Rodney Graham : Temporality and Looping in Video Art

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In this day and age, we find ourselves in a postmodern era that revolves around technology. Humankind seems to have become so dependent on technical gadgets that could never have been dreamt of a century ago. Ever since the industrial revolution, technology has been creeping more and more into the integral parts of our lives. In many contexts, seeing as art can be considered to be closely intertwined with life, it only makes sense for artists to use technologies that have had and continue to have a significant influence on society, as material, subject, or method in creating their works of art.

Rodney Graham: Temporality in Video Art
Rodney Graham is one important Canadian artist, taking part in this broad technology-based artistic movement. Graham is a conceptual artist from Vancouver who has dabbled in many, if not all, areas of the arts. He has even stepped outside the boundaries of the visual arts and created works of art concentrating on sound and music. A couple key examples would be Parsifal (1882-38, 969, 364, 735), 1990, a conceptual musical piece where all the musical excerpts on the CD resemble one another; and his first album entitled I’m a Noise Man that was exhibited at the 1999 exhibition Cinema, Music, Video in Vienna (Blazwinck, 2003).  Graham has a very large repertoire of works that range from book works, musical recordings, sculptures, photographic works, to video and film installations (Drouin-Brisebois, 2005) and is, thus, not a contemporary artist that is known or can be categorized by his use of a specific medium. Rather, he chooses to use different artistic techniques, depending on which one best serves his subject matter (Mayer, 2006). In the 1990s, Graham became very interested in mass media, which is shown through his many video works. All of his video works are critical commentaries on society, but they tend to be done with a comical undertone, which eases the viewer into his work. He is also an artist who is very interested in different cognitive theories, Freudian Psychoanalysis in particular, with an emphasis on the concepts of  repetition and return, screen memories and the unconscious, using them as a basis to make critiques of culture and society. In addition, another postmodern trend in technology-based art with which Graham associates is the mixture of engineering/science and art. The majority of his works are executed with the help of a technical assistant, as almost all of his works are technology-based.

Rodney Graham: Vexation Island
The technology driven work of art that will be analyzed critically in this paper is Rodney Graham’s Vexation Island. Vexation Island is a short 9-minute film that was created by Graham in 1997. The film is projected via DVD on a loop and presents an unconscious or sleeping eighteenth century shipwrecked man with a wound on his head. This man gets up, notices a coconut in a nearby palm tree, and shakes it to get it down. The coconut falls out of the tree and hits him on the head where his wound already is/was. He, then, is knocked unconscious and falls down in the same place from which he had started. Then, the film seamlessly starts all over again, raising questions whether or not the short film has a beginning or an end. Temporality plays a key role in this contemporary work. The ever-looming presence of time in Vexation Island is made apparent through Graham’s use of the abject and video looping, the contrast between past and present, and the apparent influence of psychoanalysis.

The Abject
Rodney Graham’s video works are a key example of a postmodern critique on society and the notions of reality. Graham’s works, especially his video art, very effectively reflect the postmodern fascination with trauma and abjection, stemming from the once repressed model of reality, the real, which has returned as traumatic. According to Hal Foster, in the postmodern era of the 1990’s, « [a] special truth seems to reside in the traumatic or abject states, in disease or damaged bodies. » (1996, 123) Hence, much of the subject matter in the postmodern era is about the survivor, the testifier, and the witness, which is due to the fact that this art is about the ‘real’: real people, real bodies, real situations, and real issues. Graham represents this sense of reality which goes hand in hand with a temporal distortion because, in his piece Vexation Island, he takes on the character of an eighteenth century man who has survived a shipwreck and is, then, bombarded with more trauma, as he is continuously knocked unconscious by a coconut, sustaining a bodily wound on his forehead that is present through the whole film. Moreover, according to Dorothea Zwirner (2004),

The bleeding head wound is not only to be taken literally as a sign for his external defeat by a coconut, but this quality of having been struck down is revealed as the actual cause and effect of the action. The wound, hence, both initiates and concludes a « vexatious » cycle, which itself becomes a metaphor for inner abjection and defeat. (p. 9)

