5 screen video installation, dimensions variable

The critic and arts writer Marina Benjamin, in a catalogue for an exhibition of artists who explore the medium of video installation wrote that:

“Because video is overwhelmingly identified with the pulp end of mass culture, using it creatively is almost by definition to subvert”[1]

I would argue that a five channel video installation created by the artist Susan Hiller does indeed subvert the mass or popular culture not just by using video itself as an artistic and creative medium but also through the content of the videos that she presents. ‘PSI Girls’ is the title of a work that I first encounted about two years ago.I had not heard of Susan Hiller before and it took me about a year to getting around to finding out more about her and her work. ‘P.S.I Girls’ has not really left my head since I first experienced it. The work would ebb and flow from my thoughts when I was working on my own pieces. I would like to use this space to ramble about the work and my feeling and thoughts on it and Hillers wider practice.It was created in 1999 and when presented at Tate Modern Gallery, London in a fairly large room of its own[i], consisted of five screens showing looped clips of montage from films primarily about young girls with telekinetic abilities[ii], which were all, except one, appropriated from mainstream Hollywood cinema. Each clip is a montage of a different film. The clips are all shown simultaneously, their original sound removed, as was their original pigmentation. Instead each clip for its duration was coloured either blue, yellow, red, violet or green. The colours moved from one clip to the next in a random sequence. After each clip had run its course. Silence was intercepted by a soundtrack of rhythmic drumming, both of equal length. The colours had a cycle that ran in time with the soundtracks. This cycle of sound, silence and change of colour brought in a performative element into the work. A kind of simple narrative subtlety played out and hinted at in front of the viewer. When presented at Tate Modern, seating was provided in the centre of the room which, in strictly formal terms, added to the ambience of the exhibition room and made it appear to be more like a screening room or small cinema where concentration is aided by the surroundings. I want to show how all these formal elements are inextricably linked with as well as aid the content and meaning of the work. I will go on to compare the formal elements of the work with other artists who use video linked with pop culture or appropriated more mainstream film within their art practice. One major element at stake within the work is how artworks are actually experienced by an audience. Hiller has stated that:

“The meaning of art is collaboratively formed in the relationship between viewers and work”[2].

With relation to ‘PSI Girls’ one of the meanings would come from the physical space in which it is presented to viewers. The screens in the room are immersive and demand not only attention but also reflection. The comfortable seating in the centre of the room aids this contemplation. This is one physical relation between the body of the viewer and the work. It seems that the work is not complete until there is an audience present to experience the work. The different colours of the clips also add layers of meaning to be interpreted subjectively by the viewer even with supposedly cultural or more occidental signposts. Essayist Stella Santacatterina in a book of selected works by Susan Hiller points out that:

“Each screen is suffused by a different colour, altering the nature of the images and remapping their semantic meanings: violet and the sacred, green and the supernatural, blue and regeneration, yellow and transgression, red and passion. Of the six primary colours, orange, thought by psychologists to reflect internal harmony, is ‘missing’”[3]

Each colour is a very important formal element to the work itself but whether such specific meanings of colour as supposed by Santacatterina, apart from maybe red standing for passion, are as universal as she seems to be saying remain in debate. Susan Hiller herself expands on her use of colour within the installation in a talk given in Madrid in February of 2003, saying that the film clips are:

“..Projected repeatedly in different colours and in different configurations and sequences in a large space. Each colour and each configuration offers a range of possible interpretations, as each film fragment is inflected by a colour – blue casting a different mood from yellow, for instance – and influenced by the colours and actions of its neighbouring fragments at any particular moment.”[4]

Hiller speaks of the meanings of the colours she uses to pigment the screens with in a more vague sense. Her explanation is far looser than the previous and more open to a wider form of interpretation such as the fact that different colours could create different feelings or suggestions to different viewers of the work.

