Seeing to a distance: Single Channel Video Work From Australia
Chris Marker’s film La Jetée (1962) pioneered an experimentation of the analog approach to the moving image. Marker’s thirty-minute science fiction combines a series of black and white still photographs, through an optical printer, a device typically used to restore and transfer old footage. Accompanied by a challenging narration, this film presents the research experiments that were conducted with a machine that enabled the seeing of distant imagery across time. ‘This was the aim of the experiments: to send emissaries into Time, to summon the Past and Future to the aid of the Present…the inventors were now concentrating on men given to very strong mental images. If they were able to conceive or dream another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it.’
In 2010, artists where invited to submit videos in response to an article printed in The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review (1889), which described a proposed method to develop a machine that would enable Seeing to a Distance by Electricity. Each artist was given an outline of the exhibition’s parameters: that all works would be confined to a 4:3 aspect ratio, and that processing from HD back to play in on analog CRT format would result in a loss of image quality.
Seeing to a distance: Single Channel Video Work From Australia, is the first exhibition of its scale to deliberately identify Cathode Ray Tube (CTR) Televisions as a significant device to explore and present current video art. The works on display reveal the long-term power of ephemeral video art, to challenge, convey, and maintain a critical role in contemporary Australian culture. Using methods of research on single channel CRT televisions, Seeing to a distance demonstrates what happens when we see video art situated on a previous generation of technology, while also testing our perception of immediate forms of media through a limited and standardized platform.
Among the twenty-four artists featured in the exhibition are Janet Burchill & Jennifer McCamley, Peter Burke, Lisa Dethridge, Bhavani G.S (a.v.e.p), Pascale Gomes McNabb, Stephen Haley, Robin Hely, Lily Hibberd, Larissa Hjorth, Lou Hubbard, Danius Kesminas, Natasha Johns-Messenger, Laresa Kosloff, David Lans and Warlayirti Artists, Helen Marcou and Quincy McLean, Amanda Morgan, James Morgan, Mary Lou Pavlovic, David Simpkin, Kate Shaw, Ella and Greg Stehle, Harriet Turnbull, and James Verdon. This selection presents previously unseen videos, and material that was selected and made in response to the CRT exhibition.
The format of Seeing to a distance is purposefully un-cinematic, un-virtual, and un-projected, and firmly boycotts the use of new immersive technology displays. It comes at a controversial time when ‘Digital is it’ to everyone. For the people at home, the communal scene of a family settling down to an evening of prime time television is being rapidly replaced by private laptop sessions on catch up TV. Even being able to source twenty-four of the same model 4:3 monitors for the show meant striking up pricey negotiations with dodgy second hand dealers, who had mates, who knew people, who had a brother on ‘the inside.’ The type of video art on view in this exhibition is confined to a small-scale picture. It’s not slick, wide and high, it’s gritty, square, reduced and low.
When looking at video art, we travel to American examples from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, to a time when televisions were removed from their domestic context. Artists used CRTs to broadcast and present their video documentation of live performances, and visual abstractions. Back then, artists weren’t afraid to pull stunts like experiment with over sized magnets to distort the image of the screen. Interactivity with magnets and electronic hardware today, could terrorize the content of the entire global network system. So while these electronic archives have undoubtedly maintained their value, this exhibition includes twenty-four recent 4:3 videos that can be interpreted within the gallery across three related programs: Abstract, Act and Interact. Within each program, eight individual videos are on view, with a separate single monitor dedicated to each work. Colour coded audio is available on separate (R,G,B) telephone receivers that are wired into each CRT.
The subsequent eight artworks predominantly refer to ‘Abstract’ through abstractions of nature, or representations of time.
Janet Burchill, Jennifer McCamley and Robin Hely’s Pangaea (2004) is in the spirit of Len Lye’s experimental 35 mm film, Tusalava (1929). The video is a digital animation that references an analog process, and was constructed from 4000 drawings of cellular forms. ‘Another element running through Pangaea is the use of old nautical charts, one of which features Manus Island, a reference to Pacific solutions.’ In Lye’s original film, ‘forms grow, interact and transform with biological, genetic, and indigenous imagery from Australia, Polynesia and New Zealand about the beginnings of organic life.’
In Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s video Inland Empire – Solar Neon, (2008) the understated aspects of the image, are accentuated by varying the capture speed. Inland Empire – Solar Neon was produced during an IASKA artists’ residency in Kellerberrin, Western Australia, and was located in the landscape. ‘As the sun went down, the light from the neon appeared brighter. This film is a time-lapse of that event.’
