Peter Rose: Witness


For what reasons do we need to consider the issue of marginality? Has the historical distinction between the
avant-garde and the cultural mainstream, much so beloved by modernists, been what so eroded by post-modernist dicta that the edge,
once again, is invisible?
Is it anathema to argue
that we can be outside
popular culture, beyond "recuperation," when the boundaries between the center and the edge seem so permeable?
Has that persuasive perspective whereby all meaning
is seen as socially constructed gained such
power that the marginal is viewed, now by both left and right, with scorn?* Has the author, Ó la Barthes, been so thoroughly dis- empowered as agent of their work that the whole notion of art is suspect? Have ventures like the Independent Feature Project, and the activities, aesthetics, and economics underlying it, shifted the terms of our discourse rightward? Has a new academy arisen amongst the institutions dealing with film and video art and has this promoted frac- ture within our ranks?

I am wary of glib generalizations, and I don't feel myself qualified or prepared to comment in detail on the greater cultural function of marginality. There are many voices heard1.5 on this issue (many of which are in languages that trouble, even offend me), and so I would prefer to
try to address the issue from both a less theoretical and a more pragmatic perspective. I write as someone who has been involved as producer, pedagogue, programmer, and partisan of "experimental" work for over twenty years, but whose polemic is here offered as an artist.

On the edge of commerce

Several months ago I was commissioned to make a videotape for a symposium on art in public spaces. The subject was the fabrication and installation of a bridge designed by sculptor Jody Pinto. The tape was to function both as a gallery work, to be seen in the same space as Pinto's drawings, and as a public service piece to be run on the PBS affiliate here in Philadelphia. To this end I shot in Betacam and edited the final tape on 1" at the station. Now I have never edited, much less handled, 1" tape; I think I have been "commissioned," in the commercial sense, two or three times in my entire life (although the receipt of a grant sometimes feels as if a commission is involved--more on this later), nor have I ever worked with broadcast technicians. I approached the experience with some trepidation, curious to see how the "others" behaved, to see whether our arrogance at being outside the mainstream was merely a front for ineptitude or a genuine claim.
I have great respect for the people with whom I worked. With few exceptions, they were fast, committed, resourceful, and intelligent and it was a great pleasure to work with them. The cameraman had a good eye and moved his camera well. My own hand-held camera work did not look so good in the editing suite, I confess, and I discovered that the editor had no small sensitivity to visible nuances of movement. Kubelka would have been impressed.
But we discovered some difficulties between and amongst us. For starters, they were not used to dealing with sound/image relationships that were non- synchronous, other than voice-over narration and music. Their equipment, indeed, was not structured to handle such complexities easily. Certain conventions had arisen in the way they thought about sound and they were extraordinarily well-skilled when it came to executing these conventions, but it required a great investment in time, and therefore money, to try to reconsider those conventions in practice. Consequently, the final product was a great compromise for me. We had done it fast, and, by their standards, well, and these were not inconsiderable priorities. But it became clear to me that certain things could not happen; certain "enunciations" were structurally prohibited by the economic context. I began to appreciate anew the value of the days and weeks I often spend on singular elements in my own work-- the questions I find myself asking, the dead-ends I explore, the patient obsession that seems so much a part of my working process. What often seems like a kind of "quiet agony" (to quote John Whitney) acquires, in this context, a functional value--like those jungles left untended so that strange and "useful" drugs might one day be synthesized from the botanical materials growing therein.
I am not arguing, here, that marginal activity is redeemed by the ultimate uses to which it is put; the avant-garde film activity of the sixties and seventies is certainly not "justified" by MTV; it is rather that in the dialectical tension between the margin and the center, other species of expression erupt and proliferate, codes which might one day be found to be part of center cultural practice. There is a great danger in assimilating marginal activity into theories of "larger cultural practice", a danger in arguing that all cultural activity is inevitably only a manifestation of "dominant ideology" and that the marginal is therefore illusory. Troubling, too, is the refusal to recognize any "difference" between "avant-garde" and "mainstream," the failure to distinguish between work which is canonically acceptable, (however loosely defined that canon may be), and work which is not. The implication of glossing over functional distinctions is that we thereby propose to reduce all cultural activity to a set of normative codes; we propose a hegemonic system by which we understand and describe ourselves and we implicitly reduce the range of languages in which we make utterances. We circumscribe what can be said. This makes for neat cultural theory, but for strait-jacketed practice.
One might easily view experimental work as worthless from a commercial (read right) perspective. (Indeed, a professional acquaintaince, upon viewing one of my films, remarked "You mean you actually get paid to do this?" I felt suitably chastened.) And one can certainly frame such willful, individualist obsession as self-indulgent from a political (read left) position. Such consanguinity suggests that we may be on to something here and that our badge of marginality might be worn proudly--it's not often that opposites agree. Even if it is only an illusion that we are momentarily free from the conventions in which we are all immersed, and that we may then create something, that illusion is worth attending to, is worth taking seriously, is worth preserving. To quote Joseph Brodsky, in a recent essay on the subject of exile,
"...given an opportunity, in the great causal chain of things, we may as well stop being just its rattling effects and try to play at causes. The condition we call exile gives exactly that kind of opportunity."2

