Peter Campus

by John Hanhardt


Peter Campus. Shadow Projection, 1974, video installation. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

My visit with Peter Campus was partially motivated by my desire to see his new work, a set of videotapes entitled Video Ergo Sum that includes Dreams, Steps and Karneval und Jude. These new works proved to be an extraordinary extension of Peter’s earlier engagement with video and marked his renewed commitment to the medium.

Along with Vito Acconci, Dara Birnbaum, Gary Hill, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Steina and Woody Vasulka, and Bill Viola, Peter is one of the central artists in the history of the transformation of video into an art form. He holds a distinctive place in contemporary American art through a body of work distinguished by its articulation of a sophisticated poetics of image making dialectically linked to an incisive and subtle exploration of the properties of different media—videotape, video installations, photography, photographic slide installations and digital photography. The video installations and videotapes he created between 1971 and 1978 considered the fashioning of the self through the artist’s and spectator’s relationship to image making. Campus’s investigations into the apparatus of the video system and the relationship of the camera to the space it occupied were elaborated in a series of installations. In mem [1975], the artist turned the camera onto the body of the specator and then projected the resulting image at an angle onto the gallery wall. Thus, the viewer was confronted with a distorted and ambiguous portrait that mysteriously shimmered in the darkness. Such work forged a complex phenomenological inquiry into the ontology of materials and the personal experience with aesthetic text.

Campus also made a series of videotapes produced by the New Television Workshop at WGBH-TV in Boston. Three Transitions [1973] explored portraiture through the use of chroma-keying. One of the “transitions” uses chroma-keying to show a burning sheet of paper being replaced with Campus’s own live image—so that the artist observes an illusion of his face being burned—a combination of Magritte-like Surrealism and self-referential minimalism. Campus has also pursued portraiture using large-scale projected video. In Head of a Man with Death on His Mind [1978] the artist video-recorded the still face of actor John Erdman. Through framing and lighting, the face is subtly transformed to become a stark dramatic presence. The vaguely threatening quality is enhanced by the barely visible movement of the recorded image. Thus the portrait has a heightened psychological power, breathing life of its own. These large-scale video projections build a bold synthesis of the video portrait and the installation format. Over the following ten years Campus produced a remarkable series of photographic works. His slide projections provided a dramatic contrast to the projected video portraiture: Murmur [1987] for example, featured a form from nature—a rock, a vegetable, or a shell—undergoing a transformation through the subtle lighting and photographic flattening of the object. When the image is enlarged to a projection on the gallery wall, it becomes a silvery, ghostlike presence.

In the early ‘90s, Campus turned to digital photography, and then in 1996 returned to video. In these works he handles objects directly and translates them into digital imagery, thereby making technology an integral and organic part of his creative process. Shadowmaker is a 1995 self-portrait "superimposed onto a German newspaper review of a 1979 exhibition of his work; also depicted here, a stone in the shape of a heart partially obscures Campus’s image, a snakeskin, a leaf, pieces of tree bark and a waterfall. These various elements freely associate with moments from the artist’s life, and compose a portrait of the artist as a shadow maker. These personal, self-reflective objects all float through Campus’s digital assemblage technique. The gathering of the objects breaks down the surface meaning of “self-portrait,” while the compromised terminology itself provides a fundamental tension within the work.

The videotape including Olivebridge [1996] and Mont Désert [1996], return to direct camera shots and editing to compose multilayered moving images. As I wrote in an essay for the program to Campus 1996 solo exhibition at the Bohen Foundation, “The videotape works immediately engage the viewer on the level of their beauty: the images are exquisitely composed with a subtle treatment of color and composition that draws out the details with a representational directness. The complexity within these works emerges through the editing, the sequencing, and relationship of the images to each other as Campus builds an associational montage that creates a multidimensional text. Structural relationships between sequences are punctuated by the manipulation of specific sequences through the freezing of the image, compression of time, and addition of sound. These strategies highlight a personal dimension of self-reflexive complexity, as our attention is drawn to the images as sites where figures, animals, rocks, and buildings make up a landscape that is a map of the self, and follow the path of the desires, losses and dreams that define the unfolding traces of the artist’s life.”


