Published  12/01/2010

Hitting a Wall, Finding a Shape: An interview with Gary Hill

Hitting a Wall, Finding a Shape – an interview with Gary Hill

Using a curious Internet nickname that plays with a literary reference used in his work, pioneering American video artist Gary Hill gave this interview to Studio International after the opening of his recent exhibition, Gary Hill: O lugar sem o tempo/Taking time from place, at Oi Futuro gallery in Rio de Janeiro. The second solo show of Hill's work held in Brazil, O lugar sem o tempo consists of five works that will appear in Brazil's two largest cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo


Gary Hill. Wall Piece, 2000 (excerpt). Single-channel video/sound installation.

Twelve years ago, when Hill visited Brazil for the first time, he was already working with such issues as space, the ultimate matter of sculpture, and time. These concerns are essential to a moving image – even when the active image is at rest. Referring to one of ancient Greek philosopher Zeno‘s paradoxes, according to which one entity in motion will never reach another begun before because it will progressively have to cover half of the distance already overcome, coming nearer but never overtaking the first, former skater Hill reveals his search for the boundaries between neighbouring concepts and the ways in which he navigates them to create novel experiences.

Ana Beatriz Duarte: The title of your exhibit intrigues. Can you give us some insight into its selection?

Gary Hill: It was meant to be ambiguous, multi-events. It is about time and space. These are things intimately tied together. The title itself meant to draw attention to the strangeness of time and the strangeness of place. There is no main character. It’s really more about the other that is outside and inside. And the issues of time and place, or time and space, are ways of finding the space between these two notions of other, the form in ourselves and the form that we experience on the outside, the stranger, the other. It’s kind of [like] finding a shared space, a shared space and a shared time, where they exist simultaneously.

ABD: Are these two notions reflected in the oppositions of artist/viewer, body/technology, subject/object?

GH: Yes. In terms of the exhibition, one could say that the outside would be Viewer and Accordions. They are quite literally about the other. The other two works, Up Against Down and Wall Piece, are about bumping up against one’s own other. And I’m not saying that just because I’m there on these pieces. These were made because of feelings, thoughts and sensations that I had as a person. But I also see them as things that other people could have. Basically, Up Against Down might as well be 'Up against death', 'Up against time', 'Up against other', 'Up against the unknown', 'Up against the ambiguity'. The list goes on and on.

Wall Piece is about the edge where you ask yourself: Will the next moment take place? or Will the cells stay together? This is sort of depressive. I would even say paranoiac. These are questions that we take for granted. Is the next day going to come? Will the next moment be the last moment? We assume that the next breath will be breathed, that the sun will rise. One gets into a succession of questions about this. At any given moment, all the cells, our body, our mind, everything is doing what it was supposed to do, but why is that? All of a sudden it is as if you pull the rug up from everything. And deal with it [by] trying to bring that across and manifest it without extreme consciousness, anchoring in this physicality of the body. So each time I hit the wall–if you think of the word as a piece of wet clay–it takes a particular shape. The body strikes the surface at the moment I’m saying the word. The original idea simply came from [asking] 'what if?' What if I throw my body or someone is hitting my body or something having to do with my voice sounding at the same time that my body is being hit? I thought of this years ago, but there wasn’t a vehicle in which to make it happen. And then there was.

ABD: At the beginning of your career, the video art was mostly a recording of a given performance. In fact, your art was and remains performance. As it has evolved, do you consider what you do to be installation more than video art?

GH: I don’t really use the term video art anymore, for many reasons. Going back, when looking at that historically, there were a number of different things happening simultaneously when this technology became available. And not necessarily what we may call art or not call art. There were people working with ecology, politics, psychology. Some of them were recording their performances. And a lot of people were working with the possibilities of image language. They did that somewhat as an art practice and also somewhat scientifically. That’s the environment I came into from making sculpture. And my sort of bridge, in retrospect, was that I got involved with sound, the sound the sculptures I was making made, and also electronic sound, recording and tape loops, this physicality of sound. Then by chance I bumped into video technology and was offered the chance to use it. At first, it was a connection of body and phenomenology, seeing things electronically, even just being outside and looking to a monitor. It seems now like nothing, but it was definitely something.

