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Jill Scott - In the Loop


Jill Scott - In the Loop

by Stephen Jones, October 2003

(originally written for the Australian launch of Scott's book Coded Characters)


Jill Scott’s work has covered many aspects of the wide spectrum of visual art that developed since the appearance of the post-object, conceptual and electronic arts over the last thirty years. In the book Coded Characters she marks out three distinct periods of her work, each of which shows a clear difference in execution and in geography from its precursor, although the intentions and politics remain much the same. Having started making super-8 film and video works at art school, the video process then accompanies almost all of her subsequent work. It is upon the evolution of her use of video that I want to hang my thoughts here this evening.

Jill describes the initial period of her work as her analogue period. It is characterised by singular, individual, almost private performance works, for example the actions TAPED, TIED, and STRUNG in which she was variously bound to walls, utility poles and a bridge. To a large extent each of these works only accidentally involved an audience due to their occurrence in various public spaces more or less without announcement. They are processes that directly involve her body in a reasonably demanding action. They are each videotaped simply as documentation – a recording of a work which in itself supports but a one-way reflection: as viewer of the past. These semi-private actions then develop into more public performance works that engaged friends or a gallery audience in the control of the action, with Jill and her audience surrendering themselves to the whims (perhaps “accidents” is a better word) produced by the sets of rules she established to constrain the work. These works include ACCIDENTS FOR ONE, EXTREMITIES, INSIDE OUT. Again video is used in each of these works, now not so much as documentation but as an active medium for the transmission of instructions or the inspection (or surveillance) of the performer or the audience, and it is here that Scott’s use of video gets interesting. For example in INSIDE OUT the video is used as the attractant, the means for gaining the audience’s interest, no longer a simple recording of some event. In ACCIDENTS FOR ONE, the video is used directly as the medium for transmission of instructions, while in EXTREMITIES it is used for reciprocal communication in which Jill as performer could see the activities of the audience brought to her via video and the audience could see what she was doing through a camera within her walled-in space (essentially a large box). Here the reflections go both ways and we now get a greatly enlarged view of the nature of video as it becomes an externalised layer of communication that accretes on to the basic performance action. The audience is no longer a simple viewer of the action.

In this analogue period Jill also made performances that didn’t use video at all (except perhaps for documentation) as well as producing several videotape works of which CONSTRICTION PART ONE is an important example. In this video her pet snake is observed in a specially built environment while Jill emulates the snake’s eating activity, placing herself under an equivalent state of observation. In CONSTRICTION PART TWO the audience becomes incorporated into the installation, along with Jill and the snake, via a live camera and monitors buried in the pile of sand in the room. The video is intrinsic to the installation providing access to layers of action not otherwise available. We also see a considerable step up in sophistication of the video facilities that she uses, which continues through the rest of her career so far, as her opportunities also develop.

Jill worked through the linear spaces of performance and video to her Digital period of videotape works using the very latest (by now early digital) video devices from around 1983, producing glossy, sophisticated productions that at the same time maintained her political agenda towards liberating women’s access to new media technologies. She gained access to the digital earlier than many other artists through her artist-in-residency at the Video PaintBrush Company and her collaboration there with Felicity Coonan and Sally Pryor. She produced videotapes made with digital systems and often installed them in discretised spaces of sensing and surveillance. (Surveillance in many ways forms the basis for early types of interactivity, especially when the sensing process was not really clear to the viewer).

Her videotape works of this period were generally shown in installations that although passive brought with them a deeper sense of immersion in the video than simply watching a monitor screen. MEDIA MASSAGE and WISHFUL THINKING both fall into this category. However, both the passive viewing and the more interactive installations reach out and envelope you while the screen remains a focus point or attractor. Jill’s more interactive installations might require audience choice as in DOUBLE DREAM or utilise surveillance as in THE GREAT ATTRACTOR or MACHINE DREAMS.

For example:

In DOUBLE DREAM Jill’s TV heroines demonstrate their hot and dark or their cool and blonde emotions – desire and passion versus the remote and the unreachable. The installation is divided along this line with opposite walls adorned with painted versions of either the hot or the cool. The hot and the cool videotapes play back to either side, and the audience has their choice of either range. Jill’s testing of McLuhan’s assertion that TV is a cool medium demonstrates her claim that the viewer can be drawn in by both the hot and the cool emotions.


In THE GREAT ATTRACTOR the viewer is presented with a painting of Jill representing herself as an astronomer and opposite a monitor masked with a diagram from Kepler’s work on the movement of the planets. Looking through a fisheye lens in this diagram the viewer sees a video camera image of themselves keyed into the night sky.


In MACHINE DREAMS Jill raises again the historical and often distracted relations between women and technology. The audience travelled through an installation of composited images of Jill with a sewing machine, a typewriter, a Mixmaster or a telephone, and actual versions of these machines. As the viewer moved, their presence at different points in the space triggered (via a surveillance device called 3DIS or the 3-Dimensional Interactive Stage) various factory sounds and nostalgic music from the periods of those machines.

