Peter Campus and the Television-Picture Feedback Loop

by Jessica Santone     

Rushing water, a gust of wind, or the electronic static of an old television; the sounds of Peter Campus’s eight-channel video installation Calling for Shantih (2009-10) are immediately apparent and oppressive, dominating the entirety of the high, open gallery space at the Richmond Center at WMU. What makes these sounds so oppressive, aside from their relative volume and overlapping playback in close proximity, is the absence of intelligible changes to the various recordings. Like Campus’s video images of serene landscapes, the sounds are almost still, registering subtle differences of the experience of time on a sunny afternoon outdoors.

Each video is about 24 minutes long, presented on a flatscreen monitor whose metal skeleton has been exposed as an industrial frame for the softened and blurred impressions of nature onscreen. Each picture – and these are indeed pictures rather than narrative sequences – isolates a single figure of a landscape, centering that boat or building or wave in the composition. The artist has digitally manipulated these landscape figures, abstracting their details into large blocks of color, layered over each other like the little facets of a Cubist painting, so that rays of sunlight dance to the foreground like yellow boxes descending a staircase – or, more aptly, the compositions glimmer with swatches of hyper-saturated squares of color that recall the divisionist techniques of Paul Signac [1] (the curator’s introduction suggests Cezanne or Corot [2]). But such a connection feels strained or false, beyond is sympathetic interests in temporality and light. These videos are like paintings, but a more contemporary sort. Perhaps a better comparison might be the work of Luc Tuymans [3], whose visual sensibility might be described as televisual. [4] Like Tuymans’ paintings, Campus’s videos glow vibrantly, appear pixelated, and make use of conventional close-ups or long shots.

Peter Campus, Dusk at Shinnecock Bay, 2010, Video still

I’ve long thought of Campus as a television artist, arriving on the art scene at a time when video art depending considerably on the cathode ray tube monitors for its display, always conveying a tension with our expectations of commercial programming as they challenged the formal capabilities of the new medium. [5] How curious that his new videos remind me then of the paintings of a younger generation inundated with mediated images. What a strange feedback loop to see video look like painting that looks like video. It is a loop that is complete. These new videos wouldn’t work on old tube monitors; as much as they need to glow from behind, they also depend on the flatness of the monitor as picture-plane. They ask of us to contemplate their flickering effect, but do not demand a durational engagement in the way that video installations typically. Campus’s Calling for Shantih brings video to the conditions of painting and challenges the way that we view images as static. Or, as David Joselit would describe in the work of painters like Thomas Eggerer, the image registers as “interference.” [6] Peter Campus’s videos show us pictures as visual noise.

As I reflect now on what I saw in the gallery, I’ve forgotten momentarily about the sound – that horrible aural static from a frustrated sound recording that echoes that frustrated clarity of the visual images. While the videos (sound and image) are nearly static, they are also precisely that – static, as noise. The romanticized images are encumbered by an inability to be fixed, with constant, slight movements of nature that won’t stop beating on. The sound changes these pictures, helps one recognize that they are durational and not still. But the sound is more abrasive than soothing, and more electronic than natural – making one wonder about the choice to focus mostly on manmade parts of the seascape. Is this a commentary on our intrusion into the natural environment, or the reverse – or both at once? ‘Shantih’ is a Sanskrit term for peace, but there is no tranquility here. Perhaps Campus is challenging us to also think about what a picture sounds like?

The sampler of earlier works by the artist in the back of the gallery is both more noticeable than these moving pictures in the front, and less striking. Unfortunately, there are not enough other works provide an adequate context for the new video installation. While Divide (2003) and Edge of the Ocean (2003) show experiments with layered video images and digital manipulation, Third Tape (1976), Head of a Misanthropic Man (1976), and Head of a Sad Young Woman (1976-78) present experiments with documentary portraiture and extended time. These works are not unrelated then, but do leave the viewer wanting something more to pull together the old and the new. However, by the time one reaches the back of the gallery space, the cacophony from all the video channels playing at once is overwhelming, making it hard to keep looking at the work.

[1] For example, Paul Signac, The Storm, Saint-Tropez, 1895.

[2] Don Desmett, Introduction, Peter Campus: Existentialism and a Half-life in Video (February 23 – March 23, 2012), http://www.wmich.edu/art/exhibitions/galleries/archive/2011_peter_campus.php.

[3] For example, Luc Tuymans, Parachuters, 1998. His Nuclear Plant (2006) is another good example.

[4] See Luc Tuymans, Madeleine Grynsztejn, and Helen Anne Molesworth, Luc Tuymans, exhibition catalogue (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2009).

[5] David Joselit, Feedback: television against democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).

[6] David Joselit, “Signal Processing: On Abstraction Then and Now,” Artforum 49, no. 10 (Summer 2011): 356-361; 430. (http://artarchives.net/texts/2011/joselit2011.html)

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