Scrawled across pink skin, two words appear to have been cut into or branded onto the surface of the body. The words, written in a cursive script in the centre of the video screen, proclaim the title of the piece: Delicate Issue. Four brown freckles surround the words. It is difficult to definitively ascertain the specific location of this patch of skin. Due to the hairlessness and the slight curvature of the skin’s surface, one might guess that this a section of a back. This shot is followed by an image of a hairy patch of skin, where two more words are written on the skin’s surface: Kate Craig. Unlike the title, the artist’s name is off-set to the right side of the screen as one might sign a letter or a cheque.
The soundtrack contains heavy breathing accompanied by the sound of a heartbeat. At times the heartbeat and breathing become slightly muffled by the microphone. In the initial shots of Delicate Issue, the sound of breathing and the heartbeat serves to lull the viewer, a calm breath enhancing the corporeality of the images on the screen. These bodily sounds are suddenly replaced by Craig’s voice as she asks: “How close can the camera be?1
Canadian artist Kate Craig was an important pioneer in experimental video techniques and the exploration of embodiment and feminism. In her most well-known video art piece, Delicate Issue (1979), she asks a number of questions as the camera slowly pans across her naked body: “How close can the camera be? What is the dividing line between public and private? How real do you want me to be? Does intimacy breed obscurity? At what distance does the subject read? When do you cut out? When do I cut out? How close do you want to be? Who is willing to watch the frame?"2
How intimate must we become in order to understand another or is understanding even possible at all?
The first two shots of Delicate Issue establish what is to follow: a close examination of the exterior surface of the artist’s naked body. The titles are followed by a blurry shot that comes into focus to reveal a forest of blondish brown hair. Light glints and shines off the individual strands. The image cuts from hair on the artist’s head to a patch of armpit hair. The camera begins to move slowly across sections of skin then from one part of the body to another. A series of body parts are highlighted; parts of an ear, a nose, an eye, the middle part of a pair of lips, a vulva, a clitoris, and an anus. Several body parts are only discernible to varying degrees, including a nipple, breast, a knuckle, a finger, a thumb, and fingernails.
The play between proximity and distance engendered by the camera’s movements is disquieting. During a close-up of freckled skin, Craig poses another question, “At what distance does the subject read?”3This is the only question that is repeated twice throughout the video. The camera moves closer and then farther away from the skin, once again pulling the body in and out of focus. In a literal sense, these first two questions inquire into how close can the camera be to the body before it loses focus. At this distance, with the camera seemingly millimetres from the skin’s surface, the subject does not read clearly.The viewer is asked to consider how we read the subjectivity of the other. How intimate must we become in order to understand another or is understanding even possible at all?
Craig’s Delicate Issue was created during the second wave feminist period when women’s artistic practices were flourishing in Canadian artist-run centres. During the 1970s, the first decade of video art, videos often sought to create an alternative viewing experience to that of television or cinema spectatorship. Craig presented her own body to question and disrupt the idea of woman as object. Writing about early video art in English Canada, Dot Tuer argues: “As a cultural critique that questioned mechanisms of objectification and structures of representation itself, feminism’s collision with alternative video practices brought into sharp relief issues of spectatorship, presence/absence binaries, and sexual difference.”4
In Craig’s video, a woman’s body is viewed from close up with an emphasis on skin that is scarred, blemished, or freckled. It is a real, lived female body that sweats and is marked by life experiences. The title Delicate Issue implies that to create an image of the nude female form is in itself a delicate issue which was particularly politically and philosophically fraught during the late 1970s. Claudia Benthien argues that beginning in and since the 1970s many artists, particularly women artists, have been preoccupied with the skin. She writes, “Their works and performances deal quite concretely with skin as a place of encounter: in the process these artists have expanded the genre of self-portrait to encompass their own bodies, bodies, moreover, no longer merely invoked as likenesses but whose very surfaces become a canvas.”5 The title could also be seen as a wordplay on delicate tissue, referring to the skin as a vulnerable surface.
One feels as if one is illicitly gaining access into an intimate, private encounter when viewing Craig’s body in Delicate Issue. Craig plays with the distance at which the viewer gets to read the subject as she complicates the subject/object divide. She acts as both subject and object but although she is the object of the piece, she is never objectified. The questions asked by artist herself constitute her subjecthood as a constant presence. However, in the end, we, as viewers, never learn anything in particular about the subjectivity of the artist.
By challenging the viewer to consider the very act of viewing, Craig redirects perceptions of her body.
The viewer gains access to the artist’s body in unusual ways. As the video progresses, Craig’s voice asks: “Does intimacy breed obscurity?”6The camera answers the question affirmatively, blurring the image just as the question is asked. Many of the close-up views of fragments of the body blur the form and make it indistinct. Craig also asks, “What is the dividing line between public and private?"7 The question is echoed in the skin itself as folds of flesh move together to create creases and then move apart. The shifting and complex boundaries that demarcate the public from the private are metaphorically reflected in the lines of flesh as they expand and contract.
The technical aspects of video are paramount in Delicate Issue, setting up a particular interaction between viewer and image. Through editing techniques and the inclusion of sound, viewers are asked to engage actively in a consideration of what they are watching. Viewers are forced to question their reactions at the very moment they are watching the shifts from one part of the body to another, from one patch of skin to a more distinct body part. Craig’s voiceover only asks questions. She never supplies any answers.
The sounds of breathing and heartbeat become fragmented by the questions. The soundtrack sets up a relationship between viewer and video in which the viewers are asked to think about what they are seeing but also to analyze their responses to those images. By challenging the viewer to consider the very act of viewing, Craig redirects perceptions of her body. Although viewers are positioned up close to the artist’s body, in a semblance of intimacy, they become distanced from what one sees by the questions asked. Through her queries, Craig investigates the relationship between “I”, the artist, and “you”, the viewer, a dance of distance and proximity in which meaning is continually shifting, evolving and reconstituting itself. Craig’s questions address this relationship and problematize the viewer’s role in the encounter between seer and seen.
