Lou Jonas on
Florent Bex

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In it [the mirror], my externality becomes complete. Everything that is most secret about me passes into that face, that flat, closed being of which I was already dimly aware, from having seen my reflection mirrored in water. MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY, Eye and Mind (1960)

Video art took some time to develop in Belgium. It was not until 1974 that the first Portapak camera appeared on the Belgian market, about a decade later than in the United States or Germany. However, this technology remained rare and not easily available to artists. As far as the cultural industry was concerned, it initially showed little interest in this new practice.

In the mid-1970s, one of the main centers for Belgian video production was Antwerp. At the time, Florent Bex was working at the ICC, the predecessor of the M HKA – Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, which he directed from 1972 to 2002. His encounter with Nam June Paik in 1974 during the last edition of the EXPRMNTL festival in Knokke, where Bex was in charge of video programming, was instrumental in developing this art form in Belgium. It was there that Bex discovered the medium’s technical and conceptual possibilities, such as the immediacy or the manipulation of images with a synthesizer. Two years later, he founded the studio “Continental Video.” A rudimentary set-up, comprising a few Portapak cameras, monitors, recorders, and a little editing table, was made available to the artists. In order to better advise them in their creative process, Bex became more closely acquainted with the medium. He then took an alias, Hubert Van Es, under which he would produce a series of experimental videos and installations. Throughout his work, he explored the impact of video techniques on our perception through simple yet poetic operations. One of his first videos, Closed Circuit (1974), presents a flow of light undulating on a dark background, moving in association with a piece of classical music. Hubert Van Es used the feedback process, which consists in directing the camera towards the screen of a monitor connected to it, creating the effect of an infinite duplication of the image from its center. The artist placed a match in between the camera and the monitor, the flame of which is extended, stretched, and sometimes split in the thickness of the image. The sequence ends with a succession of zooms in and out, revealing the outlines of the monitor and of the room reflected, likewise with infinite repetitions. This video experience demonstrated Van Es’s aim of developing a specific vocabulary for the medium. However, it remained in the real, camera-recorded world.[1] Van Es did not seem to investigate the pictorial properties of the video signal, as did the “image technicians” who experimented profusely using a synthesizer. His work nevertheless had an analytical aspect, questioning the effects of the video apparatus on the depiction itself.

Closed Circuit, 1974, video stills © Florent Bex

From its very inception, video art was used by artists to investigate the body and electronic space. The closed circuit mechanism, which offered the new possibility of controlling and composing an image in real time, was used to create situations in which the subject—often the artist himself—was confronted with his own image. The work of the American pioneer of video art Peter Campus is undeniably typical in this regard. In his videos from the 1970s, he reflected on the process of identification by using special effects. In Three Transitions (1973) and Set of Coincidence (1974), two series which are undoubtedly his most famous videos, Campus manipulated the images using overlay and chroma-key effects. The human figure interacts with its double. The two images are in turn used as mattes and counter-mattes in a series of interpenetrations and transpositions. These movements enable a volatile identity to take shape, corresponding to a body with evanescent contours which, like the space around it, is subjected to perpetual overlaying, juxtapositions, and intertwining. Campus also studied the way in which we experience our bodies in a series of video installations created between 1971 and 1978. For instance, in the installation Interface (1971), visitors are faced with two images of themselves, projected onto a glass surface. The first presents their reflection on the glass, the second shows an image recorded by a camera directed towards them and connected to a video projector in a closed circuit. According to the viewer’s position in space, the silhouettes either come together or turn away from each other. The result is a sort of game, playing with our bodily limits and our bearings in space and time, eventually leading to an understanding of the device. A similar approach is employed in Experiments for Autocommunication (1975), a series of video actions for two cameras, led by Hubert Van Es and his associate Christiaan Goyvaerts, and of which only four fragments are still preserved today. These focus on the relationship to the self and present the way in which an individual perceives the spatial orientation of his own image through the video medium. The first action shows Hubert Van Es sitting in front of a monitor connected to a camera, which is placed to his left and films the artist in a close-up shot. The artist moves his gaze and his finger to and fro between both devices, before turning around, revealing the presence of a second camera which films the scene as a whole. The artist appears disorientated while he attempts to recognize various parts of his own face in his “reflection.” In addition to this, thanks to the synchronization of both cameras, the “reflected image” of Hubert Van Es’s face is laid over the scene, confronting the viewer with a twofold—threefold—body. This creates a feeling of alterity, which is further enhanced by the gibberish uttered by a distorted voice.

