John Conomos

Leftquote Who speaks of victory? To endure is everything. Rightquote
Rainer Maria Rilke
Jean-Paul Fargier and the Electrification of Literature
Chimaera Monographie, Jean-Paul Fargier, No 5 Edition du Centre International de Creation Video Montbeliard Belfort, 1992

“Video is not just a technique, it’s a state of mind, a way of seeing images in the future perfect tense”
Serge Daney

“Nietzsche said a hundred years ago, “God is dead”. I say now, “Paper is dead…” If Joyce had lived today, surely he would have written his Finnegan’s Wake on video tape…”
Nam June Paik

Jean-Paul Fargier as a video artist, critic and polemicist is, without a doubt, one of the most eloquent voices to be heard in video. What I propose to do today is think aloud in open-ended terms concerning the invaluable role Fargier has (to-date) played in shaping some of the more salient aesthetic, cultural, historical and technological aspects of video as a dynamic contemporary art form.

Indeed it can be argued that Fargier’s role as one of Europe’s foremost video critics responsible for helping to forge the basic vocabulary of video criticism merits substantial discussion in itself because of his singularly visionary outlook on the medium. Since the early days of 1968/69 Fargier took up militant video with Danielle Jaeggi and others and constituted to Cinethique espousing an Althusserian mode of political modernism in contemporary film theory 1 .

I don’t intend for a moment to analyse in substantial detail Fargier’s insightful, witty and pun-encrusted critical writings on video (that is project worthy of another occasion). Let me say that since the late sixties and early seventies Fargier as a videaste and critic/theorist has been steadily opening up new uncharted vistas of formal and theoretical possibilities in creating and discussing the dancing audio-visual surfaces and multilayered conceptual architecture of video as a medium of postmodern creativity. Fargier’s epistemological, formal and poetic capacity to formulate new questions that lead to other new unsettling questions about the concepts, forms styles and elastic compositional possibilities of video and its complex mutating connections to cinema, literature (especially as analysed in the poststructuralist traditions of Barthes, Sollers and Tel Quel and their valorisation of ecriture as a contemporary avant-garde literary practice in the wake of modernism), the visual arts and the new media technologies (specifically radio and television) is something that is always foregrounded in his own innovative theoretical and videographic practice. Fargier’s literary based, elegantly orchestrated videos are notable for their deceptive Bunuelian simplicity of framing profound aesthetic, cultural and metaphysical questions in startling refined and fecund aural and imagistic configurations. Moreover, it’s a bold adventurous videography that is characterised by a highly malleable use of pictorial space (and the attendant plastic capacity to generate volume out of space), and most significantly, it is primarily concerned in articulating a post-Gordian poetics of electronic image-making which clearly conveys the imaginative risks in crossing the threshold of the sayable. Fargier’s luminous art constitutes a grand moving experimental inquiry into the very nature of image and sound which (to quote Jean-Luc Godard) suggests “traces that resemble us” 2 . Image-makers like Godard, Chris Marker, the Vasulkas, Thierry Kuntzel, Bill Viola and Robert Cahen are all fired by the same common dream: to make art as if witnessing the birth of the image itself. In Fargier’s case, whether it’s elaborately fluid and conceptualised videos or his inventive criticism (not to stretch a long bow here) he represents the conscience and memory of video. This is particularly evident in the historiographical, theoretical and visual concerns of a critically significant video like Joyce Digital (1984) of Play it again, Nam (1990).

Though Fargier is often seen to be highly articulate defender of European narrative and major innovator of the literary video, it is fairly important to italicise that his experimental significance as an image-maker focuses primarily on his sustained imaginative desire to locate some of the more critical principles of video as they particularly apply to the spoken word. Fargier in his prolific oeuvre specifically in major works like Robin des Voix (1987) – which I shall focus upon later – Joyce Digital, Robin Texto (1987) and Things Seen (1985) is motivated by a fundamental question: how best to use voice in video 3 ? His answer is to deploy sparingly rare and beautiful images and manipulate them in a fashion reminiscent (in the words of the artist) of a “a horse running” 4 . Images that evolve gradually demonstrating video’s entrancing ability to show, quote Thierry Kuntzel, “the time time takes to pass” 5 .

