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Video goes big time: some crucial questions

Blair French

Blair French is Associate Director of Performance Space and curator of its present set of Video Spell exhibitions.

Shaun Gladwell, Storm Sequence, 2000, digital video still courtesy the artist and Sherman Galleries, Sydney Shaun Gladwell, Storm Sequence, 2000, digital video still courtesy the artist and Sherman Galleries, Sydney
Ten—even 5 years ago—photography seemed to dominate contemporary art, not just in the presence of its multifarious image forms (which remain pervasive today) but also in the fervent discussions about its status within and as contemporary art. Now it’s video’s turn. Everybody’s making it, everybody’s showing it, everybody’s got an opinion about its place within the sphere of art.

Locally there are several signs of video’s ubiquitous presence across gallery spaces, from major art museums to artist-run ventures. In Melbourne, Susan Norrie’s massive, multi-screen Undertow opened at ACCA, while at Federation Square the first new contemporary project at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia was a new video, photography and object-based installation, Sandman, by Patricia Piccinini. Next door at ACMI is Ross Gibson’s 2-part Remembrance, a film/video installation event. In Sydney, the major institutions have embraced video in its grandest projection forms (Doug Aitkin and others in Liquid Sea and Ugo Rondinone at the MCA; Denis Del Favero and Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky at the Art Gallery of NSW). One of the country’s premier commercial spaces, Sherman Galleries, recently showcased 2 extraordinary performative videos by young Sydney artist Shaun Gladwell. (Others, such as Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, have been committed to video work since the 1980s, while Scott Donovan Gallery presented several video programs during its incarnation in Liverpool Street.) Video has become the stock-in-trade of contemporary art spaces, with recent Artspace showings in Sydney. The Shangrilla Collective, organised by Maria Cruz, featured music performance videos by about 30 female artists and Emil Goh’s recent Remake triptych featured 3 versions of the same iconic cinematic narrative.

Of course, some of the most innovative initiatives have come from artist-initiated activities—the Serial 7s and Projekt video catalogues from Sydney and Melbourne respectively, or the Emil Goh-curated international video show at Gallery 4A of 2001 (where the audience programmed the screenings themselves from a shelf of tapes). And there’s Chewing the Phat, video screening and discussion nights at Phatspace, Sydney and the new video-configured The Kings Gallery in Melbourne (co-founded by Brendan Lee of the Projekt video catalogue series).

So video, with photography, has become a new default setting for contemporary art and associated criticism. But as with photography, this hardly makes ‘video art’ an easily definable, even recognisable field of practice. For every parallel between the 2 forms, there are significant representational and historical differences between them. In considering the once contested condition of photography within contemporary art, can we identify some of the forces behind, and likely trajectories beyond video’s current status?

As with photography, there’s a distinct branching in video’s history as an art practice. We can trace one genealogical strand back through the history of experimental film within modernity—a media-specific set of practices laden with particular formal and conceptual concerns and languages. But more recently, video has become inextricably intertwined with the dispersed frameworks of conceptual art: primarily as a mode of record and documentation—a means of accessing and presencing the everyday, exploiting its link to real time documentation.

And so there’s a tension between contemporary video work as a distinct, self-contained practice and representational language, and the form’s centrality to contemporary art as a trans- or post-media specific activity. But this tension is perhaps not as overt as that which recently surrounded Australian photography. A modernist model of photography as a discrete art form predicated on illusionary notions of social and representational truth competed with ‘postmodern’ conceptions of photomedia or photo-based contemporary art to produce a tension between art photography (and photographers) and photo-based art (and artists).

There are a couple of other historical branches that must be acknowledged. One traces video’s development through its function within ‘multi-media’ structures of experimental performance, theatre and dance. The other wraps tendril-like through everything: in modernity, high and low culture is collapsed in the ‘new’ forms of mechanistic analogue (and now computational digital) representation. Video is now central to the commodification of contemporary life outside the art world, ranging from everyday personal home video to digital television, video phones, reality TV, the public architecture of video advertising, commercial cinema and so on. Video as art supposedly offers access to these representational registers, but also envelops these worlds in the critical discourse of contemporary practice.

Video, like photography, has been profoundly impacted on by (and been influential within) the postmodern pastiche and appropriation associated particularly with 80s art, as well as current conceptions of digital or new media art. Both have reached a moment within which a form of ‘low-rent’ performance documentation style coexists (sometimes even in the same work), with extraordinary high-end technological developments in the form. And this is just one tension that has raised questions among practitioners, curators, critics etc and in public fora such as those organised by CCP/ 200 Gertrude St in Melbourne and this year at Sydney’s MCA.

Is there a video art distinct from the incorporation of video in post-media art practices? What forms of critical languages are needed to adequately encompass the range of practices and tensions in video art? Do they need to be cross-media, societal in epistemology, cross-cultural? Is there a language that can encompass both primarily visual/spatial and narrative practices? How as viewers can we move between narrative-based (filmic) screenings and immersive, more overtly multi-sensory experiences? (Particularly when both are encompassed within the framework of a single exhibition such as Remembrance?) Can individual works survive such translations in presentation structures across theatre screenings and gallery exhibitions? (Where in the former the relationship between work and viewers is fixed and primarily visual, and in the latter fluid and spatial; where in the former the relationship between multiple works is primarily temporal, and in the latter spatial; where in the former an ‘audience’ contracts to a fixed viewing time, whereas in the latter they may flow in and out of the timespan of the work.) As video becomes a more dominant form of visual art, these questions are thrown into relief by the difficulties involved in trying to view an exhibition such as Remembrance which encompasses both multiple time-based narratives and screening programs (where the viewer sits, inert), such as d>Art and Future Perfect organised recently by dLux media arts at the Sydney Film Festival.

Issues of presentation (along with those of distribution and sale) have therefore become central to both artistic and curatorial practice as the range of options between fixed, immersive installations, mix and match ‘interactive’ programs, screenings, projection or monitor formats etc increase exponentially. So too have issues of production value. How possible or important is it for video ‘art’ to match the production values of commercial video (advertising, television, cinema), or to mimic its narrative structures? Does this simply risk its willing absorption into contemporary spectacle culture as another form of visual product? What are video’s points of critical resistance to its commercial overlords? What does video ultimately offer art and artists? And vice versa?

I offer no answers here, nor more than a handful of some of the more crucial questions. Many others—artists, curators, institutions writers etc—are asking them with greater acuity as we experience an accentuated, slow-motion collapse of fictional and actual world performance into an entirely screen-based conception of the real. The questioning is crucial, as is an awareness of the histories being drawn on here, for these may point to the potential impact of all this video on the future condition of art itself.

The RealTime-Performance Space free forum, Video + Art Equals...?, is on August 18, 6.30pm at Performance Space. (See transcript here)

Blair French is Associate Director of Performance Space and curator of its present set of Video Spell exhibitions.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 37,

© Blair French; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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