Summary

Mark Titchner’s short video, Artists are Cowards, comprises four animated parts that play simultaneously on quarter sections of the screen. The work combines hypnotic imagery and a series of short statements that are written in bold, upper case letters. Images are composed in layers so that text appears over moving components or flashes momentarily onscreen. The video is displayed as a continuous loop with no title sequence and the artist has specified that the image should be projected to a width of 3 metres.

Titchner’s work explores the relationship between language, thought and action. Using fragments of text that he finds in various sources including political manifestos, song lyrics, religious and philosophical literature, he produces a consistently stylised mode of address. Works are characterised by ornate graphic detail, hard-edged typography and dynamic combinations of black and red that evoke associations with agitprop. Words are encountered as orders, demands or declarations. A central theme is the relationship between what the artist has called, ‘human will’ and ‘inscription ... the idea that inscription, in any form, is a manifestation of that act of will – the act of writing following the act of speaking’ (quoted in Mark Titchner, p.90).

Artists are Cowards is structured around a series of linguistic and graphic symmetries and a rhythm of cycles and repeats. Related animations are positioned at diagonally opposite corners. An image of trees reflected in water used for the background of one quarter is solarised and cropped to serve the same purpose in another. Over each of these images there are discs decorated with optical patterns of concentric circles turning at the same speed in opposite directions. Red text is overlaid so that one corner of the screen proclaims Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s tautology, ‘THE RATIONAL IS THE REAL THE REAL IS THE RATIONAL’ (from Elements of the Philosophy of Right, 1821), whilst the other quotes the writer Samuel Beckett with an alternating couplet: ‘FAIL BETTER / FAIL AGAIN’ (from Worstward Ho, 1983).

In adjacent quarters of the screen are a picture of a woman’s face, animated with moving lips, and another of an iris, its black pupil distending slightly. The disembodied mouth and eye are replaced intermittently with texts that flash up on screen for a fraction of a second. Aphorisms such as ‘FREEDOM IS THE LIE WE LIVE / IF YOU CAN DREAM IT / YOU MUST DO IT / OUR CITIES FORGED OF OUR DREAMS / A SHINING EDIFICE / THE WORLD ABLAZE WITH THE LIGHT OF OUR HOPE’ disappear before they can be read.

Artists are Cowards is one of several video works by Titchner that he edited with moving image effects designed to act upon the brain. This use of visual stimuli – here flashed onscreen momentarily or explored elsewhere in stroboscopic, animations – alludes to the history of ‘flicker film’ and subliminal advertising. Similarly, the optical designs for the discs in Artists are Cowards quote the logo for the British record label Vertigo Records and refer more broadly to Marcel Duchamp’s Rotorelief Discs (1935). Titchner’s Vertigo logo spins anti-clockwise, a further reference to the popular myth that the label’s Black Sabbath records could be played backwards to reveal hidden, Satanic messages.

Artists are Cowards was created in an edition of six plus two artist’s proofs. Tate’s copy is the fourth in the edition.

Further reading:
Mark Beasley (ed.), Mark Titchner, Why and Why Not, London 2004.
Mark Titchner, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini, Bristol 2006.
Marcel Duchamp and Mark Titchner: Vertigo, exhibition catalogue, Chelsea Space, London 2007.

Michelle Cotton
February 2010