Then I got swelled up in the question of images, processing and controlling pixels for a short time. What drew me back to sanity and to sense was talking, was speaking back to my body, pushing [myself] against image, this focus on the generation and the dissemination of images and images and images. Images everywhere.

ABD: Is that when you introduced text into your work?

GH: Yes, using the sound of my body pretty quickly went into text and speaking. But the first things had more to do with the materiality of words and speaking and sound. And then I used more developed texts and also others’ texts.

ABD: Is the name of a work or text, where there is one, part of it? Or does the name/text support a work's meaning?

GH: They’re completely intertwined. For me there is no separation. They are like building blocks where all components are necessary for the thing to happen. It’s not like I think of image and then support it with text or vice versa. Even when it comes to silent works, it’s really more a work of body language or poetics than one of video or images.

ABD: Except for Up against down, where the frequency of sound rises together with pressure against the wall, it seems that image and sound are disconnected in the works shown in the exhibit. Image and sound do not support each other.

GH: It’s nice that you think that, but it is not really true. Although that is the idea it is not, technologically, true. It could have been true, but I did not think it was necessary to literally make the connection between those things. But it was meant to be viewed the way you viewed it [with] the pressure together with the sound.
As to the other works, first of all, Viewer is silent. There the tension is the silence between the viewer and the viewed, depending on which way you are looking at or viewing from.

For Accordions, the sound is imbedded into the way that the images are structured. You can say that audio follows video in a very technical way. In other words, when it goes black, there is no sound. It is just one composite that has a template that has been applied to a very specific mathematical structure, that is, applied to both as a combined unit, sound and video. They are not thought of separately. They were recorded together.

In Wall Piece, the sound is synchronised to the video, but the ear is not synchronised to either light [source]. It’s purposeful the way that the body sometimes uses the light that’s actually in the room, that softens the blow, and other times the light obliterates the image entirely. That goes in and out because when the recording was made someone manually was triggering one pulse of light at the moment I hit the wall. So there is a text broken into singular words, and the person has an instruction to trigger the light each time I hit the wall, on contact. The approximation of that is very insignificant, one cycle per second. The light on the floor, the installation light, is also set approximately at one cycle per second, but it will be pretty regular. Consistency beats against the human discrepancy of hitting it upon contact. That’s why sometimes they flash at the same time, sometimes one is ahead of the other, sometimes vice versa, wrapping and unwrapping the body and the light.

ABD: Did you want to frighten viewers with light in Wall Piece and with sound in Accordions? Are these works meant to be disturbing?

GH: No, they are not meant to frighten, certainly. Strobe lights [in Wall Piece] are, indeed, very intense. They do have a presence that you can’t be passive around. Accordions is the most difficult work there, in terms of the physicality of the viewer in space. If you don’t stay in there longer than a few minutes it will probably mean nothing. You have to get into the structure of what is happening.

ABD: Accordions is named for a process or action; you zoom in on a person but, when you are too close, lights turn off and the image comes back one step ahead. Is the effect produced, again, by a simulation of a strobe light?

GH: When you see a strobe light on a person, you see the person and you do not. Each time you see the person, you have some part of the movement you don’t see; it has been taken out. [The vision] is, actually, in real time, but it is black. In Accordions, differentiated from that, every time it comes back to the image, it comes back to where it left off. Therefore, the more black that is put into it, the more image slows down. It is not just simply missed. The closer you are, the further you are in time, even though you’re getting closer to the image.

There are two different types of images there. One has people outside that I just came upon and locked on zoom. As soon as the camera starts to go in, it goes between image and black every flash. There are two frames of black, then three frames of black, then four frames of black, up to sometimes 30 [to] 45 seconds of waiting for the next image. When it comes back out, it returns to this no-man's-land reality. It is real time, but [also] kind of 'where are you?'

ABD: In a way that you will never reach the person, as if you will always exist outside the boundaries, like in Zeno's paradox?

