Not really about noise. Talk given for the University College Cork Arts Society, March 2004.

Chris Cunningham

I: Music Video Production
In this talk, I will end up presuming that a music video works as a piece of art, even if historically, it has had a different purpose. So we are going to detour through that purpose and a few ideas on the status of video art, before looking at Cunningham as such. The video is designed to sell a single, a particular song, and then the better that song does commercially, the better the album and merchandise sales for the artist. The arrival of MTV in 1981 meant that record companies could bring the performers to you, and video as a domestic technology meant that consumer expectation of home entertainment rose rapidly. Live events reduced in importance, and the image of a musician or pop star could be produced and disseminated widely. Right from the start, musicians subverted this form, and tried to use the format as a means of visualising the song, or getting someone else to do it. In the 1980s, performers such as Madonna or Bowie could show a continual change of image, and in so doing, changed ‘have you heard the new song by...’ to ‘have you seen it’. The more innovative the video, the more it would be shown, so record companies started investing heavily, producing epics like Thriller, or ‘controversial’ videos. Both these elements have returned strongly in the last five years, with huge amounts spent on science fiction videos for hip hop stars, ‘arty’ videos for the marketable ‘leftfield’ (Radiohead etc), or on special effects (the genre of soundtrack video is something else). Smaller record companies encouraged low budget innovation, which helped entrench the commodity video as an artistic product.
One of the curiosities of video is the invisibility of the director – so Radiohead collect the Brit award for best video. This means that authorship is strange in video. The purpose of the video, however commercial and cynical, or brilliant and creative, is deemed secondary to the piece of music it re-presents, so it is as if the video director is an assistant rather than artist (these recent videos try to redress this, with CC, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze) – if you look at [Frith et al’s] Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, the semiotics of a music video revolve around the primacy of the music performer. And yet, this very centre is being de-centred, becoming a strange object – as not quite object – the format and the standard way of reading it has actually produced a scene straight from Barthes and Foucault, where the author is lost, and yet still there as figure, and multiple.
That’s not all. The song, too is becoming less and less relevant, as the videos now exist to promote an artist (diminished as artist as their piece loses its value) rather than to make you buy that song. Sales of music in general in falling, sales of singles are plummeting, and despite the excitement over downloading, consumption of music is probably in decline. Record companies and shops know this, they also know the anxiety of a consumer to acquire legitimate product, which has more of the feel of authenticity, proximity to the source and so on… so, what we have is an increase in the value, cost and popularity of concerts, and the sale of those on DVD. DVD and video now occupy prime spots in ‘record shops’. The function of video today then is to sell itself – and this is not all bad – CC’s Windowlicker was a major hit as a video you could actually buy. But the DVD brings no musical extra – your extra value is strictly extramusical, even though a DVD could be used to put several albums on, at CD quality… one group, Framers Manual, have actually put all their live recordings on a single DVD, which is over 90 hours long (RLA).
In terms of content, the conditions of production, or more accurately, the ‘needs’ behind those conditions, have meant that abstraction is discouraged – Top of the Pops even had a rule at one stage that the musical artist had to feature in the video. Abstraction with a mimetic purpose – to present the music visually – has largely led to rubbish – wallpaper, an impoverished visual vocabulary, based on making two abstractions - if it’s instrumental music, somehow meaningful, even if only at some sort of ‘emotional’ level. The worst kind of stuff in this style is the notion of chill-out videos, which would soothe you, or stimulate you, but gently, while you’re on ecstasy, with their pulsing colours, and zooms, and crazy digital effects. So videos with a formal interest beyond that of ‘reading for the content where the content is always what the singer is doing’ have largely engaged with narratives, and in fact, like Freud’s Little Hans, throw narrative out and reel it back in (like Magnus Carlsson’s video for Paranoid Android). At a practical level, the more interesting end of video involves close collaboration between musician and filmmaker (as with Greenaway and Nyman), or a conflict of ‘vision’, like remixes which bear little resemblance to the original.

