Robert Nelson on the death and rebirth of performance in the video loop
Performance does not define video. There are many types of video that contain no performance. Some simply deal with the expiry of time rather than the significance of an action. Nevertheless, video often contains a performance; and sometimes, the performance accords with a unique property of video, namely the loop.
An example is a twin-channel video by Donna McRae called California (2015), in which young women run through a church in fevered circular flight, madly casting glances backwards, either to look out for a predator behind them or to check that they have not already lost one of their fugitive company. It is a full-blooded performance on the part of McRae's actors, captured with wide-screen filmic fidelity. So successful is their acting that you forget that the actions are feigned.
In the video, unlike in real life, the young women never stop in their anxious orbit, clutching onto one another in pairs, as a female drummer in black beats a hectic 4/4 rhythm, with a menacing accent on the first beat. It literally accentuates the repetition, the return of the beginning, which blends inscrutably with the end. The frightened sisters dressed in nineteenth-century white costumes belong both to the genre of film (with its frequent underlay of fear and pursuit as well as historical drama) and performance art, with its ritualistic routines of a choreographic nature. The great difference that distinguishes performative video from both film and performance art is that it has no beginning and no end.
The circles that the women make in the church figuratively describe the loop of the video in returning always to the beginning, so perfectly spliced that you do not know where the join is. The performance simulates the perpetual motion inherent in the loop, which in McRae’s iconography also alludes to the plight of women during the gold-rush in Victoria, torn from any sense of community and cast into a frenetic competitive whirlwind, as if refugees in an enclosure, captive and yet running to escape, stumbling, desperate and longing for comfort with one another but perpetually alienated in their hopeless flight. The motif has symbolic extensions, proposing that the plight of women is also endless if seen as an escape from patriarchy. McRae’s exhausted dervishes fling themselves into pathetic frantic circles that get them nowhere, symbolising female frustration in any epoch, the same oppression that frustrated women since time immemorial.
One must not exaggerate or essentialise video as the loop, but the property that belongs intimately to so many videos nevertheless has compelling analogies, to the point that it has inspired the new-media theorist Boris Groys to see the loop as a major ontological symbol of contemporaneity, that is, being "with time“ (con tempo), which dispels the traditional and modernist conceit that the present is nothing but a kind of fulcrum between the past and the future. Videos to hand, Groys argues that the quality of time consumed for no end, no conclusion, no denouement, is the radical recognition of the present, which he also sees as the preserve of the contemporary. In “the eternal return of the same“, video encapsulates the reality of the present moment.
The exact aesthetic or moral virtue of this repetition remains somewhat obscure. Yes, the looping characteristic emancipates us from the mechanistic goal of modernism, which has until now always put pressure on the present as a linchpin between past and future, an infinitesimal split second that instantly transforms itself into the past; in fact, “in no time“ since it was the future. To shed that dire sense of transpiration would be a great ontological virtue. However, being with time, as Groys suggests, but without impetus and without arrest also seems somewhat dire, inhospitable to purpose or action or ideology. Groys himself might have acknowledged the dangers of his analogy, when he associates the symbolic loop with Hegel’s bad eternity (schlechte Unendlichkeit).
Groys is right to begin a phenomenology of the video loop but the implications of his theory of time are unclear. Do all looping videos celebrate the presence of the present to the same degree or are some loops more time-embracing than others? Are there good ones and poorer ones in this charge?
While admiring the suaveness of Groys’ argument, I feel that it is incomplete, as it reflects on certain museological contingencies of video rather than video itself. The theory only holds good if video is defined through the gallery experience. But when it is presented on Vimeo or YouTube, a video has a different character: it does not loop. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, even if it is much the same thing the whole way through, like Warhol’s sensory sedatives. The linearity of the time bar betrays the loop; and in any case, even in a gallery, many looping videos clearly have a beginning, a middle and an end, irrespective of the latitude that the gallery allows for the spectator to intercept the timeline. An example would be the videos of Bill Viola (like Tristan’s Ascension or The Raft), which have a linear structure, from anticipation to traumatic climax and aftermath, with all their antiquated transcendental implications. Many videos are about the destruction of something, like Claire Watson, who systematically plucks the seeds of a strawberry with sharp pliers, till the fruit becomes an entropic globule of wounds.