Having said this I wish now, at this early juncture, to discuss (in an explorative speculative manner) Fargier’s oeuvre a propos of his influential experimental role as someone who is engaged in enhancing the aesthetic, cultural and technological potential of video as a poetic and supple form of electronic writing 6 . Significantly it can be argued that Fargier’s videos exemplify an immensely refined and suggestive kind of image and sound writing that endeavours to speak of the personal, the fragmentary and the invisible with the conceptual and formal freedom of a Raoul Ruiz movie. His video work represents an electronic calligraphy of the experimental and the personal affording Fargier much invaluable authorial and intertextual freedom to examine ambiguities of gesture, abstract and figurative configurations, playful conceptual irony, documentary forms, chromatic expressionism and the important related capacity to make the image appear and disappear.

Fargier as an explorer of video form is interested in examining the notion of video as electronic collage (through Fargier’s situation his concisely constructed sonic based collage stylistics are characteristically understated in the mise-en-scene of his video image) and has discovered the imaginative and stylistic riches inherent in manipulating, distorting, cutting, colourising and collaging video’s electronic signal. The video artist’s supple and thought-provoking image-making is engaged on an affective and conceptual level how best to render the invisible visible : how best to create a video stylo form of electronic writing that gives one an infinite range of exciting pliable compositional possibilities.  In other words, to produce an electronic language of polychronic and polytropic concepts and forms. As coined by Peter Weibel polychromic refers to “ the rate at which various images appear, their order and speed” ; while polytropic refers to the ability of video to “contain many planes of information, subject, image, and even concepts of time, such as present, past, future, and dream, within one space’7 . Both concepts denote rhizomatic collisions of time, space, colour, light, form and image.

Of crucial importance is how Fargier’s far-reaching enterprise 9in our post-semiotic age) as a nomadic cartographer of the human imagination suggests an artist who is endowed with the playfully subversive capacity to disrupt and question traditional modes of image-making.

He is an artist who is distinctly familiar with the fundamental aesthetic, audio-visual and technological ideas that characterise video’s postmodernist aesthetic of temporality and its intricate legacy to classical literary modernism (Eliot, Joyce and Pound – especially Joyce in the wake of Paikian video and McLuhan’s conceptualisation of modern media consciousness) and the emergence of the new technical media during this century and their decisive impact on the formation of the early avant-gardes of modernism (Futurism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism 8 . Further, Fargier’s videos are often specifically made for television (fuelled by the belief as he once put it “The motor of the history of Video Art is the desire to merge with the optimum yield of the Machine Television”) and the more familiar institutional parameters of the international video world 9 . Critically his videography (like Duchamp’s art and Goddard’s image-making) represents criticism art 10 . The conceptual and stylistic architecture of Fargier’s art video is clearly recognisable for its pronounced impulse to define a new poetics of transubstantiation (articulated in Robin des voix, Robin Texto, Joyce Digital, and most directly, in Trinity, 12H 10 (1989)) that has been forged in creative solitude and shaped by Mallarme’s quest for The Book and by the perennial desire to locate and magnify new lyrical and resonant images and sounds emanating from a given literary text (which according to Fargier already constitutes ‘a formal organisation of reality’) 11 . Thus Fargier is preoccupied with Bachelard’s challenge of encountering a blank page as an opportunity to dream, to generate a new creation, a poetic synthesis of image, sound and written text that speaks of the artist’s trajectory to question orthodox ideas about the elaborate mobile relationships between literature, radio, television and video. To enunciate diacritical insights into our prevailing orders of discourse and vision, insights which characterise the image as luminous form and spectacle. This means a yearning to critique the limits of western representation (language as mimetic form) and also the chance for the artist to delineate a multiplicity of advanced ideas, forms and styles commenting on the manifold energies, forces and vibrancies that occur in images and sounds.

Fargier’s videography is situated somewhere (as he once indicated) between Godard and Averty 12 . Central to his art of video is his consistent neo-Paikian objective of analysing the conceptual, visual and radiophonic ramification of Joyce’s (post) modernist aesthetic of discontinuity, double-voicedness, space as space-time (something which has broader implications here, as Maureen Turim has recently outlined, reminding us that modernism in the visual arts emphasised a well-defined interactive relationship between temporality and spatiality) and relative simultaneity 13 . Therefore it is important to note that the Joycean/Paikian connection to Fargier’s oeuvre emblematised in ironic, playful and suggestive terms in Joyce Digital and more recently, in the artist’s own documentary portrait homage to Paik in Play it again, Nam depicting Paik’s performance homage to Beuys centres around Finnegan’s Wake (Fargier’s description of the novel as a “nocturnal remake of Ulysse” is quite apt given the function of collage aesthetics and the double operating in both Joyce’s and Paik’s work) 14 . Finnegan’s Wake’s valorisation of Joyce’s aesthetics of impenetrable decentred heterogeneity, chance, indeterminacy and strategies of hesitation has not only coloured Fargier’s and Paik’s work, but it has been instrumental (to a considerable degree) in influencing the overall concerns and direction of contemporary video.