Peter Campus, Sandpipers 02, 1999. Courtesy ZUMA Digital.

John Hanhardt Peter, it’s wonderful being with you and renewing our past conversations. When you lived in the city, I was able to walk over to your studio and talk with you about your new work. I’ve just seen your installation videotapes, Video Ergo Sum, at your house here in Bellport, Long Island. I know that nature has been an important reference in your work, your life, and your art. Perhaps you could say something about this idea of leaving the city and being here by the sea.

Peter Campus I left the city because I was born and grew up in New York City and I have lived there most of my life. At some point it gets to be too much: too many sirens and too much air pollution. I needed to leave, and not on a temporary basis. For the last eight years I’ve been spending three or four days a week away from the city. This year, for the first time, we’ve moved entirely—I commute in to teach. For me to get away from where I was born has been a very needed change.

Nature is a different issue—it’s hard to figure where and how nature has played into my life. Certainly, by being born in New York, I had very little to do with nature. My earliest experience with camping out was a disastrous one—Chef Boyardee warmed on a Sterno stove. At some point, more or less at the time I gave up video in early 1979, I got very interested in nature. A lot of it was an escape from what was going on in the city. It was a place where all the things that were bothering me would disappear. Then, very quickly, about 1982, it became the subject of my work.


Peter Campus. left: Video still from Dreams 03, 1999. right: Video still from Dreams 02, 1999. Courtesy ZUMA Digital.

JH Those black and white nature photographs were your first stills after the video work.

PC Yes, taken with a 4×5 camera. I was in awe of 19th century photography.

JH Do you feel there was a movement from the exploration of the inner self in the Three Transitions videotapes, for example, to an exploration of the self as a reflection, to a cognitive exploration of the self as in the series of installations: mem and Shadow Projection? It would be interesting to know how you locate that shift from video to still photography.

PC For me what was important was not the switch from video to photography, but from the interior to the exterior. The interior examinations became overwhelming. Particularly the photographic series I did of faces that showed in Cologne and Berlin—which were very stark and severe. They came after Head of a Man with Death on His Mind, this projected, silent, barely moving, black and white image of a man’s face staring at the camera. I went from that video projection piece to photo-projection pieces called Man’s Head, and Woman’s Head [1979], high contrast black and white Polaroid photographs produced in the studio. They continued that idea of confrontational imagery and it just became too much for me. I had to stop. So I started looking at an industrial, burned-out landscape. I found the exploration not so different in a way: those first landscape pictures were harsh. Then I turned to bridges, Bear Mountain Bridge, the Roebling Bridge on the upper Delaware River. Finally, from there, I went into nature. But I was still looking for what I called “resonance” in what I was feeling. I wouldn’t go out to photograph a tree or a stone or a rock; I never felt that the subject of my work was trees, rocks, or stones—I felt that they were in many ways a continuation of my internal examination, that they were reflecting my mood in nature. The difficulty is that often that’s not what’s communicated. It is subtle and not direct. Often people misunderstand work, or, let’s say it’s expected that people have different interpretations than I do of my work. The nature pieces with the 4×5 camera were received very differently from the way I saw them.

JH I remember the response was that they recalled 19th century photography and its rhetorical form of image making, black and white photography of the natural landscape shot with a large-format camera. This idea of interior looking that you just referred to brings me back to something fundamentally important about your work: how you think about looking is translated and motivated by the different media you’ve worked with. The relationship between the single-channel videotapes from the early ’70s, the exploration of time as a means to compose and construct the image, and the viewer’s participation within interactive man-made environments that shatter projection have lead toward a refined understanding of the medium, both in its placement in an art historical discourse and in the viewer’s reception of it. I’m trying to construct that movement through traditional photography into digital image making and recomposing the still image by using new media, creating a new kind of representation, and your eventual return to video and the moving image, this time using digital techniques. This is one of the most extraordinary sequences embodied in an individual artist’s work in the late 20th century. It’s all so encompassing, profoundly investigatory and powerful. Can you discuss shifts that you made between these two different media—video and photography—and how you felt you were changing the media, or what issues you were responding to?

