Reflections on Experimental Art

Occult uses for video

Dream of Samarra (2007) Usama Alshaibi, Chicago, 1 minute*

There was an interesting review in the Food Issue of the New Yorker in November last year (2009)- Peter Schjeddahl reflecting on his experience of the downtown New York art scene via a large survey of 60s and 70s contemporary art at P.S. 1. called “1969”.

Speaking of the new culture where “artist was becoming a job description, at once secure and drained of meaning”, he asks:

“Who could be expected to care about such stuff? People who were vocationally obliged to care. You knew them by their tendency to speak of the art world as a “community”, adrift from society. Geared up art schools, contemporary-art museums, and programs of public funding for the arts tugged artists away from the commercial market and popular audiences and into an archipelago of insular scenes.”

Sound familiar?

Recently, a Melbourne film curator mentioned in passing to me that there seemed to be “more experimental curators than there are audiences” – and I can’t help but connect these two thoughts in my mind.

Why is it that, while it appears (anecdotally at least) that video art is booming, and there are more video artists than ever in Melbourne, that we are yet to connect the dots between them and an audience?

My feeling is that one of the things holding back the progress of video is it’s automatic conflation with terms like “experimental” or “non-narrative”, and separation from “film”. I really think it is a problem of categorization- an administrative problem, if you will. Consider the venues for showing videos: in a gallery inevitably it will be considered part of an “art work”, rather than a piece in it’s own right; in a film festival, short videos that are not explicitly narrative will often end up in an “experimental” program, because they are not considered “film” per se.

So, short of the intermittent and occasional screening events that are dedicated to single channel videos that happen around town, and usually to very targeted groups of people who are already involved in a niche scene- the general public’s encounter with this kind of work is incredibly limited by the categories it is boxed into. On top of this, the curators who are in a position to wield access to large audiences- in institutions and established galleries- tend to keep throwing up the same interpretations of “experimental” again and again.

And, “Experimental”, while a convenient term for all kinds of reasons, has become a misnomer. Mimicking the experiments of 40 years ago is not remotely experimental. Nine times out of ten, experimental simply describes an aesthetic choice, and not the means of production, as it implies. Something truly experimental these days is more likely to be so in it’s mode of transmission- often the internet, although this is hardly new practice anymore either. The aesthetics that have dominated the video scene (at least, the state sponsored one) in the last 20 years are hardly crowd-pleasing: abstract, abject, formalist, non-narrative, conceptual and minimalist. But in the age of plastic video- which is no longer even locked to a physical tape- the aesthetic choices you can make are limitless. Artists, designers and just, well, people, are using it in all kinds of bizarre, hysterical and mashed up ways these days. So why does it still feel like we have been stuck in this minimalist, “tough art” groove for so long?

Is it because art has become so institutionalised, so educationalised-  as David Hickey suggests here: ? That as artists, we are so beholden to funding bodies and institutions now, and what they think art should be, that art has disappeared up it’s own arse? That we have no sense of it’s connection to the rest of the world- no sense of it’s real value beyond intellectual capital? I think these are all incredibly salient points.

“Herb and Dorothy”, Directed by Megumi Sasaki, about a pair of low-level public servants who have been using all their meagre income to collect minimalist art since the 1960s, illustrated Hickey’s ideas beautifully: “You don’t need to know anything to understand good art. ” And, in fact, it’s really important that there are people outside the “system” of curators, institutions, galleries and funding bodies who love art as much as Herb and Dorothy Vogel do. I mean, maybe Australian audiences aren’t the most receptive to it, but I believe it’s largely because we’ve been trained to believe that contemporary art is something you have to understand- to read, like a book. That there has to be a “meaning” and they don’t “get it”. We’ve all been de-skilled in the art of looking and enjoying- artists and curators enticed to abandon a whole system of visual cognition because we believe it has been tainted by populism and advertising.

And what this means is, the average person has been effectively locked out of this particular art club because maybe they can’t comprehend the theory that is embedded in art these days, and is often it’s main entry point. If something is incoherent and looks terrible, well, then- it’s got no chance. What’s stupid, is that  no-one looks at Van Gogh’s sunflowers, to take possibly the world’s most populist art image (by an artist who was incidentally, working on the fringe in his own time), and  wonders what it means. Even though it may cause them to think many things, and certainly it has many meanings. But the overwhelmingly common response to contemporary art by the average punter is “What does it mean?”, often followed closely with “My three year old could’ve done that”. Boom boom.

The shame of it is that there is so much now within the genre of “experimental” (if we accept it is just that) which is entertaining and engaging, and which doesn’t seek to abuse the sensibilities of its audience- but rather delight and challenge them in equal measure. There is buckets of it in fact- it just doesn’t get much (or enough) play. I know that I for one emerged into an art world where it felt as though anything that was too aesthetic, that made too much sense, that in any way tried to communicate clearly with it’s audience was suspicious in some way. It actually felt as though part of the job of being an artist was to obscure meaning, bury it deeper, make it harder to get. For me, enough was enough when a young Gertrude Studio artist told me, “I think art that isn’t consciously political, isn’t engaged with theory is not really art- it’s craft, or something else”- gloriously ignorant of her own ignorance, but exhibiting the confidence of someone who had been richly rewarded for it. However, I do feel like there is a burgeoning backlash against that way of thinking, and  peer to peer, with an increasingly vibrant scene with just a soupcon of competitiveness in the air, great work is being made. There is depth, skill, intelligence and an awareness of  television, cinema and the internet-at least a budding consciousness of audience (whoever they might turn out to be!) and what else they might be looking at in the world apart from contemporary art.

Anyway, I have no answers, just frustration, and a wish that things would move along a bit already.

*Dream of Samarra can be seen at: Occult uses for video: Sunday 17 January 2010, 3PM,  1/81 Bouverie St, Carlton, Melbourne.

Screening of odd-length video works by Damon Packard, Claire Evans, Kelly Kuvo (The Scissor Girls), Usama Alshaibi and Andrew Wilson. Presented by Tape Projects and curated by Matthew O’Shannessy.


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