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The Observer in the Flux:

The Audio/Video Art of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield

The ubiquitous presence and availability of the electronic media of radio, television, recorded sound and video has suggested to some that personal interpretation is no longer possible as all our experiences are mediated through these technologies. As our subjectivity is shared by countless other viewers and listeners we can no longer access an original experience. Jean Baudrillard in his essay, 'The Ecstasy of Communication' claimed that the new communication technologies are eliminating the intimate private experience; "If one thinks about it, people no longer project themselves into their objects with their affects and their representations, their fantasies of possession, loss, mourning, jealousy..." (Baudrillard 1983, p. 127) He subsequently suggests that personal experience has been replaced with a network of communication available to all in which no one subjectivity or identity can be represented. He laments the loss of a locus of activity that, through television, has been usurped by one of emptiness and, "...total uselessness." (Baudrillard 1983, p. 129)

While others write the epitaph for the subject - an innocent victim of the communications revolution - artists whose practices involve the technologies of communication have been busy resuscitating the same subject in their work. In the audio/video art of Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield a conscious, thinking subject is maintained. This subject/observer, has developed into a key element in a the artists' recent work - work that also constitutes a unique investigation of communication technologies.

Early work

'Video Art' began life as the ideal medium for conceptual artists and was used by many as a sort of sophisticated measuring tape that could measure time as well as the space enclosed by the rectangular television screen. 'Avant-garde TV' set out to destroy the limitations of the parent media and subsequently eschewed such televisual devices as drama, character identification, narrative and even editing. As much of the work dealt specifically with the commodificaton of time and space it critiqued the form of television while leaving open questions concerning the identities of the producers and viewers.1

Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield have produced collaborative video tapes and installations since the late 1970s. Their work, while retaining a formal distance from broadcast television, has evolved from a conceptual concern with time and space towards an investigation of the observer, as an active subject and as a receiver of information.

Hooykaas and Stansfield began working together in London in 1972. Since 1980 they have based themselves in Amsterdam and have produced all their work together as collaborative pieces. The work from the late 1970s and early 1980s, which they referred to as video environments, was conceptually based. Most of this work stemmed from an initial concept or idea that was subsequently carried out.2 The imagery or sounds were often produced according to the limitations laid out by the concept and could be determined by natural factors such as the wind, the tides or the magnetic poles.3

Christine Ross has identified a construction of the subject in Hooykaas' and Stansfield's work of this period. In her essay 'Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield: Towards an Affective I' Ross posits that the artists' subjectivity is developed via their methodology. Hooykaas and Stansfield travel to record imagery and sounds for their projects. Often the significance of this material is not evident until the artists bring it home and begin the process of editing it - a process not unlike mnemonic recall.

It is also the way that Hooykaas and Stansfield work: usually the shots produced during their travels only become meaningful afterwards (from the distance of time), while editing, and are progressively transformed into a site memory where events and past experiences are visited and revisited through images. (Ross 1991, p. 108)

Not only do the artists displace the recorded objects through time and space. The technologies they use disrupt, "...by technical 'noises' which have the effect of dematerializing recorded objects and upsetting their original identities." (Ross 1991, p. 108) This process of removal of the recorded object (the signifier) from its original source (the signified) allows the artists to create an identity for it. By doing so they also assert their own identities with regard to the object. Thus the identity of the subject is constructed concurrently with the identity of the object; "... the "I" is introduced and it is formed at the same time (hic et nunc/here and now) as its relation to the other which develops through what the subject is." (Ross 1991, p. 108)

Flux and memory

Movement has remained a predominant theme throughout Hooykaas' and Stansfield's oeuvre. In the video tape Point of Orientation (1986) the movement of a bird in flight is analysed through a zoetrope. Through the double-play of mediation, first as a series of photographic stills then as a video recording, the bird itself loses significance. Our attention is subsequently focussed on the bird's motion. This foregrounding of movement, or 'flux,' over material entities echoes recent theories emanating from the field of physics. David Bohm calls this idea the "Undivided Wholeness in Flowing Movement," stipulating that, "...this view implies that flow is in some sense, prior to that of the 'things' that can be seen to form and dissolve in this flow." (Bohm 1980, p. 11)

