Spill Writing

Spill Spirits: Robin Deacon (Video Memories)

by Lewis Church


A dog’s eye is in the centre of the frame, moving backwards and forwards as the tape is rewound, played and then rewound again. This dog has very human eyes. The footage is old and the memory fresh, and there is no reason to doubt the story that goes with it, even though everything in the show is about the fallibility of our memories and the meanings that are hung on how a document looks and feels. The dog is real but the memory might not be. It could, at any point, be blown away by crisp high definition, its sharpness pointing to other truths.


Two days earlier, away from this show, in another room at another time, a different audience sat and watched a similar film, about a not-well-known figure from the performance underground. More old footage, but this time fixed to a place and an era. Many more people will later watch this long montage of cine-film, video and digital transitions online through their laptop computers, flimsy tablets and tiny phones. A collection of old documentation, seen on the screen as boxes and plastic containers of magnetic tape and old props, is taken from a physical place and watched, clipped and edited together before being dematerialised and made available as a digital screener across the world. Both pieces deal with memory, memory through mediums and mediation.


These two pieces are works by the artist Robin Deacon, in London for SPILL from Chicago, where he teaches at the School of the Art Institute. White Balance, taking place in the Barbican’s Pit, is the latest in the artist’s performance lecture series, an explanation of the connection between the medium of recording and the memories they document. Using several outmoded video cameras and players, Deacon layers projections from multiple camera sources onto the screen in front of the audience; the individual looks and feels of the footage are tied to the specific nature of each camera. Deacon reads from his script into the lens of his first video camera from the 1990s, his appearance on it different from his last, or from any of the others that he pulls out from underneath his table. They are each named and explained, and their differences highlighted, alongside their similarities.


Deacon’s show is a performance, although one that is screened as much as performed, with the artist at a station amongst the rows of the audience, manipulating the technology to throw his face and footage in front. Later, when talking to me, Deacon suggests that this performance of White Balance is ‘the cinematic version’, with some of the audience able to see him working, watching the wires and actions of his performance, whilst those in the further forward rows are unable to see him. Deacon calls back to some of his earlier work, describing his interest in exploring the potential of more indirect ways of being with an audience rather than in front of one. This set-up subverts the audience’s expectation of a piece that begins with an entrance, and ends with an exit. Like a memory, its edges are indistinct. It walks a line between lecture and reflection, full of technical knowledge but emotion as well. The work suggests that our memories are perhaps memories not of the event, but of the documentation we then watch back. We fetishize footage suffused with the look of a time and place.


The other event, two days before White Balance, was screened at the Live Art Development Agency. Spectacle: A Portrait of Stuart Sherman is Deacon’s feature-length documentary about the work of the American artist and filmmaker Stuart Sherman. The event launched its time available free online as part of the LADA Screens program. Sherman, who Deacon first met as a student and whose work is rarely examined by historians or critical writers, is profiled and explored by the documentary in a manner constantly in dialogue with Deacon’s own practice. This is explicitly illustrated by Deacon’s approximations (deliberately distinct from reproductions) of Sherman’s iconic table-top works and larger scale ensemble pieces. Following Sherman’s handwritten scores and working from the video documentation Deacon takes his place, without attempting to avoid the change in meaning that comes from a different body performing. Deacon works instead of rather than as Sherman. Later he engineers a re-performance of Sherman’s version of Hamlet from archival records and video footage, with yet more new bodies replacing the old. Watching the film is an education in Sherman’s work, but also an insight into Deacon’s own performance lineage and forebears. A line follows from Sherman’s matter-of-fact table top performances to Deacon’s deliberate use of his video equipment in White Balance, in the direct address to the audience, the considered processes he follows, and his formal yet friendly tone. White Balance and Spectacle are connected, the performance emerging in part from what Deacon describes as the way he was able to ‘read time’ from the subtle differences in tone and sharpness of an image from old footage when making the documentary.


