being seen : captured action by peter campus

By David C. Shuford

June 7th, 2019

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peter campus, Optical Sockets, 1972-73. Installation at Culturgest – Fundação Caixa Geral de Depósitos, Lisbon, 2018. © Kathleen J Graves. Courtesy the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

Now at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through July 22, “peter campus : video ergo sum” presents a mini-retrospective of this pioneering but still underappreciated video artist. Accordingly, various generations of television screens are on display, as campus has spanned the near entirety of video art’s existence, despite taking a nearly two decade long break from video production during the 1980s and 1990s. His predilections and methodology mutated over time, such that his characteristic early phenomenological tactics and settings have been completely supplanted by new approaches and counterintuitive results derived from HD formats. Throughout his work campus has interrogated modern culture’s ever mounting technological infatuation, how human lives and the environments they inhabit are continually mediated by image making devices.

Born and raised in New York City, campus attended Ohio State University during the late 1950s, earning a degree in experimental psychology, a background and perspective that impacted his perception-tweaking installation pieces. Upon his return to New York, he attended the City College Film Institute, immersing himself in documentary film work. In 1970, he purchased his first video equipment and instantly felt an urgent need to engage with its possibilities. “Video was so different. I was terribly interested in it at a deep level. I still can’t explain why.”[1]

The Bronx Museum entry foyer teems with conventional CRT monitor setups, some stacked atop one another. Three of the screens show loops of foundational works like Three Translations (1973), Set of Coincidence (1974) , Four Sided Tape (1976), and RGB (1974). These pieces utilize various visual transformations available at the time— chroma key compositing (colloquially known as “greenscreen” special effects) and superimposition in particular—to create video sequences that resemble the sudden peeling away of onion-like layers of image, along with other passages of phasing hues. Kiva I (1971) is a standout work amidst this older cluster as it presages campus’s larger installation works that utilize the live positioning of the viewer as a determining factor for video input. Rather than playback of predetermined scenarios and actions, a spinning ribbon of mirror constantly shifts the camera perspective, creating swooping pans as it passes near the lens. The spectator is in direct view, playing the role of target/subject/star.

peter campus, Anamnesis, 1973. Installation at Culturgest – Fundação Caixa Geral de Depósitos, Lisbon, 2018. © Kathleen J Graves. Courtesy the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

Anamnesis (1973) is afforded an entire gallery to itself, the title referring to the Platonic theory that posited a store of eternal knowledge available to all living things, but one that is forgotten and obscured through the trauma of the soul’s reincarnation through the birthing process. Here, a surveillance camera whose output is run through an analog video delay, is lit by spotlight. The live feed is projected onto a wall. The activating viewer/figure emerges from the darkness and shadow of the gallery and is shortly followed by a trailing doppelganger, a delay of roughly three seconds. The divergent time frames of the live feed and delay allow for interaction with the duplicate of one’s own image. If one pauses long enough, this evocative image of a second ghostly form following along and overlaying upon the live video conjures some evocative psychological states and conditions: the representation of a putative alignment of spirit and corpus, or perhaps a subtle body’s return from the astral plane. The banishment of forgetting is the simplest translation of campus’s work: anamnesis shows how our memory is retained by a televisual bridge, a ghost in the machine that was never pre-extant but amplifies attention in its wake.

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peter campus, Optical Sockets, 1972-73. Installation at Jeu de Paume, Paris, 2017. Photo Adrien Chevrot © Jeu de Paume / Peter Campus.