The two following actions are based on the shot reverse shot technique. While this film technique is generally intended to create a sense of continuity, here it provokes a rupture that is accompanied by the use of a series of superimpositions and cross-fades. Once again, Hubert Van Es faces the monitor. He is simultaneously filmed by two cameras. One shows him head on, the other captures his image from the back, in a slightly high-angle shot. The images captured by each camera are shown alternately and then mixed and superimposed. Hubert Van Es then rocks backwards and forwards as if trying to penetrate the space of the box and to merge with his own image. The body appears to us as if encased within the monitor. This feeling is emphasized by the rear high-angle viewpoint, as well as by the presence of the monitor’s contours, which create a double frame, thereby eliminating the possibility of anything being off-camera.

To this, Van Es adds the presence of his hands, or rather his fingers, which are superimposed on several layers of images. In the next sequence, Van Es plays hide-and-seek. He conceals his eyes behind his hands and presents his palms towards the camera, as if to obliterate the entire view. Our perception of depth is further disturbed by a change of position in the camera, which is now laid down horizontally, making it almost impossible to distinguish the different layers of images.

In the last action, the two profiles of Christiaan Goyvaerts, Van Es’s collaborator, appear on both sides of a central axis. A seduction game begins between the man and his own image, which he touches and kisses gently. The scene is lent a humorous tone by the soundtrack, an electronically deformed cabaret tune. The subject appears to be trying, with clumsy gestures, to recognize his own features in his image.

Experiments for Autocommunication presents situations where the subject attempts something seemingly untenable—to communicate with himself. Despite the title given to these experiments, which clearly formulates the desire for an encounter, the exchange is always missed. Any attempt by Hubert Van Es to meet the gaze of his own image inevitably leads to failure. The identification process is perturbed and the body is dislocated. The self seems to be elsewhere and untouchable. It is no more than abstraction. In that respect, explained Peter Campus in a short text presenting his artistic approach in the 1970s, we are conditioned by the reverse image we get when we look into a mirror, so we expect it to be the same as a video image:

Because we are conditioned to a reversed mirror image we are constantly surprised when the direct video image is presented. Any asymmetric movement causes loss of identification with the projected self-image.

The answer to this is only apparent when the viewer becomes aware of the whole mechanism: the camera-projector-screen-viewer. He/She must be aware of the relative position of the camera to understand the image.

Thus this abstraction, presented simultaneously with reality, forms for the viewer a durational perception rooted in observation and leading to a higher order of reality.[2]

However, the video image is generally not reversed. On the contrary, it shows the subject as it would be seen by another individual in a real situation. According to Campus, only in becoming conscious of the video device as a whole is the viewer able to deconstruct this illusion and attain a new degree of reality. In this regard, it is interesting to note the role that technology plays in the first three actions of Experiments for Autocommunication. The technology, and the monitor in particular, is shown frontally and it is constantly updated by the artist’s gestures. This dual depiction of the video apparatus is taken a step further while, in the exhibition room, the viewers are faced with an additional frame, created this time by the physical presence of the monitor as an object.

Hubert Van Es would continue his investigation of perception, most notably by creating installations meant to engage the viewer/visitor’s participation: for instance, Sand Action, produced in 1974 at the ICC. Florent Bex then organized the exhibition Aspects of Contemporary Art in Belgium and spontaneously decided to fill an unoccupied square meter with sand. He arranged a chair in this space, facing a monitor placed on the floor, playing a pre-recorded sequence showing a fixed shot of his bare feet shuffling in the sand. The visitors were invited to remove their shoes and imitate the action shown on the screen. During another event, he placed a monitor and a camera in the exhibition room next to his office. These were respectively linked to a second monitor and to a second camera placed in his office. Bex would call out to the visitors to ask them for their opinion on the current exhibition, occasionally inviting them to open the door to continue the discussion face to face. Later, he focused on his role as a museum director and lost interest in video art, which, at the turn of the 1980s, increasingly resembled a cinematographic practice defined by an essentially narrative use.


[1] I am using here the words of Tom DeWitt, quoted in Yvonne Spielmann, Video: The Reflexive Medium, London / Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008, 101.

[2] Peter Campus, “Video as a Function of Reality,” Everson Museum of Art, NY, January 1974.