In this article, I examine artworks from two periods in the history of media art—the 1970s and the 2010s—to demonstrate how changes in our haptic relationship to screen media shift the site of criticality in contemporary media art from disruption of electronic feedback toward an intensification and embrace of image flows that actively seek the viewer's touch and gesture. I situate video art within the shifting concept of flow in everyday media consumption, reading video art practices within a larger matrix of bodily and cultural engagement with screens. I locate touch and gesture as both themes in the content of single-channel works and components of the structure of video installation. Artists discussed include Camille Henrot, Joan Jonas, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Bruce Nauman, and Hito Steyerl. My analysis bridges media theory and art history with close readings of salient works of art, connecting the structure of artworks employing haptic input to shifts in the broader media ecology and the dynamic interplay of touch, image, and power under our fingertips.
Many major shifts in media art can be mapped onto significant changes in technology: the emergence of video, the viewing practices of cable and VHS, the transition to digital technology, the rise of the internet, and so on. Far from simply incorporating or employing new technologies, artists respond to, critique, or make sense of each emerging form of media and how we interact with it. Historians and theorists charting the development of moving-image installation art, for example, often compare the criticality of the 1960s and '70s to the more cinematic and immersive installations of the 1990s and 2000s. Christine Ross discusses the “projective shift” between works in the 1960s and '70s that “partook of an aesthetics of self-criticality, distantiation, and reality-versus-illusion” and more recent “augmented reality” projects' aesthetics of “immersiveness, relationality, and real-virtual continuum.”1 Chrissie Iles terms these bodies of work “the phenomenological, performative phase” and “the cinematic phase” (with the underdeveloped “sculptural” period between them).2 Likewise, Erika Balsom sees a shifting sensibility in how contemporary artists choose to “exhibit cinema” in installation.3
Contemporary media art's immersive and cinematic qualities might initially seem to signal a loss of criticality, perhaps even an acceptance of dominant forms of media consumption, compared to the more distancing strategies of earlier generations of artists, but this changing sensibility is more accurately read as a response to corresponding changes in the broader media landscape, renegotiating the relationship between viewers and flows of images just as it is constantly reconfigured in everyday life. An important but often neglected avenue for reading this shift from the disruptive to the immersive in video art and video installation can be found in following the changes in how media platforms incorporate the haptic movements and touch of viewers. This pronounced shift can be seen most clearly in the poles of the period implied in the title of this article: from Joan Jonas's Vertical Roll (1972), a hallmark tape of early video art that contains both real and implied manual interference of the televisual apparatus, to Hito Steyerl's How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013), one of the artist's most widely screened works, and one that references multiple forms of viewer manipulations of screen content in the age of touchscreens, layered computer desktops, and drone technologies.
My use of the term “haptic” departs from the tech industry's “haptics,” a vibratory response an object gives to the user's touch, and works between various concepts from art history and media theory, shifting the use of this term from image to platform. Art historian Alois Riegl's schema of haptic and optic art, dating back to 1901, was one of the earliest Western art historical attempts to decenter the ocular by exploring the concept of the haptic.4 For Riegl, haptic images, like the relief carvings of ancient Egypt, exist on a surface to be touched and traversed, whereas optical images, like the illusionistic paintings of the Greeks and Romans, presume a static viewer with a distant, mastering gaze. More recently theorists including Giuliana Bruno and Laura U. Marks have analyzed haptic visuality as a means of reading embodiment in our relationship to screen media, combating ocularcentrism and the presumed detachment of the static observer.5 Similarly, Mark B. N. Hansen and Anna Munster consider how virtual reality and interactive technologies actually center (rather than cut out) the body through tactile interfaces and perceptual movements.6 Within media art practices, there are many trajectories of hapticity—including divergent strands contemporary to Jonas—that also challenge ocular-centricity. VALIE EXPORT's Touch Cinema (1968), for example, transforms the anonymous visual pleasure of the male gaze consuming the cinematic image of a woman into a face-to-face, tactile encounter between viewer and the artist's bare torso inside a curtained, wearable cinema theater. Media art pioneer Myron Krueger's early interactive computer experiments like Videoplace (1975) allow the viewer to virtually draw in space through gesture and movement, highlighting the “enactive” rather than “representational or simulational” capabilities of new technologies.7
While the contemporary theoretical explorations of the haptic in film theory and divergent explorations of touch and gesture in media art offer fascinating deployments of haptic spectator interaction and critiques of dominant media forms, what I am analyzing here is more specific. I am interested in the relationship between the body's movements and the control of moving-image flows as read through televisual and digital media. This includes both points of physical contact that disrupt or continue the flow of media, such as pushing a button, turning a dial, swiping a screen, or clicking a mouse, and movements through space that alter screen content, such as closed-circuit cameras or motion-activated sensors. My concern, then, is with dominant regimes of attention and how they discipline the visual and haptic behaviors of spectators, as well as how screens connect to the “body schema,” a term Hansen uses to position the sensory body as primary, phenomenological interface to the world.8 Though originally configured as an interruption or refusal of broadcast's imperative to gaze uninterrupted at the television screen, touch and haptic control have been folded into commercial media's algorithmic systems of power. As I demonstrate below, video artists within each period model alternative configurations of viewer and screen, offering new perspectives on the shift from distantiation to immersion in contemporary media art.
Both moments of my study, the 1970s and 2010s, feature near-complete market saturation of the media technologies explored by artists: broadcast television in the 1970s and personal computers and smartphones in the 2010s.9 By 1970, 95 percent of American households owned a television and in 2013, 83.8 percent of American households owned some form of computer (including desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone).10 The period of Jonas's tape featured a naturalization of broadcast television and its household apparatus, whereas by 2013, the date of two single-channel works discussed in my last section, the touch interfaces of personal computers and smartphones were commonplace and even referred to frequently in marketing materials as “intuitive.”
