BY Anke Bangma in Frieze | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

Seen and Not Seen

James Coleman

BY Anke Bangma in Frieze | 06 MAR 95

Referring to a variety of traditions and conventions, such as painting, photography, film, theatre, modern Irish literature or the popular fiction of the novelette or photonovel, the Irish artist James Coleman has been looking at the structures of representation in our culture since the 70s. His resulting slide installations attest to these investigations in an obscure manner: in not providing the viewer with an instant perception, Coleman opens our eyes to the way we blindly look at representations. His most recent works, linked together as a trilogy in retrospect by Coleman, take this exploration a step forward.

The tape/slide installation Lapsus Exposure (1992) initially suggests the presentation of a story; a romantic drama involving adultery, broken friendship, a proposal of marriage and possibly even a crime of passion. A male voice, faltering and stammering, recites passages of the drama. 'We were taking these photos, remember that? I asked Jill to stand beside me. Instead she went over to you, do you remember that Joe? I was real upset.' And later on: 'We were being positioned. Jill looking at you. I knew it was the beginning.' But the narrative does not develop in a logical or linear way: it is related by the narrator in bits and pieces. For instance, he alternately assumes the perspectives of different subjects in the story. He also gives the characters instructions ('Look up. Smile.') as though the photo session, which is recollected in the drama, is taking place in the present. Narration and dramatisation are mingled; present and past tenses, the active and the passive, are continually interchanged. The opaque narrative structure and the multiple perspectives contribute to the ambiguity of the story.

Synchronised with the narration, three projectors flash a series of slides that are like the episodes of a photonovel. The photographic images depict two men and two women in formal and apparently informal poses. It is as if the expressions on their faces and their gestures are provided with subtitles by the narrator. The emotional confrontations to which the narration refers, however, cannot easily be traced back to the visual. In the motionless images, one can find no evidence of the dramatic tone used by the speaker. Are we witnessing a real drama, or the recording session of an enacted story? A remark at the end of the narrative discourages further efforts to follow the tale. 'Pack up the Nikon,' says the commenting voice. 'There's no crime committed.' With so many inconsistent cues, the installation ends up directing the viewer's attention primarily toward his own attempts to perceive and interpret.

The impact of Coleman's work rests on a Brechtian construction of representation. In his theory on epic theatre, Bertolt Brecht introduced the model for alienating imagery that was intended to thoroughly redefine the role of the spectator. According to this model, the classical distance between stage and audience is bridged by means of detached acting. The actor no longer seeks empathy and identification but aims to achieve an effect of estrangement. The Brechtian actor maintains critical detachment from the actions and statements of the stage character. When he utters the words of the stage figure, he listens at the same time, as though he doesn't believe his ears; when he makes the gestures of the stage figure, he looks on in amazement. Brecht actually instructed his actors to transpose the script into the third person, to say lines in the past tense or say aloud the commentary and acting instructions. He does not immerse himself in the character but displays him and quotes him. As a result there remains a visible gap between the actor and the stage character; they never completely merge, but stand side by side. This dual presence destroys the illusion of the performance. Brecht speaks about a twofold display: the display of the stage performance and the display of the display.

Even closer to Coleman, Brecht uses film, music, and subtitles to disrupt and comment on the actions of the actors. The linear quality of the story and the unity of the actions are consequently intercepted; the fluid stream of play and narration is impeded. The effect of estrangement is thus based on the technique of montage: structural surprises prevent the viewer from letting himself be carried away by the performance and force him, as Walter Benjamin concluded in his comments on Brecht, toward a heightened state of reflection. The spectator's attitude is active, speculative and investigative. Brecht allows for a critical stance: the viewer, says Brecht, is not a consumer, but should himself produce.

Since his first tape/slide installation Slide Piece (1972), Coleman has also developed a principle of alienation in order to bring about a detached, reflective attitude in the viewer. The quick successions of perspectival changes in Lapsus Exposure break the unity and unambiguousness of the story. The installation prevents the viewer from becoming absorbed in the suggested melodrama and abandoning himself in the illusion of the narrative. The temptation to be carried away by the voice of the narrator is thwarted by his faltering speech and his build-up of narrative fragments. The broken narration produces a shock effect. Furthermore, the succession of images amount to a visual story that is equally lacking in fluidity. The images are not the silent evidence of a reconstructible filmic story but individually staged, painterly compositions. Their interconnection is not seamless but jolting. Any hint of a direct relationship between the tape recording and the slide projection is also conspicuously absent.

Coleman's installation confronts the viewer with two simultaneous texts whose signifiers do not necessarily refer to the same signified. The viewer must continually make new connections. Just as in Brechtian theatre, the viewer of Coleman's work must produce. Here again, it is the break that allows the viewer to intercede: the ruptures in the narratives, the intervals between the slides, the gap between image and narration. The installation places the viewer literally in the centre; in the darkened space he sees the slide projection before his eyes, while the sound of the narrator's voice comes from behind him.

