Sad Disco Master: an interview with Steve Reinke (2007)
MH: From 1992-1997 you worked on The Hundred Videos, a low-fi epic that calmed your superego interdiction to “complete one hundred videos before the year 2000 and my thirty-sixth birthday. These will constitute my work as a young artist.” You immediately cleared the table for new work, beginning with Andy (9 minutes 1996). What’s the relationship between the two?
SR: I finished The Hundred Videos in 1996. I’d been working on them since 1990 and had originally thought it would take me until 2000 to finish them. Ten a year for ten years and then I’d have a body of work as a young artist and be ready to move on to more mature work. The series allowed for a proliferation of images, proposals and desires without getting bogged down in a single idea. I wanted to be fast and cheap and follow whatever caught my attention. As an artist I’ve always proceeded by telling myself two lies: that the images already exist independently of my authorship (I’ll say more about that later) and that I’ll make something really good in the future and the work I’m doing presently—whatever it might be—is a preparation for the real work, which is endlessly postponed. The Hundred Videos were great for me in this respect: a series of short works which present themselves as sketches, proposals or little wishes.
But I had a couple of interests which couldn’t be accommodated within the series, mostly because it seemed to me that each of the components should be very short. The average length is under three minutes, while the longest (a re-edit of a documentary I shot in 1984) runs about ten minutes. While many of The Hundred Videos were concerned with ideas of documentary representation, the short running times didn’t really allow me to engage directly with documentary production.
The other avenue The Hundred Videos didn’t allow me to explore in-depth was work based on following pre-determined instructions, like the compositional methods of John Cage, the early process pieces of Steve Reich or structuralist film. Doing this work is like a hobby for me. I like to establish a set of procedures (a heuristic) and begin the process of carrying it out, usually as a transformation or re-mapping of a particular film or piece of writing. Often I don’t finish the projects, and usually don’t release the ones I do manage to finish. Here’s one I worked on a few years ago and have a yen to complete: I began reading Joyce’s Finnegans Wake into my computer. A voice recognition program transcribes the text. Because most of the book is not really in English—it’s made of neologisms from a wide variety of languages—the computer transcription bears little resemblance to the novel. Though in its own way it is a more rational, readable text as it is now limited to a basic English vocabulary. I managed to read the first third into the computer. It was lots of fun to read out loud and it’s doubtful I would read the thing on my own; reading Finnegans Wake is not necessarily its own reward, one benefits from having an ulterior motive. It is perhaps the ultimate modernist writerly text: to read it is to recompose it, to write it over again. This project literalizes Barthes’ distinction between the readerly and writerly. At first I got the computer to read back my transcription, but the monotony of the voice became quickly tedious and besides, Mac voices are overused. So instead I read and recorded the transcription. It sounds very good, like an endlessly obscure bedtime story. So far it takes close to three hours (I recite it fairly quickly) but if I finish it, I expect it will be upwards of ten. With a lot of compression it should fit on two MP3 CDs or an iPod and be at least as good as any John Grisham book on tape. I would also publish my transcription, giving it the title my voice recognition program gave it: Finnegan’s Wake.
Of course it wasn’t only length that hampered my engagement with documentary production, but also a general inability, or even refusal, to engage with people as documentary subjects. Although I’m continually tempted by the observational documentary, I seem to be unable to actually make one, at least with people, though I think I would have no problem with plants or animals. Andy is a compromise, a documentary I suppose, but conceptually simple and completely pre-planned. Andy had heard my work contained pornographic images and wanted to be videotaped masturbating. (He had already starred in a few amateur porn productions.) My previous sexually explicit images had all been appropriated. I’d never shot sex, but was certainly willing, even eager. At the same time, I thought that shooting a solo scene might be fun, but not interesting enough to be a tape. Both Andy and I were interested in making a public tape, not just a private sex thing. The two things Andy was most proud of, and most fond of showing off, were his large penis and well-decorated apartment. I thought it would be good if the video showed him masturbating in his living room while he discussed his decorating choices (in voice-over) as if he were giving an in-depth tour of his apartment. These two modes of self-presentation, home decorating and sexual exhibition, parody one another, and perfectly encapsulate a particular contemporary, urban gay male way of being. I think of Andy as an ethnographic portrait: Andy is not only an individual but a type, an exemplar. The tape makes fun of Andy’s exhibitionism and decorating proclivities equally but he got it right away, and thought it was very funny. It takes a real fag to be Martha Stewart and Al Parker at the same time.
MH: Everybody Loves Nothing (Empathic Exercises) (12 minutes 1996) continues your recycling of pictures, familiar from The Hundred Videos, but now drawing from the Prelinger Archives. Mostly your work has re-run TV moments (Oprah Winfrey) or clips from widely available docs (Lonely Boy), why this search through musty archives?
SR: I’m more of a browser than a researcher. In terms of any particular discipline I am a dilettante rather than an expert. I have some research skills, and have used them for employment occasionally, but generally prefer a less structured relationship with the archive. The trouble with archives is that they are well-organized and strive for comprehensiveness: you will find whatever it is you are looking for. But I’m more interested in finding things I had no idea I wanted (a category which includes things I had no idea existed as well as things I did not consciously think of).
I used to think that the destruction of an archive, museum or library was a horrible thing. As a child reading about the Seven Wonders of the World I was traumatized by the burning of the library of Alexandria. Now I’m not sure I care. All those grand collections seem overwhelmingly oppressive. We should just get rid of them and start over.
Rick Prelinger (of the Prelinger Archive of Ephemeral Films) has nothing against browsing. I arrived looking for films documenting brain surgeries prior to my birth. He has a number of them, and they were exactly as I’d imagined from their descriptions, only better. But they were never used in the end. For reasons of expediency (I forget why) I culled all the material I used from a few hundred 3/4″ video transfers he had in the main office. I’m not sure if I had the central idea for Everybody Loves Nothing at that point. I think I just dubbed whatever clips caught my eye. A lot of the material was from the Levy family’s 16mm home movies. They took annual vacations to faraway places which they documented far more proficiently than most amateur vacation films. They’re famous bakers in New York, I think their motto was/is something like: “You don’t have to be Jewish to like it.”
Everybody Loves Nothing (Empathic Exercises) is the video of mine I like the least. I’ve been tempted to pull it from distribution, but it’s been one of the most successful, being purchased for broadcast (which rarely happens with my work, partly because of its sexually explicit imagery and/or issues of copyright) and winning the Telefilm Canada Award at the Images Festival. I think I dislike it because I stoop to cheap, seductive tricks so often, most particularly slowing down footage until a clip ends with a freeze-frame as the subject looks directly at the camera.
MH: Echo Valley (8 minutes 1998) features an episodic portrait series. I appear in one sucking a candy-cane. I remember the shooting was brief and casual, you assured me at the time that you would make up in words what might be missing with pictures. Can pictures be re-captioned to mean anything at all? Do you wonder, like Walter Ong, that if a picture is worth a thousand words, why does it have to be a saying?
SR: Interesting you don’t ask whether pictures can be captioned indiscriminately, only re-captioned. Your question supposes that images arrive pre-captioned which I think is true: every image derives meaning only if it is already caught in the webs of discourse. Pictures mean nothing without words. In fact, they are not even pictures.
What I added to the images of Echo Valley are small written monologues, a parallel stream of information that can be attributed to the person pictured, or to the artist as implied narrator. I hope it’s also unclear which text belongs to each character.
MH: From Marcel Duchamps’s Anemic Cinema to Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (and many more besides) there is a future-past of motion pictures comprised exclusively of text. Could you talk about how Incidents of Travel (10 minutes 1998) fits into these heritage moments?
SR: Moving pictures without pictures always seem sophisticated to me. Both works by Duchamp and Serra might be named conceptual, a term I hate more and more. Incidents of Travel might be called Anemic Video. It is a sluggish piece, low blood flow. The soundtrack is the most annoying pop song, Popcorn by Hot Butter, a Moog synthesizer piece from my childhood slowed down many times, but with the original pitch maintained. The text, which fades up from white, is from a two-volume travelogue of a Victorian adventurer, John L. Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan. (Robert Smithson has also worked from the books.) As was the style of the time, the table of contents contained descriptions of the contents of each chapter. I included only the descriptions that do not contain proper nouns (names of specific people or places) or strong actions/events. What we are left with is a string of short descriptions of nothing in particular, evocative of an episodic narrative but not in themselves constituting a narrative. It is my hope that the video leads viewers to imagine a context for the descriptions: it is meant to be evocative, opening a space for antique imaginings, lost wonderments reglimpsed.
MH: How Photographs are Stored in the Brain (8 minutes 1998) seems like a departure for you. There is a no voice-over and the tone feels nostalgic, even romantic.
SR: Nostalgia is a strange thing. It comes up all the time when people talk about art. History has disappeared and left us with only nostalgia. We remain ignorant, but filled with intense, if vague, emotion. We want to return to a home we never experienced but can almost remember. A few years after making How Photographs are Stored in the Brain I curated an exhibition for the Argos Gallery in Brussels called Attack (Retreat). The premise was that popular culture’s most powerful force for interpolating us is nostalgia. One would have to be heartless, inhuman even, to escape its heart-tugging force. It cannot be attacked directly, for every attack is regarded as hollow cynicism. But where attack is not possible one might be able to engineer a strategic retreat.
I said earlier that an archive is a horrible thing. But a collection, especially if it fits into a box that is easy to carry away, is a fine thing. A friend of mine found a box outside a recently sold house in Toronto containing twenty old 78s, a photo album and personal correspondence. The photos and music were used for How Photographs are Stored in the Brain, while the correspondence and a few of the photos were used in my only interactive CD-ROM Mr. Green.
MH: I have seen Fireball (5 minutes 1999) many times now, and while it hovers always at the border of coherence, it never arrives, it never makes any sense to me at all. Steve, help me out with this one, what does the title refer to? What are these strange goings on? Who are these artists and why should we care?
SR: As in Echo Valley, I wanted to have monologues which seemed perfectly and profoundly attributable to their speaker and then spoken again by someone else with the same effect. A floating monologic perspective which could be multiply-voiced, pertaining to anyone. In one of The Hundred Videos, Jason, I interviewed a heavily tattooed guy. I wanted to make a documentary portrait but what he said didn’t satisfy me. I wanted the tattoos to say things which were as interesting as he looked. (I wanted him to voice my projected desire back to me. I wanted him to live up to his image. After all, isn’t a tattoo an advertisement or exteriorization of something?) So I wrote what I wanted him to say, and he said it. Suddenly it was clear to me why it would be interesting to work with people in front of the camera, or even to make small dramas. But so far, I’ve stuck to the monologue. One of my main concerns at the time was to find ways to make the monologue, to use Bakhtin’s terms, dialogic rather than monologic.
Fireball came out of a project I made for a group show of public, interventionist work sponsored by Mercer Union in Toronto. I printed about a dozen monologues on little cards, took to the street and asked people to recite them for me. The results were not so good, everyone was flat and stumbling and in the end there was nothing usable. But I took the monologues with me to Berlin where I was staying for a few weeks to participate in the Frank Wagner exhibition Fleeting Portraits. I gave a talk at the Hochschule where I recruited people (mostly students) to participate in the video. I spent an hour or so taping them in their homes, and then either wrote something for them or gave them one of the existing monologues to recite. The monologues I wrote appeared to be about each person specifically, but could also be endlessly transferable, that is, anyone could recite them and they would seem just as particular.
I’m very fond of Fireball though I may not have many reasons to be. It was crudely edited on Premiere in a few hours (a program I have never used before or since) with star wipes between each scene. I know it can seem like a lame travelogue, or worse, an obliquely political tape about life in post-wall Berlin, but for me it is about throwing my voice, a particularly mediated self-portrait presented as a documentary of others.
MH: Spiritual Animal Kingdom (26 minutes 1998) raised the bar for your work, showing a new commitment to old-fashioned cinema values (framing, montage, complex sound work) along with a shiny pop gloss. Its train of episodic fragments has become a model for some of your subsequent release.
