Interview with Daniel Reeves, Glasgow, Scotland: 21/11/00
C.M-A: How and when did you initially begin to work with video?
D.R: I went back to college under a veteran’s rehabilitation programme. I had gotten back from the battle field, as it were, in February of 1968, and I spent about 6 months in the hospital and I had about another year and a half to serve, but in the last 6 months they had something called “project transition” which was notionally an effort to give combat veterans some other job skill, other than operating an M60 machine gun. In my case I was a radio operator so it wasn’t too far-fetched. The attraction for me was that I would not have to do any service related duties for the last 6 months. I was in a Marine Corps base at Quantico Virginia and I opted to study at the National Academy of Broadcasting. So I studied radio and film there for 6 months for about 40 hours a week. So actually my first contact with the video portapack was in 1969. But the course was designed to get you behind the desk as a radio announcer or TV personality, and that meant wearing a suit and I’d just spent four years wearing suits of one kind or another, so I took all those skills that I had learned and just left.
I lived in the woods in Maine in small cabin for about 3 years until I found out that I could get a disability allowance for my loss of hearing and shrapnel wounds and so at that point, in 1973, I went back to school under a rehabilitation programme. This got me out of my “wounded retreat” in which not only the shock of the combat , which was deeply traumatic, but also the rupture with society because of the nature of my own metaphysical being somehow it was easy for me to link what was happening in the war to what was happening on the home front, or anywhere in the Western world. What I could see was that the war was about money and greed, xenophobia, racism all those things. I felt poisoned. So when I went away and I when I decided to re-emerge as it were, I went to study journalism and early in the course Willard Van Dyke showed up to run an intensive 3 month film workshop, which I attended. I made a film about everyone else making a film, which turned out to be, according to others, “better than the film that was made”.
That summer was really a rebirth because it became clear to me that working with a motion picture camera was second nature to me. I had some previous experience, as years before my step father had a 16 mm camera. The first film footage I ever shot in my life, when I was 12 years old, was of a dam explosion, which seems kind of ironic. My step-father had built a dam and we spent days and days packing the dynamite for a tremendous explosion which I filmed.
So I began to study film, and my second contact with video was as a cinematography major. As part of the course you had to do one project in the TV studio. The problem was that it was very broadcast oriented, once again. So I did a short assignment- a camera podium piece where I worked with images from Northern Ireland- it was something that deeply interested me- I could never work on anything that I didn’t interest me, even if it was an assignment. But because of the studio orientation and all the suits and clap-trap, I was still much more interested in film and still cameras.
After graduation I went away for 6 months to India, which was a very transformative experience. After returning, in January 1979, I got a job at Cornell University in the educational television dept. I began to work with some film material which I intended to use to make a reply to a film by Robert Gardener entitled Dead Birds which he had made after taking part in an anthropological expedition in New Guinea. It was a project begun before I went to India, but that I had previously been unable to complete, as I was unable to resolve the ending. There was a kind of “Eureka” situation when I was able to sit down with the U-matic video editing. I transferred the film footage to video. It was precisely the plasticity, the spontaneity and the very smallish gap between inspiration and execution that was quite apparent to me. I sat down with a guy who became a good friend, John Hilton, and transferred all of this imagery, 3 or 4 hours of film material that I had researched and selected from the National Archives in Washington. That process of going back and digging deeply into archival footage wasn’t common practice at that point. I had never been able to make sense of this material. But when I transferred this material to Quad (2 inch video) I was able to modify the footage, change the contrast, add colour, solarise. I created lots of effects reels from the footage as well as the straight transfers. John sat at the controls, but I made most of the editorial decisions about the visuals because it was my project. We made a decision to not do any sound until the piece was edited. I could see and felt very strongly that the piece that I wanted to make was about the sense of how the West- particularly America, was always balanced on the edge of nuclear suicide. We didn’t talk about it very much and rarely acknowledged it except for certain notions about fall-out shelters and civil defence, and all the things that came out later in pieces like Atomic Cafe . So I ended up making a piece called Thousands Watch (1979). Its only 7 minutes long and merges this footage from the Brussels World’s Fair, film footage from Las Vegas and New York , archival war footage, and most importantly, black and white and colour footage from Japanese film units at Hiroshima that had been confiscated and had only been released about a year or two before , they had sat in a vault in the Army Film Archives for 25 years.
So by transferring this material to video I was able to explore a new approach. Footage could be modified in real time, merged- at that time I wanted nothing to do with cuts. Cuts have rarely occurred in my work since then. I have, I guess, an eternal notion of the fluidity that exists in the world. (Although occasionally you turn around and you feel that something has just been cut.)
But in the case of this piece, since it was only a 2 machine suite, and there was no time-base corrector or anything like that, the way I achieved the fluidity was by the simple creation of a black matrix which everything arose from, sustained, and subsided back into. The piece was very successful, and was shown in many festivals, which resulted in my getting a fellowship and I went on to make Smothering Dreams. (1981). This was a real turning point because no one had made that kind of work dealing with that subject before.
Going back to what you proposed, it was clearly, and I recognised it then , such an important transition to discover. For me at that point, it became clear that the medium was going to allow me to make the work that I wanted to make. I think that within a month or two of making Thousands Watch I made a list of the works that I wanted to make, and all of them have been made. Obsessive Becoming (1995) is one of the last on that list, I think I then called it Seeds of Destruction, or something like that.