Another noteworthy thing to understand here about Fargier’s experimental and genealogical role as video artist and critic in the context of Joyce, modernism and Paikan video in his acute reflexive realisation that video’s history and matter can be seen to be related (to quote Katherine Dieckmann) to “ the history of electrical inventions in art which can be interpreted as a series impulses towards the creation of an image-producing tool, towards video” 15 . This is explicitly concretised in Robin Texto where Jean-Claude Galotta blows at a swinging suspended electric bulb representing video’s modernist preoccupation with electricity in twentieth century art. (Let us also not overlook the frequent vivid motif of electricity at lighting that informs the audiovisual stylistics of Joyce Digital). The light bulb image-one of many that characterise Fargier’s video- indicates to us that video as a dominant time-based art form of representation –production endorses the main idea of art as a synthesised process of audio-visual information; a notion that emanates from Duchamp’s aesthetic of delay, response and stasis as much as it does from the Bauhaus experiments of the twenties, Fluxus, machine art, (post) minimalism, kineticism and the ‘death of modernism’ in the late sixties and seventies 16 .

Thus when we examine the alluring stylish surfaces and engaging polyphonic registers of Robin des Voix (made in collaboration with the dancer Jean-Claude Gallotta) we can read it as a lucid poetic summation of the artist’s post-Paikian negotiation of video’s cultural logic and its (post) modernist “origins” and history as being grounded in television (more specifically video’s anti-television dynamic)- and most fundamental to his project as an image-make in radio (as defined by modernism). Fargier’s subject in this pivotal tape focuses on the poet, translator and ‘radio listener’ Armand Robin and his “spiritual” obsession to study radio stations all over the world (particularly those situated in communist countries during the Cold War in order to analyse their official lies). This is a mesmeric lyrical poem of obsession, redemption and passion (testifying to Robin’s undying solitary pursuit (echoing Bresson’s dying priest in Diary of a Country Priest (1950). Robin, for Fargier, represents an “originator” of video art, a pre-McLuhanite medium/seer of radio technology.

Fargier’s describes Robin’s bodiless presence (we can only hear his ghostly posthumous voice and the babel of foreign tongues coming from a radio set sitting n a set of bookshelves) as “radioscopy” 17 . From the opening scenes (not too dissimilar to those in Gary Hill’s Incidence of Catastrophe (1988/89) where an illuminated book becomes a radiophonic object) we see Gallotta (as Robin) tapping on a set of books and flicking through a number of them creating a polyphonic translation of literature into sound (radio) in these subtle scenes of Robin’s driven objective to open up radio as a medium for creative expression and salvation, as a medium to dissect to doxas and rituals that govern everyday life ; we encounter the Poundian view of the “mediumistic artist” whose faculties have been extended by new technical media (especially radio) and who has the capacity to divine the presence of death and to be in contact (in the words of the poet) with “dangerous psychic beings who are assaulting the planet, making humanity become obsessed, looking for entire nations to subjugate their minds, to devour, to make them go arid”18 .

The video’s highly elaborate visual and sonic configurations are based on Fargier’s discovery that the energy of sound allows him ample conceptual and textual freedom to invent new audio-visual forms that provide an informative resonant commentary on Robin’s art and life and simultaneously disseminate critical ideas and observations about the medium’s complicated and multi-determinate heterogeneous links with literature, radio and television. Central to Fargier’s videography is the fundamental appreciation of the liquid reciprocity that exists between image and sound. This is something clearly delineated in image process video (the Vasulkas, Paik, Ed Emswhiller, Stephen Beck, Eric Seigel, etc), but more significantly in terms of electronic image-making, it is something that has wider profound ramifications for anyone wanting (as Fargier puts it)”to gain access to the invisible” 19 . For Sollers: ” everything we see is sound” – that is one side of the coin –the other is Godard’s precept that everything we hear is image 20 .