GH: Do we ever? There are also images – the second kind I mentioned – that are studio recordings of people I found on the street and invited in. Those are the opposite. There is more black at the beginning. When the face reappears after this time of black, the frame is already another one, the image has moved in real time while the camera was not showing it. Then it is black, it cuts out. They are two different structures. The title comes from the pulling apart of an accordion. The image is longer and longer, [then] shorter and shorter.

ABD: That is the 'accordionation' of time?

GH: Yes, you can say that. Expanding and contracting. It is that endless act of dividing and getting closer to zero. You keep between one and zero. You divide in a half, and then in a half, and then again, infinitely.

I was developing a project involving the Internet with phrases or scenes, like in Accordions. The work would start dividing time exponentially: second, minute, half-hour, day, week, year. You would have announcements at some sites saying: ‘The image is coming. 2012, May 9, at 4:45’, for example. But it has nothing to do with image, but with this process of arrival.

ABD: Is your work also related to cinema?

GH: A number of artists have this cinema culture, this preoccupation to quote specific films or film scenes for purposes of 'deconstruction', it would seem. A case in point is a work by (Scottish video artist) Douglas Gordon entitled Through the Looking Glass (1999). Quite differently, I intervene upon cinema by deconstructing the structure of the apparatus itself and the fact that the illusion is composed from individual pictures that take the gaze–the eye–for a ride. One example [is] Between Cinema and a Hard Place (1991), which uses 23 stripped-down cathode ray tubes loosely organized in three groups something like stones used to demarcate land in the countryside.

The first work refers to an imaginary cutting into the filmstrip from the side, perhaps like thin strips of prosciutto ham. Aside from the imaginary, what actually happens is a number of scenes that come from a single source, but are displayed on multiple outputs. Basically, the more scenes/outputs, the more the scenes slow down. Two outputs equals half-speed, three equals a third speed, and so on. The second work refers to the excerpted texts from Heidegger's The Nature of Language wherein he talks about the neighbouring nearness of language and poetics and how this proximity is not based on parametric notions of space and time. All in all, those are two very different approaches to the question of cinema.
Accordions uses similar editing structures to Between Cinema and a Hard Place, but focuses more on the moving image approaching the photographic image, in some sense the portrait as still point.

ABD:  In Viewer, as in Accordions, you state the potential of movement. It is a video; the people filmed could move, but yet they almost don’t. You neglect this potential. Is this work also similar to a photograph?

GH: They are not still images. The people move, they rock their body a little bit. Potential movement makes more pressure in the room. But there is another meaning to this, too. The whole thing is a viewer. You can think of the whole thing, the projection, the people, the space and everything, as a viewer. You can see the viewer and the viewers, the people who came into the space and the people who were projected, so that you can look into the idea of a viewer. Not just you and them. It’s the whole concept of viewership.

ABD: What is the difference between visiting a gallery and seeing your work on the Internet? For Viewer, of course, it would be completely different because you would lose the sensation caused by the scale. What about the other works?

GH: Yes, [Viewer] would be almost a photograph. Quite recently I’ve put some works on [the] Vimeo [video-sharing community]. I will probably end up putting these on YouTube, too. I used not to like the idea, but it is a matter of context. Not only with video, but with anything. Imagine eating some incredible gourmet food prepared in a certain way in a place that is reflecting, somehow, other aspects of that exquisiteness. It is going to be different? For those single channel works, it won’t be the same as going to a place. Even if you looked at it full screen with proper resolution.

YouTube feels a little like the Wild West. And I like that. You can end up anywhere, at any context. The first work of mine I saw on the Internet, Around & About (1980), had been put there by someone else. People come upon this completely randomly. Some are aware of video art. But others may look at it and say, ‘What is it? This guy can’t even talk!’ It’s fascinating. Again, it has so much to do with the way it contextualizes. The frame of how something comes at it will determine the experience.

ABD: These days, anyone can make a video with their mobile or portable camera. Does this allow everyone with a camera to, potentially, be an artist?