SR: However much I like my work since The Hundred Videos, they seemed to me an idiosyncratic collection of shorts. I wanted something more substantial, made with a presence and authority that would be able to seduce an audience into sustained, thoughtful engagement. The Hundred Videos was, in this respect, an ideal structure for me: individual components could be slight, while the overall project was grand. Spiritual Animal Kingdom is something like that: a container for an arrangement of individual, modular components. Not to say that the components don’t belong, it is important that they work together to form a whole which is coherent (thematically and otherwise), but some modules could be removed, others added, their order shifted. The structure isn’t closed like works based on pattern or epic myth.
It was made for the Montreal Biennale. In large group shows, people spend very little time with individual works. My tapes usually screen in theatrical settings, which ensure that audience members will most likely see the entire piece from beginning to end, from a single, comfortable seat with minimal distractions. In galleries and museums, people walk in and out quickly. Small wonder that gallery video tends to be simple and bombastic: a single overwhelming image (or bunch of images run against a single piece of music). They are all presence and affect, with no discursive development possible: no arguments, stories or even descriptions, just a single performative gesture, a painting or photograph that changes over time. Spiritual Animal Kingdom is a work one can enter at any moment. I tried to seduce the audience into staying until they’ve seen the whole thing by making the modules short, snappy, colourful, humorous and full of familiar hits from the 70s.
MH: Spiritual Animal Kingdom begins with a wavy abstract light and your voice: “I went to the doctor and said, ‘Doctor, I’m not depressed now or anything, but I feel that at any moment I might fall into a deep depression. I guess I’m feeling kind of vulnerable, and I have a lot of things I want to get done so I don’t want to become catatonic—or even lethargic—and be unable to finish them, so I thought I could start hedging my bets by staring on the Prozac now.’”
This voice is yours but not yours, it isn’t the voice you answer the phone with, for instance. Could you elaborate on the difference between “acting” and “performance”? A friend recently said of the late Colin Campbell, who appeared in nearly every one of the fifty videotapes he produced, that his chops weren’t good enough to be called “acting;” never mind the wigs and make-up and increasingly complicated narrative scenarios, he was definitely “performing.” And you?
SR: Maybe it’s something like this: actors try to be other people, while performers remain themselves, or aspects of themselves. They’re not trying for transformation or mimicry, but merely to exemplify some aspect of something that gets refracted through them. (Kind of like self portraiture.) Never trust an actor. But a performer? Just sit back and enjoy the show.
In literature, there is always an author behind the narrator, as well as an implied author between the narrator and author. In some texts, like private diaries, these three figures conflate into one, but in more “literary” texts, the three figures are held apart and are the primary means through which much of the literary work (style, voice, point of view, ideology, etc.) is accomplished. In a lot of video work, especially when the artist/author is present in the work as a performer (whether visually or aurally) these three figures or positions, so easily separable in literature, begin to shift and distort. When we see Colin Campbell perform as the Woman from Malibu, is the figure on screen a fictional character, the narrator, the author/artist? Clearly character and narrator, but, it seems to me, not author/artist. How is this possible, when clearly it is the artist/author Colin Campbell before us, performing words he has written for himself to perform? Through video, figures that were previously just functions of the text can be physically embodied in ways that radically undermine the stability of authors in relation to their texts and narrators. Video artists can be positioned both interiorly and exteriorly (behind and in front of the camera) to their texts in a way that is impossible for writers, who must always, despite all their desperate efforts to the contrary, remain off-page.
MH: There is an interest throughout this tape in abstract forms, some segments remind me of the work of the Whitney Brothers, or the computer abstractions of Larry Cuba. Some of these folks claimed for their work a “universalist” consciousness that could be expressed, at last, by pictures liberated from the burden of representation, from having to show something. Others felt these abstractions, painstakingly produced using complicated machine maneouvers, signaled a triumph of science, or some melding of science and art. Where do your abstractions fit?
SR: I had a student at CalArts who was doing very similar animations. She would write her own algorithms. It was a long, complex process that involved a lot of specialized knowledge and labour. I used an inexpensive consumer program called Bryce which was intended to generate cheesy science fiction landscapes. I let it run more or less randomly and chose the animations that pleased me. The student had just moved from Germany to California and this shift, from a quasi-scientific, intensive craftsmanship to a disinterested choosing of pre-exiting elements, seemed to her to encapsulate the two cultures.
At this time, I wasn’t really thinking about animation at all. Work I made later engages directly with the history of abstract animation, but at this time, my concerns were almost exclusively in the realm of the literary, discursive, rhetorical. The animations in Spiritual Animal Kingdom were meant to be wallpaper for the monologues, things to catch the eye. Perhaps they might pacify the viewer, offering a kind of pleasing submission while their ears opened up. They were meant to prioritize the voice and enhance the tone of particular monologues: a few pulse violently with garish colours, others have a more peaceful palette and flow rather than pulse, etc. They also have a structural function: all the monologues that begin “I went to the doctor” have their signature wallpaper/animation, as do the “When my father died” monologues.
MH: The title “Jane Fonda is sad” appears in a swirl of psychedelic colours which seem to announce: this is not the aerobics queen, or wife of the baseball owner, but the Vietnam protestor emblematized in Godard/Gorin’s Letter to Jane, the Barbarella monster granted radical chic and a cause. This segment is also a non-sequitor, it arrives out of nowhere then disappears, and this seems a strategy in much of your episodic work. How does this statement relate to the previous section where you recite, “Alle kunst ist mass./Please keep off the grass.” Or the next section where you zoom in on a herpes remainder and muse about a penis that exists before desire, which you name as “potential.”
SR: Like a lot of the episodic work, Spiritual Animal Kingdom, while remaining discursive, even essayistic, doesn’t follow a linear delineation of argument. Instead, individual modules bump against each other in a way that is associative, or potentially associative. I don’t have anything to say about how those three consecutive modules relate to one another, other than they are little jokes that each involve a kind of melancholy deferment.
I thought of the work as having a warp (of individual and isolated moments, impulses, trajectories, ideas, images, sentences) and a weft (of themes, motifs, methods, loose narratives). Here are some of them: the death of the father; subsequent visits to the doctor; chronology of the narrator’s self-consciousness from Kindergarten; popular culture torqued into a kind of comic pathos; loss and nostalgia linked to a muted libido; sudden eruptions of aggression that immediately subside or are sublimated; etc.
MH: You shoot young men surfing rapids with a looped 70s song underneath. It is powerful and lyric, and unlike much of what you’d taped before. Where did you shoot this scene and why did you include it?
SR: I shot that in Munich, on a bridge over a canal between two museums. I was a tourist, escaped from a film festival in a boring place, with a brand new, tiny miniDV camera, and this was the perfect tourist site: overlooking a falsely natural place in which studs perform feats of skill in rubber tights. I had a new camera, and it seemed to me that cameras come with a directive to go out into the world and shoot things. You’re asking how I came to shoot something that looks so good, implying that everything else doesn’t. But the stage was set, I was merely a hapless tourist (though one who prefers tight framing and can shoot handheld without too much jiggling). I included it because it looked better than anything else I’d shot. Also, they were like sperm surfing toward some potential egg, and I had a monologue about that (as well the pop song “Beach Baby”).
MH: Later, you sing along with the Kiss song Beth while your camera lingers on a shirtless couch smoker. The scene carries a palpable sadness, and pits your rendition against the studio orchestrations and manufactured emotions of the original tune. You undercut the tune by singing along, but also include it: here you seem to want to have it both ways, allowing the pathos of the original to bleed through, but coating it in irony by using your own voice. You follow this right up, as if on cue, with another fast paced voice-over that starts like a barroom joke. “Doctor, doctor…,” where you ask for a pill to cure nostalgia. The tape seems hinged on these loose associations, and an obsession with the body (which is pictured in close-ups of eye and foot and mouth and fingers), which is covered in fecal matter (the body as shit), or returned to its status as sperm and egg (a longing for beginnings), or as a site of illness (coma, aphasia, depression, epilepsy). The pathology of the body is manifest, its stinking, degrading, dying presence everywhere felt. You are, do I even need to point it out, rather young to be so concerned with these questions. Why do they appear so regularly here?
SR: These concerns appear for the pleasure of the viewer: a comic abjection projected outward for you, for your pleasure. They have nothing to do with me, although I still hate epileptics. It is a condition suitable only for mimes.
MH: Spiritual Animal Kingdom is haunted by the death of your father that you announce several times in the movie (“When my father died we discovered he was a masochist…” and later: “When my father died, we got rid of all his hats. Now I wish I had kept one. Whenever I see a man wearing a hat I think it must have once belonged to my father. He had quite a number of them, a dozen or so. Mostly baseball caps.”) The doctor jokes in which you request medications, the brilliant, racing voice-over deliveries, the disgust and fascination with the body (which continues into the abstract sections, as if the thought of the body were too much, because every body would return you to his) all appear to derive from this fact. Like the announced death of your mother in Sad Disco Fantasia it is a conceit, a fiction. In a Canadian media art context in which personal, confessional videos are not uncommon, why riff on these red herrings, why this elaborate construction, and why the need to strike a pose that appears so very personal?
SR: Well, my father did die before I made Spiritual Animal Kingdom, so the joke’s on… well, somebody. I use the confessional as a fictional mode. The work seems to me to continually assert its fictiveness and never make any claims to being documentary or autobiography. Of course, I know that at this time in history people can only take the mock confessional mode to be authentically confessional, or to be an ever-so-slightly opaque curtain over autobiography.
I use whatever experiences (interests, desires, methods, materials) I have access too, but I am not making autobiography (or self-portraiture). I don’t find myself that interesting, and if I did, I would keep it to myself. In fact that is my new teaching motto: “Keep your self to yourself!” Which is perhaps slightly more helpful than the previous one: “Artists have no intentions.”
Unlike the narrator of Sad Disco Fantasia, my mother is still alive—I just talked with her a few days ago. I am interested in the ideas of the death of the father and the death of the mother as they play out against other ideas, images, sensations, possibilities. I am not interested in making personal stories that recount instances of particular events. Claims toward authenticity disgust me. I want to cut through a social/cultural fabric that seems entirely constructed (warp and weft) from various hypocrisies.
MH: Afternoon (March 21, 1999) (24 minutes 1999) is set entirely inside your apartment, a duet of camera and maker, playfully turning the space through your lens. At one point you open your shirt to reveal your chest and say, “Oh, I’ve got more in common with Vito Acconci than I thought.” Vito seems father to your musings, and I wonder if you could speak of the importance of ancestors, tradition and the individual talent.
SR: Although Vito Acconci is central to my work, I’m not sure how much this particular video was influenced by him. With the in-camera editing, seemingly straightforward record of someone making their way through the world (even if the world in this case is reduced to a tiny studio apartment) and comic persona, it owes more to George Kuchar. Still, the reference to Acconci works in a couple of ways. In the video I toy with the audience about showing myself. My body (or someone’s body) is central to the work—the camera is clearly an extension of the narrator/artist/protagonist’s body—and I show fragments of myself, but never my face. For the Acconci joke, I am lying on the couch and unbutton my shirt to expose a hairy chest and claim that my similarity with Acconci may be as much physical as anything else. It insists that Afternoon be read within the historical context of video art. It divides the audience (as humour often and citations always do) between those who have a first-hand knowledge of Acconci’s work (who laugh) and those who don’t. It premiered before an audience of film goers who didn’t have the capacity to understand it (although it is really very simple and not inherently challenging). Many took it as some kind of provocation, as often happens when audiences are faced with experiences outside the realm of their possible expectations. For an art or video crowd, it is easy to make sense of, they might think it is boring, but won’t find it unusual or that I must be “pulling their leg.”
It seems strange, in a way, that the work takes as its fathers Acconci and Kuchar. Surely it must be one of my most self-consciously video art videos. Ideally, I’d like to assert a much wider set of influences and claim for video the ability to combine stuff from almost anywhere. Video art and experimental film once had completely separate histories, but now that film is dead (and mourned) and video is dead (its death has not been noticed) and we’ve gone digital, these separate histories seem quaint and irrelevant. New histories are being written, and a new canon is forming. Wavelength will be placed beside The Red Tapes and no one will think twice. Last year the Whitechapel Gallery in London showed my Sad Disco Fantasia with Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man. In years past such a pairing would have appeared merely idiosyncratic and silly.
