“The Lumière Brothers were a hundred and twenty years ago! Come on lads, step up..”
My companion was not impressed. For Week 8 of fig-2 we’d watched Edmund Cook record a live soundtrack to his short film ‘Enumerators’ in which there is a fictional technology to record people’s thoughts in public space, but it doesn’t work as intended; the video allows us to access fragments from the thought-stream. These were voiced by the artist live, setting up ambiguities and interactions between its fixed text and improvisation and uncertainty in delivery; and between the image and the sound, so for example, it becomes unclear whether the little stones are talking to the man or vice versa, or whether the voiceover can in fact be attributed to either. Guitar pedals were employed to make a suitably atonal sound-based soundtrack.
My companion argued that it “could have been done by anyone over the past fifty years – some noodly sound, non-sequential images and abstract words that don’t make any sense”. I enjoyed his rejection of the work; it seemed a good foil for my tendency to buy into any old thing. Yet I wonder… Is he right, or is he missing the point because he just doesn’t like video art? Does anyone like video art?
Today we’re going to take a look at some of the more irritating characteristics of video art, or to put it another way, some of the characteristics of video art.
Some Typical Characteristics of Video Art
Nothing Happens – Nothing quite captures the essence of the nothingness of existence better than nothing, and nothing captures the nothingness of a third of our existence better than Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), which is six hours of the camera fixed on someone while they are asleep. You can say video art provides a space in which to dream, by which you might mean it is inspirational, or that it causes you to nod off.
Technical Experimentation – You know when a roadie taps the end of a microphone to see whether it’s on or not? That’s technical experimentation. Video art has taken such humble technological beginnings — Is it switched on? — and expanded them into a vast corpus of work documenting the switched-on-edness of different technologies. A new type of lens filter demands a ten minute demonstration. This is edgy and vital experimental cinema. Jacob Nelson’s Double Vision is a fine example, using combined video signals from two Sony Portapaks through a mixer to provide a stirring insight into combined video signals.
Graininess – The most obvious quality of video as a medium is its lack of visual resolution. While film must be sent to a lab and developed, video is instantly available, though this makes it endearingly crappy; compare the difference between still photos in a silver gelatine print and a polaroid. This instant availability made it possible for Nam June Paik in 1963 to film Pope Paul VI in New York and relay the footage the same day in a Greenwich Village cafe; one contender for the ‘birth of video art‘. In the intervening fifty years, technology has advanced and we have instant access to digital video, which can reveal breathtaking resolution, but, because we’re just using our smart-phones, is just as crappy as ever.
Nonsequentiality/Nonlinearity – In an interview for fig-2 Edmund Cook has said “I’ve tried to do narrative loads of times but every time I try and write a story it just kind of falls apart because I’m not interested enough and I don’t want to create emotional characters for people to empathise with and their journey, I’m not really interested in that. its more about a certain situation or a certain tension or a certain set of textures.“
Video art is typically distinguished from narrative/theatrical cinema by avoiding many of the conventions that make even the most hackneyed Hollywood guff watchable: plot, character – even actors and dialogue are mostly abjured. Examples abound, but perhaps interesting is how over the course of his Cremaster Cycle (trailer) Matthew Barney moves away from this and toward both the production values and some of the sequentiality of Hollywood cinema, even if it necessarily remains disrupted in order to maintain his Artistic Credibility.
Selling Out – Many video artists are frustrated movie directors. The budgets, the glamour… if only it weren’t for that pesky storytelling business. Steve McQueen‘s 1993 film Bear, in which two naked black men wrestle-cum-dance in a sexy way and in which nothing is resolved (they don’t even fuck), curiously prefigures all of his more recent output such as Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave, if not his raft of Oscars.
Contrastingly, it is quite incalculable the damage that Sam Taylor-Johnson (née Taylor-Wood) may have done to her YBA credibility in making froth like Nowhere Boy and Fifty Shades of Grey, though we admire her commitment to turning her back on video art. Let’s face it, most video art is as boring as watching a woman with a fringe being spanked by a man in a grey suit to a soundtrack of Snow Patrol. Hmm, maybe she’s not travelled so far after all.
Gross shit – This is video art’s special contribution to the philosophical category of Abjection, whereby, in Kristevan thought, taboo elements are presented and confronted as a disruption of social reason and the symbolic order. The video work of Paul McCarthy takes a special relish in chocolate sauce, weird liminal characters with obnoxious protuberances, and general unfathomability; his film Painter (1995) is family viewing every bit as fantastic and harrowing as Frozen. For those who like their gross shit more real, there’s Martin Creed‘s Work No 600, which is just unspeakable, but beautifully shot in 35mm.
Drunkenness – From Neolithic potters in the Orkneys to Tracey Emin stomping off from the Turner Prize, no artist has ever dazzled us with their moderation. Gillian Wearing’s Drunk (1997-99) has a sobering documentary impetus, and we prefer the commendable dipsomaniac pointlessness of Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (1972) in which Gilbert & George get gamely plastered on the iconic juniper-based spirit.