Brendan Lee

Time Machines

Message to all hipsters. I take that back. Text message to all hipsters. Umm take that back too. If you’re not reading this on my Tumblr site you’re not worth my words. That’s better. You know that gallery…the one that has loads of junk on the floor amassed into piles for Friday’s hard garbage (I mean recycling) team to collect. Well it’s not trash (notice the Americanisation), and it’s cool. I know this because it must be. It’s in a gallery and so, DIY. Which is cool. Well, in the not too distant past there was another cool art form…no, not wall drawings in acrylic, I’m talking about single channel video art. It wasn’t that far back that you’d need a DeLorean or a flux capacitor strapped to your hyper-colour (gee I’ve gone back too far) I mean, fluorescent fixie bike to remember it. It was pre GFC, pre Rudd and pre High Def. My how time flies.
Single channel video has been around since before I was born yet it only entered the Australian contemporary art vocabulary in the Twenty-first century. Before then it was called a many number of offensive names such as media art, experimental film and – worst of all – intermedia art (which could mean anything really). Essentially, video art attempted to distance itself from the lowest of art forms – television. This wasn’t too difficult, as artists rarely had access to the slick and steady technology of their commercial masters anyway. Yet there lay the problem. The audience for video art was (and still is) coming to terms with how to read a medium that has a passive domestically inherent in it’s DNA. Screen equals linear narrative is a simple notion that video art grabs around the throat and throttles – sometimes leaving us numb and always prodding for a reaction.
In the exhibition Seeing to a Distance, curated by Amanda Morgan, the viewer has to double check that they didn’t step out of the elevator into (gasp) 1995. Before them is an army of cathode ray tubes…you know the ones, they cause cancer if you believe the plasma/LCD promoters. If you were to look too deeply into the retro aesthetic of those fat screens it would be simplistic to dismiss the exhibition as being hipster or disregard it as an outcast of fashion. The medium’s the message aye Marshal McLuhan? Well if you clicked onto you wouldn’t find fat screens. Molly Ringwald glasses yes! Yet, in a hyper James Gleick ‘Faster’ world, the cycle of things may very well be tracking back to the solid Objets d′art á la fat screen tech. Just look at the resurgence of turntables.
The works in Seeing to a Distance have been curated into three distinct groupings. Act, Interact and Abstract and, definitely wear their heroes on their sleeves (record sleeves, if we are to pinpoint a tech-timeframe) and why not? Like it or not, video art has finally come of age.
So why single channel, 4:3 aspect ratio and on cathode tube screens? Works such as Hjorth’s Still Mobile, 2011 would look out of place on an eighty inch LCD screen transmitted in 1080p from a media player. They weren’t made for that. Isaac Julien and Eija-Liisa Ahtila rule the multi-channel super high-def domain, which is legitimised by their credits roll. They aim for a lack of differentiation between cinema and artist made works. Not all artists aim for that scale of extravagance. Smaller, more intimate works can draw the viewer closer, and hold them for the duration without the smoke and mirrors (or a screaming score and ten projectors).
Just as television is debased when portrayed in cinema, the screen is making a point all on its own. The mastery of the medium is where the artist knows the delivery system before shooting begins. When that endpoint is changed, the context of the work shifts. Avatar when watched on an in flight chair-back monitor is not the same as in IMAX 3D. It’s a facsimile of the original.
How long does it go for? Who cares? How long have you got? Video art isn’t a video clip, a student short film or a thirty-second advert made to play when your team scores a goal on live TV. If there is a chair provided, use it. Works such as Full Circle, 2011 by Pascale Gomes McNabb and Amanda Morgan’s are devoid of a storyline and allow you to enter and exit at any point (a lot like a Michael Bay film). If you disregard everything I’ve written, Pangaea, 2004 by Janet Burchill, Jennifer McCamley and Robin Hely breaks all of those rules. Pangaea goes for eight minutes, features a score by Australia’s greatest living musician, Ed Kuepper and has a narrative. Pangaea is video art that references experimental film that is recontextualised through contemporary political debates. Phew. Pangaea is unique in that it uses as a reference, an art object that is a film. Natasha Johns Messenger’s 511, 2008 equally turns the subject upside down by abstracting the experience of the cinematic site as object.
The works classified within Act would best be described as Contemporary Video Art – highly polished pieces that acknowledge the viewer and tug at our developed televisual language. The videos are formal compositions at the core of it all, acknowledging the history of art and performance, in particular, Hubbard’s Tap Me, 2008 and Kosloff’s New Diagonal, 2007 are so hard edged that they could be used to define the golden mean. As a counterpoint Kesminus’ Drip It, 2003-4 piece exhumes the ghost of Jackson Pollack to inform the hipsters that there isn’t anything wrong with loosening up a bit.
For a full retro experience, look no further than the Interact works. Second Life has dated more than the VHS player as Dethridge’s Virtually Flat 3D, 2009 exhibits and Haley’s Start Rek, 2006 (where the artist is inserted into the classic Trek series) is made all the more daggy with the Abramaverse reboot of the franchise. Cheap effects and DIY filming techniques such as Marcou and McLean’s Slam, 2011, reveal the artist’s interaction with the medium more than the distancing afforded by high production values. It’s here that video art peels back it’s sneaky disguise to reveal the lizards
from V.
The moving image is meant to be our friend, yet we know from watching video art that it isn’t. Where we have been conditioned to feel comfortable in the presence of the moving image (able to switch it off or click on another link), single channel video art is there and uncontrollable. So look out Hipsters and Bogans. There’s no point looking for the remote control or touching the screen to activate an app. Seeing to a Distance pokes the proverbial finger at the downloadable Tumblr roll and YouTube generation of media (in)digestion. Seeing to a Distance challenges the viewer (you) to question the medium and it’s permanence. So, next hard garbage day, pay special attention to the TV monitors laying in wait on the nature strips of aspirationals. They should make you want to pick them up and play a bit of good ol’ fashioned video art.
Brendan Lee 2011