New New Video

This ranty piece of writing is a bit out of date now- some things that come immediately to mind:

+ ACMI has opened media-theque, an apt and expanded improvement (almost) on the memory grid- hallelujah!

+ OZCO has introduced the “Digital Culture” fund- seems they had some cash to splash and decided to bestow it (or the chance of having it) upon those of us engaging with “liveness” in our art (they love “liveness”)

I pretty much stand by the rest of it. If anyone is reading this- tell me what you think!

Video art is by now well and truly an established genre of contemporary art. Notably, in Melbourne, large-scale, retrospective and contemporary shows have recently been staged at ACMI, ACCA and NGV[i], suggesting that the medium has arrived at a significant level of mainstream acquaintance. For several decades training for art-based video has been available via specialist courses, art schools and technical programs. This has resulted in a relatively large, if disparate, group of artists currently active in Melbourne, across a spectrum of digital, moving image mediums, including animation, video, “multimedia”, motion graphics and live VJ ing. No longer a buzz word, fad, or on the edge of anything particularly cutting, nonetheless (and even because of it), this is a significant moment for digitally mediated, moving image art.

First, to address the catch-all phrase “Video Art”. Because the avenues for engaging with video have fragmented into a multiplicity of practices, they are no longer happy neighbours under that umbrella term, yet nothing has emerged in its place. Further, many of these practices have yet to be defined by contemporary art, because they exist so definitively outside of its’ frames of reference[ii]. I would even go so far as to say the term has slightly unsavoury connotations, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for some, of the boring self-indulgence they may have encountered. In an article in Photofile in 2005, “Curating Video Art 101” Philip Brophy took aim at the foibles of video art, suggesting among its deficiencies: the pointlessness of video installation; the irrelevancy of artists’ oft referred to ethnic origins and the vanity of personal politics (managing to offend anyone who has ever made a video along the way).

“…. When a video artist shows you something in slow motion, it really isn’t all that beautiful. In fact, it looks dumb… If you want to curate an exhibition on ‘the everyday’, just get yourself a proper job and don’t bore people with such a dull concept.” iii

Unfortunately, he made a searing point: people often either hate video art, or simply don’t get it. This may have something to do with curators’ traditional preference for audience-alienating non-narrative, formalist and contemplative approaches, and up til recent ignorance of newer forms of video practice that embrace narrative, take a playful rather than stern approach to abstraction and wear their TV and film influences on their sleeves.  Video art originated in a radical practice that envisioned technology bringing about a democratization of media and art; ironically, this very “revolution” has seen video flee into a seriously elitist, intellectually self-referencing and highly privileged enclave, inaccessible to few, unapealling to most. This is not a criticism of artists. Artists will make and do whatever they believe and feel passionate about regardless of whether it has mass appeal. As it should be. Rather it is the sluggishness with which the whole art industry has taken up the cause of “new new video”[iii] that is frustrating. In Infrastructure, education and support, the industry is particularly failing to keep pace with artists and arts culture.

In the past, video artists turned their back on cinema and television in political and aesthetic protest. However, they find themselves now in a position where that dichotomy  is no longer tenable. People make films on video. Sometimes at home. Sometimes without ever picking up a camera. Is that video art or cinema? Or Television? What about if it’s on the web? Does it matter?

To the artist producing it- yes, it does. Especially when it comes to figuring out where to show work that crosses boundaries between narrative film, video art, animation and “multi media” (whatever that means).

It’s not so much that galleries are against the latter forms, as that they are hopelessly ill-equipped to show them. There is, in fact, very little appropriate architecture for exhibiting this type of short-form moving image work. Video probably should never be shown in white walled galleries, with hard, echoing walls and floors, under neon or hallogen lighting- the Anna Schwartz style temple to contemporary art that is the model for even the lowest rent ARI spaces. The fact that most spaces are still oblivious to these physical considerations indicate that in terms of galleries, video is neither considered to have different requirements to other disciplines, nor that those requirements are considered in designing or fitting out the spaces.

Video is composed of two parts. One is a moving image made of light- either projected, or transmitted through a screen. The other is a soundtrack played through some form of speakers (occasionally performed live).  The traditional gallery format works (almost perversely) against video: flooding light reflects off screens, washes out projections; hard surfaces echo noise and create din; light coloured walls expand the space around the video, rather than contract it- distracting from the image, not focusing attention on it.

You could say that the exhibition requirements of the medium place it in diametric opposition to the requirements of most of the art that is displayed in galleries.  Think about the commercially driven forms: cinema, TV. They have a vested interest in you concentrating on their product and not being distracted. So how are you encouraged to view them? In the dark. In comfort. Isolated from distraction. At home we watch video on TV and the internet in familiar spaces where we can forget ourselves and merge with the work. However, there are few places that replicate or even try to adapt these very effective models for art based practice.

Of course, in this immersive model, there is a tension between commanding people’s attention, and rendering them submissive and uncritical- and adopting all of these attributes would not suit all practitioners, particularly those whose work is installation based, with sculptural elements- but a balance could be struck.