In what follows, I start with a close reading of how the haptic functioned as a critical force of disruption or disorientation in canonical early video art of the 1970s. I then consider how the concept of flow has changed from its initial description of broadcast television in the 1970s to the present-day, focusing on the on-demand streaming video platform Netflix as an example. I conclude by tracing how this new form of haptic continuation of flow operates in three contemporary art works: Steyerl's How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, Camille Henrot's Grosse Fatigue (2013), and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Sandbox (2010). By connecting the employment of the haptic in these two moments to the shifting relationship between touch and flow in screen media, I make important genealogical connections between video art of the 1970s and media art of today, explore touch as a significant motif in media art, and counter the tendency to over-privilege disruption of media flow as a strategy of critique. Though the three more contemporary works employ or reference touch and gesture in ways that are constitutive and not disruptive of media flows, these works (much like their 1970s predecessors) still manage to profoundly question the systems of power embedded in contemporary media interfaces by unwinding or exhausting their visual forms or inverting their function.
ASSAULTING THE APPARATUS
In Vertical Roll, video and performance art pioneer Joan Jonas manipulated the electron refresh on a monitor so as to exploit two out-of-sync frequencies, creating a jarring, disjunctive horizontal black line that appears to alternately violently descend down and erratically hit the top of the screen. This rhythmic movement obscures the tape's recorded images, denying both visual pleasure and an illusion of three-dimensional space. The tape opens with a shot of a blank room, already disrupted by the regular movement of the black bar. Soon a spoon appears. As Jonas bangs the spoon against a mirror, it appears to strike the screen itself. Her violent attack on the “screen” aligns with the constant, forceful clanging sound made by wood blocks and the jumping scan line that runs throughout the entire work.11 As Jonas performs in front of the camera, images shift between cropped shots of Jonas's body (sometimes dressed as her alter ego Organic Honey) and abstract patterns, but the clanging and jumping black bar continue. This rhythmic disruption constantly denies the viewer comfortable access to the entire image. The opening shot of the spoon appearing to strike the screen inaugurates the recurring banging sound, thus making visual disruption seem to stem from the artist's manual attack on the screen itself.
Jonas's performances in front of the camera exploit this manipulation of the video monitor. She frames her torso (dressed in Organic Honey's belly dancer clothes) so that it completely absorbs the frame, appearing as one continuous, phallic form undulating up and down. At another point her hands slap the upper and lower limits of the frame so that when appearing on the monitor, they seem to touch along the jerking black line. Jonas's manipulation of the monitor combined with her performance before the camera generate a transgressive haptic contact at the limits of the frame—her hands appear to negotiate a new tactile relationship to the medium through violent disruption both of the apparatus and of the image.
At the end of the tape's nearly twenty-minute runtime, the artist's face appears in front of the monitor and returns our gaze, reorienting our relationship to what we have just viewed as the recording of a monitor, a screen within a screen. She said of this moment, “when I put my face between the camera and the monitor the space changed and became more dimensional … reveal[ing] the space between.”12 Much like Jonas's video performances and installations, this ending further destabilizes screen space, opening up a plurality of identities and unravelling both the televisual image and its electronic object of transmission. Samuel Weber noted that television's ability to overcome spatial distance is predicated on its ability to “split the unity of place” through its simultaneous occupation of the place of production, the place of reception, and the places in-between.13 Jonas's tape amplifies this splitting of space inherent in the medium through her body's insertion between multiple sites of television's production, transmission, and reception.
The relationship of touch to the apparatus in Vertical Roll is clearly one of disruption. Implied and actual bodily contact with the camera, monitor, or feedback system violently disrupts the image—even to the point of generating new haptic transgressions within the frame. To Rosalind Krauss, Vertical Roll had the capacity to break video art's condition of narcissism through “a physical assault on the video mechanism.”14 Vertical Roll exposes the tension between the physical body and the image apparatus via the disruption of immaterial, electronic images—“a will that runs counter to an electronically stabilized condition.”15 While for Krauss (writing during the early days of video art), the success of Vertical Roll's attack on the apparatus lay in its ability to provoke critical distance from the psychological conditions of video, David Joselit looked to the work's unwinding of television's political and ideological power. For Joselit, Vertical Roll and other works involving live feedback—including Jonas's various Organic Honey performances and Bruce Nauman's disorienting installation Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970)—disallow television's superimposition of identity with presold televisual characters, operating in the sphere of what Jacques Rancière called “the wrong name.” Joselit writes: “fundamental to Jonas's unraveling of television is a pluralization of her represented identity … the encounters between persons and images in works by Jonas, Nauman, [Peter] Campus, and [Vito] Acconci represent identity as a process, not a televisual presence.”16
This process of identity in many early video works manifests in decidedly haptic forms. Two works cited by Joselit, Acconci's Pryings (1971) and Jonas's Left Side Right Side (1972), involve hands touching faces or images of faces in ways that are disturbingly violent or dizzyingly disorienting. In Nauman's installation, viewers engage the field of televisual meaning and production through physical exploration of a narrow corridor—a “haptic path” of sorts, to borrow a term from Bruno.17 As the viewer enters the corridor, they approach a pair of screens featuring one live and one taped image of the same corridor. As the viewer nears the screen, they walk away from a camera at the corridor's entrance, generating a sense of unease in a viewer who identifies their body on the live screen but gets further from its image within the screen as they approach it. Like Vertical Roll, Live-Taped Corridor enacts a crisis of identification both inside and outside of the monitor, though in Nauman's installation the viewer's movement enables this situation rather than the artist's prerecorded gestures and manipulations. For Margaret Morse, video installations like Lived-Taped Corridor return the viewer to the present, to the here-and-now and the in-between, in what she terms an art of presentation rather than representation.18
Contemporaneous installations by Campus, Dan Graham, and others similarly employed haptic engagement to unravel the ideological effects of the televisual apparatus. Campus's mem and dor (both 1974), two works that place the camera in spaces that make it difficult or impossible for viewers to see their live image projected onto the gallery wall, follow Krauss's celebration of Vertical Roll in her 1976 essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” For Krauss, these works' denial of a mirror image and their prompting of viewer discomfort acknowledge video's narcissistic impulse but deliberately project this pictorial plane as separate from the self.19 Graham's Present Continuous Pasts (1974) similarly produces a separation between self and reflected images through the use of mirrored walls, a wall-mounted camera, and a monitor relaying the camera's image with an eight-second delay. The camera records both the viewer as they enter the space (who is reflected simultaneously in the mirrored walls to the side and behind the camera wall) and the mirror reflection of the monitor, creating a mise-en-abyme of recent pasts within the screen. For Kate Mondloch, the coercive means by which live-feedback installations from the 1970s like Graham's employ interaction prompt moments of rupture within the subject. She writes, “while these screen-reliant works oblige attention and discipline viewers' bodies, the subjective effects of those requirements are remarkably unfixed.”20 Viewers' apprehension of these effects occurs through their bodies' active movements to manipulate the installation's delivery of images and reflections.
