past into present times the future

danni zuvela: video logic and disappearing video, mca

Road Movie, John Gillies

Road Movie, John Gillies

SYDNEY’S MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART RECENTLY HOSTED TWO INTERESTING CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONVERSATION AROUND MOVING IMAGE ART IN AUSTRALIA. THE VIDEO LOGIC SHOW AND A TWO-DAY CONFERENCE EVENT HELD IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE EXHIBITION, DISAPPEARING VIDEO, PROVIDED INSIGHTS INTO VIDEO ART HISTORY AND PRACTICE IN AUSTRALIA, AND ADDRESSED SOME OF THE ISSUES CONFRONTING WORK IN THE MEDIUM.

Video Logic curated by Russell Storer, consisted of a select set of works by artists who have contributed to the development of video work in Australian art: Eugenia Raskopoulos, Denis Beaubois, John Gillies, Adam Geczy, John Conomos and Philip Brophy. It cleverly revealed the breadth of video practice, ranging from Beaubois’ very video-specific investigations into surveillance technologies, to hybridisations with other forms, such as Raskopoulos’ work, which explores corporeality in ways that marry with performance art, and Geczy and Sculthorpe’s colour organ, connecting with the history of light art, music and abstract film. The compact selection offered an economical expression of the irreducible heterogeneity of video practice.

The Disappearing Video event, organised by Ross Harley and John Gillies, began with a rare historical survey screening which, Gillies explained in his introduction, was curated around the canonicity and availability of important works of Australian video art. It’s exhilarating to see a big overview program with a broad chronological sweep, and this one, taking in three decades of experiment, and most of the big names and key works, was a real ride. From the brilliant magnetic meddlings of electronic art’s earliest explorations to heavily distorted video clips and subversive scratch video, computer art, performance documentation and theatrical experiments, the screening developed a fascinating portrait of a diverse national history. What we saw in the program’s 90 minutes was a vivid demonstration of the many uses and pleasures of video for artists over the last 40 years: video as both plastic and graphic medium, valued for its ability to capture the ephemeral, as well as for its own expressive potential. Seeing the works all abutted, as they must be in a single-screen program, can be a rather intense experience—I saw a few furiously blinking eyelids at the screening’s conclusion as spectators’ heads swam with electronic imagery. Some momentary processing delays are, however, surely worth it for the sheer nourishment that a program such as this provides.

Installed in the conference venue was one of the first bona fide video artworks in Australia, Mick Glasheen’s Teleologic Telegraph from Spaceship Earth: On Board with Buckminster Fuller (1970, 28min), a seminal work in the ‘synthetic’ cinema described by Gene Youngblood. It featured, amidst various vibrant synthesised electronic imagery, a talk by the utopian architect on a 1968 visit to Australia. As Stephen Jones notes in his remarkable PhD research, Fuller’s talk is processed with “laser disk slow-motion, reverse-motion and freeze-frames, colour mattes, luminance keying and various kinds of video wipes some of which are modulated by Fuller’s voice” with effects “mixed through one of the earliest colour video mixers in Australia.” I loved it that this work, which illustrates the persistence of experimental and utopian documentary urges in Australian moving image art history, was posted in such a prominent position at the event. I also really loved the wry staging—plonked up on a plinth, almost at eye-height, the sculptural qualities of the installation meant that Fuller’s hypercoloured head floated amongst conference delegates’ own, delivering a disembodied address from the past on the future (and making for fun and games in the coffee breaks). This installation also subtly foregrounded the conference’s enquiry into preservation and restoration. Compared to the grimy, dropout-ridden U-matic tape I first viewed of this work some years ago, Stephen Jones’ digitalised preservation version of Teleologic is bright, clean and crisp—virtually another work altogether. The experience was both sobering—for the realisation it ushered in about the role format loss and degradation play in the experience of a work’s textuality—and joyful. It looked fantastic.

The conference proceedings began with Jones’ “dissassembly” of video art. Teasing out some of the elements which have been ‘subsumed’ in the (scant) narratives that exist of this kind of work, he explored the methods and intentions of the first generations of artists working with art and technology. Undergirding the extraordinarily technically detailed discussion was Jones’ archaeological approach, which grounds electronic art in a specifically televisual—as opposed to cinematic—tradition. Tracing video history back to the history of scanning technology, which first emerged in the mid-19th century, he showed how thinking about time-based art could be connected to an electrical, scan-based tradition which extends beyond narrative into the abstract. I found his emphasis on why we should be interested in interactive processes of input/output, video feedback, and their relationship to human consciousness, particularly resonant for thinking historically about video art.