This enclosed space is also intermittently filled with a kind of hypnotic, but at the same time explosive, (because of the silence preceding and following it) sound. Hiller says of this audio element that:

“The soundtrack uses a field recording of the rhythmic clapping and drumming of a gospel choir, underlining the elements of faith and belief portrayed in these images…Drawing out their connections as remnants or substitutes of earlier beliefs about magic, witchcraft and Christian religious gifts of the spirit, as explained in St Paul’s discussion of the phenomenon of Pentecost”[5]|[iii]

In this respect there is a direct link between the formal element of sound and the content/meaning. The sound backs up the content of the montaged clips of girls, apparently (with the help of digital or movie special effects crews) showing telekinetic powers. Together the sound and montages reinforce the subjects dealt with within the piece which are ideas surrounding an audience’s participation in creating meaning through bringing in their own contexts, world views and personal feelings/thought’s. Also, the representation of young girls as being some kind of almost mystical “other” in a wide variety of films and genres (although maybe mostly American larger studio productions) not just whimsical sci-fi, action adventure, magic realism or children’s films. Hiller appears to be pointing out that these more ‘hackneyed’ or conventional genres seem to be backed up by or have an audience believe that they are backed up by some kind of deeper innate philosophy of how things are whether that comes from a moral or religious standpoint. She is pointing out that a Hollywood film serves a desire in terms of entertainment value. The films would not be so popular otherwise. The need however strong it may actually be is for a way to have magic enter people’s lives[iv]. The top moneymaking films (based on ticket and rental sales) from the last ten years in America were all more biased to the genres I have mentioned. With the ever-growing popularity of websites such as youtube.com, more and more people can watch movie trailers and praise clips but also post comments if they disagree with the message of a film or its moral/political standpoint in a more instant way than in 1999. In 1999 when Hiller created ‘PSI Girls’ as a means for putting forward her viewpoints on mass film culture and its representations of femininity which seem to portray women/young girls as sometimes powerless without the help of men or if they do have powers then they seem like they have to be ‘supernatural’. Hiller was, in her role within society as an artist, breaking down the way we look at film traditionally. From the way she presents her installation in the room to the clips and sound being montaged which is now, unless copyright issues are put forward, very common on sites such as youtube.com. In 1992 Marina Benjamin, when writing about video as a fairly new format writes:

“The domestication of video has thus lent video art a revolutionary edge that throws the medium back on itself and makes the familiar unfamiliar”[6].

What she stated could be seen as a precursor to the way film and video would be used later in the 1990s and 2000s but within new digital technologies. On youtube.com people not only create their own soundtracks for Hollywood films and edit their own versions but sometimes recreate and film themselves[v] acting out a scene from a movie. This is a way for audiences to get more involved with a wider sense of what film can be and what it can achieve whether in a celebratory or derogatory way. It also shows a kind of referential cultural fascination. Hiller’s piece is obviously directed by her, but the components that make up her installation have been directed by others (i.e. film directors[vi]) who were trying to get a more rigid narrative or story across. Hiller leaves her work more open-ended. She stated in her Madrid talk:

“’PSI Girls’ takes a critical view of contemporary representations that seem regressive, archaic and irrational”[7]

Speaking specifically about the representation of the young girls in these five different films, mainly from Hollywood, another reading which fits into Hillers wider work could be to say that none of these film seems to represent, especially when faced only with these edited clips, wider ideas about how mainstream cinema can reflect our wider culture and consciousness. They do not attempt to explain any feminist point of view, for example, thus neglecting a balanced viewpoint. Hiller goes on to say:

“At the same time it allows a reinstatement of possibly older, possibly more futuristic, values and feelings that are disallowed or destroyed by simple critical gestures. By this means, viewers, including myself, become more consciously aware of our participation in multiple subject positions, more sensitive to the contradictions inherent in all culture, and perhaps able for a short time to imaginatively consider ourselves and others as active makers – rather than passive participants – of meaning”[8]

