Viewing Time

Kate Mondloch

Flânerie engenders fiction. Traditionally synonymous with a single screen and a captive, immobile and frontally positioned spectator, the cinematographic spectacle undergoes a strange fate here as…myriad screens and the duration of the spectator's physical itinerary determines the duration of a narrative, the time of a fiction.

–Dominique Païni (Païni 2000: 38)

What this points to, I think, is a deepening of distracted perception; psychic attention in dispersal is not a barrier to, but more simply, a condition of reception.

–Peter Osborne (Osborne 2004: 73)

Image 1

Eija-Liisa Ahtila
35mm film, DVD installation
23 min 40 sec, 1:1.85, Dolby Surround
Copyright Crystal Eye Ltd, Helsinki
Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris

Contemporary film and video installations have been theorised as exercises in viewing time. Spectators both view temporality on display in these time-based works of art, and, moreover, do so for a particular amount of time, for a particular duration. While much has been written about how artists "exhibit" time, from philosophical and aesthetic, as well as film and art historical, points of view (Birnbaum, Bellour, Païni, Royoux, et al.), less has been written about the ostensibly more mundane concerns associated with the durational dynamics of the artwork's reception. This essay will focus on an aspect of the temporal experimentation in recent film and video installation that remains undertheorised—the multiple and sometimes contradictory temporal regimes at work in the presentation of moving images to moving bodies in space.

I will begin by outlining why "viewing time" is an important question for media art criticism and go on to suggest that the nature of spectatorship associated with post-1990s installations, whether intentionally or not, demonstrates remarkable affinities to the multi-screen, windowed "sampling" associated with contemporary media screen-based consumer activities. I will analyze why this might be the case and consider the critical implications of this tendency in terms of the theory and practice of museum-based media art. I will conclude with a detailed case study of an exemplary work that appears to comprehend and contest the current consumer context of the art gallery experience, Eija-Liisa Ahtila's Consolation Service (1999), and suggest that works such as Ahtila's offer productive new critical frameworks for media art criticism.

Moving Images, Moving Bodies

Installation artworks made with time-based media have proliferated since the 1990s, aided and abetted by the enthusiastic institutional embrace of moving image works. While critics disagree about what to call this increasingly pervasive and variegated mode of art practice—potential labels include "projected image", "multiscreen", or "multiprojection" installation, "the other cinema" (Bellour), "the cinema of exhibition" (Royoux), "artists' cinema" (Connolly), and the like—media installation as a genre is consistently associated with the work of artists such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Douglas Gordon, Shirin Neshat, Doug Aitken, Bruce Nauman, Pierre Huyghe, Pipilotti Rist, Sam Taylor-Wood, Steve McQueen, and Stan Douglas. Film and video installations are typically presented as room-sized, experiential environments that are meant to unfold in space and time: the viewer's relationship to these hybrid works is thus both sculptural and cinematic.

As evocative attempts to - in critic and curator Daniel Birnbaum's words - "install time in space," these time-based artworks are as distinctive as they are abundant. The durational dynamics of the viewing experience are of special concern because, in contrast to the ostensibly preordained duration associated with non-installation variants of artists' film and video (such as experimental film or single-channel video tapes), viewers of media installation artworks tend to enjoy what one might call an exploratory duration in observing gallery-based media installations: spectators physically explore the spatialised artwork and autonomously determine the length of time they spend with the film or video footage. Inasmuch as the museum-based media artwork's temporality is deeply contingent upon the actions of the viewer, "viewing time" emerges as a central critical concern for assessing this type of artistic production.

