Two Videos by Gary Hill

Martin Rumsby

Printed in MFJ No. 45/46 (Fall 2006) Hybrids

Let us not mince words. I have a problem with European theory.

For some time, I have subscribed to the belief that by propagating and losing two world wars over the last century, Europe lost the right to artistic, economic, moral and philosophical leadership. The history of Europe is characterized by the division of economic status and race subsumed in hierarchy. There is something wrong with European thought processes. This corruption is what the Dadaists, the Surrealists, Wassily Kandinsky, John Heartfield, Kurt Schwitters and others tried to point out and avert in their art. Because they failed, Europe failed too. It has fallen to us in the New World to remove that mantle. When we perpetuate European manners and values in our cultural institutions and academies, we inch towards failure. To succeed we must throw off the cloak of European history and culture and stumble forward in the darkness of our selves, seeking the forms and visions of a New World culture.  

In thinking about such things as the intertextuality of language, the body, subjectivity and how they may play out in the media arts and not wanting to stymie myself with my negative preconceptions, I overcame my objections and started reading Jacques Derrida's Dissemination. The first page began all right but it soon descended into the type of sophisticated European thought that created this mess, this multi-faceted muddle, in the first place. How to read the unreadable? All that could be done was to open the book at random places, select passages at random, reading on until my interest waned and then collaging these excerpts into some semblance of meaning.

Clip out an example, since you cannot and should not undertake the infinite commentary that at every moment seems necessarily to engage and immediately to annul itself, letting itself be read in turn by the apparatus itself. So make some incision, some violent arbitrary cut ...1

Derrida was couching his thought in the history of Western literature. Which is an interesting thing to do. The practice of art possessing greater value than theory. The American poet Kenneth Patchen offers us an interesting perspective:

Books - all those big, fat bottomed ashcans where men empty their lives.2

Yes, it is in the bottom of those ashcans that Derrida rubs our noses, grubbing around for leftover germs/gems from the chewing of ancient fat and other maggots/ingots of meaning.  

We are living in this city (this book)3

All that we could hope for, as a result, would be something entirely askew. But maybe in that mess of misunderstanding and misrepresentation some new understanding may be found. As this mess is our only hope to progress our knowledge and understanding of 'things' it would be worth exploring. The 'things' that we would be approaching would be American art seen through the eyes of European theory. Derrida's city / book becomes an American video based on other European books. Has the New World helped to reinvent Europe?

I understand avant-garde artistic activity to be a radical act of going to the very root of things. We will here, today, work backwards. From the end result, two videos, toward, though never actually engaging, their sources. In this we create the opportunity for more misunderstandings and misrepresentations. These misreadings are embedded in the text. A book, or encyclopedia, is needed to fully flush out our quarry. We are fleshing out a subplot, an aside. This is merely a preface. But what happens to the book? Are we coming to the end of the word?

You and I would have to enter the text.

We are in a viewing room. The lights go down. The monitor offers a fluttering blue light. This is to be our Incidence of a Catastrophe. (Initially authored by Gary Hill on video in 1987-88. 43:51 minutes. Color. Sound. Now rewritten by ourselves as we are read by the video: edis pilf eht no uoy eeS/See you on the flip side).

Orphee has passed through the mirror. Dorothy is on the yellow brick road and Alice chases a rabbit. If only it could be that good. Maybe that is what Derrida means. That art is better than life. Art must have the power to change one's life.

In my Incidence of a Catastrophe (2012) the text writes, then rewrites and reads itself, then us. We are one.

Hill made Incidence of a Catastrophe as response to his infant daughter's attempts to form language, and a book, Thomas the Obscure by Maurice Blanchot, about a person obsessed by language. Hill did not go about interpreting the narrative in a conventional way. His work is not related to dominant forms of narrative cinema or television. Hill's modus operandi is experiential, intellectual and performance based. In Incidence of a Catastrophe, Hill equates the loss of innocence with the acquisition of literacy or, as Stan Brakhage would have it, socialization. Language can take us over, distorting our true selves, perpetuating a schism between mind and body. We Westerners need to incorporate the hula and the tattoo into our notions of literacy.  (African American jive by offering different words and scatting in jazz performance to invoke a different reality also points to the limits of language: Gary Hill and the European intellectuals are too late.) Hill's language is art, his book a gallery, he strokes the academics. They purr. Maybe it is not about art after all, maybe it is just a sophisticated form of niche marketing. Mickey Mouse is an African American; Malcolm X called himself X because there was no English word for his stolen last name; the alphabet was the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, "The alphabet," said Marshal McLuhan, "shattered the charmed circle and resonating magic of the tribal world, exploding man into an agglomeration of specialized and psychically impoverished individuals."4). Sounds like an academic arts scene to me.

