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Thickened Surface: Pipilotti Rist's Sip My Ocean (1996)

Michael Jay McClure, PhD
Assistant Professor
Contemporary Art and Theory
The University of Wisconsin, Madison

SECTION ONE: Proscenium

Imagine: in the corner of a darkened room a two-paneled video projection appears. Each panel is the same size and abuts precisely on the two perpendicular walls. Further, as the images run, each is perfectly synched and boasts identical imagery—save for the fact that the two panels are reverses of, or mirror, one another. As a result, the form generates a certain bilateral symmetry, if not an emphatic shapeliness. In such a work, a video comprised of two mirrored projections, the half face might become whole, a whole face might twin, legs may artificially pair, and any ocean would become augmented, and organized, with a perfect complement. In such a work, the conjunction, creating a single spectacle from this double projection, becomes crucial.

Such is the case with Pipilotti Rist's Sip My Ocean (1996); its double projection records a plunging and bobbing into an aquatic landscape; further, as might be expected of a dive, the video explores both the oceanic surface and delves into it, skimming its coral reefs, fishy oceanscape, while a certain artificially-produced, perfectly-sutured, if not always coherent, Pipilotti Rist, among others, swims in out of the frame. The video concludes, if a looping two-paneled video can be said to conclude, with a knot of swimmers overlaid on the ocean. Their bodies, where shaded, are seemingly perforated by that ocean, produced by a post-production effect specific to video as a medium.

This aquatic adventure is a brief 8 minutes long, but noteworthy for its vibrancy: the ocean is aqua; tropical fish, like spangles or pixels, float through frame; a yellow bathing suit flashes through and electrifies the mise-en-scène. Then, this environment mimics video at the outset: echoing its keyed-up color and ultimate pixilation.

Yet, for now, the corner might concern us, the corner where these two sides of the video join. Because the two-paneled video, projected like a film, goes into, and into, the oceanic landscape, and because the two projections meet at a corner, the piece achieves a kind of weird dimensionality. The actual volume of the room lends the flat, perpendicular projections a kind of heft as the environment streaks by. (This might remind us how, when we the see a drawing of a cube, it can appear, successively, as concave or convex.) Accordingly, this represented ocean seems, at times, like an aquarium: a cubed representation of water. So while it might be argued all cinematic work presents itself as a proscenium, or as a kind of stage, this work does so markedly. This is underscored by a number of objects: a record, toys, teacups, a strand of pearls, and a stuffed purse—detritus from a kind of feminine civility or a broken narrative—which rain down in front of the moving camera, on the two projections. The camera keeps recessing as if through series of curtains, through an unfolding, actual space.

In addition to this two paneled projection, this almost cube of water, there are three things I would note. First, the walls that frame the projections are painted aqua. Second, in a voice over, Pipilotti Rist sings, or more accurately shrieks, the Chris Isaac song Wicked Game (with its incantation of “I don't want to fall in love”). Third, while the camera records this dive, bronze, spine-like, fastener-like shapes erratically appear on the surface of the screen, as overlay; these bronze shapes are not within the diegetic space of the work, and do not resolve as one thing or another, even if they mirror one another and seem to spring from the corner—the corner which is as once a limit, a seam, and, as the swimmer goes into it, a vortex.

To critically proceed, one might analyze the mirrorscape of the ocean, its horizontal reflective surface working in contradistinction to the vertical projected plane. Further, because the camera appears to move toward this corner-as-seam, one might describe this exploration of a coral-lined and folded seascape in gendered terms, or certainly in vaginal ones. The two panels may present an image that rubs together, but is not one, to reference Luce Irigaray.(1) Finally, one might talk about the film, itself, as a kind of gravity-free space of desire. However interesting those interpretative avenues might be, this essay hopes to question a kind of promise and profound limit of media. That is, while this video seems to spring into a third dimension, and a proscenium, in a manner that belies the weightless, flat, projection, there are a series of images and sounds that work to disrupt this mock-dimensionality. I would like to consider that which works against the seamless spectacle of a cinematic whole.(2)

I use the term cinema because the terms video and film seem equally inadequate to the work. To wit, while this piece was produced with video equipment, it is projected like a film in a cinematic space. The darkened room, the engulfing screen, and the outsized spectacle suggest a film; the occasionally pixilated surface, the handheld quality of shots, and the flat, all over focus, suggest video. In this work, then, media are collapsed, fluid, and hybridized. It is a cinematic presentation in which different media are felt, if not seen, as I will explain.

SECTION TWO: Accretion

Film and video might share architecture of embellishment, or build up. To explain, one might pan from the work proper to the painted walls that frame the projections. Vibrant and marine; this paint is surely a convenient way to accessorize the gallery of Sip My Ocean, to direct regard back to the fluxing screens. However, these painted walls might also stand for this work itself, resembling the ocean's purest chroma and, thus, the video's “subject” at its most basically described. In addition to referring to this work, however, these walls might also denote film and video as media.