As Robin twirls the dial of his radio set during his exhausting nocturnal bouts of, radiophonic séance with the world, we hear many phantom voices (suggesting the haunting “operatic” sonic architecture of Woody Vasulkas Art of Memory (1987) and the melancholic stream-of-consciousness voice-over of Ken Koblands FotoRoman (1990). Voices that are recognisable for their atmospheric cultural and historical registers of the social and political upheavals of the twentieth century life: voices that Robin passionately analyses for their linguistic richness and aural bliss (like Finnish language).

Listening to Robin’s own evocative voice in conjunction with the other voices that he listened to for over 25 years suggests the Poundian metaphor of the radio as a medium releasing certain demons or energies from the past (a metaphor that connotes McLuhan’s notion of the radio as a “magical transformer” with the unique force to “ tribalise mankind”) 21 . Further, the very presence of the human voice (from the past) and its agile and fertile use in Robin des Voix and Robin Texto augments the inscription of culture, history and time in the spectral textuality of the soundtrack. When we listen to the radio and televisual voices in both videos (concentrating on the textual dance, gestures and rhythms of the voices)- and not forgetting the musicality of Joyce’s own voice in Joyce Digital- we are reminded by Regis Durand’s perceptive remarks about the incorporeal presence of the human voice in a (written) text? The ghost of a presence, the ghost of a voice; a trace, a golden, invaluable deposit, angel dust. But also a space, a stage where transactions of all kinds, trades, take place: a dispositive” 22 .

The Joycean/Paikian problematic takes many different forms in Fargier’s oeuvre : for instance, it is interesting to observe that in Robin des Voix that Robin’s radio changes into a television effect when we see black and white documentary footage showing French paratroopers descending into a Vietnamese sky. This radio/TV effect shapes (quite dramatically) the video’s liquid audio-visual stylistics. It is also significant to mention that Robin (like Paik and Vostel in their Fluxus days when they are concerned with the deconstruction and demystification of TV) manipulated television’s electronic signal. In Robin Texto also television starts to creep in when we see Robin watching television which is showing black ad white documentary footage illustrating the Algerian Liberation crisis before he was killed by the police in 1961.

Finally, one last point needs to be said relating to Fargier’s debt to Joycean modernism: the several vividly atmospheric scenes depicting Robin (Jean-Claude Galotta) in Robin des Voix as a dancing figure whose body is encrusted with black and white documentary footage showing Stalin (?) – a prominent visual effect in image process video (Emswhiller, the Vasulkas and Paik)-are rich for their Joycean connotations. The encrusted image of Robin dancing between his bookshelves and a transparent lantern with several bold rays of light cutting across his mobile body is critical in that it uncanningly resembles Joyce’s influential collage method of composition. According to Guy Davenport Joyce’s modernist literary style centres around the emphasis of projecting “images transparently upon other images, which in turn lie transparently over other images, which several piles deep” 23 . Davenport’s succinct characterisation of Joyce’s technique of collaging is apt in the context of Fargier’s use of video collage aesthetics as defined by his penetrating understanding of Joyce, modernism, the new media of cinema, radio and television and their invaluable specific contributions to video.

Fargier’s art represents an ongoing cartography of seeing and hearing new images and sounds that are barely visible and audible in our moving-image culture. They belong to the birth of anew poetics of audio-visual writing. Something that is heralded in the sublime opening shot of a plane and its milky white vapour cutting across a blue sky in Godard’s Passion (1982) or in his recent video The Power of Words (1988) where we see a fiery sun superimposed over a close-up of film going through an editing machine. Two hieroglyphs of an image (Barthes) that pose the question: what does it mean to create an image, a sound? Fargier’s is a video voyager creating a new art that is open to change, open to the enthralling adventure of giving form to the invisible. I believe that Fargier’s contribution to video will (one day) be measured in these terms.

(Thanks to Brian Langer (Electronic Media Arts Ltd, Sydney (Australia), for his helpful comments about Fargier’s work in the context of French and European video.)






