Audio-video: A Suite of Media – Paul Kos at the deYoung Museum
Written by: Howard Junker
October, 1974 San Francisco
(a previously unpublished manuscript)
It has been increasingly difficult for avant-guard artists to specify the nature and scope of their expertise. When Pollock renounced the métier of painting by brush, his crisis of confidence may be said to have become a central issue in art: what, exactly, can the artist do with competence, with manual, educated, traditional skill? Rauschenberg was deliberately, periodically, sloppy; Warhol had his minions do silkscreens; Judd telephoned specs to the factory; the Conceptualists would like to renounce object-making altogether.
Video is a further step in alienating the artist from the means – and meaningfulness – of production. It is childishly simple, almost foolproof. Some chimpanzees, but certainly not all, might have been as painterly as Pollock; anyone can run a Portapak.
Video seems to have been sensed by the first artists to use it as a double-edged threat. On the one hand, it is technologically incomprehensible; like so much of everyday life, you don’t have to understand the inner workings to use it. On the other hand, its product is both easy to obtain and readily accessible to the viewer – a strange situation for art with the ambition to be “difficult.” Moreover, video seems esthetically retrograde in its gaudy realism.
The upshot has been that most early tape-makers have confined themselves to extraordinarily mindless performances. Repetitive chores of the least dramatic kind. Frequently, these absurd, simplistic events have involved pain, even self-mutilation, as if the artist could only imagine presenting himself – indulging in self-expression – as an act of torture. Perhaps the artists even felt guilty about being involved with the boob tube in the first place; surely their audience has been conditioned to view video as a sub-species of TV. That is, a medium beneath contempt. The situation is not unlike the early days of experimental film-making: great excitement about possible technical breakthroughs; public consensus that the medium is decidedly not an art form.
Paul Kos, 32, has not suffered this kind of anguish in using video. He had not found it necessary to expose himself, to turn on himself as subject. He has appeared on screen, but only as an actor performing useful tasks with considerable competence. In a 1970 event, essentially a live performance, although it was covered by – and later shown as – film and video. Kos did accept a degree of self-injury; he fired a case of shotgun shells at a target; by the end of an afternoon of firing, his shoulder had been bruised by the gun’s kick. The essence of the piece, however, was the competence with which he shot, destroying one kind of mass by transferring another. In a 1972 piece, Kos displayed another kind of skill: shooting pool against a New York hustler – Kos 8 games, Hustler 28.
Through much of the past two years, Kos has been obsessed with prospecting for gold, a futile search for the big pay off, but one rich in allusions from California history and contemporary economics. He has made sculpture of sluices and pans spotted with gold. In one tape, as the camera scans the hills of Wyoming, “searching” for Olga, a miner’s wife who disappeared – lost without a trace – on her honeymoon in 1936, Kos calls out, “Olga… Olga… Olga…,” and, sporadically, “Gold… Gold… Gold…,” as the cry of “Gold” goes up, the camera abandons its methodical search pattern and wheels about in a frenzy.
In his recent show at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, “Cymbals/ Symbols; Sound and Steel,” Kos arranged a video monitor, two poster sized photos and two 4’x4’ sheets of steel into a media package that has the integrity of a suite of sculpture. The installation is simple: the monitors sit on stands in a natural niche of the room; the sheets hang from the ceiling in the middle of the space, three feet off the floor; the photos are on the walls to the right and left of the entrance, along with another diptych, a statement by the artist and one by the curator. (Kos, raised a Catholic, is almost Manichaean in his preoccupation with dualisms.)
The photos are of Pilot Butte, near Rock Springs, Wyoming, Kos’ hometown. The one on the left, shot in the morning looking south, shows scrub brush heading up to the butte, puffy clouds above; the one on the right, taken at sunset looking west, silhouettes the butte, allowing it to eclipse the sun. The same images – the butte at midday, the butte at sunset – open and close the second segment of the video. Thus, the photos serve as time-marks, frozen moments, before and after, in contrast to the in-between, on-going, process time of the video.
The twin steel sheets, very thin, half an inch apart, are driven by a small transducer to act as a speaker for the soundtrack of the video. At the simplest level, this is a bit of magic, an act with the power to wow kids who have no interest in Art. But there are deeper implications. By extending the audio out from the monitor, by translating it as an independent object in the space of the viewer, Kos manages to defeat the recessiveness of conventional video, its tendency to retreat from the viewer, back towards a remoter, dimly perceived, grey distance. He makes the video belong to the room; it becomes more than a receiver, a peephole; it is tied into the exhibit, made part of a set of objects, a suite of media. This important accomplishment is the equivalent of Rauschenberg’s “combines,” which broke out of the trompe l’oeil space that recedes from the picture-plane by extending objects from the canvas into the room. Some video freaks have tried to go environmental by surrounding the viewer with an array of monitors, but this cure only compounds the disease.