When I was much younger and a prose poet, I wondered why my writing was so much like the work of Michael Ondaatje, Christopher Dewdney, Margaret Atwood and Marie Claire Blais in terms of sensibility and style. I did not believe in national identity (at least not as a defining creative force) and would have preferred to be able to choose who my influences were. Why not write like Beckett, Joyce, Berryman, Genet, Faulkner, Emily Dickinson or Cormac McCarthy? There is very little one gets to choose in life and one may choose from whom one steals, but not by whom one will be influenced. (Gertrude Stein)
I’m writing a book on early Canadian (okay, Toronto mostly) video, which seems to me to constitute a body of work more distinctive and rigorous than has been generally acknowledged. Artists include Rodney Werden, Lisa Steele, Colin Campbell and Tom Sherman. I don’t think I mean to destroy them Oedipally, even subconsciously. If my sense of history and influence were telelogical, which it isn’t, I would be writing a history which leads only to me.
MH: Sad Disco Fantasia (24 minutes 2001) opens with the death of your mother, like the famous novel of Camus which begins: “Mother died today.” But unlike this affectless cri de couer of existentialism, your work features animal musings, brightly relooped pop moments from the seventies and drenching animations, haunted always by death. Is Charlie Brown correct when he says, “Good grief”? Is this another of the oxymorons the work explores?
SR: Yes, I believe in the death drive, and will say no more on the subject. (Except that we’re all going to die. And not everyone loves us.)
MH: Anal Masturbation & Object Loss (6 minutes 2002) features a single shot (with edits) which shows a close-up of your hands gluing together pages of a book. In its performative, one-take, non-stop chatter approach it recalls early video art, as well as your vocation as a teacher. Can you comment? And why do you keep gluing pages from the female masturbation chapter together, repressing once more a feminine erotics?
SR: The video has three components: the voice-over monologue, the action of gluing the book together, and the view of the book itself. While the narrator claims to be gluing together all the chapters except the eponymous one, we mostly see him gluing together a chapter on female masturbation. Although the shot is too tight to read any entire page, we get a good view of chunks of the text. That particular chapter had the raciest case studies, and used a lot of coarse and provocative language. I wanted viewers to be compelled to read the book’s text as well as listen to the voice-over. Of course, they can’t read very much until the gluing happens again. The action is itself provocative: the glue is applied with a penis-like stick, the pages pressed together with a repetitive, gentle rubbing motion, then the book’s slammed shut, pressed down and re-opened. Female sexuality is foregrounded. If the gluing symbolically represents the repression of sexual thoughts and desires (and why not) it must be remembered that the gesture has a double movement: it first reveals that which it obliterates. As the narrator says, nothing is missing, all the words are still on the page, you just can’t access them.
MH: In The Chocolate Factory (28 minutes 2002) you present a series of drawings which show the victims of Jeffrey Dahmer, along with snippets of Black Sabbath’s Fairies Wear Boots and a slowed voice-over. The cruelly repetitive, serial nature of the work is so dull that I have to ask: don’t you want to be loved? Don’t you long for that moment, after the screening, when strangers will rush to embrace you? How could you make a work so difficult as this?
SR: Do I want to be loved? I am loved well and sufficiently. I don’t need any more. There is too much love in the world. I prefer screenings to occur in my absence. I do often enjoy a good question and answer session, but questions from an audience member gushing with love are as useless as questions from someone in an antagonistic rage.
Of course, The Chocolate Factory is not meant to bore people, although that is undoubtedly often its effect. I don’t think it’s a difficult work so much as an unpleasant one. Perhaps there’s not much to give an audience immediate pleasure. But it is rich and pleasurable beneath its boring structuralist crust! And in the same comic/ironic mode as my other work. The range of images and sounds is small, and their use monotonous. Yet the voice-over can be quite dense and it changes rhetorical mode frequently. The video is sometimes dense and overwhelming, at some points there is too much to take in.
It is partly a sign of the times that unpleasant work (the code word is “difficult”) seems useless and unbearable. Back in the 80s difficult work received at least grudging respect. Now it is met with anger. How dare you bore us! We must be amused.
MH: J.-P. (A remix of “Tuesday and I” by Jean-Paul Kelly (7 minutes 2002) is a first person confessional which, unlike most diaries, exists in multiple versions. Can you talk about how you came to this footage, and why you treated it the way you did?
SR: J.-P. was a student of mine. I liked his drawings and asked him to illustrate my video The Blind Necrophile which was based on an early psychoanalytic case history. The video turned out fine, but was unremarkable, so I didn’t bother putting it in distribution. (I make too many videos and so have tried to release only the best, or most interesting.) He also illustrated The Chocolate Factory. J.-P. made Tuesday and I late one night, depressed after a weekend of partying and ecstacy, in a single, eighteen minute confession to the camera. His despair is compelling but eighteen minutes is too long, it isn’t the 70s any more. So J.-P. has offered up his confession to anyone who will re-mix it and make it shorter. I like J.-P. very much, but find the endless self-pity of his confession tedious and annoying, so I must confess my first impulse was to deflate his self-aggrandizement. The material asks for either sympathetic engagement or rejection of empathy. Initially I had dramatic music well up and cover his words at certain points. This worked well but seemed reductively cruel. Instead, I decided to keep his performance intact, but sped up certain sections, initially only those in which he isn’t talking. As the video progresses, I also fast forward through some of his words, and this fast forwarding gets faster and faster. I was interested in using speed to squeeze sounds out of his body. These sounds produce a parallel monologue.
MH: You told me once that every memory is accompanied by equal amounts of shame, past breakfasts and humiliating sexual encounters are all part of the same sorry past. Why is that?
SR: I am being misquoted/misremembered horribly, although you are almost right. It is not memories and shame (I remember nothing and feel shame very rarely) but events and embarrassment. Everything embarrasses me. There is something appalling about existence itself, or if not existence, consciousness. I don’t worry about it too much. It is a trait I share with many previously shy people, there is a shy/embarrassment switch: either it is all on or all off. Nothing is quite like a humiliating sexual encounter, but I can more honestly say the recollection of eating lunch today is just as embarrassing (and somehow as private) as my last sexual encounter (which might be considered sleazy, but was not humiliating).
My use of the confessional mode in the work may be connected to this—how could it not be—but I don’t think my ex-shyness is the determining factor. Sure, I tease the audience with confession/autobiography which is invariably displaced. Autobiography joins voice and body together through narrative. Confession interpolates us as social subjects. These basic ways of understanding ourselves seem inescapable but limiting. I want to move through them to something else.
MH: In several of your works you announce that you are leaving or dying, or at least stopping production. This is it, you declare, and Final Thoughts shares these sentiments. Is it only possible to make these pictures when the end is near?
SR: The end is always near and whatever we might make or do is shoddy and small and inadequate, though not necessarily worthless or irrelevant. So one keeps on working, especially as there seems nothing more pressing. I’ve begun another grand and self-aggrandizing work called Final Thoughts. It is a life project, not complete until the moment of my death. It is an ongoing collection of digital modules of image, text and sound, from which videos will be produced. The first of these is Anthology of American Folk Song (26 minutes 2004).
At first I was just going to add modules to the series and release them every now and then in chronological order. I tried this with the video Final Thoughts, Part One, but wasn’t happy with it as a discrete work, it didn’t hold together. Of course, it wasn’t meant to.
Final Thoughts doesn’t refer only to death, but to the end or limit of things in general.
MH: The Mendi (11 minutes 2006) is a found footage short which returns to material first used in a couple of The Hundred Videos. Do you have an archive of material that you draw from in order to produce new work? Did you feel that the original material, a CBC ethnographic documentary about a Papua New Guinean tribe called the Mendi, wasn’t exhausted by your first approach? Could you imagine continuing to rework this same footage, again and again, in all of the work you would make in the future? Will it never end?
SR: I do still use material gathered many years ago. I don’t have that much of it. I actually don’t like having to deal with mounds of things. In the early nineties I worked at the University of Toronto, in the Education building as an audio/visual technician’s assistant. Like many libraries, they were getting rid of their 16mm collection. I took a few dozen films, rented a flatbed for a few days and spliced together a few reels of material. Whatever caught my attention. I had no idea what I would use this stuff for. I just knew I didn’t want any excess: anything I took was something with a high probability of being put to use. I took these reels and had them transferred to betacam. The Mendi was the one film I kept relatively intact. Every scene was compelling, and I loved the strange commentary, which was definitely feminist, but still alarmingly condescending to the Mendi. Right now, I can just remember one line, “The Mendi have minds like computers.” I think I have three half hour reels, now dubbed from betacam to miniDV, from those sessions, plus a few things from the Prelinger archive. I’ll continue to draw from all of it, as long as it compels me. I would like to become someone else, or at least develop a larger sense of things, but as it seems I am doomed to remain exactly myself, I assume this material will compel me always. Of course, any particular piece of material could never be exhausted. The question is whether one’s interest in working with the material could be exhausted, and I don’t think it will happen. I haven’t, for instance, dealt with the voice-over on the original film. Some people, by the way, get perturbed when they see material re-used, as if I’m cheating them. I’m happy working with a small bank of images. I never yearn to have massive amounts of material. I would like more footage of brain surgery from the fifties, though.
MH: Ask the Insects (8 minutes 2005) opens with an intertitle warning viewers about the tricks of light to come, the illusions cast in a theatrical space. It reads: “Friends, avoid the darkened chamber where your light is being pinched.” Could you talk about the origin of that text, and why it is followed by the album cover for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon?
SR: The quote is from Goethe. He’s writing against Newton’s theory of colour and light, in particular the prism experiments. For Goethe, the artificial situation of passing a beam of light through a prism in a darkened room could not produce valid results as it was so far removed from everyday perception/experience. Today, in the age of empiricism, we have no doubt Newton was correct and that Goethe’s scientific theories are quackery. Yet there is also something modern about Goethe’s stance, which seems akin to phenomenology in its preference for the experience of things as they appear complexly in the world, rather than the abstractions of scientific experiments in which limited conditions are imposed. But, of course, I don’t expect many people will recognize the Goethe quote, which is unattributed. In the video, the quote seems to be speaking about the condition of being a spectator in a movie theatre. Still, the two light-pinching apparatuses—prism and cinema—don’t seem so different. At any rate, it is always wise to begin with a warning, if only for issues of liability. This the first work that I’ve thought of as, if not actually being animation, then being about animation, in particular the relation between the animated/digital image and its possible referents in the immanent world.
The quote refers to a prism and a darkened chamber. The music during the segment is from Pink Floyd. The title of the Dark Side of the Moon album refers to a place of darkness (if not a chamber), and the cover of the album depicts light being pinched through a prism. So when the image resolves into the highly recognizable album cover (for though all the visual material in the section is derived from the cover, it is not recognizable as such until the end) it refers to two separate things: where the music is coming from and what the quote is referring to. Usually audiences laugh when the image resolves, though there was no laughter when you showed it in Rotterdam. As with many things in my recent work, it is merely a group of associations. It is not a set of linear connections that form an argument or narrative.
MH: Ask the Insects is an episodic work, reminiscent in its shaping strategies to Spiritual Animal Kingdom, Sad Disco Fantasia and Anthology of American Folk Song. Can you talk about this work in relation to your Final Thoughts archive?
SR: Originally I thought that I’d simply present components from the archive of Final Thoughts chronologically. I put out Final Thoughts: Part One with the plan that there would be a part two, etc. But the work was dissatisfying, as it sat half way between a chronological assembly of discrete fragments and a finished work. Because the fragments are, of course, not discrete but made in relation to one another, and in dialogue with one another. A structure that arranged them chronologically, without attention to the ways in which they relate was untenable and I quickly withdrew the work.
