Video + Art = ?

RealTime-Performance Space Forum

The 10th RealTime-Performance Space open forum, Video + Art = ? was hosted by Blair French and Alexie Glass with some 100 video artists, experimental filmmakers, curators, afficionados and scholars gathered to discuss what’s happening in video practice at a moment when the form is enjoying new dimensions and wider popularity. You’ll find the transcript of the forum in the feature section of our site.

French is Associate Director at Performance Space and is curating a series of exhibitions focused on video. Glass, a curator at ACMI, is working on the video section of the joint ACMI and National Gallery of Victoria show surveying Australian practices, 2004: New Visual Culture. She’s also co-curating I thought I knew but I was wrong: New Video Art in Australia in collaboration with Asialink, touring a number of venues across Asia soon.

The cross-media artist

French initiated the discussion by asking Merilyn Fairskye, an artist who’s worked across a range of media including a variety of video forms, to comment on where video fits in her work. Fairskye replied that video work was “very different from the early video experiments of the 80s which had much more direct relationship to television and its mechanisms. For the most part, what we’re seeing now is…art that’s not based on materiality but on ideas…an art that comes together because of the participation of people within the space…I describe myself as a cross-media artist, not a video or photo-media artist. I work with the form that I think is best for a particular set of ideas and sometimes that might involve 3 or 4 different media. But a lot of my work is time-based rather than video-based (although video is always a component) and it’s certainly different but not unrelated to my still work or my installation work in public spaces or in other art gallery contexts.” For Fairskye this has meant opportunities for creating flexible works that can appear in different ways in different spaces, single screen, multi-screen, for gallery or cinema, short and long versions.

Performance & video space

Sam James works extensively in collaborations with performance and dance artists and companies, creating images and performative virtual spaces. With a multi-artform background and training in architecture, he began in theatre building sets until he was struck by their limitations: “So I started using projections to try to expand that [space]. I use it as a tool to get a release from the physical space.” Illustrating how diverse the use of video in performance is, James described himself as sometimes feeling like a filmmaker, for example when shooting on location for a dance film. However, for Gail Priest’s Sonic Salon installation, “a non-physical performance, more about performative presence…the video I was making for that was just purely abstract, graphic imagery to relate to a 5.1 surround sound installation. I also built various screens which a one-person audience could sit within and have an immersive experience.” For Victoria Spence’s Communication Failure, the performance “turned into an interaction with suspended monitors. I didn’t shoot any of the footage. My role was to operate and to create a sort of a sympathetic consciousness based on Victoria’s autobiographical video material which she filmed herself.”

Configuring viewing

The dominant theme of the discussion soon became the challenge of exhibiting video. Alexei Glass spoke about the very different attitudes that abound about exhibiting experimental film and video. “People who primarily come from experimental film will say, “Put in screenings in the cinema. Put it in film festivals…not in the gallery.” Glass described the range of alternatives offered by ACMI ranging from its large exhibition space to state-of-the-arts cinemas with digital projectors to “screen lounges where 2-5 people can sit and watch screens by themselves or with friends just for the price of a movie ticket. They can watch single channel works which are often short films curated into 1 hour programs.”

MCA curator Russell Storer said of the gallery’s engagement with video, “there are concentric circles of information provided to audiences about how to deal with video work…It’s presented in the broader context of contemporary art.” He described artists’ requirements for setting up video in their works and the reconfiguration demanded by the architecture of the gallery spaces. Glass commented that “[ACMI has] an architect as part of our installation team because of the technology that we’re working with. You need an architect to work the space and to actually navigate the design of the installation and the sound.”

Learning to watch

Storer reported that “the most popular shows tend to be photography. It’s still the artform that people are most comfortable with. A lot of people are still not sure how to interact with video art.” Glass said, “At first, when people came in to ACMI they were treating it like television. They wanted to surf through the exhibitions. I was in the Susan Norrie show at MCA today…I kept watching people move through it in circles. It became like this fluid, performative space. That often happens in ACMI now that we get repeat visitors.” Blair French described the MCA’s Liquid Sea as being like a journey through the history of screen culture from the filmic to the immersive. He found the required perceptual shifts that others enjoyed were challenging: “I was kind of working with the screen stuff but couldn’t look at all the objects and paintings in between. I was looking, but not looking. Something was going on about light.”

Video = cinema?

Several speakers described a different kind of challenge, fatigue from sitting through future perfect and Transmediale screenings in Sydney. This prompted some intense discussion about the appropriacy of the cinema screening of video art. Visual artist Lucas Ihlein suggested breaking up the screenings with introductions and comments to create space between the works and for reflection “rather than a room full of bodies gradually sinking down into vinyl chairs, peeling ourself off them at the end of the night, all stiff. It’s an experience, an event, a performance. We should become more interactive.” Others disagreed, but writer and academic Edward Scheer argued that “if we take another genealogy apart from the cinematic one to come to time-based art practice where it is now, you find that in fact people don’t want to be sitting in the dark watching things. They want to have interaction. The televisual model is a live model. It’s predicated on interactivity. Cinema is not…I think there’s a challenge to re-think the debate about physical presence in relation to the presentation of this work.” Louise Curham (see interview p15) suggested that “cinema doesn’t need to be a dead space. I think it’s a big ask for an audience to actually go into a gallery and treat it as a pseudo-cinema space. It’s uncomfortable. And you’re asked to give the kind of concentration to a work that is being asked in a cinema.”

Video artist and curator Emil Goh added further heat to the conversation by suggesting that higher definition projection means that soon video won’t require darkened gallery spaces, that the duration of works should be signalled so that viewers can choose when and for how long to watch, and that, as with the last Asia Pacific Triennial, comfortable spaces be provided for viewing.

Education for choice

Curham and video artist John Gillies pointed beyond the issue of choice to the diminution of context, for example in tertiary education where the availability of works and the time for them to be seen is increasingly limited and in film festivals, where directors are nervous about challenging their audiences. When new audiences see video they have no context for it.

The forum ended with a discussion on the challenge for galleries and events to keep up with the technological demands of screening video. Despite the disgruntlement over this and the education issue, the forum generated valuable debate over modes of exhibition, intriguing reports on various manifestations of video as art, positive talk of audiences adapting to video in galleries and the happily looming prospect of video lounges.

Video + Art = ?, RealTime-Performance Space Forum, Performance Space, Sydney, Aug 18

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 34

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003