An Art of Limina: Gary Hill’s Works & Writings

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Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2009

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Foreword by Lynne Cooke

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Preliminaries by George Quasha and Charles Stein

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CONTENTS

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To purchase: An Art of Limina*

ISBN: 9788434310421
FORMAT: Hardcover, 8.5 x 10.25 in.
/ 640 pgs / 980 illustrations

PUBLISHER: Poligrafa
DISTRIBUTOR: D.A.P.*

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Foreword

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Lynne Cooke

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One of the few conventions to which this singular book accedes is that it begins with preliminaries; with acknowledgements. Key among these is a reference to Ezra Pound’s telling observation, “There’s no substitute for a life-time.” Long-term collaborators and commentators on the work of their close friend Gary Hill, George Quasha and Charles Stein have written some nineteen texts over the past fifteen years in close consultation with the artist. Their goal in assembling these essays for publication is to “continue” the artist’s work, to open it up for ongoing debate: “Our primary interest is in what we call the further life of the work,” they state with refreshing candor. Future Indefinite (the title Noel Coward chose for his life-story) could well serve as an alternative to An Art of Limina, the moniker of this beguilingly open-ended chronicle.

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In contrast to many other writers who occupy similarly privileged positions vis-à-vis the object of their study, Quasha and Stein are not concerned with definitive readings; in fact they eschew the kinds of authoritative explication whose effect (if not goal) is to preserve the work from further discourse—at least until a new generation appears who can finally dispel the embalming imprimatur that insider status typically ensures. Nor, more exceptionally, are they concerned with other authors’ interpretations. They neither contest nor pay homage to readings proffered by art critics and historians even though they themselves, as they would be the first to acknowledge, lack this kind of professional training: in framing their enterprise, those disciplinary methodologies seemed largely irrelevant. Forgoing historicist and comparative protocols is a prelude to a different focus: the articulation of a poetics for Hill’s complex and multi-faceted oeuvre. Over the course of reading these essays the poetics they explicate takes on the role of a liminal framework: far from coercive or constraining it serves as a spare skeletal structure, an elastic propositional membrane, on which and through which the artist’s work to date is addressed and, in some measure, his future production predicated.

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Provocative by default rather than design, Quasha and Stein knowingly risk marginalizing themselves from the critical reception surrounding Hill’s work today. Paradoxically, this does and does not happen. Their texts undoubtedly fall outside current commentary on Hill’s work, and yet they are anything but peripheral to a deep engagement with it. In bringing to their discussion Pound’s lifetime of involvement (with the creator as well as his art) in ways that neither an occasional interlocutor nor a sometime-critic could possibly match, they have rigorously fine-tuned their initial responses in concert with the evolving trajectory of Hill’s thought: subtlety, wit, warmth, and intimacy become hallmarks of their readings. Equally crucial to the indispensability of this anthology of extended interactions with Hill’s art is the fact they have engaged not just with individual works or bodies of work but with what they deem “the field” mapped by his practice.

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Forged primarily in the crucible of poetry and poetics, their aesthetic informs not simply their decision to leave aside the norms of art historical discourse, but the unique character of their address to their subject. For them, as for Hill, language is incarnate in the body: it is the very fundament, or ground, of being. Students of language in all its manifold guises, all three are as fascinated by its perversions as its norms; glossolalia, nonsense, and metalogues thus prove as alluring as philosophical enquiry—Wittgenstein’s thought may be seamlessly interwoven with that of Lewis Carroll. The impact of Maurice Blanchot, another key figure in their pantheon, is reflected above all in their telling observation that “the book’s meditation on Gary Hill’s work also meditates on itself and the act of ‘reading’ a work.” Through an abiding engagement with textual reflexivity and the processual, their interpretative strategies become isomorphic to the innovative methodologies that Hill devised for structuring his own work from its inception in the early 1970s.