C.M-A: Which aspects of the video medium do you consider to be the most important?
D.R: I became really enamoured and encouraged by the feeling the video camera could be as direct a tool (within certain restrictions) as a pen, or a brush or a carving tool. I had done traditional art things as well- they came up rather spontaneously as soon as I got out of the service. Carving wood, and painting all of the doors and windows of my room, making sculptures with toy soldiers. Some way of reaching for a catharsis, some way of being able to digest these experiences, or even be able to hold them in a real way.
When you look at the apparatus for assembling this material (because I came to the medium with work already ‘in camera’- even though I didn’t really shoot anything.) the next step, having shot lots of 16mm film, and processed it myself, or having had to wait for it to come from back from the colour lab, but then discovering that I could now go out with the camera, and although it was still a relatively clumsy 3/4 inch U-matic deck. But clumsy or not, it went on a back-pack, and with the camera you could just capture things right there, and look at them right there if you chose to.
That relationship has now gone on for years, but to chart the changes over the years since then a little bit, I would look at the camera system first. I had access to one inch in the field within a year or so, when Cornell got their first one inch type ‘C ‘ machine. They were very generous when I was working on Smothering Dreams. I could rent a $48,000 ‘State of the Art’ RCA 3 tube camera, with a Sony ‘Type C’ one inch portable recorder. So I had access to over $100,000 worth of equipment, renting for usually about $100 per day, or cheaper. I could take it home for the weekend, and work with the young boy who was in Smothering Dreams – just the two of us. The intimacy level is expansive, its very present. Setting up these shots with toy soldiers with ‘Cherry Bombs’ buried underneath them. I was trying to create a different landscape of the imagination- a dream world with the child looking at the soldier, and the soldier looking at the child.
So through the years, every time there was a new technical development, and this is not so much an issue of technical quality (although that interested me) but it was more that the camera became more and more an extension of my own body. So whenever anything came out, I would be the first to get it. I had the first consumer level camcorder. It was a new format, brought out by JVC VHS C. In the early 80’s as soon as it was available, I went to “47th St. Photo” and bought the deck, the camera and this “marriage” device, which I used. I would wander for hours making what I called “ribbons”- I would move the camera, following for example, a battered tin pot (in a scene which shows up in Ganapati: Spirit of the Bush (1986) floating down the stream. Following the edges of tree forms, etc. You know- like having another eye in which you could pick up anything and everything. From there it went to Video 8, High 8, SVHS. Every year or so changing my camera system. Now you can go out and buy a 3 chip digital camera for #1500. I went to India for example on a Guggenheim fellowship and I managed to convince Sony to sell me a BVP 110 and a BVP 50, so I spent about $12,000 and I had a single tube broadcast quality set up. The whole configuration of camera and deck was designed for combat footage. I had never seen a camera that was so ergonomically designed (of course its a dinosaur now) It had a handle on the top, an incredibly low profile, with a wonderful Fujinon zoom lens. The BVU 50, weighed 8 or 9 pounds, it was ‘record only’- you couldn’t play back in the field, but by that time I was so conversant and familiar with the equipment and so confident that the footage would be there. I spent a whole lot of time travelling through France, Wales, Spain, and lots of time in India before I saw a single frame of the footage. All that material ended up in Sabda (1984). so the technology has changed considerably. Right now I’m in a fallow period where I’ve made Obsessive Becoming which took 5 years- the whole strange, alchemical process of putting that piece together. Since then I’ve made this piece called At One With Everything (2000) which has practically been my undoing. I can understand why Woody (Vasulka) would say “I’m not sure that I believe in this single screen durational approach to working. I can’t say that I’ve gone off it completely, but I came out of Obsessive Becoming with some sense of gratification. When I began to work on At One With Everything, I decided to change my working method, (which was probably very foolish) and work with a crew. So I got 15 or 16 people together- the production values are very high. It was a disaster. Its been in lots of festivals, but I’m never happy with it. Like Woody I can look back and say “That doesn’t work the way it should work”.
Going back to what we were talking about…I’m at the point where I don’t own a video camera. I’ve got enough distance from it now… You can travel around now with a shoe box containing all you need. You don’t have to have that big suitcase full of equipment, but there’s a trade off- because of the proliferation of digital effects, devices, potentials and possibilities within the camera and within the PC and Macintoshes, etc., I would be completely bewildered if I was just starting out. It’s as if you have to thread your way through this far too rich terrain. I’m not saying this from a Luddite position, that we should strip our cameras down and do pure black and white, but I sometimes go out and do something with Super 8 just because there’s something pristine and unpredictable about it.
C.M-A: Maybe its all got too controllable- too predictable.
D.R: To some extent. I’m a bit fed up with the learning curve. With Obsessive Becoming it wasn’t five years in production- it was probably ten years because I started in ’85 with my first Amiga, and it wasn’t till ’93- almost ’94 when I finally went “Aha!” This is the dream world that I wanted to get to. To be able to tear an image apart and re-form the image with complete freedom. Even though you are only working in two dimensions, its the apparent three dimensions.
C.M-A: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to broadcast TV. What is the relationship between broadcast TV and your work?