Haptic input in both single-channel and installation video work of the 1970s disrupts video and television to destabilize the medium's psychic power. In our interactions with current touchscreens, smart TVs, and computers, it is precisely the lack of “physical assault” or other forms of haptic engagement that disrupts the flow of images, causing screens to sleep or ask if we are still watching. This inversion signals a major shift in the relationship between gesture, touch, apparatus, and flow.
DO TOUCH THAT DIAL
What Raymond Williams called television's “flow” in 1975 worked to dissuade the viewer from moving off the couch or disrupting the screen's content, in effect disciplining the domestic screen subject. He wrote, “it is a widely if often ruefully admitted experience that many of us find television very difficult to switch off; that again and again, even when we have switched on for a particular ‘programme’, we find ourselves watching the one after it and the one after that.”21 To succumb to flow is not only to be stationary but also to cease haptic engagement with the screen (“watching” prevents further “switching”)—to allow the visual to overcome the tactile and continue a sedentary mode of viewing. Haptic disruption in the works discussed earlier by Jonas and Nauman interferes with this continuous flow of images and activates the viewer, in effect counteracting the television announcer's dictate of the day: “Don't touch that dial!”
The ubiquity of the remote control and the time-shifting technologies of VCR in the 1980s and '90s and of DVR and on-demand platforms on televisions, computers, phones, and tablets in the 2000s challenge Williams's notion of flow, lending the viewer new forms of (seeming) autonomy and choice. Though marketed as revolutionary, these newer technologies do not actually shift power to the viewer. As William Uricchio argues, Williams's concept of flow can be a discursive one that responds to technological transformation—in this case the concept of flow shifts from “being centered on programming to active audience to adaptive agent.”22 Flow adapts to the audience's increasing desire for choice and control of content, incorporating and even demanding (rather than attempting to delay) haptic input.
Watching television via an on-demand platform such as Netflix oscillates between broadcast strategies of flow and the contemporary haptic imperative. The on-demand viewer haptically navigates a menu of programs and films via mouse, remote control, or touchscreen. On the computer browser interface, for example, the user can float over myriad horizontal scrolls of thumbnails (personalized for each viewer), manipulating each category by moving the mouse laterally within a row or scrolling vertically through different categories. Hovering the cursor over a title enlarges the tile, which shifts from algorithmically selected promotional artwork to a trailer or clip for the film or program overlaid with a right-pointing triangle (the universal button for “play”) and details on the program (including its “match” percentage, as determined by Netflix's algorithms). This transformation eases the transition from browsing to viewing and shifts the visual relationship with the content through haptic discovery.
Anna Everett refers to an interface designed to prompt clicks as “the lure of sensory plenitude,” connecting it to foundational theories of total cinema, specifically those of André Bazin and Rudolf Arnheim.23 The shift from icon to content through haptic navigation traverses Riegl's schema of planimetric and volumetric space through both the image and cinematic or televisual narrative. The thumbnail is a flat logo, resembling a poster; the scroll-over moving image enters the narrative space by either picking up where a series left off or beginning a new film or series. Anne Friedberg called this type of fractured visual experience elicited by computer interfaces the new haptics of the computer screen—traversing metaphors of window and desktop and positioning the viewer both in front of and above space.24 The mastering gaze from a distance presumed by narrative cinema and perspective space coexists with the flatness of the icon and the accumulation of the desktop. Haptic navigation of images thus challenges the “hierarchies of the senses that have often been deployed in racial and gendered terms,” as Stephen Montiero writes in his study of the related genealogies of digital interfaces and textile and needlecraft culture.25 This is complicated even further by “casting” content from a mobile device to a television screen. By indulging what Everett calls the “click fetish” we then shift into the immersive space of cinema as the program or film expands to fill the frame—a transition made easier by newer forms of flow.
When one is watching a series on Netflix (with the autoplay feature on), at the end of an episode the program will minimize (or even skip) the credits and show a countdown for when new content is going to start—a strategy used in broadcast television for decades. Just like flow, autoplay is designed to keep the viewer from engaging the interface to switch to different content or turn off the screen altogether. Rather than enticing the viewer into a different program as broadcast flow does, autoplay most often promotes further immersion into one franchise and “binge watching.” Netflix has a lower threshold of viewer resistance to surmount than traditional broadcast strategies of flow as the viewer has already committed to the narrative of one series or has been algorithmically selected for the next suggestion. Viewers today can watch multiple episodes in one sitting, breaking the weeklong wait between points in a story in broadcast.
Netflix will not play to an empty room for long, however. After a few episodes it will stop the program with a screen that asks, “Are you still watching?” The viewer must select “yes” via touchscreen, mouse, or remote control—they must haptically confirm the presence of their gaze—in order to continue flow. Disruption, then, is actually built into flow as determined by the algorithmically programmed on-demand apparatus. Haptic input is needed to both continue television's moving images and further its collection of data. Smart TV desires not only our eyeballs, but requires our tactile embrace.