Since the film is on a loop, this traumatic experience happens over and over again and, hence, references a vicious cycle that never allows the protagonist to have a resolution to his trauma. In addition, this wound that the coconut presumably causes creates a sense of repulsion from the viewer because the man is getting physically harmed, yet the viewer is still compelled and intrigued by the mysterious storyline and unsure sequence of events. Therefore, the viewer is repulsed and wants to look away when the wound is emphasized, but he or she is still drawn to and intrigued by the story. This idea of repulsion and attraction can be described by the  concept of abject. The abject is an in-between state that creates a sense of real vulnerability and confusion; it is something repulsive but complex and, usually, makes reference to the body. In the 1990’s, there was a shift to the abject, which in turn is the manifestation of the real, as it uses the human body and human condition as a reoccurring point of reference. Graham represents a real man – although he is playing the role of a fictitious character, the character represents mankind, which is real – in a real world situation which is presented in an old world fashion: Man is presented with an obstacle and/or challenge – getting the coconut for food and drink – man fails, in the sense that the target was presumably acquired, but only with the end result of causing himself bodily harm. Therefore, it represents a real situation with real consequences but, like many instances in life, having no resolution.

Another interesting aspect of the film that should be noted about the wound on Graham’s character’s head is the wound that logically seemed to have been caused by the falling coconut is present throughout the whole film. Hence, even though we see it hitting him on the head and causing the wound in the film, it begs the question as to whether it was the coconut that really caused the wound in the first place. Further, it subsequently raises the question concerning when the film begins and ends, which is impossible to answer. The fact that Vexation Island is on a loop holds many different meanings in a postmodern context.

The use of the looping technique creates a short thematic storyline, having no beginning and no end. Even though Graham is very much aware of the rules of Hollywood movie making, he is not interested in playing by those rules. He uses the dramatic camera angles, the rich and stimulating soundtrack, and the recognizable costumed hero and/or victim that can be found in Hollywood movies, but he steers away from the linear nature of regular Hollywood movies and creates a cyclical story line that never truly ends (Liang, 1998). You can see its similarities with the well known Hollywood filmmaking tradition. Having an opening shot and slow build up to a climax, Vexation Island « offers us the look and feel of a full-blown Hollywood picture » (Liang, 1998, 9), but, then, the viewer is left disjointed and confused because the film lacks the presence of the expected dénouement/resolution that is part of the Hollywood movie recipe. Once the climax is reached in Vexation Island, the story loops back to what was initially perceived as being the beginning. Hence, confusingly enough for the viewer, the establishing shot is the beginning and the end of the film. In the film, time appears to progress, but, then, the same events happen over and over again, and the viewer is left constantly wondering where the story begins and ends. According to Sherry Turkle, in Sensorium (2008), this confusion can lead to a sense of alienation that can be seen in technology driven contemporary art. Rodney Graham uses video technology to play with the viewers’ senses and induces disorientation.

This idea of leaving the viewer constantly asking questions is key to postmodern art. In the era of postmodernity, artists are concerned with questioning the very discipline of visual arts. You cannot just simply refer to the past. You must be critical and analyze the past in reference to the present and possible future. Subsequently, the loop plays the role of the punch line and plays the role of theoretical importance in the film. By sticking to the postmodern esthetics of video art, Graham strategically uses the looping technique to emphasize the notion of temporality in his work. Looping allows the presence of a temporal paradox in video. On the one hand, it shortens the video work in a linear notion, while extending it on the other hand, due to the never-ending repetition of the loop (Ross, 2006). Hence, the shipwrecked man’s adventure and misfortune seem to be short lived, but, at the same time, appear to be going on forever and ever because of the smoothly transitioned loop in the video.