ACMI, the largest institution dedicated to moving image in the southern hemisphere (that dubious suffix), had found a wonderful balance in the Memory Grid- its permanent short form collection, which has now closed, indefinitely. With it goes one of few totally medium-appropriate viewing spaces in Melbourne for short form digital video. It was not perfect by any means, tending at times to a lack of curatorial focus. But it was dark, quiet and provided comfortable, private spaces where people could sit down and concentrate – and see an incredible range of work by a huge spectrum of film makers, animators and video practitioners past and very present. It was a space where you were welcome to linger and experience, as long as you liked. Further, it provided a regular venue for young artists working in video and animation to connect with an audience they would otherwise lack quality access to.

It is emerging that despite initial indications, this environment will not be replicated in either the proposed new Mediatheque, or Project Space in the ACMI re-development, and is an invaluable venue and resource utterly lost.

In highlighting these deficiencies, it should be acknowledged that there are several fantastic venues in Melbourne, which have addressed these architectural problems explicitly. Using a commercial model, LOOP, Horse Bazaar and Glitch Cinemas have all created dynamic, medium-appropriate digital video venues that are funded by their second use as bars. They have been particularly available to the digital video and animation community for screening and performance events that would be impossible to stage in the expensive real estate of a gallery. Unfortunately, supportive and innovative as they are, not all screen based shows will suit the loud, boozy environs of a bar. On the industry/institution front, Kings ARI, Westspace and the Footscray Audio Visual Club have all made concerted efforts to create either spaces or events or opportunities for these kind of artists to exhibit, screen, share and learn, which embrace either darkness and/or soft furnishings as virtues. In terms of large-scale festivals, Next Wave has always embraced digital and other in-between practices, and to the best of their modest capacity, done much to support emerging forms.

There are many more of these extremely financially fragile galleries and organisations whose intentions are at least supportive. Smaller, less formalized groups like Stream Collective and Tape Projects (amongst others both in Melbourne and interstate) explicitly address the problems and challenges outlined above in their varied and experimental practices. So the shallow end of the pool is relatively vast and broad, but problems arise when you wade further in.  In Melbourne particularly, when you are “emerging” (to use the parlance of the funding application) you can show work almost constantly if you are happy to work within tiny budgets, in cheap spaces not particularly kitted out for video, with small audiences. And if you hang in for long enough and achieve a level of acclaim, there are some opportunities at the top too- high profile, curated shows and commissions at ACCA, Ian Potter, Gertrude, Venice- big(ger) money, big scale, big wow factor. But how do you traverse the gulf in between, when there is so little structure for the middle rung of artists- the working stiffs of the art world, those who can’t give up their day job yet? The reality is that most of them will probably drop out and stop making work, frustrated at being limited in their ability to develop their practice beyond these restraints. And, to be frank, sick of doing it for nothing. While this probably doesn’t bother those who rely on the concept of exceptional genius being, well, exceptional, we could be (we are) losing huge swathes of artists to fatigue, before they have had a chance to develop their practice beyond an entry-level point.

To add to this, conceptual art is so preferred in this country’s art industry (although, conversely, not amongst it’s public), that work that is not explicitly about the “world of ideas”- rooted in experiential and sensory, though no less challenging world- as video and animation tend to be, finds it hard to sell itself to traditional funding bodies in the arts, but are neither commercially viable enough to pitch to film bodies.

There was great promise for video when, in the mid nineties, a slew of funding aimed at “new media” emerged. The Australia Council, Arts Victoria and even Film Victoria developed boards aimed directly at stimulating a digital arts culture and industry. These new media boards evaporated some time around 2005- collapsing back into the traditional visual arts and film council structures, apparently having failed at whatever their task was. At the RMIT Vital Signs conference at ACMI that year, there was much debate over whether artists had failed to live up to the funding, or vice versa. Either way, video practitioners were left again to compete with an increasing number of disciplines, for an ever-decreasing pool of funds. When these new media boards did exist, they were oddly skewed (as they still are, reincarnated as obscure categories like “inter-arts”) to commercial, industry outcomes, with particular focus on technology driven disciplines. A recent Australia Council grant, entreated independent game designers out there to engage in the thankless task of building an MMORPG[iv] with $30,000. Some grants are so proscriptive, it feels as though the work might make itself, if you just add artist.

Education, or lack of, also contributes. Namely, the hugely inconsistent way training for this medium is provided across a range of institutions. Increasingly, video is being offered as a subject at art school, but often still as part of a traditional fine arts course, attached to another discipline such as sculpture or painting, whereby the school buys the equipment and the students ‘make it up as they go along’. There are a very few visual arts courses that focus on video as a discipline in it’s own right , rather than as a supportive or associated element of another.  The work that comes out of this “Artist’s Video” tradition can tend to be highly conceptual, often at the expense of technique or aesthetic, and unfortunately destined to repetition as generation after generation reinvents the same wheel. One of the pioneers in offering video as a dedicated discipline in Melbourne was Media Arts, which has now been subsumed into the wider Fine Arts degree at RMIT, and it’s still hard to say whether this is a disaster for video, or a positive reflection of the shifting ground that contemporary art currently exists on, and the cross-disciplinary reality of most art practice. Then again, there are a multitude of “multi media” courses, which are highly industry focused, regardless of the incipient creativity of the students housed within them. These students are taught about work briefs, animatics, story boards, outcomes, customers and perhaps little else. The third type of training  available is at film and television school- another set of imperatives, traditions, skills and methods altogether, where all visual content is being created to support a narrative, subordinate to the strictures of the televisual or film format.

