CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Stance Horizontal and Turning
George Quasha and Charles Stein
Tour through stills of several Gary Hill installations.
Standing inside the celestial vault, looking out to the horizon and beyond—
Perhaps this is the basic “stand-up” human act of orientation. From the beginning, or pretty early in life awareness, we find ourselves inside a space gazing into the limit, wondering if it is truly the “end of the world,” the outermost, the definitively bounded, and, if so, what’s beyond or on the other side—if there is an other side. And we are told, from early in life, both that there is and that there isn’t. What’s the difference?—both are equally unimaginable. So one can do nothing but look up and out and gaze like a question—a question to which any answer, in short order, feels like a betrayal. It just won’t stay in place, but recedes instead back into the question, back to turning on one’s axis even as the earth turns on its, stranded on the horizon to which one looks so longingly.1 Sometimes it seems that one has squandered an important part of one’s youth mentally wandering in the enigma of visualized “infinite space,” caught up in labyrinthine self-intersecting bends and twists, not unlike Dante’s Inferno abstracted. The ins and outs of the curved universe and its mysterious (un)boundedness can end up seeming like little more than projections of a bad dream rationalized. So why bother? Is there an art that guides us through, even out to the edge? Perhaps a certain intuition comes to us inside the spin …—but we are getting ahead of ourselves here. We are still at “the beginning”:
At the horizon—
The rim of the world, above which the sky, especially the night sky with its signals from elsewhere, like the skin of the beyond and at the same time the shell of my reality—the child stands there in awe, a state that we are ever in need of recapturing in order to renew the sense of quest. There’s nothing quite like First Exposure, the virgin view of the whole universe, the big sky; there’s nothing like it because in truth it doesn’t happen just once, but when (and only when) the conditions are right. It only happens again, and again, the always-new standing at the threshold of the beyond/here. It seems timeless like the feeling of an endless mystery. Think of a child, say, five years old, going for the first time to the Planetarium. He stands facing the celestial vault, the vivid lights, sometimes flashing, sometimes milky, the huge roundedness containing infinite unknowable presences above a horizon rimmed round with cities and mountains. Where does it all come from?
From the middle—the center, that is, of the space in which one stands—where the instrumental beast, as it were, emits reality in splendid panorama. This multi-lens projector, the Stereopticon Planetarium,2 like an art machine out of Jules Verne mounted in the center of a twilit theater, looms monstrously—a huge ant whose black globe head and dozens of lens-eyes reel in silhouette against a turning sky. Each eye on the head of this ant projects its patch of star-clusters, planetoids, and zodiacal beasts. It’s all so primordial! Celestial motions linked to the gestures of a mammoth entity at the center, a blatant apparatus installed with cosmic majesty! Is the child in question in the grips of illusion, or something, perhaps, even closer to the bone than the category of the illusory or, for that matter, the category of the historical? And we don’t mean, either, a hatched-again Stereopticosaurus at large in the Museum of Natural History! Or not only.
If we tone down the “virginal response” of the child before this cosmic display-less spectacle, no drama, minimal cyclicality in the phenomenal (e.g., the seasonal parade of spectacular recurrence)—and if we let it all sift down to bare essentials, yet keep the machinery center-stage, then, lo, Planetarium is transformed into Searchlight, Gary Hill’s modest though still haunting projective installation. Still haunting: No trace of Stereopticosaurus3 yet the Magical Instrument holds the center; no undiminishing richness of cosmic display yet the unresolved enigma—projectivity and its relation to the objectivity of the world-continues to press phenomenological reckoning.
The Horizon of the Work
In the center of a bare, dark room, a slightly illuminated instrument on a tripod: A 3" black-and-white monitor and lens mounted inside an 18" horizontal metal cylinder facing a wall and motorized to slowly pan back and forth in a seemingly 180-degree arc. A small focused circular 8"-wide image projects on the wall when the metal cylinder, like a flashlight or searchlight, faces it straight on (at 90 degrees). As it moves either way from the center point, the image slowly goes out of focus, enlarging and steadily diffusing, and at the furthest reach virtually ceasing to exist.4 The projected image articulates the horizon line between ocean and sky. The back-and-forth scanning movement of the projector (the searchlight) cancels out the scanning motion of the original video-taping of the scene, with the effect that the projected light seems to reveal the “reality” of the horizon in the projected image. Searchlight showing what’s there.