To some theorists, contemporary screen interfaces signal a cultural loss of sleep and the sublimation of free time into working time through the constant immaterial labor we conduct through contemporary interface technologies.26 Jonathan Crary, for instance, understands the pervasiveness of these technologies as a colonization of time and a new regime of continuous attention: “24/7 capitalism is not simply a continuous or sequential capture of attention, but also a dense layering of time, in which multiple operations or attractions can be attended to in near-simultaneity, regardless of where one is or whatever else one might be doing.”27 The result, for Crary, is a subject addicted to yet simultaneously numbed by continuous stimulation, robbed of the capacity for daydream and rest. In the popular press, screen technologies are similarly credited with keeping us up all night while also found guilty of ending relationships, ruining our health, and more or less dismantling all of civilization. While these theorists and critics are perhaps a bit reactionary, there is indeed a strange tension between sleeping and waking with contemporary screen interfaces.28 Paradoxically, it seems that in practice all our computers, smart TVs, or smartphones want to do is sleep—even a computer screening a digital copy of Vertical Roll might begin to nod off into the in-between REM cycle of the screen saver.29 It is only our constant physical touch or presence that continues screens' glaring blue light and “wakes” the screen.
SWIPING THROUGH CONTEMPORARY MEDIA ART
In the age of broadcast, Jonas's and Nauman's employment of haptic interference in their art flew in the face of flow's proscription against touching the dial. By contrast, in the twenty-first century touch is built into flow—to the point where, through haptic input, we not only navigate and continue visual image flows, but also collect data and perform unpaid labor for cultural producers. How have media artists responded to this new condition through haptic engagement in their works? As Katja Kwastek argues, “artistically configured interactivity … functions as an analytical, critical, or deconstructive model of interactivity,” meaning these artistic responses have relevance to our understanding of information society.30 Similarly, underpinning Joselit's analysis of the video art of the 1960s and '70s was an understanding that the technological and political development of television as cultural form was inextricably linked to its history as artistic medium.
A quick survey of the 1990s work of artists like Doug Aitken and Douglas Gordon placed alongside the development of the concurrent popularity of the VCR and ever-expanding cable television channels suggests this connection continues through the history of artists using screen media. The shifts in our haptic relationship to media screens in the digital age and the manner in which artists engage touch in their works suggest a similar parallel. Lynn Hershman Leeson was one of the first artists to explore touchscreen technology in Deep Contact (1984–89), an interactive videodisc that invites users to touch the virtual guide Marion's body on the screen, merging the feminist statement of EXPORT's public artwork with a voyeuristic choose-your-own-adventure narrative. Although in Hershman Leeson's time this was revolutionary and even novel, now such manipulations of video content through touch are commonplace and expected. As both the Netflix interface and the artists I discuss below suggest, the relationship between haptic contact and visual flow is located neither in disruption nor control, but rather in a reciprocity between touch and image—that we see and navigate the visual through haptic gesture. Critics and historians such as Iles and Balsom state that post-1990s artists employ the images and products of Hollywood cinema with a sense of ambivalence, having neither the utopian exuberance of expanded cinema nor the conceptual critique of appropriation art.31 We can chart a similar trajectory with the use of gesture and touch in relationship to screen media flows.
Two single-channel video works that debuted at the 2013 Venice Biennale feature explorations of contemporary image and information flows while alluding to the new haptics of screen media technologies: German artist Hito Steyerl's How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File and French artist Camille Henrot's Grosse Fatigue. Both works exhibit as cinematic projections in black-box spaces but make continual reference to computer-bound media forms, especially the proprietary visual environment of Apple. Steyerl's title alludes to the .MOV file (itself a format for MPEG4 video files that uses Apple's Quicktime program) and both works make repeated reference to the macOS computer desktop. By projecting the works in black-box gallery spaces, their cinematic apprehension in the gallery departs from the referenced technological experience. The images become immaterial and even immersive, unlike the sculptural square monitors that screened Jonas's Vertical Roll and other 1970s video in the gallery space.32 The works consistently refer back to their computer-bound forms not through the medium of exhibition but through reference to recognizable environments of haptic media flows.
Steyerl's video explores the interpenetration of images and reality with biting critique and a heavy dose of satire, alluding to a 1968 Monty Python sketch detailing impossible tips on how to be invisible.33 Like much of Steyerl's work, How Not to Be Seen considers the circulation and manipulation of images in a digital world in relationship to power. In particular, this video explores the politics of visibility and the pervasiveness of surveillance technologies, offering tongue-in-cheek advice to its viewers for avoiding the nefarious networks of Gilles Deleuze's “society of control”34 with pithy advice such as becoming smaller than a pixel, living in a gated community, hiding in plain sight, and being a woman over fifty. Like the educational films its title mocks, How Not to Be Seen features a synthesizer score, robotic-voiced narration, a series of lessons enacted by Steyerl and faceless collaborators, and virtual animations. Steyerl's overt reference of the .MOV file suggests the work is not only computer-bound but immaterial and subject to illicit and tertiary networks of circulation and exhibition, “avoiding centralized control and censorship,”35 as Kris Paulsen notes.
