Video: The Access Media
by Tetsuo Kogawa
Film and Video
Video has not yet achieved independence from the cinema. Aware of its indebtedness, video has remained eager to receive its inheritance. But it is necessary to understand video's difference, to theorize the conditions of its specificity. Now that today's video technology achieves as high a definition as film, the video theater will gradually take over the movie theater. This does not, however, mean that the cinema will cease to exist. Video can be a new type of movie. The material differences of video and film are not the most crucial points for differentiation. After all, cinema itself has undergone many technological changes. The arc lamp is no longer the source of light; film is no longer simply celluloid; recent films rely more and more on computer-generated images. At the same time, nothing has changed for the audience of the video theater. The audience faces a screen in a dark space, watching it until the end of the show. No one "fast-forwards" or "rewinds" the sequences, nor do they "pause" motion. This renunciation of access to the control of the image on the part of the audience guarantees video's status as identical to the cinema. As long as this renunciation remains in place, the cinema is what it has been.
However, this renunciation of access is not inherent but historical. In transition, every medium is used and understood through the extended (time-tested) conventional standards, but sometimes new possibilities are revealed. The early stage of video art revealed its radical possibilities most explicitly: it was inseparably accompanied by bodily performance actions. In 1963 when Nam June Paik showed his "Exposition of Music -- Electronic Television," the earliest video art work at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, he created artistic video images through improvisation, manipulating, as he did, the electronic conditions of used television sets. It was a one-time event that could not be recycled in the future.
Starting in the late sixties, public broadcasting stations in the United States such as WGBH (Boston), KQED (San Francisco), and WNET (New York) began programming artists' video. These circumstances should have encouraged the interactive and performative aspects of video. The problem is that video art has not always developed its full potentialities. Ironically, the retreat from video's radical possibilities began with the advance of electronic technology. The recorded package took the shape of the video cassette, powerfully boosting video art into a new self-understanding.
This was the inception of video art as a "work of art," a commodity to be bought and sold with the "live" process of creation separated from the video itself. Video has increasingly become an object of representation to be enjoyed without direct reference to the "nascent" process. The industrial pursuit of ever-higher image definition -- as well as ever-greater compactness of the package -- steadily compounds this separation.
Despite these circumstances, performance actions cannot be dispensed with entirely: viewers handle the TV set when they change the channel or volume; they operate the VCR by fast- forwarding, pausing and even recording. Furthermore, they watch watch not only the screen but also the horizon surrounding it. The interactive aspect of performance actions cannot be ignored in an analysis of video. Indeed, video's performative dimension constitutes its defining difference from cinema.
Video holds the technological potential to realize direct sensory systems beyond the flat screen (e.g., the hologram). However, when video images are packaged, a "screen" is structurally introduced. The packaged video screens out the very chain of events that initiates the entire process of showing and watching. Given its hermetic nature, the packaged video offers a mere window onto performative events, one that is technologically reified as monitor and projector. Thus, video becomes cinema.
Semiotics and Video Art
Film theory has been applied to video art, but this is possible only as long as the aspect of performance in video is ignored. In fact, the semiotics of Christian Metz and others was fairly successful in articulating film and video images. However, it had to enter a cul-de-sac. To the extent that semiotics considers video a capsule of image-signs, it must restrict its work to the signification system. To deal with the "outside" or to look beyond the image-sign system is illegitimate. Consequently, semiotics was unable to carry out any social critique, such as that of Siegfried Kracauer's From Caligari to Hitler, which succeeds in providing both formal analysis and social criticism of the filmic images of Germany's Weimar cinema.
Semiotics had to tacitly assume that when it gave up the "outside," it would be attended to by sociology or anthropology or psychology. The "slick" analysis by semiotics and the "vulgar" approaches of the human sciences (which deal with images as a social, cultural, or mental index) are complementary. It is not accidental that in spite of Ferdinand de Saussure's proposition that semiotics is "a science that studies the life of signs within society" while "linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology," his followers never succeeded in overcoming the "either/or" of linguistics/sociology as separate disciplines with distinct fields of analysis.[4 ]
The difficulty of Saussurian semiotics has something to do with the fact that its basic model of language comes from the printed word, which is considered a capsule of "living" language. To the extent that the world is closed off, linguists and then semioticians must limit their working field to the bounds of the signifier and must maintain an indeterminate attitude toward the signified (with the referent existing entirely outside the domain of semiotic interest). In fact, Saussurian semiotics assumes that "the bond between the signifier and signified is arbitrary."[5 ]Consequently, this idealist theory comes into its own through analyzing abstract rather than socially-oriented images.