After all, filmic projection sheets a wall, as paint does, even if its lucent material is impossibly thinner.(3) Likewise, video might resolve, telescopically, into a single, monochromatic pixel. This video projection, at base, covers the wall as light and as a variety of abstract color blocks. This painted wall, then, this one color, might represent the zero at the end, or beginning, of this piece's cinematic illusion, it might recall this work's preconditions.

These preconditions are quickly superannuated, or, perhaps, disavowed; we see into a film and beyond video's constituency. There are many things that convince us, of course, that cinematic space can be trusted: framing, the pivoting camera, continuity editing, focus, not to mention video's ever-increasing resolution. Beyond those conventions, this work (if we turn, now, back to the screens) uses the space of its gallery—in a way that recalls the early light projections of James Turrell—to give the illusion of dimension.(4) Further, unlike Turrell's projects, Rist fills the cube with things to see—coral, bodies, props, and of course, water. This filling is emphatic. Most dramatically, this video metaphorizes the light of projection, the “fact” of it, likening it with the translucency of water: any blankness on the screen becomes atmospheric and liquid. This, then, becomes process of thickening, at least visually, the projected surface: building up cinema as if it might contain something.(5) This visual elaboration, or ornamentation, might act as a stay against the nothingness “behind” the cinematic image. This embellishment might act as a reaction against horror vacui, as Alöis Reigl's defined (in 1893) the ornamental impulse.(6)

But beyond merely knowing it to be such, can one “see” the emptiness here, the mediation, the media? Beyond that, why would we care if we can?

The answer to the first question occupies the rest of this paper. As to the second question, I contend that identifying media within the piece exposes us how they might work. Indeed, such an inquiry is the ground of the art historical reaction to that which we call, whether filmed or not, video art. The brilliant assertion of Rosalind Krauss, in 1976, starts here: that there was little to see, in terms of medium, in the bulk of then-extant video. It could not be, then, self reflexive, but merely reflective. In her terms, video was relevant because it allowed the artist the tools with which to activate the psychoanalytic condition of narcissism.(7) Narcissism becomes, in this schematic, the medium of video art, the encapsulation of self, equipment, and video feedback. The reactions to this proposal have been various and vigorously argued.(8) For purposes of this paper, I note that video, as a medium, might be invisible, or visible intermittently. Whether we agree that much of video work presents, in Krauss' terms, “a kind of weightless fall through the space of narcissism,”(9) we might assert that as a medium video acts as a set of formal terms, of discursive limits. The fact that video, and, by extension film, reproduces bodies, objects, and experience, but within strict formal and time bound stringencies, compels us care about it as such, not just what it presents, but how. More radically, we could contend that its discourse calls into being certain objects, bodies, and experiences.(10) So what are the limits of what it can enunciate? More accurately, what kind of bodies does it produce and image in its duration?

What I have tried to suggest, thus far, is that Sip My Ocean accretes; its becomes nearly dimensional by aligning with architecture, by filling up the frame with filmed objects, by receding into a kind of cubic, unraveling space. Moreover, it transfers, metaphorically, the properties of projection, which could be seen as emptiness, onto the properties of uncontained water. Conversely, that which threatens such totality might be where we feel, as negative, the media that carry this portrait of an artist, among other figures, in allegorical space.

Two phenomena pierce the seamless space of the projected scene, and, thus might be said to be the work of media: first, we might focus on that which reminds us of the flat, pixilated surface combined with that which sits on the surface oddly, suggesting another space outside the depicted one.


There is a way in which the video effects—especially those of overlay—are the most obvious points of “disjunction” within this work's diegetic space. Yet, there are moments, too, within the video's recording of aquatic space where there seems to be a strange bifurcation, or doubleness, within the imagery. These effects also suggest the evanescent presence of media. I first noticed such strangeness in Sip My Ocean as the camera hovered past a reef of shockingly bright coral. The diegetic space of the film was convincing; instead, the shock had to do with color. It seemed too bright; the video produced chroma too saturated, too flat, and less variegated than the coral to which it supposedly belonged. Then, even though the coral fit logically into the mise-en-scène it also seemed to break out of it. The semiotic and psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva noticed something similar when she regarded Giotto's famous blue.

