The joy of looking

By CHRISTOPHER MILLIS  |  November 15, 2006

More in keeping with the spirit of surveillance is Tim Hyde’s unassuming Untitled, Bus (2005), which depicts the faces of passengers as they appear in the windows of a city bus they’ve boarded at night. How he did this without his subjects’ written consent I can’t imagine, but his zoom lens allows us to do what we can’t in person on public transportation: stare at the face of someone who has no idea he or she is being watched. It’s like looking into people’s very thought processes as you watch the trajectory of the facial muscles go from greater to lesser tension as they settle into their seats and you begin to feel you know these strangers. The film ends with one young man catching sight of the videographer and staring back at him, the beginnings of annoyance rippling his brow.

LOBBY II: The answer is concealed under Jill Magid’s clothing.

The phrase “take a picture” suggests that photography and film share elements of assertiveness and appropriation. We take a picture in the same way we take pride in, take umbrage at, and take our time with: we leave with something. Kiki Seror takes picture taking to a level beyond Hyde. In her Modus Operandi (2005), we see a close-up of a woman applying, in accelerated time, eye liner and mascara. We see the applicators and the eyes of the woman, who through the acceleration of her actions and the enlargement of her features becomes a ghastly emblem of self-absorption verging on mutilation. Despite the vividness with which the footage has lodged in my memory, I’m not convinced of its lasting importance. We experience, à la Warhol, some degree of preening any time we see a live performance. And we experience, à la Hyde, voyeuristic excitement whenever we look at somebody who’s unaware of our presence. We do not similarly experience 24-inch eyelashes repeatedly stroked by 36-inch brushes at the speed of a ceiling fan; exaggerate in size and velocity any mundane, personal action — nail clipping or shaving or applying deodorant — and you’d have something similarly unsettling. A hidden camera in a make-up mirror makes for surveillance, but not necessarily art.

The most seductive and outrageous video is Jill Magid’s Lobby (1999), in which you first see passers-by in the domed entrance to MIT transfixed by whatever they’re looking at on a video monitor overhead. The camera moves from the faces of the staring, bemused, and apparently embarrassed students to the monitor above their heads. On the black-and-white screen you see a shifting close-up, but of what? After a few confusing seconds, you realize you’re watching a lens as it travels the contours of a woman’s body. Only intermittently does the perspective allow you to identify a body part, but then there’s no doubt about what’s on screen. As another camera returns your focus to the onlookers, you become aware that one of the bystanders isn’t just looking — she’s moving a hand-held device around under her loose clothing. It’s the camera that’s projecting her flesh onto the public monitor. With methodical seriousness, Magid slides the miniature video camera down her legs and up her shirt unnoticed by the people standing next to her. The artist is both fully exposed and fully clothed, simultaneously ogled and ignored, viewer and viewed. It’s delightfully seditious, in its way a groundbreaking commentary on the line that divides the virtual and the real. When she’s through with her surreptitious exhibition, Magid calmly packs her camera into the bag at her feet, slings it over her shoulder, and walks away.

“Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art” | Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 415 South St, Waltham | through December 17

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