Transposition (Lynn MacRitchie on Tina Keane)

By Lynn MacRitchie, 10 March 1996

Art Review

High over London last October, those who found their way to the empty white room in the Plummet Gallery on the sixteenth floor of Rahere House, a tower block on the borderland between the east End and the City, gazed transfixed at a stream of video images projected low into one corner. Compressed into a narrow horizontal band, the ribbon of ever-changing scenes seemed to glide from one wall to the other in a mercurial river of light. The spinning wheels of freight trains, landscapes, crowded streets, heaps of money, piles of pills and scampering white rats could be seen slipping by, but sometimes also the ever varying forms were projected compressed to the limit, individual shapes reduced to abstract bars of light, shifting fluorescences of gorgeous colour. The soundtrack, dream like, soothed, with swooping chords, random voices and electronic beeps... Transposition, a video installation by Tina Keane, took viewers on a journey both literal (by train across America) and symbolic, from the red flare of a rocket firing in outer space to the landscape of the body, from a forest of hairs enlarged on the surface of the skin to the beguiling dance of viruses shown in scraps of tapes from medical videos. The tape loop ended in a dazzle of flame red light. Tina Keane has been a pioneer in the use of electronic media in the visual arts since the seventies. After training as a painter, she began to explore the possibilities of making work with light, creating light shows first of all for bands such as Pink Floyd and then giving light a vital role in her own work in film, video and installation. Keane has established and maintained a key position as an innovator using developing technologies such as video and computers because of the freedom they afford her to explore fully the ideas that are the driving force of her work.

For although she readily confesses herself captivated by film and video images just because of their formal beauty, Keane is actively engaged in questioning them, pushing beyond what is obviously visible to a realm "we can feel but cannot see," the hidden depths behind the glowing screen. Her earliest film, "Shadow of a Journey", is an example of what this concept means to her. The film was shot on Super-8 during an Edinburgh Arts journey in 1976 when, sailing between Skye and Harris, she looked over the ship's side and saw the glittering dance of light and shadows on the water's surface. This home-movie footage was for her a vision "of time moving in amongst the shadows..." It was reworked optically over the next three years and released as a 16mm film in 1980.

Keane describes Transposition as "Going back to light, light as magic - switch it off and it's not there.." While every image shown in the piece is real, "the way it's put together becomes totally abstract. It's like the way our brains work. We see something, then we go off and do whatever, then it comes back to us as an afterimage. The piece is not goal oriented... the montage leaves a space for your perception, for the viewer to make something from it for themselves..." The piece was made after a period of reflection, brought on by the loss of "three family members and one cat" in one year, 1990. This shifted the focus of Keane's work towards ideas of mortality and immortality, "going beyond the physicality of the body to the landscape of the mind," an idea which had originally been triggered by her work for the "Topographie 11" video installation created for the Vienna Festival that same year. Exploring the city, Keane found herself lost in a subway station, looking at a flight of disused stairs that went nowhere. This became the location for part of the work, the projection of one of her poems. The site, now derelict and forgotten, was reanimated by the video image, suggesting another, poential world beyond the decay of material reality.

This more contemplative approach signalled a stepping back from the specificity of much of her work of the seventies and eighties which engaged with women as subject. In Faded Wallpaper, for example, a series of performances with video and a film made between 1986 and 1988, Keane used a story by Charlotte Perkins Gilmour which describes a woman alone in her bedroom, gradually losing her mind as she gazes obsessively at the yellow paper which covers the walls which enclose her. In this powerful work, Keane took the viewer to the edge of madness and made them look into the terror beyond. As a desperate face is seen on the video screen upside down in a mirror, hands tear at the paper, and the voice on the soundtrack reading from the story observes that "the imagination does not spring from nothing, it comes from our relationship with what is outside..." In the performance, first given in Canda, then repeated at the Serpentine and Tate galleries in London, Keane sat on a bench with her back to the audience staring at the wall, gradually manouvering the bench until it was right against the wall, where she peeled away a patch of wallpaper, an action also seen on banks of surrounding video monitors.

Making the piece involved learning and developing new techniques as work progressed. Keane had to learn to use machines to get the images she was struggling for. "There was a lot of Super 8 and Chromakey, a very basic technology - it looks as if I am using more technology than I am... I invented the techniques to show the concept. For me the process is as important as the finished product." "The Diver" was a series of performances, initiated in 1987 for Banff in Canada, and an installation which incorporated neon sculpture, video monitors and fluorescent tubes to create an electronic water garden of dazzling beauty. From this came "Neon Diver", a film commissioned by the Arts Council and Channel 4 in 1989. Intercutting the lighthearted watery frolics of Busby Berkley and Esther Williams films with sequences of contemporary women synchronised swimmers, "Neon Diver" plays on the enjoyment of sheer spectacle while questioning its inherent voyeurism.