The sensation is rather odd. Our “normal” automatic adjustment in viewing a projected image, preserving the illusory status—this is a representation of a thing, not the thing itself—is momentarily very slightly disoriented. As we stand and turn our heads to follow the “searchlight” and, as it passes from unfocused obscurity at the periphery to lucid image straight ahead (with the clear sound of the sea on the shore), slowly we reach a moment of percipient uncertainty. A sharply focused ambivalence. A sensation of It’s there! and the concomitant radiant reaching out through the eyes to contact the world out there—like an energetic release of oneself to the other.5
Yet, inevitably, we catch ourselves. The adjustment is swift and seamless: What you see there isn’t there, of course. That sounds like what physics has been telling us for a long time-but that isn’t the way we mean it now. Rather: This is not the seashore (no swimming allowed here). But it is the horizon, just not what we are quick to call the “real one.” Let’s try it this way: The horizon line is the horizon line no matter what kind of surface (wall or landscape) you see it on; that is, it’s a projection of a mental/optical distinction, and no more “there” in the physical reality of the actual seashore than in the projected image of same. No matter how fast or how far you travel toward the horizon line it always remains the same distance away. It’s less a thing than a function, like the up/down distinction for which it serves as midpoint. Yet, unlike up and down, you see it as itself. There, on the horizon. The horizon itself.
Yet the horizon is, so to speak, indifferent as to whether the “searchlight” projects or reveals the “reality” we perceive/apperceive. And to perceive the horizon as itself is to know it also as one’s own projection-that is, to perceive it truly is to apperceive it (to be aware of one’s own participation in the fact that it is “there”). So horizon isn’t only the midline between sky above and sea below, but the virtual midline between here and there as well—and just as much here as there. Indeed it’s the threshold or limen between here and there. Since horizon is essentially the same whether what we see in the light of the Searchlight is projected or revealed, horizon is liminal to projection and revelation. Searchlight is the mechanism that presents the horizon between projection and revelation, between projectivity and objectivity. It presents a truth of experience that is liminal to these apparently opposite pairs, and, going beyond apparent opposition, it represents their liminality. Standing in the space of the installation, letting your head and mind turn with the “searching” light, you cannot escape ambivalence, what might be called “apperceptive interactivity” between oneself and projection and between self and revelation. Basic confusion is part of the bare reality. There is a naked fusion of my role as observer and the artist’s “projective reality” as displayed/splayed in the piece. The horizon it presents is only present if I perform it. In other words, I attend the horizon of its event as if I myself were the passing Searchlight, and my participation is inseparable from the event horizon: That is, the point beyond which the event (work) cannot be discerned / the point at which the event (work) becomes discernible.
The Beast Laid Bare by Its Beauty, Even
In the middle of the dark room is the Instrument—the projector. Like so many of Gary Hill’s works, it is the mechanism present in all its naked mechanistics that openly holds the center of the work, undisguised, even unmasked. In Disturbance (among the jars) (1988) seven monitors have shed their cases and appear as naked cathode ray tubes. In And Sat Down Beside Her (1990) a tube dangles, a little menacingly, like a spider from the ceiling. The sixteen variously sized unsheathed monitors of In As Much As It Is Always Already Taking Place (1990) “embody” the nude male body they (dis)integrate. In Dervish (1993-95) the projective apparatus has all the force of a god, daemon or beast, roaring in the center of the dark room and veritably slinging its world-creating image-matter against the walls. And it is BEACON (Two Versions of the Imaginary) (1990) that carries forward to higher levels of complexity the core discoveries of Searchlight (1986-1994), which is the minimal/optimal realization of the principle of horizon as projection and the self-revealed/revealing instrument that makes it happen.
The mechanism standing revealed is magic showing its hand. (Note that the root of machine, mechanism, magic, magus is the same, Indo-European magh- meaning to be able, have power.) The technique (techne) itself is the site of the mystery, rather than the secret behind the scene. The deus ex machina might indeed be the god in the machine, arriving in the “middle of the journey of our lives” to guide our attention through the perplexity of limit—the melancholy threat of stalemate and no beyond. An apparatus becomes an extension of the prehensile mind searching along the edge, attempting to grasp the mystery, fixating on the horizon, terrified of ending up empty-handed. What does the mechanism stand for? It stands for the mechanism! But mechanism is not the simple contraption it sounds like, given our technological addictions that reduce discovery to upgrade, mechanical ingenuity to market-driven obsolescence, technology to sheer calculation and control, and magician to illusionist.