D.R: I don’t know whether I’ve come full circle or whether I’ve become completely jaded. Everything that I’ve ever made has ended up being broadcast in one form or another. Obsessive Becoming was picked up by “La Sept Arte”. This was a tremendous boost in sales, someone saw the piece at a festival. It was broadcast in France and Germany. The voice-over had to be translated, and they ended up having to get an actor.
Channel Four, I feel, took a complete nose-dive in relation to the work. They showed Obsessive Becoming at 12:40 in the morning. This is a work that I laboured over for five years, a work that has a tremendous impact on audiences, with a relevancy to many people’s lives. This has been a amazing experience for me. I’m not saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but it was worth doing, and it gets to places that lots of things don’t. So they put it on at 12:40 am, which is like throwing it away- really.
C.M-A: And they broadcast it just the once?
D.R: Just once.
C.M-A: That’s extraordinary because usually there are a couple of screenings of this kind of work.
D.R: Yeah. Just the once and at a dreadful time. That may not be the end of it because I own it completely in this country now. I’d like to go to the BBC with it. It has never been broadcast in America. Twice it’s been considered by PBS, and both times it’s been rejected, and yet the response within the film tours of colleges and universities and in all sorts of festivals has always been tremendous. People come up to me afterwards. It’s a bit too much at times. The piece seems to break open something that some people have been stuck on. I’ve sometimes been standing there with people weeping, you must have some place to be in, other than just “Hi, I’m the film -maker”.
C.M-A: I think because of the intimacy of the piece, they (the audience) feel they know you. Through the experience of watching it there’s the sense of forming a kind of bond. People are presented with quite a lot of information about how you think, and how you feel.
D.R: And, more often then not, they are people who have some deep brokeness or pain that they haven’t been able to talk about. They may not even have tried to talk about it. But there is a kind of danger, there’s this kind of “iky-sticky, feel-good” kind of thing that happens with you know, Oprah Winfrey and all this kind of stuff where people are wanting to reveal all the details of their lives. There’s’ a cringe factor. I went into it so deeply because I didn’t really have a choice. Its like when I look back at Smothering Dreams. They are almost a matched set- dealing with those imponderables- things that you can hardly move on. I would make that completely differently now, because my feelings about it have completely changed.
Let me get back to the broadcast aspect. I made At One With Everything and C4 put some money into that. It is a very broadcastable work. Its actually quite funny- its just not as funny as it could be, I don’t think, and you really do need to come to it with some notion of a Zen tradition of iconoclastic humour. They didn’t choose to broadcast it. David Curtis at the Arts Council said that it was probably to my benefit, because it means that I have the right to do so after a year. But look at what they put on! They (C4) came to me in Toronto in 1982 when Smothering Dreams was getting some of its first big public screenings. C4 was new then. Within 6 weeks we’d negotiated a deal. It seemed to me like a lot of money at the time. ($7-$8,000) with the rights to broadcast it twice. It wasn’t until 1986, with the Falklands conflict intervening, that they eventually showed it. I was by then living in this country, so I had the pleasure of being here when it was broadcast. Other things have been made subsequently with contributions from C4, through John Wyver, “Ghosts in the Machine”, and whatever schemes they had for ghettoising this kind of work.
But even more so now, when I make a work I try, as much as possible, to divorce myself from the notion of an audience- that is a specific audience. That is not say that I cannot conceive of flipping the equation, and I do. It’s just the way you make a painting. You have to stand in front of the work, or stand in some relationship to the work, and feel how it begins to accumulate, and how the meaning comes together. I work on a very intuitive level, and so I think I have, in the more successful works, although there is always the awkward period, so it might be the awkward sections of a work that haven’t reached the kind of level I want them to. I always feel its like a Guatemalan native American blanket where they weave in a section thats flawed because they hold that no one can make anything perfect except for God. Its an easy escape route if you are careless, but when you look at the work you will discover there are things that you haven’t achieved. But for broadcast I would have found it completely crippling. I don’t think the work would never have gone anywhere if I’d have thought that work would have had to be made “dumber” or clearer, or somehow brought into a different focus because of the audience. For example someone said to me whilst I was making Obsessive Becoming that a lot of people would not understand the references to Rilke and Whitman. I always resist that sort of reductionist tendency.
The struggle with broadcast has always been, first of all, the pay relationship, which is absurd. Someone from WNET called me up recently and said: “Well, we have a cable aspect of our broadcast system that goes out to 14 million homes in the Long Island and New York area and we’d really like to show Sabda (1984) as part of this series. So I said: “That’s great! What will the fees be?” “Well,” she said, “we don’t actually have any fees”. I said. “Are you getting paid? Is the Executive producer getting paid?” I went down a fairly short list. I said “Why is it that all of you are getting paid, and you have the gall to call me up in here Virginia, and keep me on the line, and then tell me that you have no funding for the piece? You can just forget it. Then the same thing in Amsterdam when they wanted to cablecast Obsessive Becoming, and they wanted to pay me a hundred pounds for three broadcasts. It’s not an avaricious thing, its not a question of saying I’ve got to get this money or else, its a question of setting a precedent. So there’s this chronic and undermining relationship with broadcast. I also think the chances and opportunities are dwindling. I think that bold and courageous work, that is not necessarily entertaining and breaks boundaries other than pseudo-sexual or provocative due to sensational issues is rarely screened. That is the problem with Channel Four and Channel Five as well as the BBC channels. They continue to crank out these programmes that are voyeuristic and over exaggerated, designed to titillate.