In the 1950s, the anamorphic proprietary photographic system was invented to create widescreen movies. ‘It optically squeezed the image to photograph twice the horizontal area to the same size vertical as standard “spherical” lenses.’ The circular lens in the video by Pascale Gomes Mc Nabb and Amanda Morgan’s Full Circle (2011) presents a series of slow transitions between still photographs that abstract and reduce architectural forms.
Natasha Johns-Messenger’s 511, (2008) grainy video was dubbed from site film that was made specifically for a show in the cinema of the same name. Johns-Messenger’s video documents details and fixtures of the cinema, inside Columbia University’s School of the Arts in New York. It was selected for the exhibition as a site-specific work, to test what could be lost or gained, when it was viewed outside of its original context. Johns-Messenger’s research objectives are three-fold: ‘one, to dissolve parameters between art-object and its context by using the exhibition site as subject; two, to change the way immediate space is perceived or viewed by developing modes of representation such as real-time image capture inside optical viewing structures; and three, to create artworks that are predominantly experiential (not object based).’
Amanda Morgan’s Extinct Animal Locomotion 1936, (2011) uses analog footage of the last Tasmanian Tiger that was recorded in Hobart in 1936. Morgan simulates a flipbook by extracting footage as still images, and redraws each image in pencil before compositing the drawings into footage of a book like a traditional cell animation frame by frame. Morgan’s video references Muybridge’s science photography, that recorded the locomotion of animals and the human form, and the ritual from the New Guinean Melukean Book of the Dead, which describes drawing in sand to enter the passage from life to death.
The introduction to James Morgan’s video On the Eve of the Rapture (2011) is grounded by a gritty analog delivery from a public evangelist. Morgan’s video transcends into a one-minute still photographic time-laps that was taken over a period of an hour and a half, to document the end of the world, which never happened, in May 2011. Morgan’s time-lapse accentuates ‘the moment’ by shifting the frame rate to a lower frequency, and pronounce subtle changes of the night sky across time.
Kate Shaw’s video The Spectator (2011) uses an analog style digital montage to combine documentation of her painting process, with grainy footage of natural disasters, which she downloads from the Internet. Her reference to the philosophy of the sublime implies an irregular aesthetic quality that is distinct from natural beauty, whereby fearful and irregular forms in nature are created by natural disaster events. ‘I am fascinated by the way the movement of the paint mimics something from the natural world such as a lava flow, a landslide, an avalanche. From these observations I consider how they may relate to a natural form.’ Her video responds to de-sensitization and mimics both the horror and the harmony of nature that is represented in the media.
The deliberate visual fragmentation evident in James Verdon’s video Representation (1996/2011), is the result of extensive research and an ongoing exploration of the moving image across analog and digital platforms. Verdon’s combination of film and digital video footage is manipulated by documenting the projected image. The video image is deconstructed in-camera by distorting the speed of the recording. ‘There are spatial and temporal discontinuities in these sequences created through modifying the camera hardware and film reels while re-recording. Film footage is reshot digitally while played at varying speeds both forward and in reverse across a flatbed editor and in projectors, colour is added via filters in reshooting, and digital ‘macroblocking’ that creates alternate images (visible as small rectangles within the image that display picture fragments from preceding frames) that are then embedded in the footage as the physical tape is ever so lightly lifted from the video heads during recording.’
‘The distinctiveness of the CRT display in this exhibition is an important part of this work. The original Representation footage presented explicit markers of an increasingly outmoded medium of film through new media. This exhibition, in addition to reflecting the original approach to this work, inverts this relationship in offering the obsolete analog CRT to playback digital video sources.’
The following eight artworks predominantly refer to ‘Act’ through ideas about public performance, the everyday, and concepts of the self.
Peter Burke’s Phantom (2011) predominantly presents an image of a person, which is inscribing text in chalk on a blackboard. Burke’s superbly analogue video, recalls a story which could be interpreted as fact or fabrication. (facto-fiction). Burke’s performance on the blackboard is multilayered, so that the story that is being inscribed in chalk, is also about a performance. While Burke’s video is designed to be specifically viewed on a CRT monitor, the image would make us believe, that the television suffers from bad reception. The convincing loss of image quality that is conveyed by Burke’s simulated surges of television static, could be in part equated to Jonas’ lo-fi Vertical Roll (1972). The device of the Twisties confectionary packet, playfully reminds us that Life can be Pretty Straight Without a Twistie.
