Wolf, Wolf, Goose
The top of the zoological pyramid is a very lonely place. For better or worse, the traits which allow humans to occupy this place are not simply genetic refinements separating us from our next of kin on the evolutionary ladder, but a whole host of qualities which have kept philosophers, theologians, scientists and artists busy since the dawn of creation. To ask what makes us human is at the same time to ask what makes a louse a louse, and a mouse a mouse. In fact, asking those very questions could be taken as one of the traits which makes us human. We are the only animal obsessed with locating ourselves within nature.
Locating ourselves in nature however, is predicated on a place outside of nature and the top of the zoological pyramid marks the place where nature ends and culture begins. Making sense of the natural world by translating it into signs, symbols and images is a crucial function of visual culture. The video installations of Diana Thater investigate the role of visual culture, particularly television, in mediating our experience with the natural world of animals and landscapes.
Culture is often mistaken for nature’s antithesis when it is best understood as nature’s mirror reflection. A good example is the tomato. As an industrial variant of one of nature’s simpler tricks, most store-bought tomatoes taste like poorly studied versions of the organic, real, or natural thing. In this model, nature is the source or teacher and culture is the awkward pupil, extracting, isolating, organizing, refining, and defining as best it can nature’s every move. Moving from agri-industry and contemporary culinary dilemmas to the function of visual culture and its relationship to nature is to move from an examination of the objects reflected in the mirror of culture to an examination of the mirror itself. Whereas a century ago this mirror would have been painting or photography, to speak of the visual cultivation of the natural world today is impossible without mention of video technology and television.
Although Marshall McCluhan was not wrong in his assessment of television, summed up in his now famous dictum “The medium is the message,” he was also not allowed to be correct. As a reproductive technology, television presents itself as a window to the world rather than a mirror. The goal of reproducing phenomena in a transparent manner requires that television’s production values be aimed at making the medium invisible. Since the medium is subservient to the message, McCluhan’s dictum has been rewritten: “The medium is the medium and the message is the message.” Hiding behind its subject matter, television’s presentation of a particular phenomenon masks the fact that it is in and of itself a phenomenon. Television, like painting, is a medium very conscious of itself and has undergone rigorous critiques and numerous deconstructions. But unlike painting, television has never been reconstituted as a phenomenon on its own terms. China and Shilo, Thater’s works on exhibition at The Society, are a deconstruction and exaggeration of cinematic conventions employed in television for the sake of allowing the medium and the message to mingle on less hierarchical terms.
China, a six part video projection, and Shilo, a series of works displayed on video monitors, are named for the wolves who star in them. China is the white wolf and Shilo, the gray. Both wolves were born in captivity and are currently managed by Jungle Exotics, a company that provides trained animals for Hollywood film productions. Between China and Shilo, their film credits include Cry Wilderness, White Fang II, Quest for Fire and two Playboy videos. Unlike these feature length films, with dramatic plots and happy endings, Thater was interested in the simple task of having the wolves stand still. As it turns out, this is one of the most difficult tasks even for the best-trained animals. The hand gestures employed by the wolves’ trainers, the two women in identical black and blue jackets, are to capture the wolves’ attention and to provide a focus. For the trainers, holding the wolves’ attention while simultaneously withdrawing from the view of the cameras requires an unbroken stream of concentration between them and the wolf. The slightest distraction and the wolf will inevitably wander from the pedestal.
Almost all of the footage for China and Shilo was recorded with six cameras configured in a circle. In the case of Shilo, a seventh was added to record additional footage outside the circle configuration. In China, each of the video projections corresponds to one of the six cameras configured in the circle. All six of the projections represent a view of the wolf or wolves completely in the round. One ought to be highly suspicious of Thater’s use of the cameras. Configured in a circle, they suggest confinement. Moreover, the wolf is associated with a will subservient to its instinct and capacity for survival. To demand that it simply stand still before the gaze of six cameras is at minimum ironic and at most cruel. But Thater’s use of the camera as a restrictive tool is an exaggeration meant to call attention to the conspicuous gaze already cast at nature.
Humankind can hardly claim an idle fascination with nature. Even at their most benign, representations of the natural world from cave paintings to postage stamps have always been at the service of metaphor. Mediated through representations, animals and landscapes undergo a transition from natural phenomena to symbol and icon. This holds true for our current discourse about nature, which grows directly out of the nineteenth century, a period that can claim full credit for the cult of nature. The rise of nature as the new religion is reflected in almost every artistic movement of that century. From Romanticism to Impressionism to Symbolism, nature was indispensable in making known all that one could not see. The seasons, animals, plants, and planets, served to reflect different aspects of human nature including our emotional and spiritual selves. Through increasingly intricate visual metaphors, nature began to bear the burden of questions reserved for philosophy, metaphysics and theosophy. An attempt at understanding that which we could not know through that which we could see, made nature the object of endless scrutiny. Behind natural phenomena there was always a deeper meaning, and nature as a visual code for the sublime became the new muse for both science and the visual arts. From natural phenomena were extracted intricate metaphors, and distilled from these metaphors was very elaborate information. The legacy of the nineteenth century’s fascination with the natural world however, is not to be found in poems modeled after Wordsworth or paintings such as those of Caspar David Friedrich, but in television’s nature documentary. Nature’s role as bearer of meaning and significance is perpetuated as the awe previously reserved for painting and earlier forms of representation is now reserved for dazzling feats of explanation, a hallmark characteristic of the documentary.
