Anna-Helena Klumpen on
Richard Serra

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Technology is a form of tool making (body extension). Technology is not art—not invention. It is a simultaneous hope and hoax. It does not concern itself with the undefined, the inexplicable: it deals with the affirmation of its own making. Technology is what we do to the Black Panthers and the Vietnamese under the guise of advancement in a materialistic theology. RICHARD SERRA, 1971[1]

Richard Serra is primarily recognized for his minimalist sculptural work. His large-scale and site-specific steel installations are shown worldwide in public spaces and international museums. Less known and rarely screened are the films and videos he made between 1968 and 1979. After experimenting with 16mm short films, in the early 1970s Serra became fascinated by the potential of the new video technology and produced a few videotapes.[2] Four of the seven works he made during this short videographic period are part of the collection of the Ludwig Forum for International Art: Television Delivers People (1973), Boomerang (1974), Match Match Their Courage (1974), and Prisoner’s Dilemma (1974).[3] The last two films in Serra’s audiovisual oeuvre, Railroad Turnbridge (1976) and Steelmill/Stahlwerk (1979), are again shot on 16mm. As for the Hand and Process series of 1968, Serra was interested in film here not as a medium for illustration or documentation of his artistic process but as an “extension of the sculpture”—he used film to expand the parameters of sculpture and physical space. These task-oriented “studio studies,” as Serra himself calls his first films, were all about “hand manipulation,” using materials he would also work with in his sculptural practice.[4] The situation is quite different with the sociopolitical videotapes Serra produced in 1973 and 1974. For Serra, video is a public communication device. Consequently, his engagement with the newly available technology led him inevitably to broadcast video, in other words, to television. He was primarily interested here in video art’s capacity to expose the manipulative format of television: “Rather than just use video to document my art activities or my psyche… what I tried to do is to point to television’s esthetic.”[5] The paradigmatic piece of Serra’s television critique is the video Television Delivers People, which he made with Carlota Fay Schoolman in 1973. For the six minutes of the tape, yellow text scrolls upwards against a blue background, recalling the aesthetics of a teleprompter. Around fifty programmatic statements, such as “It is the consumer who is consumed,” “You are the end product delivered en masse to the advertiser,” “What goes on over the news is what you know,” and “Control over broadcasting is an exercise in controlling society” are supposed to reveal the marketing strategies of media industries and to dismantle television as an instrument of ideological and social control.[6] According to Serra, television is characterized by an intrinsic conflict between commerce, information, and entertainment.[7] Although his critical “manifesto” stands in stark contrast to the accompanying Muzak soundtrack, the combination of these elements creates, as John G. Hanhardt and Maria Christina Villaseñor point out, “a seductive frame that sells Serra’s critique, ironically a critique that subverts the ideology of commodity television.”[8] By appropriating the artifices of the medium being criticized, Serra’s didactic videography turns television against itself. In so doing, the work intertwines the two prevailing poles of early video practice: formal invention, in the sense of combining heterogeneous elements, and the critique of television.

Another of Serra’s works counteracting the televisual dispositif is the ten-minute tape Boomerang, co-produced with Nancy Holt in 1974. Holt’s body is the central instrument of the video. The artist-practitioner is framed in a close-up perspective against a blue background, sitting in a recording studio and wearing earphones. As the call letters and the “Audio Trouble” signs that interrupt the image indicate, the video was broadcast live on a television station, in Amarillo, Texas.[9] Although placed in the context of a TV production, the video basically undermines the entire television enterprise with regard to both form and content. Holt is faced with her own image on a monitor, and as she begins to talk, her words are fed back to her through the headset she is wearing, with a slight delay of less than a second. This electronically produced echo incessantly hypostatizes her words, complicating Holt’s ability to speak: “I think I have trouble making connections between thoughts. … I can’t quite say a word because I hear a first part come back and I forget the second part, or my head is stimulated in a new direction by the first half of the words.” Holt speaks slowly and deliberately as she continues to describe her situation: the audio feedback “puts a distance between the words and their apprehension—or their comprehension”; “I am surrounded by me and my mind surrounds me.” In her seminal essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” from 1976, Rosalind Krauss refers to Boomerang as the prime example of video’s effects of centering:

Unlike the other visual arts, video is capable of recording and transmitting at the same time—producing instant feedback. The body is therefore as it were centered between two machines that are the opening and closing of a parenthesis. The first of these is the camera; the second is the monitor, which re-projects the performer’s image with the immediacy of a mirror.[10]

According to Krauss, this auditory mirror reflection that Holt is subjected to severs her from a sense of text and from herself: it leads to a certain “self-encapsulation” typical for video art.[11] In Boomerang, Holt’s body exists as a “medium” in relation to, or complicated by, the video and audio recording instruments. Her discourse reveals the structural framework of the delayed audio feedback system that is operating on two tape recorders and earphones.