The video opens on shots of a stream running into the sea. The waves of the ocean break and run up to the edge of the stream. Sand crumbles into the water. A hand pounds on the pages of a book that an eye closely reads. It is as if the text were reading him. In Dissemination, Derrida said, "There is nothing outside of the text." He called for the reader to enter the text as an active participant, reading not only the words, but the author's intentions, underlying motivations and hidden realities. "... He who ... would refrain from committing anything of himself, would not read at all." (Theory must translate into practice. Spectatorship must cease so that we may all become artists. Hence, Hill leading by example in making the video that the viewer can use to remake himself). Later the man stumbles and gropes through shrubbery at night. Like a blind man grasping at straws on his way through life. We see the shadow of the reader on the page. Then we see him lying on the ground. He may be dead or merely dreaming. The book's pages are blown by the wind, and the man is now asleep on a couch. He sits up and starts reading the book, only to cut his finger on the edge of the page. Reading the book has caused him to bleed. We want art to have that sort of power. "The virginal folding back of the book again, willingly lends for a sacrifice from which the red edges of the books of old once bled."5Next we hear the sound of running steps. The screen is black, a figure is seen in motion occasionally illuminated by a flash light. He is running toward the camera, toward us, reaching out, trying to communicate. A stylus moves across a vinyl record then the camera makes a circular pan around a room, past a man standing and reading a book as we hear the sound of a record stuck in the groove. People move furniture down a hallway. The man ponders the book then recommences reading. Later the camera circles a group of people dining at a table. We hear snippets from various conversations being carried on across the table. Something off-screen catches the dinersŐ attentions, and they stop talking, continuing to eat and drink in silence. The text is like food. An open mouth and its teeth are superimposed over a typewriter. But still nothing is said. More water runs out to sea and more sand crumbles into the water. The dinner guests then each address the camera individually, each mouthing off a word or a short phrase. The word "Similar" is repeated then, "Just" "Felt like being" "Learned". On the word "Vague" the speech begins to be electronically manipulated. We hear more words, like, RE-ENTER, THIS, OBSTACLE. Then we see a dental implement probing teeth, modifying the tools of speech. The imagery slows down, becoming dreamlike. We hear the sound of water. Sand crumbles from the bank into the stream in a merging of land and water, body and text. The man plunges into the water, totally immersing himself then he tosses and turns restlessly in bed. He flicks through the book and words such as sight, murky, direction and fatigue are seen in the text. The man, the wretch, retches. After ingesting he must expel. A river flows into the ocean. Water seems to lap over the text as we hear the sound of a photocopy machine turning out copy after copy. The man vomits into a washbasin then the stream flows rapidly into the sea. The stream may be the individual self and the ocean may be consciousness, society or history. A figure lies in the water at the confluence of the stream and the sea then the video cuts to a naked man lying in a fetal position on a bathroom floor uttering non-sensical, pre-verbal noises. A stick attached to the camera prods at him as it circles his body. The text plays out on the wall before him. The text of life reduces him to his animal. The picture and sound then fade out and the end titles appear.

It seemed necessary to go to the source which had set Hill on his creative path, Maurice Blanchot's book Thomas the Obscure. A search of the Auckland Public Library Catalogue revealed a copy there but a search through the bookshelves proved fruitless. I drifted across to the poetry section and came across a book of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poems. It fell open at page 85;


In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
 Down to a sunless sea.6


I was a raindrop, the book a river, the library a sea, language the universe. I was being sucked into a black hole.


One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall
And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah smoking catepillar
Had given you the call
Ask Alice
When she was just small
When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know
When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen says, "Off with her head"
Remember what the dormouse said . . .7


I collided with Black Dorothy in the tornado. She said I would lose track of time trying to time her. I asked her what she meant. Dorothy told me, "I try to time myself, and I forget." Then she asked where I came from. I told her that I was looking for the meaning of words. Dorothea said that I had come to the right place. She said that Language is the very house of our Being. I did not want to be evicted. I turned around but my friends were no longer there. I called Art, the Hotel Manager, and asked him to play my video. Then I switched to Channel 33, Martin Heidegger was speaking:

We speak and speak about language. What we speak of, language, is always ahead of us. Our speaking merely follows language constantly. Thus we are constantly lagging behind what we first sought to have overtaken and taken up in order to speak about it. Accordingly, when we speak of language we remain entangled in a speaking that is persistently inadequate. The tangle debars us from the matters that are to make themselves known to our thinking. But this tangle, which our thinking must never take too lightly, drops away as soon as we take notice of the peculiar properties of the way of thought, that is, as soon as we look about us in the country where thinking abides. This country is everywhere in the neighborhood of poetry.8

Language, systems and methodology are prisons we must break out of and follow a path already suggested by Lewis Carrol in Alice in Wonderland. Poetry, the artistic reshaping of language and thought, being of consciousness rather than reason, is the true voice of Being. Meaning is located somewhere before language and rationality at a place that thoughtful art can take us to. Being being thought in dialogue with art. "Natural' being the Being of beings as the ground of history, art and nature. Life being beings in their Being: Nature. (Non-Being being non-thinking).

