Present Continuous Past(s) (Présent passé(S) continu(S)), 1974
1 black and white camera,
1 black and white monitor, 2 mirrors,
Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris (France)
The year 1974 was a particularly rich one in Dan Graham's video production annals, for he produced some ten installations globally called Time Delay Room, which have in common a proposal, using different devices, to show live recorded images which are then retransmitted on monitors with a slight time lag. Present Continuous Past(s), initially shown in Cologne, is the first work in the genre and, what is more, the model for most works which present space-time interpenetrations in rooms partly lined with mirrors, in which the viewer is simultaneously subject and object of perception. The description written by Dan Graham for Present Continuous Past(s) can in no way replace the viewer's proprio(per)ceptive experience, yet it does help to grasp the problem set involved here: “The mirrors reflect present time. The video camera tapes what is immediately in front of it and the entire reflection on the opposite mirrored wall. The image seen by the camera (reflecting everything in the room) appears 8 seconds later in the video monitor […]. If a viewer's body does not directly obscure the lens' view of the facing mirror, the camera is taping the reflection of the room and the reflected image of the monitor […]. A person viewing the monitor sees both the image of himself, 8 seconds ago, and what was reflected on the mirror from the monitor, 8 seconds ago, which is 16 seconds in the past […]. An infinite regress of time continuums within time continuums (always separated by 8-second intervals) within time continuums is created.”1 The work's title – and this is something quite rare in Dan Graham's work – suggests different interpretations with regard to past and present temporal overlaps: what may be involved is a continually past present, or a continually present past or pasts, or alternatively a continually present present in the past or a continually past past or past(s) in the present. All this is made perfectly possible if we bear in mind that the images retransmitted with their permanent and successive lapses are perceived in present time by the onlooker, that the latter is reflected in present time in the mirrors, but that, at the same time, much of what he perceives already no longer exists. More precisely, it is already no longer present in the sense that the image is retransmitted, but present all the same at the very moment when its viewing takes place, because this always takes place now. The device developed by the artist does not incidentally contain all the possible space-time arrangements, because the spectator's memory, no matter how infinitesimal and elementary it may be, likewise contributes to the composition and recomposition of his experience of space and time. One might think that the only things mobilized are the sense of time's duration and the fleeting memory of time past, or passing; this is to forget that the system of capture is capable of recording ad infinitum all future presence, which will be immediately reintroduced into a present, and then a past. Once the more or less complete system of capture or harnessing has been assimilated, any spectator may forecast, project into the future, as it were, the arrangement's principle. What, on the other hand, he cannot imagine or recollect is precisely the present experience of present time, which only has any consistency when we are caught in the interplay of images and reflections of the room and when we are physically included in its space. Without denying the playful, and somewhat spectacular and theatrical, or even, for some viewers, upsetting features of Present Continuous Past(s), still at work today and, needless to say, part and parcel of the work, the latter subtly sheds light on a phenomenon that is almost always hidden by our everyday preoccupations, namely the space-time experience of self. The fact that we are living in space and time is obvious, but we pay no heed to it as long as it concerns our time and our space. Above all, we are in no way accustomed to seeing this virtually elusive time and space unfolding before and with us in a concrete way, as here in Graham's work. For Present Continuous Past(s) does not show us just an infinity of perceptive forms of the time and space of an object – the installation properly so-called – but essentially our space-time experience as lived, as if we were entering into another oneself. The experience under way is none other than the experience of ourselves which nobody else can have. In this work, and other similar works, Dan Graham does not just offer us the chance to be the subject of our own experience; he pushes us in a way despite ourselves – whence a relative physical and psychic violence felt by some – towards the exploration of other ways of seeing ourselves and learning about ourselves as subjects. Dan Graham shows us that what we are or think we are is never closed and defined, but rather shifting and unfinished.
Translated by Simon Pleasance
1. Dan Graham, Video-Architecture-Television, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, New York University Press, 1979, p. 7.