Revisiting: Tony Oursler – The Influence Machine

In Madison Square Park in New York, and subsequently in Soho Square, the heart of London’s media world, video artist Tony Oursler created a spectral audio-visual experience for an image-saturated society. Conceived as a kind of psycho-landscape, The Influence Machine delves deep into the history of media, rousing long-forgotten spirits and setting them to roam about both squares at night. The ghosts of the Fox Sisters, who made telegraphic contact with the spirit world in the mid-nineteenth century, haunted alongside the ghost of television pioneer John Logie Baird.

Jointly commissioned by the Public Art Fund, and Artangel, and realised in 2000, the work is now part of the Artangel collection, and has been restaged in a range of location both in the UK and elsewhere.

What the work itself comprises is difficult to delineate, as it not only relies on Oursler’s quintessential ‘talking heads’, and thus also sound (including a sound track by Tony Conrad), in this case moving image’s ephemerality is pushed even further because of the outdoor projections onto whatever they fall upon – buildings, trees, people and, most strikingly, smoke, which forms an integral part of the realisation of the work. As a result it is not only literally always fleeting but also different in every context, visibly influenced by the surroundings in which it is revived.

In the book Oursler’s then most elaborate deep media project is condensed in an illustrated time line, ‘Timestream, I Hate the Dark, I Love the Light’, while accompanying texts elaborate on the phantasmagorias of the late eighteenth century, its contemporary equivalents, and the influence of spiritualism within the general development of media. With an introduction by Susan K. Freedman, Tom Eccles and James Linwood, a conversation between Tony Oursler and Louise Neri, and essays by Carlo McCormick and Marina Warner, as well as extensive image sequences.

The design is by Mark Diaper, who came up with the idea to break up the ‘Timestream’ and divide it in different strands that, as time passes, cross each other, or new strands ‘fade in’ and old strands ‘fade out’. The hardback cover also has a dust-jacket on which the title on the front cover and spine lights up in the dark…

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Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon

One of the publications I worked on while at Artangel was in relation to Douglas Gordon’s Feature Film. In this work – Douglas’s first feature-length film, produced in 1999 – the camera follows the hands, and the facial expressions of a music conductor – James Conlan – while conducting a full orchestra playing the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann. Therefore the length of Feature Film is determined by the length of Vertigo and its accompanying score. It was first shown on a large suspended screen in a space on Brick Lane, London, with Vertigo on a much smaller screen in the back of the space. The film on its own also did the rounds along the film festival circuit for several years. Since 1999 the work has been shown in many different configurations (I remember a screening at the Royal Festival Hall, for which a sound installation had to be brought in), and in many different settings.

The idea for the book was to come up with something that allowed the different elements of the work to be encountered in different ways – the visual, the aural and the more conceptual. I remember Douglas saying something along the lines of “I want my parents to be able to engage with the images and the sound, without actually watching the film.” In other words, the challenge was to find a way of translating these different aspects into a publication that somehow comprised all of them. These consideration also led to the title: Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon. 

As a result, the publication contains a selection of stills (selected in one of Soho’s many post-production studios, which was fun to do, but also highlighted the issue of using stills derived from the film in the sense of print quality – there is only so much extrapolation one can do with 72 dpi) of Feature Film, with a much smaller selection of stills from Vertigo, which together provide the basis for the actual book. The challenge in the selection process was to find visually interesting stills across the length of the film – which has whole periods of very slow panning shots, but also vigorous accelerations, with the hands and arms of Conlan moving in and out of the frame very rapidly – for which we could also find matching stills (i.e. the same moment in time) from Vertigo from various image libraries. In the pre-digital era, for most films there was only a certain amount of stills in circulation for press and publicity purposes. So without wanting to contact the current right holders for the film, our source was a range of stock image libraries across London. Looking at the reproductions now, am also aware of the fact that while Douglas was very specific in wanting to use a particular film stock that would enhance the black that was so present in the footage, while we used the digital edit version of the film to select stills, which has delivered varying hues in the flesh tones of Conlan’s face and hands. This translation back and forth between different mediums is an interesting aspect when considering documentation of  presentation and representation of the work. It was something that also played itself out in the presentation of the film: when it was screened as film, the quality of the image was entirely different from those occasions where a digital version was used.

Each spread in the book has a Feature Film still on the right, while the opposite is black– so to some extent trying to mimic the large amount of black in the film, for which a double run through the press was used, if I remember it correctly – except where there is a matching Vertigo still, where the background is white. So while the unfolding of the film narrative is mimicked – but plays itself out between the front and the back cover – the realisation of this being a book, with its own space and its own conventions, is present. In addition to the visuals, the full orchestra performance is available on a CD, which is attached literally inside the conductor’s ear in the cover. The sound and visuals are accompanied by an in-depth essay by renowned French film scholar Raymond Bellour, and an American Bernard Herrmann expert, Royal S. Brown, which are inserted in the back sleeve as an appendix, allowing the reader to look at the images unencumbered by text, while listening to the music.

