A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

A Video Essay

As a medium the video essay presents the artist with some interesting rhetorical tools, but, although I appreciate its grab bag of sights and sounds, its registrations present nothing new. The impulse for the video lived inside me just the same as an essay or poem lives inside me, the way a story lives inside me. I’m not claiming that video produces objects indistinguishable from text or music, of course not; that would be facile. The particular arrangement of sense and sensation that engenders art emerges with the tools at hand–always. You can fold these minds out of Chinese paper or Arabic sheets, wrap these bodies in animal skins or petrochemical extracts, but they’re still bodies, hungry, craven, and sometimes sweetly satisfied at bedtime, but human bodies all the same. No, mediums and languages don’t separate artists–or people–they bind them, as all bodies are bound briefly to one time and one place. The universal cry is, “yes, now,” and gain, “yes, now,” and again “yes, now, and yes, yes, and yes.” The whitest paint needs the tincture of darkness. Ralph Ellison taught us that.

The music is Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major: Prelude performed by Alexander Rudin, and the narration, with the exception of the quotation from Bazin, is my own.

4 Responses to A Video Essay

  1. Stella says:

    Travis,

    verstehe wie immer nur “Bahnhof”

    Liebe Grüße

  2. Alexj says:

    Travis: I’m not sure what you get by focusing your energy upon an attack on medium specificity rather than proactively expressing what you did so well with this medium here and now. And, sure, while the impulse to speak, or make art, stays the same, I think we do choose the medium to express with with many things in mind (medium specificity being only one of these, or even NOT one of these): audience, access, tradition, vetting, etc. Even if you could say your essay above in a beautiful paper, how would that be received differently, even if posted online? The norms and experiences of reception and authorization stay key.

    On another note, I work through a number of these issues–loss, video, memory–in this piece here.

    • C. Travis Webb says:

      AJ, unfortunately, I suspect you’re right. My pugnacious assertions regarding the artistic medium don’t really add much–if anything at all–to what I was attempting to capture in the essay. That leaves me with two very different responses. One, while I am deeply sympathetic to Bazin’s sensibilities regarding the abiding ambitions of art–and specifically film–I have always felt a palpable sadness in any “home movie” I’ve ever made or been made by. It always feels as if I’m watching something long gone–even if the footage is only moments old. Annie Dillard captures this feeling exquisitely in her essay “Total Eclipse,” in which she sees her lover captured in the fading light, copper tinted and drained as the sun disappears, like the daguerreotype of a by gone world. Where Bazin saw in film–an admittedly Catholic–possibility of transfiguration, I see only figurations gone. “The gone” is my response to Bazin.

      Two, as to what I actually wrote, I am always suspicious–paranoid perhaps–regarding discussions of what one type of human artifice can accomplish that another type of human artifice cannot. In my–limited–experience the arguments put forth tend to side with the “new,” the “revolutionary” techne; arguing, often explicitly, that the newest medium produces a superior artistic re-production of reality. It is absolutely true, of course, that this is not the only argument that has been made–the increasing abstractions of 19th and 20th century western painting are one of many counterexamples. But, and it’s a big “but,” my generation, and its close cousins, seem particularly susceptible to the narrative that humanity is arrowing into the wild blue yonder on a virtual shaft and digital feathers. The whole species is “movin’ on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky” (pardon the mixed metaphor). In no way am I suggesting that’s your argument; in fact, I suppose what made my video haymaker wild, was its ghostly target–no one in particular. Your criticism was spot on I think, but I can’t help but feeling the West’s theoretical anxieties over form and content are just an elaborate rearguard action against the body and it’s moribund disappearing act.

      Lastly, the link to your work isn’t showing up on my end, can you please repost it.

  3. […] idea for this “paper” grew out of my video work (here and here) in the seminar with Alex Juhasz. Specifically, in her questions regarding some of the […]

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