Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
I Love AV
I was listening to a talk on NPR recently by a writer who'd published a book about the information society. He pointed out that Times Square used to be lit up with advertisements for American foods, cars, drinks. Now it's dominated by the brand names of far eastern companies advertising computers and AV equipment. The conclusion he drew was that we were living in a spooky, slippery age in which images have become a means of social control. That may be so, but I draw a different conclusion: images can enslave us, but images can also save us.
One of my favourite depictions of people mastering their lives by mastering the act of image-making is the Talking Heads song 'Found A Job'. Bob and Judy are a couple who watch TV passively, complain about the picture, grouse that nothing's ever on. Then one day they decide to make their own. They set about 'inventing situations, putting them on TV'. It's a wild success (presumably on one of the wonderful public access cable stations here in New York, where anybody can show anything) and their lives are transformed. The song goes into an industrious and upbeat melody which builds then fades, suggesting Bob and Judy happily occupied forever now, replacing the meaningless images which oppressed and bored them with meaningful images of their own.
Sony CPJ 200
I was on West 17th Street one day in April, looking for a small video projector, the CPJ 200 by Sony. I noticed a lot of AV stores were run by hasidic Jews. I always wonder what attracts them to selling electronics: are these cold machines something they can handle without feeling too much tainted by the world? Do hasidic detachment and Pentax detachment somehow match up?
There's something paradoxical about AV equipment, especially still cameras, video cameras and projectors. It seems to be the epitome of capitalist high tech. A single lens reflex camera is cold, metallic, glossy. It suggests a schizoid detachment from the world and from humanity. Films about photographers usually portray them as murderers (Peeping Tom) or witnesses to murder (Blow Up).
But there's another image of the photographer: the radical image of the war photographer, exposing injustice. There's the projectionist Erwin Piscator, radicalising and formalising the theatre of 1920s Berlin with slides of boxing matches and street scenes. Then there's photography as desire. The photographer as pornographer. The guilty pleasure of looking.
AV is cold. AV is hot.
Mamiya RB 67
Put AV in the hands of Aquarians (you know, the people of The Epoch, humane in principle, somewhat cooler in practice) and its tendency to make us detached is no longer something schizoid and zonked-out, a symbol of how we've become commodified and zombified. Instead it lines up with the utopian otherworldliness of political radicalism. It's all about finding flaws in capitalism, looking inwards, looking onwards and upwards. Looking for an elsewhere, an Other, a next thing. And so, in the hands of a principled, confused, experimental person the capitalist AV machine -- the single lens reflex camera, the video camera -- can be turned against capitalism. It becomes a tool of reflection and reflexivity and an example of how capitalism's most sophisticated products, rather than bolstering the system, can actually undermine it. Capitalism manufactures freedom machines. We look through them and see new ways we might live.
In the right hands video cameras, still cameras, tape recorders and projectors, gunmetal grey or titanium foil silver, marked with a gibberish of meaningless letters, model numbers, and alien names -- Pentax, Kodak, Casio, Canon, Sony, Fuji, Samsung -- are interplanetary craft.
When I've sung about AV equipment in my songs I've usually expressed this tension between the cold equipment itself and the more hot-blooded uses it's put to when it enters the service of sex and revolution. Cameras tell scalding hot truths, whether about the naked human body or the naked brutality of power. Sometimes, nothing is more passionate than a documentary.
The Hippy Analog Portapak Video Revolution (1998): the narrator, a 'square', expresses begrudging admiration for a student elite of radical hippies with video cameras who 'take over the campus with closed-circuit television'.
Fatboy, The War Photographer (1997): the narrator is guided through a series of atrocities by Fatboy, a golem, a mechanical Goya, an amoral paparazzo of human disaster.
David Hamilton (1995): the narrator, a beautiful woman, is being photographed by a pervert who wants to 'gild the lily', or impose on her a sexuality which is alien, if beautiful. She's mainly bored that it's taking so long.
Nikon 2 (1994): here a girl is the photographer, using her camera to document and expose her lover's infidelities. Tears blur her viewfinder but, later, revenge will sweeten her pain.
How Do You Find My Sister? (1989): the narrator photographs Henry Kissinger having sex with his sister, then uses the evidence to blackmail the statesman, keeping it secret in exchange for power and status rather than money.
Slide Projector, Lie Detector (1995): the narrator can't hide evidence of premarital dalliances he'd rather forget. His VCR, slide projector and word processor are programmed to play his gaffes back in excruciating slowmo.