When I made Spiritual Animal Kingdom I was thinking of the structure of a variety show on TV. There were recurring comedy bits, musical numbers, and bumpers. Everything related to everything else in one of three or four ways. Then I had a section—a giant book a neurologist produced about his wife after she died called something like “The Brain of a Pianist,” slices of her brain carefully photographed. And this material didn’t relate directly to anything else in the work, but I put it in anyway and discovered it was fine: it belonged despite me not being able to pinpoint exactly why it belonged. Then I didn’t worry about it any more. I realized I wasn’t building an airtight machine, or even a machine with a particular reason to exist, a particular function.
Sad Disco Fantasia is even more loose: it is about living in Los Angeles as a kind of flaneur, the death of the mother, and the impossibility of home, but many of the sections have nothing to do with any of these. And although Anthology of American Folk Song is even looser, I think that on a deeper level it is completely tight and coherent.
All of those videos are about the same length, about 26 minutes. Ask the Insects is much shorter, with fewer sections. It seems to me a series of introductions to the graveyard walk. Okay, not really a series of introductions at all. Still, the video seems to have two parts of about equal length: the walk, and everything leading up to it, which is animation (though the narrator, of course, claims otherwise).
MH: In the second episode of Ask the Insects, your voice over states, “The reader has proved inadequate: simple-minded, easily distracted, and mean and petty.” From the death of the author you move to an inadequate reader, implying of course, that the readers of this movie will be inadequate. Do you feel that the work you have made up until now has prepared viewers for what’s to come, raising the skills of viewership so that you can make increasingly difficult or complex work? Movies like this are difficult to draw together, it is so willfully fragmented, jumping from one place to another. What do your musings about burning books, a walk to the yards of grave and school, an abstracted display of processing, the forms of rain and insect life have to do with one another? What is the relation that joins these into a unity, a whole?
SR: Yes, I still think the idea of an oeuvre is important. Even if the author is dead, other concepts have taken its place, like the signature effect, or a contract between the text and its implied reader/s. Individual works within an oeuvre teach us how to read other works. If we only had one Emily Dickinson poem, it would mean nothing. The poetry of Emily Dickinson only makes sense as part of a larger body of work. Genre can do this as well, of course, but one always wants to exceed genre.
And why not insult the audience? I had already warned them, after all. It is more than their light being pinched.
I hope I’m getting better at whatever I’m doing, but I hope this doesn’t necessarily mean becoming more and more complex, like Joyce’s path from The Dubliners to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake. That’s kind of a modernist, teleological concept. But despite this, my work has become more complex, and I do hope viewers are drawn along. If you know my previous work, for instance, Anthology of American Folk Song will probably not seem incomprehensibly strange. The other route, the poet’s route, rather than increasing complexity, increases simplicity and succinctness, stripping everything down to the essentials. The two paths are not incommensurable: individual components are often getting simpler and simpler, while the way they function in relation to the others is increasingly complex.
What is the relation that draws the individual components of Ask the Insects into a whole? Well, as I said, it isn’t a single theme. Nor is it a particular story or argument. I don’t think of the components as fragments, really. They have their own kind of completeness; they do their business and we move to something else. There is no intercutting between components; intercutting would require fragmentation. A question posed in one component will not be answered in another (although it is not uncommon that the same question will be posed again, in a different manner). It is also important to note that the arrangement of fragments is not random or arbitrary. But the mechanism, the logic behind the arrangement isn’t related to story or argument.
Does Ask the Insects even hold together as a single, discrete work? I think it does. I think there is a certain force and persuasion to the thing. A flow of affects, images, ideas. Things laid side by side that remain, in some way, what they are, which are not subjugated into a mere piece of an argument or story or list of illustrations for a particular theme. (Although, in a limited way, Ask the Insects is a list of illustrations for some possible relations of digital animation and indexical, lens-based representation. But that doesn’t really adequately describe what the video is about or what it does.)
MH: Could you write about the closing sequence of Ask the Insects, did you take this camera walk knowing you would deploy it as the denouement of this movie?
SR: The last section is derived from footage I took a few summers ago. I walked the same path I used to walk to school, from Kindergarten to grade eight. The school is at the top of a hill, on the right hand side. A graveyard is on the left hand side. When I went to school, there were no sidewalks on the long residential street leading to the school, but then the village is small and almost everyone is bussed in, often from quite far away. Today, there is a sidewalk on one side. When I get to the top of the hill, I pan between the schoolyard and graveyard. My father is buried there, and many relatives/ancestors, though of course, being an outpost in the new world, the European generations don’t go back very far. I wanted to make the assertion that every grave bore my name. I didn’t actually remember where my father was buried. If people die in the winter, they are not buried until the ground thaws (this is still the case today) but I think he died in early spring. At any rate, I hadn’t been to his grave since the burial and thought it was away from the road, closer to the river. But when I got to the top of the hill, the grave was right there, along with other Reinke stones, so it does kind of look like all the graves bear (bare?) my name.
I liked this footage very much. Apart from anything else, it looked good. I shot it with my new three chip camera and wide angle lens. As the walk proceeds, the sky becomes beautifully overcast and a few drops of rain begin to fall. But how to actually use it in a work, I had no idea. It did identify a certain limit to my work: my strict avoidance of the autobiographical even as the possibility of the autobiographical—sometimes even as a kind of audience tease—is never very far away. Here was material that was interesting only with the biographical connection apparent. How it is used in Ask the Insects does not seem to me the end of the story, so the same incident will also be part of a video that I thought I’d finished but needs revisiting Regarding the Pain of Susan Sontag (Notes on Camp) (4 minutes 2006).
The entire walk was too long for the video, maybe twenty minutes. At first I simply sped it up, wanting to keep it a single take. Then I doubled the image and superimposed them, adding various filters to the two layers. In addition to extensive colour correction, most notably something called Image or Motion Stabilization in FinalCutPro, which of course makes the image less stable and more jittery. Each layer has a different rate of jitter/stabilization. Other filters, too. The image is much more processed than the earlier episode in the video, in which the narrator talks about adding a filter to a film clip that abstracts the image. Then I did end up cutting the shot, hacking it apart rather abruptly. When I get to the top of the hill, I say, panning from right to left a few times (added, of course, in post) something like, “Now that we get to the end of the road, the top of the hill, it is time to make a few introductions: schoolyard, graveyard; schoolyard, graveyard; school, grave.”
I did not know it would be the end of Ask the Insects. I did not know what could be done with such a thing. Certainly much of the other stuff in the video leads up to it, in various, often obscure ways. The shot of the buck in snow is from Bambi. It is Bambi’s father telling him wordlessly that his mother is dead. The monologue about abstracting an unidentified representational image through processing gives another possibility for the processing of the walk footage: it could so easily be repressed through the application of a single filter. The third last section refers to walking/journeying: “Every day a bit further, until the horizon is breached.” The second last section (before the walk) ends with a non-sequitor resolved in the last section, “… like a graveyard where every stone bears your name.” Other sections warn or insult the viewer, speak about the weight of paternal/ancestral knowledge (book burning). Still, all these connections do not add up to a complete exploration of a single theme! The fact that many sections feature precipitation is of no less relevance.
MH: The Fallen (4 minutes 2007) is adapted from a four panel archival inkjet print you produced called The American Military Casualties of the Second Gulf War for Whom Photographs Were Available as of October 6, 2006 Arranged by Attractiveness. How did you make the transition from still to moving image? What about the music?
SR: Initially, I didn’t think the work could exist as a video. How to rank over 2,600 faces over time? How to do it without jeopardizing the neutral tone of the prints? But they are quite different pieces: the video is more aggressive. You can’t go back over any of the faces, which are processed in batches before the camera zooms to the next batch. The video returns four times to the original prints, making it clear that it is an adaptation, an animation of a still image. The pictures were downloaded from the website of the Washington Post, and are arranged exactly in order of attractiveness according to me. It exists as a four-panel, ink jet print, and this is an animated adaptation of that photo work. I think of it as satiric. The music is a recent blues song, “I’m Going with You, Babe” by R. L. Burnside, who, like all bluesmen, recently died. The song has only three lines that are repeated, the title, “I’m goin’ down south” and “I love being dead.”
MH: The more I see Anthology of American Folk Song (29 minutes 2004) the more it coheres. It opens with your niece, on the occasion of her first birthday. An opening of innocence then, which quickly turns to something else as she smears chocolate cake over her face and looks distressed. It is her face you focus on, her face is the beginning, but it is met by her ass, “the end” of the body, and you bring these together via the look of relatives whose slowed down speech turns their love into a sinister, looming presence. You continue the themes of beginning and end in the very next scene where you have Vito Acconci announce, “Let’s say the revolution has failed. Okay, the revolution has failed.” Are you also referring to the exhaustion of a certain trajectory or strategy in video? This clip is excised from The Red Tapes (1976) after all, Vito’s final single-channel tape. You also replay scenes from Joseph Cornell. Do you feel these are father figures or antecedents? (Cornell’s body of work consists largely of ‘found’ and reworked materials, Acconci’s work uses video to embody literature, to stage the voice.)
SR: The video is full of excerpts from others. I love the Acconci quote, he appears in close-up, blindfolded, perhaps about to be executed. The title of the video and half its music comes from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. I wanted to map out the mythology of contemporary America (misplaced paranoia, angels, new age, etc.), using Smith’s anthology as a model. If all we knew about America was the Smith collection, the country would appear as darkly perverse and psychotic, a view which is both partial and accurate. I wanted to undertake a similar kind of mapping.
MH: Can you talk about your use of the Polaroids in the tape? In one scene you sing a Jennifer Lopez song in a whispery falsetto, while picking up a bevy of hard-ons and showing them to the camera, and then turning them face down, as if enumerating your collection. Why the Lopez song? And why do you re-introduce these pictures with gold leaf applied over their faces?
SR: There are several sections that include pornographic Polaroids. They had been originally sent to a straight swinger’s magazine in the mid-west. I bought them on E-Bay for eighty dollars. In many of them, the guys try to establish anonymity by scratching out or covering up their eyes. Polaroids are kind of meaty: they have layers of plastic and chemicals, so the scratching out can look like a wound. Matter is gouged away. I applied gold leaf to somehow undo this action, to reclaim it, to gild the profane. The song is Jenny from the Block. It mentions Oprah, and I like to mention Oprah in as many videos as possible. The chorus tells us that the singer (Jennifer Lopez) is simultaneously grand and simple, that despite her fabulous wealth, she is still a poor girl at heart. “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still Jenny from the block.” So now we have two ways to like her. She asks us to love the surface appearance, but to remember that there is something authentic beneath it. She gets to keep her dick and her eyes, while we have to choose.
MH: In the strangest section (for me) a young man speaks about going to get castrated. Though his cadence dies on the word “castration” so it’s hard to tell if he really said that word. Mostly he talks about going to Disneyland, where he hopes to see the dolphins in Marine Land. But underlying this teen aside is the troubling inference that he is going to get his balls cut off. Who is doing the talking here, and why is he saying these things?
SR: A long time ago, when I was a visiting artist at the University of Western Ontario, I asked the students of David Clark’s production class to improvise monologues as members of the Heaven’s Gate cult (a recent news story). The results were surprisingly good, (I think because the event profoundly entered people’s psychic worlds) but I never used them until pulling out this guy’s.
MH: The closing sections of the tape feel like a single movement, though it is broken, as usual, into what appears to be separate and discrete fragments. You show us a glimpse of a “Sulphur Caldron” (or at least a sign announcing it), suggesting that beneath this place, this America, lies a great pit of sulphur, in Christian mythology, a substance commonly associated with hell. You follow with a dreamy slow motion digital scan of a grouping of flowers, which made me think of your earlier pronouncement in Sad Disco Fantasia, that from now on you would show only pictures of what is beautiful: flowers and boys. While Patti Smith intones “We shall live again,” over and over, you recite an essayistic brief about the need for belief in a higher power. You play it for laughs while keeping it serious at the same time, and suggest that God has been replaced in America (not efficacious enough, this is “the land of direct action, concrete results. It’s amazing he’s lasted this long.”) by guardian angels which take the form of departed loved ones. You return us to the Polaroids, now with gold leaf applied, and insist they are self portraits, though they are clearly pictures of different men. Why do you disperse your identity across this field of pictures? Why insist they are all you?
