Why Do Language and Meaning Get In a Muddle?
On Gary Hill's Video Works.

There is one perhaps not very orthodox but strategically efficient way of introducing Gary Hill to the Brazilian public. Due to the circumstances of our cultural history, Brazil has been a particularly fertile ground for experimental poetry, that poetry which does away with the resources of sound, images, kinetics and audio-visual synchronism, in order to produce a concentrated expression of the feeling/ thought/ imagination complex in a creative approach. The polemic and fertile tradition of concrete poetry, with its unceasing multiplying of followers and detractors, has accumulated a long discussion about what the most contemporary poetic form might be, and about the arsenal of significant resources which the poet can nowadays adopt thanks to expansion around us of electronic/ digital means.

Well, in order to place Gary Hill within an already familiar discussion, we can begin by imagining him a poet of the media age; poet because, like all poets, he concentrates his inquires on the role and meaning of language within our culture and other human contexts; media age because, although books and the written word continue to represent strong references, his working materials are video pictures and sounds, electronically generated characters and forms modeled by computers, with all their respective rhetorical editing and metamorphic resources. In fact, Hillís works is based on investigation into the specular and labyrinthic aspects of language, in an audiovisual and media "translation" of certain traditional poetic components such as palindromes (words or verses which can be read both from left to right and vice-versa, such as live/evil), anagrams (the transposition or shuffling of letters in a word or verse, such as sword/words) and plays on words in general, with a view to exploring the ambiguities and paradoxes of language, as well as undermining the institution of meaning. In an interview given to Christine van Assche (1991: 77), Hill confesses that his main interests lie "in the moment approaching meaning and the moment when meaning begins to fade." He goes on: "I want to suppress the dualism of sense and nonsense, and see what happens inside the experience of language as meaning is taking root or being uprooted." We are, therefore, dealing with all the more recent poetic experiments into overtaking the pragmatic and communicative limits of language, in order to see it as a fundamentally turbulent phenomenon, one of the main cause of human disorder, instability and disclosure crises.

Naturally, the placing of Hillís work within the bounds of experimental poetry can present problems in certain situations or in some aspects. First of all, it is certainly paradoxical that Gary Hillís name is rarely (if ever) cited in discussions about the most decisive experiments into defining the direction of current poetry, even taking into consideration the fact that he has worked closely Ė in Tale Enclosure (1985), for instance Ė with well-known representatives of visual or sound poetry, such as George Quasha or Charles Stein. This fact is still more surprising when we consider that some of Hillís work, such as Happenstance (1982-83) and Ura Aru (The Backside Exists) (1985-86) extract all the possible consequences from the idea that integral media poetry, in which its linguistic and semiotic instances (oral, written, musical, moving pictural) reach an almost undecomposable synthesis and their highest degree of condensation and force of meaning. In fact, I am unaware of any other work, within the unstable boundaries of experimental poetry, to have achieved the same degree of radicalism. On the other hand, simply the fact that Hill moves around in such a wide terrain, a spectrum ranging from video art to technological poetry and multimedia installations, and also because his art lies on the very edges of labels and specialities, so is not easily characterized, all this may explain the fullness and perfect roundness of his work. In best haiku tradiction, each of Hillís works is an amalgam of such accurately combined sensations and ideas that the music is not relegated to mere background accompaniment, nor are the images just illustrations of the text, the text an explanation of the image, nor the voice the verbalization of the written word. It would be difficult for this holistic quality to become evident in such a systematic way in the work of a creator who only defined himself as a poet, musician or artist.

So we can view Hillís work as a systematic effort to create video-poetry, which we can understand as a complex and meaningful system in which the written word, the spoken voice and the image (figurative or abstract) maintain a tense dialogism with each other: sometimes complementing or contradicting each, at other times oscillating in a non-synchronized (but harmonic) fashion between pure visual or auricular sensation (the inarticulate and meaningless primal cry, the consonance of shapes and abstract colors) and philosophical discourse as understood in its conceptual dimension.