This may explain why semiotics and video art have found themselves in close association. Video art shies away from messages. The more "artistic" it tends to be, the less message-oriented it becomes. This implies that conventional communication theory has inflated the centrality of the message; it considers the media as nothing more than a vehicle for messages.
However, the message is not a mere bullet shot from the media machine. As F elix Guattari wrote, the nature of media is "transversal". So, radical media must belong to the "schizo-analyse" of the schizophrenic who "is floundering in a world in which relationships of signs, or productions of signification, far outstrip our individual madnesses and neurosises." To the degree that semiotics cannot operate at this transversal level, it screens out the image's performative side.
However, every image -- packaged or not -- transcends itself and forms various horizons of the "signified," "content," the "social," the "transcendental" and so on. It is quite natural that when Gilles Deleuze wroe Cinema 1 he had to deconstruct the sign itself, starting not from Saussure but from Charles S. Peirce who established a systematic classification of images and signs without using the linguistic model.
From Perception to Resonance
Perhaps Virtual Reality's most instructive contribution is that it suggests possibilities beyond the standard, screen-style video monitor. The liquid crystal is already changing the conditions of watching that have been dominated by the cathode ray tube. However, even though it can extend the screen to an unlimited size and easily support 3-D effects, liquid crystal is still screen-ridden and is not free from a modernist perspective. Virtual Reality is still problematic9, but it is a move toward new technologies of perception. Ultimately, it promises a interactive technology to directly link the video image with the brain/body organ.
The present head-mounted display is too awkward, but it already describes what the future imaginary system should be. Virtual Reality could give not only images to our eyes, but also to our more organic senses. Thus, it pushes beyond a passive spectator position to the very threshold of action. Virtual Reality lets us resonate rather than see/hear. It terminates the modernist perspective that integrates everything toward a center.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty never experienced Virtual Reality technology, but he provides a brilliant description for the perception that outstrips modern perspectivism, one that should provide a most viable hint for how to radicalize Virtual Reality. According to the modernist paradigm, the other person's sensuous experience is theoretically inaccessible to others. However, it is true that we often have an "imminent experience" by just talking with another person. "Through the concordant operation of his body and my own," wrote Merleau-Ponty, "what I see passes into him, this individual green of the meadow under my eyes invades his vision without quitting my own, I recognize in my green his green . . .. There is here no problem of the alter ego because it is not I who sees, not he who sees, because an anonymous visibility both of us, a vision in general, in virtue of that primordial property that belongs to the flesh, being here and now, of radiating everywhere and forever, being an individual, of being also a dimension and a universal."[10 ]
This account, however, reveals even the difficulty to introduce what he describes in his The Visible and the Invisible on the human body and perception into a technological apparatus of VR. The very point of this difficulty consists in his term "chair" which is translated by "flesh." David Cronenberg dealt with a "new flesh" made by video in his Videodrome. This flesh presumes the idea of representation to the extent that it is mere a electronic reconstruction of human body. Merleau-Ponty's "chair" is somewhat different from such a flesh. He even uses it uniquely in French. "What we are calling flesh, this interiorly worked-over mass, has no name in any philosophy." "The flesh is not matter, in the sense of corpuscles of being which would add up or continue on one another to form beings." "Nor is it a representation fro a mind: a mind could not be captured by its own representations; it would rebel against this insertion into the visible which is essential to the seer." In this sense, Merleau-Ponty's account of the "chair" should prescribe the horizon and direction of electronic visual interfaces and the absolute uniqueness of body element.
Memory and Electronic Amnesia
Whenever a new type of media permeates the popular scene, the problem of memory arises. Printed media spoiled the popular customs of recitation and memorization; the typewriter weakened our handwriting ability, and video arouses a fear that it may dissolve not only literacy but also the liveliness of personal intercourse and encounter that all face-to-face communication is based on. However, our memory cannot work without transcending itself and referring to the "outside." Every memory demands its appropriate media. As Fraces A. Yates pointed out, even a mnemotechnics, the ancient art of memory, "uses contemporary architecture for its memory places and contemporary imagery for its images."
