When I came back to video it was because of the technological changes- they were what brought me back to the medium, particularly after working with photography, where there was so much to see, it was no longer about movement or basic vision.
Making art is not a competition for me anymore- it was then. Now it’s just about making decent art. 1
I had been anticipating my first view of Peter Campus’ recently commissioned work convergence d’images vers le port for some time. When the eagerly awaited package arrived in early July, it contained five tiny memory cards, one for each of four views, with an additional one containing the “ensemble”- the four views assembled in a vertical line running across the screen. I elected to look at this one first, knowing it would provide me with an overview of the work, and understanding that I should read the sequence in a conventional left to right manner. The four carefully orchestrated moving image sequences were bound together, surrounded by a black border and held in synchronised interdependence. Each image in the sequence was of equal length, and each began in colour, before being transformed to monochrome and ending with a brief freeze-frame. This was a format I understood- or so I thought: a multi-screen work, as opposed to an installation. I was aware that Peter’s formative film industry experience had involved multi-screen production. He had worked with the film director Francis Thompson on a number of projects including the six-screen film We Are Young (1967), so I thought perhaps this new work might reconnect with a much earlier way of working and thinking about the presentation and experience of the moving image. 2 But I was also aware that Peter’s installation, video and photographic work was formally, philosophically and technologically far removed from this approach. Moreover, our skype conversation a few days after I had first seen convergence… had raised further and more complex connections and associations. Peter explained that the work would involve the projection of each of the four image-sequences onto adjacent walls in the gallery. So the individual images might not be seen together, or at least not simultaneously, and would oblige the viewer to shift his or her gaze continuously, selecting where and what to watch and how long to remain with any particular one of the four image-sequences. There would be no vista- no vantage point from which to experience the sequences simultaneously. Instead, the installation would require a much more selective approach from the viewer. With this work the artist sought to actively engage the viewer in the act of looking:
The new four-screen work is more physical- you turn your body towards the images. In this way the work requires a more participatory approach. You need to interact with the work- turning to look at other completely different images. The work surrounds you. 3
So, the work was “sculptural’ after all- or perhaps more aptly described as architectural. Convergence… will surround and immerse the viewer, with each of the four image-sequences projected onto separate walls within a seven-metre square gallery space. These three-metre wide projections will be presented onto screens built out from the wall, requiring the viewer to be constantly selecting his or her own viewpoint. The shear size and quality of the images will challenge the viewer to engage with details and aspects of the imagery that engulfs them.
convergence… differs from the artist’s immediately preceding works (and those of the past few years) in that it features the use of multiple sequences rather than single continuous shots. The single shot approach of Peter’s “videographs” was conceived for a domestic environment, designed to be experienced on a daily basis- “to be lived with”. This new installation is a commissioned work, made for a specific venue and a particular context. Peter’s wide experience of working with interactive installations, often incorporating closed-circuit video systems, has made him acutely aware of public gallery dynamics:
The fact that this work is a commission makes it very different from other recent work, and the venue it will be shown in makes it different too. I’m very conscious that the work is going to be in a public space. Some people are going to watch it for perhaps 10 seconds and others for 10 mins. The work is short and viewing it is not the same as living with it. 4
Despite this exploration of the potential of the multiple image-sequence, Peter continues to be interested in the single-screen approach. For example, his series of four works entitled sequences (http://petercampus.net/), intended to be viewed on a computer or domestic TV screen, were developed and made concurrently with convergence… . However, in developing this new installation, Peter’s interest in working with the sequence has re-emerged:
I’d got interested in working with sequences in 2006- It’s a very cinematic idea- something you study in film school. If you put this shot ahead of that shot it means one thing, but if you reverse them, it means something else. Its not cinema, but its also not traditional video either. 5
The choice of location and its specific characteristics are also in some significant way related to the fact that the work is a commission. The picturesque harbour at Pornic, on the west coast of France, and its symbiotic relationship to tourism is an aspect that Peter was interested in, but he was also wary about the way in which fishing has been incorporated into the touristic image of the port. This is an aspect he avoided, deeming it too obvious- even disturbing, and so opted not to include it.
Peter particularly liked the idea of being completely immersed in a place for concentrated period. All the principal videography was shot within an intensive ten-day span, allowing him to get in tune with the location more deeply and he was keenly aware that the level of engagement he wanted might have taken much longer somewhere else.
The Atlantic tidal cycle with its complete disappearance of water on a twice-daily basis was new and particularly fascinating to Peter. Even more significantly he realised this phenomenon would become an important metaphor in the work, whilst aware that he might not have seen its significance had this daily ebb and flow been a more familiar experience. During the period of recording, Peter began to have a clear sense of the harbour as “something which was containing the water”, and this became a central theme. In fact, the entire project has that sense of containment- a containment of time and a containment of space. Further to this, the (video) frame can also be understood a kind of container, as the image is “held” within the screen and also clearly held within the composition of the image during the act of framing. In convergence… the viewer’s sense of containment would be paramount, given the scale and intensity of the images that will surround them.
