Nancy Holt, Boomerang (1974), still from video.
In her time on this planet, Nancy Holt came to be known as a great American Land Artist, and certainly her brilliant installations, like Utah's Sun Tunnels and collaborations with her partner Robert Smithson and their peers, are profoundly significant, but it was her work in film & video that has had the greatest personal impact on me.
I somehow didn't see Boomerang, her 1974 video performance usually credited to her collaborator Richard Serra, until I was a Ph.D. student in Linda Williams's Phenomenology of Film seminar at UC Berkeley's Rhetoric program, but the time delay was more than made up for by the work's formative resonance. In the video, made during Serra's residency at a Texas television station, a young Holt is seen sitting in an anchor's chair before a staid blue background. Despite brief station ID graphic overlays and one minute of silence in the midst of the ten-minute piece (announced as audio trouble and reminding viewers of the work's live TV origin), the work is in many ways sound-centric.
Donning a pair of studio headphones, Holt begins the transmission by confirming to an unseen engineer that, "Yes, I can hear my echo." With her own voice blasted back into the headphones and picked up again by the microphone, creating an audio feedback loop, she spends the duration of the video (save for the 60-second blue-out) describing the experience of speaking and hearing herself speak, while we watch in pre-recorded real time. The experience is disorienting for Holt; she can't hear herself think over the sound of hearing herself speak (quite poetically) about her thoughts. The title of the piece derives from a moment in which she describes her voice going out and coming back to her like a "booomerrranganggboobooomerranrang." She can hardly say it.
The video came in an era of artist's tapes rife with self-reflexive commentary on the nature of television, or even tape itself, just a few years into the mainstream availability of commercial video cameras. When I think of this moment, I think of classics like Serra's Television Delivers People or Lynda Benglis's Now and Joan Jonas's Vertical Roll, projects that explore the production and reception of electronic moving images, the compression of time and space that happens in live broadcast, intimacy at a distance, one-to-many communication, and of course the self-image in the midst of the (dis-)embodiment happening at the site of televisual display. I appreciated these concepts in many of the videos of that era, but it was Boomerang that first offered such an intense, visceral, mind-bending point of identification with their reality.
In 2009, artists Aleksandra Domanovic and Oliver Laric invited me to be in a VVORK-organized exhibition on the theme of the experience of art. Over a slightly time-delayed intercontinental Skype call, I listened to them describe their goals for the show and all I could think about, in this moment of contemplating reception under a new set of technological conditions, was Nancy Holt. I found myself nearly reperforming the video for them (as best I could remember, because despite periodic searches of the net for a copy of Boomerang, I'd not seen it in years), and we all agreed that I had to make something around this piece. When we got off the phone, I made one last search for the video and, behold! some kind soul had finally posted it online.
I had, for the previous four or five years, been carrying out a series of live performances and recorded videos called "Performed Listening." Very explicitly inspired by Boomerang, this series played out various methods of exploring the performativity of spectatorship, of experiencing images and sound. For Performed Listening: Boomerang, I essentially retraced and mirrored Holt's steps, listening to her historically-delayed/live-on-the-internet voice and repeating what she was saying, as I was hearing it. The original video and my fan letter are perpetually-linked to each other as YouTube response videos, while on my site they auto-play and auto-loop side by side, a two-channel visualization of Holt's observation toward the end of the work that her voice serves as both a mirror reflection and refraction of the world.
Marisa Olson, Performed Listening: Boomerang (2009)
Nancy Holt worked in a time and community in which men dominated the professional landscape, and—placing herself at a further "disadvantage"—she maintained a radical commitment to the exploration of beingness over the production of the commercial objects that motivate gallerists and others to promote artists' work. Nonetheless, her groundbreaking work sent ripples across numerous planes of artistic practice, including my own. Whether glancing through the aperture of a tunnel, a camera, or even the lens of poetry, Holt's work considered the relationships between individuals, spaces, and the mediation of their experience. Establishing a vocabulary and conceptual compass for decades of psychogeographers and locative media artists to follow, Holt's commingling with this Earth is a story we will re-read and re-tread for many moons.