- Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art
Guy Debord famously theorized that ours is a society of spectacle, and Michel Foucault mapped a social order in which power, knowledge, subjectivity, and subjection are intimately linked. In her introduction to Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art, art historian Kate Mondloch builds on Debord's analysis of alienation and Foucault's insights regarding docile, disciplined bodies, suggesting that contemporary media consumers are subjects in a "society of the screen," wired into a boundless circuit of exchanges—involving television, movies, computers, cell phones, you name it—whereby "screens literally and figuratively stand between us, separating bodies and filtering communications between subjects."1
As persuaders, manipulators, seducers, and commanders of attention, Mondloch contends, screens have turned us into "screen subjects," interpellated without let-up by technologies of the visual and the virtual. But freedom is in the air, she continues. Critically aware viewers can learn to resist the passivity and isolation that these technologies promote, and can discover modalities, configurations, and practices that allow for what media theorist Jonathan Crary calls a "potentially volatile disequilibrium" in interactions between body and screen, thus opening a space for creative and autonomous spectatorship.2 Artworks charged with critical intelligence can help this salutary [End Page 173] process along, and Mondloch finds many such works in the underexplored domain of "screen-reliant" installation art.
Screens focuses on varieties of reflexive media art that foreground the "material, psychic, ideological, and institutional" modes of mediation that structure our daily screen-based experiences.3 These works accomplish their critical task by emphasizing the materiality of the screen and the embodied presence of the spectator-participant, thereby demystifying the former and liberating the latter from the passive absorption promoted by conventional uses of screen technology. This demystification/liberation can function either in sophisticated ways or through the simple fact that spectators can enter, leave, and traverse the viewing area as they choose. Ever vigilant to the negative capabilities of screens, Mondloch notes that even progressive installations can fall prey to the coercive tendencies inherent in dominant media, since virtually all screens solicit the attention and affect the actions of the viewer. But her most useful analyses accentuate the positive, outlining ways in which smart, creative installation art illuminates the ever-shifting connections between viewing bodies and screens in their multiple roles as image carriers, material objects, architectural features, and loci of attraction for their beholders.
Screens is most valuable for its clear, conscientious descriptions—along with indispensable photographs and diagrams—of artworks that are ephemeral by nature, normally existing in their intended form only as long as a museum or gallery provides the necessary venue. In the first chapter, Mondloch sets forth her rationale for speaking of "screen-reliant" rather than "screen-based" works: basically, she wants to stress the polyvalent nature of screens within installation spaces, where they serve as both material entities and virtual windows on external scenes. She supports her case with lucid accounts of works by two great media artists. Paul Sharits's aptly titled Soundstrip/Filmstrip (1971-1972) is a "locational" work involving four projectors, footage of colored stripes, and a recorded voice, arranged in a gallery through which viewers can move at their own pace. Michael Snow's conceptually intricate Two Sides to Every Story (1974) calls for a dimly lit room in which 16mm sync-sound films are projected on the front and back of an aluminum screen. In both works, the films unspool, the spectators vary their positions, and the screens oscillate between the illusionistic representationalism of painting and the opaque materiality of sculpture. These installations take the viewer-screen relationship as their subject matter, somewhat in the vein of the structural film-making that was in ascendency when they were devised, and Mondoch's analyses give her line of argument an effective start.
Subsequent chapters follow suit. Discussions of works by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham support Mondloch's assertion that live closed-circuit imagery can reveal, and thus countervail, some coercive tactics of dominant media-viewing regimes. Case studies of...