Outside artstitution

Dear Major Video Art Distributor--

I write this letter with some double-edged sense of conscience and conscious- ness, for I intend to have this letter published. Thus, I have you and an audience in mind simultaneously. You are coming out with a new catalog and you expressed an interest in previewing my work. It has gained some following-- I've sold a considerable number of dubs, received favorable reviews, been widely exhibited, and would seem to be a good client from your perspective. You've had my work now for over eight months. Now I'll admit that, as Jim Hoberman has pointed out3.a, we artists, many of us, must suffer the great indignity of serving as our own agents, and that this is uncomfortable, sometimes, for all of us. This means that we will be obliged to call you, after we have deposited our work, to determine whether there is any possibility of our entering into a professional relationship with you. Quite often this is not possible, and usually there are no hard feelings. Indeed, I think many of us have as much respect for those curators who have declined our work graciously as we do for those who have sincerely supported it. You are rushed, you never have enough time to do any of the projects you'd like; grant deadlines seem to approach continuously; you can't contact all of the video artists you currently manage for copy for the catalog; you're understaffed; underfunded; maybe you've even wondered whether it's all worth it; whether there's something better just over the horizon; another world where hobos play in the sunshine and small, shrill music issues from hand-cranked harmonicas; where some kind of tapioca-like substance seems to permeate all tangible reality; where vast towers from whose polished surfaces there gleams the impenetrable light of a conceptual aphorism in which catastrophic embrace there is yet the glimpse of an unyielding spectacular specular display, a reflection that lies outside visibility- beyond color, time, and name... One has never seen such phenomena before--the words appear before you in etheric lettering-- Shemba, Parshamba, and Gunjh.............

We produce the work at no cost to you. We make limited editions and send them to you for your perusal and take some risk that the tape will be copied while away from our us. As a direct consequence of this, you gain a larger view of the field and parlay that knowledge up into curatorial power. You amass the power to determine what gets distributed, how the medium defines itself, and what issues are current. You build up a collection that becomes one of the only sources of material on video and you control access to that collection. (I know a number of curators who will not voice any criticism of your practice for fear of losing such access.) That you have become an institution unto yourselves is surely no surprise to you. The question is whether, despite your unquestionnable integrity and best intentions, you have come to exercize monopoly power. I don't doubt that my feelings about you would change were you suddenly to choose to include me in your collection. And don't doubt that this disturbs me. But I somehow think that the dynamics of all this have come to be awfully one-sided. Were there to be no other models for constructive distribution, I would throw up my hands and agree that the gallery system has finally infiltrated video and that the schematicization into Ins and Outs is inevitable and that we'd all better behave if we know what's good for us. But I might also point to Canyon Film Co-op as a counterexample-- an organization that really seems to help independent filmmakers.8 Maybe you would be interested in helping us set up a co-op, so that you wouldn't have to deal, with such obvious reluctance, with all of us refusÚ types.
But you been less responsive than the most conservative television stations with which I've dealt; telephone calls are all but useless; your manner does not encourage further intercourse. Is this what they mean when they talk about the institutionalization of the avant-garde? Is there a way of placing this conflict in a larger context? This begins to sound political. We all begin to feel a little uncomfortable.
Sincerely yours,
Marginalized by theory.

