This is a Sentence - Stephen Partridge and David Cunningham
This is a Sentence is the latest of the language and text-based works started in 1972 as artists books such as - "There Are Some Things You Can Only Do In Private" 1 - to video tape pieces - "Easy Piece" 2 and "Sentences" 3 and broadcast - television pieces - "The Sounds of These Words" 4 . The CD-ROM work brings most of these works together and explores new ways of presenting them to, and challenging the viewer/consumer/user. It also features the long standing collaboration between myself and David Cunningham and most of the works we have done together over the years.
Many of the video and television works made from 1972 to date have involved the use of David's soundtracks, either specially commissioned for the work as in "The Sounds of These Words" or in response to an existing soundwork as in the 1982 series "Soundtapes". On the CD-ROM many of these works are 'revisited' in changed versions or as clips, alongside new sound and image constructs which develop the overall theme of the self referential or tautological sentences that lay at the heart of the work.
The CD-ROM is broadly based around white-on-black short pieces of text, which act as both the interface to the interactivity and are the work itself. The sentences vary from the obvious and reflexive - "at the end of this sentence is a full stop" - to the contradictory - "this is not a sentence" - through to self referential statements - "these letters constitute these words". The sentences are also found within the video works referred to above and thus become recursive and tautological. The sound work(s) interfere, interpret or expand the navigation and discovery of the work. The work though at times playful, is not game oriented, there is no goal or "right" way forward. Indeed the work uses many semi-random clusters of sounds, texts and images so that is probably not possible to experience the same pathway twice.
The work was started in 1995 and a prototype entitled "Nonsense, No-sense, Sentences" was produced on Hypercard and distributed as part of Merseyside Movieola's (now known as F.A.C.T.) "Toy Box" CD-ROM in the same year. Since then David and I have worked on the piece for a few weeks each year in between other projects and so it has evolved and grown.
I feel that the notion of interactivity is largely spurious - CD-ROMS are neither more nor less "interactive" than any other medium. What interested me in the form initially was its intimacy and its ability to bring together sound, images and text in a cohesive and integral whole. I was also attracted to the crude quality of quicktime video - reminiscent of the early video days. Having worked with videotape since 1972 when it was a black and white reel to-reel format, I was struck by the similarities of problems of working with an almost 'fragile' medium - needing great care and what are now called 'workarounds'. There was also a sense of freedom and control in being able to create work entirely in one's studio again - on the so-called 'desk-top'.
The earliest work represented on the CD-ROM is "Easy Piece" from 1974 which was recorded in a single take - simply fading up and out the caption of the word "easy" (Letraset on white card) at the same time as a woman's voice repeating the word roughly every 20 seconds. There were no edit suites for reel to reel videotape at that time - you simply chose the best 'take' in a work like this. "Easy Piece" has been re-mastered a number of times, including electronic graphics over the original voice. This caused confusion when Rudolf Frieling, the curator of the Mediathek at ZKM, wished to purchase the work in 1995 and I could not track down for some six months which version he had specified. Although the piece was originally planned as an installation it was not until 1996 that a version was shown as intended - on a nine-inch black and white 1970s Sony monitor standing on top of a five foot high plinth with the screen three feet from, and facing the gallery wall 5. By this time the work and the monitor had both acquired a 'patina' which gave added resonance, and coincided with a re-newed interest by a younger generation, in the early video work of many artists. As the CD-ROM was by then quite advanced and incorporated these early works, this interest gave added encouragement.
(The photograph shows another version of Easy Piece - printed on acetate and installed on my studio window - with a visiting fly, which got itself trapped, and died.)
Shortly after making "Easy Piece", I became aware of David, who was on the foundation course at Maidstone College of Art. He played me some sound work which varied from ironic takes upon the Phil Spector "wall-of-sound" to various minimalist sketches which appealed to my sense of soundspace. Being no different to a typical artist working with video or film I of course asked him to "help" on the sound for my next works. This started off with him being a sort of engineer but progressed to him delivering up soundtracks to works including "Interlace". I can't remember which came first on this - his sound grabbed from a news report on the coup in Portugal - or my visuals culled from some BBC 'talking-head' interview. In any case this set the pattern for the next 20-odd years. I would either receive some sound works from David which I might or might not work with - or I would ask him to make some specific sound or soundtrack for a specific piece of work. His involvement would come in peaks and troughs and would have an often ambivalent quality to whatever I was working on, although he always responded to the challenge or request that I made him.
