Media Introspections

'Atom by atom molecular beings transport me away to the place of my dreams.'1

Towards the Interior

Let us enter the dim interior filled with projections, oval in shape and green in colour. Let us enter the darkroom of someone's mind, body, and life, where reality and phantasy intertwine. Life is a story to be told, made up of multiple histories, but in these histories words and sentences stand for still and motion pictures in a state of constant flux. The green oval projections surround the viewer with images of reality and at the same time of unconsciousness. Fragments of bodies and existences intertwined in fleeting films projected into a dark space and surrounding the viewer. In addition, there is the recurrent motif – women's mouths and a glass ball, the sound of running water and incomprehensible whispers!

Life is a Story (2002) is a title of a cycle of projects as well as one of the many video installations by Izabella Gustowska, a work that directs us into a space where image after image transport us to the zone of dreams and visions constructed of representations of fragments of reality and past works of art. The creation of such media spaces is the signature of the oeuvre of the artist, who by means of her video installations transforms the material world into a virtual one.

The women's mouths are the most important here: speaking, with lipstick on, dripping with water, holding inside and spitting out a glass ball. A mouth as a bodily part and at the same time an instrument of culture. The mouth speaks but also performs a series of irrational somatic movements, spits out water and a ball, and then again closes up on the ball in obsessive repetitions. The mouth fills up the entire field of vision, transforms the surface of the image into an opening, embodies the film, locates the look not only in the eye, but also in the entrails. The water that flows out of the mouth comes from the body, in whose entrails the glass ball is born. The labour of the body and of culture intermingles. Life is a story told by the mouth, which is also an entrance to the interior, to another moist world. All the images seem to be whirling inside the ball and to be projected from it onto the surrounding space and the ball is born in the body of the whispering woman.
Izabella Gustowska is one of the prominent video art authors in Polish visual culture. This is the part of the story that is common knowledge; let us take a look, however, at its covert part, the unexpressed one, just like words are a whisper at the threshold of articulation in her multimedia spaces that hallucinate the viewer. The artist is one of the representatives in contemporary art of a tendency connected with the affirmation of humanism and subjectivity. This seems to have occurred in spite of her means of expression, i.e. so-called new visual and electronic media, television screens and projections, which are censured by many critics of contemporary culture as having a dehumanising and alienating effect. A video camera in her art locates the outside reality in the midst of mental life. In this way she counteracts the distancing effect of visual technologies. By means of the 'mass media' tool the artist is capable of conveying the most intimate and performs a mental introspection, not only of herself. Her projections are open up to the phantasies and existences of Another. The introspection of the psyche carried out by means of a video camera affirms the complexity of the subject and is an attempt at its humanistic defence.

The artist herself has dubbed this phenomenon in simple words. She said that people have grown accustomed to the media image, which has become a part of their intimate everyday life, and therefore it is through it that she speaks about intimate life. Therefore, she constructs installations of monitors and projections, which surround the viewers and let them look at themselves mediated through the screen of media and motion pictures. This is, however, only one side of the story; the other one was defined the most adequately by Alicja Kępińska who wrote that Izabella Gustowska interiorizes electronic media, directing their action into the interior of our feelings.2 I will be interested precisely in this question of interiorization of the media, which the artist consistently pursues throughout her oeuvre on various levels.

Private iconography and videography

In her art Izabella Gustowska has worked out her own private iconography, which she developed parallel to her experiments with photography, printmaking, sculpture, installation, and first and foremost video. Work on visual media ran parallel to recurrent motifs; when it comes to the psychological dimension, we can observe a constant reworking of certain existential subjects. This iconography is derived from the artist's personal life, texts and representations from the history of culture, as well as from the sphere of contemporary media.