In the first lesson, computer narration details how to make something invisible to a camera: to hide, to remove, to go off-screen, to disappear. In demonstrating how to hide, Steyerl stands in front of a green screen, which itself alludes to the simulation of digital images and spaces, and covers the image of a resolution target with her hand, haptically interjecting her body into the profilmic space in much the same way as Jonas did at the end of Vertical Roll. The second lesson, detailing how to be invisible in plain sight, directly connects contemporary technological haptics to the network of visibility and control her work critiques. At the narrator's prompting, Steyerl performs smartphone-inspired gestures for the camera in front of shifting geometric abstract animations. As the narrator says “to scroll,” “to wipe,” “to erase,” and “to shrink,” Steyerl performs the parallel gestures one would do on the surface of a tablet or smartphone in the air for the camera. These types of screen gestures, which a generation ago were relegated to science fiction, navigate the multitouch capacitive technology that enables our daily use of smartphones, tablets, laptop touchpads, and other forms. Far from buttons and dials, multitouch capacitive technology uses the human finger as an electrical conductor and reads gesture in addition to receiving input. This technology is lauded for its intuitiveness, leading Microsoft to refer to it in 2008 as “natural user interface” or “NUI,” a slick play on “graphical user interface” or “GUI.”36
Steyerl's screen-based gestures re-present these seemingly natural actions of control away from a screen, drolly suggesting that power over one's image is as simple as control in the touchscreen environment. As Kris Paulsen notes, although this advice is completely useless if one considers oneself as a physical body in the world, Steyerl underscores how real power is power over one's image on the screen, highlighted by the last gesture Steyerl makes in this lesson, “to take a picture.”37 The artist's performative gestures in the air allude to the slippage between the material and immaterial worlds in the age of the digital and how the positions of power are either behind cameras or in front of screens. Performed without a responsive screen, these gestures are comically useless in opposition to the natural sense of control promoted by the tech industry. As Caetlin Benson-Allott tells us in her study of the remote control, the concept of control in screen technologies cannot be equated with actual power.38
In lesson three, Steyerl attempts to become invisible by “becoming a picture.” Here again she employs haptic manipulation, camouflaging her face through the application of chroma key makeup in the pattern of a resolution target. In this moment, Steyerl's work once more references early video art, particularly Campus's Three Transitions (1973). Campus used chroma key technology to make the actions of cutting through paper, applying blue face paint, and burning a piece of paper appear to affect his own live image. Commissioned by WGBH to air during program breaks, Three Transitions employed video's technological possibilities to explore the psychology of the self. Steyerl's makeup application, on the other hand, replaces her own image not with another image of herself but with digital animations like those that formed the background for a previous lesson, only this time they also include color palettes, test patterns, gradient scales, textual notations, and other markers of the animation and design process. By merging into a digital abstraction—or more aptly, into the interface that produces such abstractions—Steyerl's digital image loses its photographic referent and overtly references itself as code.
As the video moves through the remaining two lessons, the political import of Steyerl's video becomes more loaded through reference to enemies of the state, disappeared persons, and drones. The fantastical elements include the disappeared persons becoming the vectors that prop up our digital world and rogue pixels capturing military drones and throwing glitter.39 The video's constant referencing of the macOS desktop reaffirms the haptic nature of power over images and the constant vacillation between planimetric and volumetric space, desktop and window. The recurring motif of the resolution target also vacillates between these vertical and horizontal frames of reference—one target appears vertically for the camera and is often manipulated by Steyerl's didactic gestures, and the other, a decommissioned satellite target in the California desert, forms the stage for nearly all of the video's live action and green screen footage. We learn through narration that this relic of analog photography pales in comparison to contemporary satellite resolution. The ultimate synthesis of haptic control of media screens and actual power—drone warfare—is the constant political violence to which Steyerl's video responds.
How Not to Be Seen's timely release came just before the revelations of the Snowden files, and Steyerl's conflation of desktop and resolution target stages parallels Edward Snowden's disturbing recollection of viewing low-resolution drone footage from a desktop, another play of volumetric and planimetric space.40 By discussing “rogue pixels hid[ing] in the cracks of old standards of resolution,” Steyerl suggests that in order to combat the systems of the society of control we must “become data and merge into pixels.”41 By referring to the mosaic character of the screen through reference to pixels, Steyerl turns the immaterial images on the digital screen into a tactile surface. The low-resolution backdrop and 1970s TV footage of musical group the Three Degrees performing “When Will I See You Again” at the video's end return the viewer to the tactility of electronic images and reference Steyerl's concept of “the poor image” of illicit circulation and visual degradation.42 The haptic in Steyerl's video—far from interrupting electronic flows of images—determines, continues, and redirects “the world as a picture,” even offering a potential transversal plane of resistance or invisibility. Steyerl contends in her writing that this new regime of power through technologies of vision has within it the possibility of its own unraveling. Much like linear perspective became fractured in modernism, the drone's eye perspective can lose its power through an embrace of the vertiginous or free fall.43
Henrot's Grosse Fatigue made even more of a splash at the Venice Biennale than How Not to Be Seen, winning the artist the Silver Lion award for most promising artist as well as the cover of Artforum. In her thirteen-minute video, haptic navigation of objects, images, and information multiplies endlessly in a multiplanar exploration of origin myths. Like Steyerl's title, Grosse Fatigue also opens with reference to a proprietary digital file. As a voice takes a deep breath, a Final Cut Pro icon titled “GROSSE_FATIGUE_” enlarges on top of a macOS desktop with a wallpaper image of the galaxy, opening the file and starting the work. The iconography of the Final Cut Pro file icon and the implied but invisible movement of the mouse refer to the haptics of the computer screen as instrumental in the production, postproduction, and exhibition of the video. As the video progresses, windows open and close ceaselessly on a Mac desktop, layering disparate scenes and images inspired by both the seemingly cosmic-scaled visual repository of the internet and the artist's month-long residency at the Smithsonian Institution. At first, two windows pop open with shots of nail-polished hands flipping through coffee table books, one featuring Hans Silvester's photographs of the linear body painting of the people of the Omo Valley in Ethiopia and the other an exhibition catalog of the work of Keith Haring. The formal comparison between these images echoes some of the more egregious liberties taken with ethnographic material in modern art exhibitions. In the next shot, the desktop disappears and, in a shot consuming the entire screen, a woman takes notes on a pad of paper in a repository hallway of the Smithsonian. In a smaller pop-up window, unseen hands type the phrase “history of the universe” into a Google search window. A beat starts and the narrator begins a series of statements starting with “in the beginning.”