Happenstance is exemplary in this sense. Both its images and the text which interacts with them are electronically generated (by a Rutt-Etra synthesizer) and can therefore be converted into each other. The text explodes, melts, catches fire and, when one supposes that it has now turned into pure images, its particles fly over the space appearing first as birds, then as ideograms of some unknown language and, finally, as Western characters which spread out, are superimposed, inverted, and join up to form new words. The written and spoken sentences do not coincide, but combine in a certain couterpoint. Sometimes, the pronunciation of a word or syllabe coincides with its visual appearance on the screen. At others, the pronounced word contradicts, mirrors or inverts that which is being said in writing. During its rigorously condensed six-and-a-half minutes, Happenstance flows with a musical rhythm and structure, continuously alternating or transforming the visible and the legible. Like a black hole which sucks in all sense, the video evolves towards absolute opaqueness. "The words are coming/ Listen to them/ Nothing surrounds them/ They are open/ They speak of nothing but themselves/ With perfect reason", says Hillís voice on the soundtrack. If the signs murmur and ruminate their material features, it is not because they wish to say anything ("The silence is always there"), but because they endeavour to disentangle themselves from all their semantic burdens in order to at last convert themselves into that language being of which Valéry (1960: 1324) spoke. "They (the words)", continues Hill in Happenstance, "sit like deer in a field/ If I approach them too quickly/ They fade into the quick of things."

Ura Aru (The Backside Exists), in turn, is a radical reinvention of the palindrome as a resource for investigating the erratic adventure of meanings. During a trip to Japan, Hill was surprised by the enormous quantity of specular words in the Japanese language, that means, words which can be read backwards, as in ano onna ("that woman"). With the help of experts in that language, Hill conceived a video in which the inversion of the tape movement allowed the reverse playback of both the words (written and spoken) and the dynamics of the images, but in which the inversion always resulted in a new sense. Sometimes the palindrome effect also contaminates the English, the language used initially just for subtitling and translating the Japanese mirror games, but soon drawn upon in order to construct inverted word pairs such as live/evil, or in order to interfere with the Japanese constructions through cuts and re-editing. In general it is almost impossible to know, in each shot of Ura Aru, whether the pictures and the words were registered in the order which we see them on the screen, or in the contrary direction, only to be inverted at the moment of being shown to the viewer. At any rate, the inverted world Ė the reversion of everything to the contrary Ė brings to the surface another dimension of reality, which we could never imagine living alongside our familiar world, a dimension which is the other of the same. By making words and things show their opposite two sides simultaneously, Ura Aru forces us to see ambiguity in the very state of meaning. We recall that, according to Mikhail Bakhtin (1987), invertion has heuristic value in all culture: it allows us to take a divergent look at the word, a look not yet framed by civilizationís halter, so as to make perceptible the relativity of values and the circumstanciality of power and knowledge. But all this is articulated in Ura Aru with a precision and economy the like of which can only be found in the Japanese art of haicu.

