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[text] Bruce Nauman


Bruce Nauman : »Live/Taped Video Corridor«, 1969-70; »Video Surveillance Piece: Public Room, Private Room«, 1969-70

by Dörte Zbikowski

Since 1965 Bruce Nauman has made an important contribution to the rejuvenation of the notion of art by shifting the focus of his work from the visually tangible to what can be physically-emotionally experienced. In this context, his experimentation with what was then a new medium – video – played an important role. Nauman was one of the first to use video for artistic purposes. Initially, he documented mundane actions he performed alone in the studio. Then starting in 1969 with Performance Corridor, he provoked audience participation. Nauman was the first artist to create installations exploiting the technical potential of the surveillance camera. Such works included Live/Taped Video Corridor and Video Surveillance Piece: Public Room, Private Room.

Nauman’s installations are simple in composition and in terms of conception therefore easy to describe: the basic construction of his corridors is visible to everyone, the video monitors are placed on the floor or on their original cardboard boxes. There is no element that does not contribute decisively to the installation’s message. But that does not make his works easy to fathom. The experience gained when moving about in one of his installations can certainly not be construed using the customary notion of art. Nauman provokes a new observation in which »the only means of finding out how something works, is to do it.« [1] Naturally, if the viewer becomes the actor, the artist is in danger of losing control of the work. But Nauman makes the observer’s responses an integral part of the work’s conception from the outset. He succeeds here because his own emotional experiences can largely be transposed onto others, and because he creates situations we are not programmed to adapt to.

Characteristic of his work are the closed-circuit installations in which the images the camera records are simultaneously displayed on a monitor. Viewers sometimes sees themselves and at times other persons or recordings of video projections on the monitors – which are typically incorporated into a spatial setting. In some works Nauman positioned the camera such that you can only see yourself from behind, in other words, contrary to the customary view. This give rise to a tension between the real space (physical presence) and the image of the real space (manipulated information). You perceive both realms simultaneously, and in the process experience yourself in an unusual manner.

In the closed-circuit installation Live/Taped Video Corridor (1969-70), a study from the Performance Corridor work group, Nauman set two monitors above one another at the end of a corridor almost ten meters long and only 50 cm wide. The lower monitor features a videotape of the corridor. The uppermost monitor shows a closed-circuit tape recording of a camera at the entrance to the corridor, positioned at a height of about three meters. On entering the corridor and approaching the monitors, you quickly come under the area surveyed by the camera. But the closer you get to the monitor, the further you are from the camera, with the result that your image on the monitor becomes increasingly smaller. Another cause of irritation: you see yourself from behind. Moreover, the feeling of alienation induced by walking away from yourself is heightened by your being enclosed in a narrow corridor. Here, rational orientation and emotional insecurity clash with each other. A person thus monitored suddenly slips into the role of someone monitoring their own activities.

You first experience the installation Video Surveillance Piece: Public Room, Private Room (1969-70) by entering a small room. In one corner, there is a monitor placed at floor level. It screens a camera pan of the room. Positioned on the ceiling a camera diagonally opposite films the situation. When attempting to see yourself on the monitor, you soon discover you only appear via another monitor. You see yourself in a monitor which features another monitor image – namely the movements in the room you are in. At this point things start to grate with customary perception for the experimentation with simultaneous transmission evolves into active observation and being under surveillance – a frightening, menacing experience. It is unnerving for you to not know who is monitoring you, and to what purpose.

When you walk around the outside of the installation you soon find that it is twice the size of the room you first entered. Typically, Nauman’s title provides a solution to this riddle. The video surveillance occurs in two rooms: a public and a private one. The rooms are adjoining and of equal size. Indeed, the private room is so private it lacks access. Or so it would seem: since this room is also monitored by identical surveillance equipment, its events are likewise transmitted to the outside world. It is not then truly inaccessible and private. In other words: each monitor features the simultaneous video transmission of the other room. Images within images, the video projections are infinitely packed one in the other, the image of the public room based on the monitor recording in the private room and vice versa. The surveillance of the private and the public is a mutually dependent action.

There is an indirect link between this work and the installation Audio Video Piece for London, Ontario, likewise dating from 1969-70. Once again there are two rooms, one of which is closed to the public. In the public room you can follow events in the closed room on a monitor to which pictures of the empty, adjoining room are transmitted via a camera in the latter. In addition, through the wall you can hear – albeit softly – a sound recording of rhythmic noises produced by Nauman alternately hitting the palm and flat of his hand against his thighs. In other words, the room under surveillance contains only noises. Yet there is no need for a video camera in order to hear sounds in the adjoining room. Once again, the question arises as to the closed-circuit system’s sense and function. For though the events and situation in the closed, private room are transmitted to the public room, they ultimately remain so unspecific and unclear that they cannot be construed without you resorting to your imagination. Consequently, you are free to conceive of a person behind the wall who is actually producing the clapping sounds »live«. As in Video Surveillance Piece, the surveillance of the room remains incomplete, selective. It is never possible to survey a room completely using only one camera. The information denied the observer subsequently assumes a special importance. Furthermore, many visitors to Nauman’s installations consider the latter to be a means of self-presentation. And in presenting themselves they barely notice that in works such as Video Surveillance Piece they become caught up in the highly convoluted taped recordings of themselves. As so often with Bruce Nauman’s work, the viewer has unwittingly become part of a series of experiments.

Nauman repeatedly creates new situations that focus on engendering uncertainty. Though the camera assumes the role of observer, what we see are only sections, so the person observed becomes an observer of himself. What comes into play here is the tension between what the observer knows and the manner in which he experiences it. Situations arise which the observer cannot immediately understand, but which are nevertheless fascinating to construe.

1 Nauman in interview with Michele De Angelus, 1980, quoted from the reprint:»Bruce Nauman, Image/Text«, exhib. cat. Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg 1997, p. 122. ^



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