GH: I think everyone is an artist. I am not sure if [everyone is] a good artist, though. [It is possible] anytime people can make contact with that space I keep talking about, the space of the event. When one wonders, 'What happens if I put this image next to this image?’ [he or she] is in wonder and this is a beautiful thing. It is very basic, but fantastic. Everybody can do this. On the other side, the more possibilities, the harder it is to create something that will make a difference at some level, change something, or [cause] some shift.

ABD: You said you use the question, 'what if?', as an artistic method. Now you are saying anyone can use this method to create new things.

GH: Yes, I think so. 'What if' is one of many strategies. It’s not really a methodology. It is not something little because it does not have a big concept behind it. I’ve done a lot of things with 'what if?', especially combined with other things. I never wanted to keep up with technology alone; that is, quality or resolution issues, unless I had a particular reason. Most of the time, I use a little camera.

ABD: It is difficult to classify your art. How do you see it? Would you consider yourself a Conceptual artist?

GH: I have a friend named George Quasha, the author of a book on my work, The Art of Limina (Poligrafa, 2009). He has written about the idea of 'principle art' and 'art as principle', differentiating this from what we think of as Conceptual Art, which is a demonstration of a concept. Principle art has to do with the processual space of work, the ideas occurring in an event in which one is open and connecting things rather than expressing. Open to the space as it is happens. It will be what it is, rather than [subject to someone] determining it to be this, or rather than me saying 'I am a video artist' or 'language artist'. Let’s face it, these things were all blown apart, deconstructed through Conceptual Art and probably video. I don’t work in that kind of frame, but closer to what is an artist's life, life as art.
The limina is about the in-between. It questions terminology a little bit. What are these categories anyway? What happened with language and poetics? Poetics not meaning poetry per se, but thinking really. That is Heidegger’s neighbouring nearness of language and poetry.

ABD: There is much philosophy in your work. Is this a conscious effort on your part?

GH: I am aware of some thinking, but I’m not a big deep reader. But probably certain things about Heidegger I still think about. Many times I think about a saying of his, something like 'When you have lost the words, that’s when you experience what language really is'. But the works don’t need an external reference. They’re primary. Everything is there. You don’t have to know anything else. The whole phenomenology is there. The works are completely decodable.

I remember one letter I received saying some people had seen a work of mine. They could not really say much about it, but my work has changed them profoundly. That makes you think that it is possible to make something that can really connect with someone on a level that is not about issues, or trying to convince about something. The letter said, 'If you ever consider not making art, if you ever get depressed, whatever, read this, remember this'.

ABD: In Remarks on Colour, your then seven-year-old daughter reads Wittgenstein. I wondered whether she still reads the philosopher now, 16 years later.

GH: She would be able to read it better than I can read it now. She reads a lot. She’s in the Cinema Studies Department at University of Santa Barbara. And she has made a number of works herself. One of them, in that kind of media, Flash, was a live video quoting Richard Serra’s early video called Boomerang. She has also done a few shows, in and outside school. She has a major in art. She’s a writer, too. But for now she really enjoys driving her Volkswagen.

ABD: Would you say words and concepts are toys for you? Is there humour in your work?

ßGH: Yes, there is some humour, but I wouldn’t say it is a primary feature. There are some artists who deal a lot with humour. It is one of their roots [or] the branches of their work. I might only come upon it once in a while and maybe bring it out here and there. It’s funny because some things could be terribly humorous. On the other hand, these same things can be simply a demonstration. For example, there is this work I call 'Full Circle', in which I am bending a steel rod that was actually the raw material I used in sculpture. I am bending it at the same time that my voice, combined with electronic sign wave, is making an image of a circle. Before I make any sound, it is only a line. As soon as I try to imitate that sound, it becomes a circle. Theoretically, if I did it perfectly that same drawn sound would have [resulted in] a perfect circle. It would not move at all. Of course, this is impossible. I can only make it stay there, although it rotates a little bit. Then I try to copy this ephemeral electronic representation of the circle with the actual physical material. As soon as I start to bend it, the physical absorption needed to do that bends my voice and collapses the circle. So this is kind of funny, because you are watching an impossibility: someone unsuccessfully chasing oneself. At the same time it is not like a joke. This just shows how life can be humorous every day.

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