Half Empty, Since 1998

Martin Spellerberg takes a look at the single channel and installation work of internationally acclaimed Video Art Super Star Pipilotti Rist and uses it as a jumping off point for a discussion of the promise of video art, defining an audience and where the medium should head.

I Want My PipiTV

Marty Spellerberg. May 29th, 2000

Hi Pipilotti Rist!

In 1962 Pipilotti was born in Reinthal, Switzerland. Of course, her name wasn’t Pipi then, it was Charlotte; it was only later that her family would adapt the nickname from Pipi Longstocking, and later still until it proved wholly appropriate. In the early 80s she studied Graphic Design and Photography at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna, then Video at the School for Design in Basel.

Her pathway into art was always through pop culture, especially music. In college she designed concert stages for local bands and directed their videos. She played in a band for eight years, finally dropping out when she figured she was perfectly capable of putting together the tunes for her videos on her own.

“I have the greatest respect for some MTV clips,” she’s said, “since they have a power of innovation and a spirit of discovery that really surpasses video art.”

Everybody and his brother has compared her work, especially “I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986)” to music videos. There’s debate on weather or not this is a good thing but the tape, with its “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” lyric and her dancing around bare-breasted in bright lipstick, introduced early many of the attitudes she would adopt in her practice over the next decade and a half.

She deals with femininity and its sexuality with a fast paced MTV aesthetic and while she draws on the female performance that has come before (Joan Jonas, Valie Export, Frederike Pezold) she’s more interested in celebrating the body and its senses than any critique of male vs. female power. Her work is very much about taking pleasure in the physical and a female body that is without boundaries.

In “Pickelporno, (1992)” she wanted to capture, visually, the sensations of sex, so attached a tiny surveillance camera to a stick and moved it across the landscapes created by the bodies of a couple making love.

She exaggerates role-playing, and the “applied femininity” of things like lipstick and dress-up, but hers is a woman with a grasp on her erotic sensibilities and control over her desire. She invades these private spaces in the “Yogurt On Skin, Velvet On TV (1994)” installation by placing tiny monitors, showing close-up bodies fragments such as eyes and mouths, inside seashells and handbags.

Her works aren’t information overkill and don’t necessarily celebrate technology’s role in creating a global communications society. Instead, her approach to the medium is like that of a child to whom the television is a magic box of promise. Far from an older generation’s use of static and the texture of video to critique mainstream media, she uses it, in grand modernist style, as if to push the medium to its greatest potential. In this way her work is related to the use of materials of the Expanded Cinema, the difference being that hers are fun to watch!

She’s drifted more and more towards installation work for its incorporation of physical elements, and the viewer’s mandatory presence. Her installations, when they make use of projection, often do so in large, environmental sizes, with immersive, atmospheric picture and sound. “I want people to go inside them,” she says, “ so that the colors, movement, and pictures are reflected on their bodies.” She prefers to base them on video loops “so that people don’t have to give a specific part of their lives to see a thing if they don’t want to.”

She used this technique for the “Sip My Ocean, (1996)” installation at the Louisana Museum, Denmark. Tranquil underwater footage; a fish eye view of household objects as they sink into the depths past seaweed and coral, was mirror-projected on adjoining walls, with her rendition of Chris Issac’s “Wicked Game” on the soundtrack.

She doesn’t find it interesting to deal with her role as an artist in her work because she doesn’t think it’s really of “general interest.” She does, however, say this, “In this era of the information society … artists deal with feelings and emotions, telling stories, and work with different levels of truth… all the contradictions of today.”

These attitudes of social and emotional awareness separate from artistic ego have lead to work such as her “Flying Room” in a Bank in Buchs, Switzerland. Trappings of a room – such as furniture, rugs, a painting, are all suspended high above the lobby, accompanied by a huge model heart (the bank’s soul?) and a monitor. Employees of the bank act out their work-place fantasies; one flies around the desks like a miniature superman, one leaps through a field of daisies, on display for the enjoyment of the customers as they wait in cue. In her usual fashion, she has forgone the usual seriousness of art objects for a more playful decoration.

