Isabelle Pauwels
b. Kortrijk, Belgium, lives and works in Vancouver

More or Less Square: A Book in Three Parts (Photocopy Edition)
Photocopied pages, bound.
8.5” x 11” x 5/8”

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More or Less Square Preview
Single channel video for monitor

Allison Collins: The catalyst for this exhibition was a gap in my research into video in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I had been focusing on discussions of video’s anthropological and social history, but I wanted to move into that which was more formal and structural. And, in particular, I was curious as to what constituted the “art” in video work.

Isabelle Pauwels: For that time period, I would say that video work was “like television but different.” It was like TV and it wasn’t, but it always kind of is, in the mind of the audience if not the artist.

AC: I wasn’t expecting that. This insight jumps way ahead of my questions, but yes, I think you are right. There was a moment when formal experiments in video mimicked the inquiries of structural film, in the discourse or in how they were made. Structural film had so much to do with film itself as a material. Much of the work was about the limitations of the medium or how the content could be impacted by that material. The way the video was installed was also very meaningful. For video, the television itself—the monitor—and even the tape were crucial to the work. Also, at the time of video’s invention the capability to transmit live images was innovative.

IP: Yes, the Dan Graham end of it: Video as an architectural medium. Having the television and the tape inside the exhibition wasn’t a big deal for artists who were approaching video as being like television. There wasn’t this notion of “this is an installation.” It was just, how else would we show it?

AC: Because it was what you had.

IP: Yeah. Whereas today, the format you choose to present video in is an installation decision.

AC: I was very much thinking of the exhibition space when assembling work for this project. I initially assumed that I should step away from storyline to focus on form, duration and space, and yet I found many strong works that consciously exhibited elements of formal structure (such as time and the organization of content into elements) alongside editorial “content” (such as historical documents and fictional narrative). Generally, I feel that the elapsing of time makes video inherently forward projecting and indicative of a narrative-like momentum. Storytelling, coupled with framework, continued to appear and became a strong organizing principle of the video work in this exhibition.

Your piece, More or Less Square, directly addresses the underpinning editorial structures of how one could create a television series, touches on duration and the provision (or lack thereof) of video to produce a document and then comes to look at a delivery of narrative that pre-figures recording using structures of theatre. All of this appears within the content of the More or Less Square book. There is a struggle between content and form in your work that I wanted to have at play in this show.

IP: Well, number one, when I started writing this work back in 2003, my motive for getting into it had nothing to do with structuralism or interrogating the medium of video. What was at stake was this intensity of storytelling that was very “TV.” The subject matter of More or Less Square Part 1 is exaggerated in such a way that the intensity is always the same. It’s stuffed with overly-fraught social and psychological “issues.”   It’s too much. It’s introduction after introduction, after introduction—constant “drama.” To the point where it’s high intensity, but completely flat.

I’ve also always been interested in family dynamics. When I started writing this work, there was an emergence of reality TV families like the Osbornes. My roommate would always watch these shows and I would hear them from inside my room. There was no escape. I wrote down stuff that I heard. I imagined the words just sitting on a page and thought about how when you read them on a page, they were just stuff. I imagined a box of papers just spilling everywhere and thought that would be the show: the words, without any passion or attempt at the passion that happens when there is delivery. Like, the words undelivered on the page, and how much effort it takes on the reader’s part to reanimate all that stuff.

I thought, “There has to be some kind of paper trail for all of these shows.” A friend worked at a few reality television shows and over the next few months she picked papers out of the garbage here and there and sent me a package. I looked through all these different formats and there was one I really liked. It was in grid form—like a table—where it tells you how many cameras, which camera is on which cast member, what they are saying and editorial quotes, along with a description of the action. By carefully reading these, I got the hang of how a show like that works.

These log sheets—the format of which I appropriated for Part 1—are what editors use. First, a group of interns or whatever are directed to make transcripts of selected parts of the footage (selected by the story editors). Then lower ranking editors like my friend, use those pages as a guide to further refine the footage. That’s how it worked. It was a kind of like sifting. From Act One to Act Six you could see how there became far fewer editing comments, because the acts had begun to fall into place. The later acts had a lot of “OPTIONAL” and slash marks in the dialogue—tons of floating bits—and the scenes were way too long. I figured out that the slash marks were cuts. So this shows how dialogue is pasted together from all kinds of places in the original timeline, so that the performers and the action conform to the demands of the narrative (in other words, what the producers want the show to be like). My process was kind of like a little forensic investigation. I really liked that.

AC: How does the structure of the book relate to the video?