An outstanding piece in the Ludwig Forum’s collection of video art is Serra’s videotape Match Match Their Courage from 1974. The work is peculiar not only concerning its genesis and history of distribution but also with regard to its ambivalent status—as videotape and/or 16mm film. Produced shortly after Boomerang, Match Match Their Courage too acts on the device of acoustic feedback, but this time the situation is complicated by the interaction of two performers. The thirty-minute film features Nancy Holt and Charlemagne Palestine, shot with two cameras and seen in close-up on a split screen, Palestine on the left and Holt on the right. “In the color tape … I found a very intimate space within the split screen and the possibility of dialogue that was exclusive to the framework of video,” Serra states in an interview with Liza Béar.[12] For the mise-en-scène of Match Match Their Courage, Serra equipped both artists with a video monitor showing the image of the other, while each was at the same time confronted with the audio feedback of their own voice and the actual locution of the other through earphones. Corresponding to their divergent responses to the challenging audiovisual exchange, the two parts of the screen have different color schemes: Holt, who reflects on the setting rather rationally, is colored in cool blue, while Palestine, who comments rather emotionally and sensually on the situation, is bathed in warm orange. He plays with the generation of sound and explores the limitations of the image frame. “What is interesting this time is that I hear this delayed echo, I also hear parts of your voice in reality,” Holt says. Palestine asks her, “You’re going to explain this thing, aren’t you? No matter what,” whereupon Holt objects: “I don’t think that words can ever approach explanation. … I think words tend to obscure”; they “set up a smoke screen between the reality and the manifestation of the reality electronically.” Some time later, when a tapping is heard, Holt argues: “People who will see the monitor will not know how the sounds are occurring. … But we’re also dealing with electronic images, so that some kind of interplay might be called for.” In the course of the videotape, the interaction between Holt and Palestine becomes more and more dramatic, if not burlesque.[13]

Noteworthy is also the history of production and distribution of the piece. Originally, the work was a videotape made in the television studio Windsor Total Video, New York, in cooperation with the art dealer Leo Castelli, with whom Serra had been working since 1967. Subsequently, due to Serra’s artistic choice, the NTCS tape was transferred to 16mm film “for the spatial and temporal qualities of television—the split screen, the immediate feedback and earphones, the nature of colorization—are displaced onto a larger image in which the personae of Holt and Palestine become magnified.”[14] Hence, the work is authorized both as videotape, evident in the interview with Liza Béar, as well as 16mm film. Eventually, when it came to the distribution of the film, the Leo Castelli Gallery made the work available as videotape.[15] Most likely, the piece included in the Ludwig Forum’s collection is therefore a redigitization of the kinescope. This double alienation of the work—from videotape into 16mm film into videotape—also raises questions with regard to its mode of display, namely whether it should be shown on a monitor or screened with a projector.

The videotape Prisoner’s Dilemma, at forty minutes the longest film in Serra’s 1974 video series, represents the summit of his involvement with the medium of video and his attempt to expose the structure of commercial television using its own devices. The film Serra made with his older brother, Robert Bell, is named after the game theory scenario known as the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” a fictitious situation in which a prisoner gains an advantage by betraying his fellow inmate. The tape actually is a combination of a prerecorded video directed by Bell on January 20, 1974, and a documentation of a live performance held two days later at 112 Greene Street, the legendary alternative art venue of early SoHo. The cooperative production is also distinct from the tapes preceding it on technical terms, as the live shooting involved three cameras.[16]

After a short rudimentary title sequence, the black-and-white tape begins with a close-up of Suzanne Harris, performing the US national anthem, followed by a dynamic cut to a dramatic sequence in which a district attorney (Richard Schechner) interrogates two “murder suspects” (Spalding Gray and Gerry Hovagimyan). Interviewing the prisoners separately, he confronts them with an excessive formulation of the prisoner’s dilemma: If they both sign the confession for the murder, they both get ten years in jail; if one signs and the other doesn’t—meaning, if one betrays the other—the one who signs will be set free while the other will serve fifty years in prison. If none of them signs, they will both only serve two years in prison. Eventually, Hovagimyan betrays Gray.