Another important function of the loop in Vexation Island is the constant repetition of the scene, allowing the viewers to take note of subtleties that they may not have noticed before, while making the viewer aware of time related information. The use of looping is a key method of addressing the viewer through time and renewing the viewer’s perception (Ross, 2006). The constant repetition of the short video « may lead to the extension of time, at least at the level of judgment, perception and experience. » (Ross, 2006, 99)  Because, as I see it, with the constant repetition of the scene before us, in Graham’s Vexation Island, we are continuously given the chance to look at all the different components of the video in many different ways. In a standard Hollywood film or, generally, any film that is not in a loop, and is presented to an individual in a theatre or gallery setting, you are only given one chance to analyze and interpret a given situation. In main stream movies, once a scene is done, the movie rolls on to the next part of the story, whether you are ready or not. If you are not quick on the draw or not paying close enough attention, the intended meaning of the scene and/or the movie can be misunderstood. Similarly, in real life, you are given one shot. You cannot go back and relive the past. On the contrary, due to the fact that Vexation Island is on a loop, Graham allows the viewer to revisit and reanalyze over and over again every aspect of the film and protagonist’s actions. Subsequently, it allows or, at least, facilitates a well versed analysis and understanding of the film. Even though Vexation Island is only on a 9-minute loop, the length of the film and time itself can appear to be extended due to the viewer’s analytical mind and concentration on minute detail. Along with the ability of the viewer to revisit the past, analyze the present, and review the future, all at the same time, which can result in the loss, but, yet, elongation of time.  In a technology based, fast passed world, time is of the essence and there never seems to be enough of it. Rodney Graham in Vexation Island encourages the viewer to view time in a different manner. To step outside the general norms and envision a world outside the standard Hollywood movie scene into a world where there is no beginning and no end. A confusing and unsettling world where the protagonist does not learn from his mistakes and continuously repeats them over and over again. Being continuously presented with the same scenario the viewer is able to pay closer attention to small details and appreciate the importance of the complex nature of time.

The concept of subjectivity plays a significant role in the postmodern era. Subjectivity is a continuous process that never ends because it is not unchanging, in relation to one’s selves; we are all cultural beings. The theorist Judith Butler (1993) suggests that the coherent entity called the person is called into question, in being formed through the process of subjectivity. A person develops overtime, you are not born  one, but, rather, you become  one through time and experience. It is this idea of the temporal aspects of subjectivity that are of interest in relation to Graham’s Vexation Island, specifically how one becomes a person over time through learned experiences. Earlier in life, Graham’s character learned that coconuts could be eaten; he, then, learned that he would have to shake a palm tree in order to get the desired food, a coconut, yet however, the distortion of time does not let the viewer know whether he learned from the consequences of his own actions because he keeps on doing it over and over again. Hence, there is an elongation of the process of subjectivity through the temporal distortion.

Subjectivity is about becoming. With this in mind, Graham seems to use the temporal distortion of the looped video to critique the current state of humankind, specifically the manner in which we never learn from our mistakes and how in reality, like in Graham’s constructed reality, the same mistakes are made over and over again. Once a mistake is made, it is almost as if it is forgotten and is immediately repeated again. This concept of repetition, or reiteration, can be further explained via Judith Butler’s notion of performance and social norms. According to Butler (1993), people are bounded and essentially controlled by social norms. Hence, people perform what they believe is expected of them. Life as performance has such a deeply embedded hold on the unconscious that the conscious is not even aware of the reality of its performance and equates it as real life. It is this concept of performance that we see portrayed in Graham’s shipwrecked character in Vexation Island. His character is living a performance. He is living out the tell-a-tale storyline of how a shipwrecked man should deal with the situation of being stranded on a desert island. Yet, unlike the drag queens in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 film, Paris is Burning, who, as described by Butler (1993), dress up and compete under a variety of different categories that are made up in accordance with different social norms, Graham’s character is unaware of the futile performative state in which he finds himself. In Paris is Burning, by taking on the characteristics of different social norms, the drag queens are aware that they are creating a performance for their audience by acting out « real » situations that would go along with the particular characters they have decided to play. They control their performance and interaction with social norms because they are consciously aware that they are trying to embody, impersonate, and reiterate socially constructed standards and norms. It is Graham’s protagonist’s inability to recognize his actions as performance that leaves him lost and doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Hence, « the compulsion to repeat an injury is not necessarily the compulsion to repeat the injury the same way or to stay fully within the traumatic orbit of that injury » (Butler, 1993, 124), but, rather, it is « derived from the impossibility of choice » (Butler, 1993, 124) because one already has expected ways in which one should act for every situation.

Brought to the Past to Understand the Present
Graham’s Vexation Island also reflects the idea of compulsive repetitive behaviour in society. The protagonist, in Vexation Island, appears to be trapped or even imprisoned in an inescapable life cycle (Zwirner, 2004), which reflects the idea of man or humankind, as a whole, being stuck in an inescapable cycle of life. No matter what is done, human kind gets caught in a never-ending, repetitive loop of previous behaviour. According to Zwinger :

 In this cycle [of continuous repetition of previous behaviour], we can recognize the peculiar interplay between melancholy and Utopia characteristic… The intellectual laments the condition of the world, and from this lament emerges utopian thought, which sketches out a better world and thereby dispels melancholy. Yet the end of Utopia leads to a return of melancholia…  (2004, 51)