In Giotto's work color and form “in themselves” are never liberated. But beginning with Giotto, with the emergence of the great Christian paintings of the Renaissance, the independence of color and form appears in relation to the signified: with respect to narrative and representation. It appears independent precisely because it constantly pits itself against the ever present norm. It tears itself from the norm, bypasses it, turns away from it, absorbs it, goes beyond it, does something else—always in relation to it.(11)

In Kristeva's terms, color could be both attached to a representation and could detach, like a kind of projection, from it. This kind spectral disruption, however, works differently in a painting than in a moving image. After all, a painting can be examined and re-examined, while a video is animate. Thus, in video, if color can constitute an object while exceeding its definition, it will arrive as a kind of flash in the frame. To be clear, this kind of disruption is not limited to the coral but can be found in the yellow of the suit, the fish, even the aquamarine of the ocean, each appropriate and extrinsic. Disruptions lay over the overlay of projection.

Video produces this flatness, this vibrancy, and thus this disruption. But this anomaly also resembles film: a kind of flat, formal presence that belies the perspectival depth of that which sits in the frame. Of course, this might be true of any video. However, in this work, disruption gets produced vociferously and thematically.

After all, the underwater is, already, hyperbolic, filled with colors that seems to be nearly independent of the objects they fill, and as artificial as any produced by the video camera. I have already talked about how this marine environment resembles pixilation and the process of video. But, too, there is an excessive amount of overlay produced within the film, which serves to trouble its globed space.

For example, we might point to those brass fastener-like shapes that show up in the film. Whatever they might be, they stand as optical barrier between that which streams by on the surface and us—a stutter or catch in the illusion. We might point to the cloying, and very funny, song, extra-diegetic and melodramatic, which overlays this plunge forward into an oceanic landscape, and which seems asynchronous. We might point to the video's loop as ultimate limit, and how these mirrored objects get deranged by it and by their mode of presentation. For instance, we observe not just a half face made whole, but a half face deranged, made strange, and a body that seems to swim through a kind of real space, but which remains, often, unintelligible. Finally, I would point toward the overlaid bodies, their artificial situation on another kind of surface. In other words, while Rist builds up the spectacle to mimic something like spatial experience, some kind of build up works inversely. The intensification of color, the layering of the surface, the voice over, the curtain of presented objects, and the endless loop of the film, all work to disrupt the circumambience and coherence of this projected video. Disruption appears as a strobing phenomenon, lining the running time of the work.

Thus, media surface as flash or intermittence. Further, media seem to occupy the piece in a series of proxies, the painted wall is like filmic projection, for instance; the color of an errant bathing suit appears as flat as the projection we look upon; the fish school is as fragmented as video; the voice over both adheres and detaches from the spectacle. Finally a close up of an eye seems to block us from seeing beyond it; it appears like a screen.(12) Significantly, no one site signifies media, or resistance to it. Instead, the press of different registers of illusion on top of one another—the streaking surface that contains disparity in its concatenation—suggests a disruptive movement on, and in, the signifying structure of the cinematic screen.(13)

This is significant, partly, because one we aren't merely presented with objects, but decidedly human ones, and with women, bodies subject to convention, decoration, and, often, violent rules of visibility. As a concluding gesture, I would ask this: if we can see media here, or not see it, but feel, on occasion, its disciplinary apparatus, can we see not only the body that swims through this work as visible, but as suggestive of a hidden one? Can we imagine a body with a hidden morphology, working in excess, or swimming against, representation and that which would capture it? Moreover, can we see in and on the cinematic body a kind of disruption coextensive with its very borders? If we could, then this ocean, flat and desiccated, would generate multiple bodies in its limited terrain. Thus, there is a reason to swim through it, to surf it, and, of course, to take seriously its command to sip it.

1. Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, Catherine Porter., tr., with Carolyn Burke, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985)

2. The complete belief in a cinematic reality is, of course, always elusive. As Christian Metz writes, “It is understood that the audience is not duped by the diegetic illusion, it ‘knows' that the screen presents no more than a fiction. And yet, it is of vital importance for the correct unfolding of the spectacle that this make-believe be scrupulously made (or else the fiction film is declared ‘poorly made'), that everything is effective and to give it an air of truth (this is the problem of verisimilitude).” See Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewester, and Alfred Guzzetti, tr., (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 72. I am arguing that Rist's film exaggerates the verisimilitude of the film—it's even more like a “real space” that most films—and its disjunction.

3. Michael Fried talks about color field paintings as being, in fact, like projections. “[T]he stain technique identifies the painted image with its woven canvas ground, almost as if the image were thrown onto the latter from a slide projector. The actual weave of the canvas shows through everywhere….[T]he stain image and its raw canvas are indissoluble one from the other. In fact, the stain image may be regarded as nothing more than the ground itself under different conditions of seeing, and vice-versa.” Quoted from Michael Fried, Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella, (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), p. 19. Interestingly, this criticism, so wholly aligned with Modernist thought, might give us a way to think to think of the cinematic projection, first, as incredibly successful painting, and, second, it aligns weightlessness with projection, and thus, cinema.