Among the scholars who have directly addressed the temporality of reception, Peter Osborne's essay entitled "Distracted Reception," written for the 2004 exhibition Time Zones at the Tate Museum, offers an extremely rich model for considering the politics of duration. Osborne appreciates the distinctive spatiality of gallery-based film and video installation while also indicating the various temporal impulses at play in their production and reception:

[T]he temporality of reception will be a product of [the] temporality of the work and the other temporalities at play in the field of the viewer—temporalities that are embodied articulations of spatial relations. Each work makes its own time, in relation to its space, and hence to other times; but it can only succeed in doing so by taking into account in advance the spatio-temporal conditions—the dialectic of attention and distraction—characteristic of its prevailing reception. The work of art is in a deep sense 'contextual.' It necessarily incorporates some projected sense of its conditions of reception into the logic of its production. (Osborne 2004: 72; emphasis added)

Not just how spectators will engage the time-based work, but also for how long, thus is structured into the fabric of the work itself. Extending Walter Benjamin's famous 1930's analysis of distracted perception in the age of mechanical reproduction, Osborne proposes that film and video art in the gallery, as prototypical objects of "distracted" examination, are especially revelatory as sites of reflection upon a larger cultural dialectic of attention and distraction. Further, he observes that this dialectic of continuity and interruption, absorption and disregard, is in fact a "dialectics of duration." If Osborne is right, what type of relationships to duration do post-1990s museum-based media installations promote?

As I proposed above, the art gallery visitor's habitually nomadic and self-directed experience with time-based works is symptomatic of ingrained patterns in contemporary art institutions and revelatory of broader cultural tendencies. Dominique Païni offers a partial account; in a series of articles published in Art Press and elsewhere, Païni notes that the meaning of many media installations is contingent upon the viewer's self-directed wandering and argues that this ostensibly new mode of spectatorship is instead an extension of an older paradigm. He writes: "Some of these installations effect a profound transformation creating a new kind of spectator who, in fact, harks back to a forgotten but enduring heritage. Here, quite unexpectedly at this century's end, we witness the return of Baudelaire's flâneur." These "fin-de-siècle installations," declares Païni, "are bringing back the window-display effect that was given architectural and scenographic form by the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth-century." (2000: 41)

Païni's analogy between installation spectatorship and the "window-display effect" of nineteenth-century Parisian arcades is helpful because it tackles head on the obvious links between "flânerie" in the gallery, and consumerism and individualism in everyday commercial culture. In regard to media installation art, however, the formulation is incomplete. Païni's reference to the "paradoxical hybrid of salon- and moviegoer" in the same essay (Païni 2000: 39) is indicative of the argument's shortcomings; the hybrid viewer constitutes a "paradox" only if one insists (like Païni) on the centrality of literal mobility. The importance of the viewer's physical ambulation in determining the "duration of a narrative" in many post-1990s film and video installations is undeniable, of course: the multiple screens and/or multiple rooms of Chantal Akerman's D'est (1993-95) or Doug Aitken's electric earth (1999) for example, require the viewer to move through the piece to take in the work. Literal mobility is often less important, however, than a more generalised "sampling" or "drive-by" engagement with the time-based work of art; viewers observe a work for the duration of their choosing (during which time they may very well be stationary) before "moving on" to something else.

The experience of viewing post-1990s media installation artworks is thus allied less with disinterested roving through nineteenth-century arcades than it is with contemporary forms of screen-based communication and interaction. We may or may not be mobile as we interact with our omnipresent screen-based devices (computer screens, screen-based handheld devices, information kiosk screens, and the like), but, as we shall see in what follows, we tend to maintain an individualised timetable and consumerist logic throughout.

Windows Shopping

In what ways might contemporary film and video installations support a mode of spectatorship reflective of everyday screen-based consumer culture? The relevant factors are multiple and complex; they include: the temporal logic of the artworks themselves, the role of the institution, the critical discourse surrounding this kind of artistic production, and, most importantly, certain technological and cultural developments in post-1990s screen-reliant society. Before moving on to assess each of these factors in turn, it is important to emphasize that many film and video installations intentionally refute linearity and conventional narrative structure and, in contrast to most experimental film and video, not all are meant to be seen in their entirety. In fact, the duration of the viewing experience arguably is the content of certain gallery-based works, such as Shirin Neshat's two-screen Turbulent (1998-99), in which, as Michael Archer has observed, the viewer's silent discomfort at standing at attention purposefully reflects the provocative subject matter. (Archer 1999: 2) What I want to address here, however, is the overall propensity of both artists and art institutions to promote and support the itinerant museum visitor's "sampling" approach to the media artwork, whether intentionally or otherwise.

