Les Levine

A third early experimenter, and one who has remained steadfastly independent of any group affiliation, is Les Levine. In 1968, after he had been working with video tape for some time, he presented the first public showing of his work. As the audience watched his prerecorded video tapes on such subjects as the destruction of art and the nude model, they could also watch their own reactions on a closed-circuit monitor: Levine had a camera in the room. This is typical of his work - Levine is not interested in traditional aesthetics, but with television environments, with the movement of information within physical and temporal limits. He was quoted in a New York Times review as saying that he hoped to help people form new images of themselves by showing them their reactions to what they see. "They'll change as they note their responses to various situations presented on the tapes... If you see yourself looking self-conscious, for example, you'll be forced to think why."

Also in 1968, Levine produced his first "television sculpture", Iris. Once again, Levine had the viewer confronting himself via television. In this case, all the hardware for the closed-circuit system was contained in one eight-foot-tall sculpture-console. Standing in front of this console, the viewer faced six monitors and three concealed video cameras. The cameras shot the space in front of the console, and presented views of the environment in close-up, middle distance, and wide angle. Each of these cameras had its own monitor and the three others provided distorted images that might or might not be recognizable. Thus, a viewer standing in front of the console could see three different views of himself juxtaposed with other random video information.

In this early work, Levine opened an examination of television as an information system of great flexibility and complexity. This aspect of the medium has been further explored with increasing subtlety and sophistication by several artists in the years since Levine made Iris.

- Johanna Branson Gill: VIDEO: STATE OF THE ART, 1976



LES LEVINE produced two installations, Iris (1968) and Contact: A Cybernetic Sculpture (1969), which were important predecessors to Wipe Cycle, although less complex. In Iris, six monitors in a grid show imagery of viewers in close-up, mid-range, and wide angle; in Contact, the concept of Iris is extended with similar imagery on 18 monitors (nine on either side), with images switching from screen to screen.

- Marita Sturken, May 1984, Afterimage, Vol. 11, No. 10

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-- from: Gene Youngblood: EXPANDED CINEMA

"Machines that show the human organism itself as a working model," says Les Levine, "may eventually destroy the need for psychology as we know it today." Essentially an intermedia artist who works in plastics, alloys, and disposables, Levine was among the first conceptual artists on the New York scene focusing more on idea than icon. Naturally he turned to television, the most conceptual of all creative media. As a video artist Levine is best known for two closed-circuit teledynamic systems, Iris (1968) and Contact: A Cybernetic Sculpture (1969).

In both works the motivation is somewhat psychological: Levine is fascinated by the implications of self-awareness through the technologically-extended superego of the closed-circuit TV. "I don't tend to think of my work purely in psychological terms," he explains, "but one must assume some psychological effect of seeing oneself on TV all the time. Through my systems the viewer sees himself as an image, the way other people would see him were he on television. In seeing himself this way he becomes more aware of what he looks like. All of television, even broadcast television, is to some degree showing the human race to itself as a working model. It's a reflection of society, and it shows society what society looks like. It renders the social and psychological condition of the environment visible to that environment."

In Iris, three concealed cameras focus on an environment (one's living room, for example) in close-up, middle-distance, and wideangle. These images are displayed on six black-and-white TV tubes mounted in an eight-foot console that also houses the cameras. Combinations and distortions of images interact from screen to screen in a kind of videotronic mix of the physical and metaphysical elements of the environment. Seeing three different views of oneself in combination with three others is a unique experience.

"Looking at Iris," he remarked, "many people are greatly surprised at the way they actually look. They see themselves the way they usually see other people on television, and they have to make some kind of judgment about themselves in terms of themselves as a piece of information. That's what Iris does most of all, it turns the viewer into information. The viewer has to reconsider what he thought about himself before. He must think about himself in terms of information. You notice people in front of Iris begin to adjust their appearance. They adjust their hair, tie, spectacles. They become aware of aspects of themselves which do not conform to the image they previously had of themselves."

Contact: A Cybernetic Sculpture continues the principles of Iris on a somewhat expanded scale. It involves eighteen monitors and eight cameras mounted in a sleek eight-foot stainless steel console, nine monitors and four cameras on each side beneath plastic bubble shields. As in Iris, the cameras produce close-ups, mid-range and wide-angle views as images shift from screen to screen every few seconds. Each monitor screen is covered with a colored acrylic gel so that a given image may be seen in nine different colors as it swirls through the closed-circuit system.


"Contact is a system that synthesizes man with his technology," Levine states. "In this system, the people are the software. It relies totally on the image and sensibility of the viewer for its life. It is a responsive mechanism and its personality reflects the attitudes of its viewers. If they are angry, the piece looks angry. Contact is made not only between you and your image, but how you feel about your image, and how you feel about that image in relationship to the things around you. The circuit is open."

Levine is rather indifferent to the physical structure of the consoles that house his video systems. "I don't tend to consider my work in aesthetic terms," he says. "I don't make a work with any aesthetic principles in mind. If it happens to be a nice object to look at, that's fine. What a TV set looks like is only of value in terms of iconic imagery. However, what comes on the TV set is the real intelligence of the object, which has no intelligence until the software is injected into it. People don't look at the TV set, they look at the tube and the tube is always pretty much the same shape. But television is constantly re-wiping itself and printing over all the time, so that depending on what information is available at any given moment the image will be different. So there's really no image, no definite image. One could equate it, because of its flexibility, with looking at a person sitting in a chair: he looks as he always looks except that his behavior changes your image of him. Television has this quality: it always somehow looks the same, but it's always doing something different."

-- Gene Youngblood: EXPANDED CINEMA, 1970, [PDF /4.6 Mb] pp.338-341 (Closed-Circuit Television and Teledynamic Environments)


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