IP: The video is an introduction to each part of the book and these intros basically tell you the whole thing is fake. It also gives you a little bit of the context of how I got the sheets and how I generated the content. The thing with this project is that the format kind of discourages absorption. You’re going to just look through it. It reads like babble, like it does on an actual reality TV show’s log sheets. What these tables tell you at first glance is: “So much stuff, but there’s a system.” It shows quantity as well as the storytelling system and it just keeps fucking going. You’re not going to read that. You’re just going to recognize it. You might read one page. I doubt anybody is going to do what I did—which is to read them like evidence. 

In Part 2 I asked myself “What was television like in the beginning? In the ‘30s and late ‘20s when it was first invented?” I realized that it was characterized by technical difficulties. You tried to stay on the air for as long as possible and you were communicating to the eighty people or so in your city who had a television set. When I did research I was very fascinated with the technical language that was used then. No one thinks of time and space in that way anymore. Signals being broadcast below five-hundred meters.  It was all very mechanical, and both the broadcaster and the viewer had to deal with technical difficulties on a regular basis. It was a dicey medium that relied upon live electronic signals. Nothing went to tape. The types of shows created during that time also had really interesting names, like “sustaining programs.” That meant that a show was on the air for more than a half hour and it was about one thing. A sustaining program was scripted a little bit—I mean, there was a treatment—and it had a regular host. At that time the lighting was ultra bright and very hot, because the TV cameras needed a lot of light in order to see the subject.  It was said that if you could keep your eyes open, you could have a career in television. If you can keep your eyes open. It was very hard to do that because of these intense lights.

Part 2 incorporates the technical language I pulled out of the books I was reading at the time. It had been made friendlier for consumers, who had to assemble their television sets themselves, and was a mix of information and advertising. This language affected me the same way the reality TV chatter had when I heard it without watching the show. I thought, “Take those words and un-deliver them and let them become more object-like.”

AC: A narrative that is also resisting itself, as you have described to me.

IP: Yes. In Part 2, I used the Mrs. Smith character from Part 1 again, but here she was in a completely different context. I thought the live television experiments from the ‘20s sounded a lot like what ‘70s video was, when artists went through a similar technical “figuring this shit out as we go along” phase. And there were a lot of endurance pieces too. I was thinking that if there was an avant-garde from early TV there’d be no record of it because nothing went to tape. So, for Part 2, I invented an early TV avant-garde and created a record of it. In my invented scenario, a benefactor throws some money at this experimental group. During the TV experiments, a secretary sits there, watches the live broadcasts and writes comments about what she sees. Using a Dictaphone, she captures the audio, which forms the record. These TV experiments take place in an impossible space: There’s an infinite floor and an infinite ceiling. The TV viewers, however, have a very definite frame on that space. Part 2 ends when the hostess of the continuity show has to announce the station’s first commercial, which is a Bulova ad. One of the earliest television commercials was for Bulova watches. It was a close-up on the watch face, ticking from zero to sixty, and they played the one-minute waltz by Richard Strauss. I was quite fascinated by the fact that in those days time had a face, whereas today we don’t think of time as having a face.

AC:  And Part 3? How is it related?

IP: Part 3, a play, is also impossible. You will only know this if you read it closely. The premise is that the whole play is written live by the main character, Nurse. When she’s done typing she hands the script out and then the actors perform it. But there are parts where Nurse acts surprised by events. For example, a character from Part 1 makes a supposedly unexpected appearance and Nurse has to ask him to stop so she can type the lines up. But the world of Nurse and her stage is so hermetic it is totally unrealistic. She and her troupe have been there for years, even though the town has fallen off the map. Therefore, when the reader arrives there, there’s nothing standing except the theatre. It’s not realistic. How could they possibly be there for years and years, without an audience, without a town around them? Sustaining on what exactly?

AC: The work is quite strongly editorial and literary in content. You’re essentially playing with editing and storytelling and using a video as an addendum. What is it about fabulation within the arc of all this research? Is it part of the fun?

IP: Yes, in a way that is about getting started. The playfulness keeps me going. As do the traps. When you’re living your life and you are too aware that you are living your life and time is passing and you are doing things and you’re aware of yourself doing them—it becomes unbearable. You want to be unaware and just “do.” That’s the ideal in my opinion: to forget yourself. I find that language, a bit like music, can often be double-edged. It can allow you to forget yourself, because your words suddenly don’t matter anymore. They hit your brain in a way that is almost physical, like with music, and you forget. They don’t put you in your place or frame you anymore, because you are just reacting to sounds. That only lasts for so long and then you are back to being aware of how you are thinking about them and how they are putting you in your place. This is what I mean by “representing the not possible.” You’ll never really be in it, and at the same time, you are already always pulling back from it. So, it’s a bit contradictory and yet it’s so common. There’s nothing mysterious about that—there’s nothing mysterious about contradictions.

