Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 36, October 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maria Walsh

 

Lost in Space: _Jane and Louise Wilson_

 

 

_Jane and Louise Wilson_

With Essays by Jeremy Millar and Claire Doherty

London: Ellipsis, 2000

ISBN 1-84166-027-2

84 pp., inc. 120 b/w photographs

 

Contemporary film and video installation is a ubiquitous and diverse field. Attempts to classify this field have produced phrases such as 'un autre cinema' and a 'tertiary cinema'. [1] Tracing the genealogy of film and video installation in the dematerialisation of the art object in the 1960s and its affiliation to experiments in 1970s avant-garde film, the focus in these discussions is on how film and video installation analyses and deconstructs cinema as a genre. [2] The proximity of cinema and philosophy tends to be left out in these discussions, partly because of the emphasis on modernist notions of medium specificity latent in writing on film installation and the related emphasis on how this *other cinema* deconstructs cinematic language. Questions of subjectivity, crucial to aesthetics, seem to be put on the back burner.

 

_Jane and Louise Wilson_ is a minigraph of the artists' film and video installation work. In other words, it is a monograph in miniature. The book is part of a series of publications developed by Ellipsis and Film and Video Umbrella devoted to artists from Britain who work in the area of film and video. These publications are linked with 'Film and Video Artists on Tour', a programme of public presentations by each of the featured artists -- however, the publishers claim that the minigraphs are nevertheless designed to stand on their own. Given that the book is a mere 80 pages and is mostly comprised of black and white images of the artists work as well as two short essays, I thought it doubtful that it would redress the absence in much critical writing of the interrelation of film and video installation and philosophy. However, given the context of being asked to write a review of this little book for _Film-Philosophy_, I expected that the essays might address aspects of Jane and Louise Wilson's work that overtly have a bearing on philosophy. And in some respects, albeit miniature ones, they do.

 

Jane and Louise Wilson have been working for over a decade in the field of film and video and photography, and this volume features the artists work from 1993 to 1999. Their installations are characterised by split-screen projections, the screens often comprising large multi-screen environments, which create a kind of open cube within the gallery space. The architectural form of their moving image work resonates with the architectural sites that the images portray. The artists, who are twin sisters, have filmed at the headquarters of East German intelligence in _Stasi City_ (1997), the houses of parliament at Westminster in _Parliament, A Third House_ (1999), the cosmonaut training facility outside Moscow in _Star City_ (1999), and the US Air Force base at Greenham Common in _Gamma_ (1999). Their most recent and most ambitious multi-screen environment, _A Free and Anonymous Monument_ (2003), included footage of Victor Pasmore's _Apollo Pavillion_ in Peterlee New Town, just outside Gateshead in the North of England; two North Tyneside factories (Atmel, who design and make computer chip wafers, and Cummins, who produce engines); an oil rig in the North Sea; and an abandoned multi-story car park again in Gateshead.

 

The works from 1997 onwards are linked by an interest in the social significance of architectural constructions; mostly to do with the utopias and power structures signified by them. The ideologies of economics, government, and leisure (and their embodiment in architectural constructions) dwarf the human in their work. Human figures, most often the artists themselves, are glimpsed on the margins as they walk in and out of shots, sometimes levitating, or, in later pieces, occupied in work tasks, but never confronting the viewer or taking centre stage. The human being seems incidental to systems of power that seem to have a life of their own. In the absence of definitive protagonists, the Wilsons' work allocates that role to the viewer, although the rhythm and choreography of shots both impedes and extends that allocation. Placed in relation to screens, which are presented as near as possible 1:1 scale, the viewer is both lost in the labyrinthine spaces of social power and also left stranded as a distanced observer gazing on the spectacle of recent pasts and dystopic futures. The two essays in the book encapsulate both these viewer positions.