PC I probably wouldn’t have felt comfortable saying this five years ago, or maybe even now, but often emotional necessity overrides intellectual necessity. In the ’80s, it was necessary for me to be in the woods, at least part of the time. I needed to look backward from the present instead of forward. I needed to work in classical photography. I tried to keep the investigation, at least the emotional aspect of the investigation, somewhat consistent. It obviously couldn’t be, but I was trying to carry that along into nature. By working in digital photography, I found I was able to more directly explain what I wanted to say. It wasn’t through the subtleties of the photographic medium, but by direct intervention, placing images in direct correspondence one to another. Because of digital imaging, I was able to reconstruct and change images more convincingly than I was able to do in straight photography. I would never give up the eight years that I spent in large-format photography—it was great, and crucial, in fact, for setting up the digital phase.

JH Peter, I’m looking at this as a historian, and as somebody examining the different stages of a career. One can impose a conceptual grid on that by saying you were moving from one type of formal invention, one set of strategies, to another as you have moved through these different media. But that is not to say that there isn’t a profound engagement with yourself.

PC The most important thing for me is to find myself in my work, in the context of the present.


Peter Campus, Shadow Projection, 1994. Closed circuit video installation. Bard College Collection. Photograph by: Christopher Coughlan. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

JH So, this conceptual way I’ve been talking about your work shouldn’t overshadow the power of that work, which is how it reveals the self. Whether it’s layers of the body being exposed in Three Transitions; the reflection of the viewer through projected closed-circuit video in the installation works of that period, such as Kiva [1971] and Stasis [1973]; or the turn to nature and the subsequent presentation of the projected video still-image, Head of a Man with Death on His Mind that shows the surface as somehow speaking to the interior, to the profoundly emotional and the cognitive. In the nature photos I see this as a powerful compositional moment. It is a turn outward, an interpretation of the natural landscape that gives the work significance and power. The digital imagery raised another set of issues in terms of composition—your use of color and the development of aesthetics, the images of pure beauty you were using in the ’90s, such as Stuff [1994], and in other digital collages of found images and of objects drawn from nature. That has continued in Mont Désert, the sets of videotapes that marked your return to the moving image and has continued into your most recent work. I’d like to focus on that transition to the idea of the beautiful image, which is partially located in nature but also, fundamentally, in the reflection of yourself in nature. So many of the images you were composing digitally and that you brought to video recently, include yourself; your partner Kathleen; your loved ones; people who are important to you. That feels like a very conscious change. Is it?

PC I’m not sure that there is a direct way to answer—I wouldn’t even call that statement a question. (laughter) It’s almost to the point of why I’m an artist. I had a very dramatic childhood—with the death of my mother and living in seclusion. Art—painting—was a way to get out of it and to communicate some of what I was feeling. As I went through college and studied psychology and then went on to work in the film business, art became an exalted dreamlike place. I’ve almost managed to keep it that way for the 30 years I’ve been doing it. I would say my reasons for making art haven’t changed that much—the most basic reason was to communicate what I couldn’t communicate any other way. That doesn’t deny that when I first entered video, I was really excited by what video specifically was—not necessarily broadcast video—but how this invention that pretty much coincided with my life could be used to make art. The first use of television was 1936 or 1937.

JH And the PortaPack was introduced in 1965 . . .

PC I didn’t use the PortaPack at first: it seemed to me not video. It seemed related to the film camera. To me, pure video was made with cameras you couldn’t see through; they were surveillance cameras. I constructed open camera pieces that were interactive.

JH With the projection?

PC People would actually enter into the projection and interact. I see a lot of work now that’s called interactive—the interactivity is to press a button or set off a series of sequences by moving this way instead of that way. But the projection really engaged the viewer to become, literally, a part of the piece.

JH But didn’t it also reflect and represent the viewers, causing them to see themselves in other, new ways?