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A pioneer in his embrace of the then novel medium of video, Hill distinguished himself through a radical approach that both literally and conceptually deconstructed it. Single channel works were soon followed by installations in which video screens were unhoused, suspended, multiplied, miniaturized, or otherwise manipulated. On other occasions, video tubes mysteriously projected unframed images in dark fields; or from oscillating beacons panning an empty room, text and figure swiveled in anamorphic distortion. No artist of Hill’s generation probed this medium with such invasive scrutiny, and none deployed it with such protean irreverence. And when his restless curiosity led him to computer based technologies and virtual space in the early Nineties, few of his peers proved so avid or dedicated in exploiting this uncharted terrain for art making. Since he rarely deployed technology as a tool in service to an exploration of the visual world, questions of representation have played a relatively minor role in his work: typically, he treats mediums as sites and enablers of languages both verbal and visual. Surveying with hindsight what now amounts to more than three decades of his activity, it’s striking how far his path has veered from his peers’—and not least because it betrays so few allegiances to histories of representation. If, for him, cinema proved as infertile a source as art history, in their stead literary and philosophical discourses were unusually generative. Hill considers sophisticated, adroit litterateurs potentially ideal collaborators. His art, in turn, has been uniquely receptive to such interlocutors—as this exemplary contribution from Quasha and Stein attests.

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Preliminaries

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This is a collaborative work in more than one sense. As the two authors responsible for the texts, we have been working together on this project since the first commission from Stedelijk Museum curator Dorine Mignot in 1993 for a catalogue piece on Tall Ships, named “Tall Acts of Seeing” (Chapter Six here). We established then a way of working that has held for most of this book, involving finding out everything we can about specific works (including traveling to many cities and countries); studying them; recording untold hours of our conversation about them; discussing them frequently and at great length with Gary Hill (also recorded, either in person or by phone); transcribing the conversations, which then generate further discussion, and so on. This process continues for weeks for a given piece, even sometimes for months, until it ripens, and then a piece pretty much writes itself.[1] It’s a rich and complex process and in some important sense self-generating. Yet this sort of collaboration has its origin, in fact its source, in the larger foundation of our work together, that is, occurring since the early 1970s between us (GQ and CS) and from about 1976 between us and Gary Hill. The book registers something of the totality of the results of this process that bear on Gary Hill, comprising many levels of interlaced, indeed often inseparable, development and co-creation. That makes this in some ways a work in realizing a general poetics shared by the three of us––that is, a poetics as the working principles of a time-based art, one that pertains to language and a range of visual, auditory, and electronic objectification. That said, the present work aims at every point to read carefully and accurately through Gary Hill’s oeuvre, ranging from the work of the 1970s to the present.

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It seems obvious that there can be no definitive book about a highly realized artist, most especially one who is difficult to categorize and whose art practice is in full stride. No doubt some art historians remain committed to a belief in the definitive assessment. We are not of their persuasion, and indeed we consider that the notion of definitive treatment may well violate the very nature of art. Yet whether or not this statement has value, it is a necessary allowance in discussing an artist such as Gary Hill, who describes most of his work as processual and whose sense of language expression is intentionally complex, even perplexing. Over-definition, or perhaps over-determination, would be a species of transgression (and not in the benign sense that word can take on in art critical contexts).

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Our interest, to be sure, in writing about Gary Hill’s work has to do with a conviction of common ground amongst us, expressed in direct collaboration of various kinds (especially live performance, but also in texts and art objects) and in our interwoven development as artists. Over nearly three decades we have influenced each other in many ways, no doubt far too intricately to ever account for. So we think it important to state at the onset that we are not here writing art criticism and art history in the most familiar senses, although this work hopes to contribute in certain ways to these domains. We have little attachment to the notion of “objectivity,” although we try in every way we can to be accurate in our account of facts, our descriptions, and our rendering of the artist’s thinking and practice. While moving away from definitive judgment and discussion, we try to sharpen functional definition where appropriate. And, although we have truly enjoyed some of what others have written about his work, we do not particularly discuss critical writing or try to account for differences between our views and those of others. We doubt that we have been noticeably influenced by those views, and therefore do not see the need to give a scholarly accounting of our reading in this area. Neither do we claim any priority for our views, despite our personal access to the artist; nor do we wish to give the impression that our views should obviate even very different views.