The book was designed by Phil Baines, and co-published with Book Works (my first encounter and collaboration with them) and agnès b., while the film was a co-production between Artangel, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Kunstverein Cologne, in association with Gagosian Gallery and Lisson Gallery. The book in the end had two print-runs, where the difference between them resides in a colour shift in the title.

Blast from the past

Having worked with Douglas Gordon on a book when I worked at Artangel – Feature Film (1999) – I recently did some copy-editing and proofing work on an interesting take on publishing something in relation to one of his most complex works, entitled Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now., owned by the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris. Kay Pallister asked me to have a look at it, as I know Douglas’s practice quite well, having worked on his archive for a while in a long and distant past.

Using post cards the publication is:

  • An art book about an installation by Douglas Gordon that is by the artist considered as his major work.
  • The catalogue raisonné of a body of work.
  • The catalogue of an exhibition.
  • A game of 101 postcards.
  • A book-installation (that the reader can organize as he or she sees fit).

I received an image from it being on press today.

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Roni Horn – Vatnasafn/Library of Water

For the past 30 years, the work of artist Roni Horn has been intimately involved with the distinctive geography, geology, climate, and culture of Iceland. Since her first encounter with the island as a young arts graduate, she has returned to Iceland for extended periods of time every year. Iceland has been both a muse and a medium, as well as a second home, to this most thoughtful and searching of artists.

For some time, Roni Horn cherished an ambition to realise a long-term project in Iceland, which could incorporate many of her abiding artistic concerns – with water and weather, identity and enlightenment. After a lengthy period of research, a long-term installation, VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER, was realised in the small town of Stykkishólmur on the southwest coast of Iceland. The Icelandic word ‘Vatnasafn’ can be translated as ‘Library/Collection/Museum of Water’.

Horn developed the project for the community’s distinctive 1950s library building. Responding to the unique sense of place offered by the building, overlooking the ocean on one side and the harbour and town on the other, Horn envisaged the library as a kind of lighthouse that illuminates, magnifies, and reflects.

Consisting of a number of interconnecting elements, VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER is the artist’s most ambitious project to date. As the inaugural commission in Artangel’s new International Program, it sets a precedent for a small number of unique long-term projects in different parts of the world.

The book VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER explores the various projects that comprise Roni Horn’s longstanding fascination with Iceland through images and written contributions, including texts by Briony Fer, James Lingwood, Adrian Searle and Roni Horn.

It was published jointly by Artangel and Steidl in 2007, and is available through the Steidl website. It was designed by Mark Diaper and Roni Horn.

 

Jeremy Deller – The English Civil War Part II

In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike. The dispute lasted for over a year and was the most bitterly fought since the general strike of 1926, marking a turning point in the struggle between the government and the trade union movement. On 18 June of that year, the Orgreave coking plant was the site of one of the strike’s most violent confrontations. It began in a field near the plant and culminated in a cavalry charge through the village of Orgreave.

Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave, staged seventeen years later, was a spectacular re-enactment of what happened on that day. I

The Battle of Orgreave was filmed by Mike Figgis for Artangel Media and Channel 4, and aired on Sunday, 20 October 2002. The film intercuts dramatic photographic stills from the clashes in 1984 with footage of the clashes re-enacted in 2001, together with moving and powerful testimonies, to tease out the complexities of this bitter struggle.

Mac McLoughlin, a former miner and serving policeman on the field that day, reveals details about the build-up within the police force prior to the stand-off; David Douglass (NUM) talks about the meaning of the confrontation in relation to the trade union movement in England; Stephanie Gregory (Womens’ Support Group) reminisces about the effects on family life; Tony Benn talks about the media’s role in covering up the truth about the strike in 1984; and Jeremy Deller contextualises this event and highlights its contemporary cultural relevance.

A similar approach was taken with the book, which tended up with the title The English Civil War Part II: it contains a series of personal accounts by people who were all in different ways involved with the strike and the re-enactment. For example, there is the story of Mac McLoughlin (former miner and policeman on duty during the strike), who talks about the build up within the police force to that memorable confrontation. Stephanie Gregory (Women Support Group) reminisces about the effects on family life and about how many women supported their partners throughout the strike and afterwards. Finally, Howard Giles, who was involved with the precise orchestration of the re-enactment gives a moment to moment analysis of the battle strategy of the events on 18 June 1984. An excerpt of the foreword by Jeremy can be found here.

The texts are accompanied by a wealth of images, pamphlets, news clippings, photos from people’s personal scrapbooks, song texts, and a section with photographs of the enactment. The accompanying CD contains over an hour of interviews with former miners and some of their wives. It was published in 2002, a year after The Battle of Orgreave took place, and was designed by Struktur.

