SHIFT from Exhibition to Reflection:
Some Personal Viewpoints on Video Art Installations

Insert In
Please note: The following is not a critical revue of the SHIFT exhibition and/or any of the 9 installations. The SHIFT exhibition just stated / raised for me the following personal reflections.
Insert Out

The French organisation imagespassages presented from October 9 to November 10, 2003, the exhibition SHIFT at different places in Annecy. SHIFT is “une manifestation video européene sur l’agglomération annécienne 9 ans d’imagespassages et de partenarial local et international 9 oeuvres – 9 artistes – 9 structures artistiques européennes” (1)

This video installation exhibition with 9 installations by artists from 9 countries raises for me the question: What is a video art installation?
The easy answer is: A video art installation is an installation where video – in some way or the other – is an essential and integrated part.

By looking at the 9 different installations at the SHIFT exhibition I am not quite satisfied with this definition or explanation.
That video must be an essential and integrated part is obvious – so you should perhaps start by asking: What is an installation?
What is the difference, for example, between an installation and a sculpture (in the modern sense)?

 … and how does the installation relate – or not relate – to the early 1960s terms  “assemblage” and “environment”? Two terms, as Michael Archer points out in Installation Art (2) "most commonly employed to describe work in which the artist had brought together a host of materials in order to fill a given space. At that time, installation referred to nothing more than how an exhibition had been hung”, but as Archer states, then “the essentially curatorial connotation is none the less still pertinent to our understanding of the active role played by space in contemporary installation” (3).

You may also as Archer does, find "the notion of "détounemet"" relevant to the parameters defining the contemporary term of installation – it is: “the appropriation of previously existing aesthetic artefacts in order to divert their meaning or intent” (4)

I once learned / was told that the characteristic of a sculpture is that you should be able to walk around the sculpture and see it from different viewpoints – or perhaps even walk into it, go through it.

Working with video art installations I have always kept this in mind. This is – you may argument and rightly – a personal viewpoint – mine - on more or less the essence of a video art installation for me. There should be an encounter or perhaps even a confrontation between viewer and installation. The inherent relativity of the viewing experience itself becomes a crucial factor for the artist to explore (5).

Some reflections on examples from the SHIFT exhibition
The SHIFT installation “Vernissage d’un point de vue” by the French artist Jean-Daniel Berclaz at the Musée-Chateau consisted of the projection from each end of the big hall of two videos on huge transparent screens hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the hall with some distancebetween each screen.

In this beautiful installation you could – and should with advantage – walk into it and see it – and see it from different viewpoints. In fact: Your first reaction would be – and should be – to walk in between the two transparent screens of light material, moving a bit by the draft.

But some might of course say, that this was just two projected screenings and nothing else. I disagree.

The Spanish artist Juna de Jarillo’s installation “Primer Término” at Arteppes was the most “simple”: One projection of one video on a whole wall in a dark room. It was the most perfect installation of this kind (which you quite often see at exhibitions/galleries) I have seen for long. The projected picture was perfect rectangular and fitted/covered the whole wall except for a black boarder around the four sides, and the projector was placed at the ceiling so you would not disturb the projection when you were more people in the room.

Good – but you have to ask: What makes this – in essence – different from screening a video on a single monitor? – which you would not call an installation.

Insert In
Would you call a cinema with the projection of the moving picture on the screen (whic in many new divided movie theatres is not bigger than the wall in Jarillo's work) an installation? - or the TV set in the living-room? Botth are rather what you could call "one-channel-works".
Insert Out

One thing though makes the difference: The structure of the screened image. It was you might say “endless”. No start, no ending – and you might just watch it for a couple of minutes or stay in the room for half an hour or more. “The images are such that you can start anywhere” (6)

Does this justify to call the work a video installation? At least it makes – for me – the essential difference in relation to the screening of definitive (in time) video art work on a single monitor, to the movie in the cinema and the TV in your living-room. On the other hand you had to view the projected picture from one viewpoint: From opposite the wall functioning as screen

The Finnish artist Alli Maria Savolainen’s “Eternal Traveller II” at Arteppes was also built up with / consisted of projections: Two videos projected at the walls of the circular room, but she had added also a screening of a third tape on a single monitor to the right of the projected screenings.
Here – I feel – it was proper to talk of an installation. The viewer had to walk into it to see it and had to turn to overlook it because it was difficult to watch all three screenings from just one viewpoint: “Installation is not so much the time and place of the images being displayed but a complex manner of including the viewer”, as René Payant once expressed it (7). The viewer here finds himself within the work.

“Break” – also at Arteppes – by the German artist Alexander Steig was an interesting variation of an installation. On your way to the big screening room you passed a quite small room. You could look into it through the door and a window and see what could be an office disk with telephone etc. – and when you entered the screening room you saw a live projected screening of this office room. Moving into and viewing in quite another way.