SR: Unlike my other work, which prioritizes the voice of the narrator, Anthology really works with all the elements (image, on-screen text, music, sound). There is no central, structuring voice, instead a sometimes confused guide through a strange mythological landscape. The landscape itself has an unknowable but palpable paranoiac consistency, which the narrator, when most coherent, is outside of.
MH: You play a reworked snippet of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, (“Here come the planes, they’re American planes…”), and show an Iraqi building target being destroyed. Cornell’s ghostly figures return (it is their destiny somehow to keep recurring) with the quote: “crushed by accident/resurrected by design (Versatile Machine).” Is this quote yours? What does it refer to? The broken body of science returns in several forms: the adolescent boy whose body is too female, and is given steroids in order to grow hair (do you see this boy as the allegorical figure of America itself?), the question: “Do you remember the astronauts?” (and the way they carried the hope of a utopian science), the scratched-out eyes of the Polaroid men. The science that has been used to build the machines of war has been turned on its own citizenry, and the result is an embodied catastrophe. Lying beneath Anthology’s fractured and sometimes very abrasive surface, is a pointed political critique, taking aim at the American empire. Wouldn’t you say?
SR: “Crushed by accident/resurrected by design (Versatile Machine)” is something I came up with, so it isn’t a quote, and I don’t know what it means. It has something to do with the recent incarnation of the American military-industrial complex, which wages war “surgically,” claiming that any damage is accidental, “collateral.” And then, after all these unfortunate accidents, the same complex re-builds. So it is a very versatile machine, building and destroying more or less simultaneously, and with sustained profit. But that is just the same old military-industrial complex at a somewhat accelerated pace. The difference is in a people who find it a good idea—necessary, even—to follow bombs with cute air-dropped care packages in order to demonstrate that they are really nice because they care.
But I can’t claim that Anthology is pointed political critique, what I’m doing is murkier than that. The hope is that larger trajectories emerge out of the murk that I’ve been calling “mythological landscape,” which is really, of course, a psychotic, paranoid, teleologically apocalypse-driven ideology. For the record, though, I love America. Once you get used to the obsequiousness and all. Plus, the food’s not bad.
The Hundred Videos 289 minutes 1989-1996
Andy 9 minutes 1996
Everybody Loves Nothing (Empathic Exercises) 12 minutes 1996
Echo Valley 8 minutes 1998
Incidents of Travel 10 minutes 1998
How Photographs are Stored in the Brain 8 minutes 1998
Spiritual Animal Kingdom 26 minutes 1998
Fireball 5 minutes 1999
Afternoon (March 21, 1999) 24 minutes 1999
Sad Disco Fantasia 24 minutes 2001
Amsterdam Camera Vacation 11 minutes 2001
J.-P. (Remix of Tuesday and I by Jean-Paul Kelly) 7minutes 2002
Anal Masturbation and Object Loss 6 minutes 2002
The Chocolate Factory 28 minutes 2002
Anthology of American Folk Song 26 minutes 2004
Ghosts of Gay Porn 4 minutes 2005
Ask the Insects 8 minutes 2005
The Mendi 11 minutes 2006
Regarding the Pain of Susan Sontag (Notes on Camp) 4 minutes 2006
My Rectum is Not a Grave (To a Film Industry in Crisis) 7 minutes 2007
The Fallen 4 minutes 2007
The Hundred Videos
“Like everyone else I’ve been somewhat unlucky in love due largely to inappropriate object choices. Now I realize that what I’ve wanted all along is a boy without bones. I know that bones are important, even vital, but I’ve always found them unappealing. In fact, without my knowing it, they’ve disgusted me. In particular, the arcanely overcomplicated bones of the foot, the unnecessary harshness of a jutting hip, the skull which begs to be cracked open like an egg, full of unreachable thoughts.” (Ice Cream #34 of 100 Videos by Steve Reinke)
It’s his voice you notice first of all. You can’t help noticing. Beuys had his uniform, Warhol his silk screen, Steve Reinke has his voice. It is a kind of signature, a costume for the masquerade of personality, but more importantly: a guarantor of pleasure. Listening to this voice, I imagine again the thousands of movie goers who once swooned at the sight of Garbo’s face, that mask of light that trapped everyone who passed into the Medusa stare of cinema. Like Garbo, Steve’s voice manages a universal appeal and an individual promise, a promise no less real for remaining always a secret.
Reinke’s voice offers us an oblivion, a delirium, that is peculiarly Canadian. If Americans are television and movies, Canadians are radio. Reinke’s is a voice without range, always set at medium, its entire expressive register limited to a few mild bursts of acceleration. There is nothing flashy here, nothing of the diva in this voice, nor would you ever want to hear him recite Shakespeare. If Reinke’s voice is perfect, it is a perfection that brooks no variation. He offers you a five star dinner, and it will be just the same night after night. Like the uniform of Beuys. The silk screens of Warhol. Reinke’s voice is the monotone of the inner dialogue, the siren call of conscience, all dolled up in a fantasia of seduction; intractable, compulsive and omnipresent. Like every voice of conscience it never stops. Or never for long. This is both its strength and its sadness. Its pathos. This is a voice that can only promise seduction, endlessly, pitilessly. The voice of the maternal superego. It is not only dangerous, but a sound that presages violence and annihilation. I speak about this with another Mike, who has never seen the work of Steve Reinke, but doesn’t need to, he has voices all his own. He explains it to me this way: what if you were assured a night of perfect sex? Here’s the catch: the next morning, the firing squad is waiting. You have to die. Who would ever make this choice, knowing the cost of pleasure? The truth is, at different points in our lives, almost everyone. What impels us towards the night of pleasure, consequences be damned, is the voice. Go on. Go ahead. It will be fun.
The voice coaxes and reminds you. It urges you to enjoy and then to suffer the consequences. It eggs you on towards annihilation. In the cartoons, an angel perches on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Both voices whisper into the ear of Porkie Pig offering conflicting advice. But the voice of conscience is not divided, it is one voice, containing both angel and devil. Besides pathos there is sublime terror.
Steve has a voice that dangles the veil, though it never fully arrives. It never manages, in the end, to offer a totalizing satisfaction. It never consumes or ravishes its listener, content instead to maintain the steady ascent, borne along an effortless breeze, permitting an intoxication without drunkenness, sex without organs.
Joan tells me that she likes to provoke him, make him angry, just so she can hear that mellifluous voice ring down a little longer. Even when he is in the full bloom of his rage, she assures me, his voice continues to comfort and charm. I know what she means. Steve is a victim of his voice. Steve’s voice is a predator of pleasure, and its first outlet, the first person who had to annihilated, who had to be gotten out of the way so it could fully assert itself, was of course Steve himself. Now, he can only stand idly by while it takes control. It has spoken in his place for so long, only his closest friends can tell the difference between the two.
It will end only when he is dead, and his talking, his tireless mastication of language, is the only way he has to forestall this certainty. It is a vigil he keeps with his mouth, and few have managed it as smoothly. There is a plinth already set aside in his name at the National Gallery where his vocal cords will rest forever in an embalming pitch. We may rest assured that DNA scholars will be able to grant new generations the torso of Brad Pitt along with the voice of Steve Reinke. In the face of a terrifying and incomprehensible future, this may be our only armour. Our last stand.
Reinke: The Early Years
Only days after his birth, without understanding what was being said at all, Reinke began to imitate the sounds everyone made around him. Just a few weeks old, he recorded and played back, already made to bear the burdensome expectation of prodigies in the prison house of language. He appeared not quite human, had already taken the form of a medium whose birth would coincide with his own. This much was clear: he wasn’t born to make video, but to become it.
Reinke assumed all of his early incarnations—the talking baby, the devoted son and shy adolescent—with the élan of a born mimic. Few could have guessed that the gulf between a word and its meaning, between the compulsions of an inner life and its presentation to others, was growing ever wider. In his earliest years he favored an appearance that was low resolution, he always seemed a little “out of focus,” even when viewed up close, hazily rastered, like images produced by early Sony portapacks. When Gertrude Stein wrote “There is no there, there,” she might have been describing Reinke’s early years, or for that matter, video itself.
Reluctant to assume the certainties, the position taking, that having a personality necessarily entailed, Reinke seemed instead a kind of static, a temporary interference in the circulation of meaning. As a child he longed to be invisible, to live without marking his place, though transparency would continue to elude him. Even as an artist he would continue to sign, to leave his work with a signature, the name from which he has never fully recovered: Steve Reinke.
One point should be made clear here. He is not trying to escape himself. That happened long ago. He knows better than any of us that instead of ideas we have head shots, and that in place of information we have personalities. For years he was a keen student of personality, realizing at last that most of us clung to our identity the way a monk might devote his life to a single book. Testing the limits of personality, Reinke assumed one after another, leaving each behind in the vapor trail of the wanderer. The reader. Each of Reinke’s incarnations flickers inside an appearance so wanting in outstanding characteristics that he is able to assume almost any guise whatsoever, the perfect mirror of his interrogators. This is how he speaks of those who would receive him in casual conversation. The interrogators.
Paul Klee wrote: “Now objects perceive me.”
Most of Steve’s engagements, his emotional life, his heat, rests with the dead. There are a few composers (although he prefers the big pop sound of the seventies), a painter or two but mostly there are writers. He speaks with them not in order to have the last word, always the prerogative of those who survive, but to raise from the dead a living book, rescued from the library, the auctions at E-Bay or worse, the classroom. He does not examine these books, he lives them, he throws himself into them. Because he knows that soon there will be no one left to read them. Oh sure, someone will always be able to pick up a book and go through the motions, jerking his/her head from left to right over miles of letters all lined up in a row, like a firing squad. But to really read the book is to feel it as an echo of all the books written before it, and more than that, to find between its covers a model for consciousness. Let’s be clear about this: he is not looking for a description of another life, to live vicariously through another’s adventures or to gain experience through the safe remove of fiction. For Reinke the book is the thing itself, the embodiment of a way of being. If there is a sadness in this love, it is because he knows that the videotapes he makes with such abandon are helping to hasten the end of the book. He can feel the book falling apart in his hands, even as he reads it. It is difficult for him to enter the library without the sense of accusation, of outrage even, coming from the shelved volumes, pained to be handled by someone who has dedicated his life to destroying the thing he loves. This much is certain: Reinke’s video work is hastening the end of the book. And no one could be more apologetic than Reinke himself, who is the author of every book he reads.
Reinke’s work, tirelessly verbose, has relieved him of the need for speech. As a student of the aphorism and the epigram he finds the vagaries of daily conversation painfully contrived. And he’s developed a habit he can’t escape. While others are talking, he imagines their speech in the pages of a book: he transcribes their conversation, he imagines that everyone around him reads compulsively from a script, and for the most part, he finds this text hardly worth reproducing, frankly dull, and badly in need of editing. Instead, he prefers the act of writing. He likes to go to cyber cafes with a buddy, and write e-mails back and forth across the room. He is no fan of oral culture. He is the book, and beyond it, the machine that produces the book. Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a recluse by any means: he has many friends, though this word makes him uncomfortable. Instead, he prefers to think of his intimates as volumes, sharing the same shelf, standing upright together, leaning into the same alphabetical wind.
Writing for Steve is a reminder of the necessary solitude we all carry with us, at every moment; and the hope that conversation carries, that this solitude could be washed away, or forgotten through the momentum of a shared sentence, seems little more than repression. Denial. Community is only the beginning of fascism.
Steve’s earliest memory is not a vision, a bearing of witness but a sound which accompanied him every day of his life. It accompanies him still. It is the shriek wrenched from him in the moments after birth, which he terms his “ejection.” “I was squeezed out, ejected, just like a videotape,” he remarks, and his mother confirms this. “It was like pushing a button, it happened that fast.” In Reinke’s vernacular she is “the player,” the “hard drive” or more obviously “the mother board.”
