Installation View: Candice Breitz, Digest, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 2021 Photo: Stephanie Steinkopf / Ostkreuz 2021
24 November 2021 - 20 January 2022
1,001-Channel Video Installation:
200 wooden shelves, 1,001 videotapes in polypropylene sleeves, paper, acrylic paint
Shelves: 24.4 x 100 x 7.5cm
Tapes: 20.3 x 12 x 2.7cm
Digest is a multi-channel video installation consisting of 1,001 videotapes interred in polypropylene video sleeves. Each of the sleeves is prominently emblazoned with a single painted verb (excerpted from the title of a film that was in circulation during the era of home video), and painstakingly coated in black acrylic abstraction. The series of tombstone-like objects is arranged on shallow wooden racks, evoking the display aesthetics of video rental stores. The recorded material stored on the locked- down videotapes will remain inaccessible.
As a final resting place for this analogue content, Digest immortalizes a mode of image consumption that has since slipped into obsolescence. Video set in motion a revolution in the late 1970s, allowing consumers to tamper with and intervene in the viewing experience for the first time (as manifest in the possibility of rewinding, fast forwarding or pausing an unfolding narrative). The medium anticipated a future in which moving images would be accessible, affordable and infinitely reproducible, while at the same time heralding the inevitable erosion of the collective viewing experience that cinema had offered (in favour of home entertainment). For all the radical shifts predicted by video, the videotape remained unapologetically and stubbornly trapped in an analogue objecthood that demanded physical negotiation:
A videotape needed to be picked up and dropped off from the video store. It was often ‘out’ when one wanted or needed it most. At times it hid coyly behind a curtain in the adult section. There was a fee to be paid for its company; and a penalty to face if one brought it home late. The tape whirred and clacked as you pushed it into the videocassette recorder. It was prone to returning to the world with stretched or unspooled intestines when one hit ‘eject.’ Its anatomical vulnerabilities were endless: A videotape could get stuck. It could refuse to rewind. It's plastic body cracked loudly when dropped. It released toxic fumes in protest when left in the sun for too long. Its physical entrapment made the format seem lumbering and ungainly as digital formats started to flood the market.
The extinction of analogue video—along with the wheezing, heaving videocassette recorders into which video tapes were ritually inserted for the purpose of playback—was announced with the arrival of consumer DVD in the late 1990s. As bricks-and-mortar rental chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video hustled to replace their inventory of clunky videotapes with sleeker DVD stock, tape-based media seemed immediately quaint. Less than a decade into the twenty-first century, the format was dead. The moving image was destined for a virtual future, in keeping with the profound disembodiment that the digital era would bring to the public sphere at large—collective experience would soon no longer be a priority or a necessity. The death of video as a medium presaged—and stands in inextricable relationship to—the gradual withdrawal of the body from public space under the pressure of digitalization.
The 1,001 verbs catalogued in Digest, commemorate the embodied subjectivity of the analogue era. The archive is all the more haunting in resonance for having been completed at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The imposition of unprecedented restrictions of movement across the globe in response to the viral threat, came as a violent reminder of the fragility of the social body. It is no coincidence that the final verb in the Digest Archive (deliberately displayed at a physical distance from the thousand preceding it) is ‘to crown’—in a grim nod to the novel coronavirus.
Nor is it coincidental, in light of the deleterious role that single-use plastics have played in the ongoing climate crisis (a crisis rendered excruciatingly undeniable by the virus), that Digest is composed entirely of such unsustainable material—from the mylar tape protected within each tape, to the videotapes themselves, the plastic sleeves in which they are buried and the acrylic paint in which they are sealed. The fragile analogue bodies held in quarantine by Digest—each isolated in its own confined space, each inscribed with a verb celebrating corporeal freedoms that can no longer be taken for granted—hint ominously at existential threats yet to come, as extractive capitalism continues to deplete and destroy the very environments in which bodies were previously able to flourish.
Narrative in Confinement
Digest owes the seriality of its structure partially to the legend of Scheherazade, the 1,001st wife of the powerful sultan Shahrayar (according to One Thousand and One Nights—a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian folktales, often referred to as The Arabian Nights). Upon finding out that his first wife has committed adultery, Shahrayar decides—in a fit of misogynist loathing—to marry a new virgin each day (and to systematically behead the previous day’s wife, thus denying her the possibility of being untrue). Scheherazade, wife-number- one-thousand-and-one, is able to avoid the fate of her predecessors by deploying her extraordinary storytelling skills. On her first night with the sultan, Scheherazade holds him in thrall with a beguiling tale that cannot be completed by dawn. Desperate to hear the story to com- pletion, Shahrayar keeps her alive for another night. On the thousand nights that ensue, Scheherazade spins cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger. Her ability to create narrative suspense is liter- ally her means of survival. Eventually, after 1,001 nights, her captor decides to spare her life.
Traditionally, women and children were not permitted to read One Thousand and One Nights— the stories were reserved for a male readership.
Digest was produced with support from the Sharjah Art Foundation and the Akademie der Künste, Berlin.