In some ways, this inconsistency of approach in education has allowed artists to create a new discipline: neither traditional video art, nor some second run version of film. But there are several common dilemmas facing graduates whose practice falls between the more established notions of moving image.

Some examples:

An artist who has trained in a video art dedicated course, may, post-graduation, find themselves making a modest and exhausting living directing and producing film clips, working in TV or film, and making intro sequences and other post production content. Many would regard these as enviable positions with much scope for creativity, but often, though these artists see the work as a great way to gain experience, exposure, and access to equipment- they often don’t regard it as their primary practice. It’s still essentially a day job, and a compromise, where their prime function is to sell the work of another artist, and they are left with little time to pursue their own ideas, as they often must also retain hospitality/office/retail jobs to make ends meet.

There are those who studied multimedia courses, whose technical proficiency is high and professional processes highly developed, but who hanker for opportunities to explore their own ideas. They can get plenty of commercial work, but there’s this other “stuff” that they do- short films, animations, clips- bits and pieces, and they may not even consider themselves artists per se. They may post the work on Youtube, Vimeo et al, share with friends and family, but never consider for a second showing the work in a gallery. The more savvy might hook into festivals and more high profile sites, but it may go nowhere substantial.

A trained sculptor, who via performance art, finds an aptitude for video, and has plenty of historical and theoretical resources at their fingertips. However, with no access to experts to guide them through software and basic formal considerations, they end up making amateurish-looking work that pigeonholes itself into “confessional” or “identity” art simply because of its aesthetic. Their ideas may be great, but it’s very hard to teach yourself technique without at least some guidance or framework around you.

Another conundrum is locating video practice. Much has been made of the accessibility of digital technology- the idea that we can now all make albums and films in our bedrooms.  There is some truth to the concept that via saturation, we have all ingested the language of the mass media forms. Most people inherently understand how mise-en-scene works, for example, without maybe knowing the terminology. But it doesn’t mean we’re all good at it, and though the movement that spawned this practice would probably object violently to the notion, Video has become as much a craft as weaving is. There are skills to be learned and honed, there are equipment and software options, aesthetics, systems, editing techniques and tricks to be deployed, which can only be learned over time. There are multiple parts to this practice- and every artist approaches these differently.

Very few people come to video directly: very much more often, they stumble across it, and must be prepared to teach themselves either the basic technical or theoretical underpinnings to make up for shortcomings in their tertiary education.  And then, despite a healthy body of practitioners in Melbourne alone, they may never be able to find an audience for their work once they finish studying and give up making videos altogether.

On a basic level, there is little practical guidance built into the curriculum and the industry for arts students and emerging practitioners. What, for example, does a digital video studio practice look like? Do the artists just sit there with their computers, pushing the mouse around or flicking between screens and clips with keyboard shortcuts? How do you sketch in video? How do you stage a shoot with low budget equipment? Do you keep your equipment in the same place as your studio? Do you keep equipment at all- or just hire it? Editing can be a solitary process, that keeps odd hours, and this can be antithetical to the usually more affordable group studio scenario- so what then? Is your studio simply a place to sit and think? Read? Write? Are digital video artists really to be content with the idea that their job is simply to “think well” [v], when the overwhelming majority have arrived at it via wanting to make things? Undoubtedly many video practitioners develop strange quirks in their studio practice to combat the seeming incongruity of it all.

Of benefit would be if artists working with video, and animation and multimedia, could share more with each other and the public: not only to learn from each other, but consolidate past learning, reinforce commonalities between us and develop some consistencies in approach that would benefit the general quality of work out there.

The disparateness of this movement/community/miasma of work/people/culture can be seen as a weakness- which allows it to be overlooked, ignored, unsupported. And, in many ways, it is also a strength, because out of the spotlight, and without too much pressure, artists can make whatever they feel like making- leading to innovation rather than a slavishness to popular appeal.

A balance between this freedom and some more structure would be ideal. It’s not a lucrative practice, but at the same time, neither is it expensive to accommodate. More opportunities for artists to show their work in purpose built spaces would be a start, and hopefully as this generation continues to age, more comprehensive education, and more opportunities to share our knowledge with each other.


[i] Centre Pompidou Video Art 1965 – 2005, 2000, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne; Lyndal Jones: Darwin With Tears, 2008, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; Chris Doyle: Ecstatic City, 2008, National Gallery of Victoria forecourt, Melbourne International Arts Festival.

[ii] Marcus Westbury said this once, I’m sure of it!

[iii] Philip Brophy, Curating Video Art 101, Photofile, 2005

iv Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game

vArt In Question, Karen Raney, Continuum, 2003, New York

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