Lingering-Epiphany and other videos
by Michael Schell

Mea CulpaNOTE: the following are program notes to the videotape Lingering-Epiphany and other videos, a remastered compilation tape released in 1996 by Franklin Media Distribution. The tape can be purchased on-line from Flicker. Lingering-Epiphany is viewable online at Vimeo.

This compilation gathers my most important video works between 1984, when I began working in the medium, and 1991, when I shifted my attention to intermedia performance. During this time I produced a series of experimental videotapes featuring synthesized imagery and music, and exploring the relationship between sign and object in contemporary society.

All of the tapes, except for Just Words, can be considered music videos, provided we can divest that term of its commercial connotations. The imagery and music are my own, and both employ elaborate analog and digital processing techniques. This serves two main purposes beyond the sheer erotic exploration of color and timbre. First, it helps to convey senses and emotions not otherwise available in a strictly audio/visual format. For instance, the restricted color pallet of yellows and reds used for the desert footage in Lingering-Epiphany serves to suggest the intense heat and dryness of the locale.

Second, varying the recognizability of individual images and sounds helps avoid the closure of simulationism, in which everything is made to look and sound as realistic as possible. I've long felt that the commercial media's reliance on ultrarealism blurs the distinction between real images (actual people and things) and artificial images (what you see on television). Personally I never want to forget that what I'm dealing with in video is a machine.

Thus in looking back over these tapes, I think their guiding principal is openness: of form, aesthetics and meaning. In light of the astonishing international events of recent years, driven by the desire of people to open previously closed societies, I feel that a commitment to artistic openness is more important today than ever.

Michael Farley in JUST WORDSI've long been interested in the human ability to attach arbitrary values to things. Just Words explores this propensity with an eye to language. In particular, I ask why we consider certain words "obscene"? Is it because of their phonetic characteristics? (But compare shit and sheet.) Or their semantic characteristics? (But compare shit and dung.) Perhaps it is a matter of context: obscene words are often employed in a state of hostility or frustration. But in Just Words the words are not directed at any particular viewer. They are fragments, devoid of syntax. They approach a pure state of meaning borne solely of our preconceptions and associations. Without those, the obscenities, like the harmless monosyllabic nouns accompanying them, are mere sounds.

The romantic conception of nature (as the holder of the infinite) and of scientific inquiry (as the striving for the infinite) forms the basis of a dialectic explored in Higher Laws. Synthesized images of scientists and technicians working in research laboratories alternate for several minutes with outdoor scenes shot in the American west. At the end of the work the dialectic is brought together by an extended sequence shot during a service expedition to a remote seismometer in the Sierra Nevada. The accompanying music is also based on a dialectic, alternating between a rhetorical density music using synthesized sounds, and a lyrical, sinuous music for solo viola (played by Marlow Fisher). The title Higher Laws suggests divine truths as well as empirical theories. But the specific reference is to Thoreau:

"We are most interested when science reports what ... men already know practically or instinctively, for that alone is a true humanity, or account of human experience."

The work was produced in 1990, when scientists were beginning to warn us about ozone depletion and global warming. As I write this, there is hope that the world is emerging into a new environmental awareness. I'd like Higher Laws to be viewed within the context of this hope.

Lingering-Epiphany, is a portrait of deserts: Mojave, the slums, the Cross and the quiet mind. To some, a desert is a place with an arid climate. To me, it is anyplace where life persists in a harsh environment.

The Mojave Desert, like the rest of the American West, projects an overwhelming sense of loss. A loss of innocence, since it has been defiled by roads, cities and aqueducts, and a loss of history, since its rich past is visible only in traces: an abandoned mine or an Indian rock drawing. It is a place which thousands cross every day in cars and trucks, but where one is still profoundly alone: the perfect metaphor for the postmodern condition. The squalor of our urban deserts also speaks of loss and abandonment: the street people standing around, the boarded up buildings: all signs of past lives and affluence. Likewise, the Cross is a symbol of the past, of an antiquated religious context whose eloquence is long lost. Splattered across the urban landscape, it is no longer an object of particular significance, but is simply part of the environment, like the sagebrush which blankets the West.

