How to understand and measure the artistic dimension of manipulating an existing work of art, which belonged to meanings of its own before being manipulated? Such is the question that Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho (1993) represents and makes us confront when appreciating the piece. Perhaps answering the question depends upon acknowledging that art not always has to be creating from nothing, but rather that it can derive from mediation and appropriation alone, based on the artist’s intervention regarding the audience’s perception of the artwork, while the flow if its meaning cannot be changed, just augmented. Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho allows for a deep and well-paced exploration of that potential answer—just as its slow projection speed makes an obvious point of playing to the perception (and preconceptions) of those that experience the work of art.
In simple terms, for 24-Hour Psycho, Gordon appropriated the suspenseful cinema masterpiece Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and used digital manipulation to create a version of the film that played for 24 hours rather than its original runtime of 109 minutes—not looped, but actually slowed down to make every frame of the film last for minutes at the time. The modified film was then projected on a large two-sided screen for its new duration of an entire day, glowing in all of its black-and-white, old Hollywood glory. The installation was first presented in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1993, and it toured to several other cities, most notably New York (at the Museum of Modern Art) in 2006.
When first experiencing 24-Hour Psycho, cinephiles may judge it to be a sort of abomination, for it takes a seminal piece by one of the most respected film auteurs in history and appropriates it in a way that strips away one of the original Psycho’s most salient and captivating elements: it’s timing for suspense. However, it can (or ought) to be understood that precisely that stripping, that manipulation by Gordon, puts Hitchcock’s Psycho under a new perspective, one that could hardly be executed before computers allowed for such time warp, and that new perspective not only endows Gordon’s mediation with an artistic value of its own, but it also augments the potential meanings of the original. As art critic Mary Louise Schumacher mentioned (and quoted by Edward Shanken in Art and Electronic Media ), 24-Hour Psycho “essentially takes the timing out of Hitchock’s bag of suspense-building tricks. All the edits, the angles and precise form of acting…are more visible” (p. 91). In an almost poetic fashion, by appropriating the original Psycho, 24-Hour Psycho then exists not only as an artwork on its own accord but it also highlights the “openness” (in the best of Umberto Eco’s intent for that concept) of which the original is capable well beyond the narrative lasting 104 minutes.
Gordon’s work, due to its appropriation and digital manipulation involved, echoes of the previous work of Jud Yalkut and Nam June Paik in Beatles Electroniques (1966-69), in which the collaborative pair not only used television footage of The Beatles and repurposed it for their own short film, but they also used a soundtrack that comprised fragments of the band’s songs. While it could be argued that Yalkut and Paik “desecrated” the work of their fellow artists (The Beatles) because they played with the matter of perception, in reality their effort in distorting and manipulating the original footage (via effects, editing, and mixing with other footage) augmented the artistic measure and the openness of The Beatles’ music and image, just like David Gordon’s work mediates Hitchcock’s work towards a greater openness—and thus reaffirming Pablo Picasso’s notorious (and unconfirmed) dictum that “art is theft.”
Yet, 24-Hour Psycho goes beyond mere stealing and appropriation, for it deserves recognition of its existence as a work of art on its own because it has a plethora of elements and propositions that Hitchcock’s original didn’t bring forth. If, as Martin Heidegger stated in Poetry Language Thought (1971), “the nature of creation is determined by the nature of the work…to create is to cause something to emerge as a thing that has been brought forth. The work’s becoming a work is a way in which truth becomes and happens,” (p. 58) then Gordon’s mediation of an augmented truth and flow of renewed meanings through appropriation ought to earn him the title of artist and creator. For instance, by extending every frame of Psycho into a several minutes, the warped time generates a sense of quasi-infinity that accentuates the present frame because so much time has happened before it and so many frames are still ahead—all which stands out almost as an instantiation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of Augenblick (German: “the Moment”) as suggested in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885): “Two paths come together here; no one has ever reached their end…here at this gateway that they had come together. The name of the gateway is written above it: ‘Moment’” ((p. 178). And just like Nietzsche proposed, 24-Hour Psycho allows (or forces) the audience to appreciate each frame, each moment, to its fullest extent possible, augmenting the flow of meaning of the artwork by skewing time.
Nonetheless, neither Gordon’s appropriation of the original Psycho nor his manipulation and artistic intervention would have been possible outside of the “age of mechanical reproduction” as described by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1961). Gordon didn’t appropriate the physical original of Psycho, but rather a reproduction of that original, which then he was able to manipulate with the aid of computers. Moreover, Psycho itself was the product of the technical advances of film and filmmaking—themselves relatively new technical and artistic endeavors. It may be true that reproduction “withers” the “aura” of the work of art (Benjamin, p. 221), but still there are plenty of instances in which the reverse stands out to be true as well—and such is the case of 24-Hour Psycho, in which “permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced” (p. 221). Yet, Gordon’s work in 24-Hour Psycho subverts one of Benjamin’s own assertions that “they [pictures] demand a specific kind of approach: free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them…even more explicit and more imperative in the film where the meaning of each single picture appears to be prescribed by the sequence of all preceding ones” (p. 226), for Gordon’s artistic intervention freed the pictures and opened the whole work of art, both his and Hitchcock’s, to a more playful and contemplative perception.
Ultimately, 24-Hour Psycho stands out as a work of art that not only stems directly from another work of art, but also as a proposition and opportunity for contemplation, renewed appreciation, and an augmented flow of meaning in our age of sometimes mindless and devaluing reproduction.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York, New York. 1968.
Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York, New York. 1971.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. New York, New York. 1961.
Shanken, Edward A. Art and Electronic Media. New York, New York. 2009.
Dallas, Texas. February 2016.