The Call of Fiction

  Video art

… with unbelievable violence: the call of the fiction.

– Raymond Bellour (1)

The potential relation of video art to fiction is a subject often posed badly by its commentators, or simply avoided by its practitioners. I am not speaking here of the capacity to make conventionally well-rounded or naturalistic narrative anecdotes. Let us assume, for the purposes of this argument, that the practice known as video art has no need or desire to produce such standard work. The problem remains that, in differentiating itself from a certain standard kind of fiction, video art has often dodged even thinking about fiction as a category.


Numbed many a time by an indifferent procession of hi-tech video art tapes, I have found myself hearing – or hallucinating, in wish-fulfilment mode – the call of fiction. A certain, profound tendency in video art has remained resolutely the same across almost three decades, even though its surface manifestations have varied enormously: a will to formalist abstraction, polemically underwritten by a refusal to tell stories of any sort. As if fiction were the original sin of the irredeemably damned mainstream media – cinema and television. Whether the denial of fiction in video art takes the form of a Zen meditation on slowly evolving shapes and colours (the preferred response of a previous counter-culture), or  a random hyper-collage of fragments (the postmodern gesture par excellence), the philosophy is somewhat the same: “A story? No. No stories, never again.” (2)


One can perhaps dignify, for a moment, this tendency in practice and in theory by considering a line of speculation which has been gathering momentum for a few years now. In the finest, most confident attempts at proposing a theory of art video, we find a cluster of ideas around time. For Jean-Paul Fargier, cinema’s essential concern is the mastery of space – the edges of the frame, what is in or out of the singular image at any given moment – which is, equally, space’s brutal mastery over time, reducing it to a simple function like anticipation. But, he claims, video liberates the creative role of time – as that which multiplies images – and takes the nervous edge off narrative space. Video time “unfolds” a play of images and sounds. “To translate the problem of space into a question of time is a new way to render the invisible visible.” (3)


What is in the space that Fargier chooses to downplay in the name of video art? It is a narrative space: deep, seamlessly connected from shot to shot, at one with an overall stylistic design. This space adds up to the representation of a scene – and the scenes add up, in a linear fashion, to a story. Hence – following this logic that is mostly implicit but very powerful in the realm of video art – we arrive at a preferred sort of counter-image. If it must be representational at all, a typical shot/image should be: flat, autonomous, a building block in a variable editing arrangement, arbitrarily stylised. Plot is overridden by that which it is said to repress: gesture, bodies, direct narration of the artist’s viewpoint. Or, fiction gives way altogether to other forms: essay, poem, demonstration, free association. (In Australia , I could use most of Randall & Bendinelli’s or Jill Scott’s work to exemplify these predominant characteristics of video art.)


Fargier opposes space to time, cinema to video. Raymond Bellour, in a lucid statement on video that is already the fruit of a near-decade of reflection, takes on an even more popular division, video vs. television, and finds there the war of two kinds of time. TV time is – you guessed it – “institutionalised time … an undifferentiated, homogenous time”. TV is paranoid and noisy, it aims to “substitute itself for time”, “to be time”; and it will “barely tolerate difference, if at all.” (4) Video art, then, resists TV by reformulating time: slow time, cyclical time, deformed time, abandoned time. Here again, the linearity of conventional fiction is revealed as the true villain in this scenario. A certain regime of linear time (and narrative space) which is irreversible, forward moving, single minded, tyrannical, riveting: in contemporary critical mythology, this constitutes a veritable Grim Reaper.


Neither Fargier nor Bellour are hostile to video art taking recourse to fiction; Jean-Luc Godard, for instance, is an exemplary figure for both of them. But one might be wary in expectation of the sympathetic vibration their celebration of new modes of time will meet in areas of the video art scene more firmly disposed against the prospect of engaging with fiction. What I believe needs to be usefully done now is a sorting out of definitions, and a proposing of possible avenues of experimental work with fiction.


To start, we should clear out the time-worn experimentalist assumption (adopted by video art from avant-garde film) that there can be a type of artistic work absolutely beyond or uncontaminated by fiction – that abstraction, for instance, can be opposed to fiction. Bellour very helpfully suggests that fiction has in fact two centres, an abstract centre and a concrete centre. The abstract centre is zero-degree fiction, “a sort of minimalist drama which establishes a situational relationship between at least two elements.” (5) Every viewer of video art is probably familiar with those instructive moments when an audience, fed up with the play of pure abstractions, decides to bring narrative expectations to bear on the least likely of narrative events: when the blue dot from the left of screen finally collides with the red dot from the right, a cheer of relief fills the hall! Such zero-degree fiction is indeed the basis of many jokes played by avant-garde fiction on its own formalist history, as in James Benning’s work, or David Chesworth’s tape Indecidable Objects. An abstract fiction, we can say, is not so much plot as intrigue – and virtually anything can be situationally intriguing.


Fiction’s other centre is its more properly representational one: scenes, stories, characters; the location of a fictional world or diegesis. (The effort not to conflate fiction with representation should always be made; for instance, there can be a work that is all diegesis but little plot, more description than narration. Minimalist narrative cinema already gives us strong examples of this, such as Chantal Akerman’s Hotel Monterey, 1972.) If video art has historically not wanted to acknowledge its abstract fictional centre, its position on the concrete centre has been loud and clear: smash it, invert it, deconstruct it, gum it up.