Before being able to make this dense and sophisticated work, Hill rehearsed with a previous experiment with inverted images and sounds, an equally important work known as Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (1984), sometimes referred to by its subtitle Come on Petunia (which, with the shuffling on the letters at the end of the work, is transformed into the anagram "Once Upon a Time"). Fundamentally, the video is based on the first meta-dialogue by Gregory Bateson (1972: 9-17), with a little seasoning from Lewis Carrollís Through the Looking Glass. Bateson defines meta-dialogue as a conversation whose presentation structure is capable of reflecting the problem under discussion. The conversation revolves around the problem of entropy: in the universe, there is a greater tendency for things to become disorganized and to lean towards chaos than the contrary. Sometimes, says Bateson, during movie credits before a film we see a bunch of shuffled letters, which then start moving around the screen changing position, until they form the name of the film. This could give us the impression that order is borne from chaos. But this situation is only possible, he maintains, because movies invert the real process: in fact, the camera films the process of disorganization and shuffling of the letters backwards, starting with the correctly written title. Now, what Gary Hill does, remaining faithful to Bateson, is to reenact this dialogue between the philosopher and his daughter (the latter substituted in the video by Carollís Alice) with a meta-dialogue structure, in other words, "in a manner of presentation capable of reflecting the problem under discussion" (Bateson, 1972: 7). Thus for the greater part of the videoís duration, the images and sounds are inverted, in other words, we see and hear backwards, with the tape running backwards. But Ė and this is the videoís most paradoxical aspect Ė at the time of recording, the actors (the poet Charles Stein and performer Katherine Anastasia) speak their texts backwards, and also make their gestures and movement backwards as well. Thus, by inverting images and dialogue which have already been inverted by the actors themselves, the camera ends up producing the contrary effect, in other words, it reconstitutes them in the original and "correct" order. But the reconstitution is an artifice which it is impossible to disguise: even if the movements are correct and the dialogues coherent and intelligible, it is clear to the viewer that everything is backwards. It is as if an internal corrosion process contaminated all the dialogues and continually threatened them with dissolution. One never knows exactly which way the tape is running: sometimes, it wavers simultaneously between the two directions. When Alice says: "Here on the end of this shelf", the tape reverts to its initial direction, transforming shelf into flesh, and then flesh into shelf again and then again and again successively in endless motion, like an acoustic palindrome " (Kolpan, 1994: 10). And so, the dialogues about entropy themselves end up suffering the effects of entropy and disarrange themselves, continually leaning towards incoherence and chaos.

The greatest dream of all artists since time immemorial has been to conceive an entire spectacle capable of synthesizing all the arts. This dream, which lies at the heart of Japanese theatre, Chinese opera, Wagnerian opera, classical and modern dance and talking motion pictures, is revived with full force in Hillís work, in a contemporary and electrified version. Eisenstein; (1968: 60-91) called this systematic striving towards synaesthesic art "synchronization of the senses", art capable of invoking all the senses at the same time and synchronously. Many artists (including Eisenstein) made valuable contributions to this objective, but Hill has discovered singular and wholly elegant alternatives for making the voice, text and image combine in a unique tessitura. The first of them simply consists of making some physical action (the pressure of hands or the cumulative weight of sand) interfere with the reproduction of sound from a loudspeaker. The idea is amazingly simple, but the result is explosive. In work such as Soundings (1979) or Mediations (1986), the timbre, pitch, volume and intelligibility of the voice reproduced by a loudspeaker are modified as the apparatus suffers varied interference operated in sight of the viewer. It is as if the image were capable of modifying sound. Another great contribution by Hill in this area (which was to become his registered trade mark) was the discovery of an editing method which causes the duration of pictorial shots to coincide with the duration of syllables pronounced on the soundtrack. Thus, the flux of images is "punctuated", or marked rhythmically by syllabic time. One must consider, however, that there is already a change of focus in the acoustic level conception and this is exactly what aids the image synchronization: the sylables are pronounced in strongly marked rhythms, reminding one of the staccato technique in musical discourse. It is as if the voice was in fact more a percussion instrument than a mechanism for communication. Meanwhile, the images evolve in a much faster rhythm than in any conventional video, since the cuts occur at the speed of the syllables. In some cases, the time each shot remains on screen is beyond the limits of visualization, and it is just this effect of effacing the images which Hill wishes to explore. The images are forever placed on this misty frontier between the figurative reference and that opaqueness, which reduces them to pure textures or abstract stains. The results obtained through this method of synchronization are surprising, and can be seen in the various videos which adopt it: Around and About (1980), Primarily Speaking (1981-83) or Site Recite (A Prologue) (1989).