This appears to be most interesting regarding the installation ‘PSI Girls’ and its relevance to today’s culture. The inherent contradiction that comes from living in a post-modern or post post-modern[vii] condition (which seems to suggest that not only the idea of a modernist one truth is impossible but also that any source material can be relevant to an artwork and any active participation involving technology is often at the forefront of that source). It is the post-modern condition that allows the kind of work Hiller makes to be made, regarding sampling[viii], collecting, documenting, photographing that form the basis of almost her entire practice over the last twenty or so years. The contradiction lies in the way that she is celebrating albeit maybe in a kind of ironic way, the way that people do get fascinated with themes surrounding the occult and the supernatural as if they fulfil, for some, a lacking sense or a need for spirituality . The artist Mike Kelly who creates installations and explores themes linked to the notion of ‘the uncanny’ (a Freudian term), performance, collecting and the ‘abject’ amongst others. Kelly, like Hiller references or samples examples of popular/mainstream culture. A conversation between Kelly and professor and writer, Jeffrey sconce is revelatory regarding themes that link to not only Kelly’s practice but also Hillers:

“MIKE KELLY:..A lot of my work…has been about Repressed Memory Syndrome, which I think has become the new Religion

JEFFEREY SCONCE: It’s definitely been a dominant preoccupation in recent popular culture, from Satanist scares to the (sci-fi paranormal) T.V show ‘The X-Files’

MIKE KELLY: …it’s the first time that schizo-theory has found such popular expression. These pathologies have become so prevalent that they have become the norm. R.M.S, stories of satanic abuse and UFO abduction scenarios all relate to that sense of having to distrust personal experience.”[9]

Both artists show interest in the obsessions of popular culture and their own relation to and views on it through their installations respectively. Kelly has used clips from movies in his practice such as ‘Poltergeist’ (dir. Stephen Spielburg) which also explore viewpoints about femininity and spiritualism. Kelly has Stated:

“..the poltergeist story, with its emphasis on young girls and adolescent sexuality, seemed to me an interesting transformation of puberty into a metaphysic.”[10]

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin, 1987. Stuffed fabric toys and afghans on canvas with dried corn; wax candles on wood and metal base, 90 × 119 1/4 × 5 in. (228.6 × 302.9 × 12.7 cm) plus candles and base.

Kelly like Hiller is responding to the links between spirituality and the sc-fi genre and its representation of, in mainstream cinema, pubescent or teenage femininity. Kelly’s use of the word ‘metaphysic’ reveals that he sees the story in an allegorical way with metaphor relating to the fundamental nature of the world as we experience it (although perhaps only in a occidental process). It is in this way that Hiller shows the clips that make up her piece ‘PSI Girls’[11]. It is as though the installation acts as a mirror of certain aspects of western culture which the audience becomes involved with through using the space (exhibition room) Hiller provides, being asked, when in that space, to negate a meaning of the work for themselves and consider the works intent as either serious or ironic or maybe both.

One of the first artists, historically, to use film and viewpoints about mainstream and pop culture was Andy Warhol[ix] who in 1964 made the film “Empire”. Described by the curator Amy Cappellazzo as:

“His most famous film must be ‘Empire’. At eight hours and five minutes, very few people have seen it in its entirety, but most know what the film is about. The writer Stephen Koch describes the work like this: “The camera gazes for a full eight hours of moronic unmoving rapture at New York’s venerable 102-story monstrosity while the sun majestically sinks through the afternoon towards darkness””[12]

Empire, Andy warhol, Film still

Warhol’s film is “majestic” but also detached. There is a sense of irony to his celebrating (putting it in his film) the building and his detachment which among other things come from the fact that he did not use many editing techniques or any more dramatic filming techniques associated with popular cinema. It seems that the building itself was popular enough as Cappellazzo insinuates. Whilst Hiller in her piece edits and cut her clips Warhol’s only edits are that of necessity (having to change film reels). Both their works deal with culturally loaded and mainstream content. The contrast comes not only from subject matter (famous buildings not films with young girls) but also from the formal element of movement on the screens (the clips Hiller chooses, which she did not film herself show movement and gesture regarding the actors and the special effects). Warhol’s is a work, when first viewed, of stillness.