C.M-A: Sure- like Big Brother…
D.R: Big Brother is a perfect example. I know that a lot of people were completely enamoured with that. I could no more watch that than I could watch war films over and over. Just the idea that I could spend my valuable time watching eight or nine uninteresting people do uninteresting things is sad. Its a perfect example of what Daniel Boorstein in the mid-sixties called a “pseudo-event”. You might say that pseudo events rule at the beginning of the twenty-first century. So a real television event is perhaps an anomaly or an impossibility, but it is rare that you see very cutting edge work in Britain, unless its at some strange hour. I’ve seen Channel Four dwindle, and when they do show work, its always ghettoised.
C.M-A: I think it has lost a lot in the last decade.
D.R: But even when it was being shown a lot in the eighties, experimental work, progressive work, media art. It was always being packaged in a way.
C.M-A: Thats right- your term “ghettoised” seems right. There’s always someone sitting there telling you what you’re going to see – establishing the context. David Hall’s approach- the “television intervention”, that type of thing just doesn’t seem possible anymore. You can’t have Richard Baker, or his contemporary equivalent, appear and then disintegrate in front of your eyes unannounced. You just wouldn’t get that now. There’d be somebody first of all preparing you for the experience, and by then most people would have flipped channels and got back to the football. It has to happen without you being aware that its going to happen in order for it to work in a broadcast context.
D.R: Precisely… So I’m coming out of this fallow period now and I’ve done ninety percent of the visual research on a short piece. I have no idea of the title. I can’t even tell you what it’s about except that it feels like its one of these things thats coming up. Its exclusively made from archival footage from the twentieth century, going right back to the invention of cinematography. I’ve gone through hours and hours of material which in itself has already been compiled to some extent, to create a piece that I’m not sure what its going to look like, but I have a sense of what its going to feel like. Its something that I’ll go back to editing in the next six months or so.
I think it would be good to talk briefly about this issue of technology and working in the studio. The other thing about broadcast that there is in some sense a feeling of jadedness. A sense of the inevitability of the triumph of mediocrity when it comes to broadcast. Maybe that’s a bit tired and pass‚ but it just proves to be true, when you look at the television and you see what’s there, you don’t feel like that there’s going to be any great sea change, or any change at all. The only other possibility is for independent channels.
C.M-A: The reason I was thinking about the issue of the broadcast context in relation to Obsessive Becoming in particular, was this idea of something extremely intimate. When it (broadcast television ) comes into your personal space and you are sitting with the partner, or on your own. That’s the power of television, to come into your private and personal space…
D.R: If you have a context for it. What I find is a lot of people carry on a whole other life while television is on. I think its only people like ourselves who will only turn on the television if they have a motive, or an aim. You could even walk into a room and just turn it on, that doesn’t happen very often to me, but it might occasionally, and then something comes on that you are caught by or fascinated by that is worthwhile. But I think the problem with Obsessive Becoming, and this is why I shy away sometimes from showing it in a gathering or a dinner party, it just doesn’t work because there is all sorts of other things going on and the work requires attention. You create them in order to offer an entry way for the person viewing it to merge with the work if they are willing to. There’s the notion of the suspension of disbelief, that is one thing, but there’s also the notion of dropping the armour a bit and suspending emotive blocks and the eternal tendency to agree or disagree. In this way you might allow something to penetrate a bit deeper into your consciousness. That is a bit difficult. So much of what comes off the television is all about trying to get you to buy something. It has been that way for years, but its getting worse as each year passes.
I would love to see Obsessive Becoming broadcast in Canada and the United States. It wouldn’t have to be translated, and it has an American feel to it. I know that if it went out at 9:30 or 10 o’clock on PBS, it would have a tremendous impact. If there were a panel discussion afterwards or some soft of follow up, which I think would be very helpful, I wouldn’t even have to be involved with that, you know there are other people, much more astute and knowledgeable about these things than myself, who could comment about the issues that are brought up. That would be gratifying to know that, not just in terms of my ego but that the work got out there and reached more people. This is the most powerful and vital aspect of broadcasting.
C.M-A: Shall we continue to discuss Obsessive Becoming, as that’s the piece that I’m writing about.
D.R: It is definitely a process of amassing a huge palette of imagery and sound, a process of accumulation, and then there’s an ongoing process of becoming familiar with the material that you’ve created or discovered, or transformed, or both. When I think of the various elements in Obsessive Becoming, clearly the advent of the so-called “prosumer”- an interesting word, a word that was coined in the early eighties, or the late seventies, in America. There’s this strange marriage between the person thats trying to break new ground with this equipment being served quite well by the fact that there’s a burgeoning proliferation of equipment being pushed to the consumer. The prosumer is a professional of some sort using that widening margin of equipment thats available to the industrial / educational field, then
There are all those “toys for boys” aspects. It has its downside, because often a lot of the software and hardware doesn’t work properly. Computer commodities released far too early in order to make a quick profit- that is true of probably everything from automobiles to make-up. Pharmaceuticals are perhaps the best example.
