During September ACMI hosted Channels: The Australian Video Art Festival. Arts writer Jesse Dyer went along to the panel event ‘Video Art in the Internet Era’. He shares his thoughts on the diversity of video art and what the future may hold for this democratic art form.
Video technology is constantly evolving; the way we capture, edit and distribute it has changed hugely during its short history. Arguably, nothing has had more influence on our current consumption of video than the Internet, so what could be more relevant to contemporary video art than a forum discussing the impact that the Internet has had on artists themselves?
Hosted at ACMI Studio 1 as part of the recent Channels Festival, Video Art in the Internet Era included speakers Norie Neumark, Phip Murray, Ian Haig, Giselle Stanborough, Vernon Ah Kee, and ACMI Senior Curator Sarah Tutton, as well as a series of ‘video letters’ sent by Skip Blumberg, Joel Stern, Emile Zile and Soda_Jerk.
Evidently there’s an overwhelming range of video available online. With this in mind Phip Murray raised the question of how video artists are able to differentiate their work from everything else that is uploaded to the web. The distinction between video art and other video content becomes increasingly unclear when artists choose to post their artwork on video sharing websites such as Vimeo and YouTube.
The video letter sent by Emile Zile addressed this issue head on. In Zile’s video, the artist boxed up a classic Sony video camera. In doing this, Zile’s performance slyly referenced both the YouTube phenomenon of ‘unboxing’ consumer technology, as well as the history of video art where Sony’s pioneering video equipment is credited with making the medium accessible to artists. One of the audience questions at the end of the forum returned to this theme, and asked whether all videos posted on YouTube and the like can be compared to outsider art. Do all videos shared online contain intrinsic cultural and artistic value, even without the creator’s intent?
Internet artist Giselle Stanborough raised another important question concerning the ethical implications of using social media websites. She stated the impossibility of escaping the commercial reality of Web 2.0. For Stanborough, interacting with sites such as Facebook means artists inevitably implicate themselves in the violation of privacy and the commercialisation of user content, which are at the core of these online businesses. The extent of these violations include using artists’ works for purposes they are unintended for, and in doing so damaging the integrity of the artworks themselves.
While the influence of the internet is ever expanding, not everyone agrees on the cultural importance of the online world. In a recent newspaper interview, musician Prince compared the Internet to MTV. He is convinced that it will soon be obsolete. Prince’s pronouncement seems ridiculous, but twenty years ago most people would have laughed at the claim that video stores would all be out of business too.
The apparent frailty of dominant cultural channels was highlighted by Ian Haig, who screened a slideshow of disappeared video rental stores in the background of his presentation. Haig discussed the difficulty that many early video artists had in finding audiences for their work, or rather finding ways to show their work to audiences. Before the widespread institutional and art market acceptance of video art, some artists used guerrilla methods to disseminate their work. Haig recollected borrowing new releases from Video Buster’s in Collingwood, only to discover sections had been taped over with video art.
New technology has opened additional avenues for artists to explore their practice, revealing a multitude of approaches to contemporary video art. Artist Vernon Ah Kee described the inspiration behind one of his first video works as coming from the tiny screens of mobile phones. Whitefellanormal (2004) was designed with the idea that it could be shown on a tiny screen or streamed online, and still have an impact.
Phip Murray concluded her presentation with clips of Sean Peoples’ recent art project Channel G at West Space, which explored a particularly innovative way of presenting video art. A live video feed was broadcast from the gallery space, and local artists were invited to improvise the program in front of a green screen. Embracing the limitations of the technology available, as well as the distinctive look of the green-screen, the artists communicated their ideas in diverse and entertaining ways.
By contrast, ACMI Senior Curator Sarah Tutton stressed the importance of specially designed spaces for video installation. For Tutton, it is only in a darkened room, with high resolution projections and carefully designed acoustics that video art can realise its full potential. She discussed the Internet as being influential less on the way video art is presented at ACMI, and more on the way it is curated. Video conferencing has allowed a much greater amount of collaboration between artists and curators despite geographical distance. This has naturally influenced how new works are discovered and collected by institutions such as ACMI.
Perhaps it was Norie Neumark’s presentation that highlighted the difficulties in discussing video art as a whole. She raised the question of technological determinism, and whether or not it is useful to define artwork by the technology used to produce it. The variety of contemporary practices that use video is so diverse – video art is often described as sculptural, painterly or performative. It seems the medium itself is able to take on the characteristics of other media and yet still retain its own immediacy and impact.
At times the diversity of video art practices presented seemed irreconcilable, as though the speakers had less in common with one another than the shared medium might suggest. Ultimately, it is this cacophony of opinions that defines video as a medium, democratic by its very nature, which has survived the ethical and contextual uncertainties of its transition to online distribution. The diversity that video makes visible, and its tendency toward social and political engagement, unifies video art practices, and will continue to define the medium long after what we recognise as the internet has suffered the same fate as the video-cassette.
– Jesse Dyer, artist and arts writer