John Berger and Simon McBurney – The Vertical Line

Over four nights in February 1999, the writer and art historian John Berger and Theatre de Complicite’s director Simon McBurney and the actress Sandra Voe conducted an intimate journey spanning 30,000 years, inscribing a downward line through time 30 metres below central London.

Part theatrical event, part archaeological dig, The Vertical Line led visitors / participants down 122 spiral steps into the bowels of the disused Strand tube station, where a sequence of audio-visual installations culminated in a live performance on seven occasions. A fifteen minute radio version was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in June 1999.

Built at the end of the nineteenth century, the Strand Station’s two platforms serviced an under-subscribed shuttle between Holborn and Aldwych. One closed in 1907, the other in 1994: this was the same date as three French spelologists, led by Jean Marie Chauvet, first opened up what would become known as the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche gorge.

Bush House to Fayum, change at Corsica for Chauvet. Cued by sound and light, visitors explored the station’s deep walkways, tracks and tunnels: the intervention of video portraits etched by light onto shaft walls; mattresses strewn on platforms uninhabited since the Blitz; painted animals on the rock – unseen, yet glistening. We moved through these abandoned zones by instinct, guided by the ghost voices of an older man, a younger man and a woman broadcast over the tannoy; by the dead sound of George Formby, the World Service and the wind.

Eventually footsteps would seem to come from the other end of the dark tunnel ahead. “Can you hear me in the darkness?” and those same voices – John’s, Simon’s and Sandra’s – breathing by our shoulders, whispering in our ears: yet still unseen.

The publication for The Vertical Line obviously comprises the soundtrack of the work, as well,as a full transcript and images that were used in the projections in the abandoned underground station. Mimicking the direction of movement in the actual performance – vertical – the booklet inserted in the CD’s packaging reads from top to bottom. A very enjoyable project, both in real terms, and in how the the publication took shape. The former a precursor of what is now widely known as immersive theatre, the latter an attempt at transposing the experiential aspect to an entirely different format.

The project was commissioned by Artangel, the CD/book designed by Mark Diaper.

The Missing Voice – Janet Cardiff

Commissioned by Artangel, throughout 1999 Canadian artist Janet Cardiff realised what was her most ambitious work to date then, The Missing Voice (Case Study B), in London’s East End.

Part urban guide, part detective story, part film noir, Cardiff’s work draws you in as an accomplice in a narrative that shifts through time and space. Seductive – narrated in her own softly-spoken voice – intimate, even conspiratorial, Cardiff’s audio-walks are absorbing – for an audience of one at a time.

Starting at the then Whitechapel Library, visitors were given a Discman. After having initially been directed upstairs to find a specific book, you would leave the building and find yourself transported in time. What was that sound? Who is speaking to you? Where does reality end, and what’s imagined begin…? The confusion between reality and fiction was enhanced by the use of binaural recordings, while visually references were sometimes met in reality by sheer fluke and happenstance (“oh, there’s that banana peel!”)

The Missing Voice (Case Study B), which can now also be downloaded, lasts some 50 minutes, tracing a route through Spitalfields and towards the City of London, with the threads of the narrative being brought to some kind of resolution in a space off Commercial Street.

The Whitechapel Library has closed and the building was absorbed into the neighbouring Whitechapel Gallery. One of many changes the area has undergone since the work was launched in 1999. Whole buildings have gone, shops have disappeared and been replaced by others, or bars and restaurants have sprung up instead. The area around Brick Lane, Commercial Street and old Spitalfields market is one in which regeneration and redevelopment have taken hold firmly. The network of streets The Missing Voice (Case Study B) lets you navigate is still the same, but the way they look continues to change. Doing the walk now, makes you utterly aware of the sheer speed and scale.

This was one of the first Artangel projects in which the question as to what to mediate and translate, and how became primary concerns. How could the core essence of projects be transposed to another medium – primarily books, but many also encompassed sound carriers – so that it would not be simply a set of images accompanied by a couple of texts, and be mere documentation and representation.

In this case Mark Diaper, the designer, came up with a set of propositions that played in different ways with those considerations: the inside of the loose cover contained the entire transcript of the sound piece, so the text could be listened to and read. The meandering route and the notion of being able to follow the narrative visually is embedded through two image sequences, which are printed on both sides of semi transparent paper – where the book has Japanese binding, so the uncut edge is the one that we encounter while leafing through the book. There is a mimicking of the red wig, which plays a key role in the story, as well as the pavement stones we walk on on the outside of the cover, while the foam ‘endpapers’ evoke the foam on the headphones listeners would wear. In the end the CD with the whole story is also embedded. There is a text that places this work in the context of Cardiff’s wider practice (by Canadian curator Kitty Scott), and a brief statement by Janet herself. Overall this project started to go towards what I think has become now a widely practised approach to artists’ books, that combines more ‘traditional’ catalogue elements with that of the book as consider as a work in its own right.