(Manuscript of an essay about the making of the tape SIRENSONG, commissioned by Steve Reinke and Nelson Henricks for the forthcoming book By the Skin of Their Tongues, YYZ publications 1997)

I have tried to make scripts and they seem to have little to do with me.[1]  Video does seem to have to do with me in the way that writing, drawing and speaking do: their uninflected usefulness, like breath during sleep, walking, salt on the table.[2]

Here I attempt a narrative reconstruction of my process,[3] because the truer story of video’s innate intertextuality[4], and of the slippage produced when video attempts to touch on matters of narrative[5], and of how writing[6] and editing[7] and the video image[8] and the experience of time in video[9] are all, after all, mutually reinforcing inscriptions, is a story I don’t yet know how to tell, except through video itself.

I[10] shot all the material for SIRENSONG in the late spring of 1987.  The desert material came first[11], on a camping trip to Arizona and New Mexico. I went out west with the vague idea of shooting the Grand Canyon[12], but after getting three days worth of material there, I discovered (checking my footage on a motel TV set) that the experience of that place, which lies in its spatial enormity, was entirely absent in the flat video image. Scale seemed to have dissipated and, though one could still recognize the Grand Canyon, one could not see it. And what was seen was in no way emblematic of what the Grand Canyon is.

Next came the Painted Desert, also a failure[13].  Finally, I began to shoot in Monument Valley, Arizona[14], where, suddenly,  that familiar horizon of butte, butte, mesa and butte announced itself to the video camera as an inarguably graphic registration of site-as-image.

I walked and shot and wrote there for, I believe, four days, and continued to walk/shoot/write throughout Arizona, New Mexico and California for another week[15].  I saw no reason to stop; I was still uncertain of both what I had and of what I would need[16].

I returned to New York and began logging my footage, making notes, transferring some material to 3/4” tapes for editing.  And I continued to shoot — the kitchen sequences, the crowds at the World Trade Centre, the televised “moonwalk” footage[17] — as well as many other images that did not make it into the tape. I remember, in particular, a full day on the Staten Island Ferry, and several days in the Wall Street district[18].

In several different on-line suites[19], I began to assemble some picture sequences that seemed to require dissolves[20], polishing and tuning even though I had little idea of where these would end up within the body of the tape.  And I continued to write, quite apart from the editing and shooting activities.

Back in Halifax, about a month since leaving Arizona, I began to write in earnest (that is, in a way that could be spoken[21]), and often in the edit room, so that I could read aloud as I played through both raw footage and semi-completed picture sequences, trying out my voice with the writing, timing written material to visual material, editing sound to image.[22]

Some segments of the writing were developed as mixed-down 4-channel soundscapes which I laid in on a section of video black track. Then I would comb through my footage archive, trying to inscribe the sound sequence with a picture sequence. Sometimes sound proved more narrative than the image, and vice versa.

When a picture sequence extended beyond the duration of its corresponding sound sequence, I kept working the picture sequence, threading it out past the last edge of sound and across the subsequent stretch of silence. Then I returned to my journal, searched through it to assemble and rewrite more voice material, recorded more ambient sound, and moved back into the sound studio to make more soundtrack.  This new sound would round out the edited picture sequence, but might also extend well into the black track beyond the image, sending me back to my video archive, and so on.[23]

In the midst of this, a deadline began to loom large.[24]  When this happens, I have to trust that I have enough history with the piece (and that it has enough of mine) to not agonize over every small decision[25].

I have no recollection of having finished the work.


[1]         Before long I am distracted by the problems of a cognitive model in which words precede images, or are a condition of them.   It is fairer to say that writing  proceeds my work rather than precedes it, or that writing inscribes the work rather than prescribes it.  It is also true that I have walked into video studios with little more in mind than that a hand should be seen to make contact with a kitchen counter in a particular way, and that I have entered on-line edit suites with boxes full of videotapes shot over a period of several years.  Classically-trained production people and editors are sometimes disconcerted by this approach, but, at the end of the day, they are excited by what we have done and are happy with their work.

