Performance, Feedback, Noise, and Moving Pictures

Words by Rob Flint

“Any system that has amplification, and has a positive coupling between its input and output is unstable, and when either the amplification or the degree of coupling reaches a critical level, it will go into oscillation” (Vivian Capel, Acoustic FeedbockHow To Avoid It, London: Babani, 1991).

Video is the bastard child of a bastard medium. Like its celluloid parent it is parasitic on the auditory and visual media from which it is derived. It is a convergence of modes — sound, light, colour — and forms — drama, musical performance, documentary — in a manner that has been the pattern for all new media since sound and moving pictures were united. For artists in the 1960s, following the modernist prescription outlined by American writer Clement Greenberg — to use the medium to define itself, and its own specific properties, (the ‘painterliness’ of paint, etc.) video proved a difficult task. Soiled by its association with television, and its inability to inherit the hard-won dignity of film, video was a de facto challenge to definitions of modern art as a triumph of medium specificity and to the assertion of ‘Art’ objects as something distinct from other popular forms.

Maybe it was for this reason that early experimental video art usually involved interfering with the existing signal, but it was also because video cameras were large, unwieldy, and financially beyond the reach of all but the most heavily subsidised artist. There is some debate about who was first, but I’m going to settle on Wolf Vostell, a Fluxus artist from Germany, who stuck some magnets on the back of some television tubes in a gallery in Wuppertal. This is still possible for anyone to try at home. It’s fun, and to a limited extent interactive, as you can move the magnet, or magnets around, and because of their pull on the particles inside the cathode ray tube, they make a satisfyingly irreverent distortion to the image on the screen. And, in the age of colour television tubes, they mess them up too. For Vostell and the Fluxus people, it was a principle clearly rooted in avant-garde activity from much earlier in the century, a calculated interference with — it may be more fashionable now to say — ‘intervention in’ — pre-existing media. What the Situationists called ‘detournement’. And when, in the 1920s and 30s, John Heartfield and Hannah Höch stole the idea of cutting and pasting bits of pre-existing photographs from the Prussian Army’s method for economising on regimental group portraits, they similarly were making ‘noise’ in an existing representational system. And it was risky noise too, especially for Heartfield, whose reordering of existing media took the form of living in Berlin and taking the piss out of Hitler during the rise of Nazism. The stakes were slightly higher then than for most new media outlaws.

The problem with showing Heartfield’s and Höch’s work to people now is that it is technically easy to perform acts of montage with different kinds of image by scanning them and pasting them together on a program like Photoshop. And half of the subversive and surreal charm of Höch’s huge heads on tiny bikinied bodies lay in the fortuitous coupling of just the right kind of errors of scale to mock the other kinds of distortion generated by the media from which they came. So they are museum pieces now, these engaged little pieces of art separated from the scary time and place from which they came by the kind of canon-constructing machinery I described above. Similarly, although Vostell has not entered the museum quite as decisively as Heartfield, Höch, and their fellow Dadaists, the act of distorting the surface of the video image now has software specifically dedicated to it. Vostell himself has been upstaged a bit by fellow Fluxus artist Nam June Paik, who has become one of the big names of Video Art, and whose work takes the montage principle pioneered in film by people like Dziga Vertov and Eisenstein, to its full, multi-screen extent. Let’s not forget here that ‘noise’ can also sometimes be called ‘static’, and that to be static means to be not going anywhere…

The problem with media disruption as a subversive tool is that it always becomes a new form to itself, but this ‘becoming-form’ can be a moment of real change. Jaques Attali’s book Noise describes well how this takes place: ‘But a noise that is external to the existing code can also cause its mutation. For example, even when a new technology is an external noise conceived of as a reinforcement for a code, a mutation in its distribution often profoundly transforms the code.’

He gives the example of audio recording technology originally intended as a reinforcement and amplification of speech but which had an unforseen ‘impact on the status of the contents of that speech. The network modifies the code within which the messages are expressed.’

In other words the existence of recordings changes the kind of things that are recorded. It creates a kind of self-consciousness within the activity of speaking, or for that matter, of making music.

Obvious visual examples also present themselves. Photography — those still life photographs of fruit and game so urgently ‘composed by Victorian amateurs, who wanted it to replace painting only in the sense that it made it incredibly easy for them to make pictures. In doing so, they failed to realise that, although it would certainly not replace those paintings, it would utterly transform their meaning, and their necessity. In this sense photography introduced a kind of visual feedback into the image before electronic amplification came along.