PC Each piece proposed that you see yourself in a slightly different way from this perspective and to coordinate that with another view of yourself.

JH So does this fusion of the cognitive and the psychological come out of your own interest and studies? Your own kind of recovery of yourself through art?

PC Right.

JH That was what you were communicating in those first pieces. With what communities were you exchanging these ideas?

PC As an artist, I was very aware of what was going on with me; but as a person, I’ve always been reclusive. I was influenced by Bruce Nauman’s work, shown at the Castelli gallery in 1969. That set my work on track. They were single images in an installation situation that were hour videotapes of repetitive movement. They were extraordinary. I still think they’re extraordinary. They talked about the very potential of the medium. There was the other direction I did not go in, which was similar to, let’s say, Nam June Paik—where there would be a montage of images. A barrage of images. Where the idea was—I think the idea was—that the image wasn’t as important as the situation.


Peter Campus, scout, 1994, computer altered color photograph, 16 3/8 x 24 7/16 x 1 1/8". Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

JH It was a total experience. When we look at the early ’70s and late ’60s, there was an enormous range of activity in video. There was work within performance, body art, conceptual art, there was Paik, image processing, there were community-based video collectives . . . and it was all happening at the same time. Were you aware of all that? Were you also aware of Michael Snow’s films and film installations? Were you aware of Paul Sharits’s films?

PC Definitely. He used to be at Millennium Film Archives. There used to be showings most evenings: Stan Brakhage, Ed Emschwiller, Bruce Conner . . .

JH The Bykert Gallery showed installations later.

PC And I first showed at Bykert.

JH So you were aware of the culture of the moving image and installations; these were all things that you were conversing with.

PC Right, very much so. Very interested. Aldo Tambellini’s Black Gate Theater in New York.

JH I’m trying to recover that whole history in terms of exhibitions and writing. It’s become very restricted—there are just one or two slices that people are aware of. It is an effort to put it all back together again and see the cross-movements between the work that was being done then—documentary, image processing, conceptual, performance, installation work for television—and the work being created now. When I lecture today, I show your videotape Three Transitions. Viewers seeing that work for the first time are shocked by its transformation of the body and face in the pieces employing chroma-key, two-camera setups. It provokes people to think about portraiture in new ways. When one sees your installations in museums and galleries, displayed alongside new work by younger artists, one really sees them as a powerful resource: the precedent to this whole new generation starting to work with video.

PC Many of them have never seen the work of their predecessors.

JH Yes, but you are one of the teachers.

PC NYU, where I teach, is just beginning to introduce the idea of history in video.

JH Don’t you think that comes through in your teaching: the fact that your work informs the work your students are making now?

PC No. My strength as a teacher is being able to see what the student is trying to do and help him or her to move on with it. I know a lot of people present their ideas to the students; I’ve just never been that kind of teacher. Most places where I’ve taught have had almost no sense of history. In the lecture that you gave at the Guggenheim downtown where you linked film history with video history—that seemed so key. After seeing your lecture, I started showing films in my classes thinking, Yes, of course, this is obviously right. Why do we think of video as being separate from the rest? It’s helped tremendously, allowing us to talk about montage editing, and sequencing, and also, to a lesser extent, what’s going on in movie theaters. Talking about what’s going on in the movie theaters leads us to talk about what is going on in the galleries. What is installation art? For example, in a class last night, a student tried to describe a video piece that she saw at DIA, and she was only talking about the images. I said, “Wait a minute, tell me what you saw in that room. Was the room dark, was the room light? What was this image projected on? A wall? A screen? Where was this image coming from, was it from a projector? Where was the projector? If you walked into a room and saw a piece of sculpture, you would be able to describe every bit of it. But you walk into a video installation as though the equipment isn’t there.” Strong exceptions are works that began to show up five years ago; Gary Hill is really using the equipment as part of the installation—and Tony Oursler.

JH What I think has been central to the art of the 20th century has been the movement of the moving image from film through video, electronic media and television, to the Internet, digital imaging, Web sites, CD-ROM, and DVD. The expanding place . . .