When selecting an image for the poster to accompany China, Thater specifically chose one reminiscent of a televised nature documentary such as Nova. Unlike Nova, however, China and Shilo represent pure visual information reconstituted in the form of television as a phenomena rather than television as a transparent, sense-making medium. The high production values and control associated with the nature documentary have been abandoned in favor of grainy resolution, a slow hypnotic rate of transmission and the rainbow colors which make up the test pattern. The hidden and steady cameras used to capture nature’s most veiled secrets in minute detail/are fully exposed and at times uncertain of their subject. In Shilo, television’s editing conventions, used to control time and construct narrative, are exaggerated in both directions so that at times there seems to be nothing happening and at others too much. Consisting of unedited footage, recorded in low resolution at a distance which dissolves the central subject, the first half of one version of Shilo seems to consist of almost no activity. The second half however, features the wolf captured at close distance from the cameras configured in a circle. Thater employs rapid-fire editing techniques to produce the sensation that the wolf is being twirled at high speed on a serving platter. The viewer is disorienting disconnected from the camera over which they thought they had control. The traditional documentary point of view, which serves as an extension of a very coherent and well-ordered self, is radically fragmented amongst the six cameras. Oo Fifi, a work from 1992 shot at Giverny, the renowned French garden and former home of Monet, is a work any Impressionist, particularly Monet, would have been proud of. The work uses footage of the garden taken over four seasons and projects it on to the walls of the gallery space from three separate projectors, each projecting a single color, red, green or blue. While the out-of-sync blending of colors makes the work extremely painterly, the unstable camera movement provokes a dizziness which, like China and Shilo, takes the work beyond the perceptual and into the realm of the physical.
Despite the ever-expanding screen sizes, television still holds to a visually restrained format which favors information over experience. In many ways the world as we pass through it resembles Thater vision much more than television. Information as derived through our senses hardly follows a linear or narrative format. If we could somehow observe our experiences before constructing cause and effect models for them, they would probably resemble something captured from one of Thater’s cameras. While all the information is present, it would require prioritizing and editing if we were to make sense of it. Television does this for us and exchanging experience and phenomena for information is the price we pay. In choosing the wolf as her subject however, Thater’s investment of video imagery with phenomenological values holds no sacrifice because it is at the cost of information we already know.
Thater chose the wolf because it is an animal beyond further signification. Few if any animals are as metaphorical as the wolf. It is almost impossible to ask what a wolf is without recourse to the thousands of representations of the wolf, both visual and literary, made throughout the course of human history. Cast in dozens of movies, mother to Romulus and Remus, and antagonist to Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf is anything but typecast. It is perhaps the most versatile actor alive starring in thousands of roles in a dozen different cultures. But the wolf has been appropriated by culture to a point beyond being able to recognize it as simply a living creature. There is little room left to experience a nature veiled behind an accumulation of cultural codes. In this respect Thater’s work shares an interesting affinity with several of the works of the deceased Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, particularly La Musee d’Art Moderne, Department D’Aigles (The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), a work executed in 1972.
Television’s nature documentary is to Thater what the museum is to Broodthaers. As if attempting to define the eagle, Broodthaers established his own museum in which he devoted an entire section to the display of hundreds of objects and reproductions of artworks all of which featured eagles, an animal which, like the wolf, is beyond further signification. For Broodthaers, the museum is culture in its institutional form, which ultimately mediates our understanding of nature. Although skeptical of the activity of individual artists, Broodthaers is far more wary of the institutional apparatus that defines the function of culture and bestows meanings upon objects and images. The museum is ultimately a more powerful agent than the artist in brokering culture’s appropriation of nature. But Broodthaers skepticism of an institution synonymous with culture makes him skeptical of culture on almost any level and this is a skepticism Thater does not share.
China and Shilo plainly acknowledge their artifice. They are clearly cultural constructs impossible to confuse with television’s seamless presentation of nature. Her wolves are even professional actors being asked to play the role of a silent symbol to which we can attribute any number of meanings. There is no compromise made towards presenting the animals as though they were in a natural setting, they are at home on a ranch in San Bernadino, California. Yet the investment of such an honest piece of cultural artifice with phenomenological values more closely associated with our genuine experience of nature as it passes over us, under us, around us and through us is something the Public Broadcasting System ought to consider. Although PBS has learned that it is not nice to fool mother nature, they have not learned that the same is true of mother culture.