that is at once tenuous, defiant, anxious, and disinterested.

Caplan_LovefoolLanaZ Caplan

The kind of artistic engagement that Krauss found problematic in early video appears to have sustained itself, exploiting new directions. Her designation of its aesthetics as centering on narcissism is the product of a literal or iconic reading, something too closely anchored to the retinal effect, and therefore a partial characterization of its larger project, which is much more indexical, and more aptly termed a broad sounding of emotional indeterminacy. Thus Rist?s work in the 1990?s has moved into the more stoically Finnish self-absorption that characterizes the metaphysically enigmatic work of Eija Liisa Ahtila, whose own interrogation of how filmic imagination oversteps the physical world and vice versa can be understood in relation to the work of Joan Jonas. For her part, Jonas?s interests in symmetries of representation have assumed literal implementations in, for example, the mirror view of her 1972 Left Side Right Side , work that connects to much of Dan Graham?s own reflective phenomenology. But in both Jonas and Graham, the affective state of the performer, powered by autistically robotic refusal, is inescapably magnetic, how can this be ignored? And for Caplan, a hybrid of directions reflects the assumption of the medium as an adjunct to human sentiment. For as arrows in the quiver of shattered relationships, these two videos contribute to The Break-up Album not merely through the venue of popular reception, as in the “top ten breakups” of Cusack?s film High Fidelity but through the avant-garde lineage to which they pay historical homage. And if, in a word, there were to be but one undeniable denominator to every video artist?s oeuvre, each tributary would, additionally mediated, reflected, and constructed through the medium, intersect at a visceral point with the contingent selfhood that is articulated in the Dasein of Heidegger, and what follows the ontological uncertainties of Beckett?s world.


‘Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses as Erotic Self-Portraiture’, CineAction, (2007).

Acconci, V., ‘Body as Place-Moving in on Myself, Performing Myself’, Avalanche, 6/Fall 1972.

Grundberg, A., ‘Robert Heinecken, Artist Who Juxtaposed Photographs, Is Dead at 74’, The New York Times, May 22 2006.

Krauss, R., ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, October, 1/Spring 1976.

Princenthal, N., ‘The Arrogance of Pleasure – Body Art, Carolee Schneemann, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, New York’, Art in America, /October (1997).

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