The sound of Reinke’s first memory would never leave him, gaining instead a curious, even perverse kind of momentum in the years to follow. This scream underlies all of today’s contemporary art, and certainly all of the movies. Beneath each picture lies a shared, naked need. Look at me! At me! Pay attention to me! The wiles of conversation are not enough. The daily exchange of glances, the small spotlights of friends and acquaintances are somehow wanting. Something is not fully borne in the everyday, some lingering darkness (is it talent? genius?) waits to be discovered and embraced. Perhaps in the end it is exactly this: the utterly unique and fantastic subjectivity of an individual.
Here lies the paradox: while the primal cry may be the genesis of personality, the individual finds his/her fullest and most satisfying expression only when this cry is separated from the body, when it lies outside of its maker, as an object. A thing to behold. This new genre of objects exists primarily to be seen, demonstrating a narcissism of objects. If its purpose lies in its visibility, we can still surmise, wrapped inside the attention each object requires, the primal cry of the maker. Look at me! At me! The codes of attention—the mid-career survey, the catalog essay, the festival screening—are all part of a subterranean architecture designed to assuage the wounded subjectivities of viewer and viewed.
Perhaps this is overstating the case. Perhaps this reveals only the bent of this writer, this writing, now as you are reading it. Perhaps it is not artists at all, and even less Steve Reinke, who imagine that their words form a kind of voyage, a road leading into the vanishing point of personality. Perhaps I have to concede after all the unutterable difference between us, and offer a more likely conjecture, that Reinke’s work issues not from compulsion but from duty, and that its effects do not reform the vagaries of an inner life, but instead constitute a class of objects designed to apprehend their viewers. Paul Klee wrote: “Now objects perceive me.” Perhaps Reinke’s work is not designed to edify its maker after all, but to destroy him.
When I die it will hardly be a death since most of what defines me will have already gone… with each book the author murders the author. Marguerite Duras
It is by now a commonplace that the role of art in the casting call of life is the training of attention. Our bodies have openings to admit the world—the ears for hearing, the eyes for sight—and the story of art describes how our ancestors opened to the world. The history of our seeing hangs in the museum, and contemporary art similarly aims to re-jig the place that lies between beauty and beholder, what cyberfolks like to call the interface.
As a boy I watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas obsessively, keying on the scene which suggested the cause of the Grinch’s problems: he had a heart seven times smaller than anyone around him. Even his dog, partner in the sado-masochistic struggle which occupies most of this animated short, is shown to have more heart than this miserable creature. Years later I understood the particular significance this scene held for me. I had been granted an attention span seven times smaller than most humans, or at least, most humans at the time when the original Grinch was made. By the time the re-make had come around, things had changed considerably, some global warming of the synapses had quickened the pulse of so many viewers I was no longer alone, just a part of that crowd hoping to tune in, turn off, drop everything. But take someone like Mike Snow, Canada’s best known, most respected, blue chip conceptual artist. Mike Snow has no reception problems at all. Mike’s attention span is almost infinite, he can sit in perfect quietude and watch scratches accumulate on a strip of film for hours. He is the embodiment of a very refined kind of Zen consciousness and I respect him for it, I bow to him for it, only I don’t want to watch his movies. They go on too long. When I watch Mike’s films, I can feel them trying to kick all the junk out of my head, all the grocery lists and petty anxieties. In order to do this, he resorts to an old Western gunslinger’s trick: he’s going to outwait me. He’s going to stare me down until I give in. But in the end it’s no use. The grocery lists and petty anxieties are my personality. I cling to them with everything I’ve got and leave the theatre unmoved.
Recently I ran into a friend who seemed always cramped up with disappointment. His body had been shouting, “The end is near” for all of his twenty-eight years. Only today, his face is lit up with something like happiness. He had recently been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, offered a modest script of Ritalin, and within days he had been able to sit alone at his computer playing Firestorm. Never before, he told me, could he manage the concentration required for such an elaborate killgame. I nodded gravely. Attention deficit disorder is hell for anyone who wants to get in some serious gaming time. For more severe cases, only the real thing will do: television itself. So I pitied my friend, because I knew that with his new attention span he had been taken out of the flow of things, he stood outside, in a lonely sort of place where he would be condemned to himself, the only sober face in a world of drunks, a permanent outsider who would, as the years went on, lose the knack of fitting in, and finish his life embittered and powerless. What was that old line from the 60s commercial? “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”
Most activities are designed for people like me, who lack any attention span whatsoever, so there’s no problem. But there’s a few holdouts, a few pockets where resistance is still possible, and one of these is art. It probably goes without saying that like most folks, I don’t have time for art. Either I don’t understand it or it’s boring. Mostly it’s boring.
Whenever I walk into the ivory basement of an art gallery, my heart starts racing. I can’t help it. It’s like being caught behind people on the steps to the subway, the presence of others urges me to walk faster than I normally would, so that I can stay out of the way of strangers. I arrive at a gallery always breathless, heart racing, my right hand twitching, already wanting to seize a remote control channel changer that is nowhere to be found. What I enter is a specialist’s world, an orthodontist’s convention of micro-speach. Attention is rapt, the tone is serious, the air thick with gestures that could never be understood outside this congregation. I arrive as an unsponsored delegate, hoping always to have my habits of attention re-tooled, but leave most often with some vague sense of satisfied obligations. I’ve done my duty, taken my vitamins. The doyens of pleasure have not yet made a home here.
Fortunately, along with a microscopic attention span, I have a nearly infinite capacity to forget, so continue to manage semi-regular forays into that parallel universe of replicants and reproduction known as the art world. It was there I first encountered the work of Steve Reinke. It was a video, mercifully brief, and when it was finished I was filled with an uncommon hilarity. The only sense I retained from it was its humour, the color blue, and of course, the grain of that magnificent voice. I longed to return, and began a daily pilgrimage, performing a task I had not indulged since grade school, committing a text to memory. The truth is, my memory is digital, it’s either on or off, either I remember everything or nothing at all. I was determined to hold onto this experience, and recount it for you here. The text of what was to be the first of 100 videos.
“I’ve made a few documentaries before and I like making them. Documentary material is usually more interesting than anything I could imagine and I don’t have to be bothered with all the tiresome specifics of a fictional creation. Also I can’t be held responsible for material which purports to an actual reality. I’m not personally implicated and therefore can’t be blamed. I call this the excuse of the real.
Like everyone else I wanted to do something on AIDS, a close personal look at a guy dying. Wanting the work to be as effective a documentary as possible, that is, as visceral as possible, I would want to include my subject’s death. In fact, the video would not be complete without his death. So I set out in search of a subject. These were my initial parameters. In order not to confuse or blur issues: a white, anglophone, homosexual male, and for added empathy, he should be under thirty. Due to budget restrictions, I would prefer one who would die six to eight weeks after taping was to begin, yet would be strong enough in the initial days of taping that I could get his basic life story in a few days of interviews before settling down to watch whatever complications the guy has play themselves out. What I had in mind seemed fairly simple. He would speak of his childhood and adolescence, his identity emerging through a series of stories, personal remembrances, anecdotes, dreams. The audience would be constructing an image of him even as he himself crumbles away. I would need some home movies, flickering super-8. I would use these as visuals. If my subject didn’t have any, another’s could be used. Everyone’s home movies are basically the same. It would simply be a matter of matching hair color and body types.
There is something else I’d want to show. The steady degradation of his body and mind. Medical charts would be included, reports on blood cells. I would want to provide a record of each lesion over time, a shifting map of epidermal sores.
This became my problem. As my search continued, I began imagining with increasing specificity the things I would like my subject to say and do. That is, the longer my search took, the more specific my criteria became. And the more specific my criteria, the more difficult, and therefore longer, my search. It seemed an unending spiral. Two sets that might never overlap or share any common points. Even if there were specific points of juncture how could I find the individual that would be at each point? My project risked degenerating into fiction.” (Excuse of the Real #1 of 100 Videos by Steve Reinke)
Was it because I was so recently diagnosed that I found this tape so irresistible? Steve had managed to convey, somehow, everything I had hoped to communicate about this inscrutable intruder, which had divided my life and body, forcing me to accept, as the radical root of my new personality, the very thing which was bent on killing me. Reinke’s tape offered me the only possible solution. Laughter.
I put another link in the chain, and they called it freedom.
In 1989, Steve made a short tape called Excuse of the Real, which showed some grainy, occasionally looping home movie footage of a family gathered beneath the Christmas tree. All the while a voice (that voice!) talks about a proposed AIDS doc. This was the first in a very long series which would take him a decade to complete, and which he named The Hundred Videos. “I want to complete one hundred videos before the year 2000 and my thirty-sixth birthday. These will constitute my work as a young artist.” Arriving at a moment when most self-respecting medianauts were hailed as sultans for dishing out one tape a year, this was a considerable raising of the bar. And he hadn’t been out hawking the family silver either. This work had been done on the cheap, this was thrift store goods, and he was bringing it in by the kilo. It was smarter, faster, shorter and more entertaining than anything around it, filled to bursting with ideas.
A friend once confided to me that the reason he finds so much contemporary art exasperating was that it continues to talk about talking. Paintings about painting. Sculptures about sculpting. “After a hundred years of this, I know what the medium is!” he is telling me, visibly shaking after his fourth espresso of the afternoon. It gives his speech a trembling, slightly out of control quality that he feels endows him with authority. Mostly he makes people afraid. The waiter has stopped coming to our table for instance, though my friend doesn’t really notice. He makes each point by stabbing the air between us, as if re-opening a wound that threatens to close. “I want art to say more. I want the work to address something beyond itself.”
Steve might have been nodding right along with him. He’s never been drawn to art about art, offering the work as a test case of a minutely controlled expression. Nor was he concerned with the transformation of a unique individual into a furiously eccentric style. The stoniness of a piece of stone does not move him. He has left modernism behind.
Steve had great hopes for video when he began. He wanted to make videos that could be fun and useful. He loved reversible jackets, or pens with compasses attached, so you’d always know what direction you were writing in. Sofas that turned into beds. He never had a lot of money, he’s never manage to cut a big slice of real estate off for himself, so it was important to him that the few objects he possessed could perform as many functions as possible. He wanted to make a video you could eat after watching, box covers that could inflate to become pillows or life preservers. He worked on a tape that was so strong you could tow a small car with it, but which was also light and delicate enough to wrap a child’s birthday present. Video wasn’t just for watching anymore, it would become, in Steve’s hands, a Swiss army knife of the soul, its multiplex protrusions quickly unfolding to meet any emergency.
Still, it has to be admitted, a lot of the The Hundred Videos look pretty crappy. They are badly lit, often shot hastily, in poor conditions and low resolution, with extremely minimal sound work, often featuring nothing more than a voice, or at most, a voice with a single instrument on the music track. This is not work that pretends to be cinema: iconic, larger-than-life, teeming with the luxuries of image and sound. This is temporary work. Fragments of something. Each suggests a small, neo-scientific excursion into some aspect of understanding, with the tapes offered as evidence and hypothesis, the viewer as witness.
Steve is not afraid to fail. We all make mistakes, he seems to say, and here’s some of mine. After all, it’s only video. And as soon as it’s over, there will be something else. One of the small joys Steve offers in the The Hundred Videos is to watch him fail, then see him get himself up off the carpet and try again.’
You never have to look far to find other’s mistakes. You’re probably living in one right now. Architecture, like all endeavors requiring big cash, has a massive failure rate. If there were a tax put on ugly buildings, our level of social services would rise to unprecedented levels. Contrary to popular belief, money attracts failure, the more that’s invested in a project, the higher the possibility for catastrophe. Money is inherently conservative, and the kind of hedging that large accumulations of capital require most often ensures bad design and overcoded exchange.
Steve’s work, by contrast, is extremely cheap to produce, so his failures are never extravagant. Steve fails pretty much the way he succeeds, with a light touch, rarely managing to take you up to heaven, but never spending too much time in the other place either. To all of his failures, he applies a strict principle of moderation.