Artists have created media installations that encourage the peripatetic museum visitor's self-directed behavior in four general, and frequently overlapping, ways: first, by creating works that are so long or that have so many potential combinations of imagery or dispersed points of view so as to make a "full" viewing effectively impossible (Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993), Stan Douglas's Win, Place or Show (1998), or Pierre Huyghe's the third memory (1999), for example). Second, by employing multiple or split screens that require viewer mobility through space so that the overall "experience" might be privileged over the complete footage (Chantal Ackerman's D'est or Doug Aitken's electric earth). Third, by presenting the work on a loop so that audiences are able to walk in or out at any time with little clue as to what might constitute the full duration of the work, and so that there is no finality except for repetition itself (Paul Pfeiffer, Fragment of a Crucifixion (After Francis Bacon), 1999). Fourth, by de-privileging storyline or narrative content in favor of spatialised and mobile experience, or by having little apparent narrative in the first place (what Royoux has referred to as a "cinema of immobility," not in terms of the viewer, but in terms of the projected imagery's near motionlessness in works such as Tacita Dean's 2008Merce Cunningham performs Stillness (in three movements) to John Cage's composition 4'33".) I in no way mean to suggest that these methods do not constitute compelling aesthetic strategies in their own right, but rather I want to direct attention to the "consumer is always right" logic lurking at the core of their reception.

The ways in which contemporary art institutions and large art exhibitions tend to encourage spectatorial sampling of artworks has been theorised by many critics, perhaps most famously by Rosalind Krauss in her celebrated essay on the "The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum" (1990). Krauss laments the postmodern museum's spectacularisation of art and the way in which the contemporary museum emerges as a place to stage and experience intensities. Most important for the concerns of this essay, Krauss aligns installation art in particular with consumer culture and the "banalized commodified objects" of late capitalism. (Krauss 1990: 287) While this sweeping judgment has been contested productively, the larger point about the museum's role in facilitating a consumerist ethos aligned with late capitalist modes of labor and leisure remains centrally important.

Dominant critical frameworks, for their part, tend to celebrate exploratory duration and viewer autonomy in museum-based media art spectatorship. Spectatorial autonomy and mobility have been theorized as strategic interventions toward overthrowing both Modernist transcendentalism and cinematic passivity and immobility. This is due, in large part, to critical inheritances from the 1960s and 1970s—the combined legacy of minimalism's phenomenological approach, postminimalism's explorations of process and institutional critique, and the ideological critiques of (Brechtian) film/media theory. By the same logic, narrative, linearity, and fixed duration also emerge as problematic, largely due to their association with the control and passivity allegedly inherent to cinema's theatrical reception. While extremely compelling in certain contexts, the collective effect of these arguments is problematic in regard to media installation art for two main reasons: first, they tend to encourage and champion open-ended and nomadic spectatorship while overlooking alternate aesthetic strategies for media art—collective reception, "immersion," and narrative among them. Second, these arguments routinely emphasise cinema as the paradigmatic example in lieu of other relevant screen-based practices, from television to handheld communication devices. Furthermore, this cinema-centric discourse frequently focuses on visual forms of engagement over other significant modes, such as sound or touch.

