The Poetic Inspiration of my Video Works

The poetic inspiration to my video works

Presenting my video art installation „Echo of the Sea in the Burning Forest“ as part of the SHIFT exhibition in Annecy, France, October 2003, I was several times asked about my use of poems and texts, especially by the surrealists and the American Beat Generation poets/writers Allan Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs as inspiration for my video art work – both tapes and installations.

 In most cases it is not as much as straight illustrations of the texts or sentences, but they start for me associations which in some way or the other unfold in the video and becomes, you might say, surreal interpretations – adds so to speak one more surreal layer to the already rather surreal video works.
This is perhaps only obvious for me and not for those viewing my videotapes and installations. I can’t – and will not – do anything about this. It is, I find, not my problem.

 You may find this a bit arrogant – but read what I said in my essay “Video Art and Art Criticism … thoughts after a Panel Discussion”. You can find it as Essay No. 2 at   , but since it is only in Danish I will quote part of it in English.

The panel discussion was between two video artists and some art critics at the First Scandinavian Seminar on Video Art at Hannaholmen, Finland, January 1983. To the fact that the art critics did not understand or did not try to understand video art, I had told them with a quotation by Hans Richter that  "Whether or not they understood the content or the meaning ... that's a different story. As a matter of fact, what the artist does and what the public takes from what he does is always a different story"
Mark Rotko talks about that it is "a risky business" to send your art work out in the world: "How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who would extend their affliction universally", (1)

Later on I remembered some words by van Gogh: "Society makes our existence wretchedly difficult at times, hence our impotence and the imperfection of our work"!

Well – in the following I will try to go through some of my video works to somehow “illustrate” the influence from parts of poems and texts – first works influenced by the surrealists, then by Ginsburg and Burroughs and then by the Danish poet Helge Krarup – and good old Hans Christian Andersen.

Inspiration: Poems and texts by the surrealists

The video “Man Cut by Window” is based on a dream described by André Breton in Le Manifest du Surrealism,1924 (The First Manifesto): “One night, before falling asleep, I became aware of a most bizarre sentence … a sentence, I might say, which knocked at the window. …. Unfortunately I still cannot remember the exact words to this day, but it was something like: “A man is cut in half by the window”; but it can only suffer from ambiguity, accompanied as it was by the feeble visual representation of a walking man cut in half by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body. It was probably a simple matter of a man leaning on the window and then straightening up. But the window followed the movements of the man, and I realized that I was dealing with a very rare type of image” (2).

The video was produced at a workshop in 1994 at the Danish video artist Niels Lomholt’s house in Falling. At the big attic he had quite a lot of old windows. These windows got me to remember Breton’s text. We mounted the windows hanging down from the ceiling of the attic and I shot a lot of video with the other workshop participants standing behind the windows and moving so they were “cut perpendicular”. By their movements the freely hanging windows inevitable moved a bit from site to site. Later on the video was edited together to a duration of 2:30 min. You may see a one-minute video clip from the video at   .

My video installation “The Song in the Brook” at Gallery Sub Bau in Gothenburg, Sweden, 1987, and later at “Haslev Artists” in Haslev, Denmark, and the adaptation of the same installation in the more extensive version “A Song in the Brook” at Gallery Balderskilde in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1988, is inspired by the French poet Pierre Reverdy's remark about "bringing together two realities" to create "emotive power and poetic reality" (Nord-Sud, March 1918) and a surreal interpretation of two sentences from André Breton: Le Manifest du Surrealism, 1924:

    "A song is running in the brook" (Pierre Reverdy)
    "On the bridge the dew with the cat-head was rocking" (André Breton)

In this case the inspiration was the sentence “A song is running in the brook” and a tape I had made as early as 1982 in Umeå, Sweden, of a brook with leaves and flowers floating down the stream and with ambient, rather subdued electronic music. You can see some pictures of the 1988-version at  
At the horizontal monitor on the floor with the black stand or rack representing the bridge and the fluorescent lights representing the sun you see the tape mentioned above. On the small monitors to the left you see a torrent, electronic manipulated, with sound of the running water and at the vertical placed monitors you see drifting clouds (no sound).
The cat-headed dew you have to imagine yourself.