[2]         I often ask my students if they think of video as an expressive medium.   Of course video is expressive.  What do I mean by my question?  What do I require by way of a response?  I once wrote, Video, as a medium, is naked of expression.  It is a dumbly empathic tool that merely invites connection.  By this I may mean that — unlike cinema or painting — video has no heart to wear on its sleeve.  It is built from-the-outside-in (looking at, speaking about) and any hearts it wears belong to someone else.  This accounts for video’s promiscuous history, its neurotic flirtations with more handsome or popular forms, its schoolgirl flings with character and mis-en-scene, which are more properly the domain of loved/hated/desired father cinema.  I’m listening to an audiotaped lecture by Vito Acconci from 1977… “the notion of dots coming together to form an image…if that’s what happens in video, what should go on in video is some kind of practice, some kind of improvisation, something that’s not quite finished, but something that is in the process of working itself into some kind of finished state, working itself into some kind of finished image…”

[3]         An archeology or related form of fiction. Certainly no less fictitious than the published “script” for SIRENSONG, which is a transcription of the text as heard in the finished tape and not anything that operated as a generative template for the tape.

[4]         the slippage produced when narrative attempts to touch on matters connected to video

[5]         an exhausting melodrama, fiction at its worst

[6]         writing

[7]         writing

[8]         writing

[9]         slippery inscription

[10]         This “I” is fictional, stripped of obstructions.  This is the “I” of pure agency, moving always and only forward.  “I” think and then “I” act, unencumbered by  indecision or practical compromise.

[11]         No, first there was much talk of the postmodern impossibility of authentic experience, a tragic but (at  the  time) popular misreading of Guy DeBord.  In 1986 I argued the subject with a young painter who died of AIDS some six weeks later.  I am haunted by the thought that, when he took his last pneumoniatic breath, he still may have believed this.  Never mind what theory does to art; look what it does to people.

[12]         But first, I saw Versailles in July of 1984.   We leaned on the stone balustrade of  the grand terrace, gazing out at the canal  that stretched to a far, far horizon.  He raised his camera and lowered it, raised it and lowered it.  I looked at him and said, “What’s the problem?”  He said, “Well, I could take that picture.” Exactly, I thought.  In these early years together we thought we understood each other so well that neither family nor friends could enter the sphere of our experience.  By the time we reached the Arizona desert, we had punished each other for this, almost enough.

[13]  Fortunately, failure is relative and life is long.  Six years later, I found good uses for the footage from the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert in the tape Reader by the window.  And if I’d had a video camera three years before, on the terrace at Versailles, how might I have used it?  How can I say when that idea became this idea?  I avail myself of all my sketchbooks, journals and years of collected video footage every time I begin work.  If these are not still mine, whose did they become?  There is no such thing as an empty canvas, there are no blank pages: These are the noisy alibis of dread, doubt and delay that sketchbooks are built to quiet.

[14]         A park administered by the Navajo Nation, Monument Valley was the setting for the 1939 film Stagecoach.  A brochure we were given with our campsite registration displayed a line-map of the  desert horizon, labelled with the spirit names of each butte and mesa, including John Ford Point.  In    the same brochure, we were invited to consider Monument Valley as a location for future film and television productions.

[15]         Before and after having driven, camped, cooked, had the car repaired, dreamed, argued, made love, read Anasazi history and taken tea with fellow tourists, writing and shooting remained hopelessly specialized and self-isolating acts, exactly contrary to the project of immersion.  There may be some who can operate simultaneously as both observers and participants, but I can only produce myself sequentially.  Only following  the last communal embrace can I  “leave” for work.  “Going” to work is, of course, immersion, but in a place that is necessarily different from the place as lived.