This was the ideal opening salvo in what was to be an intense day. In my own talk I discussed “disappearing” in the context of forgetting and remembering in Australian history and art. I suggested we could take a few cues from other nations whose foregrounding of “artists’ film and video” discourse—as opposed to “new media art” and “video art” etc—seems to have paid dividends in terms of both institutional recognition and audience awareness of the work. I was then completely eclipsed by the dynamic John Conomos who followed with an extraordinary, performative address about the moving image as a form of writing with special focus on the essay. Laced with irony and delivered with total panache, Conomos’ free-ranging talk left some big impressions (for me, not least, his description of being “cauterised to [his] seat” at the Bucky Fuller session captured by Glasheen in Teleologic, while being “totally intellectually raped” by the visiting American).

In his confrontation with the disappearance of historical works from public memory amidst the ascendancy of the “morphing cult called new media”, Conomos noted the lack of dedicated videographic facilities at key art institutions. This theme was the one developed with most intensity, even ferocity, in the discussions after talks. Genuine, impassioned debate broke out over what exactly the remit of institutions in providing moving image access facilities is, and should be. Scholars and participants recounted tales of cupboards full of mouldering tapes, mass culls, threadbare collections, overstressed staff, deterrent-level fees and other ongoing tragedies. While there is doubtless much that needs to be remedied at the level of institutions taking moving image art and its history seriously, as others pointed out, institution-bashing, though cathartic, is not the most useful long-term strategy. Rather, the consensus seemed to be that a set of deliberate strategies, starting with a heritage mindset and emphasis on preservation and access, might be the way to start redressing the loss of cultural memory and ‘cultural amnesia’ many speakers noted as endemic to Australian (moving image art) history.

Intensifying our understanding of the particularity of Australian work, Lyndal Jones’ elegant presentation offered a fascinating survey of her work in moving image. This brought a welcome focus on artistic practice over a period of immense technological change, and provided some much-needed insights from the artist’s point of view, from how to compose for the pragmatics of sound in installations (“we don’t have earlids”), to other thoughtful observations on the construction of works for empty versus peopled spaces. I particularly liked Jones’ quotation of Hélène Cixous’s notion of “writing by the light of the axe” as a metaphor for the way artists not only make work, but have to talk about it.

In her spirited address, Louise Curham provided a glimpse into the climate-controlled terrain of moving image archives, and shared with us the fascinating world of physical, biological and chemical decay. Though she was perhaps too modest to mention it herself, I was struck by the crossover between Curham’s professional expertise in the arena of decomposition and her artistic interest in deliberately ‘tortured’ hand-processed film in the projected environments and single-screen works for which she is rightly feted. Discussing the archival detective work that makes the encounter with “orphaned” and other mysterious works so electrifying, Curham argued convincingly for an approach which considers, and attempts to preserve, both the work, and the context of which it is part. She also spoke to the critical mass gathering around the “historical turn” in thinking about the moving image—at the precise moment when, as digitalisation is nearly complete, the reality of format obsolescence is beginning to make itself felt, and various other major initiatives to preserve and restore moving image work are underway.

Visual art critic Andrew Frost wrapped things up with a timely rumination on the unfolding possibilities of a medium which has mutated so much in just a generation. “Once a career step to obscurity and outsider grumbling”, Frost noted, “video has now become mainstream practice.” His amusing prognostications for what might lie ahead for the changing landscape of video art masked the more serious mood uncovered at the conference as the realities of a reeling economy and decomposing materials sank in. As John Conomos said, the “nagging, half-glimpsed” realisation is that the “continuing dialogue between the past, present and future” of video art is up to us.

Video Logic, video art exhibition, curator Russell Storer, Aug 19-Nov 2; Disappearing Video conference, organiser Ross Harley, John Gillies, speakers Stephen Jones, Danni Zuvela, John Conomos, Louise Curham, Lyndal Jones, Andrew Frost; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Oct 23-24

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 20

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2008