Kos maintains the video focus, its integrity, while isolating an element, the audio, in space, making it sculptural. (His concern with the aural aspects of performance goes back to his shotgun piece, which includes a small plane flying by, “strafing the site”; and a 1970 piece in which eight studio mikes were tuned to the sound of two blocks of ice melting; and to the incantatory soundtrack of the Olga/ Gold tape…)
The sheets, of course, are a typical Minimalist configuration, reminiscent of Serra’s giant slabs. Kos’ sheets, however, float. They are NASA-like anti-gravity machines, miraculous, weightless objects in space. They seem somber, austere, mythical, in the mood of Rothko; or threatening like the guillotine or sword of Damocles; or disinterested, scientific, like a Leyden jar (in which two leaves of foil are suspended side-by-side; at the approach of an electric charge, the leaves fan out).
The sheets, separated by only a half-inch gap, are as close to two dimensional as possible. They carry further the “flattening” of reality by the photos and by the (black-and-white) video. The sheets seem more graphic than sculptural. Indeed, each “plate” is inscribed with a set of concentric circles centering on a small hole drilled two feet from the bottom. The circles are literally in the shape of cymbals – they do resonate. Kos claims the circles are topographic representations of the butte, which, in turn, is shaped like a cymbal. Wyoming itself, Kos adds, is shaped like a butte, rising from the eastern plains to a high plateau.
Further overtones: the circles indicate the emanating sound waves, the coils of “loud speakers,” and the obsessive, circular path of the wanderer lost in the desert — or in a maze with no exit or, worse, no interior connection.
Is the hole the center of a missing goal, or a target? (The Old French word for “butte” means, “mound behind targets.”) Or is the hole an ear tuned to tinny, tiny sounds? Or is it the Cyclopean eye of the video giant?
The sheets are lit by theatrical mini spots which cause an “X” of light to center on the holes and which cast shadows of the sheets onto the end walls. These two shadows [sic] like eclipsing objects, since light spills over their edges; the effect is the obverse of Robert Irwin’s paintings.
The video is in two segments. The soundtrack of the first, “Are Tinny/ Aren’t Any.” (AT/ AA) is Kos repeating the couplet, “There are tinny sounds in the desert; there aren’t any sounds in the desert.” While he is speaking, he walks through the desert carrying the camera; the resultant image is, of course, blurry. When the couplet is completed, he sets the tripod down, showing the ground close-up, in good focus: the ground is parched, cracked, rubble-strewn. As he moves on – alternating the couplet-with-movement and silence-with-still-life – Kos discovers new terrain – scrub. And he discovers tinny sounds – Marlene Kos, off-camera, scrapes and bangs a coat hanger against the top of a trashcan; thus, the first line of the couplet is made literally true and the second half, literally untrue. Finally, he discovers an ant hole, life, survivors in the desert, workers, and travelers with a purpose.
This segment can be seen as the artist wandering, lost in the desert, alternately tamping to nowhere, compulsively mumbling, then freezing, relapsing into a catatonic state, staring at the ground. He has set out into the void, rain deprived, infertile, hostile desert, with nowhere to go, nothing to find. The effort is pointless, yet exhausting; he pants as he keeps talking (to fill up the silence). He carries with him only a small truth – which he constantly invalidates – his semi-nonsense couplet. It is all the wisdom he has to keep him going. His voyage of discovery is absurd to the point of being like the children’s game, “Red Light”: while “It” is talking, you can move; when “It” stops – and looks around – you must freeze. Or you’re out.
Finally, the artist stumbles onto something living — and working – the ants. At first, he passes them by. Then he zeros in, sharpening focus. They are preparing for winter, all those ant-like things, wandering about full of meaningfulness. Perhaps the holes in the sheets of steel mirror this ant hole, this home base, this obverse or negative of the butte, this image of purpose and industry.
The second segment, “Pilot Butte/ Pilot Light.” (PB/ PL), opens with a long shot of the butte, the same view as the first photo. Then Kos is shown in extreme close-up (so his face is not seen), building a fire on top of a tree stump. He arranges split logs in a log cabin array. Then he twirls a piece of ice in a big upside down (“cymbal” shaped) pot top, trying to make a magnifying lens. The effort is frustrating, how silly to rub steel and ice together, instead of two sticks, or a match and box.
After a long time, the lens is held up to focus on the sun and, at last, to light the fire. The lens is then put on the fire, and, finally, as the burnt logs begin to tumble, the as-yet-unmelted ice falls into the ashes. The last image is the butte, in silhouette, as if eclipsing the sun, trying to put out that light.
The segments are short: AT/AA, 5 minutes; PB/PL, 5 minutes. There is never a question of testing the viewer’s endurance or tolerance. There is plenty of action, well-edited, well-made in general.