In attempting to craft a media art criticism capable of confronting the ways in which many media installations ostensibly empower individual subjects to direct their own temporal experience of the work, it is imperative to reconcile the above aesthetic strategies and critical arguments with key technological developments in screen-based media forms, especially since the 1990s. Anne Friedberg is especially helpful in this regard as she offers an historical analysis linking spatial and temporal mobility with various visual technologies (cinema and television but also shopping malls and multiplex theatres) to the "window shopping" culture of consumption stretching from the nineteenth-century to the present (Friedberg 1993). While the computer will be her ultimate focus (Friedberg 2006), she reminds us that developments such as the VCR, the remote control, and the widespread distribution of cable television brought new temporalities to media viewing (what she calls the mobilised virtual gaze) as early as the late 1970s and 1980s, even before the extensive use of digital PCs in the 1990s. (Friedberg 2004)  The widespread use of interactive PCs and the proliferation of mobile and handheld screen-based devices since the early 1990s make the consumerist impulse implicit in viewer-determined timeframes even more clear. As Friedberg masterfully explains, the multi-screen, windowed visuality of the ubiquitous Windows operating system encourages and enables independent time-shifting on an unprecedented scale. Considered this way, window shopping and Windows shopping converge.

In an era in which we are surrounded by media screens of all kinds both inside and outside the art gallery, the consequences of this Windows shopping behavior are profound. Clearly, it is not coincidental that projected and moving image works (and their largely viewer-determined timeframes) rose to prominence in art museums and international exhibitions in the same period during which interactive PCs and other time-shifting consumer media technologies inundated commercial and domestic sites as well. Jeffrey Skoller offers a tentative critique of museum-based media installations that is directly concerned with the issue of viewing time in the final chapter of his 2005 book, Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film. Exploratory duration is presented not as progressive and liberatory, but as unthinkingly aligned with screen-based consumer activity and as compromising the potential radicality of experimental film (the book's principal interest is avant-garde film outside of a gallery context). He writes:

Rather than cinematic time being used as a subversive space outside the overflow of modern experience in which images can open into the flow of time as an engaged reflective experience of thought, the museum exhibit connects cinema with the video arcade, in which viewers drift from installation to installation guided by the length of time their interest lasts. (Skoller 2005: 177)

The video arcade analogy, while provocative, is less of immediate interest here than Skoller's argument that the viewer's material confrontation with narrative duration is in fact central to the criticality of time-based visual art. This critical operation (what he describes as the work's ability to productively call attention to the "unrepresentable aspects of history that nevertheless deeply impact the experience of everyday life") entails a commitment to narrative duration, even if the narrative strategies media artists utilise may be remarkably varied. While Skoller does not offer any examples of installation artworks that successfully negotiate this tension, Ahtila's Consolation Service emerges as a potential solution to the problematic he identifies—albeit in a way unaccounted for in the text. Ahtila's viewers are invited to partake in what we might call, misquoting Benjamin by way of Osborne, "distracted immersion." Consolation Service accounts for the multiple temporal flows of absorption and distraction that structure the audience's experience while simultaneously insisting on their quasi-immersive encounter with material duration.

Screen Capture

Before analysing the critical intervention associated with Consolation Service it is necessary to describe the complex piece in detail. The two-channel video installation consists of an elaborate fictional narrative projected on a long blank wall at the back of a darkened rectangular gallery space. The two projections are screened synchronously and offer two different perspectives of the same story, facilitating comparisons between two points of view that overlap only rarely. Whereas other artists have utilised this dual screen technique primarily to emphasise spatial differences (Douglas Gordon and Shirin Neshat come to mind), Ahtila's double screens deconstruct temporal as well as spatial continuity. The artist explains that one screen is primarily concerned with detail and context shots, and the other with moving the narrative along, although this is not readily apparent on a first viewing.

