In a closed-circuit video situation one is no longer dealing with images of a temporarily finite nature. The duration of the image becomes a property of the room. —Peter Campus, Video as a Function of Reality, 1974
The Self shines in space through knowing.—The Upanishads
Reality is perceived through your own body.—Vimalakirti Sutra
It takes a man to make a room silent.—Thoreau
In his live video projection installations of the 1970s, Peter Campus blazed a trail into the depths of the living moment few have followed. Using contemporary technology, he opened the door onto one of the most ancient and profound revelations: that the central core of my living being, my aliveness, is the same essence present within all people, and furthermore that this essence extends beyond the human family and lies embedded in the foundations of nature. Formulated by Hindu sages in preliterate times and recorded in a collection of texts called The Upanishads, this connection of Sentience and Self between people, and in turn between human beings and the natural world, is one of the defining legacies of the human race. Its living presence is also felt in Campus’s live camera pieces.
Encountering one of these pieces in person is a haunting, unforgettable experience. The room is dark and its dimensions unclear. A glowing pale blue rectangle of light illuminates one wall. As you approach, the rectangle suddenly comes alive with a disorienting burst of light, movement and shadow. Quickly you realize that you are seeing your own image projected live on the wall in black and white. You look at yourself as if seeing a ghost. The pale, fragile quality of the light and tenuous consistency of the image speak of impermanence. Then, as in most unexpected encounters with your own likeness, you discover that you are not what you seem to be.
I re-enter the field. My image and I stand perpendicular to each other. The image is alive. The equation between matter and light energy formed. Photons of light penetrate the wall. I feel the emptiness around me. I let myself go into this extension of self. For a brief moment I am at the same time this image and this self.—Peter Campus, sev, 1975
When the identity is realized, I as a swordsman see no opponent confronting me and threatening to strike me. I seem to transform myself into the opponent, and every movement he makes, as well as every thought he conceives, are felt as if they were all my own . . .—Takano Shigeoshi
Recognize what is in your sight and what is hidden will become clear to you.—Jesus (Gospel of Thomas)
In his installations, Campus has distilled the fundamental equation of art, the one-on-one encounter between an observer and an image, down to its bare essentials. In his darkened rooms, the anonymous observer becomes both subject and object at the same time. Campus has somehow found the link between the infinite expanse of time that surrounds us and the essential loneliness of the inner Self. The luminous, temporary, fragile and unforgettable images in Campus’s dark spaces conjure the three great arcs of humanity: the Unborn, the Living and the Dead (Potentiality, Finality and Eternity). Of these, two are infinite and only one, our living self, is limited and finite.
Campus’s live video projection spaces work best when the viewer/participant is either alone in the room or at least alone on the screen. They are, after all, based on solitary encounters—experiences in life that occur outside of the social web. With video, Campus was given a way to experience himself from outside himself. The journey he embarked on was one of increasing inwardness, and he progressively removed perceived obstacles to the clarity he was seeking. The processof culling any elements deemed unnecessary began as a simplification of the spaces he was recording for his videotape pieces. It soon led to the video technology itself. The transition from the CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor to video projection allowed Campus to abandon the physicality of the box and create an image that consisted of light alone.
This in turn defined the image as independent of a physical screen, and enabled him to create images of almost any size and shape. Projecting directly onto the wall also made the image part of the space and architecture, evoking memories of 14th-century fresco painting where the painted image was directly applied into the wet plaster of the wall, becoming indistinguishable from the wall surface. Soon, there wasn’t much left in the room except the empty space, a video projector and a shaft of light.
Finally, Campus zeroed in on the self-referential character of video and pushed it one important step further: he took the process of recording what the camera was seeing out of the equation. What remained was the absence of memory—pure, unencumbered awareness—the representation of a state of being considered by Buddhist and Hindu masters to be the highest form of existence an individual can achieve. Then, using an artificial instrument, the live camera, as an aid or surrogate for perception, Campus simply handed this gift to anyone who came into the room and stepped into the gaze of the camera. In return, the camera made no value judgments, overlooked no detail, harbored no hidden agenda, never became impatient or tired. It saw all as equal, and remained perfectly impartial and unmoved by what was seen.
However, for human beings, the raw truth in any form can be uncomfortable and even unpleasant, and Campus’s live projection pieces could be quite disturbing and unsettling for some. At first the glowing black-and-white image may seem the furthest from an accurate representation, but once it is experienced firsthand, its visceral, existential truths become self-evident. Campus’s work is one of the most accurate and extraordinary representations of sentience ever made by an artist. Its transparency to time establishes that what we are seeing is not a self-portrait or a physical rendering, but rather what artists in Late Antiquity would have called a vera ikon, a “true image.” The Eastern Orthodox icon familiar to us today is neither a realistic likeness nor a symbolic representation. It is an image that exists outside of time and space, faithful to invisible, intangible prototypes that reside closer to the human heart, nearer the core of our beings, and not on the body’s external visible surface.