Just out of art school, I became his assistant for the installation of his first one-person museum exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y., curated by David Ross in 1974. He showed seven of his seminal room installations: Anamnesis, Negative Crossing, Kiva, Shadow Projection, Interface, Optical Sockets and Stasis. For a young artist it was a privileged opportunity to be setting up those pieces, working side by side with the master—an apprenticeship and education all in one. This, along with the installation of Nam June Paik’s first museum exhibition there that same year, became my initiation and grounding in the field of video art, and my foundation for years to come. After those experiences, I became convinced of the necessity of the direct transmission of knowledge, in person, from master to pupil—through action not words.
One event stands out in my mind during the days and weeks of installing the Everson exhibition: the time I almost electrocuted Peter Campus. We were working late into the night wiring up the four-monitor work Optical Sockets. Everyone else had gone home, and he and I, exhausted, were sitting on the floor testing the electrical cables. We worked in silence for long periods of time, trying to stay awake and focused. When I had tested my final connection, I inserted the wire into the wall plug. I heard a dazed, quiet murmur from Peter, “Bill?,” and looked up to see him holding the bare leads of the same live wire, about to attach it to the plug. “Stop!” I screamed, and yanked the live wire out of the wall socket before he could touch it. Nervous laughter followed, and we both woke up.
I am happy I didn’t go down in history as the artist who electrocuted Peter Campus. The field of video art, and art in general, would be a poorer, less interesting place without his extraordinary body of work. I thought later about the occupational hazards for working artists. The danger has always been there—electrocution for a 20th-century video artist, or falling off a scaffold for a 14th-century fresco painter. However, the inner risks to the Self and psyche that the best artists face every time they make work are much harder to quantify and to judge with dubious terms like “good” or “bad,” “success” or “failure.” This is the inner dimension of art, far beyond the reach of critics and curators. It is the path of practice, of doing, of riding the crest of the wave of the moment with no thought as to where it will land, or whether there are rocks just below the surface, or if the self will survive the fall. This constant falling, the incessant quest for some unknown thing beneath, beyond, or just out of reach has possessed Peter Campus his whole life and, like many artists, at certain times has pushed him to the edge. This, more than anything specific about his works, is what he imparted to me and, I imagine, to all the students close to him. I know that I am a better artist because of his gifts.
. . . This is the magic of the printed page,
Of canvases that glow with subtle feeling . . .
. . . Some man in silence’s cloud
On Lethe’s shore, with all his art appealing,
Into your lonely heart would cry aloud
The rich notes of his love, rending Death’s shroud.
—Warren McCulloch, The Natural Fit
i have propelled myself forward through forgetfulness. i lose memory of past, past art, my past art, myself. i can think of myself more alive if i don’t know what has come before this moment, if i don’t see my reflection when looking out the window.
—Peter Campus, musings,
9 June 2003
Currently On View “Peter Campus: Opticks”at London’s BFI Southbank Gallery through Feb. 14.