The apex- the point where it all came together for me, was about two thirds of the way through making the programme. I was getting up quite early in the morning to write. I went to Japan on a six month fellowship and thats when I really started Obsessive Becoming. I began to write a kind of essay-narrative about my up-bringing and about how strange it was, and what the costs were. There was research into music and sound effects, there was a parallel effort going into dozens of hours of reel-to-reel audio tape that my parents had made. When you listen to the boy’s voices in Obsessive Becoming you’re hearing my brother and myself in 1952 and ’53, 54 & 55. The tape would never have been made the way it was without that. I suppose that contributes to the level of intimacy that you spoke about. The other most consuming and exhausting and frustrating strand of that laboratory experience was finding a way, having worked with DVE, and ADO and Quantel since about 1979-1980, to go beyond that at a fraction of the cost, because I was only able to work with those kinds of tools in laboratory situations where you would go into WNET as part of the television Lab and work with one of the editors there from say 7 o’clock in the evening to say 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning. I used to live in the Hebrides, so I would fly to New York to work in a studio there, and would arrive with all my materials 90% produced. Then go through this wild transformative ride, not just responding to all the “bells and whistles” but to see how these things could apply directly to what you were making. But in this instance I drew the line, and felt, as I had with all the programmes in one way or another, that it had to be born within the studio. If it was capped off or finally assembled in another studio, well thats fine because then you have a pristine quality, if thats what you want. You have work that you never have to go back and say “I wish the quality of the master was better than what it is.”. There’s a kind of technical virtuosity built into that. The effort with Obsessive Becoming began in about 1985 and all through the 5 years left in the 80’s going from one Amiga to another. Why Amiga? I don’t know. Because Amiga was ahead of everybody else in terms of image manipulation for still and moving imagery. Its amazing how its changed. 15 years on its like looking back to the stone age. I had everything that was available. I can’t even remember some of the devices that I stuck onto the side of the Amiga. For example I had something called “Live”, which was made in San Fransisco for about a year and a half. You could scan in a really low-grade NTSC image and transform it. Then I had a “Video Toaster”. All these things, but none of them were what I wanted. I would do exhaustive tests and sketches. I wasn’t satisfied with some low resolution cartoonish “video art” feel. I need a level of image resolution that reflected the intensity of the material- that didn’t diminish the emotional energy of the material. This also gets intentionally subverted so that if you are running a series of experiments and you can see that if you’re applying an “Adobe Photoshop” filter to B&W or colour footage that allows the edges to become vaporised and spread out in mysterious ways or whatever, thats acceptable- at least you know that you’re starting from some point of higher resolution.
What happened was that the learning curve of the software- the morphing programmes, the compositing programmes was very steep. I would pour through magazines to see month by month what was happening. So it was very much like a scientific laboratory. I didn’t necessarily build machines from scratch, but I sure as hell modified them. So I had lots of Amigas- 2000, 3000’s and 4000’s, in tower formations. It was a fairly complex unit, running throughout the whole house. I had to train two people, practically full-time to actually do the things that I would learn. I got a grant to buy the “grounding’ for all of this- a 3 machine PAL Beta SP edit suite with an analogue video mixer.
C.M-A: So Obsessive Becoming was built over a long period time, working with a combination of domestic and professional equipment. The Amiga phase wasn’t like a kind of sketch book, and after discovering the kinds of imagery you wanted you went to a facilities house with a kind of ‘score’ and recreated it at a broadcast level.
D.R: No. Its mainly because I can not, and will not work that way. Maybe its just cannot, and therefore will not, but I take voluminous notes and I study the material to the point where it becomes second nature to me. All I need help with at that point is to find it. When you are generating the fiftieth take of a certain kind of transition involving, say, this black and white silhouetted morph moving into such and such, then you need to know where it is. There’s an intense process of cataloguing and creating little pictures to go along with it so you know what things are. Backing up on DAT.
The system, if I can describe it briefly, ended up being seven different computers at least three of which were emulating Macintosh. The break came when a company in Canada called DPS I believe, marketed something called the “Personal Animation Recorder” . They cost about #2000 each. Along with them there were hard drives which could work at the speeds necessary to feed the material in and then retrieve it. Using the Macintosh emulators I was able to use Photoshop filters through the Amiga, so I was able to use the Photoshop filters using live video and then render it frame by frame. So I would set up a sequence that might take all weekend to render, then I would make a judgement about that, and perhaps go back and correct, constantly backing up with DAT. In retrospect I hardly remember going back to the DAT, but at least we knew if we needed it we had it. There were drawers full of DAT tapes. But it was a wonderful feeling. I can only imagine that it must be like this for a scientist, finally able to separate milk and water, or whatever! Finally there was this…I think it was the footage of the little boys with the hoop in the street- I had been able to strip out most of the detail and leave the figures of the boys and let everything else wash out to white. So as opposed to the black that I started out with in Thousands Watch, suddenly there as this white matrix that’s used from the beginning to the end. That’s a theme in Obsessive Becoming.
Through all the systems there’s a term that I thought of as “Techno-cumbersome”- thats what they are. I would get a shipment of an Amiga 3000 tower from New York for example. Upon arrival it wouldn’t work- a board had been jostled, chips loosened, cables undone. What I ended up training myself to do was to completely take the machines apart and put them back together again. I guess that appealed to some ‘boy’ nature in me too…
CM-A: I’m just wondering if that experience changed the way that you thought about the medium. We were talking earlier about taking the frame apart. Here you are getting into the guts of the technology at the detail level. It must have affect ed the way you saw the image.