Sherman is present in White Balance, in both his influence on Deacon and the echoes of Spectacle. Deacon talks about becoming attuned to the details of the video formats he combed for the documentary, with time being signalled by format, and the way one process (creating the documentary) informs the second process of making a show. White Balance, was, Deacon says, originally a companion piece, but now it has become larger, developed further and moved in its own direction, bringing in other influences, artists and pop culture. Back To The Future (1985) and Peeping Tom (1960) are referenced within White Balance, as is the dog-based video art of William Wegman. Wegman’s simple experiments in focus and subject through the medium of his dogs in the 1970s provide Deacon with a visual vocabulary to work alongside and against. At one point Deacon’s own ‘old’ footage of his dog sits next to the two Weimaraners of Wegman’s Dog Duet (1974). The three dogs may appear side by side in the same frame, sharing the same composition and the same visual quality of the footage, but they are separated by nearly 40 years. In the dog’s fascination with the camera, following it as it pans over their faces, the audience are offered their own fascination with this old technology of video reflected back at them.


Whilst the history of video is the subject of White Balance, and at points it is almost a technical lecture on the development of the technology, the content of the piece is emotionally charged and loaded in its questioning of recall. As an audience member I became acclimatised to the logistics of the cameras, but disarmed by the memories they provoked. The piece is a reflection on the format of memories as much as documentation. I hadn’t realised that just like reel-to-reel, cassette tapes, and the 8-bit aesthetic of early video games, video has reached a point far away enough from its peak to have become a recoupable aesthetic strategy. With the generation that grew up with wobbly things taped off the telly, Disney videos at Christmas and Blockbuster trips with their Dads now reaching their 30s, the colour, grain and fizz of tape is nostalgic rather than obsolete. Video as a deliberate choice rather than a throwback. Whilst for Deacon the technology used in White Balance does not come from a childhood interest in the technology itself, or a modish fetishisation of the vintage, there is a strange resonance between the aging of technology and of people.


Deacon is interested in the materiality of things, and of our memories, creating work fixed within the current moment of the last stages of the physical archive. Deacon’s recouping of video is not nostalgic or romanticised, not a lifestyle choice but an act of exploration. Deacon admits that for him, the technology becomes a logistical exercise to work through in the performance – from the need to own two of each camera and player to the difficulties of working with the obsolete. Indeed, during the performance I saw, a VHS wouldn’t work, and he spent several minutes flicking from input to input. I remembered that action, and the high pitched CRT whine that accompanies it (and I remembered doing it myself). People now deal with the immaterial, says Deacon, but there is a qualitative difference between the physical and the digital. Ironically, Deacon tells me that the technology that has provided him with the least trouble are the ‘Portapak’ cameras of the early 1970s, almost indestructible hulking boxes with straps and hinges that continue to work despite the eBay wear and tear. He said that he found something about seeing the image flaming in to being through the viewfinder of his Panasonic Portapak camera staggering, a strangeness contained in imagery that is familiarly foggy. It is ghostly almost, in that something so old would work once again. I feel that it is unlikely my iPhone will still record in 2060.


Deacon’s work shares a fascination with the technology of video and its relationship to aging and memory with several other current artists. Ross Sutherland’s Stand By For Tape Backup mines this terrain explicitly, the artist remembering his grandfather through a found and degraded tape. Aging again, tied to memory. Diane Coffee’s video for the song Soon To Be, Won’t To Be was created by running the digitally produced footage through an analogue editing suite to achieve its unmistakeable video blur. Like Deacon it recognises that there is a particular language reproduced by the processes of video, that its aesthetic is unique. The Academy Award nominated director of Babel and 21 Grams Alejandro González Iñárritu shot his short Naran Ja on VHS, explaining that ‘Digital and most film stock is so sleek now, that everything looks very plastic and unnatural. We have lost the skin of the images’.


The skin of the images. The wooly smudge of reproduced and degraded tape. A lens through which you watch, a snowstorm of interference that forces you to recognize that what you see is not reality but a reproduction. A clunky old way of watching what we want, a hollow black box ka-chunked into another black box. It is now almost unbelievably mechanical. Memories and documents that are things, immobile and uncopiable, for as tape is reproduced it is changed. The colours are odd, yellowy skin, purple trails on pure black and the famously throbbing video green. Slow phasing and ghostly echoes. Deacon’s work is a tour through technology, memory and lives.