We can distinguish several principal iconographic motifs.
Let us list them one by one. There is the self-portrait, frequently introduced in video installations also as a video performance. There is the issue of intimate relations within femininity, between women, relations with oneself and other women, focus on the psyche and body of a woman, fascination with femininity and its constant representation. There is the issue of duality, reflection, shadow, twinness, and intertwining of multiplicity into unity. There is the issue of exploration of states of fluidity, energy flows, inspiration with water and its material and symbolic potentialities. There is the issue related to the immersion into the irrational, visualizations of dreams, phantasies, and memories. There is the issue of examining the experiences of passion, closeness, intimacy, and love as well as their psychological and imagery expression. There is the issue of a transformation of everyday life through media, the fascination with the architecture of the house as a path leading inside and into the past. There is the issue of a dialogue with the present and the past of the history of culture. In the most recent works there is the issue of the intrusion of the media reality into individual phantasies and emotions as well as the impact of mass entertainment and visual communication on human psyche.

Finally – or rather first of all – there is the issue of coming to terms with one's own history, with one's own past in the artistic and existential sense, with the life narrative. This leads directly to the title of the monograph exhibition in the National Museum in Poznań – Life is a Story. This life story comprises also the history of the artist's own art. Gustowska has invariably returned to the earlier photographs and films and used self-quotation in particular projects. Story-telling, being at the same time an interpretation of life, relates to the selection of motifs from the artist's private visual archive and to making them, along with new projects, a part of the public space of the Museum, whose architecture will disappear in the virtual sphere of projections, screens, and monitors. [...]

The uniqueness of themes and media gives Izabella Gustowska a special place in art. Her separate position in Polish video art is indisputable, since the artist breaks free of its powerful conceptual foundations, dominated by a formal analysis of the electronic message or its intellectual or ideological deconstruction.3 Gustowska, for her part, personalises video art. One may say that the artist introduces new picture technologies into humanistic and cultural traditions, rather than analyse their dehumanising or media impact. By means of new media she continues old iconographic and symbolic motifs derived from the history of art, such as the female nude, self-portrait, still life, genre scenes. I would venture an idea that Izabella Gustowska has created a certain female line of video art, fully aware of all of its connotations, in contrast to the male line, strongly delineated by Józef Robakowski. Her projects are conspicuously intent on the feminisation and biographisation of this traditionally masculine and analytical medium. [...]

For Izabella Gustowska video art offers an ideal means of recording the passing time; the video camera records moments that have passed and preserves them in the eternal present, transports them into the future, saves from disappearance, but also poeticises. For the artist the video plays the role that used to be played by literature, and then first of all by photography. In this sense Izabella Gustowska is Marcel Proust's greatest heiress in Polish art. What he was telling us about his life by means of literature, she does by means of a video camera. The artist looks at her personal time precisely through the prism of unconsciousness, as bits and pieces of memories and dreams. [...]

Introjection and mass culture fantasies

Let us consider the model of the post-modern unconscious. [...]
The video installation by Izabella Gustowska, The Art of Choice (2006), is constructed on the basis of two parts. The first one, The Art of Hard Choice, is composed of short fragments of famous popular films grouped thematically. This is, then, her film archive of such subjects as: dance, kisses, smoking a cigarette, drinking wine, crying, reading books, talking on the phone, sex, wedding, conversation, children, travels, animals, shooting, taking pictures, and filming. Similar thematic division reappears in the second part of the installation- The Art of Easy Choice based on the artist's private video archive, notes from her life in form of films. Fractions of films from The Art of Hard Choice are mirror images of recorded personal moments in The Art of Easy Choice.

Fragments related to each subject are projected simultaneously onto a wall in the form of rows of circles and are coloured green. Each oval projection presents one film moment dedicated to, e.g. kisses or travels. The viewer is watching the multiplications of kisses from various films, pulsating in many circles glistening with green on the walls. Add to this the application of sounds. This part of the projection is in a dialogue with images and sounds from the private collection from the artist's life. We are faced with a total chaos of images, words, and melodies ordered in a network of small oval projections. In addition, some of the motifs were chosen by the artist as the subject matter of big circular lightboxes; in other words she held and stressed a single image of this chasm of entertaining motion pictures. [...]