D.R: I think so. You begin to understand how the fields and the frames and the pixels relate to each other. At some point you want to make the poetic leap- you do, you must. The leap of poetry that Robert Bly alludes to in his work, where even though you know all that, you jump beyond it. Somehow the image just stands above itself.
C.M-A: Its another kind of knowledge isn’t it. Because its like knowledge through the body. You are becoming a kind of sculptor because you’re working with the material which constitutes the image in a physical and tactile way- your understanding is increasingly from the “inside”. It seems to me that the material of video is not just this texture on the screen, or this “mosaic” as McLuhun called it. You end up with an intimate understanding of what the image is, how its configured, how its produced. You know it physically.
D.R: And yet its also quite illusory. There’s this mass of jumbled information that can somehow be reconfigured if you chose to. Yet its there silently in the background.
There’s some part of me thats a sort of Renaissance person in that for me to make a work like Obsessive Becoming a lot has to be going on, because there has to be some element of the work that is absolutely demanding for your survival- that the work must get made. There’s a great deal that doesn’t come out in Obsessive Becoming. There are a number of things that are deliberately left ambivalent, enigmatic- not necessarily ambiguous but open to many interpretations. But for that work to occur, I was considering massive amounts of history, and other writing such as essays which inform the work. For example, and this will curve back into the technical aspects as well, but its all part and parcel of it. There’s a book by Susan Griffin, that fortunately I didn’t finally find until four months before the final edit. Her book is called A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War. I can’t think of a single document that exists which is as much like Obsessive Becoming as this book is. She traces a very dark history of someone in her family being abused by a parent, and the mystery of their disappearance from the family. She weaves, in this marvellous tapestry the life of the molecule, the life of Enrico Fermi, the boyhood of Himmler, the story of women working at the Oakridge nuclear facility in Tennessee-, the accidental death of her father all of these 20th century historical figures and these personal histories are embedded and woven through each other in a marvellous way. The impact is tremendous. It really shaped my thinking. There is a credit at the end of Obsessive Becoming for various people, some of them are spiritual teachers, others are essayists and poets, all of that flows into the work. It was a demanding process. I’m not a scientist, and the technical aspects of keeping that together, making sure that people knew what they were on about, and the fact that there was very little money was always a problem. It’s sometimes a miracle that the thing doesn’t collapse inwardly.
I haven’t thought about this question you are asking about the signal, but clearly I do feel as if I was sculpting the material in some way. The other thing that I allude to, is that the only way that I can work at these things, and it may be a flaw at times, and it may be the cause for those aspects I find deficient in the structure, is that I produce tremendous amounts of material and then begin to make experimental relationships with that work over and over. I do not have an a priori grand design in terms of structure. So there are poems that are being written- prose poems, and then I look at the relationships that are formed between these and the ever expanding basket of imagery.
My daughter was born a third of the way through it- I was 45 at the time she was born. Both of my parents died whilst I was making it. There was an incredible foment that I think is evident in the work. I can remember that I was in America, after my step-father died and finally I had a relationship with my Mom, or a potential one, that wasn’t encumbered by his presence. And lo and behold, she was diagnosed with cancer. So I spent 8 months over there with her. When she was finally slipping in to a coma, I had this tremendous battle with the nurse because she thought it was a horrible thing that I should want to video tape my mother as she was dying, and yet for me it was essentially reverential – it was impossible not to do it. I didn’t have those conflicts, she projected those conflicts on me. This home help nurse was just disgusted that I would videotape my mother’s death. And yet, its a singularly moving piece of imagery the recurs several times and its not used gratuitously or its not used in a way that demonstrates anything short of complete respect for her struggle with death. Its amazing to see how her face begins to return to looking the way she did when she was a child. There’s the image of Linda, my wife at the time, who was a tremendous help, giving my mother water through a syringe.
A lot of people become frustrated because there’s no map- its not spelled out. The relationships are somewhat unclear- who is who. That’s always been a working method of mine because I feel that it allows people- I’m almost positive that it allows people to enter into the work more fully. There never is any resolution- there never is any resolution I believe, in anything, so there is no definitive clarity, there’s no end product, there’s no result, its like the words that are embedded in it- “no place to go, nothing to do, nothing to be”.
That aspect of it, when I think of actually producing it- there’s the technical struggle, the emotional struggle. I remember coming back with that footage, and it was a year before I could even think about looking at it. There was all this unrelsoved business, which we always have with our parents. I remember sitting down in the studio, surrounded by these banks of equipment and putting this tape in and seeing my mother in her last hours. And its all that you can do, sit there and have the release of being able to weep for her, and for yourself. I was in this condition. I think this kind of intimacy was very very important. I don’t know that I even voiced it internally. But I knew that the work had to have a resonance of sincerity and authenticity that felt as if you were talking to your beloved in the way that is possible if you allow yourself the space of intimacy. To allow yourself to be quiet enough to hear the truth, or whatever that ineffable bubbling up is, come through. That resounds in the work, and that’s a quality that can be in a painting. It is in painting. How to put it into a film or a video is a curious notion.