The CD-ROM features a number of video pieces that we have worked together on. "Soundtapes" 6 was made in response to a cassette full of soundworks sent to me by David sometime in 1981. The ones I used were titled "Voice", "Body", and "Rapid". David went on to use them as different versions on the CDs "Ghost Dance" and "Voiceworks" and forgot about the versions he had sent to me-although he did use images from "The Sounds of These Words" for the front and back covers of "Voiceworks". "Voice" became "Idiolect" and a new version of this re-united work appears on the CD-ROM.
The most important and relevant (to the CD-ROM) of our collaborative works is however "Sentences" 7. In the easiest of the one's to describe a jumble of letters dance along a line on the screen and then settle to state - "these letters constitute these words". The action is repeated until a second statement - "these words constitute this sentence". The soundtrack features the saxophone of Peter Gordon another long-term collaborator of David Cunningham's and seemed peculiarly apt to the dancing of the sentences like the keys of sax.
From the broadcast television piece "The Sounds of these Words" short clips are used as reactive 'clicks' and other sections mirror the main sentences at the heart of the work. For a catalogue which accompanied the subsequent tour of the work in the series "Television Interventions" I wrote that:
Words fascinate me, they often seem to lose their meaning when repeated or analyzed and become 'only sounds'.......
I am also interested in how when a piece of film or tape is played over and over, and at different speeds how it too looses its original 'meaning'. I thought it might be possible to combine these two interests in one work which would also be relevant to the idea of an intervention in broadcast television. The sound of a woman speaking combined with close-ups of her face and mouth are manipulated in post production. The soundtrack is further developed by David Cunningham, using tape loops and sampling techniques of only the woman's voice. The text is created and manipulated in 3D by using Quantel's Cypher caption generator.
The text in "The Sounds of these Words" repeated the sentences used over the years with specific words and phrases appearing to come out of the woman's mouth.
I found some text that David had written in 1995, either shortly before, or during his visit that year (unusually) to work in my studio in Scotland. They reveal his ambivalence about interactivity and (probably) the project:
As has become common with electronic media, a device has been invented before its use has been envisaged. The current buzzword is interactive and the medium is CD-ROM.
This proposal or speculation is addressed to the medium of CD ROM, a medium which is currently the subject of much interest from multi-national media corporations who seem to be making CD-ROMs on the basis that everyone else is and that it could be the next bandwagon, even though they don't seem to have much of an idea what to do with the technology - most products sold with an 'interactive' tag are encyclopaedias, databases, pop records with video snippets that can be re-mixed (but not re-composed), the only area that seems both popular and interesting is the game based market. This may be a clue to what's happening with the media: games - whether computer or traditional - are relatively simple sets of ideas made complex by permutation.
Perhaps a better word than 'interactive' is 'unfinished', with particular reference to Richard Rorty's use of the term 'final'; using 'unfinished' to cope with change, doubt, indeterminacy. The open situations created by, for instance, John Cage or the Fluxus group are both philosophically and, when viewed from the classic perspective of the Renaissance, unfinished.
An object-based society will by its very nature perceive a time based structure as an object and will exert as much control as possible over the form, content and performance of, for instance, a piece of music to try and make it repeatable or 'finished'."
He was also attending an Arts Lab at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, and we were getting interested in looking at our history - the works we had done together over the years. Some of it was in a sorry state - on open reel videotapes, and as we tried playing them, they would disintegrate on the VCR, allowing us one chance to copy to a new format. We had discussed how the CD-ROM should be non-interactive in the sense that he describes in the quoted notes above, and how we should use our old work to re-invent the past. Maybe even forge our old works. Also we both thought that screensavers might be an avenue to explore.