In the first, we have an obsessively self-centred treatise, as if the video were reflecting on its own state of existence, permanence and its relationship with the viewer. "I mean if you want to leave", says Hill on the soundtrack, "you can do that or you can just turn off. Iím not trying to say that Iím indifferent. I just think thereís a way here." Accompanying the rhythm of these words, the screen displays minimum fragments of almost unrecognizable objects which apparently have nothing to do with each other. Hill thus proposes a game with the viewer: that he or she tries to relate these fragments as far as possible and let the senses form and undo themselves in his or her mind, but without worrying about coping with it at all. Something will certainly remain at the end of the experience. "Iíve never lost sight of that. I donít think thereís been a loss of anything."

Primarily Speaking is a little more complex. Here, that which is synchronized with the voice is not merely the cut from one shot to another, but also movements (drops of water, for example) which occur within each shot. Here, instead of a plain image like in Around, we have a complex composition, obtained through the juxtaposition of two different images (separately edited "windows") and a background which ironically combines different details of the television colour bars. On the soundtrack, we also have two distinct voices which talk to each other (and to the images), confronting and transforming idioms, clichés and current English phrases. The two voices are recorded in stereo in such a way as to allow the voice on the left to be synchronized with the right hand image, and vice versa. There is an intricate process of interation between the two images and the two voices: at times they complement each other, at others they deny themselves, invert their respective senses like a mirror game, or reveal that which the other tried to hide or disguise, and so on. Sometimes, the two voices enter a metalinguistic process and start discussing the almost chaotic situation which they are creating, not rarely interrogating each other about the possibility of anything coherent emerging from it ("Double talking will get us nowhere", says one of the voices). But as in all of Hillís work, what matters is not actually getting anywhere, but experimenting with the paradoxical process of contradiction and dispersion of the meanings, and all its consequences.

In Site Recite (A Prologue), the syllabic synchronization is no longer constructed through the editing or the internal movement of the images, but through focusing and blurring, which allow for the appearance and disappearance of pictures along the depth of field. The camera travels around a large round table on which scores of objects are placed, mostly the remains or pieces of organic forms (bones, empty eggshells, butterfly wings, creased paper, human and animals skulls), the majority of which are out of focus and impossible to identify. From time to time, the incessant variation in focus and the cameraís movement make a few details of the object visible for a fraction of a second, and this movement of disclosure and defacing follows the paused rhythm of the oral speech. Here, Hillís text (recited by actor Lou Helter) is already far denser, much more polysemic and impenetrable than in any of his previous work. Just as the sophistication of his work with video has grown, Hill has also become an increasingly mature writer, whose discourse has lost its most immediate frames of reference in order to deal with and carve out complex linguistic forms. "I must become", says the voice on the soundtrack, "a warrior of self-conscioussness and move my body to move my mind to move the words to move my mouth to spin the spur of the moment." At the disconcerting end of Site Recite, the camera places itself at the least possible and most unthinkable position in order to produce an image: in the interior of the mouth which speaks, making the point of view of the person seeing coincide with the point of origin of his or her voice, the place of the phonetic apparatus, as if it were possible to listen to what the eye sees, or see what the ear hears. Just then, the mouth opens, letting light into the speaking device, the tongue moves and the teeth masticate the videoís last words: "Imagining the brain closer than the eyes."