Critics Pavel Buchler and Tanya Levington discuss in the introduction to their book ‘SAVING THE IMAGE: ART AFTER FILM’ Laura Mulvey’s[x] views on developments in film and video installation since the late 1990s:

“Laura Mulvey discusses “Stillness as a property of celluloid from the perspective opened up by the free control over the viewing process that is characteristic of the new electronic and digital technologies of the moving image…The power to slow down or freeze the pace of film, once reserved for experts and professionals of the celluloid era, now brings to the focus of the inquisitive, curious spectator the ”presence of time itself behind the mask of story telling””[13]

Susan Hiller could be seen as the “curious spectator” as she has spoken about as I’ve mentioned the roles she sees herself as having regarding ‘PSI Gils’, namely that she is the creator and spectator when in the space of the work. Whilst the video artist Douglas Gordon who according to critic Charles Eche’s description of the artwork ’24 hour psycho’:

“The work was straightforward, a large-scale projection of Alfred Hitchcock’s film ‘Psycho’ slowed down so that it extended over a full 24 hours from its opening credits to closing titles. The effect was spellbinding in its physical impact on perception and even bodily rhythm.”[14]

24 hour psycho, Douglas Gordon, Installation view

The work illustrates how other artists including Hiller have played or edited an existing film from mainstream Hollywood cinema which ‘Psycho is an example of. The story of ‘Psycho’ also raises questions, especially, when viewed in today’s climate and with today’s readings available (e.g feminist, post colonial and many others) of femininity, film narrative and violence. Focusing on the nature of film itself is what both Warhol’s and Gordon’s pieces seem to be what is being asked of the viewer. Hiller’s seems to ask the viewer to consider also their own moral standpoint on the clips shown and also about the nature of art itself by stating that the audience and their participation is crucial.

I have tried to explore what I think to be the most important aspects of Susan Hiller’s moving image installation work, ‘PSI Girls’: That the formal elements to the piece (The film clips, soundtrack and exhibition space) are vital to expanding on the and explaining the subject matter and content of the work itself. It is on a historical trend of video and film installation within contemporary art, some historical links include themes explored by Mike Kelly, Douglas Gordon’s piece ’24 hour Psycho’ and Andy Warhol’s ‘Empire’. It also relates to the wider and ongoing themes of Susan Hiller’s practice as an artist. ‘PSI Girls’ subverts (according to the criteria of critic Marina Benjamin) and produces an entirely new film effect whereby an audience is invited to bring meaning through and using a space which enables them to experience film clips in a way that cinema cannot i.e from a myriad of screens arranged in an exhibition space with a new soundtrack added by the artist which includes snatches of silence to add to the contemplative space. Hillers work I think is a very interesting and great example of a moving image artwork with a great balance of formal and physical qualities. These qualities are the sound, the content, the space and its impact upon the viewer, which I think, encourage contemplation of the ideas put fourth by Susan Hiller.


[1] Benjamin, Marina, “Black Boxes and Art in Time and Motion”, from ‘Judith Goddard,Katherine Maynell,Monikea Oechsler:3 Video Installations commissioned by Kettle’s yard,Cambridge,1992,P.6[2] Hiller,Susan,”The Multiple ethics of Art,2003,from:Susan Hiller.The Provisional Texture of Reality: Selected Talks and Texts,1977-2007.Alexandra Kokoli (ed),Dijon,JRP Ringier,Les Presses du reel,2008.P.145

[3] Santacatterina, Stella,”Anamorphosis of the Gaze”,Susan Hiller:Recall,Selected works 1969-2004,James Lingwood(Ed),United kingdom,Baltic,2005, P.119

[4] Hiller,Susan,”The Multiple ethics of Art,2003,from:Susan Hiller.The Provisional Texture of Reality:Selected Talks and Texts,1977-2007.Alexandra Kokoli (ed),Dijon,JRP Ringier,Les Presses du reel,2008.P.146

[5] Ibid,P.146

[6] Benjamin, Marina, “Black Boxes and Art in Time and Motion”, from ‘Judith Goddard,Katherine Maynell,Monikea Oechsler:3 Video Installations commissioned by Kettle’s yard,Cambridge,1992,P.6

