It’s Not You, It’s Me opened at Project Space (RMIT) last night, a show about performance based video art, including works by Dominic Redfern, Clare Rae, Jessica McElhinney, Wil Box and Cassandra Tytler. I wrote an essay for the catalogue about the feedback between performance, video and the internet …Check out the show between now and 21 April-
details here: It’s Not You It’s Me
One long, lanky man … marked out the places on the ground where Boggs stood and where Sherburn stood, and the people following him around from one place to t’other and watching everything he done, and bobbing their heads to show they understood … and then he stood up straight and stiff where Sherburn had stood … and sung out, “Boggs!” and then fetched his cane down slow to a level, and says “Bang!” staggered backwards, says “Bang!” again, and fell down flat on his back. The people that had seen the thing said he done it perfect; said it was just exactly the way it all happened.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Attraction/Repulsion and Video Art
Performances of all kinds: from the animist rituals of our paleolithic ancestors, to the green screen digital composites (part man, part screen) of contemporary film; have always been instrumental in the creation, management and negotiation of identity.
Performance art is the art of identity; and Video, with its instant association with immediacy and witness, veracity and cheapness, has been the perfect technology to transport the actions of performance artists beyond the moment.
However, 40 years after “SeedBed”(1), If you pick up a handicam and film yourself peeing – far from creating a scintillating provocation that will cut through conservative social mores – you will simply find yourself getting in line behind the b grade reality stars, online porn producers, amateur web-cam enthusiasts and lets face it, other crappy video artists, who got there before you.
Video and the internet have become extensively available, ubiquitous and entangled. The dreamed-of democratization of media trumpeted by early media collectives has arrived. Amateurs, enthusiasts, professionals and artists alike are now using the same tools, in the same environments. Viral Video, dirty, cheap and everywhere, infects us all. It gets its hooks in, reproduces itself endlessly, and when combined with social media, encourages us to perform ourselves to each other on a daily basis. Youtube is stuffed full of video responses to responses to videos which are themselves post-modern mélanges of cultural references. Video today, in direct contrast to its origins, is subjective, opinionated, self-consciously constructed, and above all – performative.
This advancement via technology belies primal urges at its core. Performance and display are inherent behaviours: classically animal, old as dirt. They are behaviours which partly define us as human(2) in fact. And over time, we have consistently sought ever more interconnected media to facilitate this compulsive elevation and contemplation of the performed banalities of our lives – from theatre to cinema; television to video; and the many conflations thereof to be found on the internet.
What is clear, is that central to this progression, is a powerful attraction/repulsion complex with our own navel gazing tendencies. Public revulsion at this compulsion to drown in our own reflection is as old as the Narcissus myth, but far from being capable of breaking the gaze, our worst instincts have been enabled to run riot. We go about building faulty pedestals for celebutantes to fall off, waiting eagerly in the front row with our cameras, ready to capture the up-skirt, to sell to the highest bidder. The talk show hosts wait with open arms to capture the sympathetic confessional; the reality TV producers with chequebook and camera, ready for the come back special.
Performance and video have currency in our culture: we have come to understand ourselves through a combination of the two. This presents both a challenge and strength for the art form which also combines them.
Commodification of identity in this environment is rife, and Video art’s use of performance has typically been geared to providing alternatives, sometimes within the paradigm, sometimes without. It’s potential to critique, respond to, alter and enhance the public discourse is immense and vital. However, the accessibility and ubiquity which stimulate and enable the genre to address contemporary théãtromanie(3) so directly, can also render it difficult to see.
Not quite of the popular culture, and not quite central to the mainstream maelstrom of video, performance based video art is nonetheless acted upon by the same epochal influences, and emerges in the same environment, engaged in a constant aesthetic exchange with the mainstream. Its ability to stand out in this crowd is a constant, if not acknowledged, problem.
Perhaps because of this, more than ever, we need to find white walls (figurative, if not always literal) on which it may throw up its responses. We need to make more room for that conversation (or debate, or smack down) with contemporary identity which performative video alone, of all contemporary art forms, is most fit to have.
Jessie Scott, 2011
1 SeedBed, Performance installation and video by Vito Acconci, 1972 at Sonnabend Gallery in New York.
2 As discussed in “The Origin of Human Behaviour: Critique of the Models and Their Test Implications”, Christopher S. Henshilwood and Curtis W. Marean, Current Anthropology, Vol 44, No 5, 2003.
3 Théãtromanie: phenomenon of 18th century France, whereby the culture surrounding the theatre and theatre going became an all-consuming lifestyle, over and above simple appreciation of the art form.