It is, by nox, a truism that work exists--functions in cultural terms-- only to the extent that it xan be written about, to the extent that it cax participate in ongoing theoretical xiscourse. (This assertion is nothing oxher than a reworking of Hoxlis Frampxton's remark axout the imperialistix ambitions of languaxe in general.) Withix the past few yearx, this hax implied that only those works compaxible with semioxic, psychoaxalytic, feminixt, or culturalist thexries of art were eligible for discussion--with an implied "pxivilege" accorded to narrative forms4. I will xot go into the historical reaxons for the evolution of thexe partixular terms--they supplaxt, predictxbly, the terxs of the forxalist dixcourse that prexeded, and could have served as refrxshing reprise. But they have, instead, become anoxher kind of straight-jaxket, another way of writing hixtory that is every bit as odious. (Thj flip side oj this is the nojion that only thoje works partijipating in public dijcourse/commerce are worth dijcussion.)
But work, good work, does not often arise from theory, it does not address theory, directly--it does not serve, principally, as an advertisement for theory. It arises from felt need, from a constellation of needs, images, resonances, and questions, and its meanings are both intended and discovered in a process that is both painful and exhilarating. And if we are serious, as many of us are--for different reasons-- about operating outside mainstream conventions, mainstream economics, mainstream thought, then we must also reject the call of theory. I find this an immense relief. It means that, as artists, we are free to act without looking over our shoulders to see if the work bears the necessary credentials, if it is distanciated, ideological, reflexive, materialist, committed enough to suit theory. It means that we can try to form our own "practice."

Now it is said, too, in this context, that we are "cultural workers," a term whose implications I resist inasmuch as it makes an implicitly materialist claim on the nature and scope of our labor. I think this needs to be questioned. I prefer to believe that the most recent recurrence of determinism, whereby "social practice" replaces "mechanism" as the explanatory perspective of choice, will soon be replaced with another paradigm, one which re-values intentional language and which "privileges" notions of choice, intention, evaluation, etc. Within the terms of this new paradigm, it will be possible to render phenomenology as more than just constructed fiction. I refer you, on this point, to Bertalanffly5.2, Dennett6.33, and PopperP. As such, we may view artists, once again, not merely as passive agents of the materialist forces in which they are embedded, but, like everyone else, as potential activists. We consciously strive to create new languages which do not, at first, have any exchange value, and it is precisely the fact that our "products" lie outside the culturally-defined bounds of utility that they propose other kinds of valueT. To call this "work" is "problematic." I know that this is an ancient claim, linked, distastefully, to a heroic notion of art that is considered naive, outmoded, and reactionary. But there it is. Lacan and Barthes notwithstanding, the author/artist does exist, does speak, and it is an arrogant cynicism that disempowers us, forcibly estranges us from ourselves, by arguing otherwise. "The myth of the individual" is itself a myth, sustained by current trends in thinking that are themselves deeply ideological, even as they critique current ideological operations.