Both with the video “Vidéo: Ceci est la Couleur” ( )  from 1985, and the video “Distance de Fée: L’Heur des Traces” ( ) from 1986 the starting point has been the titles, inspired by titles on surrealist art works. The title of the last one f. ex. is inspired by two surrealist art works: The painting "Distance de Fée" by Yoshiko and "Le Boule suspendue ou l'Heur des Traces" by Giacommetti.

The title of the first one is a paraphrase over the title of a painting from 1925 by Joan Miró:”Photo, ceci est la couleur de mes rêves” The video is mainly built up by “scratches” from music videos  incorporated in my own sequences. I was asked to contribute with this video to the big “Talking Back to Media” Manifestation in Amsterdam, November 1985, "to show the work of artists who use a mass media and who, in their work want to deconstruct the "reality" conjured up by the mass media or, in some other way, to provide a commentary on those media". (2). The video is “talking back” in the sense that it comments on our media-influenced understanding of time.

In the essay “Notes on Time and Space” Maans Wrange says about the video that “the effect of the IMPLOSIVE media boom on our grasp of time is reflected in Torben Soeborg’s VIDEO: CECI EST LA COULEUR, 1985. In a sequence taken in a living-room we DIRECTLY see a film shown on the television. Gradually the TV screen is zoomed until it covers the whole picture surface. Suddenly the film cuts DIRECTLY onto the video, and there is a dislocation between two fictive times in a single picture sequence” (3)

The video also comments on the perception of reality by mass media – as I express it in my text to the video:
“We live in a world, feeling surrounded by video: music video clips on every TV-channel – almost, some nights, two or three channels have MTV (Music Television) at the same time or just following each other. You see part of a video on one channel, flip to the next and see the beginning of that same video – and get the end on the third channel.

All these videos melt together in your mind: make their own story, get their own life, a meta life of video: What is life? What is video? – is it real or … surreal?

There are two more references to surrealism in the video: André Breton is presence in the video in the shape of a photo of him as 18 months old in 1897, and at the end of the video you pan over a ticking metronome with a picture of an eye on the arm – a reference to and a replica of Man Ray’s work “Objet de destruction from 1923 (later on destroyed but replaced and the called “Indestructible Object”).

The video was also chosen as one out of 12 by Bettina Hirsch to the project Video – Kunst. Eine auseinandersetzung mit der Tradition, celebrating the 2000 years jubilee of the town Bonn, Germany.

The video “Le Demoiselles de Buenos Airs” ( from 1998 is inspired by a poem by Paul Eluard in Minotaure, 1935:
"The most Beautiful Postcards
... with childwomen, flowerwomen, starwomen, flamewomen, the waves of the sea, the great waves of love, of dream, the poets' flesh, maids, mistresses, dream visions, luminous virgins, perfect courtesans, legend-princesses, passers-by, they build up the power, the expressions and the reasons to be man, exhilarate his weakness, get the joy to gush forth and the sorrow to go down."
… and then of course also by the beautiful short-skirted women of Buenos Aires.

Inspiration: The American Beat poets/writers

My video “I AM That I Am”, version II,  (  ) from 1994 (based on version I from 1983) is an example of a video inspired by the American “Beat  poets”. The tape is based on part of Allen Ginsburg’s poem: The Change: Kyoto Tokyo Express, July 18, 1963. The video shows the face of a man coming close to or away from the video camera, in focus or out of focus. When un-sharp the light in the eyes somehow resembles stars ("Stars in my eyes circling"). The sound track is electronic music and a recitation of a few lines from the poem. It is a surreal interpretation of the question:

“Who am I?” and Ginsberg’s “answer”:
“In this dream I am the Dreamer
          and the Dreamed  I am
          that I am Ah but I have
          always known
My own Identity now nameless 
           neither man nor dragon or
But the dreaming Me full
           Of physical rays’ tender
           Red moons in my belly &
           Stars in my eyes circling
And the Sun the Sun the
           Sun my visible father
           Making my body visible
           Thru my eyes!

The tape received a special price at RETINA ’98 V International Film & Video Festival in Szigetvár, Hungary, 1998.