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Our primary interest is in what we call the further life of the work, which we have defined as an extension of the creative energy and interest that the work itself actually projects through its own instance. We will have more to say on this subject in the Prologue and elsewhere, as it speaks to something in Gary Hill’s work itself, as we see it. In short, we intend that our writing about his work contribute to the very possibility which the work opens up. The theory is that critical alignment with a work brings that work out, brings it forward to possible participation. The further life is also an active dialogue with the ongoing work itself.

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We do not attempt to discuss every work by the artist. We have Gary Hill: Selected Works and Catalogue Raisonné, edited by Holger Broeker (Wolfsburg:  Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and Cologne: DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, 2002)[2] covering the works through 2001 at the level of description. In our book there will be found two quite differently generated groups of texts, those written specifically for this book and those written for particular occasions and venues. The former comprises a slightly smaller group which makes up the Prologue, all of Part One, and Chapter Sixteen. The larger group, those we were asked to write, primarily for exhibitions in museums and galleries, are gathered in Part Two, plus Chapter Seventeen.  Some of the latter have been partially revised for this edition, mostly in small ways. The result is a mix of styles and methods. Since style and method are for us so closely tied to occasion and, in some cases, the structure of the work discussed, we have tried to preserve the original shape of a piece where it still seems interesting to do so. In the most extreme case, in fact the earliest piece in the book, Talking Rectangles: Notes on the Feedback Horizon (1980), the writing (by GQ) attempts to enter the structure and process of the work Glass Onion, including a “concretist” graphic embodiment on the page by Gary Hill; in fact, this is one of the earliest instances of our intermedia collaboration. In a less extreme case, Chapter Eleven: Cut to the Radical of Orientation: Twin Notes on being in touch in Cut Pipe, the title suggests an intention to “twin” the piece by embodying the “cut pipe” self-reflexive structure, which involves in our piece, for instance, a nearly equal space given to text and to footnotes, showing a “cut” across the pages (hence the variant design for this piece in the present collection); we intend a liminalist oscillation between text and notes. While there is a certain levity in these conceptions, the most serious intention is to further the life of the work by somehow aligning with it, perhaps somehow matching it on a structural level, and indeed becoming co-performative with it (a notion discussed in the Prologue and elsewhere). And, as we have implied, this intention is pervasive and is not only in evidence in the more obvious attempts at structural embodiment. One can also find ways to embody the process of engagement with a work, especially if it is an installation which itself embodies a certain kind of interactivity. There can then be an intertextuality, so to speak, between our text and the work in question considered as text (even where, as in Viewer [1996; Chapter Eight], the work does not directly use language).

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Given the diverse origins of the pieces, this book obviously is not presented as a fully or conventionally unified work. Yet we have been interested to discover, in preparing this text, how our views (the authors of this book as well as the artist), while evolving, have grown out of each other and do suggest something of an integrated companion to Gary Hill’s own evolving and emerging work. The fact that the book’s meditation on Gary Hill’s work also meditates on itself and the act of “reading” a work, is connected with a related truth in the artist’s work. And certainly this points to the basis of our interests in common (for instance, the work of Maurice Blanchot). In particular, the shared interest in textual reflexivity and the processual was especially strong when Gary Hill was living in our community on Station Hill Road in Barrytown, New York in the late 1970s, not only in our own various works but in the texts of Blanchot which we began publishing at Station Hill Press in 1978. With respect to the reflexive, a text like Talking Rectangles: Notes on the Feedback Horizon, mentioned above, has a certain kinship with the emerging beautiful videopoetic texts of Gary Hill’s Soundings (1979), Processual Video (1980), Videograms (1980–81), and Happenstance (part one of many parts) (1982–83). At the same time, the immediate New York Hudson Valley environment was rich in these concerns (the processual and the reflexive) in the work of poets Robert Kelly, the present authors, and composer-poet Franz Kamin, as well as, in fact, John Cage (whom we had known in New York City and who later would visit Barrytown when Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles become our neighbors). That immediate environment included Barrytown, Annandale (Bard College, where GQ, CS, and GH have taught, and where Robert Kelly has taught for some four decades), and Rhinebeck (The Arnolfini Arts Center, founded by George Quasha and Susan Quasha in 1978, where Gary Hill, along with Dave Jones, was employed as artist; our first collaborative performance work was in embryonic form begun there.) Most of these artists have at various points been published by Station Hill Press, an independent publishing house (and produced by sister project, the Open Studio Print Shop), also founded at that time by George Quasha and Susan Quasha and for which Charles Stein served as senior editor for many years. Gary Hill no doubt came to an expanded sense of art and language through connecting with poets in Barrytown, yet it was quickly apparent that he was now making his own significant contribution to poetics by way of, and in conjunction with, electronic media, as well as extraordinary written texts. His work, like that, say, of William Blake or Henri Michaux or indeed John Cage, shows how problematic it is to have separate histories for visual art, poetry, music, not to mention performance art in its many senses.

