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.


Rebecca Jones said...

I really enjoy how Burgin ties this piece to Sartre. Sartre talks about how human freedom comes with the burden of total responsibility for actions. Sartre says that because of this burden, humans look for ways to relieve the responsiblity of existence by limiting their freedom. Burgin's piece seems to be playing with these ideas by taking away freedom from the viewer. The result in this piece is definitly frustrating, as I guess it is whenever freedom is limited in life, though humans continue to do it over and over and over...

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Rebecca: I eliminated the audio component of Burgin's work to focus on the two "looks" in reference to our "command" of the frame of photography/video. However, your point is quite insightful, provoking further discussion of how juxtaposed (seemingly "irrelevant") audio alters/enhances our critique of a work. We do "take" responsibility for our "looking," but often we "submit" to art-looking in ways that parallel advertising, where our "lack of freedom" is ironic given that our submission is required for purposes of product consumption. But without a particular product to “consume,” conceptual art begins to deal with the social order itself as art becomes disassociated from the object.

mm said...

Burgin's video peice flips the command out of the veiwers control, but i feel it is effective because it goes under the radar. the uneasiness a veiwer expiriences is not undoubtably linked to anything in particular. there is always a certain amount of control surrendered when veiwing video art. when dealing with an object you make a nuber of choices, how to approach it and how much time to spend, et cetera. with video when you decide to participate you allow yourself to be consumed in sight and sound. Burgin uses the image of Church's famous painting Niagera , further taking control because the object you usually decide how to veiw has been put in a new context that takes that from you also. but this happens in way that subtle enough to draw you in to veiw the peice.
i also found it intresting that this peice deals with memory, another thing that is rather intangible. this video has taken a real expirience and put it in a format that creates distance or deja vu, which is much like memory. for me the uneasiness comes from the slight recognition of the images and the uncertainty of what was going to happen.

joyce said...

maybe the reason i felt uneasy while watching this was a) we talked about this piece making us almost dizzy although it wasnt moving that fast and b) we were looking at a panoramic view of a panoramic painting. this niagara painting infamously known for having that amazing quality to it, plus seeing it in a hotel room was just out of place. so yes, i agree with mia on the de ja vu thing (especially with us at the corcoran always seeing that particular painting).

patrickjdonovan said...

Burgin states that photography depicts both a scene and the gaze of the spectator, both an object and a viewing subject. This would seem to make sense since the angle, position of the camera etc. will literally reflect a "point of view" of the object being photographed. But this would also seem to be true of other media - painting and sculpture - when used in a representational mode. A realistic painting reflects a particular gaze of the spectator determined by the choices made by the painter in terms of perspective. Bernini's sculpture bust Louis IV at the National Gallery, for example, shows Louis looking down on the spectator, and the placement of the sculpture requires the spectator to look up, emphasizing the supposedly god-like stature of the subject of this sculpture. It would also seem to be the case that the "point of view" or "frame" of a painting or sculpture, like photography, can impose an order or coherence which the world actually lacks. Therefore, Burgin's observations do not seem unique to photography, although perhaps this is not an earthshaking observation.

However, it does seem to be the case that Burgin's technique in Watergate of panning 360 degrees emhasizes that the camera and the artist are controlling our point of view, perhaps because there is an annoying quality to the spectator of being forced as it were to twirl around in the center of the room several times. To this extent Watergate may expand upon Burgin's theories about photograpy and explain this work.

Anonymous said...

I felt that when watching this piece "Watergate" that I was witnessing looking, I mean by that the action of looking at something. This video piece seemed to create the feeling of a flowing gaze. The way you look at a room to get the general over all feeling of the place you are in. Burgin's is able to articulate the sense of vision.