The second section of the tape is a documentation of the performance, which, modeled after a TV game show, reiterates the dilemma. “Quizmaster” Robert Bell opens the show by announcing that they are going to play the same game the audience has just seen on the videotape. As a cardboard wall had been built down the center of the art space, the audience, “several hundred people jammed together in a confined space,” could not attend the live performance directly but could only follow the show on monitors broadcasting the event. By means of this specific installation, the audience was deprived of their “power, by the thickness of a cardboard wall.”[17] To begin with, Bell presents the rules of the game to the two contestants, Leo Castelli and art critic Bruce Boice: If they both chose A, the two of them would have to spend four hours together in the basement of the gallery—“that’s twice the length of the average boring art videotape,” he jokes, followed by knowing laughter from the side room. If both of them chose B, they would spend only two hours together downstairs, and if one chose A and the other option B, the person choosing A would be free to leave, while the other would spend six hours alone downstairs. The section ends when Castelli and Boice, in a display of mutual respect, both choose option B. Finally, the last shot of the tape shows the art dealer and the critic sitting next to each other in the basement of 112 Greene Street. By transferring the notorious game theory concept onto the 1970s New York art scene in the form of a studio-scale TV production, Serra exposes both the structure of commercial television and the structure of the art world at that time. Moreover, with Prisoner’s Dilemma, he cryptically refers to a contemporary political affair: President Nixon and Vice-President Agnew’s tactical maneuvers in the Watergate Scandal.[18] In the interview with Béar, Serra explains:

The morality of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the idea of ‘to confess or not to confess’—right, wrong, justice, injustice—paralleled on the one hand the politics of TV programming and on the other hand the specific dilemma of politicians like Agnew and Nixon. The game does not allow for Agnew to confess, but the other people did—plea bargaining. That’s why Nixon’s so popular now [1974]. He can’t confess and people love him for it. The Schechner-Spalding tape is a straight parallel, very obviously so.[19]

Incorporating video into his artistic investigations almost from the moment of its inception, Richard Serra belongs to the first decade of video artists in the US. By that time in his career, in 1970, he had already developed a distinguished body of work in sculpture, with pieces made out of nontraditional materials such as fiberglass, rubber, and lead. Serra’s experimentation with film and video coincides with his creation of the large-scale site-specific sculptures out of steel that would bring him international renown. Yet, he himself does not see any relation between his sculptural, audiovisual, and graphic practices. For him, “each medium is resolute unto itself.”[20] Even though his films and videos represent an autonomous body of work, there are nevertheless references to—if not to say resonances withthe sculptural works of his important early period, particularly with regard to the acoustic dimension and the perception of space and sound. As for Serra’s sculptures, Hal Foster states that they not only “produce a phenomenological sensitivity in the viewer, but they also open onto a psychological dimension”—an observation that can equally well be applied to Serra’s audiovisual works such as Boomerang and Match Match Their Courage.[21] Both his sculptures and his videotapes are investigations of the phenomenal world. The perception of his large-scale walk-in installations, such as the Torqued Ellipse series, is accompanied by, if not even based on, the sensual and physical experience of walking through the space, challenging the viewers’ experience of their bodies, either in relation to interior spaces or landscapes. The perception of the audio feedback in Boomerang is also a physical as well as psychological experience, separating the listener from her Self while at the same time reifying language: “The words become like things … and they’re boomeranging back … boomeranging back” in Nancy Holt’s auricle.

 

[1] Richard Serra, quoted in Gail R. Scott, “Richard Serra,” in A Report on the Art and Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art 19671971, ed. Maurice Tuchman, exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971, p. 300.

[2] For a theoretical essay examining the sociopolitical context in which video art emerged in the late 1960s, see Chris Hill, “Attention! Production! Audience! Performing Video in its First Decade, 1968–1980*,” in Abina Manning and Brigid Reagan, eds. Rewind. A Guide to Surveying the First Decade: Video Art and Alternative Media in the U.S., 19681980, 2nd ed. Chicago: Video Data Bank, 2008, pp. 8–29.