David wanted to know as little as possible about the software, but just enough to make a frustrating non-interactive, interactive, unfinished piece which he called "colour". This work involved rectangles of colour appearing on the screen and only sometimes if you clicked the mouse did something appear to happen. You could never be sure, so you could hardly interact with the mouse, but you could interact with the work as a whole. His own explanation of the work (before it was 'finished') is quoted below:
"My own approach to making a CD-ROM along these principles would initially be a disc with 10 or more sections, each of which, when launched, produce a moving screen image and sound. This, however, will never be the same twice, that is, there is no fixed start to the process of generating the image. The 10 sections would be differentiated by some factor of the nature of the imagery, perhaps the kinds of colours (pastels, transparencies, dark/light, primaries), the speed of change, the design of the generators (for instance, producing hard edged, blurred or organic shapes) and so on. Similar differentiation would apply to the sound. (Which he never wrote- SP )
It is different to a recording, it is not necessarily repeatable. Unlike putting on a record, the viewer/listener will not get the same thing twice, although they will be in the same general area.
In this form it is little more than a domestic distraction, moving wallpaper. There is, of course, a demonstrable need for moving wallpaper as we near the millennium."
As the piece progressed throughout 96-8 David's contribution especially on the sound grew and he also became irritated with some aspects of the work, especially if it looked as though I was trying to give it an aspect of progression or finishedness. My own views, however closely mirrored David's but this was not always apparent as I was always showing him a prototype, and my own limited knowledge of the programming meant it was just easier to have a beginning for instance, so that I could at least 'handle' and debug the work.
1 "There Are Some Things You Can Only Do In Private", 72pp book, 1973
2 "Easy Piece" B/W videotape, 6 mins, 1974
3 "Sentences" , colour videotapes, various lengths, 1988-93
4 "The Sounds of These Words" 1990, 4 mins for A Fields & Frames Production For Channel 4 Television
5 "Easy Piece" installation Shown at Media Circus, Crawford Gallery DJCA 1996; and The Showroom, London, 1997
6 "Soundtapes" colour videotapes, 6 mins,1982 sound by David Cunningham - remastered 1993
7 "Sentences" colour videotape, 1988-93 various lengths 1 min -2 min, sound by David Cunningham, with Peter Gordon on saxophone.
Below extracts from From John Calcutt's Essay THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE
Take a sentence. Any sentence. This is a sentence, for example. Its ability to signify anything beyond its sheer material presence as black marks on a white ground involves a dynamic of both delays and projections. Obviously, the sentence projects forward in time; we have to follow its linear sequentiality from opening capital letter to closing full stop. But as the sentence progresses, so it is also engaged in acts of relay and recollection. The full resonance - the 'correct' meaning - of each individual word is dependent upon the ghostly traces it harbours of those which have preceded it. By the same token, this semantic process involves anticipation. "I went to the bar ..." The precise meaning of "bar" is suspended (an iron bar? a court room? a high jump bar? the hotel bar?), only to be revealed in retrospect. ("to bend it", "to plead my case", "to jump it", "to have a drink"). "Bar" is heavy with an anticipation which is only articulated retrospectively by "drink". "Drink", on the other hand, is pregnant with the precipitation of "bar" - the chances are it will be alcoholic.
This temporal, sequential aspect of the sentence's component elements (sometimes called their syntagmatic relation) is crucial. (Try changing the word order of any sentence and see how easily it collapses into unintelligibility.) There is, however another movement which operates alongside the syntagmatic. The syntagmatic structure of a sentence provides, in fact, the framework for a host of possible paradigmatic selections and permutations within its individual units (e.g. subject/verb/object): "Jim likes running," "Anne hates running," Anne likes swimming," "Jim hates Anne," and so on. In fact, the network of implications opened up here is potentially infinite:
Certain forces of association unite...the words 'actually present' in a discourse with all the other words in the lexical system, whether or not they appear as 'words'.