Cockroaches in the halls of technocracy

I've been using the same lab for twenty years. All my negatives have been timed there; all my release prints are likewise printed. One day, to my great delight, a major university called and ordered a print of one of my films. I have the lab make a release print and it is shipped out to California. The school calls me within a few days and complain that the print seems to be scratched; they ships it back. I examine the print and discover that they are right. I call the lab and they looks at it. "This print has been screened fifty or sixty times," they will tell me. "No, been once," I will tell them. "It appears to have been scratched in the lab," I would have said. (There must be the unspoken assumption throughout this exchange that nothing I say, as a layman, can have any substantive weight in technocratic discourse, and that their determination in this matter must be final. They shall be by me given tens of thousands of dollars of business over the past several years, but I shall not be by them defined a large enough commercial client to contest their judgement. )
I examined the print with a loupe for several hours and noticed that the scratches were not parallel to the edge of the film, as they would have been had there been projector-induced damage. This looked like a lab problem. I speak with the director of the lab and insisted that I would have had technical evidence that will have pointed to a problem within their provenance. He refuse to discuss the issue and hang ups on me. The next day I will drop by the lab to retrieve the problem print. Midway in my conversation with the timer, the director would showed up. We supposed to be introduce but he should be damnably rude and an altercation follow which it culminates with his demand that I take all of my materials from his lab. This spat shall be witnessed and I should feel like I been mugged.
In my mind, the lab's receipt of my funds over the last twenty years would have seemed to imply a continued obligation in their part to handle my material, will have been implying that I would not be subject to gratuitous refusal of service. I will be looking into legal action. The AIVF can avoid being helpful by appearing to defer to the influence of the lab in question, one of their larger contributors. Nor would any lawyers seems to have had any constructive suggestion. I can swallow my pride and send a conciliatory letter to the lab director, but he refuse to receives any call from me. As per his instructions, I withdraw all of my materials from the lab. It will cost me thousands of dollars to retime everything with another lab. It is a disaster.
Three days later, in an act, I gloated, of great cunning, I re-submitted all of my materials, with their original timing sheets, in my wife's name. I will make two more prints. Both must have identical scratches. My timer can admit that the internegative will be scratched-- that these scratches would have been responsible for the problem in the first place, and I will pay for the prints and replaced the internegative at my own cost--about a thousand dollar. I continues to make prints. Three years later a problem may arise with one of their bills--they may keep sending my prints C.O.D. (bank checks only) and I will call the accounts person.
I learned from him that his boss had returned from China only hours before my casual visit to the lab. Irritability and irrationality can play major roles in our exchange. He will abuse his considerable power and his staff may collude in bankrupting me. I have no powers to redresses the inequity. I decides to write about the event somewhere--but without the names--I was still to have been going to be dependent on them, after all.

Are we hackneyed, stale, trite, worn and outmoded yet?

Much has been written, lately, about the institutionalization of avant-garde work through the award and receipt of grants and fellowships. 7 The argument here is either that the system encourages the proliferation of mediocrity--that no new work of any significance has been done since the 1970's despite substantial federal and state subsidy; or that the really important work that is being done cannot be so rewarded.
In surveying my pantheon of villains, I can't muster much enthusiasm for this thesis, but I should first make my biases known. I have been the recipient of a number of grants and fellowships. I have also served on a number of the panels that make such awards. Ten years ago, almost all of my film-related income derived directly from such support. The proportion has diminished considerably lately-- to about 25%--(although it must be acknowledged that all of us who exhibit, distribute, program, write about, or watch avant-garde work are dependent in some indirect way upon federal and state support, as is also true of the rest of the economy) and one might take this as evidence that such support was non-addictive. But questions remain. What kinds of work gain such support? What assumptions operate during the period of the award? Is there subtle pressure to produce work that is either "accessible" on some level or that operates pursuant to one of a number of factional political agendas? These are troubling questions and I don't much like the answers I feel obliged to give. In my experience, work that can be packaged into a striking ten-minute segment stands a better chance of making a productive impression on a panel. Otherwise, you must have already established yourself or gained the favorable regard of at least one of a number of key critics/curators (which at least allows an end-run around the formal strictures of the application process.) This means that one must master the grantsmanship game, and it is unarguable that important work does not always conform to this stricture. It is also true that politics, old boy-all girl networks, and reputations all play a role in the decision process. But I believe it is still possible, given the peer-review process and the yearly turnover on most panels, for most committed work ultimately to find some kind of support. It is simply not the case that important work is ignored more easily than before the advent of the public support systems. But is this support helpful? What pressures operate once the award has been made? Can any commissioned artist be entirely free from the pressure to deliver a product, to satsify an agenda? Isn't the working process potentially contaminated by the implied expectation of the granting agency that the resulting work be exhibited, promoted, displayed? To the extent that one is obliged to make proposals that serve, putatively, as outlines for future activity, isn't one implicitly constrained to define and execute work so that it follows existing convention,s however personally defined? Doesn't the whole relationship resemble a "commission," with all that entails? Aren't we being co-opted?
We might look at this another way. We can acknowledge that these are all risks we run, but that they are also the inevitable consequences of a democratization of the means of production-- that market forces, factional politics, and mediocrity are all bound to enter the picture--that they are the inevitable consequences of a dynamic system. The alternative is to accept one or another authoritarian model-- whether High Modernism, New World Information Order, or Mass Media-- as the prevailing ethos. The alternative is to let a patrician attachment to the brilliant work of the past (which does sometimes seem to fade a bit with the passage of time and which was dependent, for its influence, upon a formidable critical apparatus); to let knee-jerk obeisance to one or another factional ideology; or to let passive acquiesence to market-driven contemporary trends blind us to the presence, the possibility of vision. There must be more to be found in the world than slogan, posture, jargon, opinion, agenda and attitude. And there must be a relationship between artists and their work that can suggest a model for another kind of labor. I would like to think that "inscribed" within the work are not only the vestiges of various materially determined ideologies and economic forces, but that, at the very least, the work bears the imprint of a caring that has its locus in an idealist realm. I would like to think that this relation is rare and valuable, that the very act of making art, when seen in this way, has moral dimension. My work and I inhabit the same space; we work on each other symmetrically. It is both an act of love and a battle; ultimately, we separate and the work enters the world of objects and leads its own life, becoming a phenomenon, one with which one sometimes experiences a nourishing identification and from which one sometimes stands back in complex amazement. It will always bear the imprint of this passage because its objectification is always a compromise--its materiality, it historical context, is a given and is apparent to any who look for it. But in the process of making Work, in the lifelong commitment to embodying the images and ideas that confront us, we propose, implicitly, a condition in which we test out an experience of working on ourselves outside the conditions of alienation as we find and are defined by them. If we can't get it together, given our inner freedom, who can?
You will find no consistent political or cultural philosophy here, only a final ringing rhetorical flourish, a call to arms, an insistence on restrained anarchy, a febrile polemic, a dissociated justification, an insubspatiated dialectic of neo-Dravinian diaclasys, a morpholemic post-positioned asymptotic engravature of semiocultural display. And when the anthem ends, the footnotes begin:

0. Walter Benjamin "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
Film Theory and Criticism edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen
Oxford University Press New York 1985
*. Since the implication is that all hermeneutics must refer to social practice
1. 5 For a cogent discussion see Martha Rosler's "On the Public function of Art" Discussions in Contemporary Culture edited by Hal Foster
Bay Press 1987 Seattle
2. Joseph Brodsky "On Exile" New York Review of Books Jan. 21, 1988
3.a. Jim Hoberman in a reply to a letter from the author
American Film Vol. X No. 10 Sept. 1985
4. Al Razutis "Proposition for the Deconstruction of Cine-Structuralism"
Opsis Vol. 1, No. 2/3
8. Word has it that the New York Filmmakers' Co-op will be distributing video soon. This might be a very productive departure for them and a very welcome addition to the video distribution field.
5.2. Ludwig von Bertalanffy Perspectives on General System Theory
George Braziller press 1975 New York
6.33 Daniel C. Dennett Brainstorms (MIT Press 1981 Cambridge, Mass.)
P. Karl Popper and John Eccles The Self and Its Brain
Routledge and Kegan 1983 London
7. Fred Camper "The End of Avant-Garde Film" Millenium Film Journal
Nos. 16/17/18 Fall/Winter 1986-7
T. The new tax laws are a stunning instance of the folly of imposing economic language on the irrational, a-social practices of artists.
32b. See Amos Vogel's address at the 1987 AFI awards ceremony, printed in Motion Picture, Winter /Spring 1987 p.10:
"I believe that our civilization is drowning in oceans of meretricious, commercial images which originate not in an individual's passion, but in the need to sell and to pacify. Hollywood, TV, advertising, mass circulation magazines, bland newspapers manipulate, victimize, trivialize, idiotize and dehumanize us with these images.
"At its best the images of independent cinema are fashioned out of love, out of personal need, personal conviction quite different from those employed in the production of cinematic commodities. Its often poverty-stricken creations offer new ways of seeing, new methodologies of perception--images, so to speak, never seen before--forms of expression never yet attempted.
"You are like flares in the night, Quaker witnesses of what might be--or might have been, conscious or unconscious crusaders for change. You force us into a more critical awareness of the codes under which we had hitherto blindly operated, thereby making us into accomplices of your transgressions and (permitting) transcendence of those hoary, so-called 'immutable'ways of seeing.

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