Slide Projector, Lie Detector
Being a bit of a 'recording angel', I've always been fascinated by AV equipment. I've wanted to put my whole life on tape, as though this mechanical self-consciousness were the route to divine wisdom, or as though having an archive of seminal events (including semenal events) brought us closer to the non-linear experience of life I've called random access.
I've had cameras almost as long as I've been -- not conscious, but self-conscious. There's a photo in which you can see a cheap plastic camera (brand unknown) slung round my neck on a visit to Cambridge aged 7. Athens, Venice and my dismal returns to boarding school in Scotland were preserved in aspic with a Kodak Instamatic. The first camera I bought myself (with money I earned photocopying for my father at Concordia University) was in 1974, in Montreal. It was a little 110 format Minolta. I remember being bitterly disappointed with the fuzzy colour prints, though I loved the Kitkat-shaped spycam design. I photographed tennis matches in the Montreal suburbs, I
photographed the American bicentennial celebrations in upstate New York (re-enactments of battles in which revolutionary upstarts trounced the British). Soon I switched to SLRs. I had an East German Practika L (with a separate Russian light meter) in Edinburgh in the late 70s. I was into Polish-style photography -- alienated black and white grainy wide angle shots won me the school photography prize. There were no white horses, decrepit schoolrooms or heavily mascaraed naked Polish beauties in Edinburgh at the time, so I made do with angsty snaps of my sister throwing histrionic shapes against the sky in Drummond Place Gardens. I developed and printed at home. The red light, the faintly urinous smell of developer and fixer -- these will forever be the flavour of 1977.
After that it was Polaroids and camcorders, the only way I dared document my (perfectly normal) love life in a Britain in which, to this day, Boots the Chemist regularily hands pictures of naked children (usually taken by proud parents) to the police and PC World passes the 'pseudo photographs' on your broken hard disk to the Vice Squad.
Now they say there are more government cameras -- on top of traffic lights, on street corners, mounted on the sides of sensitive buildings -- in Britain than anywhere else.
Fujifilm MX 700
My loss of 3D vision due to a contact lens fuck up coincided with the arrival of digital photography. Something about the world going suddenly flat made me look at everything more graphically, more formally, and more passionately. Now I take my battered, Cutie-stickered Fujifilm MX 700 with me wherever I go. Friends are used to a two-minute wait while I pause to photograph something. It's really eroticised my relationship with the street.
I'm often told not to photograph in public. It's usually places -- airports, shops, train platforms, banks, art galleries -- where I'm being photographed by security cameras. I think there's a moral right to reciprocal photography. I don't mind being photographed by the government (crime has dropped as a result) if I can photograph back. Just as it's a moral imperative to upload as much as we download, so it's a political imperative to photograph as much as we're photographed.
Sony DCR PC1E
Because my father ran a language college and used AV equipment in teaching, we had a video camera in the 70s long before most families. I remember recording onto big clunky Betamax tapes. I bought an American paperback with groovy bloopy lettering called 'The Video Handbook'. It sat on my shelf next to a book about biorhythms. It was about how you should make community tapes and circulate them amongst friends.
Now, for my art show, I'm trying to make a video each day with my Sony DCR PC1E, an incredibly tiny video camera. It's always surprised me that there's all this digital equipment out there, and yet we never seem to see the tapes. How come there aren't millions of budding Luchino Viscontis and Harmony Korines out there? Where are the tapes?
The Shadows Of Twigs
There are a couple of places where people have a passion for AV. New York and Japan. New York is the only place where I've seen genuinely interesting homemade television. There are four or five channels of it on cable, and I can't admire them enough. My friend Jack Howell is curating videos soon at a bar at the Chinatown end of Broadway called Void, a wonderful space filled with interesting projections.
One of my greatest pleasures is browsing in the trendy Japanese store Zakka on Grand Street. There you can see sexy, totally textless photobooks (they're called shashin-shu in Japanese) by all the post-Hiromix Japanese girl photographers, or people like Takashi Homma and Hibiki Tokiwa. I also get sent a lot of pictures as e mail attachments by Japanese fans, who all have digital cameras and use them to photograph the shadows of twigs, a naked leg, a spiky fruit, the sky, a phone booth with a pink phone, a manga, a cat, some lettering. Japanese girls love photography. Kahimi Karie began as a rock photographer (she photographed Gainsbourg when he came to Japan, and even got him to take off his dark glasses). When my friend Riho Aihara had her portfolio published in the New Creators 2000 issue of Tokion magazine my heart swelled with pride.
Platonists will always rebuke photographers for making such irrational and irreducible signs, and western Jeremiahs will continue to decry the overshadowing of western corporations by oriental image-making titans with names like Olympus and Fuji. All I can say is, I love AV. Which, by the way, in Japan simply means sex.