Each film/vid is a moving ensemble of parts which requires unities expressed through time. Most art hopes to arrive at this state and freeze it up in a moment which can be returned to over and over, the lone still point of a changing perception. But movies require that this unity be reinstated again and again, to achieve, as one wag would have it, truth twenty-four times per second. Video of course has upped the ante. Comprised of alternating fields of vertical scans, video offers half truths sixty times per second.
Most cinematic expression is occupied by a viral replication of media rhetoric, a visual Esperanto which permits global visibility. Artists’ work insists on a much more personal use of grammar, and while the number of wrong turns has multiplied, so has the possibility of useful mistakes. Inventions.
Because of the serial nature of his production, Steve has produced a kind of democracy of mistakes, finding a way to share the blame, spread the rot, so that it falls more easily and lightly. And while he was amongst the very first to do so, he finds himself now joined by many others, inspired by his example, who have similarly taken on a production in parts, segments, chapters, interlocking episodes. The burden of failure has been lifted a little for everyone, though few have managed to turn it into an asset like Steve has. Failure is Steve’s ace in the hole.
Steve shares many of his mistakes with others of his species, other artists similarly devoted to the pixel, other kings and queens of the cathode. Their work also has a lightness, but it is not gratifying, not pleasing, the way Steve’s is. I wonder why. I look at so many other’s work and find only hastiness, an absence of research, of engagement, a shallow delivery, a misunderstanding of even the most elementary principles of how picture and sound move together. Somehow, all this is forgivable in Steve’s work, just as it is unforgivable in all those who surround him, who provide a setting, a background for his efforts. He is the exception who proves the rule.
Steve’s engagement is not with primary experience, or the translation of that experience to an audience: I feel sad, feel my sadness, now you are sad. Instead, he is interested in describing how we have come to ideas of sadness. Because these ideas are grounded in a speculative and fanciful, imaginative and hypothetical pata-physic, he manages to elude both the rigors of scientific taxonomy, and the weigh stations of empathetic narrative. Steve is not the Harper’s Index, and he’s not a soap opera. He’s describing our descriptions of the world. The material that he delivers to us is already a re-presentation; it is a picture that has already been looked over, its emotional content expunged, or left as a kind of hang-over. It’s true his montage is weak. His grasp of sound/image articulations are extremely narrow, his cinematography indifferent at best. In all this, he is no different from his peers. But because of the way Steve’s work is framed, none of this matters. The bodies and photographs and TV clips that make up Steve’s work have already made someone cry. Now these moments are being re-circulated, gathered up again so that we can watch ourselves watching. He opens up a place between a thing and its naming, and here is his genius: it doesn’t matter what the thing is.
“It has always been my wish to have been a dermatologist in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. While others took more pleasure in extracting shrapnel from the sleekly muscled hides of young soldiers, or replacing a mislooped section of bowel in a delicate hernia operation, I’ve always been more interested in the surface of things. And so they would come to me, these young men damaged by rashes and I would undress them and examine them. I would say this is a very interesting case, I must photograph it. And I would bind them to the table or the chair with long strips of cotton so they would not move during the long exposures. Nights I would carefully hand-tint my photographic plates by lamplight. I have a very good memory for colours. There are not enough words to describe the possible purples of a blotch, the crimsons of a blush, so we must turn to pictorial representation for diagnostic efficacy. They would offer their afflictions to me. I know what this is, I would tell them, and it will not heal if you touch it. Only I am allowed to touch this part of your body. I would bring them relief with salves and ointments and medicated poultices. Relief from the constant itching. Relief from the infernal stench of erupting pustules. I would delight in their afflictions, for if their skin were whole and unbroken I would not have the opportunity to touch it, or to look upon it. In this manner I would acquire great wealth and social position. Be my leper, be my love.
(Wish #26 of The Hundred Videos by Steve Reinke)
“Sometimes it’s hard to find out what we really want, in fact, it’s impossible to find out what one’s deepest, most profound desires are by any direct means. Desires are small and sneaky animals protected by complexes of defense mechanisms. True desires hide behind masks of false desires, desires only indirectly expressed, indirectly desired.
It takes a true professional of love to tell us what we really want. It is my true desire, Tom, to ascertain your true desires. I want to know what you really want. I didn’t bother to ask you because any answers you could give to me would at best be partial. I wanted to capture the truth in its rarest, most primal form. Little animals of desire burrowing into the deepest layers of your psyche. I want to cup their shimmering little bodies in my hands and bring them into the light. So I’ve been watching you as you sleep. Even though your slumber looks very peaceful I know that inside you are seething. After all, anything of importance happens in our sleep and below our dreams. So I whisper things into your sleeping ear, possible desires transcribed into verbal form, and I watch, I observe you, to see which ones give you an erection.
I must admit I was surprised at how well my method worked. But one erection is very much like another so I could not really determine which of the whispered fantasies really really turned you on and which turned you on to a lesser degree. As it happened, almost everything I whispered into your ear gave you an erection, so what my system of desire retrieval needed most was a ranking system.
In the last couple of weeks my goal has been to cause you to have nocturnal emissions by whispering these increasingly elaborate scenarios of desire into your sleeping brain. I feel I’m getting closer to determine what it is you really want. I’ve decided to let you know what I’ve been doing because lately you’ve begun to express your dissatisfaction at our relationship. Well now you know why I’ve started sleeping all day. I’m up all night plying your psyche for some sort of ultimate truth. And of course it’s best that for the duration of the project anyway, physical intimacy be replaced by a psychic kind of intimacy. But I feel confident that if you just hang on for another couple of weeks things will be better than ever in the area of carnality. Soon I’ll be able to let you know exactly what it is you really want.” (Sleep #46 of The Hundred Videos)
Sleep is the most terrifying of all the The Hundred Videos. It marks a terrifying moment of transference from Steve, the prodigal ghost of the Reinke family, to Steve the object, the first object of the 100 Videos. Make no mistake, these are centurions, warriors custom-built to destroy their creator. Here is the revenge of a digital Frankenstein, permitted at last not just a slow bloodletting of its inventor, but more than this, the conversion of its author into a medium, a machine of reproduction. Paul Klee wrote, “Now objects perceive me.”
Steve and Tom had lived together for just over a year in their boytown micro-bachelorette before Steve began The Hundred Videos. They had met two years earlier, in San Francisco, in an unlikely bathhouse tryst with French philosopher Michel Foucault. After a satisfying three-way they left the bathhouse, convinced they would never see one another again, only to meet up less than a week later, at the LA Airport, boarding the same plane. As it turned out, both Tom and Steve lived in Toronto. While neither were superstitious, these chance events seemed too precipitous to ignore, and flush with the promise of sexual utopia, they resolved to move in with one another. Tom was cute, Steve was smart (if promiscuous) and together they made a handsome couple, everyone said so. For a year all was well. But Tom’s most erotic moments with Steve inevitably arrived in Steve’s post-coital recaps, which grew increasingly detached from the experience they had both just shared, and then stopped altogether. Tom soon turned his attention to the lonely waiter at Zelda’s, a boy born for disappointment and heart break. Worse still, as Steve plunged into the project, the abyss, of the 100 Videos, it seemed that the only way he could respond to this crisis of love, was to produce another tape. It showed his partner, Tom, sleeping, rendered in extreme close-up, as only a lover, an intimate, might imagine him. While Tom’s eyes were closed his ears remained open, unwitting receptacles for a grotesque experiment. Were Steve’s emotions part of a distant country he had left behind in pursuit of his work? Is he asking us to watch, right here, right in this video, while he turns into something no longer fully human? Is art the cost of love? And have I, as a viewer, a voyeur now not only of this tape but of their intimacy, occasioned, even demanded, the end of their relationship?
This is how easily it turns into fiction. With a few keystrokes melded together, the proper names inserted, details offered which could only be true, because they are so exact. Of course, all this, all that has already been written, and is about to be written about Steve, is a lie. I never met Tom, and can claim to know nothing of their relation. Neither have I met Steve, nor do I know anything about him, except what even the most casual of observers may glean from watching his The Hundred Videos. Steve is my necessary fiction. He is what comes between us, though I can’t say, not anymore, having gone this far, whether he is my invention, or yours.
“If I was ever on a talk show, the topic would most likely be: People whose life has been so uneventful they have no other reason to be a guest on a talk show. And when the host asked how it felt to be me, I wouldn’t repeat what I had said in the pre-interview. Instead I would say:
Every human, Rolanda, is exactly interchangeable. By this I don’t mean that everyone is born equal, born with the same human rights, or anything as confusing as that. I simply mean that we are all exactly interchangeable.
Perhaps this is most demonstrable on a genetic level. Slight chemical variations diverge into individuals recognizable enough to be named. Soon the technology will be available to let this genetic information flow more easily between individuals. Then we will finally know what democracy is. Then we will live in a Utopia of endless unsolvable crimes. Love will completely cover the white-noise hum of anxiety and death will become meaningless. And talk shows will be able to use the same guests every day and we’ll never know the difference. We’ll be seeing ourselves on the television.” (Talk Show #80 of The Hundred Videos by Steve Reinke)
It is a commonplace that all media artists pillage moments from their own life to make their work, that each maker’s body of work constitutes a thinly veiled autobiography. Curiously, these presumptions are rarely applied to mainstream directors. Few imagine that Quentin Tarantino is a homicidal killer, for instance, while anything that Steve writes, no matter how farfetched, is imagined to be little more than diary transcription. The failure to raise capital, to produce expensive pictures, equals a failure of the imagination.
Mainstream movies are the avant-garde of capitalism. The Normandy Beaches of the last century have been swapped for multiplex screens, and soon, the orbiting satellites of a fully digital Hollywood. Movies are the perfect tool of capital, quickly raised on a forcefeed of Yankee bullion which they obligingly disgorge across the screen in a series of money shots. Before selling their automobiles, their sneakers and hamburgers, we are sold the movies. They are the sweetener, the prelude, preparing us for the conversion of everyday life into pictures which can be bought and sold. Movies are the NASDAQ of the imagination.
In the world of moving pictures there is no middle class. There is the ubiquitous aristocracy, the stars of cinema, kept on permanent display, and then there is the underground—national cinemas the world over which attempt to share in the dream of pictures which float above their bottom lines. Artists’ work exists on the fringe of this fringe, having already yielded the possibility of return, of the buying and selling of pictures. This oblivion of capital (or should it be named denial? repression?) is presumed to be autobiographical, following this simple equation: no money equals no imagination. Because both mind and camera are organs of reproduction, if one is found wanting the other must surely follow. As a result, before sending on his latest tape, Reinke advances me a simple, enigmatic e-mail: My mother is not dead.
“The beauty of the world may be all around us, but sometimes it can be hard to spot.
Some organisms are so good at camouflage they forget they exist.
At that point, they might as well turn their attentions to the heavens.
At that point, they might as well becomes the insignificant heartbeat at the end of a telescope.
They want to channel all of the universe’s light into their optic nerve.”
(Camouflage #96 of The Hundred Videos by Steve Reinke)
There is always a remove between Steve and the world he lives in. When experience or encounter reaches Steve’s organs of reception, he slows them down, he waits, withholding judgment. In this way, he opens up a place between himself and the primal reflex of reaction. If he appears affect-less, it is because he is still processing, waiting for a reaction to occur to him.
This space is not a cultivated conceit, not something Steve’s worked at over the years. Or at least that’s what he claims. He says it’s part of the wiring. It can be embarrassing, especially at parties, where the meaningless exchange of pleasantries is all about the tempo of exchange. This is the jazz of language, an improvised flux scored for small ensemble groupings. In a word: small talk. Small talk is a skill Steve has never acquired. He simply can’t imagine it at all, not his words, the mother tongue, reduced to meaningless volumes exchanged at high speed. In Steve’s mouth, talk is never small. As a result, in the company of others, he is largely silent. He allows the flow to move clean through him, and while he used to experience discomfort, even fear, he is so used to it by now, he doesn’t mind at all. It’s been happening all his life.