When I went to record the voice, I bought the best microphone that had ever been made. I bought a Neueman microphone for #1,200. A wonderful instrument- the Stradivarius of microphones! I built a little booth in the corner of the room and I bought the best recorder that I could afford. I used a little bit of whisky to keep my voice soft. The words had been a gift, I’d worked with another authors book called Writing for Your Life: Exploring the Inner Worlds, a brilliant book by Deena Metzger published by Harper and Collins. I had known her some years before, she’d been a mentor in a veteran’s retreat years before that. The prose poem at the end of Obsessive Becoming was a gift; it was the product of months and months of getting up and working to write. Suddenly one morning I got up and all this was there, it took forty minutes, it was edited a few times and it forms the end of the tape. There’s a section that if people are open to it and have issues that they are trying to work with, that’s where it begins to come together for people.
Clearly for me, when I was recording the voice, it was important to have the emotion, not to create or to synthesise, but to be in the emotional timbre that was appropriate to that passage. Some people disagree with that, they think there’s a seduction going on, but its not meant in that way. A lot of people feel the music is a seduction. Everybody has a different response to these problems, some chose to ignore them, different methods of either approaching them or avoiding them. These were the working tools that I came up with. I might never use them again in that way.
Someone said to me- actually it was Patty Zimmermann, whose insight into the work is as sharp as any. She said: “But your body never appears in this work.” Its not completely true, because there’s a dreadfully embarrassing scene where, the day after I buried my mother, the same afternoon actually, I deposed of Milton’s gun. For years my parents had been living with this fucking pistol. Milton (stepfather) was a gangster, Milton was a person who would use a pistol, and keep it on his person all the time and sleep with it right next to his head in the bedboard. He’d walk my brother up the drive with the pistol. I’d seen him shoot at people. I know that in his early life he’d witnessed murders, possibly been involved with them- I don’t know. But I know that my mother adopted the pistol after my father died and continued to sleep with the pistol, and continued to spin out the fantasies of the neurosis and paranoia of “you gotta have a pistol or you’re not a safe person”. I couldn’t wait to get rid of the pistol. The only way for me to get rid of it- a huge 38 snub-nose revolver with police special bullets in it, was to literally do it ‘on camera’, and put it in a place that I though it would be safe- that’s with the turtles, in the mud. So there was this six acre lake, which goes back to the blowing up of the dam in 1963 , it just occurs to me now. There’s an amazing circularity to things, which you don’t know till years later. I was strung out. I’d been doing all sorts of drugs and alcohol. I’m really rough and look awful, which is great, because if you can see yourself and witness all the self-consciousness and vanity you get a teaching. You have a puffy face, don’t know what you’re doing with the gun and you’re tempted to fire it, but know you don’t want to fire a weapon, you’ve had enough experience firing weapons, so you just sort of invent -throw in the bullets and then throw the gun in the lake. Someone who is untrained is holding the camera captures it on the fly- still its a moment….
So Patty says my body isn’t in it, and it isn’t, in the sense she was talking about. I don’t know, maybe I get people to stand in for the body more often than not.
C.M-A: I just think that there’s this kind of physical/emotional relationship to the medium that goes all the way through the work. You’ve described the complex layers of working; building the machines, getting into the guts, breaking the frame to compose images. If that isn’t an activity of the body, I don’t know what is. An image of the body is one thing, but the embodiment of the person is there at a very deep level.
D.R: Well, she probably touched on something. I hate mirrors. I don’t mind shaving or something in a mirror, but I can’t tolerate sitting at a table where there’s a mirror and I can see myself. So there’s a certain neurosis that you just live with and laugh about.
C.M-A: But the whole tape is at one level about you and your experiences, and so to have you in it physically would be almost too much to bear.
D.R: I think it would be indulgent and that weakens a lot of work these days. People can’t wait to throw themselves in front of the camera. Some people can do it with great acuity and skill, and they work with their bodies in a wonderful way. I have some friends: Helen Bendon and Jo Lansley, they’re doing some great things.
There is a scene in Smothering Dreams which comes up near the beginning. The boy, who is myself, sees himself in a mirror and he picks up a stone and shatters the mirror.
C.M-A: There’s a tie in here about your own spiritual/ philosophical outlook and the capability of that to the medium of video. I wanted to layer into that the issue of video and narcissism. Early Artist’s video in the late 1960’s- the sort of work that began as documentation of performance work- the use of video as a kind of ‘electronic mirror’; a method of using video to look at themselves and their interactions .
D.R: Are you talking about Vito Acconci?
C.M-A: Yes, Acconci, and others.. There were other performance artists, a lot of women artists used themselves and their bodies, and made tapes about femininity and feminine experience. There is clearly a strong influence of feminist work in Obsessive Becoming .You have mentioned a number of literary influences, but there is this larger issue of the “personal as political”. The relationship between the intimate- the individual person and some larger manifestation- the social sphere.