Language's excessive, unruly proliferation is equally characteristic of desire, and both are marked by loss, by incompletion:
The disastrous separation of desire from its objects has already occurred. Such is the price that human beings unwittingly pay for their admission to language [...]. A wish can be fulfilled; desire cannot: it is insatiable, and its objects are perpetually in flight.
Now Stephen Partridge's work isn't, of course, in the business of providing academic demonstrations of structural linguistics or psychoanalytic theory. Nevertheless, spend some time exploring the labyrinthine passages of This Is A Sentence (his interactive CD ROM, produced in collaboration with the artist/composer David Cunningham) and all of the above lie quietly in wait. The chase is on, each successive click opening a new field of possibilities; but there is no final destination. Not only do the syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations of the written word slip out of control in this electronic maze, but seemingly endless sequences of unpredictable paradigmatic connections between the written and spoken word, visual imagery and music intensify the blind thrill of the desire-driven search. The effect is like that of the tumultuous cascade of delirious images released by the unconscious of the dreamer. Again the mouse is clicked. And again. The more desire urges us on, the more elusive its quarry becomes.
"Words and rocks", said Robert Smithson, "contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles each containing its own void."
My preceding account of language is now revealed as itself lacking. The underlying principle of language - and any other signifying system - is, in fact, radical difference and the "splits and ruptures" which this entails. The crucial aspect of the sign is not its inherent properties, but its capacity to differentiate itself at every level of its structure from all other signs. Language is thus an anti-architecture of spaces, gaps, distances, voids. Absence, not presence, is its fissured field.
It is a peculiarly modern(ist) idea that sight and language are utterly distinct. In fact, the linguistic inhabits the visual, just as imagery pervades the fabric of language. Furthermore, sight, in common with language, is driven by desire; sight, to take this further, is saturated with language and desire. The senses are not pure and innocent. - JOHN CALCUTT
KINETIC TEXT notes by ALAN WOODS editor of TRANSCRIPT
A long history (within art) of insisting, subversively, that 1. language is a major component in our visual field, and 2. that ideas are only as they are in a particular formal configuration: those words, and the way those words look, are spaced on the page, the choice of typeface. That there is an aesthetic of ideas.
This locates the text in relation to a particular time and place, to a particular reading by a particular reader. It exposes the conventions of rational discourse, of abstraction, of philosophical detachment, and the ambition of establishing stable and unsituated truth(s) as utopian, untenable. Formal analysis: no content but in form. No ideas but in words, but words as things. No words without sounds or shapes.
The flurry of text in our visual field, for example, is largely a result of our living within capitalism. It is true of text-as-art that:
a) the look of it matters, consciously as well as subliminally: the space of the page (or whatever word is appropriate for this instance of a held text) is present rather than transparent
b) the text remains: the eye tracks it differently, it is crossed but never left behind; the words and their meaning, a meaning now expanding laterally, within the spaces focused by the eye as well as the mind's eye
and this is true also, albeit with distinctions enforced by behavioural nuances, of how language is present in our environment: on and in posters, beermats, T-shirts, headlines, computer screens, junk mail, neon. Packaging. (A stream of unbroken images. Come in under the shadow of this Rolling Rock.)
representing text in an environment (realisms)
placing text in an environment (galleries, streets - stickers, posters, T-shirts)
scrambling text (collage: translation, reconfiguration)
Photography has long included a meditation on the look of language, as has over a century of American realist painting. Cubism was language portraiture. Schwitters created a visual poetry of fragments, noise for the eyes, related to his poetries of sounds. Kosuth exhibits thought, offers specific, spatial, readings of reading. Holzer turns the occasional surrealistic technique of placing slogans in the everyday environment into a lifetime's modus operandi. Kruger changes the content, and often the context, of advertising; so, on occasion, a critique of advertising is what is advertised.
There are endless ways of visualising, spatialising text. The CD-Rom adds non-linear, or differently linear, temporalities to this tradition. Hide and seek in screen grammar. Kinetic text.