  1. For background information on Fargier’s role at Cinethique and his polemical endorsement of a “dialectical materialist cinema” see D.N Rodwick’s indispensable the Crisis of Political Modernism, Urbana and Chigaco, University of Illinois Press, 1988, p83-89. Information concerning Fargier’s early video work with Danielle Jaeggi (in the latee 60s) obtained from an interview conducted with the video artist in Sydney, 4th September, 1988 under the auspices of the Third Australian Video Festival. []
  2. Quoted in Jean-Louis Leutrat, “Traces that Resemble Us : Godard’s Passion”, Substance, vol 15 no3, p38. []
  3. “Voice” in this context maybe conceptualised as dialogue or a synthesis existing between the literary author and the video artist as Janet Sternburg points out in her essay “A Blank of New Things” in Kathy Rae Huffman and Dorine Mignot (ed). The Arts for Television, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/Stedelijk Museum, 1987, p52. []
  4. Quoted in Brian Stonehill, “The Peacemaker” PASSION, April 1986 p 17. []
  5. See Thierry Kuntzel, “Video about Video,” (Videoglyphes, Paris, 1980) in Jill Forbes, (ed), INA – French for Innovation, BFI Dossier 22, 1984, p24. []
  6. For more on the idea of video as electronic writing see my Deleuzean inspired essay, “Video as Moonlighting” in Adrian Martin (ed), Experimenta (catalogue), Melbourne, Modern Image Makers Association Inc (MIMA), 1990. It goes without saying that Raymond Bellour’s exemplary video criticism (over the past decade or so) has been instrumental in promoting this particular view of video. []
  7. See Max Almy, “ Video : Electronic Collage,” in Katherine Hoffman (ed) Collage, UMI Research Press, 1989, p 362 []
  8. For an excellent detailed look at video’s genealogy in the context on modernism in the visual arts see Katherine Dieckman, “Electra Myths: Video, Modernism and Postmodernism,” in Art Journal pp195-203. Though I don’t agree with her basic critical view of French video her incisive critique of the positivist historiography and rationale informing the Paris – based 1984 Electra show demands further extensive discussion. And for a clear suggestive examination of literary modernism and the emergence of the new technical media during early decades of this century see Hugh Kenner, The Mechanic Muse, New York/Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987. []
  9. Fargier’s quotation is located in Electra : Electricity and Electronics in the 20th Century Art (Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris catalogue 1984) Into : by Frank Popper. []
  10. The idea of Fargier’s art constitutes criticism and his criticism art emanates from similar remarks made by Patricia Kaplan and Susan Manso about Duchamp in their short introduction to Octavio Paz’s “Marcel Duchamp, Or the Castle of Purity” in Patricia Kaplan and Susan Manso (eds) major European Art Movements 1800-45 New York, E.P.Dutton, 1977, p353 []
  11. Fargier’s quote comes from the 1988 interview with the arts (see footnote 1). []
  12. See Jean-Paul Fargier’, “Manner, Banner, Matter”, in Dorine Mignot (ed) Revision,     Amsterdam, Stedelijk 1987, p24. []
  13. See Mauree Turim, “The Cultural Logic of video” in Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (eds) illuminating Video, New York, Aperture/the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990, pp338-339, Turim’s insightful comments on video’s unfinished modernist project as being inscribed in its very apparatus strike a sympathetic chord with Dieckman’s view of video as a “medium of suspension, bridging modernist and postmodernist conditions with a variety of pluralist features” (see footnote 8 p199). []
  14. Jean- Paul Fargier, “ Last Analogy Before Digital Analysis”, in Elke Town (ed) Video By Artists 2, Toronto, Art Metropole, p75. []
  15. Dieckman, op. cit., p196. []
  16. Ibid, p198. Dieckman is one of the few Anglo-American commentators on video to talk about Duchamp’s important influence on the medium. []
  17. See Jean-Paul Fargier’s untitled essay on Robin des Voix in Mignot, op cit, p39/ []
  18. Robin’s quotation is located in Fargier’s Robin des Voix essay in Mignot, ibid, p37. For Pound’s view of the “mediumistic artist” a propos of the new technical media (especially radio) see Daniel Tiffany. “Phantom Transmissions: The Radio Broadcasts of Ezra Pound”, in Substance, vol 19, no 1, 1990, p61. (My thanks to Mark Jackson for referring me to Tiffany’s article). []
  19. Jean-Paul Fargier, “The hidden side of the moon”, in Dorine Mignot, The Luminous Image, Amsterdam, Stedelijik Museum, 1984, p43. This essay is arguably one of the most eloquent pieces written on Godard, cinema and video. []
  20. Ibid, p43. []
  21. Cf Tiffany, op cit, p62. []
  22. Regis Durand, “On Conversing: In/On Writing”, Substance, no27, 1980, p47. []
  23. Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, Lond., Pan Books/Picador, 1981, p287. []