Observer/Observed and Other Works of Video Semiology (CD-ROM)
Author: Takahiko Iimura
Publisher: Tokyo: Banff Center for the Arts, 1999
Review Published: May 2002
Observer/Observed and Other Works of Video Semiology is a retrospective of Takahiko Iimura's video works on cd-rom. There are 3 sets of works archived: Camera, Monitor, Frame; Observer/Observed; and Observer/Observed/Observer. Each work dates from 1975 to 1998, lasts several minutes, and consists of a series of video 'statements' or 'sentences.'
As the title suggests, Iimura is concerned with the science of signs, and the fluid nature of signifiers and what they signify. Iimura utilises the ideas surrounding language and the process of signification, then applies them to video. Of course, this has been done before by film theorists and filmmakers, such as Eisenstein's development of montage as a filmic language. The 23-year span of Iimura's works suggests that this has been rich territory for him. Unfortunately, this lengthy preoccupation with the issue of representation also dates the work considerably. After all, Iimura is talking about representation through analogue means.
Camera, Monitor, Frame challenges the premise of semiotics that the meanings associated with objects result more from what they aren't than what they are. That is, no object has an inherent meaning, but rather acquires it from its relationships to other objects. Iimura's point is that these relationships also change according to different language systems. In this work, the signifier and the signified in the vocabulary of video production are tested against seemingly simple English language sentences, such as 'this is a camera,' 'this is not a camera,' 'this is a monitor,' etc. When we see a shot of a camera, we know that this is an image which refers to the physical object that is a camera, as well as the product of looking through the lens of a camera. We are confronted with being both in front and behind the camera at the same time. So these apparently straightforward statements become increasingly inadequate for what should be the easiest of meanings.
Observer/Observed is more a play on words, an exercise in semantics. We see close-ups of a woman closing and opening her eyes: she is seeing and not seeing but we see her. We see a shot of a monitor turning on and off: we are both seeing and not seeing but the camera still observes. The title is deceptive in its suggestion of an active participant and passive recipient, as there is more than one observer and more than one subject/object of observation in the equation.
Observer/Observed/Observer triangulates the subject/object interaction through the addition of a question following each video statement, such as 'I see myself. Who is shooting you?' The dialogic ball is served from the addresser to the addressee, leaving it open for the addressee to throw a response back. The answer, however, lies in a multifarious configurations between Camera 1, Camera 2, Monitor 1, Monitor 2, and Iimura himself.
There is so much potential for further exploration in this area, particularly in the digital domain. If, as we've heard, the previously segregated activities of production and consumption are blurred with digitalisation, then the acts of observing and being observed are pertinent given that observation can be considered both a mode of production and consumption. Indeed, the question of representation in cyberspace -- who is speaking for whom, and who is listening -- could easily fit into Iimura's examination of who is the subject and object in any audio-visual transaction.
The advent of digital media has added further complexity to these equations. When one is looking at a Web page, we are also being addressed by its author. However, the identity of the author may not be overt. The exchange is taking place in real time and yet is asynchronous as well. This is not only taken for granted by cybercultural commentators, but probably regarded as extremely tiresome by now.
Despite his utilisation of cd-rom, Iimura has not tackled any of the new possibilities offered by the digital arena. Even the issues of time and temporality, which feature largely in film semiotics discussions, are absent from Iimura's conceptual experimentations: is observation really taking place when it is being time-shifted through a video recording or a cd-rom?
As an artwork, the cd-rom is a convenient means for transporting and exhibiting the work. As it is durational, it would have the credibility of being a video installation, in contrast to the lack of kudos which digital art, particularly interactive work, suffers. Perhaps this is why there is no effort on Iimura's part to experiment more with the language of multimedia. Why change from a tried and true formula of work that is theoretically sound (having been resolved over decades), loved by academics and artists alike, and shown as high art; for a more edgy, unknown, contemporary, accessible but less celebrated alternative?
Dr. Linda Leung is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney's Institute for Interactive Multimedia and Learning. She has also previously taught and/or conducted research at the Universities of London, East London, North London, Miami and Western Sydney. She is director of Digimatter (www.digimatter.com), which assists digital media artists in marketing and distributing their work. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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