We come, finally, to Gary Hillís definitive tour de force in the field of video: Incidence of Catastrophe (1987-88). The work is based Ė sometimes strictly and at others loosely Ė on the novel by Maurice Blanchot, Thomas LíObscure, as well as on the experience of watching his own son learn to speak. In fact, it isnít a translation or audiovisual version of Blanchotís work, but that which Haroldo de Campos (1981) much more appropriately calls transcreation. Blanchot is anyway untranslatable into any form other than the verbal, since the world which he presents is a specifically written one, a world in which the words registered on the page are true characters, a typographic world, so to speak. Hence the doubly transgressive character of Hillís undertaking. In the novel, Thomas is to begin with concentrating on reading a book when, suddenly, he fells he is being watched by the words, as if they were eyes spying on him from the jungle of the text. Alone in his room at night, the character is attacked by a strange illness, a sort of logorrhea or verbiage, which causes him to hallucinate progressively as he gets deeper into the book. The Thomas of the video also finds himself engrossed in reading a book, which is none other than Thomas LíObscure. During the videoís 43 minutes, Thomas becomes more and more tormented by the text, not by what it says, but by what it represents physically and by its material threat: the text (that is, the words, the phrases, the paper and the pages) drive him into a world of nightmares, it becomes a forest of verbal signs where the character gets lost or drowns, a forest that curts him, penetrates his body so violently that he becomes incapable of controlling himself. Thomas tries to vomit the text which has taken hold of him, but the verbal virus has dominated him and completely transformed him. The words start corroding. The metaphor of land sliding every time someone pronounces a word is called for to designate the demise of language as a bridge of contact between us, others, and the world. Left naked in front of the astonished guests at a banquet, Thomas is attacked by the glossolalia and begins writhing on the floor mumbling incoherent phrases as if he were returning to the origins of language. In the end, he curls up into the foetal position amidst his own faeces, at the same time wildly stammering meaningless words, and the pages of the book grow immeasurably around him, surrounding him, becoming, as Lynne Cooke (1994: 9) observed, a monumental structure of imprisonment.

Rarely has a text been shown on the screen with such a corrosive force and rarely have the iconic, acoustic and even kinetic aspects of words been shown in such structural evidence, placing their nerves on display. In each new work, Hill reinvents the course of poetry and gives his creative paths new direction, incorporating (but also subverting) the new technical possibilities of editing, synchronization, interference and metamorphosis made available by new electronic and digital methods. During a discussion about Heideggerís ideas about art and technology, Hill (apud Sarrazin, 1992: 83) points out that the things he has been exploring in recent years are an attempt to demonstrate that, in a sense, video technology prompts a new poetic form which he defines as a sort of electronic linguistics. Just like our greatest writers and poets, Hill has gone to the extreme limits of the problems of language and meaning, above all in its crises and problematic aspects. But, unlike philosophers and other poets, he has also taken the discussions about technological systems seriously and to their final consequences, above all into those nooks and crannies which affect sensibility and conscience. As Bruce Ferguson (1994: 21) has said, Hill is one of those rare poets who has succeeded in producing an authentic intertextual experience in the field of crossing representation and technology, and not merely the metaphor of one with the means of another. "For it is only by creating an actual situation of indeterminacy in which the audience can truly experience the effects of language and technology simultaneously that the possibilities of either can be assessed. And that their poetics may be felt" (Ferguson, 1994: 21).



Assche, Christine van. "Interview with Gary Hill". Galleries Magazine, December/January 1991.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. A Cultura Popular na Idade Média e no Renascimento. São Paulo, Hucitec, 1987.
Bateson, Gregory. Metadiálogos. Lisboa, Gradiva, 1972.
Campos, Haroldo de. Deus e o Diabo no Fausto de Goethe. São Paulo, Perspectiva, 1981.
Cooke, Lynne. "Ruminations on a Rapacious Loquacity". In Gary Hill: Spinning the Spur of the Moment, Holly Willis, ed. Irvington, Voyager, 1994.
Eisenstein, Serguei. The Film Sense. London, Faber & Faber, 1968.
Ferguson, Bruce. "Deja Vu and Deja Lu". In Gary Hill, Chris Bruce, org. Seattle, Henry Art Gallery, 1994.
Kolpan, Steven. "Bateson Through the Looking Glass". In Gary Hill: Sites Recited. Long Beach, Long Beach Museum of Art, 1994.
Sarrazin, Stephen. "A Discussion with Gary Hill". Chimaera Monographie, n° 10, 1992.
Valéry, Paul. Oeuvres. Paris, Gallimard, 1960.


< c r i t i c a© arteUna - Todos los derechos reservados. Registro a la propiedad intelectual N.706.777

© arteUna - Todos los derechos reservados. Registro a la propiedad intelectual N.706.777