PC Well, we don’t know about that last part.

JH But the web is a place where you can capture the moving image.

PC We don’t know yet. I work really hard to get good quality; the quality of the web is awful. Maybe that will change.

JH Technically, it’s a quality that can still be exploited. Remember, back in the early ’70s, black and white video was reel-to-reel. It was seen as poor quality in comparison to film. Yet it was a different medium, and artists exploited and explored that difference to create an art form out of video. Following that line of argument, I would say that there is a quality of difference that can inform it, but still have this continuing basis of the moving image—which I think is a powerful trajectory.

PC That is how we should think of it. To some extent, I was surprised with the way that Bill Viola was talking about the death of video—that it will only be part of some small period of time. But yes, it is time to think in terms of just the moving image. The trouble with that is the dominance of movies in our culture.


Peter Campus. left: Video still from Island 02, 1999. right: Video still from Island 03, 1999. Courtesy ZUMA Digital.

JH Right. There is a profound difference between independent media artists working with film and video, from television production and the mainstream film industry. Those are the issues that you’re talking about with your students: How do you describe what you see? There are also the narrow art-historical paradigms: art historians who don’t deal with the moving image and film historians who don’t deal with art installation. We need to give the study of the media arts a theoretical basis of understanding and interpretation. That is what is so exemplary about your career, Peter—this movement, the basis and understanding of film and the movement through video. Three Transitions, in which you employed chroma-key in the television studio, was done at the WGBH-TV lab in 1973.

PC With the technicians screaming out of earshot, “What is this? Why are we doing this?” (laughter) And the producer, Fred Barzyk, saying, “What is this crazy person doing?”

JH Where do you place your moving image work from the early ’70s within this historical trajectory through different media? Was it somehow linked to your work in the early ’90s, when you began to move back to video and the moving image?

PC ’94, ’95.

JH The 20 year interim from 1973 to 1994 preceding your return to video was filled with photographs and digital images. What brought you back to the medium? What was the quality of that experience, and what was the difference over time? It felt like there was a rediscovery.

PC It’s hard to answer those questions because they are so deep in my psyche. They’re buried down in there. Now that I’m back working in video, I know that’s my real love, that’s what I feel comfortable in. In a sense, it’s what I was trained in. I went to film school. I don’t entirely know what my reasons were for stopping the video work, I’ve given lots of glib answers and some not so glib . . . the easiest answer is that I wanted to stop working in the moving image. There were other things going on. It was nine years of a lot of frustration; I felt that I was successful at it, and yet there wasn’t any way to support myself. Subsequently, I went into teaching. At this point, I probably regret giving it up, but there was this monetary drawback, and I was feeling that drawback all the time.


Peter Campus. left: Video still from Dreams 03, 1999. right: Video still from Dreams 02, 1999. Courtesy ZUMA Digital.

JH There was a sense of the arrested image in those slide installations, the black and white photography, the landscape work and the exploration of digital image making. But in less formal terms, Peter, central to your work is an enormous amount of integrity. That integrity, along with the acknowledgment of your own fragility, brings strength to your work. You’ve always given care to your images and seriousness to your art, and I felt a loss when you weren’t working with the moving image. But there was also an important exploration taking place when you moved into the digital image, you captured and began to compose and look at space and the representational image and modify it. The movement back toward the moving image is recovered in the work that you have been creating over the past few years. It is very exciting.

PC That’s good to hear, but at this point, I feel some regret. I wish now that I had stayed in video, yet I’ve always let myself go to where I’ve been drawn to. I’ve never said, “I better not do that!” I would go walking in the mountains lugging 40 pounds of camera equipment. I felt like I was backpacking it for a few months, even though I was just driving there, spending the day, and driving back at the end of the day. It was necessary to be more physically involved, to photograph in the woods. But what happened during this 18-year hiatus was a rapid technological improvement in video. Here I was, after an 18-year absence, saying, “What is this? This is a camera? What do you mean, digital?” It took two years to catch up.

