London When I was young I made myself aprisoner of my room. It became part of me, an extension of my being. I thought of the walls as my shell. The room as a container had some relationship to the imaginary space inside a monitor . . .—Peter Campus, conversationwith Barbara Nierhoff, 2003 1
Warren S. McCulloch, a scientist, physician, philosopher and poet, was one of the 20th century’s greatest and most versatile minds. In 1952, after 12 years of research in psychiatry and neurology, McCulloch turned his formidable skills to problems of neurophysiology, mathematics, cybernetics and the mechanics of logic, joining the Research Laboratory of Electronics at M.I.T. He became a key person in the new field of cybernetics—the study of complex systems, especially communication systems, in living organisms and technology. At M.I.T., along with his team of J. Letvin, W. Pitts and H. Maturana, he studied the visual system of the frog and discovered that the eye has an active role in organizing and interpreting visual information before it is sent to the brain: in short, that knowledge is a part of perception. Their groundbreaking paper was titled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” and it was published in 1959.
In 1959, Peter Campus was 22 years old, studying experimental psychology at Ohio State University. The attempt to create perceptual and cognitive models of the human central nervous system using the new technologies of analog electronics was at the cutting edge of the field. Television was barely 20 years old. There were three nationwide channels, broadcasting almost entirely in black and white, videotape recorders were the size of refrigerators, and “video,” the portable camera and recorder, was nonexistent. Fortuitously, Campus became interested in film and, after studying at City College Film Institute in New York for several years, he worked in the film industry as a production manager and then as an editor—his professional introduction to the time-based image. Starting in the late ’60s he made a series of documentary films for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for exhibitions on subjects such as Chinese pottery and Chartres Cathedral, and began meeting contemporary artists and seeing their work at local galleries and museums, including the work of Bruce Nauman, who had already started to use video.
All of these streams came together when Campus first used the new black-and-white portable video equipment in his studio in 1971. He made two seminal works, Dynamic Field Series and Double Vision. Evocative, disorienting, revelatory and at times inscrutable, these two works laid the foundation for the scope of his investigations into the phenomena of human existence and questions of identity and the nature of the Self, which would occupy him for years to come. In the tapes, like a scientist conducting a controlled experiment, Campus methodically, almost clinically, dissects the nature of visual perception before our eyes. But unlike a scientist, he uses himself as the subject and, most significantly, he extends this subjectivity to the camera itself. Unlike many of his contemporaries who used the surveillance camera as a detached, fixed observer documenting the performer’s actions, Campus assigned an active, independent ontological status to the camera eye. It variously takes on the position of the artist himself, his reflection, an outside observer, a mental self-image, a double, an unknown protagonist, the room, an eye, a hand, an animal, an insect’s visual system. However, like a mirror of many facets all converging inward, the works keep returning to Campus himself and ultimately become a portrait of the Self searching for the ground of Being, peeling back layer upon layer of reality in the process.
If we are to avoid the problem of creating a visual system that will reduce the capacity of the eye, it is necessary to disassociate the video camera from the eye and make it an extension of the room.—Peter Campus Video as a Function of Reality, 1974
Visionary ecstasy is the experiencing of an image that takes over the body of the seer.—Victor Stoichita
The images we create could turn into wild beasts and tear us to pieces.—Rumi
Sudhana said, “Where has that magnificent display gone?”
Maitreya said, “Where it came from.” —Avatamsaka Sutra
The so-called video image is actually a shimmering energy pattern of electrons vibrating in time. The fabric of the image needs to be in a constant state of motion in order to exist, a modern embodiment of Buddha’s dictum that “all existence is change.” The electronic image is not fixed to any material base and, like our DNA, it has become a code that can circulate freely to any container that will hold it, defying death as it travels at the speed of light. But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the medium is that the image is live. Video is the first artificially created image since the camera obscura from the ancient world to exist as a moving image simultaneous with experience. This fact so radically altered our experience of time and space in the second half of the20th century that a new term for time was coined to describe it. “Real time” refers to an image existing in the present tense, parallel with unfolding experience, and itis distinct from “recorded time,” “past time,” “delayed time,” “slowed time” and other forms of time that were starting to accumulate in the media landscape.
Artists were captivated by a moving image that reflected living reality at the moment it was occurring, an unprecedented development in the history of art. With a live camera, they could witness themselves engaged in the act of creation and use the external point of view of a monitor to reference what they were doing from multiple points of view. Video in the late 20th century realized the dream of painters from the Renaissance to the late 19th century: to embody motion. “Right now there is a moment of time passing by—we must become that moment!” Cézanne once proclaimed.Not only could artists now capture the cresting wave of the moment, but they could observe themselves in the midst of it from a point of view outside their bodies.
Video literally evokes the third person. Co-existing with one’s own self-image is an inherently paradoxical, tautological situation. Up to this point it had only been a philosophical conundrum described in literature, but now, with the advent of the live camera, it was given palpable form. Through the new technology, Campus was able to experience himself from outside himself—to objectify his subjectivity and to directly engage his Double, and it is here that his studies in psychology, filmmaking and visual art, along with an obsessive, uncompromising focus on the identity of his inner Self, all converge.