"The format of the CD-ROM which Partridge and Cunningham issue this year, is founded on them, as the user soon discovers when clicking along the on-screen text taken from this work. Some of these hot-spots eventually lead to Cunningham's This Moment, 1993, a one-minute TV work, in which shifting sounds and letter-forms in the phonetic alphabet finally spell out the title of the work as an index if its own duration.
The CD-ROM is a free anthology of the makers' video and sound work from the 1970's through the 1990's, interspersed with quotes, games, shouts, shouts, groans, sighs, remixes, out-takes and variants. The collaborators have themselves collaborated , so that a variety of other voices - some identifiable, many not - can be heard on the soundtrack. At this level, it does what CD's do best, which is to access information.. Along another strand, it presents its contents directly as art in a new format, notably when its clips are played in programmed time so that the user becomes - again - a viewer. It is at these points, when the clip plays without interference, that the CD becomes an independent art work. Cut against this insistence on the time-base is the user's freedom to move through overlapping paths, to reach the last sentence - if there is one. " - Al Rees
below thoughts by ALAN WOODS editor of TRANSCRIPT
a clip round the mouth [title]
[the various fonts aren't suggestions, just ways of showing which texticles belong together - to be distinguished from each other any way - size, colour, font, etc.]
teasing meaning out of a text
deduce a medium from a single example of its use
teasing meaning into a text
a work linear in any experience of it
non-linear in any description of it
teasing a meaning that means to tease, to tickle the fancy
text as text (outside genre):
here there & everywhere
(neither here nor there)
this is a life
decisiveness is not control:
it feels like an intelligence test, or a test
of memory (you've been there
you've done that), or a psychological test
of preferences or character; or
it feels like a game without rules
(which cannot be a game), stuck
between playfulness & boredom
with playfulness, experiment,
surprise, repeat, surprise.
the electronic bran tub: randomised
appointments with disappointment,
little pleasures, repeat, pleasures,
cowardice of a kind, running on the spot.
this is a life sentence
what is authored?
what is authorised?
grammar chance echo grid memory
chance echo grid memory grammar
echo grid memory grammar chance
grid memory grammar chance echo
memory grammar chance echo grid
reflecting on surface profundities.
stating the obvious, obviously.
what might happen where?
what might happen? where?
the mouth, framing a sentence
sounding out grammar
speaking what is written
writing what is spoken
soundbytes [Note: this could move from page to page: sound on edge of right-hand page, bytes on edge of succeeding left-hand page]
language out on parole
hide & seek
the translation machine
nonsense & nonsensibility
various tongues on various tongues.
a question mark:
smoke rising from the minefield.
you took the words right out of my mouth
it must have been when you were clicking me
THIS IS A SENTENCE
Interactive CD-ROM in collaboration with David Cunningham, 1998 interpretation by John Calcutt
From his earliest days as a student at Maidstone College of Art (1972-75), Partridge showed a great interest in language, some of his first works being artists books. This fascination with language was a feature of Conceptual art which emerged in the second half of the 1960s, and it marked a distinct break from the dominant concerns of art throughout most of the modern period. In rebelling against academic art in the nineteenth century, the pioneers of modern art were rejecting its literary and narrative elements. The purpose of visual art, they claimed, was not to tell stories or to recount historical episodes - that was the job of literature. The mission of art, they argued, was to focus on aesthetic issues. Anything which smacked of literature or writing in general was to be banished from the visual arts. Increasingly, therefore, the subject of art became art itself ("art for art's sake"). For the viewer of such modern works, the experience should be purely visual and not require any outside knowledge of history, literature, religion or the life and times of the artist. Because visual art ruthlessly expelled language from its domain, it also required that the work of art should have an immediate and instantaneous effect upon the viewer. The reasoning behind this lay in the fact that language unfolds in the dimension of time, and thus the experience of time is inappropriate to the purely visual, anti-literary content offered by painting and sculpture.