JH You immediately took that camera back into nature.

PC I am still interested in nature. But now I’m going back to working with myself and people close around inc. You asked how it’s different now, how I’m working. The videotapes I did in the ’70s were clearly concerned with Nauman and Joan Jonas, who was doing performance work at the time. This work is different now—although, I’m not sure how. There’s a piece that Joan made, late ’70s, called I Want to Live in the Country (and Other Romances). I’ve never forgotten that piece . . .


Peter Campus, even insects see angels, 1995, iris print, 30 x 34". Courtesy Paul Cooper Gallery.

JH It’s wonderful, up in Nova Scotia. It’s interesting you bring that up now.

PC Her work has always been narrative. I wanted this new work to be more narrative, less formal, less conceptual. One new piece, that I call Stop, is directly related to a piece that I did in 1971–72, called Walking Up, part of Dynamic Field Series. I’ve done other versions of that piece over the years.

JH You’re speaking of the Video Ergo Sum work.

PC Yes.

JH This is a set of pieces that I’ve just seen for the first time. Dream, Stop, and Karneval und Jude are works that rank with your early video pieces. It’s so interesting to see where you are now and how you got to this point: constructing those digital images and placing memories within them, using the most sophisticated digital processing to make the simplest image. And then moving into the tapes where the camera was free, something that you could carry with you and you could postproduce. It was a working through of the moving image. That work itself has its own narrative quality, and palette of recovery: the recovery of nature and of yourself in nature. But what’s happening in this new work is told in its very title: Video: I See, Therefore I Am. That title is at the core of your work; it is absolutely your art, your project: Video Ergo Sum. What an apt title for this new work of seven pieces: each piece just minutes long and shown as loops on separate monitors. You could spend as much time as you wanted with these pieces cause they are so wonderfully clear and dense, so compellingly beautiful. In Dream, here is a luminosity to the image—a transformation of the recorded image that in its composition and articulation of movement evokes a power recalling your first, seminal videotapes and installations.

PC I was trained in the film business and trained to be looking for a certain amount of production value. In those early days of video I was happy to be working at WGBH because there was very sophisticated high quality technical staff. I know that’s not the way artists were thinking at that time; they were thinking about the beauty of low-resolution. But because I had spent ten years working in the business I had this quality idea. In that sense WGBH was great, except that you had to work in their studio. My last five years in the film business was as a film editor. But the first videotape I did as an artist was unedited. Then on my return after 17 years, there’s nonlinear editing to work with. What an amazing thing.

JH Why is that?

PC Formerly, video images had to be assembled in a line in time. Now by editing on the computer, you can mix, take any image from any place and put it into any order, change the order. Nonlinear video editing emulated the film-editing equipment we had when I was working as a film editor.

JH The technology of nonlinear editing, the cameras and the digital video, allows you hands-on, direct control, and enables you to remake the moving video image in a way that you couldn’t before.

PC Right, and the Bohen Foundation made it possible.

JH With less public funding, is leadership funding coming from foundations? There’s one that we know very well, the Bohen Foundation’s Fred Henry.

PC Over dinner, Fred said, “I’d like to do some project with you.” I just looked at him: here was a way of doing a video project that I couldn’t afford to do any other way. He got me this extraordinary nonlinear editing system.

JH When this period of history is written, people like Fred Henry have to be thanked for providing the means for the creation of a huge range of installation work. Fred has played an important part in terms of commissioning work, giving the artists total freedom, making it possible for that work to go into museums and into museum collections. That participation is often almost invisible in this art world of ours that doesn’t recognize . . .

PC If it wasn’t for Fred, this work wouldn’t exist. Also, if it wasn’t for this technology, it wouldn’t exist. I tend to resist that as an idea and certainly in my teaching we emphasize the art rather than the technology. Yet, through this technology a lot of change can be made in the image. As a film editor back in the ’60s, we didn’t have this possibility.

JH So it is a new medium.

PC It is a new medium. An extremely sophisticated, complex tool for artists to work with.