AC: Do you think that impossible situations are innately compelling? Why do you think that is? If I was to think about it I would say that they are somewhat compelling because you get to imagine. They become a place of possibility.

IP: Yes, they are compelling, but no. I think they create a place where you can’t fully imagine and that’s the compelling part. In my world, when I can imagine something, what happens is that I rehearse it over and over again and it becomes this thing where I never actually do the action. Imagination stalls me. It’s like a rehearsal, but I never get to the show itself. Therefore there’s this notion of how rehearsal can be used in order to not be ready.

AC: Purposely.

IP: Yes! In other words, rehearsal is a form of denial.

AC: So this is where I might ask, why not tape these three impossible scripts?

IP: Fundamentally it is unnecessary to tape it because the book acts like a big storage box. The content is all filler. Just knowing content exists is enough. Also, if they get performed, then the quality of the performance determines how easy or hard it is for the viewer to consume the show.   

AC: So, to make them audiovisual doesn’t matter. What matters is something else… That is part of what interested me about this piece: that it takes the form of a book and gives all of the information that could make up a narrative via video.

IP: I think what matters to me is the realization of how much work it is to believe in my words or anyone else’s.

AC: But why did you choose theatre for Part 3, in relation to the other two parts? Instead of radio say, or new media?

IP: I would have either gone to radio—because that’s where TV came from—or to theatre. I think it was that in theatre you literally have a certain ground to be on: the stage. It’s a very simple physical fact. The boundaries and orientations on stage are very clear. To be out of sight you’re in the wings. When you’re on, you play to the auditorium. But there is no indication in Part 3 that anyone is ever out there watching. Performing without knowing if an audience is there—that must be hard. What’s the fucking point? But there’s no indication Nurse is rehearsing. They’re live all the time. Occasionally somebody supposedly speaks before the pages are done and Nurse tells them to shut up, writes some pages and then they resume. Well, in Nurse’s world is that scripted or not? I don’t know.

There are almost no props left. And every once in a while Nurse throws something off the front of the stage and it’s gone. She’s eliminating props and personnel; she can’t help anticipate the end of the show. Part 3 ends with all the lights going out, including the TV. The bulbs all burned out. There’s just nothing left to show. So it ends electrically, not really by the writer’s (Nurse’s) decision.   

AC: Very physical! That is also true of your book, which you researched and wrote over three years, then typed and assembled as handmade artist books in person at the original exhibition. I wonder about this aspect of how the project has been shown previously. It is so labour intensive.

IP: No one will ever know that. Labour is something people don’t want to see, let alone do.

AC: Do you really believe that no one will ever know how much work went into it? Is that because you believe that their effort to read the book will be too frustrating?

IP: It’s too difficult. The audience won’t ever really read it; the format resists reading. Which is why I was thinking about ignoring the audience in a certain sense. It’s like another impossible possible. When I found the structure, I realized that when you flip through it you understand it. You haven’t experienced it, but you understand it. You understand that things go on and on and on, and a lot of shit happens. That there’s a grid that disintegrates from Part 1 through Part 3. That there are words on the page nicely typed in Microsoft Word in Part 1, then banged out full of spelling mistakes and uneven spacing on a slightly broken manual typewriter by Part 3. The physical duress of producing text is documented as the book progresses.

AC: Much of what you do in More Or Less Square involves information that you are managing, as an editor.

IP: Yes, which encourages people to pick up the book and go flip, flip, flip, “What is this? Oh here, episode three, Act Two. Got it. Four characters, trashy show…”

AC: Well, you might say that about any kind of scripting! But, going back to the relationship between the text and the video, how do you feel about translating what could be a performance by people into the moving text that makes up the video piece?

IP: The video parts are not a summary. I was going to let the introductions to each part just exist on the page, but then I realized that I had to break out from the book. The one word processing medium I hadn’t used yet was animated text. It was almost the only answer. I had used a manual typewriter, an electric typewriter and Microsoft Word. So I thought, “Now I’m going to have video text that tries to presence an un-present.” Like advertising text, how it kind of has weight and presence and timing. All that. The textures that you would normally have when you watch a show. So instead of having people act out the book, I just let the text do the introductions, which is the most real part of the whole thing. It gives quite a few clues as to why I did this whole thing. Or what was in it for me. The most embodied part.

AC: It’s almost like a joke in a way. You take so much time to explore narrative moments, to spread the episodes out over a fairly involved time and space. So this final step is to make the text perform itself, instead of having a person perform it.

IP: Yeah. Well, that’s advertising. In a sense, that is what those videos are for the book. Not like “Buy this book,” but like, “Hey, you might want to take a look at this.” Text justifying itself. It’s way more compelling than just a book sitting on a table.


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