Observer/Observed and other works of Video Semiology


LEONARDO DIGITAL REVIEWS 2001.02 (MIT Press). Reviewed by Mike Leggett.

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Iimura, T., 2001. Observer/Observed and other works of Video Semiology. Body, Space & Technology, 2(1). DOI:


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Takahiko IIMURA
Reviewed by Mike Leggett.

These selected works on CD-ROM cover the period of Iimura's work from1975--1998. Together with the catalogue Seeing, from the retrospective exhibition at the Jeu du Paume in 1999, both works significantly cover the central core of Iimura's oeuvre. His work with filmmaking was first recognized at the 1963 Brussels International Experimental Film Festival and, by the end of the 1960s, he had begun to produce work with video and moved easily between the two mediums until the 1980s and 1990s, when he completed only one film but thirty-two videos.

The ontological project he has consistently pursued was much admired by the British group of ‘structural/material’ film-makers in the 1970s and was described by Malcolm Legrice in his 1977 book, Abstract Film and Beyond, as being a ‘detailed examination of our perceptual and conceptual mechanisms’. Iimura has maintained this tendency with contemporary projects, particularly the Observer/Observed CD-ROM.

What makes the newer medium of CD-ROM useful to Iimura's broader project? Clearly, analysis that sets out to define ‘seeing’ in relation to sound, language and linguistics must provide the audience with the ability to participate in a process involving concentration and provide opportunity for reflection and even meditation. This work allows users to pace themselves through a medium that is part gallery, part lecture room, part catalogue and part auto-analysis. Ingenious linking, judiciously designed, enables the user to move easily within a matrix of cross-referencing.

The three original video pieces---Camera, Monitor, Frame, Observer/Observed and Observer/Observed/Observer---are presented in digital format, providing a complete facsimile version of the original video (in itself a collector's item). In addition, this version goes further with the option to then enter the documentation of each piece and navigate between animated diagrams (‘Picture Plan’), a storyboard (‘Program’) or a narrative description. These are linked to one of the two essays written by Iimura: The Visuality of the Structure of the Japanese Language and A Semiology of Video, which can be read in extract form or complete as discrete pieces. Access to such varied but related knowledge makes good use of interactive multimedia.

When the essential elements of cognition are applied to the ubiquitous video/television image, the complex play (‘see’) between the subject (‘I’) and the object (‘you’) are interrogated such that each element (image/sound) is perceived (seen/heard) in relation to the video (closed) system by symbolically creating a diegesis of the moment(s) of recording. Spoken description (‘I -- see -- you’) extends beyond these Vertovian principles, a la revenant, and introduces the semantic distinctions between English and Japanese and the separation created by the predicate verb being placed (in English) between the subject and the object. The emphasis placed on the subject/ego in the technology of language is mirrored, but problematized, in the closed system of the video installation and that of the camera/operator.

The Observer/Observed CD-ROM was made at the same time as another, Interactive: AIUEONN Six Features (which is also based on a video piece, from 1993), and provides the extension to the reflexive process that the time-based work proposes, enabling a practically active engagement with the work rather than an intellectual non-passivity. The work of other artists (Valie Export, Simon Biggs, Nigel Helyer, etc.), has also made use of this technology, but these have mostly been archiving projects, pulling images and text into a conveniently searchable and viewable form. Iimura's recent projects go far further in combining the rigor of earlier work with the accessibility and tractability of this interactive medium.

The catalogue of the Jeu du Paume retrospective is a significant addition to the French/Japanese bibliography on the artist and a useful adjunct to the CD-ROM for English readers, providing hard copy of the diagrams and storyboards employed and a highly detailed listing of biographical sources.

Reviewed by Fred Andersson
Is there such a thing as a conceptualist filmmaker? Isn't conceptualism in a sense contradictory to filmmaking? The feeling of immersion and narrative in the filmic experience - is this necessarily the popular opposite of an intellectual, conceptual standpoint? Takahiko (Taka) Iimura is a filmmaker and video-artist who since the beginning of the sixties has moved towards the experimental peripheries of the mediums of moving images - peripheries in which the popular sphere of filmmaking gradually transforms into the conceptual and minimal.

The present catalogue, film et video, was made in conjunction with his retrospective at the Galerie national de Jeu de Paume in Paris, 11-30 of Mai 1999. With only black and white illustrations, which is perfectly fitting for a production so dominated by black and white, this catalogue (with parallel texts in French and Japanese) covers and explains Iimuras development from early 16 mm films like Ai (Love, 1962, music by Yoko Ono) to the final presentation of his Video Semiology in an impressive CD-ROM produced at the Banff Center in 1998-99 (Observer/Observed and Other Works of Video Semiology). However, the major part of the catalogue consists of Iimura's own text on Video Semiology, taken (with illustrations) from the CD-ROM.

It's good that this text is made available in languages other than English. It describes three series of minimal video sequences (2 minutes, 1,15 minutes, etc). The series are: Camera, Monitor, Frame (five sequences, 1976-98), Observer/Observed (three sequences, 1975-98) and Observer/Observed/Observer (three sequences, 1976-98).

According to Iimura, these videos are Semiology - Art as Theory rather than Theory of Art. In a very matter-of-fact way, they explore the spatial structure of the video medium - relations between camera, monitor, observer and observed.

There is nothing to be seen here, except of cameras, monitors, written or spoken statements like ‘this is monitor’ - and of course also the Observers (who sometimes become the Observed of their own observation.).

Referring to formalist film theories such as those of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, Iimura looks for a relation between ‘the logical structure of the video system’ and the grammar of spoken language. But his aim is also to stage a rupture (une saut) between Word and Image, for example when a camera first films a text saying ‘this is a monitor’ and then turns to a monitor connected to the camera itself, which creates a short circuit (monitor within monitor within monitor). Contrary to the written statement, there is really no monitor but just images of monitors within images of monitors. i.e.: a camera (a mechanical eye) which films it's own filming. Therefore, Iimura concludes that the phrase ‘this is a camera’ signifies a Signified which is unique for the video medium. i.e.: this short circuit effect is only possible with a video camera. It demonstrates that the Video Frame (photogramme) is nothing but interruptions of an electrical signal - thus being a more unstable, temporal unit than the isolated Film Frame.

limura also concludes that ‘I am a camera’, following Dziga Vertov's statement ‘I am the mechanical eye’. In this way, Iimura’s video semiology puts forward the question of the relationship between Self Identity and Visual Technology in the modern world. It's good that the present catalogue, with its additional texts by Daniel and Christophe Charles, makes clear the importance of this question in Iimura’s work. I think it's a good introduction which calls for more elaborate studies.



Takahiko Iimura





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