The whole structure of the ...From the Museum of Memory series of installations (1985-1988) functions as a metaphor for Bohm's premise. Each installation was a collection of fragments of sound and vision that cumulatively alluded to an event or a structure.4 Elements from one installation would reappear in a different context in the next echoing the operation of memory which will involuntarily focus on isolated moments or items from the past. They are museums in the sense that, like museums, they recreate natural or artificial phenomena through fragments. A museum is a device, a mechanism for preserving objects which are supposed to constitute knowledge. Bohm maintains that memory is a similar mechanism; its functioning is simply the result of chemical and electrical impulses to the brain. He suggests that beyond memory, however, there is an underlying flux that he refers to as the "stream of consciousness" (Bohm 1980, p. 11)

This flux of awareness is not precisely definable, and yet it is evidently prior to the definable forms of thoughts and ideas which can be seen to form and dissolve in the flux, like ripples, waves and vortices in a flowing stream. As happens with such patterns of movement in a stream some thoughts recur and persist in a more or less stable way, while others are evanescent.(Bohm 1980, p. 11)

As in Hooykaas' and Stansfield's installations, certain elements tend to surface more often than others from the flux that causes physical phenomena and directs our consciousness.

Katrin Rabus in a catalogue essay remarks on a shift in focus in the artists' later work;

In the later installations the conceptual facets of the works recede in favour of more philosophical reflections on the position of the informed and aware individual of our time. (Rabus 1991)

With the conceptual works of the late 1970s and early 1980s Hooykaas' and Stansfield's concern was with the movement of natural phenomena such as the wind or waves and how to represent it in an art piece. In the From the Museum of Memory series there is an allusion to how elements and phenomena are arranged or ordered according to the mechanisms of the museum or of memory. Here the concern is shifting towards the viewer and how the world is ordered for her and by her.

Clearly, to be consistent, one has to say that knowledge, too, is a process, an abstraction from the one total flux, which latter is therefore the ground both of reality and of knowledge of this reality. (Bohm 1980, p. 49)

David Bohm differentiates between knowledge and memory. The latter, as I have previously noted, Bohm considers to be a predictable mechanism. The former, according to Bohm, is what orders memories and discriminates between those that are significant or not. Knowledge is not conditioned and it cannot be analyzed physiologically or chemically. Bohm posits that knowledge, or subjectivity, is also in flux and subsequently the product of the same principle that governs external reality.

The actual operation of intelligence is thus beyond the possibility of being determined or conditioned by factors that can be included in any knowable law. So, we see that the ground of intelligence must be in the undetermined and unknown flux, that is also the ground of all definable forms of matter. (Bohm 1980, p. 52)

Bohm reiterates that 'what we know' as well as 'how we know' belong to a 'flux' that is characterized by its unpredictability and that we cannot possibly define. Thus, not only is this 'flux' the root of all order (and chaos) in the universe but it is also the root of all our thinking processes.

Recent Work

Some of the conceptual concerns in Hooykaas' and Stansfield's earlier work have been retained in their later work. At the same time there has been a perceptible shift in their approach to a more subjective interpretation of their environment. Tieneke Reijnders in her essay 'The Observatory as Vantage Point' sees the artists' recent work as a development in their practice toward poetic intervention.

As their oeuvre increases the conceptual element dwindles and their working method becomes poetic and searching, structured in a similar way to certain kinds of music: with alternating and interlocking themes. (Reijnders 1989)

A concern for the subject or 'observer' doing the looking and listening surfaces in the artists' later work.5 Hooykaas and Stansfield exhibited a version of the installation Personal Observatory at La Centrale gallery in Montréal in September of 1991. They included a rocking chair, close to a speaker on the floor, in which a visitor could comfortably sit in order to take the time to observe different elements making up the installation. One of the pieces was a crystal radio which would only receive a signal if it was in physical contact with the person listening to it.6 Also included was a telescope pointed towards the branches of a tree outside one of the gallery windows. Here, the artists were not only suggesting to the visitor to look beyond the walls of the gallery. They were also referring to a scientific development, synchronous to the development of single point perspective in painting and architecture. Since the Renaissance the human observer has occupied the central fixed position in relation to scientific phenomena.7 The single eye observing nature is further referred to in A Personal Observatory in an image that appears both in the video and on an illuminated photo transparency of Hooykaas holding a convex glass in front of one eye.8 Mario Côté remarks on the reinvestment of the subject observer in Hooykaas' and Stansfield's work produced since the From the Museum of Memory series.