Memory has always been inseparable from media. Even oral memory demands its human organ as a medium. Oral culture is not immediate but experienced through various media: rhythm, metrics and punctuation of voices and gestures. As Walter J. Ong describes in his Orality and Literacy, oral poets never sing the same way twice. Their memory does not repeat. "Basically, the same formulas and themes recurred, but they were stitched together or 'rhapsodized' differently in each rendition even by the same poet, depending on audience reaction, the mood of the poet or of the occasion, and other social and psychological factors." This is why "an oral poet is not working with texts or in a textual framework."[14 ]
The history of technology is a history of amnesia, but the technology has been extending memory outside our bodies. Thus, the outside field has been filled with numerous technological artifacts: cities, modes of transportation, and electronic media. The most radical thing about Virtual Reality is its appearance as the ultimate and most comprehensive expression of these artifacts and simulacra. Computer-generated images need not any of physical objects which used to be indispensable for photography and cinema. It culminates in VR. The object of VR has no memory. It is not a wordplay to say that the object-oriented programming has nothing to do with objects.
As Martin Heidegger pointed out, the historical process of technology is the acceleration of forgetting the origin of our existence and the hypertrophy of technological apparatus. The history of technology is "the history of the forgetting of Being" (Seinsvergessenheit).[15 ]Although electronic media such as video of VR involve us in the strongest amnesia of the origin, it is specific to the age of reproduction, the age of the non-original where every idea hides itself. Using Heideggerian and Deleuzian discourse, the idea becomes virtual. The idea is virtual: thus virtual reality appears.
In "the history of the forgetting of Being" , every epoch-making philosophical term such as Plato's Idea," Descartes' "Cogito," Hegel's "Absolute Geist," and Nietzsche's "Nothing" expresses the extent and process of this forgetting. When Heidegger thinks this forgetting in relation to science and technology, the forgetting reaches its first peak in Hegel's "Absolute Geist." Interestingly enough, electricity had just begun to attract public attention in Hegel's period; his notion of "Absolute Geist" could be read as an idealist model of today's artificial intelligence.
This transfer from human memory to media technology does not imply a necessary absentmindedness on the part of human beings who rely too heavily on modern conveniences. Heidegger writes of "a thinking outside of the distinction of rational and irrational still more sober than scientific technology," but one does not have to relegate this line of thought to esoteric naturalism or Zen. Rather, I would like to take Marshall McLuhan's oft-ignored comment on Heidegger seriously. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan wrote that "Heidegger surf-boards along on the electronic wave as triumphantly as Descartes rode the mechanical wave." No one except McLuhan had related Heidegger to the very contemporary theme: electronic media.
Heidegger explained the decline of memory as "the fate of Being's essence," adding that it had nothing to do with any pessimistic interpretation of world history but rather with the role and function of technology. Although he was a severe critic of modern technology, this argument is quite understandable when one thinks of the basic function of video and electronic media. Video actually functions to the extent that it brings the origin to nothing. Without forgetting the origin, the video image cannot be what Virtual Reality is.
Video as Transmitter
Every medium transmits something. What is transmitted? If we are to undertake a fundamental reconceptualization of video, let us for the moment leave this question unanswered, rather than relying on terms such as "message," "signified," and so on. Video is not a capsule of images; rather, it is a transmitter. Yet we must be careful when using this term. Radio transmits sounds, and television images. A "transmitter" is usually thought of as a kind of "catapult" of information-objects. It makes an object move through the air from one place to another. This set of places is called "sender/receiver."
These categories of "sender" and "receiver" are, however, nowhere near as simple as conventional communication theories would lead us to believe. The "sender" sometimes sends nothing, while the "receiver" may receive much more than the "sender" sends. As Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela already clearly explained, the "tube metaphor" in which a parcel of information passes from a "sender" to a "receiver" is obsolete. Communication is no relationship between isolated enclaves; on the contrary, communication always occurs, or mutates, as a holistic event. Maturana and Varela use the term "structural coupling" for what is happening at the transmitting and transmitted sides. In their definition, there is a structural coupling "whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) system." They wrote: "Communication takes place each time there is behavioral coordination in a realm of structural coupling." "According to this metaphor of the tube, communication is something generated at a certain point. It is carried by a conduit (or tube) and is delivered to the receiver at the other end. Hence, there is a something that is communicated, and what is communicated is an integral part of that which travels in the tube. Thus, we usually speak of the "information" contained in a picture, an object, or, more evidently, the printed word."
Based on their analysis of the life of metacellulars, they argues, "the metaphor of the tube for communication" "is basically false. It presupposes a unity that is not determined structurally, where interactions are instructive, as though what happens to a system in an interaction is determined by the perturbing agent and not by its structural dynamics."
The transmitter does not bring anything, but it does relay something. It literally re-lays something in a different context. Even in the transmission of a very simple image, innumerable information units are relayed, producing meanings which are both different from and similar to the source material. There is no original for the resulting similar (transmitted) images because the transmitter does not carry away anything intact. Instead, the transmitter does erase the origin. It substitutes an eternal circulation for origin.
