Video Time

Somehow, I’d missed Mark Hansen’s fascinating Spring 2004 Critical Inquiry essay, “The Time of Affect.” In the essay, Hansen discusses Bill Viola and Douglas Gordon’s experiments with time and video, using their work to explore phenomenological approaches to time-consciousness (specifically the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty), while criticizing Deleuze’s cinema books for their implicit assumption of a disembodied spectator. It’s a great essay, though I feel like I need to revisit it a few times before I’m ready to discuss it in detail.

Instead, I’ll use my reading of Hansen’s essay to frame my pointer to a couple of essays on video art that have appeared in the last few days. In The Age, there’s an article about video artist Bill Viola, whose experiments in slowness generally sound fascinating:

At first glance, the exhibition, appears almost conventional – portraits on a wall. But these portraits move. Slowly. Very slowly. The faces are shown in extreme slow motion and capture every delicate shift of emotion. This is not work that reveals itself instantly. Indeed, some works reveal themselves so slowly that viewers are advised to look, move away, then return. For Viola, that’s part of the purpose. Because, as Gandhi once said, there’s more to life than increasing its speed>

Many of Viola’s images are projected in extreme slow motion, with a brief event often stretched out over several hours, and excerpts of several of his video installations are available at his website. (check out The Passions for one very powerful example of his work). As Viola notes, this approach is also a highly political one:

The velocity and knee-jerk response to events happening in real time that television brings us precludes any kind of reflection or contemplation and therefore analysis. And that’s been one of the greatest political dangers in the post-war era. The idea of the reasoned, thoughtful response goes out of the window.

I’ll admit to some ambivalence about Viola’s project, at least when it comes to automatically identifying slowness with contemplation, but Viola’s project also presents a significant third term for Nick’s recent comparison between real-time film and the fragmented, fast cutting of many contemporary films. If Nick is right that viewing real-time film and video may remind us of our own mortality, then Viola’s project takes us to another register altogether.

Hansen also mentioned the work of Douglas Gordon, whose 24 Hour Psycho stretches the Hitchock film over a twenty-four hour duration, so that rather than seeing 24 frames per second, the frame changes only every few seconds. Gordon’s work, mentioned in the context of an exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Musuem (recently profiled in the New York Times). As Hansen points out, it would be impossible to see the entire film in a single sitting (or at least within the limited hours that a museum is open). But what makes the work so powerful, in my reading, is the sense of anticipation. Because most viewers will be familiar with the Hitchcock film, watching and waiting for the next shot to unfold would, I think, make someone acutely aware of her position as a spectator. Hitchcock’s film, which itself is acutely aware of its role in positioning spectators, would seem to serve this kind of project very effectively.


  1. Nick Said,

    July 29, 2005 @ 1:44 pm


    Thanks for pointing the way to Hansen’s essay; definitely sounds worth reading. Viola’s work sounds a little bit like Michael Snow’s experimental film Wavelength, at least conceptually. Perhaps this material is considered avant garde by the culture at large because it does represent a forgotten (and maybe radical?) vision of time. In our era of fast-cutting, of montage, what could be more radical than slowing it all down….?

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 29, 2005 @ 1:58 pm

    That certainly sounds like Viola’s point, but I have to admit some skepticism about necessarily identifying slowness by itself with contemplation or in seeing slowness as necessarily resistant to the present, real-time media streams. But the resistance to/avoidance of montage is an interesting effect here.

    In both cases, however, the slowness works to make us aware of our position as viewers, and I think Hansen is right to attach these questions to debates about embodiment (while I’m waiting for the next shot, I wait, I get frustrated, I adjust in my seat, I glance away….).

    Viola also seems to “remediate” past art (sculpture and painting) as well, which is an interesting gesture. In some of his videos, you get the effect of sculptures in motion, but it is quite unlike what Benjamin might call the “shattering of the aura” associated with mechanical reproduction.

  3. dvd Said,

    July 29, 2005 @ 3:10 pm

    I love Viola’s work, and I think that the slowness by itself does induce a contemplative state when the films are viewed in the proper context; this is especially true if you sit through one or two loops of his work in one sitting.

    On the other hand, that sense of anticipation you write of in reference to 24 Hour Psycho works to Viola’s benefit as well – while the familiarity with the media isn’t there, we the audience are so used to ‘waiting for what comes next’ when viewing any sort of film that we start to assign narrative properties to the smallest prolapsed gestures or expressions, and the films, in their own way, become quite exciting.

  4. marc Said,

    July 29, 2005 @ 5:43 pm

    I had the opportunity to see Gordon’s 24 Huor Psycho here in DC last year (or was it the year before?) and, although it might seem that the anticipation factor was foregrounded, it seemed to me to be more about the idea of exposing the composition of the moving image, rather than playing with it’s temporalities. In fact, everything at the exhibit was modeled with this in mind, from the lighting to the hallways to the positioning of the screen itself, which forced a certain degree of uncomfortable shuffling to try to take in the entirety of the screen. It proved to be more or less impossible, and that was part of Gordon’s aim.

  5. Chuck Said,

    July 30, 2005 @ 1:21 am

    Interesting take on , Marc. Wish I’d been in DC when that came through town. Your take sounds quite a bit like Hansen’s, at least in terms of his emphasis on embodiment (i.e. positioning of the screen in relationship to the spectator, etc).

RSS feed for comments on this post