[16]         At a distance from ideation, I have a partial view.  This both disturbs and comforts.  On the one hand, the frame-whose-edges-we-cannot-yet-see is endlessly permissive — all authors welcome.  It is the sensuously unwritten script.   No “roughed-out” narrative frame exists to be filled.  But still I wish for a unique point of entry, a special permission to approach that reproduces me and not the others.  This infantile desire works against the generosity of voice I labour to claim, and the frame-which-comes-into-view (via experiencing, remembering, information and process) first materializes as a barrier.  It is hard to keep in mind that this is only a stage.  With all this in mind, there is little time left to think of something like a script.  To be sure, mental preparedness and organizational skills can be learned and applied.  But if I’d wanted an office job, I would not have been drawn to the difficult and contradictory  negotiations that artmaking constantly demands.

[17]         One day after transferring some desert footage (using my TV for a monitor), I turned off the deck and the TV reverted to its broadcast signal.  The show was a documentary about the Apollo missions, narrated by Neil Armstrong.  Since I had my camera right there, I shot the show directly off the screen.  Though I was strangely excited to have this material, I did not know then that the moonwalk and earthview images  were the narrative “glue” that SIRENSONG would need, nor that these images would require SIRENSONG as a vehicle for my interest in them.  SIRENSONG did not exist at that moment, narratively or otherwise.

[18]         Down near Wall Street, the screeching sound of a car suddenly braking became the aural fulcrum, six years later, between the willow over the Seine and the tourist boat in Reader by the window.

[19]         I had always done my own editing.  I had never worked on-line and knew nothing about how to go about it.  I have no recollection of why, but in New York, I worked with three different editors, each working on three distinct dissolve sequences for SIRENSONG.   Two of the editors reminded me that, since I was not positioning these sequences directly into a master edit, I would be losing at least one generation in picture quality.  The other editor said nothing, which may be interpreted as interest or as disinterest.  If the procedural principles of fresco painting had not been messed with, perhaps we might have a Last Supper that is not falling off the wall.  However, a) would it be “better”, and b) this is only video.

[20]         The operative principle of the dissolve is that it inscribes discernable but not measurable change.  It is imagined change, yet it has registration.  It is memory’s active verb, anticipated.  It is seeing, webbed.  In this picture, I can show you a car approaching , passing out of the frame by your left shoulder, and finally, the road in front of you with no car.  Instead, you see the car evaporate into the desert air about forty feet before it reaches you.  This is now an image in the way that Baudrillard speaks of image as something that veils and unveils itself at every instant.  Even occupying its own present, the image is a fragment. In the play of our reactions to this image and to the one before it, we look for (and invent) continuity.   In the interval of the dissolve, a space opens in the narrative and invites us in.  The picture tells us that the car and where it went are no longer our concern; narratively speaking, however, we can’t help but speculate.

[21]         “in a way that could be spoken,”…

[22]         I can only guess at the validity of this account.  The fact is, I remember the more abstract parts of a process quite concretely, but narrating these more mechanical matters is rather like trying to recall what it was like learning to walk.

[23] Sometimes, to finish up the last of the Bolognese sauce, it is necessary to cook more tagliatelli.  Invariably, one then has more pasta than sauce, which suggests a  marinara, and so on.

[24]         SIRENSONG premiered as a video installation work at the Centre for Art Tapes in Halifax in  the late summer of 1987, approximately four months after I began shooting in Arizona.

[25]         Less than a month before she died in 1983, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha spoke to me about the importance of reaching a point where you stop driving the work and let yourself see the whole thing.  She said, “Take your eyes out of focus, use your peripheral vision.”  If I work the work as I go, with a habit of constant, attentive, incremental notation, I find I have earned the use of my peripheral vision.  At this point, the work comes into view, probably not because I will it to do so, but because I am conditioned to it.  Therefore, congruency between each decision and the work is simply more likely than not.  Perhaps this is a kind of neural mapping, in the way that stroke victims can remember how to walk by having their limbs moved for them.  The walk walks them; the work works me.