[3] Apart from the four pieces included in the Ludwig Forum’s collection, Serra produced three other video works in the early 1970s, namely Anxious Automation (1971), China Girl (1972), and Surprise Attack (1973). In the literature, there are differing data on the date of production of Boomerang and Match Match Their Courage. Whereas Richard Serra and Nancy Holt refer to 1973 as the actual date of production, secondary literature indicates 1974, presumably as the official date of release. Certainly, the tape Boomerang was produced before Match Match Their Courage. See Nancy Holt’s filmography, http://www.nancyholt.com/holt.html (accessed September 28, 2016), and Richard Serra, “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” interview by Liza Béar, in Richard Serra: Interviews, Etc., 1970–1980, auths. Richard Serra and Clara Weyergraf. New York: Hudson River Museum, 1980, p. 42. For the sake of consistency, I refer in my article to the date of release.

[4] The Hand and Process series consists of the three films Hand Catching Lead, Hands Tied, and Hands Scraping (all produced in 1968). The quotations are from interviews with Richard Serra in Maria Anna Tappeiner’s documentary film Richard Serra: Film and Video (2004), an insightful dialogic tracing of Serra’s involvement with film and video.

[5] See Richard Serra, “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in Richard Serra, 1980, p. 41.

[6] Intriguingly, Serra formed the script of Television Delivers People out of quotations taken from papers by New York University and Columbia University scholars and people from National Broadcasting. See Richard Serra, “The Films of Richard Serra: An Interview,” interview by Annette Michelson, in Richard Serra, 1980, p. 104f.

[7] On this conflict raised in Television Delivers People, see also Richard Serra, “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in Richard Serra, 1980, p. 40.

[8] John G. Hanhardt and Maria Christina Villaseñor, “Video/Media Culture of the Late Twentieth Century,” Art Journal 54, no. 4 Video Art (Winter 1995), p. 22.

[9] Abina Manning et al., Rewind, p. 39.

[10] Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October 1 (Spring 1976), p. 53.

[11] Ibid., p. 53.

[12] See Richard Serra in Richard Serra, 1980, p. 42.

[13] In an interview with Bik van der Pol, Charlemagne Palestine tells the anecdote that he had been looking for the film for a long time, but the piece had disappeared: “So when the space opened [Leo Castelli Gallery], Richard had placed the piece right near Leo’s office. In the piece I do a lot of ‘Ha, ha, ho, ho,’ and I make all this noise and after the first week Leo went bananas. He couldn’t stand my voice anymore, so they turned the sound down and down. And once I had disappeared from their scene, they [presumably Castelli] decided the piece didn’t exist anymore. But before they could nix that film, Boijmans and several other places had already bought it, and it was through you [Bik van der Pol and the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen] that there was an actual copy.” See Charlemagne Palestine, “Bik van der Pol X Charlemagne Palestine,” interview by Bik van der Pol. Metropolis M, no. 3, 2015, p. 37.

[14] Liza Béar, ed., Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films (New York: Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films, Inc., 1974), p. 194. As represented on the cover design of the official catalogue Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films, stills from videotapes are framed in the rounded shape of a television screen, while film stills, like the one from Match Match Their Courage, are rectangular.

[15] It is not known how many video copies of the film are circulating. Most likely, Castelli-Sonnabend made copies on demand. See René Brown, Castelli Gallery, email message to Anna Sophia Schultz, Ludwig Forum Aachen, August 29, 2016. See also the advertisement “Some Recent Videotapes Made Available through the Leo Castelli Gallery,” in the art journal Avalanche, no. 9 (May/June 1974), p. 2,  http://avalancheindex.org/?listing=some-recent-videotapes-made-available-through-the-leo-castelli-gallery (accessed July 26, 2016). Besides the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, Match Match Their Courage is also part of the collection of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen but in the form of a 16mm film. See Saskia van Kampen-Prein, Boijmans van Beuningen, email message to Anna Sophia Schultz, Ludwig Forum Aachen, August 29, 2016.

[16] The three cameras were operated by Bob Fiore, Babette Mangolte, and Mark Obenhaus.

[17] See Richard Serra, Richard Serra, 1980, p. 42f.

[18] For a comprehensive analysis of the videotape, including its references to Watergate, see Pamela Lee, “Game Show: Richard Serra and the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in Changing Channels: Art and Television 19631987, ed. Matthias Michalka (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien). Cologne: Walther König, 2010, pp. 189–198.

[19] See Richard Serra, Richard Serra, 1980, p. 41.

[20] See Maria Anna Tappeiner, Richard Serra, 2004.

[21] Hal Forster, “Richard Serra in Bilbao,” Parkett 74 (2005), p. 32.