And there was already a model for it in the allegorical use to which mirrors were put in a whole bunch of different paintings. Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus and Las Meninas being two of the more celebrated examples. In these the fact that a picture can also contain a picture becomes an opportunity for a rarified meditation on the role of representation as a mirror of truth, and its contradiction — that the more apparently ‘truthful’ the representation, the more skilled the artful deceit. The Quaker Oats Breakfast Cereal box was a powerful childhood lesson in the sheer weirdness of fictions if you thought about them a bit. On the front of the box the cheery and rubicund Quaker clutched a box of Cereal Oats on which was depicted himself clutching a box of Cereal Oats on which was depicted himself clutching a …etc. Where did it begin? The simulacrum made flesh. As a child though, I experienced this not as a salutory reminder of the instability of hegemonic Western representational modes, but as a giddy vertiginous expansion of the imagination, like walking around the house clutching a mirror facing upwards at waist height, which if done for a sufficient length of time gives the joyous sensation of floating on the ceiling.

Perhaps it was only when photography introduced its indexical empiricism into the world of pictures that this became a particularly disturbing problem. Shakespeare famously introduces a play within another play in Hamlet, but its function here is clarity rather than interference, being a sort of mental healthcare for the lugubrious prince, objectively affirming his until-then possibly hallucinatory suspicions about his uncle.

The phenomenon of feedback as self-referentiality so acute that it creates noise within the loop, is essentially a modern phenomenon, and it is closely linked to the supposition that new technologies are supposed to neutrally ‘amplify’ a signal, without producing a signal of their own. Feedback is the sound of their objecthood being superimposed on their objectivity. It suggests that there may in fact be no such thing as repetition…

Technical manuals correctly describe feedback as ‘oscillation in an unstable system’, but it has an everyday meaning that is maybe more literal — the recycling of a material output in a kind of short-circuit, producing a third party material in the form of a prolonged and automatic echo. In communications it has a positive definition — the opposite of noise — a productive process through which the addresser listens to the response of the addressee in order to assess the flow of communication. Formal education and corporate training situations are littered with ‘feedback sessions’. In all these areas the designation of ‘noise’, as the antithesis of communication is deeply context-specific, as of course it must be, just as in the auditory realm, and in this publication, these designations are productively confused.

It is precisely upon the instability mentioned above that the connection between feedback as a technical phenomenon, and as a metaphor of communication meet. And it is as much the aesthetic of instability, the image or idea of feedback as paradigmatic of chaotic, nonlinear, systemic collapse, that gives it a cultural meaning pregnant with oppositional force, in a passage of thought that is found in contemporary music’s preoccupation with analogue ‘noise’, but that has echoes in Jimi Hendrix’s distorted rendition of the Star Spangled Bonner at Monterey. And what an ambivalent sign that example is. Usually viewed against the backdrop of the Vietnam war as an irreverent abuse of the US anthem, are those in fact patriotic whoops of recognition we hear in the crowd? And Hendrix himself — oscillating between the roles of autonomous agent of guitar innovation, and dissolute Romantic victim, virile axe-hero and lysergic puppet. The variance of performed feedback is between control and its opposite, between autonomy and the subjective dissolution of the creation without creator.

Marshall Mcluhan said that ‘the content of any medium is always another medium’ —  the content of writing is speech, the content of print is writing, and so on. Feedback in electronic media is when the  content of the medium is the medium itself, but itself tranformed. It is the instability at the heart of it, the fact of its material supports. Feedback in this sense is inseparable from the amplification of the signal. It is the very air in the room that provides the ‘positive coupling’ described in the quotation at the start, and no-one has described and used this phenomenon better than Alvin Lucier, whose astonishing sound-work I Am Sitting In A Room takes the phenomenon of feedback and applies to it the same treatment dished out to Zeno’s arrow, breaking the feedback loop down into infinite subsections and introducing a kind of cinematic time into sound, treating feedback’s characteristic howl like a crashing car in an action movie, whose slow arc describes the temporal space of cinema itself — the basic stuff the director is lucky enough to get to play with. Similarly Lucier’s declared ambition is to describe the physical space of the room as literally as possible by means of its resonant frequencies revealed by his own voice. In doing so he makes a thoughtful use of minimalist techniques: repetition as a developmental, rather than static process; and the creation of work by other than expressive means. In much the same way visual artists of the seventies created reflexive, elegant works from impersonal parameters like mathematical equations, domestic striplighting, or the given length of store-bought timber. Although materialist in its destination, operating, as is characteristic for Lucier, through unpretentiously simple technical means, I Am Sitting In A Room describes and makes material the immateriality of the time of sound. In doing so the feedback that describes the room’s resonant frequencies gradually effaces the sound of the artist’s voice with its own resonance.