It is the naturalness of our Being in relation to language that Hill concerns himself with in his video Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia) (1984).

The muddle is how we order our thoughts in language. How the structure of our language determines our thoughts and actions. How we are reigned in by language.

Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? is a simple domestic interior featuring a father and his daughter. The text is adapted from Bateson's writings. Hill recorded his performers speaking and, at times, moving backwards, then plays the tape backwards in an illusion of normal speech and action. But the words and meanings become slurred and the actions strangely unnatural. A grown woman dressed as a little girl asks her father childish questions. Questions which, at the same time, are disarmingly honest and penetrating. While we may consciously tidy things up, we rarely deliberately make a mess of things. But we often find ourselves in a mess. Is messy the state of nature?

After her father explains how things tend toward chaos rather than order the daughter repeats his examples backwards, in the reverse order from the way her father had explained them to her.

She also asks him, "If mummy makes your things tidy do you know where to find them?"

"Yes, I try to keep her away from tidying my desk too. I am sure that she and I don't mean the same thing when we say 'tidy.'"

"Daddy, do you and I mean the same thing when we say 'tidy'?"

Everybody thinks muddle is the same, but tidy is different. Could there be a state called not tidy?

"Each thing has only very few places that are tidy for that particular thing."

The woman is often shot from strange angles, emphasizing unreality. At other times, there are changes in the visual scale in her relation with her surroundings. One moment she seems gigantic, the next moment small. She places a rabbit on a table; we see a book of the Wizard of Oz on a table; a chess piece is upside down on the chessboard. The man seems to be smoking a pipe backwards, inhaling his exhalations.

Hill is subverting languages of words and electronic representation. Things are upside down, back the front, unreal but still recognizable and understandable. Maybe just a little strange. So what are we reading when we read? What are we speaking when we speak? There are so many possible permutations. Hill shows that we can play with the languages of words and representation and in doing that elicit new insights and meanings from them. Insights that may help to open up our thought processes and even lead to personally liberating 'anti-social' thoughts and actions.

We may well ask: In thinking in language are we thinking at all? Language and grammar direct our thought in specific directions and combinations. Maybe language creates its own questions and answers. We become the unwitting slaves of language as a specific social and cultural construct. Language may even be a technology of oppression and enslavement. (We are encouraged to be literate to increase our chances of employment. Though a culture without words for literacy and employment may offer us greater freedoms and leisure). Languages are fiefdoms, territories, agents of control for not God. In rupturing language and its meanings poets offer us the possibility of discovering our natural Being.

In his book Animal Farm, published over 50 years ago, George Orwell pointed to relationships between language and power. In the transformation of the phrase, "Four legs good, two legs bad" to "Four legs good, two legs better," Orwell showed us how advertising and propaganda can twist language against our interests. Within such a framework we can expect that within another fifty years the language of today will be turned in against itself, and us. "Incidence of a Catastrophe" will be the name of a perfume, "The Muddle of Things" a popular soap opera, "Deleuze" will be the name of a high performance sports car ("You can't lose in a Deleuze") and "Hi Digger!" will be a form of greeting between Australian and New Zealand troops fighting for the liberation of oppressed Third World people in distant foreign wars. In this way the art and thought of our time will survive.

We speak and we write, trying to find our place within language. Language becomes stronger for it but, in the end, language will not speak for us. It does not even know us. 




1. Duncan Michael: "In Plato's Electronic Cave" in Art in America, June, 1995.

2. Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language, Thought HarperCollins, New York, 2001.

3. Hilliard, Dorothy: Milshire Hotel, Chicago, 2001.

4. Phillips, Christopher: "Between Pictures" in, Art in America, November, 1991.


1.^ Jacques Derrida, Disseminations (Chicago :The University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 300.

2.^ Kenneth Patchen,The Journal of Albion Moonlight, (New York : New Directions, 1961), p. 15.

3.^ Philippe Sollers quoted in Derrida, op. cit., p 29.

4.^ Ashley Crawford and Ray Edgar, (eds), Transit Lounge (North Ryde, NSW : Craftsman House, 1997), p. 14.

5.^ Philippe Sollers quoted in Derrida, op. cit., p 300.

6.^ James Reeves, Selected Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1959)

7. ^ Grace Slick, The White Rabbit , (RCA Records, 1967)

8. ^ Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language (New York: Harper & Row, 1971) p. 75.