D.R: My entry into it has actually to start with the end of the war for me. I can set up somewhat of a framework by referencing a teacher that I’ve had for twelve years. When you start talking about spiritual practice, its such a lame thing, yet we need words to talk about those things. The problem is that spiritual practice can also mean spiritual materialism. When I look at my own history I see it as something that you learn by doing. You succumb to it and you work your way out of it. The vogue for Buddhist practice sometimes is a very “chic”, or has been. But if you don’t enter it in that way and you find whatever it is, whether its Christian mysticism or Sufi practice or native American practice, or gardening practice, or whatever it is that allows you to see your connection to other people and other things, is extraordinarily valuable. Thich Naht Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen teacher, has often referred in his talks and writings to the notion of the “historical dimension” and the “ultimate dimension”. The ultimate dimension could perhaps be seen as the long view. For instance if you are in an immense argument with your spouse or your partner about something, there is some quality in you that means you can stop and say “wait a minute, what will our faces be like in 300 years? How important is my winning of this, or my ability to state my case? Where is the lack of understanding that is being exhibited here thats not allowing us to see ourselves in this other dimension?” It’s what you could refer to as ‘heaven” except its right here and now. It’s the dimension where you can experience your mother in the palm of your own hand, even if she’s dead- particularly if she’s dead. The historical dimension is the everyday world. So when I think about the war, I see myself extracted from that ambush almost miraculously. There’s a shamanistic feel to it. What is the wounding that’s happening here (and I can only see that from this great distance) why am I being able to survive it when I’m linked at the navel with the lieutenant who is destroyed in a matter of seconds with massive amounts of machine gun fire? Everybody around me is dying and I’m there for four or five hours with a constant repetition of death. I get into a helicopter and the helicopter is shot up and I get to the hospital and the hospital is bombed. So you find yourself floating above a bed…My spiritual life obviously began along time before that, but that’s where I was broken open deeply enough- traumatically enough, suddenly to be aware of something else that I had missed. The historical dimension is being in the midst of this unfolding tragedy. It’s curious that I stood in -20 degree F. weather, very frigid conditions, in Jan 20th, 1961, for Kennedy’s inauguration. I was born in Washington DC, and it was a magical time. I was there with my brother to witness this great cavalcade, and then seven years later, exactly to the day, I’m in this hell hole, and then somehow I’m extracted from this hell and then I spend the next ten years- more, trying to make some sense of it. What came up immediately and matured within a couple of years was that I began to track down the mystery that I noticed there. Then of course, like a lot of people at that time, I did a lot of psychedelic drugs. Travelled to Central America and ate mushrooms, peyote, mescaline, and things began to unfold, sometimes in weird and wonderful and dangerous ways. It wasn’t until after trying for few years to learn to meditate that I was given- offered meditation, and I pursued that. It wasn’t until I came back from India, and this is what’s interesting about all that. I was a person who would work in the darkroom all night long smoking pot. Then you’re rewarded for the work, the work does have some interest. But it wasn’t until I began to witness my own self as the one who was worthy of my own love and started to explore much deeper into all these mysteries that I was actually able to enter into work that was clear. That was the most immediate gift of that process of centring. Its about slowing down, its about taking notice , paying attention and seeing things that you might intuit, but not completely know as insight. That kind of gift- call it faith if you like, or the sense that there’s an extraordinarily deep connection between everything that moves. There’s this tremendous otherness that you can avoid by being very busy or being lost in an identity, like “I’m the artist and I’m making this much money, or not making this much money”.
To get very succinct about this interrelationship to the work, whilst I was doing Obsessive Becoming in particular, the challenges were so great that at times I would completely remove myself from the work. For example going on a silent retreat for a month, where you’re not speaking to any one except perhaps a teacher once a week to have a brief interview. Doing hours and hours of meditation when the world becomes reduced to dealing with your store of grief, and during that period, which was about half-way through the work, right before my daughter was born. The first week was spent pondering the war, all of that sad time just coming up in a rush. It happened to be Guy Fawkes, and the retreat was near a rifle range. It was extraordinary, I would sit there in the meditation hall and hear the weapons and the explosions, and occasionally there would be a helicopter going over, and it was all served up yet again. After I got through dealing with that, the family came up and all the torment and torture and loss and the horror and grief. Its like- for the tape to be made- that turning into the grief had to work or there would be nothing to say. A couple of years ago, and this voice is embedded in the tape, Thich Naht Hanh began to talk about his mother. He is such a poet and a completely humble and authentic human being that his words have this incredible power- there’s no artifice. He suggests that if you can visualise your parents as children and see what formed them, as children you might open a gateway to understanding. He’s looking much deeper than some weak sociological view. He’s saying that its possible to have the inner vision to see your parents in this way. That was a process that really began to open up, because I had a lot of grievances, as we all do.
I went back to interview the two siblings after my parents had died- my stepfather’s only surviving sister and my mother’s only surviving sibling. They’re neither of them great thinkers, but they are very alive, with all their wits about them and they can remember childhood together. Looking at the images of them and hearing their stories as children, going through this massive amount of material- I interviewed both of those people for ten or twelve hours each. It’s all kind of an unorchestrated chorus of these things going along. You reach epiphanies, and you reach certain understandings, denouements, breakthroughs.
I suppose if I have my reservations about the work it’s that structurally it isn’t as sound as I would like it to be. That’s OK, I can live with it. I would never go back and change it. But I think all of those searches paid off.
What’s interesting about ‘video’, whatever that is, is that it does create the possibility of this grand fusion of materials. I always have at some stage what I call a marriage edit, a final edit where all the reels are brought together and all the segments are embedded in the finest- wine- the best tape format that you can get.