The imagery unfolds in an austere pallet of monochrome yellows, browns and reds. The accompanying score is a collage of distant sounds: trains, birds, metal instruments. It is harsh and ambiguous music. At the end of the work, a cross-shaped tombstone appears, incongruously, in a desert gully. The music relents and softens, suggesting the quiescence one often feels during a religious experience, or while alone in the desert.

A feeling of aloneness continues in Inclined Temple, whose central theme is the way that altars serve as an abstraction of objects and places which hold divine qualities or deep personal significance. This tape is both mystical and nostalgic, dwelling on the complex emotions which can surround the memory of a particular place or thing. The music alternates between abstraction (featuring synthesized sounds and symmetrical pitch structures) and concretion (featuring an Apache fiddle), and the imagery alternates between religious icons and images of more personal importance: a Korean gift basket, an abandoned fire lookout and friend's personal altar of scrap metal, barbed wire and detritus, visited on a snowy day.

The mirrored images were suggested by the geometric patterning of Dineh sand painting (itself one of the image sources), and recall the bilateral symmetry common in altarpieces. The pallet features soft pastel colors, and was suggested by the paintings of Duchamp, themselves imbued with a patina of intellectual mysticism.

SelfsameSelfsame takes us in a more social direction. Clearly it is about men, and our self-images, our personae. But it is also about all kinds of personal presentations, the contrast between the intimate self and the packaged self, and the ultimate realization that the sophistication of the latter does not erase the former. Beneath the unsullied facade of Wall Street executives lie men who indulge in the universal rituals of dressing and undressing, defecating, masturbating. The rigid code of dress and behavior promulgated by the chronically tie-clad agents demonstrates the disqualification of the body: it is relegated to the circulation of signs, which is the realm of all produced and consumed objects. Unlike the other videos in this collection, Selfsame was shot almost entirely on film, which was hand-processed before being transferred to video for editing and further manipulation.

Mea Culpa was originally inspired by a notorious series of experiments conducted in the 1960s by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which assistants were recruited to administer electric shocks of progressively increasing intensity to subjects who failed to master simple memorization tasks. Upon prodding by the experimenter, whose commanding presence and white coat conveyed authority, many of the assistants willingly administered severe and potentially lethal shocks to the helpless subjects. Unknown to the assistants, these subjects were actually Milgram's confederates and were not harmed; the assistants were the "true" subjects in the experiment. Mea Culpa is the result of my reflections on the notion of banality of evil, the sense of obligation and duty that impels normal people to participate in aggressive behavior.

Mea CulpaThe work opens with an adult man bathing nude in a mountain pool. This is intercut with pictographs, and accompanied by an aural collage of religious chanting from various Western and non-Western cultures, serving to establish the work's essentially humanistic theme. While the opening emphasizes the individual's relation to the self, the heart of the piece focuses on the individual's integrative relation to others. An extended stream-of-consciousness unfolds, incorporating the many dimensions of social interaction: people talking, working and playing together in various relations of authority, subordination and peerage. Over this montage, images and sounds recorded in Milgram's actual experimental trials continually emerge, like a recurrent nightmare or flashback, reminder of the psychotic threshold which society passes when it begins to overvalue its members' capacity for obedience.

The work's coda is devoid of any sign of human presence. Sparse, distant music accompanies the image of an old quarry frame and a cemetery. Both are abandoned: uninhabited traces of former life and activity. Besides balancing the earlier polarities of individual and group identity, this ending completes the metaphor of a passage from birth to death: that of the self, or perhaps of an entire society or race.

- Michael Schell, November 1996

Michael Schell: LINGERING-EPIPHANY and other videos

56 minutes total. Videotapes produced through residencies at the Experimental Television Center (Owego, New York), Film/Video Arts and the Center for Electronic Music (New York), the Center for Computer Music at Brooklyn College, Real Art Ways (Hartford), the Community Programming Center at Heritage Communications (Iowa City), and the Corroboree Gallery of The University of Iowa. Additional support from the Electronic Arts Grants program of the Experimental Television Center, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts, the Media Alliance ON-LINE program, Meet the Composer, Harvestworks and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. Special thanks to Sherry Miller Hocking, Phill Niblock and Mary Ann Toman.

Video and music copyright  19841991 by Michael Schell. Text and compilation copyright  1996 by Michael Schell

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