November 3, 2006
Lack of Command in Looking
In continuance of our class discussion concerning Victor Burgin’s video projection work, Watergate, and following lines of inquiry informed by Burgin’s earlier essay, “Looking at Photographs”, we might begin with film theory’s paradigmatic looks of the photograph.
As distinguished from the overt formalism of “point-of-view,” the “look” of the camera as it photographs a chosen scene establishes the apparatus as the other, this recording “eye” that we recognize as the camera. The second essential “look” that will be relevant to this discussion is that of the viewer as he /she looks at the photograph. I propose that we “bracket” (set aside) the remaining two “looks” of film theory – those exchanged between people, if present, in the photograph, and their “looks” at the camera – to focus our attention on the “look” of the camera and the “viewing subject.”
According to Burgin, photography “at once depicts a scene and the gaze of the spectator, an object and a viewing subject” (his italics). Burgin further equates the camera’s “P.O.V.” with the position “bestowed upon the spectator,” and delineates this “system of representation” as extending “the agency of the frame” as an ordering device representing the world’s “coherence which it actually lacks.”(1)
First, a brief description of the work, taken from the Corcoran website:
“. . . Burgin has created Watergate, a new video projection work in which he has used a computer to modify and animate images he made with a 360˚ digital panoramic still camera. Frederic Edwin Church’s famous painting Niagara serves to link the space of a Corcoran installation of American Romantic art with a modern Washington hotel room.”(2)
I propose that Burgin’s Watergate video at the very least expands upon his earlier conceptual theories regarding the frame and the viewing subject’s "lack of command" when looking. He uses the “pan” technique of film to brilliantly divert us from the “drive to master” our looking, ironically seducing our viewing act with a combination of frustration and anticipation.
Twenty-three years previous, Burgin had pointed out that “photographs are deployed so that we do not look at them for long; we use them in such a manner that we may play with the coming and going of our command of the scene/(seen).”(3) Certainly, our "lack of command" is obvious when viewing video; but the creeping, clock-wise pan of Watergate inures us to this fact, as we seem to be watching a “single image,” and this, as Burgin wrote in 1977, puts us in jeopardy of losing our command: “To remain long with a single image is to risk the loss of our imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to that absent other to whom it belongs by right – the camera.”
Watergate teases the viewing subject with its false “postponement” of the “rule of the frame,” i.e., we seem to be “moving the eye from the framing edge,” but the edge crawls away relentlessly to the right. And we anticipate something or someone to be there, just out-of-frame, and to appear soon, so we remain frustrated, yet still looking. Burgin simultaneously steals our attention and our command, substituting his camera’s authority over our looking. In doing so, he has manifested his previous concepts of “retarding recognition of the autonomy of the frame, and the authority of the other it signifies.”(4)
Readings for 8 November:: Ch. 8: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Statement and Interview with Els Barents; Ch. 4: Sherrie Levine’s Five Comments; plus Nicolas Bourriaud’s “The Use of Objects” and “The Use of the Product from Marcel Duchamp to Jeff Koons” from Post-Production: Culture as Screenplay (on reserve).
1. Victor Burgin, “Looking at Photographs”, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 855-856.
3. Ibid., 857.
4. Ibid., 857.