Another classic from campus’s early era, Optical Sockets (1972-73) is mounted utilizing four video surveillance cameras, three video mixers, and four cubic monitors on pedestals, roughly raised to eye height. Again, the spectator is the integral formal element as the screens remain blank unless the gallery goer walks onto the gentle-sloped wooden platform, which contains the camera crossfire. In his accompanying wall text, campus states that it is the observer who must “activate this field, to complete the work,” and that a “relationship of flat to volumed space exists throughout my work. They finally form an open-ended equation postulating higher spatial dimensions.” Although there is a convergence of four overlapping images, the onlooker can only see one amalgamation at a time due to the monitors’ layout at ninety degree angles. The different perspectival arrangements necessitate sequential viewing. This blending of angles of view creates some peculiar effects: the subject’s simultaneous movement in multiple directions creates vestibular disorientation. As one walks toward any specific monitor, the inversion of perspective presents an image receding from sight. Facebook and other social media platforms similarly require the participation of users to complete the circuit of transmission, while silently extracting vital and sometimes sensitive information from the subjects. Instead of embedding the user in a shared virtual world, campus here creates a more closed system where the participant is also the main audience, the spectator elevated to a focal subject of the work. But the subject is far from empowered, as they must basically acquiesce to the multiplied terms of surveillance. campus wagers on the attraction toward an imagistic alter ego to activate the work, seducing the observers with an analog of themselves within a channel of fantasy, while thankfully leaving their privacy intact beyond the gallery walls.

Peter Campus' "pause" installation at Cristin Tierney gallery in Chelsea.
peter campus, ebb and flow, 2017. Installation at Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York. Photo by John Muggenborg. Courtesy the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery, New York.

In 1979 campus turned to still photography, as a certain, necessary escape from the withering self examination inculcated in his early practice: “[f]or me what was important was not the switch from video to photography, but from the interior to the exterior. The interior examinations became overwhelming.”[2] Since his return to video in the later 1990s, campus has shifted from indoor, studio-based work that engages the confines of the gallery to outside operations and the depiction of nature and human impingement upon landscapes. His series of Videographs can range in appearance—super crisp images of eddying water contrast with blocky, pixelated images derived from high definition video source material. Ebb and flow (2017) is a work comprising waterside scenes from Long Island, with shots of a dock, anchored boats, and a beach area under repair or reconstruction. A trawler boat turns in extreme slow motion as gulls float in mid-air, laggardly flapping their wings to keep aloft. The nearly frozen feeling reflects the sensation of “resonance” that campus has claimed as an organizing principle, the exteriorized recognition of emotive soul out in the world. Diverging with the continued trend of total electrification in mainstream American amusements, campus has turned to nature, ensconcing contemplation via an approach to technology that looks to obscure “veracity” and thereby reveal another type of phenomenological concern.

peter campus by Adrien Chevrot 2
peter campus. Photo by Adrien Chevrot.

campus’s reflexive ruminations have tremendous import for an era utterly consumed with self-presentation too often lacking composure or critical inquiry. In barn at north fork (2010), an abstracted building facade is reduced to essential building blocks of form. Here technology does not create simulation, a machine perfected mimesis, but instead trends toward the nonfigurative. In a medium renowned for its ultrafine detail and resolution, campus still insists on the formal experimentation and pushing of media boundaries that have marked his work. at rest (2016) presents a wide angle view in which the depicted architecture, landscapes,  and seascapes all dwarf the miniscule human figures embedded within the visual field. The sequences begin in color and eventually fade into grayscale, stoking a perceptual shift that parallels the atmospheric color transitions during sunrise or sunset. His most recent piece, dusk at shinnecock bay (2019) resembles a Cézanne landscape, with its painterly effects achieved through video transformation in post production. This blurry paean to revered tradition is engendered through machinic images that break the trance of pseudo-immediacy surrounding current digital culture, pointing toward historic value and a re-oriented, solemn awareness of our embedded visual condition.

[1]“Taylor Dafoe, With Four Shows Opening Across New York, 82-Year-Old Video Art Pioneer Peter Campus Is Having a Moment. Here’s Why”   (accessed May 23, 2019)

[2] John Hanhardt, “Peter Campus,” in BOMB, 68 (Summer 1999), 68.

peter campus: video ergo sum continues through July 21, 2019 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York.

David C. Shuford is a writer, musician, and art librarian living in Queens, New York.

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