Feedback in video doesn’t quite have the immediacy of Lucier’s fortuitous collaboration between the equipment and the room. David Hall made a similar gesture in the late 1970s, recording and rerecording newscaster Richard Baker to the point of illegibility, provoking an awareness of the image as a material effect, rather than a transparent truth, but this work, though compelling, seems to map deterioration only, rather than creating a new thing from the loop. Perhaps it is because of the different kind of attention accorded to sound that Lucier’s work feels more than didactic. Direct feedback made by directing a camera onto its own image gives a kind of ‘Quaker Oats’ infinite regression to any object suspended between the lens and the feedback screen, a bit too reminiscent for me of the trippy mandalas and infinity tunnels beloved of the screensave programmer, but the kind of feedback created from direct input and output on a video tool, such as a mixing desk, creates a continuous movement of planes of colour, the raw component colours of video. It is unstable, like its audio equivalent, and has no ‘essential’ nature, being as much a product of the kind of screen, tube, or projector on which it is shown, as of the generating technology of the desk and its inputs and outputs. Every point in the chain is of equal value in its determination of the nature of the output.

A video mixing desk, (aka ‘vision mixer’ or ‘video switcher’) is a tool designed primarily for the fundamental task of the film editor — managing the transitions between different image sequences. But it is also itself a kind of transitional object, having one foot in the world of analogue editing, where it would form part of a suite including video tape players, and, owing to its effect-generating property, the other foot in the now ubiquitous world of digital video whose nonlinearity has almost entirely replaced realtime tape editing. As a live tool it processes video and audio input on the fly, allowing ongoing decisions and changes in the output. But as with the role of the disc-jockey, the original ‘selecter’ of the Jamaican sound clashes, the very act of managing the transition between different ‘contents’ can itself become ‘content’.

It is something of a Postmodernist truism, this reversal of values, of the confusion between frame and picture, medium and content, high and low, centre and margins, etc, and is well exemplified in the new etymology of the word ‘artefact’. Familiar from its museum usage denoting the difference between the things in the glass cases and the rest of the things in the room, its new, improved, digital meaning now describes the unintended creations of equipment or programming error. The new noise, in fact. In video practice, as in sound, much of what was formerly considered ‘error’, and ‘noise’ has become part of the language of the media themselves, elements of ‘glitch’ audio and video being used in adverts and TV program idents as the process of their becoming aesthetically legitimate. It is probably unneccessary for me to tell the readers of this publication how the glitch has emerged as a musical form in its own right, and that lots of new realtime performance software exists with the purpose of exploiting these artefacts as live music…

In the work I do with the group Ticklish I’ve tried to use the cliches provided by the mixing desk itself, its various transitions, wipes and fades — all the tools designed to ease the stressful passage from one image sequence to another — as the content itself, rather than the frame that surrounds it. In this I am shamelessly influenced by the recent electronic musical preoccupation with artefacts, errors and glitches, but also by the pioneering abstract and experimental film-makers like Hans Richter, Len Lye, and Kurt Kren, all of whom in different ways drew attention to the artifice and ‘noise’ of their particular medium by reflecting on its processes.

In this I know I am open to charges of empty formalism, or of a kind of technological determinism. It is certainly out of step with a lot of contemporary video art practice that generally favours narrative of some kind, and the immediacy of the handheld, low-tech video image as an opposition, conscious or not, to the high production values of feature films, adverts, and pop promos. The difference (I hope) lies in the uses of video as a part of live performance. Neither content or duration are fixed. As well being a useful resource of corny transitions, the mixing desk provides a way of working with images that permits a physical interaction with the process that is wider in its scope than moving a cursor around on a screen. In a deliberate reversal of the customary relationship between music and moving pictures, I can follow the sound with the image, rather than the other way around, up-ending the more familiar role of the musician invited to provide a soundtrack for an existing image sequence in the manner of the ‘vamper’ pianist of silent cinema.

As one of a generation of white boys who grew up through the change from music being a moody solitary experience, more literary than physical, to the wordless beats and sweating dance floors of acid house and after — through the expressive posturing of punks to the faceless anonymity of DJs, I’m interested in the condition of being ‘between’ these situations. What is a ‘live’ performance in the era of the perfect copy? And what does it mean to ‘improvise’ with the idea of cinema, and with the kind of attention that cinema implies? When is music serious?

The moment of this confusion is productive. Uncertainty about the kind of attention that should properly be paid to things generates new thoughts, as new justifications are formed and reformed for likes, or dislikes, interest or boredom. This discussion has existed for musicians for a long time, of what constitutes ‘live’ and ‘improvised’ music, of how to develop technical skill but remain a social being. And how to live and work in between the common sense idea of music as something to do with tunes and scales, and the suspicion that the distinction between ‘noise’ and ‘music’ might be an arbitrary one.

And in more general terms, hasn’t the whole drive of selfconsciously ‘avant-garde’ and experimental practices in sound, images and writing in the modern world been about how to evade the structures and conventions that impose meaning and yet remain meaningful?

Feedback, or maybe just the idea of it, is one of the methods by which, in an age of very, very small machines and crystal-sharp images and sounds, people who wish to do so can create useful uncertainties about what is the right kind of attention to pay to something. That could be a good thing.