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It should be clear that the present book is not constructed so as to be easily read straight through, since the essays were not written with that in mind. At the same time there are elements of a progression or development in the artist’s work reflected in the order of texts here, especially in Part One, concerned mainly with single-channel work (chronologically ordered). The essays in Part Two appear roughly in the order that we wrote them, which is only very loosely connected to the order of the artist’s creation; mainly they follow exhibitions of the work and reflect (radially, rather than linearly) on the works in different combinations and presentations. Part Three treats some more recent work as well as both the artist’s relationship to “image” and his work in performance generally; our reflections on performance are in part retrospective and in some cases offer an inside view, based on performance collaboration. Finally, there are our two long dialogues on issues of the performative, called “Dialogos: Liminal Performance” (Parts I and II).

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Throughout this book we discuss and cite various texts written by Gary Hill either as an element in a particular work in video and/or installation or as an independent text. A number of his texts are integrated in more than one work and take on variant identities. In the course of the book some of these texts appear near where they are discussed, while other texts are in Part Three. Following the Contents page there is a list of texts and their location.

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One other feature reflects the altered state of media art at this moment in time: the Online Archive. Although video as an art form has been in full swing for half a century, its relative non-availability to the public (along with myriad obstacles to experiencing it even in museums, galleries, libraries, and other specialized venues), and indeed the general difficulty of access that has frustrated study of the work, has been a factor in its marginalization. (In some ways its situation has resembled that of “experimental” and otherwise non-mainstream filmic art, such as that of Stan Brakhage). This situation has been changing rapidly with the availability of DVD technology and now far more—indeed a sea change in the experience and discussion of work—with a range of online possibilities. The Online Archive is an evolving resource, keyed in particular ways to this book, so that a reader can easily see at least a “low res” version of the single-channel work and video documentation of a number of the installations discussed. Information on the rapidly changing lower and higher resolution availability will be posted and updated at http://www.garyhill.com.

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The Prologue that follows here is conceived as a foundational statement of the encompassing view of this book, and it’s meant to be read first (as well, perhaps, as last).

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George Quasha & Charles Stein

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Acknowledgments

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It would be difficult to acknowledge everyone who has contributed to our work together over the years. Given the long history of this project, it almost goes without saying that this work is pervasively indebted to Gary Hill’s support and close collaboration, without which it not only wouldn’t, but couldn’t, be what it is. Collaboration at this level has to do with something like lifelong refinements in resonance; as Ezra Pound said, “There’s no substitute for a lifetime.”

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In view of the present collection we wish to thank Rayne Wilder (in Seattle at Gary Hill Studio/Donald Young Gallery) who has been an active supporter, a true friend of the project, an astute critic, and an essential collaborator in its realization. And thanks, indeed, to Donald Young, Gary Hill’s primary gallerist and the man behind the scene, for his long-term support and encouragement.

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Susan Quasha has read virtually every word we have written these fifteen years and contributed crucial insights; most important, she has served as a supportive foundation for so much of what has evolved among us, going back over three decades.

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Others have read these texts with sympathy and insight and helped us in multiple ways: Barbara Leon, Chie Hasegawa Hammons, Dorota Czerner, Jenny Fox, and Sherry Williams.