With its references to the plot of a soap opera, Lapsus Exposure is the most narrative work from the trilogy. In Background (1993) and particularly in I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S. (1994), the spoken text that accompanies the images is more abstract. Background shows the set of a studio, with cameras, lamps, garment racks, instruments; the staging of a video. The narrator reflects on the complex relationship between voice and image involved: video production. As such her words also form a commentary on the installation itself. I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S. could even be regarded as an allegory on interpretation and communication. The hesitant voice of a young girl reads out the accompanying text, a puzzling assortment of fragments from the Yeats poem The Dreaming of the Bones, which is acted out and articulated in search of its meaning. At the same time the text seems to comment on this interpretive process. 'It's hard to make out the I-N-I-T-I-A-L-S. The initials' is a recurrent stanza. First inquisitive and probing, then intuitive and affirmative, the girl's voice paraphrases the questioning attitude of the viewer.

In all three works the actors assume an ambiguous position which can be compared to the dual presence of Brecht's actors. Nothing actually happens in these images, but something is about to happen. The figures are awaiting a photo session, the shooting of a video or the rehearsal of a play. Caught at a crucial moment that immediately precedes the assumption of their roles, they are getting dressed, putting on make up and waiting. There is no illusion of a performance in any of the works, since the performance has yet to begin; the start, however, is continually delayed. Coleman's figures are situated in a vacuum, an ambiguous position which, like epic theatre, shows representation as representation.

It was on the basis of Brecht's theory of epic representation that Roland Barthes established that in the fragmented and incoherent text, meaning keeps on circulating without ever congealing into a fixed form. The incoherent text has no centre. Any claim to truth is invalidated in such discontinuous and open discourse. Epic representation is made up of many voices. The ruptured structure of Coleman's work leads to the viewer's unusual freedom, which is described by Barthes as 'scriptible'. The 'scriptible' text offers a multitude of interpretive access points, none of which has greater priority or validity than the other. It does not dictate interpretation but, by way of its openness, challenges the reader to cut his own paths through the text. The 'scriptible' text does not speak for itself but challenges the reader to become the writer. The customary opposition between active and passive positions becomes invalid. 'On the stage of the text, no footlights,' says Barthes in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. 'There is no one behind the text who is active (the writer), and no one in front of it who is passive (the reader); there is no subject and no object.' Coleman's work also requires an exchange of active and passive positions. The central role of the artist as 'author' is fragmented in the many voices he employs. Coleman makes no statements about the works presented by him, nor does he make the scripts available. The commenting voice, constantly switching from one role to another, scarcely compensates for the 'death of the author'. No paternal authority can restrict the plurality of meanings in these works. Time and again, it is the viewer who must get the work to speak.

Coleman's polycentric works localise the perspective in the subject of the viewer. At that point one can no longer speak of a viewer in the abstract sense. His perception, knowledge, history, culture, race, gender, in short his very physical being determines his reading of the representation. Not surprisingly, Coleman's work is repeatedly associated with the stereoscope, described in Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer as a model of the viewer, the representation of perception in the modern age. 19th-century optical science no longer defined perception as a mental introspection 'in camera'. The ideal eye of the camera obscura gave way to the binocularity of the stereoscope, based on the human visual apparatus. According to modern science, seeing is rooted in the body and is thus, by definition, temporal in nature, subject to change, even subject to death. Objective perception is inconceivable in this model. In Lapsus Exposure there is reference to the halting of change, to the catching and freezing of time in photographs. 'Let's pose. Freeze. Images to immortalise our love.' But photographs also fade and thus, as images, are no less immune to change. The perception of images takes place in time, as a continuing process, with which the viewer is encouraged to engage by Coleman's use of the slide installation. The absence of chairs forces the viewer to move about in the space, to try out different angles and to reflect on his role as viewer. The alternating perspectives of the spoken text interact with the viewer's subjective positions.

In the trilogy, the physical presence of the viewer is ingeniously implicated in the settings. Lapsus Exposure shows the workrooms of a paleontological museum; Background is shot in a film studio; I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S. takes place among the operating theatres of a hospital. These are all places where the body is the object of scrutiny. The latest installation refers to the most fundamental examination of sight; in the 19th-century hospital, human sight was not only analysed anatomically, but also objectified in measurable and quantifiable responses; by means of this knowledge, the spectator became predictable and controllable. Perhaps this is where the political implications of Coleman's work can be found. His refusal to prescribe interpretions not only shows the viewer the link between representational structures and power, but introduces, in itself, a manner of representation which is immune to power. The viewer of Coleman's work is, as Barthes would say, a happy one.

Translation: Beth O'Brien