 

Jeremy Millar's essay, 'The Story So Far', is an experimental piece of writing that, rather than trying to *write about* the Wilsons' work, attempts to *write with* it, that is, to follow the sensations, reveries, and peripatetic movements generated by encountering various pieces of their film and video work. This seems apropos given that the Wilsons claim that their work is 'about creating a physical environment, something which is more sculptural in its description of space', and that the only 'narrative that exists comes through our connections to the space we are filming'. [3] Millar's text proceeds in separate themed fragments, the repetition of different strands suggesting fragile connections between the various layers of text that he interweaves. Some fragments take the form of a detective story, the author a character who has been given the task to investigate what turn out to be the spaces imaged in the Wilsons' film and video installations. Citations from Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas de Quincey, and Dostoyevsky highlight the sense of eeriness and paranoia induced by the investigation, as 'Millar' creates a narrative that allows the reader to follow him blindly through his armchair-travelling investigation of their work.

 

Other fragments of the text describe, without naming, particular works by the Wilsons -- one shot, one scene, following another, different works morphing into others, the subject/spectator/author losing his bearings like Alice in Wonderland as he is submerged, swallowed even, by the images that unfold in front of him. This virtual flaneur is accompanied by citations from Eugene Minkowski's _Lived Time_ and Walter Benjamin's _Passagen-Werk_, as he travels through the empty casino in the Wilsons' _Las Vegas, Graveyard Time_ (1999) and the debris in the abandoned offices of the Stasi headquarters. Beginning with the questions: 'So, where were we? Where did we get to?', Millar's investigation performs a form of spatiality that resonates with citations from Minkowski's _Lived Time_, describing the sensation of losing the ego in dark space (8). This sentiment echoes Millar's description of an 'I' that moves through spaces, which in turn unfold into further series of images that disperse before it. Millar's evocation of a continuously displaced sense of location mirrors the experience of encountering the Wilsons' kaleidoscopic environments, where one screen might show a panning shot, while another simultaneously zooms upwards, creating tension and contradiction, a kind of schizophrenic vision.

 

Millar's text is a novel way of inserting the viewer/author into the film work, taking up the demand/invitation to perform a narrative through the spaces constructed and framed by the Wilsons' choreography. This kind of writing, loosely termed *performative*, is quite fashionable in current writing on the visual arts. [4] Much of this kind of writing can be self-indulgent, bearing a tangential relation to the work it purports to parallel or operate in tandem to. Millar's essay is a good example of how this kind of writing can be illuminating, bearing a close, but not obvious, relation the Wilsons' film work. However, to a reader unfamiliar with the Wilsons' work, the text may seem simply obscure. The black and white illustrations are unfortunate in that the Wilsons' use of colour is a very considered and important aspect of their work. While Millar's text refers to colour, the unfamiliar viewer/reader will completely miss out on the intensity of the Wilsons' cinematic palette, while the familiar one will falteringly attempt to recreate it in the mind's eye. In this sense _Jane and Louise Wilson_ seems to be addressed to a viewer/reader familiar with their work, and I would question the publishers claim that the book stands on its own.

 

Millar's reading of the Wilsons' work is particular to his viewing of it and so it may seem futile to criticize it. (Much performative writing gets away without critique due to its emphasis on the personal and supposed authenticity of the authorial voice.) However, there are critical stakes involved in Millar's emphasis on the imaginary dimension of travelling through the work. His textual journeying seems to privilege a mental imaginary and thereby occludes the strong physicality of the Wilsons' work. The sculptural dimension that their work engenders, while invisible in the sense of not existing as an object, is, to my mind, generative of affects of density and weight and the tension between sensations of push and pull. The choreography and doubling operative in their work disperses the viewer in more than an imaginary direction. As one wanders through the field of screens, one's stare transfixed yet split in many directions, the sensation of being pulled and stretched across elongated expanses of infinite space, subtended by sensations of falling into the floor and of ungrounded levitation hits one. Rather than Minkowski, but not unrelated, Millar's text and my memory of the Wilsons' work put me in mind of Merleau-Ponty's reflection on the virtuality of embodied being in _The Visible and the Invisible_. For Merleau-Ponty, the seer and the visible '*reciprocate one another and we no longer know who sees and which is seen*'. [5] This sentiment echoes those of Millar's text where images and viewer meld with one another. However, for Merleau-Ponty there is a physical aspect to this imaginary dissolution. As he says:

 

'What makes the weight, the thickness, the flesh of each colour, of each sound, of each tactile texture, of the present, and of the world is the fact that he who grasps them feels himself emerge from them by a sort of coiling up or redoubling, fundamentally homogenous . . . *a whole virtual center*'. [6]

 

For me, the virtual aspect of the Wilsons' work impacts on the viewer in an intensely physical way, plunging the body through gravity and stretching it beyond geometric space.