We can observe as in both parts of the installation most of the images are representations of everyday life, elementary emotions and activities, that are derived on the one hand from attractive film fiction, and on the other hand from calmer everyday life of the artist. As a consequence, the whole work reveals our double way of function in the contemporary world of visual media, where our reality and privacy intertwine with continuous fantasies about life from pop and mass culture. Therefore we exist simultaneously in our modest reality and in spectacular mass imagination that has more and more influence on private experience of desires and fantasies.

It is of such images, seen somewhere in the past and then forgotten, mainly from films and television, that the unconscious in its post-modern model of the visual media age is built. All the productions are transformed, deformed, fragmented, forgotten, rejected, or fetishised by mental pro­cesses and memory and then in that processed form of reworked visual pulp reach the deepest recesses of psyche, when they are forgotten as a coherent and logical narration. They become tamed and internalised. They become unconscious since it is impossible that they might be borne in their magnitude and chaos by the narrow stratum of rational consciousness; their very existence negates this consciousness. In effect, where Freud used to see mother and father, libido or the death wish, we have now also Sharon Stone, a sexy guy from a commercial, as well as comic strip or soap opera figures. We can find them there, not instead but in addition; the individual coexists with the collective. In effect we experience our own mourning as an earlier attractive representation of someone else's mourning and thanks to it this mourning is more bearable and sublimated. The basic experiences have their representations in the form of figures of mass and global visual popular culture. This is because the unconscious is in large measure visual and is a repository of everything, like a black ball which later projects and shows fragments of its infinite and absurd archive, wired to some elementary and perennial needs. Of greatest importance are fantasies, or images that compensate what we are lacking in, and it is they that are woven of picture elements of this nightmarish and blissful mosaic. In this way the real world intermingles with the virtual one. In this context Izabella Gustowska showing her private video diary in The Art of Easy Choice tries to emphasize and save privacy, individuality and everyday intimacy, that is more and more denied by mediated intimacy from attractive exterior screens.

This is the state of perception, existence, and experience that the most recent works by Izabella Gustowska visualise. On the one hand, through the multiplication of projections and their miniaturisation they are deconstructive, laying bare the dual state of existence, on the other hand they hallucinate [...] and in this way restore individuality of a look in the presence of omnipresent video cameras and monitors. In their multisensory spectacular character her works are also an affirmation of extraordinary beauty and perversion of the new mental image environment. What is important is the very technique of projection liberated from monitors, existing as pure space or plane. Projection has always played a key role in the visualization of mental processes.

The strategy of projection enters the chasm between perception, imagination, and representation, grappling with a transition into the area of representation of images born in the mind. In his 1629 Utriusque Cosmi, a neo-platonic study over consciousness and the universum, Robert Fludd illustrated the process of the transition of images from inner, invisible ones to external visible spaces. In his diagram consciousness looks like a small projector whose lens is the 'eye of the imagination' placed in the forehead, projecting thought images onto the screen located in back of the head. Consciousness becomes transmitted into images in this quasi-cinematic experiment, the centre of which is occupied by the imagining subject.4 It was already the hermetic philosophy of the mind and the image that was fascinated with projection, a fascination which currently is characteristic of contemporary art.5 The method of projection onto the wall, screen or into space from all types of projectors is often used by video art authors. Projections have totally transformed the status of exhibition rooms, with a shift from light to darkness. Instead of a white cube there emerges a black cube or a gallery hall immersed in darkness that is only lit by the beam of the projector and the projected moving images.

The most recent video installations and projections by Izabella Gustowska are born precisely in the relation to the aesthetics and ideology of the black cube. Robert Fludd's model becomes completely transformed. In the post-modern space of the projection we are no longer on the outside of the mind, where we contemplate at a distance the images it projects, but rather stand inside of it, in the darkest and profoundest recesses of it at that, those tied with the unconscious. The function of the projector of the imagination from the neo-platonic treatise is fulfilled here by the new visual technologies which surround the viewer with images, literally locating him under the dome of the mind, in the very midst. In the artist's early works this was an interior of the classical and individual unconscious, now its collective form of the new millennium starts to dominate.