Bare mechanism itself is intrinsically liminal. Hence our confusions and ambivalence about it. Outermost, it is how the universe operates its nested systems of cycling galaxies and stars-what the Searchlight describes in its back-and-forth tracing of the earth’s curvature. Innermost, it is the self in performance, the creative nexus making more of itself, the “primary instrument” (proton organon) that in Western magical tradition intelligibly bridges body and soul, corporeal and incorporeal—the great transformer in the middle of our being, imager of inner sense (phantasia), at home in the heart.6 You could call it the Ontological Projector—what really drives the Searchlight. And what keeps it “on the line” in precarious balance—Searchlight as limen, threshold, gateway, revolving door, axis.
What Horizons at the Feedback Horizon
“Horizon” stands for two apparently opposing realities: It encloses all that lies between you and it and it opens onto what is beyond. Horizon, to be sure, usually carries a positive feel: Looking to the horizon is looking up, toward possibility, lifting the eyes from the ground. New horizons. Yet horizon is nothing more than distinction itself—a division, a point of demarcation and difference. As such, a turning point and, therefore, the possibility of reversal. An axis. The projector turns on its axis to create/describe the horizon. Your head turns on its axis (spine, but also the space around the spine) to follow the Searchlight, to participate the horizon. Turning head draws the horizon. Its arc is both the contour of the earth and the range of personal mobility—the span and the limit. Such an ambiguous circumstance can create perplexity, anxiety, even terror, but there is also the possibility that within a certain focus perplexity itself would turn creative.
The direct awareness of the axis, feedback occurring within the turning itself, brings viewer and projector to the same task: To open the horizon that is both a projection and a revelation of a world. When that task is performed, what may result is a “moment of truth,” an epiphany, even a satori wherein the horizon of the work itself is surpassed and the essential insight with which it is concerned becomes available to the viewer. This insight is not an “interpretation” of the work at which the viewer arrives, but the further life of the work, as if the work passed beyond the horizon of the artist and entered within the horizon of the viewer. By standing in the place of the projector, one stands in the place of its creator and becomes an original participator in its vision. All that can be said about this vision will sound like a kind of marking time, a standing on the horizon of the work, and bearing witness to the experience at the horizon itself. This moment, this bearing witness is itself both axial and horizonal: It continues to turn, to change, to spin away from itself, to open further vistas, further horizons of meaning. Let us continue to spin with them:
The horizon stands revealed as the projection of a mechanism both objective and subjective (a machine as well as something essential to oneself). With this liminal projection of an infinitesimal line between objective and subjective, horizon is on the horizon—the very possibility of any and all horizons emerges into view. Stated minimally and optimally and in poetic accordance with the reality of Searchlight:
Translation: Horizon performs itself (noun verbs). Searchlight has the performative structure of poetry, i.e., optimal language, language that performs itself as meaning, a state of logos in which word is not separate from its meaning—indeed, word gives rise to that of which it speaks. In this sense a work of art/poetry is a transreferential state in which signifier and signified are inseparable and indistinguishable. The work Searchlight uses no language, it is language; that is, beginning with its title, it is the horizon of language and, accordingly, the threshold of the work as language. The title is itself the horizon of the work as both language and meaning. As such it is the axis of the work—a zone of multiple meanings that is open to “turning” either way.
“Axial” meaning can be described as amphibolous, doubly thrown like a net that catches in more than one direction, more than one place. Any lighthouse searchlight turns on an axis, but this “Searchlight” is axial in a special sense. Even as it both searches and shows, it unmasks what it reveals and, most of all, itself.
Moreover, going beyond mere ambiguity of surface, it unmasks the viewer along with the mechanism of projection. The moment of truth that comes down to horizon horizons is the moment of ontological projection in which being shows itself. Here the word “shows,” along with the action of showing, is axial: Being shows itself to be what it is—by showing (displaying) itself—and, at the same time, being shows itself to itself. Showing becomes reflection—of itself and on itself. Each turn in meaning opens a new horizon onto further meaning. In short, meaning itself horizons.7
Searchlight is the vehicle, the “primary instrument,” of this reflexive state of self-awareness. As you stand in the space letting your head turn on its axis and coming to a moment of telling rest—the still point in the middle, perpendicular to the wall where the horizon is perfectly clear and the sound of the sea is happening right there in front of you—your own awareness becomes axial. The room itself and the work that “searches” inside it and sheds light on it—wake up. They—the room and the work—seem to know themselves. Just as viewers view themselves. There is a moment on the horizon when all the awarenesses and axially transforming meanings and identities come into a state of mutual feedback: This is the feedback horizon.8
Though the feedback horizon arises inside the still point, it is only a split second and not a sustained resting place in time. Nothing actually stops. It’s like the crest of the wave which is also not a point but the moving horizon between where the waters rise and fall.9 And since the horizon where self-awareness and percipience occur is also not limited to any local site but spreads out along a continuum, awareness, simultaneously available everywhere, opens as a field. Hence the initially strange sense when you first enter the room that it is the whole room that awakens—as though your mind were not really in your head but spread throughout the field.