Yet I assert that we can start again in trying to figure out a mutually productive negotiation between video art and fiction. Again, a distinction made by Bellour can be put to good use. He contrasts fiction as system to fiction as substance. The system of fiction is its structuralist outline: the inventory of standard structures, mechanisms, codes and conventions at the base of most audiovisual stories. A concern purely with fiction as system gives rise, in video art, to a familiar brand of meta-fiction: easy jokes at the expense of character stereotypes, devices of cause and effect, cliché signs, set moves – boy meets girl, the Eiffel Tower, happy endings, etc. etc. (eg., Randall & Bendinelli’s Love Stories, 1984). This is the kitsch end of the vogue for quotation. The other end is sober, Brechtian, purist – but equally confined to fiction as system.


Engaging with fiction as substance requires a more difficult effort. The process consists of, in Bellour’s description, the “materialisation, scenarisation and dramatisation of substantive entities” – characters, scenes, a milieu and so on. The challenge for experimental art would be to articulate these entities in such a way that they do not cohere in the conventional, linear fashion. But still to produce and use the flesh, the life of substantial fiction; to transcend the sketch approach that tends to strip fiction down, in a parodic or purist fashion, to the skeleton of its systems.


For a number of complicated reasons, video art (like Super-8 film) practitioners are still holding off, a little scared and defensive, from engaging with fiction as substance. Underneath the vestiges of polemical refusal, we might suspect the signs of a few enduring phobias: the fear that fictional affect/emotion is too sticky, too hard to control; the inability of visually-based artists to conceive of a workable, productive relationship with flesh-and-blood actors; the well-founded hunch that the mise en scène and careful rhetoric of mainstream fiction (through and below the simple systematics of plot) might be more complicated than they at first seem.


There is one approach to fiction lying around in recent history of critical writing and independent filmmaking that is ideal for video art. The late ‘70s/early ‘80s writing of Stephen Heath or Lesley Stern outlines this approach; the film works of Yvonne Rainer, Mark Rappaport or Akerman exemplify it. All of David Chesworth’s work in many media, particularly his tape Insatiable (1987), has been dedicated to exploring it; the Susan Charlton-Stuart Cunningham-Ross Harley tape One Block From Heaven (1986) also gestures in this direction.


Let us briefly evoke the kind of fiction which Heath refers to as the novelistic. (6) We are in a story which is pulling back, obsessively, to a point of origin – but an uncertain, unstable, perhaps illusory origin. A text of memory unfolds; different attempts are made by the narrator and the narration to retrieve the primal scene from which everything is felt to devolve. But the story before us is haunted by fundamental absences.


Novelistic fiction conventionally connects up three terms: story, identity and place. For the fictional character, the ability to ultimately reconstitute and tell a biographical story (one of origins and destiny) would be to form an identity and to nail down a secure place for themself in the scheme and flow of things. For the spectator, an analogous process occurs: finding one’s secure place as the recipient of a narration; piecing together a vicarious biography; being affirmed in one’s conventional (cultural) affective response.


If novelistic fiction exists (as Heath would say) to map the imaginary (the texture of one’s whole emotional life, desires, shifting and multiple identities) onto the symbolic (a singular, contained, socially sanctioned identity), then experimental art engaged with such fiction would have as its aim the uncoupling of these two realms or fields, imaginary and symbolic. It would work towards a constant and strategic displacement of character and spectator alike through a whole set of identifications, affects, positions, situations. The vast rhetoric of emotion and narration in conventional fiction would still be put into play; but it would be freed, made mobile.


Too few video artists are scholars of Hollywood cinema; but perhaps it is this cinema, above all, which is at stake in video’s interrogation of fiction and of its use of “the cinema film as memory and quotation” (Bellour). Two memories, both equally personal and collective, both cultural, are in action: the memory of the American cinema itself, the long-ago experience of its fantasy-map, its imaginary; and the memory that is invented and narrativised within each particular fiction. Two kinds of biography which can both be rendered as ‘moving places’ (as in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s great book of that name).


With unbelievable violence, the call of (the) fiction: a call to return, to revisit the scenes embedded in one’s memory. “These images look at us … from the depths of a long-lost childhood (the photograph’s time par excellence)”. (7) A return to what? Not to a unique, personal, interior experience, but to a collective imaginary: a realm of emotionally invested images.

Note: the texts by Raymond Bellour referenced in this essay have subsequently been gathered in the translated book Between-the-Images (JRP/Ringler, 2012).


1. Raymond Bellour, “The Burning Memory”, The Luminous Image (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1984), p. 132. back

2. Maurice Blanchot, The Madness of the Day (Station Hill Press, 1981), p. 18. back

3. Jean-Paul Fargier, “The Hidden Side of the Moon”, The Luminous Image, pp. 36-45. back

4. Raymond Bellour, “Video Utopia”, National Video Festival Catalogue (American Film Institute, 1986), pp. 87-92. back

5. Bellour, “The Limits of Fiction”, Video by Artists 2 (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1986), pp. 49-57. Original publication 1982. back

6. See Heath, Questions of Cinema (London: Macmillan, 1982). back

7. Bellour, “The Pensive Spectator”, Wide Angle, Vol 9 No 1 (1987), p. 7. back

© Adrian Martin 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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