A Personal Observatory, qui represente un deuxième cycle de travail enterpris depuis 1988, réactualise la présence du sujet observant aux prises avec cette volonté insatiable de connaitre. (Côté 1991, p. 71)

The insatiable appetite for knowledge that Côté refers to implies that there is a subject actively in pursuit of that knowledge. Once again, a subtle change is noticed in Hooykaas' and Stansfield's recent work; it is a shift of focus away from that which is being observed towards the observer herself.

Hooykaas' and Stansfield's fascination with the materials of telecommunication has been apparent in their work since the From the Museum of Memory series. For these works the artists made use of materials that are sensitive to invisible forces and form many of the components of telecommunications equipment. Thus the skeletal television set in From the Museum of Memory I (1985) is wrapped in lead which has the property of blocking lethal rays of radioactivity. In Phosphor ...From the Museum of Memory V (1987) a video tube is half buried in phosphor, a powder which has the property of retaining light and is used to retain the video image on the surface of the cathode ray tube. Copper is an element that recurs in much of Hooykaas' and Stansfield's installation work; they use it to refer to its low impedance as a conductor and receiver of electronic signals. But the artists are aware that all material has a capacity for receiving and recording an external signal. In Shadow Pictures ...From the Museum of Memory II (1986) they use an image of a stone wall that received such an intense flash of light and heat in the atomic blast in Hiroshima that the shadow of a ladder was permanently etched onto its surface. And in the video Point in Time (1987) we see rocks whose forms trace the wind that has gently sculpted them for millennia.

It is not just inanimate objects that can be receptors of invisible forces. In A Personal Observatory (1991) the crystal radio needs to be in contact with a human body in order to receive a signal. And we are reminded of all the radio signals that have been transmitted since Guglielmo Marconi first tested wireless voice transmission with 'S' sounds at the beginning of this century.9

The space around us is filled with signals, images and sounds, some of which we can recognize and decode whilst others we leave to sail endlessly through space. (Rabus 1991)

These signals, Katrin Rabus points out, will always be out there destined to drift further and further into space. Whether we will hear them or not depends on our internal receiver.

With the video tape In the Eye of the Storm (1992) the artists suggest a position for the observer which would allow her to be sensitive, and thus receptive, to the structure of external forces. As the title suggests, this video is more about the observer than the observed. Again we have the single point perspective of 'the eye' but this time it is surrounded by a phenomena very difficult to observe visually. Indeed, 'eye of the storm' would suggest an oxymoron as a storm is an event better perceived via hearing (wind, rain or thunder) or feeling (wind and rain) or even smell (rain) than through the eye.10 But Hooykaas and Stansfield suggest the eye of the storm as a calm stationary position from where one can observe, like in Edgar Allan Poe's maelstrom, the rapidly changing flux that makes up our environment. The artists place themselves, and the viewer, in the storm itself so as to breakdown the division between the observer and the observed.

These are no longer the object of investigation, rather they are sources of life and its spirituality in which distinctions between inside and out, between man and his/her outer world can be experienced as wafer thin if they exist at all. (Rabus 1991)

In another part of the tape Linnaeus' eighteenth-century botanical illustrations are observed through a magnifying lens. Here the post-Renaissance penchant for careful isolation and categorisation of entities is displayed. And, as if to reveal the potential for distortion in that method of observation, the artists turn the lens on the observer herself. Seen through the thick convex glass disc the artist's eye is shown disproportionately large. The selective vision of single point perspective may render certain elements more visible but in doing so it loses focus on the surrounding elements and distorts the context.


The construction of the subject in Hooykaas' and Stansfield's work is best illustrated by an image taken from one of the artists' video tapes. In Flying Time (1982) a human shadow is projected on sea water as it washes against the coast. Here, an index of the subject is provided but its precariousness is threefold. First, the shadow will only remain while there is sunlight and is subsequently dependent on the location of the earth in relation to the sun (the time of day) as well as to meteorological conditions. Second, the shadow is projected on the ocean: a surface which recedes and expands with the tides. Third, it is an electronic image and its presence is subsequently dependent upon the flow of electrons and their stability on the magnetic tape. Like its context the subject's identity can only be known as a state of flux.

