Artist, writer, and filmmaker Robin Deacon presents his lecture performance White Balance: A History of Video as part of the Spill Festival of Performance. In previous works, Deacon tests the possibilities of displacing voice and body on stage, which he refers to as ‘the problematization of presence’. Influenced by artist Stuart Sherman, whose work Deacon studies, ‘approximates’, and re-performs as part of an ongoing project, Deacon attempts to disappear in performance. Informed by members of his audience that he lacks ‘a neutral enough presence’ – the suggestion is that white is neutral, black is oblique – Deacon returns repeatedly to this failure to disappear.
White Balance, which Deacon has been developing since 2013, is a study of seeing and remembering in relation to the technologies we use to see and remember, specifically, video cameras and tapes. As Deacon explains, ‘the thesis is that our memories look like the things they were recorded with’. Deacon shows the audience his collection of equipment, demonstrating their capabilities through live feeds and pre-recordings, and illustrates his thesis with reference to movies, advertisements, and cultural and critical texts.
Deacon sits in a tech booth situated at the back of the raked seating; together, artist and audience face two projected screens. Deacon is visible, as are the cameras trained on his face, but the audience’s gaze is directed away from his physical presence and towards his image on screen. He begins by describing a white room, which he uses to frame abstract discussions of experience, memory, and forgetting. Holding a white sheet of paper in front of the camera, the screen appears white, and Deacon’s image is erased. The live feed transitions into pre-recorded footage, from a white sheet of paper to a white bedroom, and the shot moves down to reveal Deacon lying in bed. The artist reappears on screen, but in the form of an earlier version, whose live double is seated at the back of the darkened theatre.
Doubles recur throughout the performance: experience and memory, experience and documentation, original recordings and copies. Deacon describes the experience of watching an earlier version of himself onscreen as akin to time travel. The video recording functions as a reminder of the inevitability of death, the impossibility of immortality, no matter how reliable the brand of tape. Playing an advertisement for Scotch tape, ‘the only videotape guaranteed for life’, Deacon wonders if this guarantee is a promise or a threat. The fear of losing our memories is confounded by the fear of not being able to forget.
In an interview with curator Cecelia Wee (2005), Deacon explains his practice of documentation in terms of habit, disclosure, archives, and ego (the desire for multiple images of himself). A decade later, Deacon describes a nightmarish vision of ‘total documentation – of every waking experience having some form of recorded double’. The compulsion to document becomes pathological. The documentation, which is intended to preserve experience, therefore, to extend life, instead displaces experience, and precipitates death.
Deacon is not afraid to play tricks with life, death, and the audience; he presents counterfeit documentation. A JVC GR-C1 video camera (notably featured in Back to the Future ) produces footage from the 1980s; the video may have been shot in 2013, but it communicates particularly ‘eighties’ qualities in its tone, texture, and pace. The structure of the lecture performance enables Deacon to experiment with presence and persona, mixing instructive discourse on a range of subjects with storytelling and humour. He invites the audience to listen to him, to trust him, to like him, and to suspect him – the show and tell is explicitly contrived to effect entertainment as well as disturbing realisation of the contrivance.
Demonstrating the potential for media manipulation, for manufactured histories and truths, Deacon’s performance produces destabilising tensions between pleasure and horror. The pleasures of grainy home videos, of the whirrs and clicks of a VCR, of well told stories and well received lies; the horrors of the breach between recorded smiles and remembered realities, of the scratch and pull of stuck tape, of the impossible pairing of memory and truth. Deacon invites the audience to attend to the twisting relationships between medium and message, and to distrust the impartiality of the white balance.
White Balance: A History of Video was part of Spill Festival of Performance 2015. For more information visit the Spill Festival website.