The dynamics of the post-modern unconscious depends on two mental and visual processes, projection and introjection. First the images must be generated and sent to our consciousness and that is why we are surrounded by their multitude in the contemporary visual culture. Subsequently, our consciousness selects and accepts those light beams that are projected onto us; we are the screens of the projection. The images which get inside and become a part of the unconscious and a tissue of fantasies, will make their way there thanks to the processes of introjection, or internalisation, where the physiology of perception merges with its psychology. This may be likened to the penetration of image elements through the screen of conscious perception and then their new level of unconscious organization which will be the matter for the fantasmatic compositions. The Art of Hard Choice introduces the viewer into such a sphere of psychovisual exchange and penetration between the external and the internal, projection and introjection, the unconscious and fantasy, the conscious and the unconscious. The installation conveys this state of total immersion into the world of moving images, where there is no reality any longer and where we only deal with an intermingling between the external image and its internal reflection. In the artist's projects films seem to be shown as they already exist inside of us, stripped of their reality, multiplied, anatomised, mixed, chaotic, coloured. At the same time Izabella Gustowska softly introduced projections into the 'lenses zone', which projections show fragments of her earlier works related to her privacy, those characterized by the traditional unconscious. This is because the two formulas of the unconscious co-exist in the individual, mutually tied with each other. This is by no means a neutral condition!

The intrusive and ubiquitous visual culture, so powerful in its influence over the future of the unconscious, is subject to vehement criticism. Guy Debord's famous 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle, the foundation stone of such criticism, censures commercial images of mass culture because of their alienating action, which displaces real life, giving way to represented sham.6 A spectacle at the service of the market exploits a man and replaces an authentic experience. In the mass visual culture we are all prisoners, separated from ourselves and from one another by the terror of the commercial image. Debord's scathing analysis, despite later revisions carried out by other thinkers, is still on target. The very notion of the spectacle, in turn, was supplemented if not supplanted, by Jean Baudrillard's affirmative hyperreality of the simulacrum.7 Where Debord felt repugnance, Baudrillard finds fascination. Guy Debord expertly recognised the influence of modern visual solutions on the individual and regarded it as decisively negative.

Immersed in the media, Izabella Gustowska's art has partly preserved this analytic approach, especially with respect to interpersonal communication, i.e. to the mediation of interpersonal relations by visuality and its high technologies. This subject features the most prominently in the video installation Communication on Line (2004), representing seventy women between the ages of four and seventy dancing to the Portuguese Fado. The women dance in pairs, in groups, and by themselves. Their movements give off energy, joy, women's solidarity and human closeness. The form of displaying this humanistic and female continuum reflects, in turn, the destructive impact of communications technologies. This is effected by means of interruptions in the projection, interferences with the continuity and proximity, despite the fact that it also makes them possible since it includes the viewer in these dynamic relations through image and music. Comfort is combined with discomfort, the spectacle is combined with its hidden mechanics. It is as if the matrix were laid bare for a moment only to immediately snatch us into its net. Or, to present it differently, it is as if the matrix tried to interfere with humanity and take possession of its energy. The projection is no longer unequivocal. This is no longer exclusively feminine joy and closeness, but a more profound reflection on the condition of the emotional message in the media age.

To a certain extent this is the tradition of the anti-film of Guy Debord or Jean-Luc Godard, where the spectacle becomes demystified. The difference lies in the fact that Izabella Gustowska retains the charge of its charm, and first of all the faith in the power of humanism, which may emanate even from within a spectacle.

At the psychological and visual level a similar problem is taken up by Julia Kristeva, who follows Debord and emphasises the fact that the viewer has become a passive consumer rather than a creator. The philosopher poses a rhetorical question whether we do not happen to live in the contemporary media culture in the paradise of fantasies, surrounded by an environment of visualised fantasies, thus stimulated to the creation of our own imaginations. One may add here that Izabella Gustowska seems to locate us within this optical paradise of pleasure and excess in her installation The Art of Hard Choice.
For Kristeva, however, this paradise is a delusion since the society of the spectacle is not friendly towards the formation of individual fantasies. On the contrary, what happens is a destruction of fantasmatic abilities which connect one to the unconscious. And the process of relations with one's own unconscious is of paramount importance for a psychoanalytically oriented philosopher!