Watson’s actions are a performance, not a stage performance like that filmed by McRae but a performance in the best tradition of performance art, which is often anarchic and absurd. But, again, the temptation to recognize an essentiality in the genre (let us say the looped video) grows whenever the comparison with the complementary genre (performance in real time) arises.
In research for the forthcoming publication What is Performance Art? it occurred to me to examine the underpinnings of performance in language. It seems somehow necessary to account for the weakness of the idea in history. For example, there seems to be no ancient Greek word for performance other than describing something that comes to pass, for which the best term is a kind of consummation or result. The word that would describe it (τέλος) is also the philosophical end or goal that gives us teleology. Further, from French, our own word performance contains the image of furnishing or supplying something (fournir) through to completion (per, par). The spirit of the goal haunts performance, as you can judge by contemporary business language, where the linear motif of performance as achievement or getting something done (what he or she performs) is monitored through performance reviews where an employee’s attainments in the job are mapped against key performance indicators (KPIs). Along a timeline from idea to actualisation, there is a control ethos which the open-ended genius of performance art in some sense always deconstructs.
If performance art takes the concept of performance into a liberal direction less overwritten with deliverables, performance in a looping video is of an entirely different order. The loop in video involves a repeat performance, which is radically different from a repeat performance by the performers in real time. The repetition is made by machine, as with the soundtrack of a recording set to start over, by the same logic that an alarm set to beep will continue beeping without fatigue, emphasis or consciousness. Before the robotic age and the invention of the loop in video, one thought of repetition as a strategic gesture, either to offer more of the richness in an invention or to add insistence to a moment with a time-based underscore. In various traditions, repetition was eminently artistic, as with a repeat in music, where the players and audience savour once more the delights of a melodic invention. This generosity of allowing another return is a part of the history of repetition.
In the history of repetition, video contributes a radical inversion. In former ages, for example, to repeat words is to convey a recorded meaning that is precious. It emerges in early Italian literature, as in Boccaccio, “repeating to someone else the words said to him once before“. Repeating words is a way of preserving the trace of memory, especially in poetically “repeating often“ the last word that a person says before expiring. If arguments are really good (i bei ragionamenti) one repeats them often.
Repeating what someone says can be a source of sadness: one especially repeats cries and complaints; and in this spirit, one can also repeat someone’s beloved name in vain, not just with Ariosto in the Renaissance (indarno ripetendo il caro nome) but also with Marino in the Baroque (ripetendo il caro nome). One repeats utterances and thoughts most painfully in grief, which begins in poets like Poliziano, evoking the ancient repeated plaints of the nightingale. It remains a constant in baroque tragedians like repeated sighs in Racine or remembrance in Shakespeare and ends up in Baudelaire’s beautiful evocation of the work of gloomy visual artists who handle horror: “a cry repeated by a thousand sentinels“. In all epochs, repetition goes with demonstrative actions of regret and grief.
Repetition has a boring history, which is topical and necessary to contemporary video. People who repeat themselves are a bore, for which there was already a word in Greek (ἐθελόσυχνος), literally a person fond of saying the same thing often; and the theme was recognized in rhetoric (ἐπανάληψις) where a topic is resumed, literally picked up again, although with the possibility of compelling new inflexions. The verb to take up again, resume or repeat (ἐπαναλαμβάνω) is classical, where repeatedly ordering someone to do something naturally adds force and urgency on the one hand and tension and anxiety on the other.
Repetition also belongs intimately to ritual, as with liturgy, and hence to indoctrination and learning. The gentle Montaigne affirms that the Pater noster is the only prayer that he recites without alteration; and elsewhere he describes repeating lessons with actions - rather than just mouthing them – as the ideal outcome of education. But for all that, repetition in lessons is still a mainstay of education. Rightly or wrongly, many foreign-language tutors, for example, still teach, more or less, by saying “repeat after me“, because the activity seems to help embed the ideas and phonemes in memory. We inadvertently catch ourselves repeating instructions to ourselves; and to ensure satisfactory outcomes, you might ask others to repeat the words that you utter: these very words and no others.
In video, the repeat has all the virtues and dangers of repetition that poets have long observed. On the one hand, the repetition adds the air of something that won’t go away, which might add substance if viewed positively, or concern if irksome, as with Shakespeare’s act, an “ancient tale new told“ which is “in the last repeating troublesome“. On the other hand, the surplus views cause us to “tire in repetition“; in fact, as the bard prophetically said, “the first view shall kill / All repetition“; and sometimes the first rehearsal was in any case “too tedious to repeat“.