An active and committed force in the emergence of women's art in the seventies and eighties, Keane now considers her feminism "completely entrenched, assimilated... Women are always "there" in my work..." She gives as an example a new short film, "Beyond the Blue Grain" made in three weeks last year by "playing around with machines." In this, the abstract, grainy image is in fact a reprocessed clip from an earlier film of a woman trapeze artist. "Women are always going to be there in my work," Keane states. Self defined "feminist" film and video, however, Keane considers became "too engaged, too much about turning film theory into film, too much about writing essays... I'm not interested in essays at all. I was interested in voyeurism, how women saw women - going beyond the women"s gaze..."

In her constant quest to penetrate beyond appearance, Keane has now become an enthusiastic explorer of cyberspace, which she considers "opens up new approaches to gender and sexuality..." With typical optimism, Keane is not afraid of the predominantly male pornographic fantasy world which occupies much of current Internet space. She considers the Internet "post Freud, post feminism, a new realm of expression with no rules - somewhere to come closer to the person you might want to be..." In the MA dissertation she has just completed, she explored such possibilities in depth, considering the concept of the post human through the work of artists such as Orlan, who is altering her body through plastic surgery and recording the process in a series of video performances. Keane explains "Through technology, people are reinventing themselves. They no longer need to feel trapped in the bodies they have, but can get closer to the bodies they perceive themselves to have...." This she considers especially significant for women, allowing them an opportunity to "start from the present and go into the future, breaking away from how we have been structured by previously male dominated religion and science, and specifically the male definition of feminine beauty. It is a chance to reconstruct and reinvent ourselves..." In cyberspace, the body electric is now a reality and transformations can be sampled without the drastic intervention of knife in flesh, with net users assuming different identities at will.

For women artists in the seventies, live performance was a key form, and Keane was one of its foremost practitioners. In an interview in 1982, she described performance as a learning process, "putting oneself on the line," using often very personal material. Performance was a very accessible form for women, needing few resources; its main requirement was that the artist have something to say. For Keane, the honesty of performance was crucial. "Women in performance have been more important in the development of feminist art because it really cuts through," she observed. She often chose to work with her young daughter Emily, exploring and revealing both the intimacy and the universality of the mother/daughter relationship.

Transposition began as a performance conceived for the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna in 1992. There, the video images were projected on to the naked backs of 25 men, as they glided along standing on a travelator. Keane wanted to explore the idea of the human body as screen, and the images were first compressed, by letterboxing on a computer, in order to fit on to the men's backs. The piece was re-edited to make the installation, the movement of the travelator recreated by shifting the projectors by hand and reshooting the images in motion. Keane enjoys this kind of "middle ground" technology, which leaves room for improvisation of essentially "hand made" effects, something which more advanced digital editing does not allow. Keane likes to keep a more hands on approach, "learning through play, constantly rediscovering..."

For Keane, technological change remains a liberating force. In the 90s the Internet and cyberspace have already achieved the position she and other seventies artists originally thought would come to be occupied by video - a place to experiment, to be free, to question everthing that had gone before. For the public in general, video never quite fulfilled that role. Although its use did become universal, as the artists had predicted, in the home it tends to remain tied to recording broadcast TV and playing commercially released tapes. For artists, video continues to be the pre-eminent means of recording shows or performances. As an artistic medium in itself, however, it has assumed an increasingly traditional fine art role, with artists such as Bill Viola using the very latest video technology to create installations presenting the age old themes of birth, life and death.

The potential of cyberspace, however, is already recognised and exploited by millions of users. Internet users rely mainly on words: contact can be made by keystroke alone, no aesthetic necessary. As users' fingers do the talking, there has been a global explosion of chatter that knows no limits. Keane celebrates this boundless potential, knowing full well that potent means power as well as possibility. As part of a research project at Central St Martins where Keane also teaches, she is working on "Real Time Window: Virtual Zone," an installation in the school window on Charing Cross Road in central London, which, from 21 February to 15 March, will offer passers by the opportunity to participate in a live Internet global link up. Users can manipulate remotely a small camera located in the window to send images of themselves to be picked up by Internet users aound the world. The intervention of the camera turns them from anonymous pedestrians into a live performers in real time, visible to net users "from Long Acre to Tokyo!" In the piece, Keane celebrates the possibility that electronic media now offer to effect the final split between mind and body. Standing on a London pavement we are simultaneously present on the other side of the world. Or, as Keane puts it, "Now, we are all constantly on line..." Like her Neon Diver, Keane has plunged fearlessly in to the electronic pool of cyberspace, confident of finding pearls of beauty and understanding in its boundless depths.