As electronic communications technology is critiqued for only allowing for collective experience - an inhuman space which prohibits individual subjectivity - artists, like Hooykaas and Stansfield, use the specificities of these technologies to posit a space that is not only occupied by a subject but in which the subject may participate - through observation and interaction.



1 The relationship between artists' video and television was an important point of departure for much of the discourse surrounding video art in the late 1960s and early 1970s. David Antin's article 'Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium' sets up the dialectic between the two radically different approaches to (basically) the same technology; "At first glance artists' video seems to be defined by the total absence of any of the features that define television. But this apparent lack of relation is in fact a very predictable and inverse relation."(Antin 1986, p.154)

2 The following description of the piece Running Time (1979) which was produced as both a video tape and a video installation gives an example of how the artists would develop a work from a concept.

The duration of the video tape is referred to as the title.

A figure running in landscape from infinity towards and past the camera is foreshadowed by a repeat image of himself.

The sound track, treated similarly to the image, is made from recycling loops of a heartbeat.

Both sound and image progress from the unidentifiable to the recognizable. (Hooykaas/Stansfield 1983, p.94)

3 In 1982 the artists produced a series of installations (Outside/Inside, Wind Sound, Wind Direction) in which a video camera was mounted on a weather vane device so that the images that appeared on the monitor were determined by the direction of the wind.

4 From the Museum of Memory I (1985) and Shadow Pictures ...from the Museum of Memory II (1986) both referred to the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. Boat Piece ...from the Museum of Memory VI (1987) suggested the form of a boat.

5 Here I am referring specifically to the installation and video tape A Personal Observatory (1991) and the video tape In the Eye of the Storm (1992). Elsa Stansfield, in a discussion at the Consensus & Contestation Dialogues at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal in March 1992, suggested that the title of the latter referred to a calm place in the centre of the storm that also served as the ideal vantage point for the observer of the phenomenon.

6 By touching the earphone or any other part of the circuit the listener's body would function as an antenna and subsequently enable the device to receive radio signals.

7 Graeme Turner in Film as Social Practice applies the metaphor of the cyclopic telescope to the ciné camera and projector. He argues that the single point perspective that these provide are products of eighteenth and nineteenth century ideologies of individualism. (Turner 1988, p. 115) In Hooykaas' and Stansfield's work the telescope metaphor could be enlarged to include the video camera and monitor.

8 This crude lens, which reappears in In the Eye of the Storm, has an ironic double function of amplifying reality while at the same time distorting it. It serves as a metaphor for both scientific observation and the devices, often incorporating glass lenses, that assist that activity.

9 Marconi's S's are referred to in A Personal Observatory (1991) by a mass of small black adhesive letters stuck to a small satellite dish and the gallery wall behind it. Whether these letters are being received by the dish or are emanating from it is left to the viewer's imagination.

10 The centrality of vision as our dominant empirical sense is continually challenged by the artists in The Eye of the Storm. For this tape Hooykaas and Stansfield made a recording of the Alexandria bridge in Ottawa, Canada. But no bridge appears in the tape. Instead we hear the particular sound an automobile will make while crossing this cantilever bridge. Thus, the artists signify a material object through (non-verbal) sound rather than through an image.


David Antin, 'Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium' in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation, John G. Hanhardt ed. New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1986.

Jean Baudrillard, 'The Ecstasy of Communication' in The Anti-Aesthetic, Hal Foster ed. Port Townsend WA: Bay Press, 1983.

David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd, 1980.

Mario Côté, 'Méthode pour le regard', 24 IMAGES No. 56-57, Août 1991, p. 71.

Madelon Hooykaas & Elsa Stansfield, Audio Video Installations, Amsterdam: Hooykaas/Stansfield, 1983.

Katrin Rabus, Madelon Hooykaas/Elsa Stansfield: From the Museum of Memory to a Personal Observatory, Bremen: Galerie Katrin Rabus, 1991.

Tieneke Reijnders, 'The Observatory as Vantage Point' in Personal Observatory: Hooykaas/Stansfield, Amsterdam: Contemporary Art Foundation, 1989.

Christine Ross 'Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield: Towards an Affective I' in Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, Nicole Gingras ed. Montréal: Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, 1991.

Graeme Turner, Film as Social Practice, London and New York: Routledge, 1988.


Paul Landon, 1992-1996

Originally published in the catalogue Madelon Hooykaas/Elsa Stansfield, Galerie Katrin Rabus, Bremen, Germany, 1996


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