English is unique in revealing an uncanny equivocation in the repeat, the loop, the restaging. Our word “rehearse“, which on the one hand means a preparatory phase of practice in advance of a performance and, on the other hand, means to recite from an established list, to recount a discourse somewhat robotically, to adhere to a template with predictable assumptions that a better option might have been to come up with something more original and open, less prescribed by convention. The first meaning, the rehearsal of a musical performance, carries no negative connotations and is likely to result in a rich interpretation of the score, anticipating the performance proper with strategic developments. But to rehearse arguments is to retreat to a disappointing repetition of clichés, which risks boring the audience.
As a machine, the loop endlessly rehearses itself; it is the art of infinite rehearsal, in a way that aligns it with death, because nothing can grow from its invisible spools. The very word rehearsal has death in it, derived from the hearse and arising in the mid-seventeenth century from technical origins related to the covering of corpses. So the performance that goes in a loop has an eternity that is also its own end, like an ourobouros, the symbol of immortality in the form of a snake that eats its tail. Certainly, like a circle, it goes on forever but on the condition that it has no beginning.
When constructed as a loop, video proposes a radical repositioning of performance. It turns the event into an enduring Pater noster, a chant, a liturgy. And so, where content in performance art involves a relationship with the gallery, the video loop incorporating a human performance involves a relationship with the machine. It is always in some sense defying the machine, butting its exhaustion and fallibility against the timeless and rigorous immutability of the machine.
A further example is Julie Forster’s work Nauman Flashdance (Minimal Excess) from 2014. A woman in gold tights rolls on the floor, viewed from an angle that proposes that we are standing up and quite close. With minimal movements, her legs and hips propel her across the floor, which translates as a movement up the screen. The action is repeated and then reversed so that the same body rolls down again, perpetually set in a loop. In this circular prison for the performance, the woman’s body – while assuming a transverse axis like a horizontal bobbin – itself forms a loop: it gyrates seamlessly in the simple floor-dance, rolling like the old medium of film and performing revolutions that mimic the video loop that entraps it.
Each time her body rolls, she completes a cycle, where we see her bottom and then her front and then her bottom again. This repeating balletic spectacle – with its barely perceptible muscular twitches beneath the glistening tights – is then folded into the technological repetition of the medium. To quote Shakespeare, “The wheel is come full circle“.
Nauman Flashdance is a poetic example of a looping video in which the performance speaks to the medium. Forster shows that the art of the performative video is partly for the action to bump up against the contingencies of the medium, either to fight them or to extrapolate them. It is inherent in video with a loop that the pact between performer and audience is broken, because the performance talks to the medium: the terms of a return, a repeat and an inevitability go beyond the experience of time.
To act in a live performance is a deal that you make with the audience, but the video as a loop is no deal: it is an autonomous manifestation whose indifference to your point of arrival or departure is matched by its detachment from time. As a time-based medium, it nevertheless exists outside time in the sense that it does not belong to what we now call “real time“. It therefore carries no momentous attachments, no obligations, no pact with the viewer.
Even in old literature, centuries before one spoke of performance art, performance in the contractual sense answers an expectation, like the tangible fulfilment of a promise. For that reason it also answers scepticism in human intentions. You may mistrust the promise until you see the performance. The grounds for doubt could even extend to the erotic. As Shakespeare says of amorous matters, “they say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform“. Everyone still understands performance in that anxious sense. To perform is to do well in maximising suppressed potential, with a consequence either of satisfying someone, exceeding a target or with the execution of orders. We have retained that mechanistic definition of performance; but we have also developed more enlightened usages, where the term is invoked in theatrical, educational and artistic contexts.
Performance in a video, especially when looping, makes the idea yet more intangible. In part, video performance simply fulfills the trajectory of abstraction in modern art and removes the anchorage of time and space. By taking time out of time, as it were, the looping video strips the performative moment of its necessary contingencies, the unique succession of narrative moments which are the genius of live performance. Instead, all moments are returned to their point of departure, cancelled in their chronological trajectory, negated as consecutive members of a present because dismally connected to their end before they even begin. They are repeated on the condition that they have no inception, no presence of self-determination, no inalienable connection with time: it is abstract and devoid of these dramatic particularities.