 

Claire Doherty's essay, 'Awaiting Oblivion', is a traditional text, using philosophical ideas and concepts from Maurice Blanchot and Michel Foucault, as well as applying the psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny to evoke the unease generated by spatial doubling in the Wilsons' work. It is a good contrast to Millar's text, being *about* the work rather than *performing* it. It is informative and gives a compelling account of the tension between control and resistance that features in the Wilsons' work. The essay focuses on context and content, discussing the social and historical background to work such as _Stasi City_ and _Gamma_. Doherty elaborates the shift in the artists' work from using the human figure 'as a metaphor for the complicit subject', as in _Hypnotic Suggestion 505_ (1993) where the artists allowed themselves to be filmed under hypnosis, to an investigation of the 'depopulated sites' of the Stasi headquarters and the US Air Force at Greenham Common (76). Where Millar's text sought to follow the images and become immersed in their unfolding, Doherty situates them in terms of the panopticon and Blanchot's concept of a resounding silence that haunts the living. She also mentions the viewer and the sense of being positioned at a point of multiple entries and exits. However, the absence of anchors and the kaleidoscopic nature of the Wilsons' work are discussed here in perfunctory terms. For Doherty: 'The confusion engendered by the multiplicity of partial views replicates the prisoner's psychological condition' (77). This seems limiting to me. There is a slight obviousness in the reference to Foucault and the ascription of a lack of agency to the viewer. Perhaps the confusion engendered by the multiplicity of partial views can be read differently. Perhaps this confusion opens up a gap in the prevailing image of power, a gap which generates the unpredictability of agency rather than the predetermination of space by dominant power structures. Millar's text suggests this possibility.

 

_Jane and Louise Wilson_ is a useful mini-guide to the Wilsons' film and video installation work, with interesting contrasts between the accompanying essays that make one consider the stakes involved in art criticism. Millar's text is particularly valuable in this regard as it shows how experiential and textual experimentation can be used to think through the specificity of film installation -- in this case, its multi-screen environment, its discontinuous and contradictory editing, the lack of plot development, and the emphasis on the image to carry meaning. This form of writing follows the ethos of the film installation, where the viewer becomes a character, and the narrative their investigation of the imaged presentation of space and time. Lost in space, the viewer is carried away on the virtual unfolding of images, while simultaneously relocated in a social space where the perspective has slightly shifted.

 

Chelsea College of Art and Design

University of the Arts, London

 

 

 

1. Chris Dercon, 'Gleaning the Future from the Gallery Floor', _Senses of Cinema_, no. 28, Sep/Oct 2003 <http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/28/gleaning_the_future.html>, accessed 15 October 2003. French theoreticians and artists' film advocates Raymond Bellour and Jacques Ranciere refer to 'un autre cinema', while artist Mark Lewis speaks of 'a tertiary cinema'.

 

2. See for example Jean-Christophe Royoux's 'Remaking Cinema' and Jaap Guldemond's 'Contemporary Art and the Cinematic Experience', in _Cinéma, Cinéma_ (Eindhoven: Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, 1999).

 

3. Jane and Louise Wilson, quoted in Carlotta Graedel Matthai, 'Statement/Description', <http://www.spacearts.info/en/db/get_artist.php?ide=52>, accessed 30 July 2004.

 

4. One of the most compelling examples of performative writing in film studies is Lesley Stern's _The Scorsese Connection_ (London: British Film Institute; and Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).

 

5. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, _The Visible and the Invisible_, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), pp. 139.

 

6. Ibid., pp. 114-115.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Maria Walsh, 'Lost in Space: _Jane and Louise Wilson_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 36, October 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n36walsh>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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