Perhaps the most confronting of her interactive performances was the work CONTINENTAL DRIFT but I will leave you to read about that in the book

Jill moved to Europe in 1992 and found the opportunity to work with more fully interactive, highly computerised aspects of multi-media that she describes as the Mediated, in which the work of art is the medium for an active viewer experience. These are works which, lacking an audience actively engaging with them, could not be complete in any way. They would remain “meaningless” – static, passive – without this audience interaction.

For example in PARADISE TOSSED, again a work about the role of domestic technology in women’s lives, the viewer is invited to follow a tree of animations through using “touch screen” technology to make the choices. This is an early example of what became the interactive CD-Rom, (though I have to congratulate Jill on apparently never succumbing to the computer mouse driven CD-Rom interactive).

In this period video as some sort of parallel medium of documentation, or a mechanism for processing some interaction, has disappeared. Now it is intrinsic, computer generated and contained. The display becomes more of a person, a player in the conversation, a member of the interacting “community”.

In the works made at ZKM (eg, FRONTIERS OF UTOPIA, A FIGURATIVE HISTORY and INTERSKIN) Jill’s particular approach to interactivity produced works that possess considerable scale and power. These mid-to-late 90s works, in which this art-as-medium function operates, bring out a fully-fledged media art in which the art becomes a medium for the discovery, presentation, discussion and non-didactic explanation of ideas that generally exist outside the realm of the visual arts. These ideas evolved particularly from feminism and the struggle for the body, through encouragement for women to take up the engagement with technology in the arts, to the development of the interactive community that exists only as a potential within the frame of much recent interactive work. Of course the frame itself no longer remains on the wall or around the viewing screen but extends out into the area occupied by the display and auditory aspects of the work within the space that the audience is allotted by the installation (room).

This interactively developed temporary community is engendered as much by a shared desire for such utopic visions as the work might entail and Jill’s work is full of utopic vision. For example in FRONTIERS OF UTOPIA, through the use of touch screens and specially constructed interactive suitcases in which objects in the suitcase trigger different sequences, the politics, motivations and lives of eight culturally distributed women could be explored. In A FIGURATIVE HISTORY the desire for transformation of the body (perhaps into the post-human Cyborg) is explored. Through the use of what Jill describes as “smart objects” the viewers can “converse” with and edit the tales of the five characters she developed. By joining hands into a linked group the viewers could cause the characters to meet and act in concert, forming Jill’s mediated community and acting as “mediated and informed collaborator[s].” [Scott, p.147] In INTERSKIN the computer acts as a personality (a “moderator”) in interaction with the players who are led to explore the diagnosis of disease with Western, Chinese, and alternative medical frameworks. Using a “doctor’s torch” that is an adaptation of the old light pen with a mouse-button installed in it, the viewer navigates their own pathway through the diagnostic process with the aid of avatars. Here again the interaction is very closely that of conversation between the moderator and the viewer.

In these three works the installed environment is no longer passive, though perhaps not active either. But it is receptive. Actual objects in the space are able to be acted upon by the audience and as the audience learns the codes they can collaborate with the work to change its process and direction so that piece might be said to “evolve” at least during any one user’s activity. The video presence on the screens, largely computer generated is now more active, almost generative and conversational, although Turing’s test would not yet be passed.

The final piece I shall mention (and also the last work described in the book) BEYOND HIERARCHY? was presented in an administrative hall in a coal mine (now mining museum) in the Ruhr Valley, near Dortmund, in western Germany (during an exhibition called Vision Ruhr). Constructed video of six workers, in mining, service and manufacturing industries, is shown high up in the upper walls of a two-storey space in this hall. Below are a set of chairs in which the viewer sits and is tilted back to ease the viewing angle. Here, the means and the modes of interaction are closer to some sort of cinematic event. Each viewer also has a control device which looks something like a gear stick by which they can control connections between each of the workers’ sequences. There is also another interface in which two people can establish a connection between particular pairs of workers that is then sealed by a “secret” handshake that takes place through holes in the plinth that contains touch panels and photos of each worker. Thus one can be a viewer and drive a sequence or one can engage in secret deals influencing the potential relation between pairs of workers.

So in sum:

Video is a reflective medium, as Jill discovered very early on in her work with it. She has since expanded the range over which that reflectivity could operate, from the entirely personal through involving or at least observing the audience through to making the audience necessary for the functioning of the work.

Much of her video collapses the separation of the camera and its recording from the situation being recorded – the situation becomes a function of the recording or surveillance or interaction and could not happen as Jill would expect it to, without this collapse. It is the loops of reflexivity that make these works function and as the scale and reach of the works expands so the loops of reflexivity reach further out into the audience often bringing the audience into a condition in which they and the works become a kind of community, where this community might almost be thought of as some kind of expanded cyborg.