Following this opening, Henrot unloads an almost incomprehensible cascade of visual and auditory references to creation myths from around the world through a chaotic overlap of opening and closing computer windows and a hip-hop and spoken word score written by poet Jacob Bromberg, scored by Joakim Bouaziz, and performed by Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh. On the surface, this continual overlapping of information and images resembles Stan VanDerBeek's theories in the essay “Culture Intercom” for an ideal delivery system based on his Movie-Drome from the 1960s. In VanDerBeek's idea, images and scenes from all over the world would be projected onto the interior of a dome, overwhelming spectators with “image-flow” through physical immersion. The Movie-Drome would “compress the last three thousand years of western life into such an aspect ratio that we, the audience, can grasp the flow of man, time, and forms of life that have lead [sic] us up to the very moment”44 [emphasis original]. As Monteiro notes, the “desire to dissolve frame and emphasize visual data” in VanDerBeek's utopian postwar project and hemispherical structure is negated by the insistence of the frame in contemporary screen media.45 The proliferation of the frame, which for Monteiro relates to the size of the object (be it a smartphone, tablet, or plasma TV), is emphasized here by Henrot's clear use of the delimiting frames of application windows. The movement of these frames as they open, close, and minimize syncs with the beats of Bouaziz's score and implies haptic navigation of the computer interface. The often merely formal or linguistic connections between overlapping and simultaneous windows (such as a rolling orange, a bald head, a swinging globe, and a hand painting a circle) appropriates the logic of the internet search engine, but this connection is largely in form alone as most of the footage was not found but shot by the artist.
Gesture in relationship to the visual not only opens the work through initially clicking on the titular file, but also continues its flow of images in the implicit mouse and computer movements. Google searches, Wikipedia scrolls, and the constant opening and closing of windows by invisible hands complements the explicit relationship between touch and objects within the work's many frames. This presentation of images through computer windows renders their forms shallow but their accumulation dense. A review in Frieze by Dan Fox connecting the work to Henrot's larger project of questioning anthropological knowledge argued the scenes were “there to be stopped, started, opened or closed … represent[ing] knowledge packaged flat—the reference not the thing.”46 Indeed the digital packaging of knowledge here prompts haptic actions in an almost compulsive, obsessive way. The “click fetish” enacted through the chaotic dance of “knowledge packaged flat” parallels the fetishized objects within many of the frames. Hand models with brightly colored nails flip through coffee table books on art, ethnography, and nature; paint circles; or manipulate museum artifacts on pop-colored backgrounds above color calibration strips in preparation for photographing. These vignettes, which prominently feature a type of “demonstrating hand,”47 parallel scenes where scientists handle specimens and artifacts, in effect layering the physical work of experts with the presentation of precious museum collections as if for advertising through the implicit haptic navigation of the interface. Recurring images of naked bodies lathering in the shower and one scene of female masturbation add corporeal touch to the multiple modes of haptic navigation explored through the work, folding the body into the digital.
Henrot discusses how her work is both an exasperated cataloguing of a seemingly infinite expanse of knowledge and a meditation on the failure of such an endeavor to comprehend the cosmic. Intriguingly, her discovery of both the subject matter and formal logic of the work came through her own haptic navigation of screen content:
While preparing for my stay in DC and researching the [Smithsonian] database, I was obsessively making screen captures of the strange combinations of images that were appearing on my computer when making “selections” of things I wanted to view. It was permanent chaos and cacophony, and I felt as if the history of the universe could be written with this spirit in mind.48
Both How Not to Be Seen and Grosse Fatigue make digital video files central to their gestalt, and haptic interface in both is either an enacted or implicit means of navigating and layering image flows. Although the gestures implied and performed in the works appropriate consumer capitalism's commodification of control over objects—the user-friendly touchscreen or desktop interface and the presentation of commodities on television—both artists treat these movements tongue-in-cheek, as each video tells of a different totality of information completely outside of the control of the user. In Steyerl's video, haptic navigation of screen technologies presumes control in a matrix of visibility and political power; whereas in Grosse Fatigue, hands obsessively and hopelessly attempt to grasp and understand the cosmic though both visual and implicit movements within and upon the screen. Much like how the use of touch and gesture as disruption in single-channel works like Vertical Roll was paralleled in the installation practices of artists like Nauman and Graham, so too can we chart a similar correlation in contemporary installation art.
Lozano-Hemmer employs haptic navigation of digital images through interactive installations that often explicitly engage with technologies of control. His gallery installations often use the movement and presence of the viewer through surveillance technologies to generate moments of co-presence and accumulation for viewers across time and space. In Please Empty Your Pockets (2010), for example, participants place objects on a conveyor belt similar to those used in airports and government buildings. The objects go through a computerized scanner and the image is projected in its place after the viewer removes them. Similarly, in Bilateral Time Slicer (2016) the live image of the viewer is recorded, split vertically in half and pushed incrementally to the edges of the frame as more images are taken, in effect interjecting the “new” presence into the history of viewers of the piece, something Lozano-Hemmer also explored through his tactile Pulse installations (2006–present), which translate participants' heartbeats into lightbulb pulsations. It is particularly in Lozano-Hemmer's large-scale public works, however, that the haptic navigation of technological interfaces opens up a new space for play. The artist often inverts dominant surveillance technologies to create temporary ludic spaces that are not only transgressive in their activation of strange and playful behaviors among strangers, but also critical in how they bring to mind how structures of control embedded within public spaces. Like in the work of Steyerl and Henrot, touch does not disrupt the flow of visual images, but in fact activates it. Lozano-Hemmer even deliberately allows his projects to get “out of control” through just this kind of viewer navigation.