The two segments themselves stand in a before-and-after relationship. AT/AA is the artist in search, lost between assertion and negotiation, capable of manipulating technology, but not of using it with purpose. PB/PL is the artist as artisan, performing with competence, either preparing a beacon or sending a distress signal, in any case, capable of mastering an obscure, but powerful technique.
Kos found the idea of lighting a fire with an ice lens in a survival book belonging to his younger brother. It is ironic to use ice to start a fire – the book offers the suggestion only as an after- thought, if all else fails. It is also ironic to light a fire in the desert, although Wyoming is a very cold desert, snows falling from September through June. This particular environment, Kos seems to be saying, may be beautiful, but it is exceedingly harsh; survival is a real issue.
Kos goes back to Rock Springs every summer; his father, a doctor, has an acreage on which he keeps horses as art objects to look at, because they are beautiful, not to ride. With his wife and two children, Kos arrives out from San Francisco in a VW bus: unlike most earth workers, he does not fly in, do his work and fly out. Because he is both “on vacation” and “at home” in Wyoming, he is able to work on a domestic scale at the level of intimate observation. He can take the landscape as a given, as an environment that will resonate – all the way back to childhood – without his forcing anything, making any large scale disruptions or dramas. His presence there, at this time, is over- determined; every locale, every gesture, is laden with allusion, more than he could handle if he tried.
So Kos can make the small observation that there aren’t any sounds in the desert – it’s quiet – or if there are any, they’re tinny, that is, they are so isolated, so unmuffled by ambient noise as to seem brittle, metallic. He can also notice the familiar details of the surface of the desert – the cracks, the debris, the scrub, the ants. This tortured, snarled, swarming surface, deprived but frenetic, is reminiscent of the surface of Jackson Pollock, who was born in Cody, Wyoming. Just as Pollack set his canvas on the floor, stood in it and flailed about, so Kos gets out on the desert floor and flails about. As Pollock denied the necessity of the easel, so Kos denies the necessity of the tripod. By breaking the only rule of “good” video – keep the camera steady (even hand-held video uses a portable tripod for that purpose) – Kos turns the image-blur into the equivalent of action painting in-action; the blur reads like the real-time excitement and serendipity of paint being splashed and squirted. So too, the image produced when the tripod is set back on the ground is a still-life, a naturalistic study of the iconography of abstract expressionism.
It is unlikely that Kos had the “ambition” to take on Pollock in this piece. But it is always the artist’s achievement, not his intentions, that matter. In fact, far from being “competitive” in the sense still felt by the most recent – and perhaps last – generation of New York School artists, Kos shares the typical Bay Area artist’s sense of diffidence, of being not quite sure about his place in the Big Time, of being not quite sure whether Art is quite that serious. One betrayal of this attitude can be found frequency of punning in Bay Area art, particularly in the constant playfulness of the two local superstars, William Wylie and Robert Arneson, whose titles are always puns and whose work itself is often a visual pun.
The title of Kos’ first segment, AT/AA, is a pathetic pun based on letters slurred together; this pathos is in keeping with its general “lostness.” The title of the second segment, “Pilot Butte/ Pilot Light,” is more assured, a more correct play on words, in keeping with its greater “fondness.” A pilot light, of course, simply ignites the gas when the switch is turned; the tape shows the great effort needed to start a fire by ice. A pilot light is also a beacon, a guide to the pilot, as the butte was, in fact, a landmark for travelers to Rock Springs. But this particular pilot light cuts less in the direction of navigational aid and more in the direction of a distress signal, an identifying flash to request and assist the arrival of a rescue party. (In this context, each hole in the steel sheets resembles the hole in a rescue mirror: one claims the sun’s reflection by spotting the on-coming plane through the hole.)
Thus, the search of AT/AA, its very lostness, touches bottom and reaches a conclusion in PB/FL. In calling for help, in discovering means to help himself, a competence possessed, a far-fetched idea to work out, the artist ensures his survival. He has tried chanting, lost in the void, in the deserts of art history. He has observed that work is a survival technique, a purpose that gives direction to the wandered. He has come unto an alter (the butte, the tree stump fireplace). (In the Catholic Mass: “I have come to the alter of God, to God the joy of my youth.”) He has performed boyish, Boy Scout rituals, fire building. He has invoked the sun (elevating an ice-less host).
He has expiated his sin: “I felt,” Kos says in his statement, “like a ‘cold’ arsonist doing a perfect crime – the instrument used to start the fire would melt away and eventually extinguish ‘the fire.’” He has performed a Promethean act, stealing fire; but he has made up for this by putting his absurd technology, his ice-lens, onto the fire, an absurd, sacrificial offering. His creating, seemingly threatened by the terms of this sacrifice, has, after all, survived. The workday done, the butte is recalled; beauty – one last bad pun – is illuminated in the growing darkness by the artists fire.
Howard Junker, 1974
( Founder of literary magazine ZYZZYVA )
For more info on Paul Kos click here
Upcoming exhibition with Paul Kos at Gallery Paule Anglim, more info here