JH We’re looking at your video Dream—the treatment of color, the treatment of composition, the quality, the very texture, and the luminosity of the image really speak to your imagination and your transition into representation. Here we see your face, this negative-type developed image. Objects float through the space around you as a kind of concrete representation of the imaginary. It’s extraordinary editing that conveys the combination of senses of perception and makes the experience of looking at this work tangible. A while ago, I asked about the question of beauty. Dream is an experience with something that is luminously beautiful. That is the difference between the phenomenology of perception in the early work, and that of your new work, which supports a very different aesthetic. You still haven’t quite answered that question.

PC Because some of the answer is unconscious. Working as a visual artist for over 30 years becomes a richer and richer experience, so the imagery becomes richer.


Peter Campus. left: Video still from Dreams 04, 1999. right: Video still from Dream 05, 1999. Courtesy ZUMA Digital.

JH But are you aware of other image sources as you’re thinking about this? Is it coming out of the medium, out of your own . . .

PC I was thinking of Brancusi’s sculpture in this particular shot.

JH That’s right, your head is on its side. I’m thinking less of direct reference than of this issue of aesthetics, of beautiful images, being central to your artwork. That kind of image making is less in fashion today, yet you and Bill Viola infuse this type of aesthetically charged work with great power and meaning. What’s interesting is that while Dream is beautiful, it also engages complex issues of the body, the representation of time, and the unconscious.

PC I want the work to look a certain way, to move a certain way. To have a quality that is crucial to my work. Each work should have four equal qualities: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. Coomarswarmi wrote that in the Transformation of Nature in Art. [Coomarswarmi was Curator of Asian Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Art in the ’20s, and ’30s. Transformation of Nature in Art was about the Indian sculpture.]


Peter Campus, burning, 1992, computer altered color photograph, 39 13/16 x 50 5/16". Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

JH Where do you see your work in terms of the near future? Will you continue to work on the series we’re looking at today? Do you have other subjects that you want to explore? As you’re reaching closure on this seven-part piece, how do you begin to think about the future?

PC I don’t know if I am reaching closure at all. To do Video Ergo Sum probably has some limits, but I’m very comfortable working this way. All my experience of life and video and photography and film is coming together at this moment. It is a rich period. I’ve been editing footage that I’ve taken over the past year and I haven’t taken a new image in something like six months, which is a little peculiar. It’s not often that I’ve worked so that I haven’t run out of images. This is a very exciting period for me. Also, Kathleen shot the carnival sequence in Karneval und Jude. She has this amazing way of finding faces. We were passing the camera back and forth at that time—my shots were from above and all this splash of color. Kathleen got in there and captured these faces, one after the other after the other, during a carnival in Bremen, Germany—it was just extraordinary imagery.

JH Peter, in this new body of work a number of pieces speak to you and your partner, Kathleen Graves. There’s obviously a deep love being expressed in that work. Your relationship to each other is the subject of those works. Your career and your personal life—which are always part of any artist’s process—are coalescing and forming. It’s a powerful change and is fostering this challenging body of work. I think great artists working with any medium are those who are able to set challenges for themselves and focus not only on one type of image making, but can expose themselves to a variety of ideas. Artists as diverse as Nam June Paik, Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Joan Jonas and yourself are artists who’ve met that goal and challenge. It’s so interesting, at this point in time, to see your whole body of work coming alive. Your earlier work is entering everyone’s consciousness now—they want to think about it again. Museums want to own it. The digital and photographic work is being thought about in relation to your video work and photography, and now, this new body of work, Video Ergo Sum.

PC I think there’ll be something past Video Ergo Sum. John, you’ve been happily married for over 20 years—

JH (laughter) Twenty-eight.

PC —You’ve been happily married as long as I have known you, and that’s a nice little carrot that you’ve put in front of me.


Peter Campus, stuff, 1995, iris print, 30 x 34". Courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

Tags:
Interactive
Portraiture
Nature
Digital photography
Perception
Phenomenology
Video Art
Photography
Installation art
BOMB 68
Summer 1999
The cover of BOMB 68
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