In 1973 the $1.3 million purchase of Jackson Pollok’s painting Blue Poles by the Whitlam Government created a massive political and media scandal. Danius Kesminas’ video Drip It, (2003-4), critiques the media by using footage from films about this controversy. Kesminas’ music video is a homage set to Devo’s 1980 pop classic Whip It. The video was created for Kesminas’ band, The Histrionics. It’s novel lyrics re-contextualise the song within the history and the controversy that also surrounds the visual art-world. The video addresses the idea of creative genius by incorporating gritty footage of Pollock performing his signature style, in a film by Hans Namuth and Paul Falkenberg (1951). Included are footage and interviews with Clement Greenberg from the BBC documentary Love and Death on Long Island, 1999 and Harry M. Miller in the film Poles Apart: The Blue Poles Controversy directed by Judy Rymer in 2001.
In the 50’s, as CRT televisions became part of the furniture and the popularity of radio dramas decreased, families tuned in to watch episodes like the futuristic ‘Captain Video and His Video Rangers.’ Intriguingly, Lily Hibberd’s literary video response, Contract with witches (First Love, 2009-2011), is predominantly filmed to represent texts of an audio performance. ‘The First Love videos are a reading performance of the stories from her novella as voice-over recordings.’ Like a filmed document of a sound play (Seneca) or a 1920s Radio drama, ‘The videos are shot in a sound studio, with a camera set up outside the booth to record the performer through the glass as they read aloud (no sound was taken in-camera).’ As the performer, a bolshie red head, reads the script into a microphone, part of the reading is cut with text on separate title slates, and part with audio tracks, as they appear through an isolated monitor.
Lou Hubbard’s video Tap Me (2008) is the second in her suite Beat Me, Tap Me, Bore Me, Claw Me. Hubbard’s video is intentionally ‘low-fi and positively domestic. Basic materials of domestic and institutional utility are tried and tested’ almost in a binary fashion, as the performer switches a desk lamp ‘on and off’ (0 and 1) to the sound of a mournful vibrato singing “O Sole Mio” (My Sun). Hubbard’s performance art style video Tap Me, brings into question ‘the nature, properties and phenomena of things electric, corporeal and inexplicable.’ This work continues Hubbard’s investigation into ‘the dynamics of training, submission and the aesthetics of sentimentality.’
In Laresa Kosloff’s video New Diagonal (2007) she delivers a quirky spin on an exercise routine. Her private ritual is performed in a public area, to the tune of the old school video art classics when ‘everyday life events became art, and artists became objects.’ For some of us, the concept of doing yoga, or even an 80’s Jane Fonda work out to a TV screen is, strangely, normal. For Kosloff, though, her routine happens in relation to the screen of a three dimensional triangle, which provides physical support throughout the routine. ‘New Diagonal explores how movement and gesture translate into significance. Kosloff’s video extends her interest in the dynamics of sport, abstraction and aesthetic formalism.’ A stationary camera is used with little or no editing.
The brilliant low-fi production and the comical dialogue in Mary Lou Pavlovic’s video Art Only on Sundays (2008) make her mock arts program almost believable. Her character Julie Panini, echoes an all too familiar image, in appropriate black clothing. ‘The arts presenter’s lines are all taken from real life, they are words different media people said to me when I toured Jake Chapman in 2004. When I was playing Julie Panini (from 2004 – 2009) she was a means of surviving the art world, role play, a form of therapy. Julie is a character I have invented that caricatures arts journalism. She has her own mock TV arts program Art Only on Sundays.’
David Simpkin’s Loss of Wisdom (2011), combines coarse images that are shot to replicate the effect of a camera that is used in microsurgery. The video presents footage that Simpkin took of his mouth, after seven weeks of dental agony. Loss of Wisdom refers to video art performance, through documenting aspects of an everyday event, in which Simpkin’s body is the subject, and his threshold of pain is tested. Simpkin’s video uses a distorted split screen device, a fisheye lens and directional graphics, to accentuate the surreal nature of his horrific surgery.
Made directly for the CRT monitor, Harriet Turnbull’s Headlines (2011) is a twisted and utterly convincing, live performance, that is presented to ‘critique the social, cultural and personal context of being human.’ Turnbull is unaffected as she recites from real news reports, while being subjected to forms of torture from domestic objects. Multiple clothes pegs and layers of sticky-tape are inflicted as Turnbull maintains composure, and stares, motionless, into camera.