Graham’s modern day rendition of a shipwrecked man from the eighteenth century offers a source of commentary, concerning the fall of man and the inability of humanity to obtain Utopia. It is the cyclical and self-defeating nature of the protagonist in Vexation Island that represents the fall of man. Even in this artistically created reality, done in a manner that references the past and represents the present, there is no calming closure or reassurance of power and perseverance of mankind. Mankind is displayed as vulnerable, being a slave to habit and repetition. The short film brings about a melancholic realisation that « To err is human » is not just a saying, but, also, a reality. No matter what era, whether the eighteenth century or the twenty-first century, humankind will always be stuck in a loop of doing the same things over and over again because we are stuck in our ways and are animals of habit.

Freudian Psychology: Repetition and Return
Finally, Graham is a contemporary artist whose work is greatly influenced by Freudian psychology. He is particularly interested in psychoanalysis, and, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, we are susceptible to the influence of our unconscious, which holds links to the past and helps predict and control our actions in the future. As stated by Jack Liang (1998) in his analytical descriptive piece on Vexation Island and other of Rodney Graham’s video works, entitled Another Day in Paradise, he writes that « One finds in Graham’s art a compulsion toward repetition that is much in the spirit of Freud’s theories on the subject » (Liang, 1998, 3). The traumatic and temporal aspects of Freudian repetition and return can be seen in Graham’s video piece, Vexation Island. The video appears to raise questions as to why people keep on going back to what hurts them and, subsequently, references the Freudian idea of the ‘unconscious’. The man, in the film, keeps on going back and shaking the palm tree to get the coconut, becoming hurt time and time again and being knocked unconscious  when it falls from the tree.The protagonist in Vexation Island is a man who is « suspended between recurrent states of prolonged unconsciousness and short-lived awakenings. » (Yarlow in Graham, 1997, 3-4) Graham, thus, uses this story of consciousness and unconsciousness to reflect our modern condition and creates neurotic heroes for whom repetition replaces remembrance of the past, in accordance with Freud’s concept of neurosis (Yarlow in Graham, 1997). The Freudian idea of screen memories also reflects the concept of replacing or veiling real memories, usually traumatic ones, unconsciously. This idea of the unconscious veiling of traumatic events is emphasized by the continuous confusion of the shipwrecked man, when waking up with a head wound, seemingly unaware of what has happened and how he was hurt. Then, due to the fact that he has unconsciously veiled the traumatic experience with the coconut, he proceeds to make the same mistake over and over again.

The continual presence of repetition in Vexation Island thereby raises the notion of time and Freud’s theory on the subject.

According to Freud, ‘the compulsion to repeat’ is an innate tendency to restore an earlier state of things that has since been abandoned because of external forces. It
involves a constant cycle of excitation and the subsequent return to calm. The cycles of waking and sleeping – a theme of particular interest of Graham – is a common example of ‘repetition-compulsion’ in every-day life. (Liang, 1998, 23)

The presence of the Freudian ‘compulsion to repeat’ in Vexation Island is evident in relation to previous explanations. Specifically, the excitation and return to calm can be seen in the shipwrecked man’s reaction, wanting the coconut and shaking it down out of the tree, which is, then, followed by a period of calm when the man is knocked unconscious into a dreamlike state. Subsequently, the themes of waking and sleeping are very present in the video due to the fact that the protagonist is continuously getting knocked unconscious and then waking back up again. Therefore, Graham’s use of Freudian psychology indeed helps reflect the temporality of the film.

Pictures, and subsequently film, are a time-based medium. Yet, in the age of contemporary art, the concept of temporality is extended, blurred, and mixed with Freudian theories and societal commentary. Rodney Graham uses the temporal nature of Vexation Island to offer a source of critical commentary, regarding society and the self-defeating tendencies of humankind. However, in his postmodern piece Vexation Island, Graham is not simply referencing the repetition of past mistakes, but reinterpreting those related to humankind that have been made and are still being made so that it reflects and speaks to today’s society.

On a more cynical note, Vexation Island makes one wonder if life is just a movie on a loop and that we are just small pieces of the puzzle that make up the infinite loop of time destine to repeat the past with no clear beginning or end, until the end of time.


Rodney Graham (1997) Vexation Island, 35mm film transferred to DVD, 9-minute loop. Moving still from Collection Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, Vancouver


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