II: Video Art
Music video, and commercially available films already represent a divergence from video’s principal use in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The early days of video represented a breakthrough for avant-garde artists, notably those with social or political commentary in mind – the relative cheapness of a video camera initially represented a democratisation of ‘new media’ in art, and the medium really was the message, in terms of ‘subversively’ recording police activity at demonstrations, or the politics of the everyday, for example. A lot of early influential video art is oddly homely, even when as extreme as Chris Burden, because now you could film anywhere, why leave your house or studio? The banal and the simple rub shoulders with documents of performance art (with Marina Abramovic incorporating TV and video into performance) and imposing installations by e.g. Nam June Paik. So video, in McLuhanesque terms, drives artistic change, encouraging forms, and arguably contents that had been elided by even the avant-gardes of the earlier part of the century. Early video art is nearly always keen to de-emphasize the artistry of the filming, and the art moves to the content of the video, only for the content to be itself highly formalised, often despite the intentions of the artists. In addition, artistic form would return, even when repressed in the form of the installation, as how you would see the piece would be important, even where the ordinariness of viewing (in a simple TV and video combination) was emphasized. Will Straw (in his introduction to Sound and Vision) argues that ‘under the imperatives of artistic modernism and their valorisation of medium-specific practices, video’s most appropriate use seemed to be as part of site installation art’ (13), and this principally due to how it worked as a medium: i.e. you could record sound and visuals at the same time, and play them back together. Its portability was not envisaged, nor was its place in the transmission of what was on video.
In recent years, video has expanded back out of personal use and occupies epic space in galleries or ‘outside’ the gallery space…but this mutation also raises the question of the specificity of video art as medium, which has been questioned by Krauss, and unquestioned, as in ignored by many. Does video drive video art? Access to the means of production isn’t enough, as that applies to most if not all art formats. Historically, it can be shown that video affected the format of certain genres in the 1970s, but even here, the video is usually illustrating or presenting some hybrid of conceptual art, performance and installation. If we think of video as a ‘time-based’ medium (as the Tate Modern bookshop does), then it is only ever in the same realm as sound or any images or processes that evolve. Lastly, ‘video art’ today largely takes place apart from video. Even where artists use super-8 film, video, film etc, the product we see in the gallery has come via digital technology. There is, then, a distinct possibility of video being meaningless, and/or obsolescent as medium. But to insist on video as not being a real (meaningful) medium is, paradoxically to strengthen it, as taking the notion ‘video art’ more widely would diminish its significance but make it workable, whilst to say it is not a relevant medium is to claim the thing that isn’t important is nevertheless highly specific and locatable – the use of videotape - conferring a new importance. In practice, to say video is irrelevant as medium is shorthand for dismissing the products of video art. Any failure or weakness on the part of video art might actually make it more interesting.
Digital video and sound enjoy a heightened acceptance as generators of artforms, with a greater perception of artfulness ion the production. Furthermore, digital pictures are easier to manipulate, easy to transport or transmit, easy and cheap to copy, so digital technology can prolong the social-utopian element of video’s history. Ironically, though digital technology is a hypermedium – one that subsumes many others and is a medium without direct physical form – which can allow it to acquire a transparency, or even an absence as medium which is not allowed other media (although some digital art draws attention to the medium).
Which brings me to how music video and video art come or don’t come together: the easiness of reproduction of DVD seems to have created a new preciousness about the value of the piece – when finally everyone could have their Bill Viola, we have to be shown how that is not the case. The DVD ‘artpiece’ is owned by its purchaser, and installed in such a way that, whilst making it an interesting installation, also serves to recreate a sense of authenticity and originality. Video art has to go the way of the cinema, and offer an added value, which is ‘this is how it is supposed to be seen’, with the added bonus that we still believe it carries the imprint of the artist in a way a commercially available film does not. Music video, meanwhile benefits from this change in perception of the art credentials of ‘video’. We can also see some mutual backslapping, notably in Chris Cunningham, whose Monkey Drummer we’ll be looking at, and which featured in the Venice Biennale, 2001, and was in Dublin last year, along with the portentous Flex. Curiously, or not, on the DVD of CC, you only get an extract of Flex – so somewhere out there is an original, and this is the plug for it (he has also done actual commercials). At a more general level, the interface of music video and video art is where the problems of both get smoothed out, or become productive: e.g. in Steve McQueen’s video (not commercially available or used as promo) of Tricky recording vocals in a studio booth. That piece is the absence that informs the presence of CC’s videos in this talk…

III: Face-ing
Three videos: all featuring the music of Aphex Twin: Come to Daddy (1997); Windowlicker (1998), and Monkey Drummer (2001). The first two were designed as ‘vehicles’ for the songs, and to get some MTV attention. The second, however, was banned by that august institution and became a best-selling video single (as had happened with Bowie’s banned China Girl, and Madonna’s Justify My Love). All Cunningham’s videos challenge the unity of the body, notably of the performer or his or her screen avatar. In his words, ‘I’m freaked out by the body. I used to pretend that I was hollow, because I couldn’t stand the idea of having all those organs inside…’ (designboom.com). This is what made me think of a link to Deleuze and Guattari, and suggested a double reading where theory and artwork address each other (this too, in the D+G term of the rhizome). So, suitably authorised, we can raise the question of ‘schizoanalysis’, an analysis based not on revealing the repressed, or the true, but on losing the borders between subject and object. When this occurs, we can, like the schizophrenic Artaud, become a body without organs, where instead of an inside that processes things from outside, we are a surface, or more accurately a membrane. This body without organs is in the world as a location of intensities, and the subject is now a subject without a body, and a body without ‘body’ as organised phenomenon [or organised phenomenologically through organising perception]. This BwO has also been thought of as a war machine, and a Deleuzian move would now to be propose Cunningham’s videos as war machines, structures that destructure and subvert. It can equally be thought of as a ‘rhizome’, which D+G set up in opposition to the tree-form. Unlike the symmetrical, self-identical and coherent tree, the rhizome spreads underground, its shape altering as it comes into contact with its surroundings. Rhizomes offer a way of thinking connections as processes of connection, rather than in looking at how subject or object x relates to another self-contained object. So another example is the rhizome formed by wasp or bee and flower and then expanding.