The subsequent eight artworks predominantly refer to ‘Interact’ by presenting ideas that use video to engage with community, or to document forms of interaction with the moving image.
Lisa Dethridge’s Virtually Flat 3D (2009) video documents a Second Life environment that she developed with John Derrick. As a video on a CRT monitor, the virtual world of Second Life is deactivated, like the early Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Devices from 1947, whereby the slick original 3D animation is annihilated. ‘The quality of the colours, movements and textures flattens out and drops back into primitive 2D format. In a single-channel environment, the images become clunky and less detailed. Instead of watching futuristic, computer-generated pictures, we seem to be watching strange hieroglyphics from another time or even another planet.’ Dethridge described the original Second Life interactive performance as an ‘ironic mirror for action and behaviour in real life.’
But while the rest of the planet goes crazy for an HD Digital Royale with Cheese, the popular result from this analog resolution scenario is definitely ‘less is more’. In Stephen Haley’s Start Rek (2006) he virtually becomes an interacting character in Star Trek. ‘I took some episodes from the first television series of the Star Trek and inserted myself into the shows using very basic and inexact compositing techniques.’ In it’s original form ‘the work was intended to be projected to demark its format from that of the original show. Here though, the series returns to the TV with other results.’
Robin Hely’s The Briefcase Incident (2011) is ‘a clip that was appropriated from a documentary, which never aired, designed to engage participants in an ongoing, spontaneous, interactive narrative experience.’ Originally formatted in real 16:9, the video is taken from his short feature documentary film that is yet to be released into the mainstream. The video documents a combination of real and acted public experiences and responses to Hely’s art project Neurocam from a hidden camera with low image quality.
Larissa Hjorth’s video Still Mobile (2010) captures the seductive loss of image quality that is generated from mobile phone cameras. Still Mobile presents still images that have been taken with mobile phones, which are intentionally combined through pixilated and blurred transitions. ‘Still Mobile presents the infinite regress of mobile screens. Screens within screens, screens across screens, urban spaces are being transformed through a series of mobile phone exercises. Hjorth’s video consists of a series of mobile phone images of people in public taking pictures via their mobile phone.’
Quincy Mclean & Helen Marcou’s video SLAM (2011), uses raw footage captured on a mobile phone with additional footage by Ben Loveridge downloaded from the internet. The video documents the Save Live Australia’s Music rally which Mclean & Marcou’s organized in 2010. It was the largest cultural protest in Australian history. The video documents the support from live music community, and boycotts the uses of slick media portrayals of the event.
The videos that have been made for educational DVD’s and community stations by Ella and Greg Stehle, Yolngu Vision (2011), David Lans and Warlayirti Artists, Car Troubles (2009), and Bhavani G.S., Journey With The River Cauvery (2009) advocate the requirement to properly represent and involve local community on a Nationwide scale of television broadcasting, as opposed to community air time on TV or online stations.
Bhavani G.S.’s video, Journey With The River Cauvery, is a significant homage to acts of ritual, and the life giving source the river provides to the community. David Lans and Warlayirti Artists video Car Troubles, educates and involves the community in response to problems associated with motorcar offences. Ella and Greg Stehle’s video relates to mental health, and in a similar vein, is a result of direct engagement and real interactions, that involve skilled local production across fluent bilingual communication. ‘We found ourselves talking with Yolngu people about some of the things they want for the future, and some of the things people are interested in sharing with other people. Through these interactions, we can get a sense of Yolngu people that is far removed from the depiction often portrayed in mainstream media channels.’
The illuminating selection of video art that is on show in Seeing to a Distance, demonstrates unique insights from artists who have grown as seeing technology has developed. This exhibition highlights a poignant reminder that our ability to ‘see to a distance’ is very recent. When testing perceptions of immediate forms of ephemeral media, we are reminded of new generations who are now predisposed to this type of technology. Analogous to Marker’s (1962) experimental art making technique, which reverted the moving image into stills, the analogue presentation of digital imagery in this exhibition, is the result of a process which reduces imagery back through a previous platform. The extensive scope of video art that is presented in this show on obsolete CRT televisions, is a powerful example of the changes that have occurred within culture and society, because of the invention of a machine, which has enabled Seeing to a Distance by Electricity.