Representations impact the creations of our imagination, but when they continue to be constantly replicated and stereotypical, thus identical to those of mass culture, they strip us of our imagination since due to their persistence and power they effectively block the creation of our own fantasies. An individual's imaginarium gives way to the collective one, fantasies are no longer rooted in the personal unconscious but more and more so in the unconscious of the mass. Kristeva, then, is afraid that the post-modern unconscious, which she deems inauthentic and fake, will completely edge out the traditional one. This transformation leads to the reduction of fantasies, to the limitation of their inner depth, to the severance of the projection screen from mental space. The visual screen is like a block for inner life, and the hard and fetish image of a succession of copies displaces a softer, deeper and authorial visuality of fantasies. This is a contrast between the hard and the soft forms of visuality.

The world of visual fantasies is so important because within the society of the image they co-create intimacy. For Kristeva, in turn, only through intimacy can we arrive at the creation and preservation of the individual. Intimacy is a resistance strategy against social unification, psychological alienation, and political fundamentalism. Julia Kristeva poses, then, a grand question about how and whether an intimate revolt is possible in the contemporary society of the image.8 This is also a problem that Izabella Gustowska has grappled with in her own [...] video projections. In The Art of Choice her everyday intimacy is juxtaposed to the world of visual entertainment. The artist changes these both levels of contemporary existence into equivalent and finally similar visual lenses, which we use to look through at life as stories to be told. The artist consistently pits visual technologies against their alienating and homogenising effect, internalises a moving picture, softens it, deepens and combines with individual unconsciousness and diagnoses mass unconsciousness. We have then two ways of intimate revolt, i.e. visual in art and textual in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literature. [...]

The title of the cycle in progress since 2002 and of the exhibition in the National Museum in Poznań in 2006 is Life is a Story. This is a story told by means of images. Julia Kristeva wrote that life is a story since her philosophy created life stories – BIOS-graphies. These are first and foremost stories about the psyche, since life acquires sense only through interpretations, a translation of the innermost, a narrative rejuvenation; life becomes reborn in a narrative.9 Inspired by psychoanalysis, Kristeva thought primarily about language as a medium of assigning significance. Inner life must be expressed in words so that it might be discovered and sublimated. From this stand Kristeva criticizes the visual culture whose fantasies relate to the unconscious but cannot liberate us as they are lacking in the word of interpretation. Izabella Gustowska may disagree with the philosopher at this point and through the experience of art!

The artist's oeuvre is precisely the art of translation, interpreting inner life by the visual, imparting significance through photography and video film composed in installations. That is why Life is a Story obsessively recurs to speaking female mouths out of which emerges a ball radiating projections. Language replaces a video image which shows life as narrations woven of fragments of individual and collective (film) fantasies, i.e. motion pictures mediated by two different types of the unconscious.

Julia Kristeva proposed a concept of a talking subject spread between the conscious and the unconscious, manifesting itself in language which needs an intimate revolt in order to survive. On the basis of Izabella Gustowska's art one may propose a complementary model of the seeing subject, the subject of the look and of the image. It is more archaic with respect to the subject of speech and at the same time is an intimation of the future. In the visual culture this vision is an equivalent foundation for the constitution of subjectivity and also for its affirmation, rather than only for the proclaimed alienation and destruction. The intimate revolt in the world of images seeks the unconscious and individual dimension in the image and in the vision. Life is a Story introduces us into the inner space of the subject of vision, where the video camera eye looks inwards, out of where, out of the glass ball emerging out of a woman's mouth, gushes forth a projection stream.


Paweł Leszkowicz


Translation: Marcin Turski