Vid 1
Come to Daddy brings its own rhizome to be, as a way of self-reflection: the TV screen showing Aphex Twin already refers to the status and form of the video being watched, but this will eventually be broken up, a process started through the dog pissing on the screen. Eventually the rhizome, or the video as BwO, spreads to the release of the ‘Daddy’, who has given birth to himself, although is not specifically gendered…and clearly the rest of the ‘characters’ also show us something about the crossing of gender, or gender as something to be performed transgressively – the wrongness is not just in terms of the faces, but in terms of the actions, and our presumptions about boys and girls, and indeed innocent children.

Vid 2
Windowlicker also plays with our expectations, making the viewer (positioned as male) the transgressor, although any desiring entity would arguably having their viewing transgressed here. This video uses different film and social codings to set up desire as thwarting and thwarted. But looking at how transgressive these objects are is very unDeleuzian, and only so interesting. Transgression, once identified, simplified and presented, even if it reaches into the spectator/consumer/connoisseur, even if it ‘challenges’ our presumption, is only ever transgression thwarted. The interesting boundary crossing has always been and gone before us, or been and come before…
Both Come to Daddy and Windowlicker fractalise the Aphex Twin – it is not just that there are lots of him, but that he is dispersed into metamorphoses, and the core identity is lost in those processes – lost but continually affirmed – so in this way these videos do not just play with identity, they construct and possibly tell us something about all contemporary subjects. Although in other videos (Frozen, All is Full of Love) the face remains consistent, and stably located, here the interest is in the portability of the face. That the face can multiply is already implied in Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux. The face is never fixed, but a shifting field of probabilities and re-occurrence – and is not even individual, not in the first place (206). Faces are sites which do not reflect thoughts or characters but where these flicker, resonating (206), and bring individuation as a sort of by-product (215). The face is actually ‘the black hole of subjectivity’ (206). Particular, actual faces (and consequent identities) emerge [‘get born’ ‘naissent’ is the term D+G use] from an abstract machine of faceness [visagéité] (207) – perhaps quite literally in Come to Daddy, in the shape of the TV and/or the source of the sounds (not necessarily narratively the same), and here, of course, the creature that is ‘born’ is the furthest, rather than nearest to Aphex Twin himself.
Deleuze and Guattari argue that a face only comes into being when the head is disavowed or removed from its place on the body – the face is the subjectified head, which then codes the body as personified, individualised (208). The Aphex Twin faces multiply but as heads – these heads are fixed and multiple, therefore not reliable as facial markers of a subject. In the case of Windowlicker, the bodies are destabilised – the viewer was expecting departicularised, generic female dancers, and instead get a recentred identity, even if the wrong one (readers of D+G often assume ‘deterritorialisation’ is good, reterritorialisation bad, but not so…). These then are bodies without organs, free to work outside of the limits of logic and taboo etc that bind us to our entrails…. But let’s be clear: no-one wins here: the dancers are not free, Aphex Twin isn’t, Cunningham isn’t (Barthes, in his ‘Death of the Author’ tells us which authors are best at doing the ‘death of the author’…) – a rhizome, or war machine is set up that endlessly transfers within the video, and then to us [does a war machine work only once? i.e. through shock?].

Vid 3
Monkey Drummer extends the process: here the human is barely there, and furthest from the control centre, which is a cheap monkey head, on a simple but currently futuristic cyborg. The Drummer (or CC) is attempting to realise rhythms which have not existed outside of a computer (neither have the images) – an absolute parody of the rock star, or indeed the trained musician – and not, I think, a statement about the inhumanity or bad faith of technological music. To bring us back to the pragmatics of institutional framing of artworks, we might imagine this piece, which is designed to be an installation, being ‘only a music video’, but we could more interestingly look at how the music legitimises the video as video art – given the preponderance of narrative, biography and/or characterisation in recent video art, CC can use the resources of music video to re-formalise video art. Video art becomes an operation, rather than a product of a medium, and as usual when we are rummaging around for relics of modernist practice, self-reflection, including of form, is essential. So, if that sounds like postmodernism, maybe we should rethink how that term would work in video – maybe it’s exactly like in architecture, where the ‘reference’ has to be brutally obvious, where the art sits smoothly with a tradition or traditions, rather than doing too much. So the archetype here would be the ‘beauty’ of Bill Viola’s ambient picturescapes. CC, and works such as Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, inhabit a space between modernist versions of self-reflection and postmodernisms, and they do so not because of their conscious strategy, but maybe because video art is what Vattimo might term a ‘weak’ form, Deleuze and Guattari a ‘minor’ one.