By the mid-1960s these ideas had become so entrenched within the art world that they had almost become a set of academic rules to be obeyed by any artist wishing to have their work taken seriously. Unsurprisingly, many younger artists started to resist and to question these assumptions. They pointed to the early 20th century example of Marcel Duchamp's readymades, such as Fountain (1917), in which the artist merely selected a mass produced object (a urinal, in this case) and exhibited it as art. These objects didn't attain the status of art by virtue of their visual or aesthetic qualities, but as a result of the debate which surrounded them. The readymades became art partly because people argued that they were art, and these arguments and debates took/take place in the medium of language. Increasingly, then, the conclusion emerging during the period since Conceptual art is that language and art are impossible to cleanly separate; each informs the other.
The manifold presence of language (written and spoken, seen and heard) is unashamedly at the heart of This Is A Sentence, and yet this is as much a work of visual art as any of Partridge's other pieces in this exhibition. It is possible, in fact, to think of this CD-ROM as summarising much of his output to date. Spread throughout its labyrinthine web of electronic paths and connections are fragments and versions of many of his earlier works, including some of his collaborations with David Cunningham, such as Sentences (1988-93) and The Sound of These Words (1990). Its invitation to the user to click on the image of words on the computer screen in order to open up new networks of connections is built on the same kind of self-reflexive structure which formed the foundation of early works such as Easy Piece (1974) and Monitor (1975). The use of the mouse as a form of physical connector between the work and its 'operator' is also similar to the use of the rubber squeeze bulb in Slap Movie (1999). The non-linear patterns of combination and juxtaposition which the user of This Is A Sentence sets in motion are reminiscent of the open-ended process of 'reading' offered by Chimera (1998). The strangely disembodied finger of the cursor as it darts around behind the glass screen of the computer recalls the ambivalent sensation of physical detachment mixed with imaginary involvement which occurs in the laser printed images of Intangible Bodies (1999).
There is, none the less, a sting in the tail. Just as Partridge dismantles the phenomenon of video feedback in Monitor, and just as he throws the authority of the male gaze into doubt in works such as Intangible Bodies, Chimera and Slap Movie, so the utopian freedom promised by interactive computer technology is questioned in This Is A Sentence. The illusion of freedom of choice promised by this technology is no more than an illusion. Freedom of choice is undoubtedly involved, but it is a freedom to choose between a limited number of alternatives which have been predetermined. It is the restricted freedom of the consumer.
FROM THE CATALOGUE 17e WORLD WIDE VIDEO FESTIVAL, STEDLIJK AMSTERDAM 1999
A game of image, representation and reference: is what you hear what you hear; is what you see also what you hear; is what you see what you see? The question has been asked in a definitive form by Magritte in his famous painting 'Ceci n'es pas une pipe' which appropriately appears here from time to time on the screen. This CDROM contains a game with language and text-related fragments with the sentence "this is a sentence" as its central point of departure. If you explore the screen by clicking randomly, however , you begin to entertain doubts about this sentence's truth. A cry, a snarl, a laugh. Are these still sentences? Or, to put it more formally: "all sentences end with a full stop" is therefore not a sentence and also makes nonsense of the main sentence. The CDROM contains selections from the twenty-five year collaboration between Partridge and Cunningham which consists of productions developed from interactions of image (text) and sound. At another level, however, the makers do not regard interaction as essential to the CDROM as a vehicle, which is a view that runs contrary to what is usually expected of games published in this medium. The attraction of the medium for the makers lies rather in its intimacy and its capacity to combine sound, images and text into a coherent form. 'Unfinished' is a better term than 'interactivity', and this creates a link with John Cage and the Fluxus movement. The makers are also intrigued by the relatively poor image quality of QuickTime, which can be taken as a reference to the early days of video art, of which Partridge in particular can be regarded as a pioneer, and also as a reminder that the circle of image and representation cannot be broken, despite applied technology.
this is a sentence CDROM -stephen partridge and david cunningham
Stephen Partridge home page
A.L. Rees -notes on the collaboration
David Cunningham -notes on the collaboration
© 2000 Partridge/Cunningham
© 1999 John Calcutt
© 1998 Alan Woods
© 1999 Stichting World Wide Video Festival