4. I'm thinking of something like James Turrell's Catso (1967) which uses the corner of the room to make the blank square projected onto it appear as dimensional and, specifically, cubic.

5. Roland Barthes, who preferred photography, noticed, nevertheless a kind of “third meaning” that could be produced in film, and this “third meaning” had to do, specifically, with a kind of thickened surface. As he said about Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, “I am still held by the image. I read, I receive (and probably even first and foremost) a third meaning — evident, erratic, obstinate. I do not know what its signified is, at least I am unable to give it a name, but I can see clearly the traits, the signifying accidents of which this — consequently incomplete — sign is composed: a certain compactness of the courtiers' make-up, thick and insistent for the one, smooth and distinguished for the other; the former's ‘stupid' nose, the latter's finely traced eyebrows.” See Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning,” in Image — Music — Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York, 1977), p. 53. I am indebted to Homay King for this observation; King, in particular, talks about cinematic “thickness” as a kind of concatenation of photographic film still and the moving image. See her “Imago Lucis Opera Expressa,” in Effaced Figures: Authorship, Psychoanalysis, and the American Cinema, Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, Department of Rhetoric, 2002, p. 7.

6. Alois Riegl, Problems of Style: Foundations for a History of Ornament, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), see, especially, pp. 3-40; first published in German in 1893.

7. Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October, no. 1, (Spring, 1976), pp. 50-64. For the continuation and update of this work see her book, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), Reinventing the Medium” in Critical Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 2, 289-305, and “Two Moments from the Post-Medium Condition,” in October, no. 116, (Spring 2006), pp. 55-62. We might quote p. 58 from the latter, as she talks about contemporary video artists “As I have argued in a series of recent essay on the phenomenon, these artists do not work with the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture, which they view as exhausted, but are instead forced to do something as counterintuitive as inventing a new medium. Accordingly, they reach for the modern, technical mechanisms as the ‘supports' for their own work.” This, then, is in opposition to a material as medium, and instead, focuses on the how medium cites, shapes, and discursively creates. Thus, while we may disagree that narcissism is the discursive medium, Krauss' arguments brilliantly transfer medium from a material thing that we might see, to a set of disciplinary structures that might shape an image. See also Rosalind E. Krauss, “Re-Inventing the Medium,” in Critical Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 2, (Winter 1999), pp. 290-305

8. See, for example, Anne Wagner, “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence,” October, no. 91, (Winter 2000), pp. 59-80, specifically as she talks about the importance of the audience early video and performance.

9. Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” p. 59.

10. I am grateful to Judith Butler for her example illuminating how identity is bound up with discourse. In her Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of “Sex,” (New York and London: Routledge), 1993, she writes famously about how certain bodies are made to “matter” though the discourse of sex, and, further, how citing that discourse can cause fissures that very discourse. See page 8, “For there is an ‘outside' to what is constructed by discourse, but this is not an absolute ‘outside,' an ontological thereness that exceeds the or counters the boundaries of a discourse; as a constitutive ‘outside,' it is that which can be thought—when it can—in relation to that discourse, at and as its most tenuous borders,” and, later, on page 10, “Crucially, then, construction is neither a single act nor a causal process initiated by a subject and culminating in a set of fixed effects. Construction not only takes place in time, but is itself a temporal process which operates through the reiteration of norms; sex is both produced and destabilized in the course of this reiteration.”

11. Julia Kristeva, “Giotto's Joy” in Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, Leon Roudiez, ed., Thomas Gora, tr., (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 215

12. In this, I'm saying that there is no “escape” from the image, no absolute subversion, but a kind of countermovement possible within it. Especially helpful, here, is David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007) who describes a kind of media (specifically capitalism and television) surfing which works along the network, but actively, producing a kind of feedback in its strictures. To quote p. 30 “One of the objectives of this book is to describe such media ecologies, or ‘mediascapes,' but in order to do so a new kind criticism is necessary. Such a criticism must take Fredric Jameson's model of cognitive mapping as its inspiration rather than the exorbitant and even hypocritical claims for subversion that characterize so much of the critical and academic reception of post-World War II American art. I take it as axiomatic that there is no longer a position outside capitalism in the United States, and that under such conditions, facile revolutionary claims for art (not to mention television) are little more than posing. (….) Television will both object of study and interpretative framework. Feedback is the product of this short-circuiting.”

13. The term, “disruptive movement,” comes from Judith Butler and her description of Luce Irigaray's feminine, in “Bodies That Matter,” in Bodies that Matter: On Discursive Limits of “Sex,” from which we may quote p, 36, “This is, clearly, no place between ‘his' language and ‘hers,' but only a disruptive movement which unsettles the topographical claim.”