Image 2

Eija-Liisa Ahtila
35mm film, DVD installation
23 min 40 sec, 1:1.85, Dolby Surround
Copyright Crystal Eye Ltd, Helsinki
Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris

The work's lengthy and complex dialogue has suggestive affinities to other "story-based" media installations such as those by Sam Taylor-Wood, Stan Douglas, and Steve McQueen. In the case of Consolation Service, the intricately layered story concerns a disenchanted young couple—new parents Anni and JP—that recently decided to divorce. "It's a story about an ending," the narrator confides. Pivotal events include a therapist guiding the couple through a separation ritual, a birthday celebration for JP, and the accidental drowning of the couple and their friends after having fallen through the treacherously thin ice of a frozen lake. A female neighbor recounts the tragic yet mundane (or, better, tragic because mundane) tale of the ex-lovers in Finnish. English subtitles run across both screens, so that a single narration of events accompanies what at times almost seems to be two opposed story lines. This is just one of the myriad ways in which Ahtila insistently casts viewers out of what might otherwise become a cozy cinematographic cocoon; other examples include having characters sporadically reveal their position as actors and speak directly to the camera, and allowing the actors' dialogue to draw the (never pictured) narrator into the story.

Consolation Service weaves countless loops of pastness across and between the two adjacent projections; it is never clear what is fantastical or metaphorical and what, if anything, is "real." For example, Anni reappears unharmed in her empty apartment just after her descent into impossibly cold waters, whereas JP apparently perished in the accident, given that he returns post-drowning as a pixilated apparition longing to achieve peace with his estranged spouse. As Catherine Fowler has aptly noted about the unconventional narrative strategy deployed in the piece: "past and present can exist simultaneously in a time of 'meanwhile.'" (Fowler 2004: 338)

In significant contrast to the open-ended, spectator-determined duration of many contemporary installations, there is a sense that you will miss something central to Consolation Service if you walk away before the 23'40" loop is done. To consequently describe this work as a narrative film is both correct and grossly misleading, however; the events are not linear in any traditional sense and, as stated, the work rewards viewing initiated at any point in the cycle. Although the work does not need to be experienced in a linear, start-to-finish fashion—the rich narrative is equally compelling no matter at which point one begins watching it—this piece encourages the audience to observe the imagery in its totality. On the one hand, the work's ideal spectatorship is allied to that of experimental film and video (whose discrete duration implies some sort of closure, no matter how unresolved), while on the other hand, the installation exploits the habitually nomadic quality of gallery-based art viewing; the innovation of works such as Ahtila's lies in the creation of a non-linear narrative that specifies a fixed durational requirement, but one which does not require viewing from "beginning" to "end."

Viewers understand that they are expected to watch the entire dual-screen film for several reasons. Comfortable seating and clearly posted running times are perhaps the most conspicuous cues. The neighbour's impassive yet enchanting narration, too, contributes to the sense that there is an entire story to know, even if the "story" is multilayered, open-ended, and circular (effectively a loop within a loop). While the fragmentary events are deliberately incapable of presenting an overarching and coherent account, to witness less than twenty-four minutes of Consolation Service is, in some sense, to fail to see the work at all. The artist in fact insists that the two-screen installation be presented to the audience "from start to finish, as a film," recommending that exhibition venues start the film every full and half hour (Hirvi 2002; emphasis in original). (That many of Ahtila's installations (including this one) are also conceived as single screen, 35 mm experimental films further supports the notion that viewers should preferably see the entire recording.) Even if, in actual practice, viewers frequently appear to be emboldened by the institution and by the presumed etiquette of the "white cube" (O'Doherty) to enter and leave film and video installations at any time, the critical gesture bound up with the artwork's ideal spectatorship is extremely significant.

Media art installations such as Consolation Service are noteworthy for the way in which they provocatively disrupt the contemporary museum audience's entrenched allegiance to independent roaming, drawing one's attention to media time (or, in Osborne's words, to the "dialectic of attention and distraction") in the process. Although the artist asks her audience to commit to a specific viewing time in what appears to be a relatively mainstream commercial cinematic screening context—immobile, seated viewers observe the media work in a darkened enclosure for a period of time determined by the length of the media work itself—this is not a simple translation of narrative, storyline or theatrical cinematic viewing into a gallery context. Ahtila's work borrows superficially from conventions associated with theatrical cinematic viewing, such as fixed length, narrative, and immersive viewing, but it unsettles them at the same time.