Sandbox, an interactive projection installation on the Santa Monica beach as part of the Glow Festival in 2010, uses surveillance cameras and motion capture technologies to generate a Lilliputian play of scale. In the work, infrared sensors capture beachgoers' images within a large projection space on the beach. These are then relayed onto an adjacent sandbox as ant-sized projections. Sandbox participants' haptic navigation of the tiny presences in the sand is then projected onto the beach in large scale. Like the installations of Graham and Nauman, Sandbox uses live feedback to disorient the viewer's assumed relationship to moving image technologies and the bodies and spaces within and around them. Unlike these earlier works, however, the viewer's haptic navigation of the space does not create a disjunctive experience but rather sparks new connections and micro-communities through the haptic actualization of the work, what Ross refers to as “the regrouping of users as communities and collectives rather than the dividing and distancing of the self.”51 The work not only inverts the top-down function of the surveillance camera with projections on the ground, but also transforms the very ground we often look to in order to avoid eye contact into a technological interface for spontaneous micro-communities in public space that enable meetings among strangers.
The artist contends that he is not using technologies as a means of communication but rather of communion—the interface not merely as a threshold but a new plane, a shared space malleable to the ludic engagements of participants rather than a means to transmit information from one point to another.52 Writing on two of Lozano-Hemmer's earlier public projection works that used viewer's shadows, Hansen locates a relationship between body and image in phenomenological terms that somewhat echo Krauss's celebration of Campus's separation of body and image (though with important distinctions), remarking on “the work's success at guiding participants away from a simple mimetic identification with the body image and toward creative play with their disembodied shadows in this new space of indivision.”53 Significantly for my conversation, this communion is made possible in Lozano-Hemmer's work through the viewer's haptic interaction with, appearance within, and control of two projection screens. In Sandbox the haptic manifests not only through the bodily movement of people on the beach, but also through the physical engagement with sand through participants' hands. The sandbox sat on a platform in proximity to the projection location on the ground. In video documentation of the work, sandbox participants can frequently be seen looking back and forth between the space of their hands and the projection on the beach, alternating between the human scale of actual vision and the tiny scale of surveillance, between window and the desktop perspective.
Lozano-Hemmer brings these two spaces together via the interface, prompting spontaneous collaborations among strangers. For Jennifer Johung, Lozano-Hemmer's public work evokes “collective participation, which is purposively asymmetrical and necessarily accidental,” through “constantly changing dependencies among bodies, spatial environment, and technology.”54 Similarly, Kathryn Brown sees in Lozano-Hemmer's public work the creation of interactions between strangers necessary for a democratic cosmopolitanism, countering interactive technology's association with insularity and the fracturing of the social.55 I argue that these moments of communion and collective participation made possible through Lozano-Hemmer's investigation of the ludic or playful potential of technological interfaces is also part of a larger reworking of haptic input in relationship to visual image flows in contemporary art.
Though playful, communal, and open-ended, a work like Sandbox is certainly not without its element of criticality, as the artist himself has said that his goal was to misuse surveillance technologies and “make tangible the power asymmetry inherent in technologies of amplification.”56 The ant-like projections onto the sandbox recall the dehumanizing “bug splats” that would later be revealed in the Snowden files and employ the same motion-tracking technology used to capture undocumented border crossers not too far from the work's Southern California site, bringing a human presence into these usually dehumanizing technologies. Critique is not in the disruption of flow via haptic interruption but rather the reterritorialization of media spaces of control through haptic actualization and an inversion of perspective. The strangeness inherent in Lozano-Hemmer's Lilliputian play of scale is one that does not cause a rupturing in the subjectivity of the viewer but rather prompts new affective and social bonds between members of the public.57
In bringing together the work of Steyerl, Henrot, and Lozano-Hemmer and comparing them to 1970s video art and installation I have illustrated how contemporary artists respond to a new haptic relationship between bodies and screens. Tracing this evolution from disruption to continuation does not negate the potential for criticality or even counter-spaces in the more recent work, but rather analyzes how the changes in our ontological relationship to screen content parallels the formation of new possibilities for artistic statements in media art. The clanging of Jonas's spoon initially appears more assertive and forceful than the immaterial gestures of Steyerl in the air or the playful sandbox movements of participants in Lozano-Hemmer's work. However, when considered alongside an investigation of the reconstitution of moving image flows around the haptic in broader screen culture, the shift from disruptive to constitutive touch and gesture in media art can be understood as responding to two specific moments in media history and their corresponding regimes of attention: one under broadcast's dictate to not touch the dial, the other controlled by the click fetish and the algorithm.
The three contemporary works analyzed here can be said to unwind and critique twenty-first century technological interfaces of power and knowledge, not through an attack upon or disruption of the work's media apparatus but rather an amplification and acceleration of their haptic interfaces. These artists appropriate the intuitive haptic navigation of image flows and media spaces in order to send the viewer down the rabbit hole. Through haptic gestures they fall not into the predetermined binge sessions of algorithms and ludic capitalism, but rather into the unseen vectors of the internet and the interface, awash in the crashing waves of surfing aimlessly through databases, and even out onto new forms of social engagement and co-presence with others through play.
Christine Ross, “The Projective Shift between Installation Art and New Media Art: From Distantiation to Connectivity,” in Screen/Space: The Projected Image in Contemporary Art, ed. Tamara Trodd (New York: Manchester University Press, 2011), 185.
Chrissie Iles, “Video and Film Space,” in Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art, ed. Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 252.
Erika Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013).
Alois Riegl, Late Roman Art Industry, trans. Rolf Winkes, Archaeologica 36 (Rome: G. Bretschneider, 1985).
Giuliana Bruno, Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); Giuliana Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).
Mark B. N. Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (New York: Routledge, 2006); Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (Hanover: Dartmouth University Press, 2006).
Hansen, Bodies in Code, 25.
Hansen, Bodies in Code, 26.