When video camera and microphone create a closed circuit (camera points at the monitor screen that it connects to and microphone is brought close to the speaker), the monitor will not show any image and the speaker does nothing. However, the monitor begins to show Escherian images of labyrinth as soon as some object is laid between the camera and the monitor; the speaker begins to "howl" (self-oscillate) as soon as the microphone catches even a faint sound. The transmitter makes a resonance rather than opening up a path or circuit.
Quite different from mechanical reproduction, the transmitter cannot reproduce the very same objects we handle, touch, smell, see, hear, and feel in our everyday lives. While the automated assembly line is designed to reproduce the same products, such as canned foods, this is beyond the transmitter's capability. Thus, radio or television alone will never succeed in homogenizing the consciousness of the listening or viewing audience. Even those transmitting fascist propaganda had to simultaneously organize oral rumor networks and violent enforcement to achieve their goals of persuasion. Printing was invented as a means of mechanical reproduction, but it produced too many interpretations.
Although Walter Benjamin wrote only about the still and motion picture cameras, his account of reproduction technology must be understood in relation to transmission. The camera not only reproduces the physically identical images, but also the qualitatively different meanings in the physically identical image. If television had been popular when he wrote "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," he might have more clearly argued his point. The examples he pointed out on the relativity of the meaning and the actions that an actor did are quite common in video editing. This relativity culminates by digital video and computer graphics because they can far more easily manipulate "original" images in relation to the meaning and effects for the audience than film.
While Benjamin used the expression "the age of mechanical reproduction," his point of view exceeded the boundary of "mechanism" and moved toward "information." His article on mechanical reproduction is complemented by his essay on storytelling in which he compares the difference of recycling in the modern novel to the storyteller. Benjamin is interested in Franz Kafka and Nikolai Lesskow because they were nourished by the tradition of storytelling, which does not intend to copy objects automatically but rather links them dialectically. In the media, any kind of "mechanical reproduction" must become informational reproduction.
Even a mass-produced canned beer can engender different drinking styles. This is a point overlooked in accounts of mass reproduction. That mechanically reproduced photographs can create totally different perceptions and interpretations is more obvious. These differences are compounded and intensified in electronic transmission. When an airwave is transmitted, its electronic field is not homogeneous. Every radio/TV set catches the wave in different conditions. As a matter of fact, this polymorphism is usually undercut by seeking the "stable" and "clear" condition of transmitted images and sounds. Only artists are interested in it.
In his large-scale media experiment Bye Bye Kipling (1986), Nam June Paik showed how these conditions create artistic images with his "Video Ball." The system was very simple: Paik and Ryuichi Sakamoto play catch with a ball containing a video camera and transmitter. The transmitted images are shown on a massive screen on the wall. The conditions of the transmitter's physical movements, the intensity of the airwave, and various unknown electronic conditions create what the audience considers an art in this event. This could be a critical metaphor of "tube" theory of communication. The ball is supposed as an message which is tossed by a sender and a receiver. However, the sent and received message are never accordant but sporadic. In fact, neither Paik nor Sakamoto did not intend to send/receive any message. Only the audience could find their own arbitrary message on the screen, which is, now, created not by a person such as a "sender/receiver" but by the collective, physical, environmental and structural context.
From Processes to Access
Unlike the film screen, the video monitor cannot be seen as a window through which stored information comes to viewers. The video monitor is merely an access point from which unlimited re-laid connections, or more precisely, resonances will be created. The monitor should be considered a node of video resonances. It does not show the tableau of a closed accumulation of information, rather it provides an index to something. So television is an indexing device. However, television didn't develop this function further, despite its technological progress. On the contrary, it concealed the aspect of access, a necessary function for any index.
Today most television sets build in a computer. Also viewers, in one sense, use a "keyboard" when they operate their remote-controlling channel selector. The operation of advanced VCRs and television sets is as complicated as a simple personal computer. Nevertheless, the VCR and television continue to be considered as an information container.
Like the VCR and television, the computer has not made use of its interactive access function until recently. The computer is one of the most advanced access devices in electronic technology, but it is popularly understood as a process device. Furthermore, its development has neglected television. A few personal computers, such as the Amiga and some Macintoshes, are ready to communicate with the composite signals of the normal TV video monitor. However, the scan converter is not widespread, in spite of the popular needs to interexchange computer graphics and video images. It is usually assumed that the computer acts for the brain. Actually, in Chinese the computer is represented by , literally meaning "electronic brain." However, the way computers function is more like a kind of tissue than the brain, as the latter is considered the central locus of the body. Actually, today's studies of the cerebrum indicate that the brain itself turns out to be less central than a polymorphous "module" in which every unit is autonomous and at the same time interactive.25 Both brain and computer can centralize the thinking processes to the extent that they deal with relatively primitive processes such as arithmetic, but they can also link, overlap, shift, stagger, and sample various processes. The computer is an endless interface to the more holistic processes of social life.