Although this approach to working with sequences has a connection to the genre of the photographic essay, Peter was very clear that he wanted to avoid an approach to the project and the location that could be identified in any sense as “documentary” in its outlook. There are video installations by other artists that also provide a further context. Peter mentions the multi-screen installation work of artists such as Jane and Louise Wilson, Steve McQueen and Bruce Nauman. In particular, convergence… has a number of significant aspects in common with multi-screen works by these artists, characterised by an approach that could perhaps be described as “anti-cinema”. Peter explains he does the editing with the viewer in mind, he does not want them to be “led by the nose”. Each image-sequence has a duration of approximately forty seconds and all are roughly the same length. He wants to “hand freedom to the viewer”; the audience is given a topic, or subject, but there is then considerable scope within the viewing experience. “There is room to have our own thoughts and our own movement.” 6
Another important theme and a particular fascination for the artist concerns the physiology of the eye- particularly the mechanisms of human vision, the rods and cones responsible for black and white and colour perception. This interest in human sight extends to include the organization of visual tasks within the cerebral cortex (the so-called left/right brain question). In convergence… each image-sequence is in full colour until the final eight to ten seconds, after which the colour drains away to leave a residual monochrome. Peter observes that when viewing in monochrome we look at different aspects of the image- perception within the brain when looking at black and white imagery is organised differently to that of colour. And to hone in on that aspect, the viewing experience is purely one of vision. Unusually for a video installation in which sound and music is often such a dominant force, convergence… is silent: I found working without sound strengthened my perceived experience of image, so I cut the sound out! 7
The sequences in convergence… are never completely still, always swaying gently, in harmony with the motion of the water in the harbour, echoing the movement of the boats and the quay itself. To achieve this the camera was supported using a monopod rather than a tripod or a “steadycam” device. Peter explained that he sought to “remind the viewer and to create an awareness” of the continuous motion whilst simultaneously referencing the person behind the camera. For the artist it was a question of the degree of movement: “Handheld, there was too much…” 8
The viewer becomes most aware of this constant movement at the edges of the frame, and in connection to this there is an almost subconscious awareness of the edges of things in convergence..- the border between land and the sea, between monochrome and colour, motion and stillness. With this gentle swaying the containment of the frame is being quietly reinforced without becoming too obtrusive.
Peter’s gently swaying camera does not move in closer to any scene, his lens does not zoom in, nor change focal length. He tells me that most of the sequences have been shot using a 35mm Leica lens, a few others with a 50mm, as these are his lenses of choice. Although many equate these focal length lenses with “normal’ vision, the artist is well aware of the differences between the fixed perspective of photographic and digital imaging systems and the constantly shifting movement of the human eye: “The way we see is so different from the way a camera “sees”. Human vision is constantly in motion- the camera stares- it doesn’t flinch.” 9
Despite this distinction between the camera and the eye, Peter favours the qualities and characteristics of the particular Leica lenses he uses in his work. He explains that this characteristic is not about image resolution, but something far less easily identified or quantified:
There’s something about the optics, that in all the years I’ve been taking photographs its just very sympathetic to me- it’s just warmer and more human- I like it better. 10
This elusive characteristic which is often identified as the quality or property of an experience as perceived or experienced by an individual, is referred to by philosophers as “qualia”. 11 A statement on qualia by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in relation to the nature of the subjective experience of colour seems both relevant and particularly apt in this context:
The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so. 12
I have a sense that this observation on the nature of subjective experience gets us closer to one of the key themes in convergence…. At a fundamental level this work is about the act of looking out at the world and knowing that although it cannot ever be understood in purely objective, literal or physical terms, it is entirely possible that something of the subjective, the personal and the immeasurable can be grasped and communicated by an artist. There is just one caveat; this is only possible if that artist has the sensitivity, skill, vision and perceptiveness of Peter Campus.
Chris Meigh-Andrews, 2016.
“peter campus: convergence d’images vers le port” was originally published in the catalogue for the exhibition video ergo sum, Jue de Paume, Paris, Feb 2017.
1. Peter Campus in conversation with the author, 11/08/16.
2. This film was presented during Expo’ 67 at the Canadian Pacific Railway–Cominco Pavilion, and it was an early inspiration on my own subsequent fascination with cinema.
3. Peter Campus in conversation with the author, 11/08/16.
11. See for example, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia/
12. Erwin Schrodinger, “What is Life?” With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1967, pg 154.