Tracing this evolution through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s would be an important development in future study, particularly looking at artists like Lynn Hershman Leeson who worked with touchscreen technologies before they were widely available, often to explore narrative in ways that could be compared to the rise of video games and hypertext literature in the 1980s and '90s. Indeed, many recent histories of interactive media art or media installation seem to jump from the 1970s to the present, skipping the 1980s in particular, in their discussion of historical shifts in the relationship between spectators and media. Christina Albu, Mirror Affect: Seeing Self, Observing Others in Contemporary Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016); Kate Mondloch, Screens: Viewing Media Installation Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Kris Paulsen, Here/There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017). Perhaps this is due to the predominance of explorations of language in postmodern deconstruction or the immediacy of the AIDS crisis redirecting the interests of media artists, but the gap is still of concern for historians of contemporary art.
Bruce Chapman, et al., “Statistical Abstract of the United States,” National Data Book and Guide to Sources (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 83 1982), 555; Thom File and Camille Ryan, “Computer and Internet Use in the United States: 2013,” American Community Service Reports (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, November 13, 2014), 2, www.census.gov/library/publications/2014/acs/acs-28.html.
The pro-filmic event is rather unclear thanks to the constant perceptual shifts created by the vertical roll, so my technical and physical descriptions are drawn from Douglas Crimp, Joan Jonas: Scripts and Descriptions 1968–1982 (Berkeley: University Art Museum, University of California, 1983), 30.
Quoted in David Joselit, Feedback: Television against Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 199 n.46.
Samuel Weber, Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 117.
Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October 1 (1976): 59.
Krauss, “Video,” 60.
Joselit, Feedback, 163.
Bruno, Public Intimacy.
Margaret Morse, “Video Installation Art: The Body, the Image, and the Space-in-Between,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, eds. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (San Francisco: Aperture, 1990), 156–57.
Krauss, “Video,” 62.
Mondloch, Screens, 24.
Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1974), 94.
William Uricchio, “Television's Next Generation: Technology/Interface Culture/Flow,” in Television after TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition, eds. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 180.
Anna Everett, “Digitextuality and Click Theory: Theses on Convergence Media in the Digital Age,” in New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, eds. Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell (New York: Routledge, 2003), 21–23.
Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 227.
Stephen Monteiro, The Fabric of Interface: Mobile Media, Design, and Gender (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017): 119.
Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2006); Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Boston: Polity, 2012); Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2014).
Crary, 24/7, 84.
For a journalistic account that finds pleasure in the space between the utopian and dystopian narratives that often surround discussion of internet technologies see Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).
In fact it was this technological classroom glitch that inspired me to write this essay.
Katja Kwastek, Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art, trans. Niamh Warde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 39.
Chrissie Iles sees the work of artists from the 1990s as a return to the seduction of cinema's immersive images and narrative forms, rebelling from the phenomenologically informed installations of the 1970s, whereas Erika Balsom sees this return to the cinematic as a response to broader decline of the cinema as a shared cultural form. Iles, “Video and Film Space”; Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art.
Erika Balsom sees the rise in video projection in the 1990s as not only a result of the improved technology and increased affordability of projectors, but also a concurrent development of the institutional acceptance of cinema in the museum. Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art, 34–35.
Paulsen, Here/There, 179.
Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59, no. Winter (1992): 3–7.
Paulsen, Here/There, 179. Furthermore, the entire video has been uploaded to Artforum's database of video art and is available to watch for free online in high definition, presumably with the permission of Steyerl.
Florence Ion, “From Touch Displays to the Surface: A Brief History of Touchscreen Technology,” Ars Technica, April 4, 2013, https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/04/from-touch-displays-to-the-surface-a-brief-history-of-touchscreen-technology.
Paulsen, Here/There, 180.
Caetlin Benson-Allott, Remote Control (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), xvii.
Wendy Vogel finds these absurdist elements of the work to be particularly effective, calling the work “a must-see.” Wendy Vogel, “Hito Steyerl,” Modern Painters (November 2013).
Heather Rigg, “A World Made of Images : ‘How Not to Be Seen : A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File,’” Blackflash 33, no. 2 (2016), 56.
Synopsis of dialogue from video's narration cited in Paulsen, Here/There, 182.
Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” E-Flux 10 (November 2009), www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image.
Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” E-Flux 24 (April 2011), www.e-flux.com/journal/24/67860/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective.
Stan VanDerBeek, “Culture: Intercom,” Film Culture 40 (1966), 17.
Stephen Monteiro, “Fit to Frame: Image and Edge in Contemporary Interfaces,” Screen 55, no. 3 (Fall 2014), 368.
Dan Fox, “Known Unknowns,” Frieze (March 2014), 131.
Laura McLean-Ferris, “Hand Signals,” Art Monthly, no. 379 (September 2014), 8.
Quoted in Andréa Picard, “Camille Henrot,” Cinema Scope, no. 56 (Fall 2013), 65.
Pamela M. Lee, “The Whole Earth Is Heavy: Pamela M. Lee on Camille Henrot,” Artforum (September 2013), 309.
Quoted in Picard, “Camille Henrot,” 66.
Ross, “The Projective Shift,” 186.
Lozano-Hemmer in Alex Adriaansens and Joke Brouwer, “Alien Relationships from Public Space,” in TransUrbanism (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2002), 148.
Hansen, Bodies in Code, 102.
Jennifer Johung, Replacing Home: From Primordial Hut to Digital Network in Contemporary Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 163.
Kathryn Brown, “Computer Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination,” in Interactive Contemporary Art: Participation in Practice, ed. Kathryn Brown (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 37–56.
“Rafael Lozano-Hemmer—Project ‘Sandbox,’” www.lozano-hemmer.com/sandbox.php.
Reinterpreting interactivity in art in terms of interpersonal affective bonds is a central concern in Christina Albu's book Mirror Affect: Seeing Self, Observing Others in Contemporary Art.