She avoids the usual earnestness of “video art” without losing credibility. By not recognizing the line that usually seems to split the mass media product from the “art” no one sees, she has created a way to appeal to those not familiar (or too familiar!) with art video and make an international name for herself in the process. Without losing the fun of celebrity worship, she has somehow managed to be both her own fan and a bonafied video-art superstar.

Be Like Pipi

Before I came to college I had no idea there was any such thing as art video, let alone any notion that it would be any different from the things I’d grown up with: movies, video games, television and music videos. But then I found out there was a whole history of stuff that had been made then discussed then written about, all produced with home movie cameras and all very much connected to the politics of its time and the progression of an art history.

“Ok,” I said, “if this is the way it is this is the way it is” and I tried to soak it all in. I learned to appreciate the qualities of video that separate it from other media and I lost my urge to make everything look like a Hype Williams (the director of Puff Daddy music videos with a budget of $1 million plus) production. Certain boredom became commonplace when watching works of art and I tried to remind myself that I just wasn’t “getting it.”

But then Pipilotti Rist came along, with her refusal to drop the visual sensibilities she loves just because they’re not considered “serious,” and reawakened me to how much fun video could be. I know it’s really easy to say, and really hard to put into practice, but I yearn to have her innocent, playful approach; to simultaneously sit on both sides of the fence and to do so as effortlessly as to dodge critics from both sides. In what I’ve read, everyone always talks about people hating her MTVnes, but no one really seems to feel that way themselves.

There should be no difference between good music videos and good art videos. Art videos, especially when derivative or worse, uninspired, are terminally boring. Pop music is designed to be anything but. Sure, one is meant to sell a record and the other tries to find a truth somewhere, but really, both can learn from the other. I’m not even arguing for pop music in art videos (that’s kind of silly), what I’m arguing for is the erasing of the line between pop and art. I hate video art that is so self-referential that it takes a lifetime of art-history research to understand.

Video is your television, video is your camcorder. If advertising spots have the ability to change your buying habits, video has the ability to change the way you relate to the people and events in your life. What we need is not work that is true to itself, we need work that is true to its audience; an audience bigger than the local (international) art-video scene. Don’t preach to the converted; preach to the PlayStation kids who know nothing but Gap ads and celebrity posturing.

I enjoy in Pipilotti’s work her own personal presence and performance for the camera. As hard as I try, I can’t seem to get away from starring in most of my own tapes! It seems to me that making a video is usually about telling someone something, and if it’s something personal and serious, the way to say it is to stand there, in front of them, and say it in the best way you can. In “I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much” she said it by wiggling around the screen and in “Ever Is Over All” she said it by walking down the street smashing windows, but either way she leant it an authenticity by offering herself as the reference point.

I also really like it that she seems to enjoy being in the videos, and being the star. Countless hours of TV-babysitting have ingrained a celebrity worship deep within my psyche and the desire to be the one up on the screen is inevitably one of the things that is driving “new” forms of media such as video and the internet. In the same way I’m pissed-off by celebrities who want to be in pictures or make pop music but hate the fame, it makes me glad to see her up there, having the time of her life, excelling in the spotlight and doing her serious work. I once heard it said that artists make something, then critics tell them what they’ve made. But it seems with the drive to be a responsible media artist there is the desire to know all the intricacies of a video project before its inception, with not enough joy in the object (the memory of the video tape) itself. Video is, technically, dead easy: you push the red button. It’s also cheap. It should be fun and rewarding to make videos and it should be fun and rewarding to watch them.

I see in Pippilotti Rist, not the answer, but a step in the right direction. As enjoyable as “Ever Is Over All” is, it didn’t change my outlook on life as much as PBS does on a regular basis. I do not believe that one has to “dumb down” a concept for a mass audience and I think a really good piece of art can be powerful to anyone who has the general knowledge of the culture in which it was produced. I’ve tried to implement these things in my work but have yet to capture her magical balance. But, at any rate, now I know what my goal is and what it looks like and, as GI Joe once told me, knowing is half the battle.