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The friends of a work offer vital help in calling it into existence. Such a friend and early collaborator with the artist is Robert Mittenthal, himself a poet, who has written brilliantly about Gary Hill’s work. Over the years Chrissie Iles’ support of the artist’s work and interest in texts in this book have contributed to its process.

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We’re also grateful to the many curators, gallerists, editors, and publishers who have facilitated the work’s emergence and publication, including: Dorine Mignot, Fabienne Leclerc, Cathrin Pichler, Barbara Gladstone, Josée Bélisle, David Tomas, Marcello Dantas, Robert Morgan, Bonnie Marranca, Benjamin Boretz, Anders Kold, Ric Allsopp, Caroline Bergvall, Sandy Harthorn, Jörg Zutter, and Thomas Bartscherer.

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We wish to give very special thanks to Lynne Cooke for her generous assessment in the Foreword, which, like her insightful writing on Gary Hill’s work over many years, serves as inspiration to us all.

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And we wish to express our gratitude to our current publishers, Ediciones Poligrafa, whose commitment to Gary Hill’s work has given rise to this edition with its many new parts, and whose patient support and understanding have made this longer-than-expected journey possible: Gloria Moure (editor), Francisco Rei (designer), and Juan de Muga (director). It’s a rare pleasure to work with publishers whose genuine enthusiasm, nderstanding, and openness speak to the heart of the work itself.

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[1] The main process is that GQ and CS write preliminary texts; GQ composes the final text with continuous input (written sections, commentary, etc.) from CS and feedback from Gary Hill. Exceptions are: Talking Rectangles: Notes on the Feedback Horizon, written by GQ in 1980, evidently the first detailed direct treatment of a GH work, and the actual beginning of the collaboration between GH and GQ on text that over time has become this book. Chapter Four is CS’s “inside view” of one work. Three pieces, now Part One: Introduction: Electronic Linguistics and Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen, were written by GQ without the direct collaboration of CS, although the undercurrent of shared ideas is consistent with the other pieces. Dialogue with Gary Hill is pervasive in the writing of these texts. See the two-part conversation “Dialogos: Liminal Performance” following Chapter Seventeen.
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[2] Referred to hereafter simply as Catalogue Raisonné­.

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Note: live links are indicated by blue followed by asterisk *

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Contents

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Foreword by Lynne Cooke

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Preliminaries

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Online Archive

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Prologue: Speaking For Before*

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Part One

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Time Channels and Language Acts

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Introduction: Electronic Linguistics

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Facsimile: Talking Rectangles: Notes on the Feedback Horizon

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Chapter One: Equal Time and the strangeness of sameness

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Chapter Two: Videograms

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Chapter Three: Happenstance

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Chapter Four: Muddles: Entropy, Time, and Logic

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Chapter Five: Incidence of Catastrophe

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Part Two

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Speaking Space

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Chapter Six: Tall Acts of Seeing—Tall Ships

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Chapter Seven: HAND HEARD / Liminal Objects

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Chapter Eight: Viewer

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Chapter Nine:
A Projective Twin Installation

Standing Apart/Facing Faces

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Chapter Ten: Projection––The Space of Great Happening

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Chapter Eleven: Cut to the Radical of Orientation:
twin notes on being in touch in Cut Pipe

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Chapter Twelve: Two Ways at Once
Disturbance (among the jars) and Dervish

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Chapter Thirteen: Stance Horizontal and Turning—Searchlight

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Chapter Fourteen: Double Exposure–– An Art of and at the Threshold
Remarks on Color, Liminal Objects, Crossbow, Twofold (Goats and Sheep)

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Chapter Fifteen: Speaking Gaps––
Wall Piece, Language Willing, Accordions, Crossbow

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Part Three

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Acting Thresholds

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Chapter Sixteen: Installing Performing––Guilt, Frustrum, & Co.

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Chapter Seventeen:
Performance Itself

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Dialogos:
Liminal Performance (Parts I and II)

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Texts by Gary Hill

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Biography

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Selected Exhibitions

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Bibliography

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Acknowledgments

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Index of Works

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Index of Names and Concepts

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