The Musée du Jeu de Paume is devoting a rare and beautiful retrospective to the work of Peter Campus, a video-art pioneer who remains too little known in France. From collective introspection to the serenity of his recent years, we take a glimpse at his trajectory.
It’s a shame how rare are the opportunities that arise to see Peter Campus’ work in France. Only one appearance stands out in the last five years. That was in 2015, at the Galerie mfc-michèle didier exhibition “Anarchive, Affinités / Diversités”, presenting a collection of interactive multimedia projects. On that occasion, Peter Campus’ video offshore (2013) was presented: a fixed shot of the banks of Shinnecock Bay (New York State) synthesized into large reworked pixels. The last solo exhibition of Peter Campus in France dates all the way back to 1993: a project at La Box, the gallery of the École Nationale Supérieure d’Art de Bourges.
And there’s a good reason for this rarity… If Peter Campus’ video work is so little displayed, it’s because they’re a real headache to show. Regarding Optical Sockets (1972-1973), made up of four video-surveillance cameras placed on tripods on floor-level, each at a corner of a square, with four monitors superimposing the images of visitors penetrating the field of the camera’s range, the video artist exclaims: “We took two days simply to adjust the settings of this installation!”
More than mere logistical issues, his setups also gave him cause to worry about the endurance of his work. “Once the work is switched off, it’s over. It’s not as if it could stay present like a sculpture in a museum. I didn’t know if my installations could live more than a few years,” he explained to Mathilde Roman in the exhibition catalogue. With “peter campus, video ergo sum”, the Jeu de Paume is thus devoting a praiseworthy retrospective to a video artist who doesn’t get enough attention in France.
A video-art pioneer
Peter Campus was straightaway at the starting blocks of video art. When Nam June Paik designed, in March 1963, the “Exposition of Music – Electronic Television Il” at the Galerie Parnass (Wuppertal), considered by historians as the advent of video art, Campus was just finishing his studies in experimental psychology and film at the City College Film Institute in New York.
Then, in 1965, when Sony commercialised the Video Rover Portapak, the first portable video recorder aimed at the general public, and Leo Castelli rushed to buy some for his conceptual artists – Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas and Bruce Nauman –, Peter Campus was steeped in film production, namely helping Joan Jonas to shoot and edit his film Wind (1968). It was starting from 1969 that video art and Peter Campus would create lasting ties. In that year, Bruce Nauman presented, at Castelli (New York), his first neons, video recordings, and above all, a closed-circuit video installation, Live/Taped Video Corridor. On his way out of the exhibition, Peter Campus rushed to buy video equipment…
The 70’s and video as a conceptual tool
From the entrance of the exhibition, Optical Sockets (1972-1973) reveals Peter Campus’ experimentations at the start of the 1970s: closed-circuit installations where the visitor’s body is the first object of experimentation; circuits anchored in all the issues raised by a video art yet to turn ten years old – both a medium and media, technique and expression, system and projection, intimacy and exposure.
A vast sample of these experiments is presented at the Jeu de Paume: Kiva (1971), chronologically the first, is composed of a surveillance camera turned towards a passage area, and mounted on a monitor on which the image is broadcast live. In front of the lens two mirrors hang like mobiles, one in front of the other, multiplying the viewpoints onscreen. There’s the already mentioned Optical Sockets, but also Interface (1972), in which a visitor entering the field of light sees two images of himself appearing on a sheet of glass opposite: one is his reflection, the other is taken by a camera placed behind the glass and projected onto the wall through it. Anamnesis (1973) is an installation in which the visitor’s image, taken by a surveillance camera, is projected live onto a wall and then doubled with a three-second lag between the two images.
“What I liked about video was that the camera became independent. We didn’t need to look through the viewfinder, we could leave it somewhere and see what happened, what images it picked up, by setting up a monitor further off,” Peter Campus explains to Mathilde Roman. It was for this reason that the Portapak created a sensation in the world of art. As artists could see their own images, video tools led many artists to work on themselves, on their bodies, drawing on introspection in a way that cinema, hindered by long production times, could not. Joan Jonas produced performances facing the camera; Bruce Nauman filmed himself in the intimacy of his studio and experimented with the grammar of the frame; Peter Campus imprisoned his spectators’ images in complex systems… As Françoise Parfait explains, “video wasn’t just a technical tool with formal and structural characteristics, it gradually developed as a conceptual tool […], a theoretical instrument from which new models of representation could be reflected and experimented with, whether in relation to time, virtuality, or interactivity” (Vidéo: un art contemporain, éditions du Regard, 2001).
Along with Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, Peter Campus is one of the 1970s artisans who developed video from simple bands to systems organised in space that played a critical role with regard to the status of the spectator and the latter’s relationship to the work. Peter Campus sought to pin down the specificity of the video medium. His closed-circuit works do not approach time in the same way as cinema does, inflicting it upon viewers, but depend on their interaction with the video. He plays with what is seen by the eye – that of the visitor, that of the camera, and the interpenetration of the two. Regarding the artist’s research into the medium’s specificity, the exhibition covers his many experiences, often undertaken after 1974, after he hired Bill Viola as an assistant, his self-filming experiments, and his appropriation of video’s grammar: the superimposition of images, transitions, coloured filters, the multiplication of points of view…
From the inside to the outside…
However, at the exhibition, as during Peter Campus’ existence, a climax is reached with Head of a Man with Death on His Mind (1977-1978): a fixed close-up shot of the face of actor John Erdman looking at the camera – the visitor – for twelve long minutes. At the exhibition, experimentation gradually slips into anguish, just as Peter Campus suffered from the furious introspection of the preceding decade.
After Head of a Man with Death on His Mind, he leaves video to one side in order to devote himself to photography, then computer-assisted drawing. “I stopped doing video because I wanted the image to stay, but I understood that I wasn’t a photographer. What interested me at the time wasn’t photography, but freezing the image, creation of a fixed image inside video,” he explains to Bruno Di Marino. The exhibition unveils some of these fixed images, namely an installation made up of stones projected onto walls: Murmur (1987), Transient (1987), Half–life (1987) and Inside Out (1987).
It was only in 1995 that Campus took up video again, with the support of the Bohen Foundation. Since his first installations, the artist’s preoccupations had – obviously – changed. He left behind installations for projections and he shot more frequently in HD. He didn’t hesitate to add a few subtle references to art history, as shown a wave (2009) – from the same series as offshore (2013), shown at mfc-michèle didier in 2015. Peter Campus adds his wave to those of Courbet, Hokusai, Gauguin and Le Gray. His is slowed down and synthesized in large earthy-coloured pixels, sometimes reworked one by one.
Having left his anguish behind, he now develops calmer projects, more focused on the concepts of prints, capturing traces and the passing of time. A slide from interiority to its opposite. This evolution is particularly manifest in the video produced by the Jeu de Paume, convergence d’images vers le port (2016), composed of four simultaneous 4K projections of the port of Pornac (France). Gentle, contemplative “videography” that is less disturbing, no longer lingering on violence and the questions of his youth…
“peter campus, video ergo sum”, until 28 May. Musée du Jeu de Paume, 1 Place de la Concorde, Paris 75008. www.jeudepaume.org