Screening Screens

Cover of Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art by Kate Mondloch

Kate Mondloch’s first book, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art (University of Minnesota Press), is a welcome study of the cathode ray tubes, liquid crystal and plasma displays, and film, video and data projections that “pervade contemporary life” (xi). The author reminds us that screens are not just “illusionist windows” into other spaces or worlds, but also “physical, material entities [that] beckon, provoke, separate, and seduce” (xii). Most importantly, however, Mondloch’s approach is that of an art historian. She does not merely use art as a case study for media theory, but rather makes the contributions of artists her central focus in this, the first in-depth study of the space between bodies and screens in contemporary art.

Like Nicolas Bourriaud in his Relational Aesthetics, Mondloch begins in the gallery space, and is interested in creating a “discrete critical framework” (63) for a specific genre: what she calls “screen-reliant” art. Mondloch recognizes the import of “viewing subjects” engaging with “actual art objects” (xii - xiii) and attempts to apply a combination of post-structural theory and phenomenology to her study. Here she describes the relationships between virtual and actual, sign and material, involving the theories and philosophies of Lacan and Deleuze on the mirror stage and cinema, for example, but always including the screen’s inherent materiality in how art is experienced.

Chapter 1, “Interface Matters,” describes in detail Mondloch’s category of screen-reliant installation art, looking to the work of Paul Sharits and Michael Snow as examples of how artists of the 1960s were, for the first time, investigating the interface of the screen itself: “the multifarious physical and conceptual points at which the observing subject meets the media object” (2). Here she goes to great lengths to remember the differences between screenings of film, and screens in film and video installation. The latter are hybridized as spatial and temporal, akin to Minimalism in their approach to the body, but with the potential for entwined and confused narratives as the timeline of its materials unfold. Mondloch’s reading of Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story is especially poignant.

Michael Snow, Two Sides to Every Story, 1974
(Collection of the National Gallery of Canada)

Snow’s installation is two projections on either side of an aluminum sheet hung in the center of the space, originally shot simultaneously from either side of a plastic screen of the same size. The films are synced to show - among other things - Snow’s actor walking up to, and painting one side of, the sheet from its two opposing angles. We see and experience this as if she were painting the actual screen in our gallery space - from behind or from the front, depending on where we stand. Here the film installation is a material and a medium, representational illusion and sculptural “thing” itself; it makes us literally and physically move to see its double-sided substance. Says Mondloch, “this mode of viewing is simultaneously material (the viewer’s phenomenological engagement with actual objects in real time and space) and immaterial (the viewer’s metaphorical projection into virtual times and space)” (17). While it may seem an obvious or perfunctory observation on the surface, the author makes a convincing argument that this is only because critical examinations of such work rarely go beyond the surface of the observation; Mondloch is able to do so, adding insight into how we read this kind of art.

Chapter 2, “Body and Screen,” is aptly subtitled “The Architecture of Screen Spectatorship,” and reminds us that screen media can make space - it delimits as well as liberates its viewers. Here Mondloch looks at the work of Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham to explore the possibilities of place and displacement in not only seeing, but seeing seeing (29). She understands Nauman’s now internationally renowned Live Taped Video Corridor as “less about built architecture than an architecture of media screen spectatorship - a mutually informing and psychically charged phenomenal connection between the viewing body and the display screen” (31). Again, she deftly adds to extant readings of the art in question.

Bruce Nauman, Live Taped Video Corridor, 1970
(Source: Media Art Net)

Chapter 3, “Installing Time,” is perhaps the weakest in the book, only because it does little to tell us something new when compared to the rest of the manuscript. Mondloch’s readings of Douglas Gordon’s work, and another piece by Bruce Nauman, include very interesting quotes by the artists themselves about how we live in and experience “many different times simultaneously” (53). But the availability of such citations is a direct contradiction to her argument that “the multiple and sometimes contradictory impulses at work in the presentation of moving images to moving bodies in space” is “undertheorized” (40). Writing on time and subjectivity in art is not exactly lacking, and the chapter doesn’t do enough to address “moving bodies” more so than thinking subjects, as is the author’s stated goal.

Chapter 4, “Be Here (and There) Now,” pays attention to not just the experience of looking, space, and time in screen-reliant art, but the spectator’s potential presence and activities between the “real gallery space and the virtual screen space” (xx). Mondloch avers that VALIE EXPORT’s Ping Pong, where viewers are invited to play with a film projection using a real paddle and ball, and Peter Campus’s Interface, which combines the viewer’s reversed reflection in glass with a “corrected” but black and white video image side-by-side on the same surface, “call attention to the spatial presence of the material screen object, but in such a way as to underscore that a screen is a performative category,” generating a “troubled spectatorship explicitly contingent upon the articulated tension between actual and virtual times and spaces” (70, 76). We are, contends the author “simultaneously both here and there, both now and then” (76).

And finally, in Chapter 5, Mondloch turns to the networked installations of Lynn Hershman and Ken Goldberg. Their “multisited and teleactive digital works” (xx), she says, promise the possibility for a hybrid “virtual window (a site for representation) and a virtual instrument panel (a tool for manipulating external reality)” (78). In Goldberg’s Telegarden, for example, online visitors to the web site can plant, water and monitor the progress of seedlings by controlling robots in a real-world garden that is potentially half a world away. There’s much promise in what the author starts to explore here; but rather than continue her examination of the body of the viewer, how the home-bound spectator might be affected by their computer screen or laptop in relation to their tele-actions (she could have, for example, explored Merleau-Ponty and Hansen’s body-schema over the network), Mondloch concentrates on the failure of “connectivity… to turn telepresence into presence” (90-91). Whereas the rest of the book reads the relation between body and screen and material, for some reason this chapter forgets the body, and almost entirely understands viewers as merely a consciousness interacting with the virtual screen and Goldberg and Hirshman’s tele-material. Here Mondloch blames the artwork for its lack, but I’d say it is her text that ignores the body-in-motion. Still, while this chapter leaves a bit of a void in relation to the rest of the book and its careful appreciation of viewers’ bodies, it contains some of the most interesting and detailed questions I’ve yet seen for the genre of networked performance.

Ken Goldberg, Telegarden, 1995-2004

Overall, Screens provides a smart, well-argued and perhaps long overdue framework for understanding how spectators engage with moving images in the gallery space. Its promise is that it has the capacity to speak to a much larger body of work than Mondloch begins with here, from art that explores virtual worlds such as Second Life and the increasingly common use of small, embedded media players, to the potential re-reading of historical works - painting, printmaking, performance and more. I recommend it not only for theorists and historians of art, but also producing artists who work with time-based media, networks, interactivity and/or installation more generally.

Nathaniel Stern (USA / South Africa) is an experimental installation and video artist, net.artist, printmaker and writer. He holds a design degree from Cornell University, studio-based Masters in art from the Interactive Telecommunications Program (NYU), and research PhD from Trinity College Dublin. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.