Television and the computer have been taking different courses of development: the former turned into a sending/receiving device while the latter became a processing/storing apparatus. It was perhaps due to the residue of several centuries of print culture that has retarded both the television and the computer from achieving their radical potentials. Thus, the TV and the computer divided their work in contradistinction to one another. But while television belongs to the transmission/receiving system, it performs at its best when processing and storing images. The single popular exception to this polarization of TV/computer functions is the video game, which links a television set to a computer. Meanwhile, the computer, bogged down in the text intrinsic to print culture, has only begun to move beyond its conventional processing mode with the emergence of tele-networking and Virtual Reality.
To think radically, video is the technology that owes its virtuality and its polymorphism to "the complete forgetting of Being," the absolutism of copies, or, put simply, Virtual Reality. Thus video is no longer a tool to represent, recollect the origin; it is a transmitter to terminate the origin completely. And the truth of image consist not in the represented -- real or unreal -- image itself but in the access relationship between the audience and the image general including its environment. Therefore the audience as such has to become an activist of access.
1. On the historical relationship between video art and broadcasting, see Kathy Rae Huffman,"Video Art: What's TV Got To Do With It?", in Illuminating Video, Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fiffer, eds.(Seattle:Bay Press, 1990), 81-90.
2. In order to evade this, Christian Metz reinforces his semiotics by phenomenology, writing, on one occasion, that every semiotics is an extension of phenomenology. "Semiotics and Phenomenology" in Esse Semiotikku (Essais S Ýmiotiques), trans. Keiko Higuchi (Tokyo: Keiso-shobo1977), 184-87.
3. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton University Press, 1947).
4. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), 16.
5. Ibid., 67.
6. Mikhail Bakhtin already revealed the limitations of semiotics within the literary field. "Semiotics deals primarily with the transmission of ready-made communication using a ready-made code. But in live speech, strictly speaking, communication is first created in the process of transmission, and there is, in essence, no code.", "From Notes Made in 1970-71" in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, eds., trans. Vern W. McGee, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 147.
7. F elix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Penguin, 1984), 172
8. Gilles Deleuze, Cin ema 1, The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986), 69.
9. Tom Piantanida, Duane K. Boman, and Jennifer Gille explore the basic technological problems of VR in detail: "Human Percetual Issues and Virtual Reality", in Virtual Reality Systems (New York:SIG-ADVANCED APPLICATIONS, INC.,1993), 1#1, 43-52.
10. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 142.
11. ibid., 147.
12 ibid., 139.
13. Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Ark Paperbacks, 1966), xi.
14. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd), 60-61.
15. Martin Heidegger, "Modern Science, Metaphysics, and Mathematics" in Martin Heidegger Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 271-305.
16. Gilles Deleuze would never have thought that his brilliant description of "virtuality" and "the virtual" in Difference and Repetition could be extended to such an extreme as it has with Virtual Reality. "The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. [...] The virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object." ,trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 208-9.
17. In "Ueberwindung der Metaphysik", in Vortr Ùge und Aufs Ùtze, 76, Heidegger wrote: "The consummation of metaphysics begins with Hegel's metaphysics of absolute knowledge as the will of Spirit." (Die Vollendung der Metaphysik beginnt mit Hegels Metaphysik des absoluten Wissens als des Willens des Geistes). It should be noticed that, for Heidegger, "metaphysics" means "meta-physics" (all that is beyond the physical). So, in one sense the historical process of metaphysics refers to the movement from physical object to informational-object with the corresponding epistemic movement from modern physics to infomatics.
18. Martin Heidegger, "The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking", in On Time and Being, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 72.
19. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), 248.
20. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, trans. Robert Paolucci, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992), 75
21. Ibid. ,196.
22. Ibid. , 196
23. Walter Benjamin wrote, "a jump from the window can be shot in the studio as a jump from a scaffold, and the ensuing flight, if need be, can be shot weeks later when outdoor scenes are taken.", "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1968), 230.
24. Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller", ibid. 83-109.
25. A brilliant account to interpret the brain from the perspective of module, see Michael S. Gazzaniga, The Social Brain: Discovery the Network of the Mind (New York: Basic Books inc., 1985)
[in "Resolutions", editied by Michael Renov & Erika Suderberg, University of minesota Press, ca.1995]