Since this is not a critical revue of the SHIFT exhibition as such. I will not go through the rest of the 9 installations. It is not an assessment  - my assessment – of the left-out installations that they do not deserve to be mentioned. They do – but those chosen just fitted  - as sort of “prototypes” – to illustrate my reflections on my question: What is a video art installation.

My own installation, “The Echo of the Sea in the Burning Forest” Version II, at Centre Ressorce MJC des Carrés I am almost tempted to (in view of the above reflections) to call a video sculpture.

It is concentrated on 4 x 2 palls and you can walk around it to see it from different viewpoints (well – read the following insert). Not only the big monitor and the five small screens but also the poles, representing the forest, the fluorescent tubes hanging “criss-cross” between the “trees”, representing the sun reflecting its “image” upon the surface of the screens and the old window are all essential parts of the installation. You have the waves of the sea on the big monitor and the fire on all the small screens (8).

In contrast to a one-channel video work (screening on one monitor and nothing else) where, as Rob Perrée puts it (9),  “the viewing time corresponds to the length of the tape(s) …a video installation can better be called timeless, a random span of time in which the viewer tries to establish the relationship between the various elements of which the installation is composed” as described above. “The viewer walks on and after a shorter or longer period can leave the stage again”. Looking at the video installation is in that sense “more like looking at a room with paintings than watching a single video tape. That may also”, says Perrée, “be observed from the tapes included in the installation”. The images of the two tapes: waves of the sea and fire “are characterized more by repetition than by variety. They have no narrative structure” - so like the tape in Jarillo’s installation, they are such that you can start anywhere to watch them.

Insert In
Here I would like to point to the problems for the artist when he has to establish an installation not knowing the space before he arrives and also when it then turns out that it is not the most ideal or best space but it has already been announced and catalogue printed and it is then too late and not possible to opt out. Also technical problems when the venue has to supply all things needed for the installation. But perhaps you have to blame yourself for not being very specific and detailed in the description of the elements of the installation and site specifications.
Insert Out

Most of my video installations is in accordance with the criteria that you should be able to walk around or into the installation and the tape structures are as described above. In the case of the curved “Wave Motion” installation from the Charlottenborg “Ny Abstraktion” exhibition in Copenhagen, Denmark 1985, and at Eymaros Art Space, Athens, Greece 1990 (10), you could only walk into the front of the curved raw of monitors, but you had to move your head to see the slow, gradually change of the video picture from the right to the left down through the raw of monitors. Both in Copenhagen and Athens I was told that people very often would sit down on the floor in front of the curved raw of monitors.

The structure of the tapes for my installations are also as described above – except in “The Sun in My Eyes”, version 1, at Knabstrup Kulturfabrik, Denmark, 2000 and Version 2, at Cinema Nova bioscop, Brussels, Belgium, 2000 (11), The tape is based on my tape “I Am that I Am”, Version II, from 1994 and includes a short “narrative” part – a recitation of a short part from Allan Ginsburg’s poem The Change: Kyoto Tokyo Express - but the structure  of the installation tape is edited so this recitation is repeated quite often.

To sum up - the above reflections express only my personal viewpoints on what could constitute an answer to the question: What is a video art installation? I have written more elaborated about video art installations in the essay VIDEO + TIME + SPACE = VIDEO INSTALLATION. You can find this essay online (12).

 Torben Soeborg, October 2003

Appendix I 
The starting point to my installation is an attempt to visualize and illustrate the sentence “The Echo of the Sea in the Burning Forest” by André Breton – according to my notes from one of the Surrealist Manifestos.

My inspiration for most of my video works – both tapes and installations – is often from poems or texts, especially by the surrealists or the American “Beat-poets” like Allan Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs and in some cases a mixture of titles on art works by the surrealist painters/sculptors.

I have been asked several times about this by the three young French art students helping me to built my SHIFT installation and I will try to take this up and write some reflections about this in Essay No. 21 (13)

Appendix II
I would like to thank Annie  Auchère Aguettaz and all the other people at imagespassages, Anneci, France, for the initiative to the SHIFT exhibition, for inviting me to take part and for the great work they have invested to make the exhibition possible.

Also I would like to thank my three art students, Di Bartolo Florent, Giorgino Laetitia and Aureline Siorak. They really worked hard and enthusiastic and without their help it would not have been possible to finish the installation (just 5 minutes before the opening crowd entered Centre Ressource MJC des Carrés).

Also thanks to the people at the Centre. They did help me at some critical points.

(2)   Michael Archer: “Towards installation” in Nicholas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley and Michael Parry: installation art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1994, p. 11
(3)   Ibid. p. 11-12
(4)   Ibid, p. 27
(5)   See op. cit. p. 27
(6)   Rob Perrée: Into video Art. The Characteristics of a Medium, Con Rumore, Rotterdam/Amsterdam, 1988, p. 17
(7)   René Payant: “Sites of complexity” in René Payant (edit): Vidéo, Montreal 1986,    p. 130
(8)   See description and pictures of my installation at  
(9)   Rob Perrée, above cit., p. 17