The pleasure of looking is repeatedly disrupted by a questioning that insists upon a more engaged form of watching. The tone of the voice is authoritative and yet calm and matter of fact. As art historian Peggy Gale argues, “Though Craig takes her place before the camera, as if a passive object, the voice-over text makes it plain that the decisions taken are her own, and the camera “eye” is hers by proxy, as it were, for it is she who is responsible for script and direction.”8
Craig offers up images of her skin as illustrative of the boundary between the self and one’s surroundings, exemplifying Benthien’s argument that “skin is the place where boundary negotiations take place.”9The dividing line between public and private, intimacy and distance, is thus made flesh on the video screen. The viewer considers this division as she, he, or they gets a glimpse into a seemingly private arena, the naked body of a woman seen from very close-up. However, due to the fragmentation of the skin, one never fully comprehends the entirety of the figure, much less the subjectivity of the person being presented for inspection. As the images of Craig’s skin and body parts are edited one into the other, they are often at first blurry and then become clearer. In some shots, the opposite is the case.
The examination of the surface of Craig’s skin at the age of 32 freezes her in this moment in time. However, there is an inherent awareness that the skin is a constantly changing surface, so easily marked and shed. The inherent temporality of the skin, constantly shedding and generating cells, which can change from second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour, seems aptly captured by video, itself a medium of time.
In Delicate Issue, the notion of the cut is present on several levels, as words into flesh in the title, as the editing cut, and the voice which cuts into the scenes to punctuate the perusal of her flesh with challenging questions. These cuts serve not just to fragment the body itself but also the viewer’s experience of the work into a series of different levels of appreciation and reactions. The idea of cutting is also addressed in Craig’s questions about the viewer’s response and attentiveness to the video itself: “When do you cut out? When do I cut out?”10This is not a question of what is cut out but how much is revealed and how much is the viewer able to take in. Through these questions, the editing process becomes theorized in terms of viewer interaction as well as artistic intention. The voice cuts into one’s experience of watching as do the video edits. Both the visual and auditory cuts take the viewer by surprise.
“Who is willing to watch the frame?…How close do you want to be? How far apart do you want to be?…When do you stop receiving?”
Throughout the piece, the mechanisms of spectatorship come into play through the questions. Craig asks: “Who is willing to watch the frame?…How close do you want to be? How far apart do you want to be?…When do you stop receiving?”11The first person narrative sets up a dialogue between viewer and artist. Towards the end of the video, by changing the pronoun in one question, “When do you cut out? When do I cut out?”,12the meaning changes. Asking the viewers, when they cut out or lose attention or are no longer able to be engaged in the piece brings their attention back to the work but also back to the ways in which the world is perceived. Asking “when do I cut out?” seems to be referring the perception engendered by video itself through both the editing process that cuts from one part of the body to another but also to when the video might, all of a sudden, end.
The intimacy between cameraman Hank Bull, who was Craig’s husband, and the subject, the artist herself, also complicates the piece. Bull says about Craig, “If you can divide the debate within feminism between the moralists and the libertines, she was a libertine. In her position, she anticipated the feminism of the eighties, which was much more about freedom of sexual expression.”13It is important to note the choice of Bull as cameraman was an unlikely one for a feminist project in the late seventies. Not only does the video reposition the female body as empowered but the notion of the male gaze as necessarily disempowering is turned upside down.
While film is a surface medium, I would argue that video has not only a heightened metaphorical relationship with bodily skin but also is itself a kind of skin. Film historian Laura Marks defines its as “the tactile opacity of low-grade video.”14 Film is a collection of stills in sequence, each with its own frame. Videotape works entirely differently. It is a plastic ribbon impregnated with a magnetisable metal powder. When images are captured, the video heads use magnetism to orient the particles in certain directions. When the plastic film is then passed over the video heads, the heads sense the magnetic vibrations and convert these into a signal which can be projected. Each of the millions of vibrations is a tiny portion of the moving image. It is therefore the interaction with the surface characteristics of the ribbon that gives a video life, as the surface cells of our skin sustain us in our mediated existence with the world beyond the self.
Video is also in a sense a living medium. It is not developed once and for all like film. The magnetic powder can be reoriented with new recordings many times until enough of it becomes dislodged that the tape becomes unusable. It is this quality that made video an affordable medium for art production, and accounts for its emergence as an art form in its own right since the late 1960s.
Due to early video technology, the distance or proximity that one can get to the body is limited in Craig’s Delicate Issue. The close-ups blur the outside of the body, as the camera moves closer and closer. The viewer experiences an uneasiness as the camera pans too close for comfort over Craig’s body; as she interrogates our reactions to these views of her body. As the video camera zooms onto the final patch of an unidentifiable patch of skin, Craig does not pose a question but states “This is as close as you can get. I can’t get you any closer.”15No matter how close the camera could be to the skin and still remain in focus, an exterior view was all that early video technology would allow.
Rather than a passive experience, Delicate Issue invites self-reflection through an intersubjective encounter. Video scans the surface of the skin in order to explore its vulnerability, fragility and yet resilience. Viewer interactivity had been particularly highlighted in Delicate Issue with the direct questioning of the viewer. Craig’s questions about the viewer’s interaction with images of her naked body remain questions that continue to be relevant to the experience of video art itself: “How close can the camera be? At what distance does the subject read? When do you cut out?”16Video art that explores the boundaries and surfaces of the body, particularly that of a female body, repeatedly asks the audience, like Craig herself does, “How real do you want me to be?”17