[7] Hiller,Susan,”The Multiple ethics of Art,2003,from:Susan Hiller.The Provisional Texture of Reality:Selected Talks and Texts,1977-2007.Alexandra Kokoli (ed),Dijon,JRP Ringier,Les Presses du reel,2008.P.146

[8] Ibid

[9] sconce, Jeffrey, “I’ve got this strange feeling”,from ‘Mike kelly: Interviews, conversations, and chit-chat (1986-2004), John c welchman (Ed), Dijon,JRP Ringier,Les Presses du reel,2005, p.267

[10] Ibid, p 270

[11] Please see quote no: 8

[12] Cappellazzo,Amy,”Empire 1964”, ‘Making Time’,New York, PBICA,2000,p.80

[13] Buchel,Pavel,Leighton,Tanya.”introduction”from ‘Saving the Image:ART AFTER FILM,centre for contemporary arts, Glasgow,Manchester, Metropolitan university, united Kingdom,2003,P.29

[14] esche, charles,’1993’,’’factor 1993’,Claire Doherty (ed), FACT,Liverpool,U.K,1993


[i] I visited the exhibition room featuring Hillers ‘PSI Girls’ several times whilst it was shown at Tate Modern between 2004 and 2009. See:(http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/CollectionDisplays?venueid=2&roomid=5035)for details from the Tate website.

[ii] “Telekinesis (def) n. 1 the movement of a body caused by thought or will power without the application of a physical force. 2 the ability to cause such movement, Telekinetic (ad)” – Collins English Dictionary, Fifth edition, HarperCollins Publisher, England, 2000. Hillers title ‘PSI Girls’ presumably comes from PSI as in the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet, which nowadays is used in relation to physics whilst the Greek symbol PSI ( Y) often symbolises psychology and parapsychology relating to the paranormal.

[iii] In the Bible St Paul describes the Pentecost as the day the ‘holy spirit’ appeared in the physical forms of fire/water representing Jesus and God at the same time and completing their idea of the ‘Holy trinity’. Christians regard the day of Pentecost as the birthday of their church as it is known today.

[iv] The top ten highest grossing films for the years 2000-2009 as listed by wikipedia.org and taken from internet movie database were either sci-fi, cgi/cartoons for children, or ‘out of this world’ style action adventure movies including the Harry Potter films, Shrek, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean and Mission Impossible II. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films).

[v] Example of an edit of a Hollywood film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjQUT_LELYM ( a re-edit)

Example of a recreation of a scene:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=onZdw7zKduM (someones version of the movie andromeda)

Example of somebody adding their own music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odqYgtM0InI ( a sonic youth song put to clips from a film starring Marilyn Monroe)

[vi] ‘The Fury’, Dir. Brian De Palma 20th Century Fox

‘The Craft’, Dir. Andrew Fleming,Columbia 1996

‘Matilda’, Dir. Danny De Vito, Tristar 1996

‘Firestarter’, Dir. Mark Lester, Universal, 1984

‘Stalker’, Dir. Andrei Tarkowsky, Mosfilm,1979(Russia)

[vii] The idea that western culture is in a post post modern condition was illustrated very well I think by Tate Britain’s Triennial, ‘Altermodern’ curated by critic Nicholas Bourriaud “The idea behind Altermodern is that we have moved out of the Post- modern era, symbolised by the global financial crisis; art being produced now is global, in contrast to modernism and post-modernism, whose starting point is Western culture.”- Ruth Gibbs, ‘Altermodern: post-post

modern?’ www.thebadgeronline.co.uk/arts/altermodern-post-post-modern/+%22post+post+modern%22+(definition)&cd=3&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk&client=firefox-a, March 2, 2009

[viii] See Nicholas Bourriands collection of essays ‘Postproduction’.

[ix] “protaganist of pop art in New York in the 1960s. By immortalizing the trivial icons of mass consumer society…he created an unmistakeable panorama of our time…becoming a famous film producer and director”- Tesch,Jurgen,”andy warhol”,Icons of 20th century art,Presetel,Munich,2003,p.154

[x] see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminist_film_theory for a brief article concerning some of Mulveys subjects and concerns. Also ART IN THEORY 1900-2000 for essays written by her.