Groys is clever to think of the loop as something new that expresses the presence of the present, the with-time genre. This “comrade of time“ transcends the fatalistic modernist conception of the present as sandwiched ungenerously between the future that it aspires to and the past that eats it. But Groys is forgetting something. The loop doesn’t loop to stay in time. The video loops to get out of time, to eradicate contingencies, to abstract, to be in the machine of modernity.
Groys neglects the potency of modernism to recuperate all artistic gestures as abstraction. Video as a loop, even with human performance in it, fulfills modernist abstraction and does not celebrate the presence of the present. Like other moments of modernism, however, it is capable of a rich poetic life, a speculative genius enhanced by metaphor; and like all art in all epochs, its success depends on the artist finding a peculiar happiness between form and content.
- ^ See my review of the exhibition at MARS Gallery, Prahran, Melbourne: 'Donna McRae, Kate Scardifield explore life-and-death propositions for women’, The Age, 24 February 2015.
- ^ See his essay ‘Comrades of Time’, e-flux journal, no. 11, December 2009: www.e-flux.com/journal/comrades-of-time). Cited by many, e.g. Julia Powles, Infinite delay (or spending time in the present), catalogue for her curated exhibition at Kings Artist Run, Melbourne, exploring implications of Groys beyond video; also, his Silberberg lecture in New York, 2010–11: vimeo.com/16065004).
- ^ See Claire Watson, Sortie (2009) at www.clairewatson.com.au/works/video-all.
- ^ This paragraph is grafted from my chapter ‘Falling into place: how performance reflects the ontology of happening’ in What is Performance Art? edited by Adam Geczy and Mimi Kelly to be published by Sydney University Press in late 2015.
- ^ Inversely expressed in Shakespeare’s line that “she is too mean / To have her name repeated“, All’s well that ends well 3:5; cf. “And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine, / With repetition of my Romeo’s name’, Romeo and Juliet 2:2; and “such a name / Whose repetition will be dogg’d with curses“, Coriolanus 5:3.
- ^ See also Gilles Deleuze, Différence et répétition, 1968 (trans. Paul Patton, Difference and repetition, London: Continuum, 2004).
- ^ “ripetendogli le parole altre volte dettegli“, Decameron 3.3.
- ^ “ripetendo sovente la parola / ch’Ariodante avea in estremo detto“, Ariosto, Orlando furioso 5:60; cf. 5:62.
- ^ “spesso le ripetea“, ibid. 13:66
- ^ ibid. 32:36 and 42.25 respectively. 12 ibid. 43.158, and Marino, Adone 18:213.
- ^ “cantando ripetea l’antico pianto“, Angelo Poliziano, Stanze per la giostra 1:60.
- ^ “Mon cœur ... N’avait que des soupirs qu’il répétait toujours“, Bajazet 1:4
- ^ “Grief fills the room up of my absent child, / Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, / Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, / Remembers me of all his gracious parts, / Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form; / Then have I reason to be fond of grief“, Shakespeare, King John 3:4
- ^ Les phares, Spleen et idéal, 6.
- ^ “My villany they have upon record; which I had rather seal with my death than repeat over to my shame“, Shakespeare, Much ado about nothing 5:1.
- ^ LSJ s.v.
- ^ Plato, Gorgias 488b, Xenophon, Lacedaemonians 13:2, Aristotle, Metaphysics 1035b4, cf. Plato, Theaetetos 169e.
- ^ Plato, Phaedros 228a.
- ^ “C’est l’unique priere de quoy je me sers par tout, et la repete au lieu d’en changer“, Essais 1:56.
- ^ “Il ne dira pas tant sa leçon, comme il la fera. Il la repetera en ses actions“, Essais 1:26.
- ^ “e contentatevi di ripetere le parole che dirò io“, Carlo Goldoni, La villeggiatura 3:17.22.
- ^ Shakespeare, King John 4:2.
- ^ Coriolanus 1:1; All’s well that ends well 5:3; Pericles 5:1.
- ^ Presented in Infinite delay (or spending time in the present) at Kings Artist Run, Melbourne, curated by Julia Powles. See my review in The Age, 27 May 2015.
- ^ Shakespeare, Lear 5:3.
- ^ Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida 3:2.
Robert Nelson is Associate Director, Student Experience, at Monash University and art critic for The Age.