That Steve finds distance an aphrodisiac, even the necessary prelude for arousal, is hardly surprising. He shares this trait with almost every male on the planet. What is remarkable is how he has turned this erotic talisman into a quality of attention. It is exactly this distance, this space he wears like others don a uniform, that has made him an artist. This is a vocation which has not been chosen, but which has arisen out of necessity. He is unto the raster born. His art tries to overcome this distance, but the very act which tries to cross the gap, only makes it larger. Steve is condemned to this distance, and to the art which maintains it.
There was a moment, no longer than that, when this distance could be exactly measured. It was precisely one hundred videos long. And then 101. And then 102. Now, many years after The Hundred Videos, and after the release of its successors, any measuring is pointless. The divide has been swallowed, it exists within the man himself. It has reproduced Steve as an effect of the abyss. Slowly, inexorably, it has marked him inside and out. Even his organs, the knots of tissue and cartilage, the pathways of the circulation system carry the tattoo, the stain.
When he dies, the grave of Steve Reinke will be empty.
There are others who carry this distance inside them. Sudden accelerations of fortune are usually responsible; a hit record or best selling book can be enough to turn the trick. In these instances, the grotesque inflation of the image, a single face splashed across a newsstand, is enough to reduce its subject to a media effect, a simulacrum or false copy. The personality is triangulated, there is no longer ‘I’ or ‘you,’ but ‘he,’ ‘she’ or ‘they.’ Celebrities can speak of themselves, with no hint of irony, in the third person. “He wants a milkshake.” “She’s going for a walk.” These are the people of People magazine, reduced to ciphers of themselves, forced to go through the motions, to copy the life they used to have, when they were only human.
Steve is no celebrity. No gateway of photographers greets him on his daily morning walk. His strict allegiance to marginal practice has ensured that he will always fly well below the radar. But he shares a condition with the best known people of our time. He is already doubled, divided. His 100 Videos are a map of this divide, and if there is a terror in this reckoning, this summing up, it is the terror of recognition. This is what we are becoming. Here at last is evidence of the long rumoured change in consciousness which will be borne by future generations. Paul Klee wrote, “Now objects perceive me.”
You can’t just walk down to the local video store and ask for Steve’s The Hundred Videos. Because his work isn’t everywhere, it’s nowhere. That’s the mass media for you. It’s digital, it’s all or nothing. So I can’t really assume you’ve seen anything by Steve, nor could I assume that, even if you wanted to, even if you threw everything away, burned your credit cards, sold the car, quit your job, and set off in search of Steve’s work, that you’d ever find it. I’d never be able to know whether the fragile and obscure networks devoted to these rare forms of fringe media will survive long enough for you to see the 100 Videos. No, it’s worse than that, and I hate to be the one to say it, but sometimes our marginality is all we’ve got, so we don’t want people to find us. We set up signs which can only be read by the initiated, produce maps intelligible only to those who already know the way. What I’m saying is, the very networks designed to make this work visible may make it impossible for you to find.
You can think of us, guardians of the secret, as everyone you have never met. We’re a small group, and we don’t know so much really, but we’re trying to hold onto what we have. And we don’t want you in. If you don’t already know, we’re not going to help you. We’ve re-arranged our lives so that everything we do, everything we say to one another, is a code designed to make sure that you never walk into the clubhouse. We never wanted to run the whole show, never had big plans, but we’re not letting go and that means we have to draw the line somewhere. That line stops at your laptop.
The truth is, if you ever find yourself, through some Herculean effort, in front of a Steve Reinke video, you might not recognize it at all. It might be playing right in front of you, only you’d think it’s a bit of dust caught in the projector. You might have seen his work a thousand times already, only you didn’t know it, because it looked like something else, all that data flotsam no one pays any attention to. In order to keep Steve’s work from an uncaring public, we’ve designed delivery systems which don’t look like video at all. It might appear as a matchbook dropped out of a stranger’s pocket, a passing taxi, the night sky. There’s no way to know for certain. Unless you’ve already seen it.
I have to admit to myself this possibility: you might be that person.
I loved Steve’s work when I saw it. It gave my brain an erection. I swam around in it, not knowing what it was, just happy knowing that there was so much of it. Steve had uncovered something like the place where videos came from, or the place which separated the videos which had yet to be made from the videos already made. But when I go back to look at them now, they’re not quite the same. The jokes aren’t quite as funny. The colors duller and uninspired. The soundtracks a little thin. That’s when I realize that I’m not looking at Steve’s work at all. I’m seeing Steve’s work the way you would see it, and that makes me uncomfortable. Because inevitably, the perfect memory of this work, and most importantly, the happiness which accompanied this memory, is being taken away from me, replaced by the cool stare of a stranger. An onlooker. A casual passerby. I feel I have to make a choice between your desire and mine. Imagine yourself at my work station. What would you do?
“These images are from a film the CBC made in the early seventies. It’s part of a series about children from different parts of the world although I’ve only ever come across this particular episode. It’s about an elephant boy from Sri Lanka. I was a child on the brink of puberty when I first saw it and I guess you could say it made a deep impression. I remember it very well or at least parts of it. I can’t claim to remember it exactly in its entirety. I mean, memory is just a sub-routine of desire. But what I’ve tried to do here and I’ve been pretty successful I think, is to re-create for you the edited version of the film that desire has consigned to my memory. So what you’re looking at is in fact a rare and genuine artifact of the psyche. I’m not going to make any attempts to interpret this artifact. Any attempt would be at best partial, half true. It’s enough that I’ve been able to discover and re-create this precious artifact.” (Artifact #48 of The Hundred Videos by Steve Reinke)
Steve never wanted to make the best video, not then anyway. That only happened later, after The Hundred Videos were finished. He’d never practiced his Olympian turn on the stand, modestly bowing to receive the honours his long hours, his solitary, had given him. Instead, one video was simply a prelude to another. Steve’s was a serial production. Typically ideas, phrases, borrowed television moments, all jammed in the same synaptical flow which would eventually find release in small magnetic fields all their own. His accumulation of videos was likewise never intended to produce a monumental architecture, an imposing edifice that would stand as proof of the maker’s largesse and wisdom. Offered a retrospective at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Steve was horrified to see that the organizers had scheduled his work in a single time slot, as if it were a film. His panic was soon calmed by the friendly bar staff who waited just outside the cinema, busily pouring drinks and serving chocolate, and soon enough the patrons flowed from the cafe to the cinema and back again, stopping in each place to refuel, waiting for lulls in the conversation in order to step back into the projected light. The Hundred Videos is 4.5 hours long, and was never intended as a main course, an epic journey, but instead as a series of short appetizers, each whetting the palate with a taste for more.
He had been so careful after all, to remove any trace of the hero from his scheme, and treating his work as cinema risked admitting one last superman into his practice: the audience.
Working in a medium that is disappearing even as it asserts its primacy, its ubiquity, Steve understands that video can exist only as a kind of prelude, a waiting room, for the new forms of audio-visual pleasure that will one day accompany a new kind of human being. There will be no use for heroes then. The sticky unguent of personality holding strangers in its thrall. He knows that he will not live long enough to see the face of this new human being, or to insert himself into these new machines of hearing and seeing. But he is not without consolation. It would be enough to know that he was clearing the ground so that some new seed could take hold. His radical gesture, as an artist, is that he has built nothing, he has only taken away, removed some of the detritus which might keep the future from rooting. Paul Klee wrote, “Now objects perceive me.”
The epic art of the twentieth century is not one which is easily survived, or even completed. The ghosts of projects by Stein and Pound and a hundred others lie in ruins, abandoned fragments of ambition, summary works which never yielded to the allure of closure. There are others who managed, by dint of patience or luck or prodigious genetic inheritance, to produce some memorable something—a canvas, an epitaph in emulsion, which shuddered through the traditions of the non-traditional, swept up the storm of the moment and re-cast it into objects to behold. My friend, a high school gridiron hero, calls it “moving the ball down the field.” The question is: what about after? Or even: how do you know when it’s done? Not the end of the work itself, that much is clear, but when is it finished inside? The secretion of enzymes, the clearing out of intruders, the entire molecular level of creation devoted to the production of a single idea: when does that end exactly?
For Steve, in the last few vids of the 100, there is a palpable giddiness, an exultation in that sonorous voice, delivered in the same endearing tone a child uses during a particularly glorious shit. I’M ALMOST FINISHED! He already knows it’s good, now it’s time to show the parents, the makers. He has shown he is capable of production. His body helps to shape the world we live in. Or the world we will one day live in. Now what?
The next thing Steve did is probably the most difficult task an artist can undertake. It is the secret key to the success of any successful enterprise, though you’ll find no articles written about it, no tracts or manifestos, no critical checklist to draw out. There’s no way to teach it, and it’s impossible to demonstrate. Not only that, but everything in our culture tries to keep it from happening. After completing 100 Videos, Steve did exactly nothing. He sat back. Taking stock. He watched time slow down around him.
There are certain days in the life of a writer where everything flows. You turn on the computer, and the words can’t come out quickly enough, drawn by the irresistible lure of the machine itself. There are other days when the construction of a single sentence is like triple-bypass surgery. Serious writers work both days, managing the downhill speed plummet, and the uphill muck slog with some measure of grace. But when the days of mud turn to weeks, or worse, when the words manage easily enough, only they don’t have quite the same edge, and sound more like they belong in an instruction manual than a novel, then you know it’s time to stop. There is a time for writing, and there is a time for not-writing. But such is the lean of our culture that we privilege only the former, in the personal factories that we have all become, only production counts. It is very difficult to learn not-writing, not-art making, not-doing. Think of all those years in elementary school, high school and beyond. Who knew you could fail recess?
When he was working on The Large Glass, Marcel Duchamp took a seven year intermission, allowing his sculpture to “collect dust.” An essential and integral part of the process. When the seven years were up, he wiped off the dust and picked right on up where he’d left off. For artists, Marcel Duchamp is the patron saint of nothing.
Doing nothing is not the same as nodding in front of the television for weeks at a time with an IV drip of tequila. Doing nothing means hanging up the gone fishing sign on the input-output box. No talking, no friends or television, none of the familiar noise and static which passes for everyday life. It means being actively engaged, in the verb sense, in the making and doing and becoming of nothing. It means allowing the world to float through you, as if you weren’t even there. It is a state of transparency which falls just short of madness. Who would ever willingly become a ghost, in his/her own lifetime?
As you can imagine, doing nothing is not the easiest thing in the world for someone whose just pulled 100 Videos out of the deck. After almost a decade of non-stop playback, Steve was more used to making videos than breakfast. Sure, his switches are a little worn, cables frayed. But that voice, not the one that comes out of his mouth but the other one, the one behind his speaking, the one that insists on signing his work, this voice had never stopped. Until now. Until the project was finished. Each of The Hundred Videos has been offered to this voice, the way old Greek warriors sacrificed a part of the herd before battle. All of his attentions have been moving towards this still point, when the voice which used to accompany him, and then swallowed him whole, creeping through him like a virus, would one day stop. For years he had been no longer himself, only a vessel for this voice, the meat that this voice could animate. But now, in this brief intermission between makings, he would work harder than ever at what others could imagine only as a vacation, a rest, though nothing could be further from the truth. What he hoped for in this respite was not a return to the prodigy of his youth. He had abandoned the promise of returns, the solace of nostalgia, when he began the 100 Videos. He is no longer himself, nor his audience, nor the person he is about to become. At last, he is ready. Ready to make art. Until the day arrives when this too will be have to be left behind.
“Look. I’m going to take the bull by the horns and finally say it. The best art is the most beautiful art. All that other stuff, ideas and such, just give us headaches and confuse us. After all, art is not philosophy. You’ve got things to make and things to sell. It all comes down to connoisseurship. For years I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’ve been doing the wrong thing, led down the wrong path. But now it’s time to return to first principles. The purest, most basic drives and instincts. I want to be simple and I want to be happy. So from now on, I’m only going to photograph boys and flowers. But it’s going to take me a couple of weeks to becomes proficient with my new large format camera and printing in the darkroom and stuff. So in the meantime I’m going to finish this, my last and final video.” (Sad Disco Fantasia by Steve Reinke)