The work's multi-layered, looping, and non-linear narrative is key to its disruptive function. Writing about the work of Ahtila, Stan Douglas, Darren Almond, and others, Birnbaum has identified an array of aesthetic strategies by which artists question linearity through time-based art; he notes, for example, that the simultaneity of several flows of moving imagery grants "the possibility not only of dense and temporally multilayered imagery, but also of intricate constellations and juxtapositions." (Birnbaum 2005: 60) Fowler pursues a similar line of thought, describing the temporal logic of images associated with non-linear narrative in installations such as Ahtila's as: "unfolding 'next to' each other rather than the time frame of 'what comes next.'" (Fowler 2004) What is important to emphasise is how, for both Birnbaum and Fowler, this complex temporal layering contributes to the work's ability to effectively put time on display in the art gallery, and thereby to promote reflective awareness about the temporal flows that structure our everyday lives.

It is important to recognise that Consolation Service flirts with, but ultimately escapes, the contemplative immersion associated with certain forms of cinematic and media spectacle (critiques that continue to haunt the reception of media artworks such as those by Bill Viola, among others). In an essay about Salla Tykkä's exemplary practice, Maria Walsh has pointed to the centrality of narrative, as well as spaces of imagination and fantasy, in establishing a potentially new criticality in media art. (Walsh 2003) She argues that Tykkä's production of an affective, immersive spectatorship associated with the emotional life of the body productively circumvents the reigning deconstructionist, literalist approaches to media installation art (she mentions Huyghe and Gordon as emblematic of this "formalist" tendency). While not explicitly concerned with the question of viewing time, Walsh's theoretical framework provides a way to conceptualise how Ahtila's artistic production, like Tykkä's, is purposefully estranged from dominant models of film and video installation and, by extension, from their viewer-determined time frames.

In these ways, Ahtila's Consolation Service offers an example of creative resistance to predominant modes of media installation reception. The distinctive critical interventionof Consolation Service's distracted immersion is to urge audiences to think about their consumerist Windows shopping behavior with media time, even from within relatively "conventional" models of cinematic spectatorship. Exceeding extant models of media and art criticism, Ahtila's narrative-based, semi-immersive and sedentary spectatorship emerges—somewhat paradoxically—as a radical gesture. The artwork's particular durational requirement—its distinctive relationship to viewing time—appears to recognise and contest the current institutional and consumer context of the art gallery experience, and, in the process, to facilitate a reflective relationship to normative media screen interfaces.

By way of conclusion, it is important to note that critics of museum-based media art stand a lot to gain by looking at media installation from a broad interdisciplinary perspective. Among the potential disciplinary contributions, art history provides important historical frameworks for understanding sculpture as well as critiques of art institutions; experimental film theory and criticism offer useful models for beginning to think about the merits of narrative, content, and discrete duration as well as their particular engagement with historical time; and scholarship on new media contributes a way to appreciate the momentous impact of recent technological developments and their critical consequences.

Combining these approaches, it seems apparent that there is indeed something exceptional about museum-based media artworks that facilitate distracted immersion. Ahtila's Consolation Service offers an interesting counterpoint to self-directed models of viewing film and video installation art by creating a spectatorship that interrogates the complexities of media time and our relationship to it under otherwise relatively conventional theatrical cinematic screening conditions. Faced with the pervasive Windows shopping that characterises a large part of everyday experience in what Lev Manovich and others have called our "society of the screen," the critical gesture of works like Ahtila's lies in getting us to reflect on our engagement with media interfaces in general, and their complex durational dynamics (individual, institutional, historical) in particular.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Anne Friedberg (1952-2009).


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