Perhaps a certain intuition comes to us inside the spin10: Where the vertigo of axially transforming states of percipience and meaning is overcome by that awareness itself, riding (surfing) its own wave. Such a journey along the edge might have a scenario called Searchlight --> Feedback Horizon:
Standing inside the celestial vault, looking out to the horizon and beyond …
Barrytown, New York
1. This conundrum has a venerable philosophical lineage: Kant used it in his “first antinomy of pure reason” to refute the independence of space from human intuition; and it was known to Plato’s contemporary and friend, Archytas, for whom it demonstrated the existence of the Pythagorean category, the apeiron, the Unlimited. But we suspect that it belongs primordially to the very nature of … shall we say “being”? “the human mind”? Either way, the enigma of the horizon is ever on the horizon.
2. The New York Hayden Planetarium version of the Zeiss invention of 1913—the great German prototype of “projective art”—was installed in 1923.
3. Gary Hill’s Dervish, on the other hand, is another matter: The Beast is alive and well there. See our “Two Ways at Once (performative reading-the inside out story)” in the catalogue, Gary Hill, ed. Josée Bélisle, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal: 1998.
4. There is a sound dimension parallel to the visual, harder to describe in non-technical terms. In the center “perpendicular” position, the sound is “flattened” as a result of the low frequencies having been gradually filtered out, and as the Searchlight swings to either end the base frequencies progressively return. The sound experience contributes to the eerie still-point feel of endlessly opening, timeless and unbounded space-an opening in the center with no “ground” resonance. [On “still point” see note 9.]
5. This issue is in different ways active in many of Gary Hill’s pieces, most especially Tall Ships, as one comes face to face with (even disconcertingly close to) a series of “ordinary” people as they get up to greet the viewer, or for that matter the piece called Viewer. We have discussed related issues in the books Tall Ships and Viewer, in the series “Gary Hill’s Projective Installations” (Station Hill/Barrytown, Ltd.: Barrytown, 1997).
6. For the philosophical and magical tradition in the West that lies behind so much art from the Renaissance to the present, see Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1987).
7. The sense of “axial” here corresponds to a principle of poetics which we have discussed at length elsewhere, most recently in relation to the work of the French writer Maurice Blanchot whose work has so deeply impacted that of Gary Hill (Incidence of Catastrophe, BEACON [Two Versions of the Imaginary], etc.): “Publishing Blanchot in America: A Metapoetic View,” the Afterword to The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction & Literary Essays (Station Hill/Barrytown, Ltd.: 1999). Among the seven reprinted books are Thomas the Obscure and other key texts for Gary Hill.
8. This term came into our use in “Notes on the Feedback Horizon: Talking Rectangles” by George Quasha (Station Hill Press: Barrytown, 1980), describing Gary Hill’s Glass Onion. The primary sense there of “video feedback” is already extended to include reflexive awareness inside the installation as a participatory “horizon” created by a viewer.
9. Gary Hill’s Learning Curve (Still Point) (1993) explicitly works within this issue, relating to the use we made of the term “still point” in “Tall Acts of Seeing” (1993) (Tall Ships, as above):
“Still point” will be familiar to readers of T.S. Eliot's poem “Burnt Norton” (the first poem of The Four Quartets), section II: “at the still point, there the dance is,/But neither arrest nor movemen…” This vision of suddenly realized timelessness (“To be conscious is not to be in time”) derives from Dante's vision of eternal stillness in the last canto of the Paradiso. Interestingly, “still point” is used as a technical term in Craniosacral Therapy, an offshoot of Osteopathy, for the act of causing a momentary suspension in the fundamental pulsation of the body (the “craniosacral rhythmical impulse”).
10. Gary Hill’s collected single-channel video works on a three-volume laserdisc set goes by the title, Spinning the Spur of the Moment (Irvington, New York: Voyager Company, 1994).