David Rokeby's Watch (1995) brings some of the sensibilities of painting to the medium of video. Not through any visual similarities, but by aspiring, as painting does, to evince emotional and intellectual profundity, via virtuosity in a medium defined by its technological limitations. Video, in this case, is distinguished from the looser rubric of film by Rokeby's exploitation of its uniquely defining feature: its ability to transmit a live picture.
Watch is installed in a small downstairs room of the gallery, made pitch dark with black-out curtains. Two projection screens shine side-by-side against a wall; both screens depict the same street corner scene (cars, taxicabs, throngs of pedestrians), but mirrored. Each side is also subjected to different technical modifications: objects in the image on the right appear as jagged white outlines on a black background, X-ray like, while those on the left appear to be shot in a form of slow motion, black and white videography.
Sitting and staring a while reveals the images to be more complicated. On the right side, outlined people and birds tend to accumulate and then disappear unnaturally; on the left, there is a disconcerting smearing upward of things, in which only objects that stand still for a period of time (cabs at a streetlight, pedestrians waiting to cross) appear with any clarity amidst the flow. This latter effect is therefore not slow motion, but an average of the scene over time, in which those objects that exist in the camera's view for the longest duration are rewarded with a more palpable presence. At random intervals, the picture suddenly disappears (accompanied by a camera-shutter click), replaced with live feed from a surveillance camera hidden somewhere in the gallery room itself. The images of the viewers are subjected to the same special effects applied to the street corner footage.
In truth, Rokeby's video processes are even more involved than described above: the artist has programmed a computer to perform a panoply of tricks to achieve these effects, like averaging light levels between video frames at certain points, and randomly comparing the positions of objects with their locations in previous frames. This nuts-and-bolts information, however, is impossible to discern just from looking at the piece; it's explained only in a text available at the gallery desk. Most viewers experience only a slowly unfolding awareness that Watch is more complex than they first suspected and thus, if for only the sheer visual thrill, more interesting than they had first thought.
Half of the viewers I polled were unaware that the street-scene video was live, broadcast from a camera mounted outside the gallery building (I didn't get it the first time round, either). This conceptual feature is important, of course, if the artwork is intended to make a statement about seeing and being seen. But the de facto ability of video to be live and therefore more alive than film and other more static arts has allowed it to swing wide to the theoretical end of artistic discourse, allowing for concrete (and sometimes simplistic) demonstrations of once-abstract concepts of 'being' and 'otherness'. Rokeby succumbs by ascribing gravity to his tinkering. In a section of the gallery text that reads like a cross between a PhD thesis and the Unabomber manifesto, the artist explains his technical doodlings in obsessive detail, mixing in a bit of pop theosophy and Poststructuralist theory to boot. His picture-smearing technique is at least only sheepishly compared to the divine ascension of the spirit; yet the leap from a description of the installation's undeniable complication of the process of looking to a claim for its transformation of the process of meaning is made quite matter-of-factly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. It isn't; unless you want to attribute the same importance to the home-entertainment sections of most suburban department stores, where Watch is approximated daily.
Still, Watch succeeds in the way some good paintings do: Rokeby's virtuoso technique is subordinated to the overall effect of the artwork, an edgy cathode-ray lullaby which is itself quite free from the metaphorical algebra that similar works routinely push. His methods appear related to the special effects one sees on The X-Files and Liquid Television entertaining bits of video wizardry that grab you for a moment, but are here played full-blast and live for your meditative pleasure. And when the shutter clicks and the surveillance camera flicks on you become the star, moving around and flapping your arms to see what kind of cool, blurry shapes you can make.
Thus drawn in, viewers can notice the 'artistic' stuff in Watch, like the ambient sounds of a heartbeat and a clock ticking, which add to the feeling of being in the factory where the mesmerising opening montage to The X-Files was made a pleasantly technological grotto, which if not exactly profound, is still a pretty interesting place to be.