I reused this tape in the installations “The Sun In My Eyes”, version I at Knabstrup Kulturfabrik, Denmark, 2000, and version II at Cinema Novo Bioscop in Brussels, Belgium, 2000 (   )

An earlier tape, “But the Subway is Moving …” from 1982 was inspired by a passage from William S. Burroughs: Naked Lunch, starting with: “I can feel the head closing in … “ and ending with the words “But the subway is moving” and also by Burroughs use of cut-up technique – in this case the recordings of the moving subway trains are “cut-up” and edited together, sometimes with “jump-cuts” and repetition of words in the text (read in English) like “subway” and “moving”.

With the words of Hans Richter: "... an orchestration of motion in visual rhythms ... the distortion and dissection in pictorial terms, creating [or trying to create] a new surreal context" (1).

The tape “L’Espace entre A et B est infini” ( )  from 1995 are initiated by the sentence “”Mais je suis passager,” I insist” from the chapter It is difficult in train “A” in Burroughs book Cities of Red Light. I don’t remember were the sentence “… and the space between A and B is infinite – and yet without distance” comes from.
“”Mais je suis passager,“ I insist“ is also part of the tape “…that Belgrade” from 2001. Both tapes are based on shootings from some of my journeys and are what I call my “Traveller’s Tapes” ( ).

Louis Armstrong, Hans Christian Andersen and Helge Krarup

It is of course not always the surrealists or the Beat-poets that is the inspiration for my tapes and installations. Let me just give you three examples.

The tape “Living-room / Living Room?” ( )  from 1982, is based on Louis Armstrong’s song What a Wonderful World and the tape “Far Out in the Wide Open Sea” ( )  from 1988, on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid.

The installation “Harbour Front” ( ) was first exhibited in Huset, Copenhagen, Denmark, 1983, and then at “Poetry and Pictures”, Odense, Denmark, 1986. I did this installation together with the Danish poet Hans Krarup, and we based it on Krarup’s poem The Weather in Hong Kong, which was inspired by an audio cassette with an English-Chinese language course. The sound was partly destroyed so the words came out in “waves”, sometimes cut short or distinct or dim etc. – in fact: very surreal! Helge Krarup describes the poem as a “found object / object trouvé”, but arranged by a selection and preparation/adaption.

The installation is built up so you have to pass through a “corridor” down along a raw of monitors slightly on angel to each other. The wall of the corridor to the exhibition room is made of semi-transparent material so you might have a sense of the monitors but have to pass through the corridor to see the images –the same on all the monitors – of a sail through the Copenhagen harbour.

The sound track of the video installation starts with a recitation of the poem, followed by cuttings from the language course (cuts in which you now and then can distinguish the word “harbour front”).

The inspiration to the physical arrangement of the installation came from the two British architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s book The Shift. In this they talk about

            “… images happening beyond images, the introduction of the plane, the tempo of those images were contrapuntal to that of the settings …” [in our case: Images beyond images/plane = the monitors and their reflections + setting = the English-Chinese tape and its tempo which is hectic, chaotic in relation to the pictures on the monitors],

            “… the theme of layering, of planes and/or posts in series and depth …” [depth created through the oblique angled monitors down through the “corridor” – and also by the reflections],
            "… insubstantial, coloured images sandwiched within transparent screens …” [the transparent plastic/material],

            "… the layers of images, many identical apart from their colours, built up into magical abstracted lattice suggesting a … domain …” [the line of monitors with identical pictures and the “endless repetition fo the images and soundtrack]

Of course the two architects talk about architecture, but the words, sentences – detached, disconnected, isolated – inspired to the surreal setting of the installation.

Helge Krarup stated that “The idea was in a way to let the poem and the monitor pictures clash but also supplement each other, and although the title of the poem is Weather in Hong Kong the harbour front aspect was evident as a take-off. The intention is really somehow odd naturalistic or analogous: the harbour front is one long horizontal cityscape – this we in fact simulated by replaying the tape on the many monitors side by side. But at the same time this analogical aspect caused an abstraction, the one created by the repetition of the same image simultaneously. The effect of the angeled monitors side by side in the rather narrow “corridor” was in fact a strange bodylike wave motion – and to have to get close passing by the monitor screens became not only pictures of something but also, that close, something which is concrete, is physical”
and yet not real but surreal.


In the essay, I quoted from before, Maans Wrange, himself a video artist, compare video art with poetry: “It is tempting to compare … video art … with modern poetry’s attempt to brake down the language to create new and unexpected combinations while engendering poetic effects in the voids between the fragments” (4).

