Born in 1937 in (United States)
Lives and works in (United States )
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Born in New York in 1937, Peter Campus belongs to the generation of American artists who turned to the video medium in the 1960s and 1970s in order to address notions of space and perception along Minimalist lines through the involvement of the subject in the work itself and the exhibition space. Before beginning his artistic career, Campus studied experimental psychology at Ohio State University (1955-1960) and film at the City College Film Institute in New York (1961-1962) and then worked as an assistant director, notably for the artist Joan Jonas.

Campus began exploring the video medium at the beginning of the 1970s; between 1971 and 1978 he made eighteen installations and nine videos. From his very first works, Dynamic Field Series and Double Vision (both 1971), Campus, like Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham and others, filmed his own body in order to examine the physical and psychic identity of the subject. This approach soon led theorist Rosalind Krauss to assert that the specific nature of the video medium lay in its narcissism and its self-critical function.[1] Thus, in Double Vision, the artist was already playing with the effects of split images and superimposition permitted by video technology: in the “Convergence” sequence, for example, we can see Campus walking in a room accompanied by his double in the form of a shadow, after which the two images gradually come together. In phenomenological terms, these effects were aimed at describing the individual's perception of his or body in space, but also at giving visual form to the subject's fragmentation into essence and appearance. In this sense, Campus defines the video as a 'function of reality', in other words, a medium which encourages the questioning of categories such as subject/object, interior/exterior or conscious/unconscious which he had encountered during his studies in psychology.[2]

These dichotomies are recurrent in Campus's work of the 1970s, while in formal terms, the videos of this period explored key elements of the moving image, such as the static shot as opposed to motion, while paying particular attention to the various technical possibilities of the medium. In this respect, Campus's work may be seen as an investigation of the capabilities of the nascent artistic medium. Three Transitions (1973), the first video which Campus made, in colour, at the studios of WGBH-TV, the public television station in Boston, embodies these different aspects of his work: the notion of the double is made visible, in a very explicit way, through the use of the new technology, with the 'blue box' technique permitting the superimposition of one sequence on another. Thus, in the first part of the work, the viewer sees Campus's hands, arms and torso emerging from his back. What is at work is the superimposition of images of the artist's body seen from front and back: in the frontal sequence, he is actually standing behind a sheet of paper, which he tears; the superimposition of the two images creates the illusion that he is tearing his own body, while he is in fact tearing the paper spread in front of him.

In the installations of the 1970s (seven of which were shown in 1974 during his solo exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York), reveal the same preoccupations as those of the videos, namely the psycho-sensorial implications of self-representation. The eighteen installations of this period were all based on the technical principle of the closed circuit: a camera was directly connected to a video projector so that viewers could see what the camera was recording in real time—notably their own images as viewers making their way through the exhibition space. This image was altered, however (inverted, doubled, shown in the negative, etc.) through the use of various technical procedures and objects (mirrors in Kiva, 1971, plate glass in Interface, 1972, prisms in Statis, 1973) placed in the exhibition space at carefully determined distances and angles. The image only existed to the extent that the viewers entered the field of the camera, which meant that they played a crucial role in these installations and determined their content. Thus, in the installation Mem (1975), whose title refers at once to the words memory and même (the titles of Campus's installations often consist of word fragments), viewers are invited to approach the surface on which their image is projected. But given the position of the camera and projector, the closer they come, the smaller their images become, until they disappear altogether. Campus's last three closed-circuit installations (Aen, Lux and Num, 1977) were focused on the viewers' faces and upper torsos, which were projected upside down. The viewers' confrontation with this altered, unfamiliar image of themselves (but one which was quite striking formally), constituted an unsettling experience in terms of visual and mental perception, while the darkness of these environments, sometimes accompanied with a red or blue light or a spot, heightened the dramatic atmosphere.

This first part of Campus's artistic activity soon gave rise to several exhibitions, notably at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hayden Gallery at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (where he taught from 1976 to 1978) in 1976 and at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1978. In 1979, he had two exhibits in Germany, one in Cologne (with catalogue) and another in Berlin.

In 1979 (the period when he began to be represented by the New York gallery-owner Paula Cooper), Campus abandoned video to devote himself to photography. Initially, however, he continued to work with projections, through the use of black-and white Polaroid portraits which he transferred onto slides. Projected continuously on a monumental scale in a dark room, these extremely high-contrast, sculptural images created a striking effect. Gradually, the orientation towards the new medium was accompanied by a shift in content as well—from the human figure to nature and the outdoor world. These medium-size photographic prints represented architectural elements and landscapes devoid of all human presence, but also shells and stones which were photographed close-up, floating against black backgrounds like mysterious mineral portraits.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Campus, as enthusiastic as ever about new technologies, turned to computer drawings to combine different digitised images. Notwithstanding this advanced technology, these drawings, printed on photographic paper, preserved the poetic quality of his photographs. During this period, he also returned to teaching, first at the Rhode Island School of Design (1982-1983) and then at New York University, where he was appointed associate professor of arts and media in 1983.

It was only in 1995 that Campus returned to video with Olivebridge and Mont Désert, conceived as intimate poetic meditations on the theme of nature. These works were marked by the introduction of a new element, editing, which eliminated the strictly linear nature of the videos from the 1970s. Campus also began to attach more importance to the use of sound, notably in the form of recordings from nature, which remained at the heart of his work.

In 2003, the Bremen Kunsthalle gave him an ambitious retrospective entitled “Peter Campus Analog + Digital Video + Foto 1970-2003”, where, among others, the installation Video ergo sum (1999) was presented for the first time in an eight-monitor version (instead of four). Set in the wall at medium height, each monitor showed video loops of about two minutes on a particular theme (“steps”, “island”, “sandpipers”, etc.). These videos, which can be viewed as individually or as a whole, bring together certain of Campus's disparate preoccupations since the 1970s in the sense that they are concentrated on nature but also associated with shots of hands or feet, recalling the artist's earliest works such as Dynamic Field Series.

Among Campus's recent video works are Death Threat (2000) and The Material of Shadow (2002), both of which are autobiographical in their content, as well as Edge of the Ocean (2003) on the war in Iraq. He presently lives and works in East Patchogue, New York.


Frédérique Baumgartner


[1] . Rosalind Krauss, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” October (Spring 1976).

[2] . Peter Campus, “Video as a Function of Reality,” exhibition catalogue, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.Y., 1974.