Also Wolfgang Preishat, coordinator for Documenta 8 in 1987 assign video art a “riessiges poetisches Potential” in the book he publishes with the title: Video. Die Poesi der Neuen Medien (5) – and Maans Wrange goes on: „Both video art and poetry make use of musical structures with recurring themes, repetitions, variations, rythmization, and so on. The video technique also offers the possibility of working “polyphonously” and “contrapunctally” as in music. By dividing the viewing screen into several parts by means of a picture mixer it is possible to present different events with divergent content and time rhythm simultaneously”,

… and he continue to state that “A similar effect can be obtained by means of a video installation in which a number of monitors distribute picture material from separate video recorders. Temporarily can also be given an EXTERIOR spatial dimension if the monitors are placed so as to have a sculptural function” (a quite good “definition” in my understanding of a video installation) … and as you can see from the description of my tapes and installation.

It has also been said that the “suspension” by the video art of the traditional, linear, cumulative understanding of time and the break with especially the codes/clichés/rules of the TV media is a typical post-modernistic feature – a post-modernistic deconstruction / desyncronisation. I think you have to seek the starting point much earlier in dada and especially in the surrealism and perhaps later also in fluxus (but of course you can say that these movements are the roots of post-modernism as the exhibition Implosion at the Modern Museum in Stockholm some years ago maintained)

I have personally picked up inspiration from the surrealism as it is expressed by André Breton, when in the Manifesto he talks about the struggle to liberate the modern mind from the prevalent trend to hold on to tradition.

I see in the surrealism an attempt to provoke the experience and re-recognition of new relations through the emancipation of fantasy, dreams, utopia … or as Herbert Markuse expressed it: “… by speaking the contra-language of the fantasy, which today is the only human language and the truth of poetic language” (6)

The American video artist Ingrid Weigang talks about the surreality of video tapes: “Video is a perfect medium for what I am doing, because it’s surreal by nature” (7). You may say that in the moment the picture or the picture movement moves outside the established, consolidated idiom we find it not easy to understand, what it is we are looking at. In this moment the picture slips from our hand and becomes surreal: It evades our conform, adapted perception of the reality – it becomes surreal but opens on the other hand the possibility for us / the viewers to “read” it ourselves.

I hope this text may give at least some answers to the questions about the inspiration to many of my video art works and to the influence of and use of poems and literary texts in the videos and installations – although I always find it a bit difficult to talk about or rather to explain my art works. I still feel  - like Hans Richter – that "Whether or not they understood the content or the meaning ... that's a different story. As a matter of fact, what the artist does and what the public takes from what he does is always a different story".

Video is Latin for I see – meaning: Video has to be seen and not only talked about and explained, as I have tried to do here.

Torben Soeborg, October 2003

(1)   I am sorry that I do not have any notes about where this and the following quotations are from – perhaps I think from an American art magazine (Art Forum I think) the former inhabitant of the studio at Sveaborg in the bay of Helsinki, where I stayed after the seminar, waiting for my flight back
(2)   Sabrina Kamstra et al: ”Redactioneel in Sabrina Kamstra et al (edit): Taalking Back to thr Media, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1985, page 5
(3)   Maans Wrange: ”Utkast om konst och tid. Notes about Time and Space” in SIKSI Nordic Art Review, No. 4, 1987, Helsinki, Finland, 1989, page 32-33
(4)   Ibid. page 33-34
(5)   Wolfgang Preikschat: Video. Die Poesie der Neuen Medien, Buchprogramm Pssychologie Heute, Hemsbach, Germany, 1987
(6)   Interviw with Herbert Marcuse in the surrealist magazine L’Archibas, Paris, France, 1987
(7)   Ingrid Weigand: ”surreal Video” in Ira Schneider & Beryl Korot (edi): Video Art. An Anthology, New Yoork, USA, 1976, page 143

At he SHIFT exhibition I said that the title of my installation “The Echo of the Sea in the Burning Forest” was a sentence by Breton in the first manifesto. One of the French art students that helped me building the installation told me that she could not find it in the manifesto. At home I checked with my Danish copy of the manifesto but have to admit that I could only find the burning forest  as part of a sentence Breton quotes from Roger Vitrac: In the burning forest the lions were fresh. I am still quite sure that the first part, the echo of the sea, also have a surrealist origin – but from where? So much for not having your notes about your videos in order!

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