Dialogues with the machine: Cypriot video art

In Les Blank’s 1980 short film “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” Herzog was asked “what is the value of film in society?”. His answer was “whose society?”.

Cyprus became independent in 1960 and this independence was imposed upon the community inadvertently by other vested interests, resulting in inter-communal violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots breaking out in 1963 and culminating in a Turkish invasion in 1974 at which time the two ethnic communities were forced into a divide. Consequently, Cypriot art has been informed by the events of this political landscape and artists consciously made art particular to their respective community’s political view. So Herzog’s question of “whose society” is a most relevant posit. Being trapped within a war and post war environment, video in Cyprus did not exist in the 70’s with the first experiments by a few artists being conducted during the 80’s when video, as a medium, was used to mainly document art performances. Up to this period video and television were mainly employed to articulate political events.

Invited to select videos constituting an hour program of Cypriot video for Madatac and Transfera, our research focused mainly on non political works, and as such, our selection by no means represents the dominant subject matter of the visual product. Furthermore, we would like to emphasise that this selection does not aim to present artworks using video but focuses on works that constitute video art. This polarity between the two genres prevalent in museums and galleries has been identified since the 70’s but it is in recent years that a clear and distinct separation has been established through video calls and video festivals. One could further argue that video art is a purer form as it only uses “parameters deriving from the characteristics of the medium itself, rather than artwork using video”1. This selection presents 16 videos by 16 artists, a sample of the Cypriot dialogue with the machine.

The social and political geography of Cyprus, like many other countries in this region, has been a difficult one, as we have mentioned already, and certainly not one that may be described as neatly fitting into a narrative experience or narrative intelligence. Consequently one would expect to find a flourishing non-narrative digital video production. This is not the case. The comprehension of cause and effect, time and space has promoted narrative as the main method of organising and making sense of experience. As such, the prevailing model for experimental video continues to be rooted in the discourse of narrative European cinema. One might imagine that virtual reality, gaming, augmented reality and other immersive media could inform video-making into a more non-linear experience but again this is not the case. We live in an environment that does not make social and political sense so the emphasis is to create a narrative that does. This arguably acts as a help agent in the interpretation of the uncertain world placed within the context of familiar conventions.

Surely, no worthwhile contextualisation of the Cypriot art scene is possible without taking into account institutional actors and the wider public context. Although video art is purchased by the Cyprus State Gallery, very little funding is given directly towards its development and production and almost no opportunities are created towards its presentation in a substantial manner and the few existing art collectors still do not support video and other new media arts. Technology, seen as an immersed product of culture has yet to become embedded into the cultural materiality of Cyprus. We are only beginning to develop an infrastructure that supports technology in order to place media and what is mediated into a cultural force. The Cyprus University of Technology, which is still in its four year infancy, has a Multimedia and Graphics department and a Communications and Internet Studies department , making up the Applied Arts and Communications School. In the very near future, the Fine Arts Department and a Mass Media department will also be established. This University is actively initiating itself as an institution promoting the cultural awareness of media. Nevertheless, if we view the standard of media as a combination of cultural materiality and political/social institutions, then Cyprus has a long road ahead in order to develop a responsible and interactive media system.

The Cypriot contemporary cultural scene has a further obstacle to address. Perhaps understandably, as we have iterated, up to the mid 80’s Cypriot art production was essentially ideologically pre-determined as the 1963-74 events were still in living memory of all practicing artists. It was only after the abrupt rise of the middle class, through tourism, during the past 30 years that enabled a few interested individuals to purchase original art works with their newly accumulated wealth. This of course, is relatively recent in terms of developing a coherent intertextuality based on a semiosis of interpretation and responses, a pre-condition for intermediation. It is an area of research which is greatly lacking as most academics are yet to approach and evaluate the interdisciplinary cultural scene as cogent dialogue of references and responses. Without this contextual fabric of scholarship, art making and especially new media works remain individual and isolated contributions.

Due mainly to this absence of a substantial new media framework, the Cypriot video maker finds it necessary to almost exclusively reference other cultural trends beyond the borders of Cyprus and position their individual creativity on the interpretation of contemporary works beyond their immediate core experience, a mediation determined by internationalisation and which will almost always be lacking primary source content in a regional context. Apart from very few avant-garde or experimental art works, content and form remain as dual elements within one work with the form being mostly characterised by commercial cinema and television documentaries rather than the digital palette of contemporary video. Within this frame of reference of a dominant trend, Maria Lianou’s ‘Flow’ 2000, and ‘Stand Home Stand’ 2009, by Panayiotis Michael are noteworthy exceptions as their respective works presented here show a consistent and successful relationship between conceptual comprehension and production.

Cyprus does not have the numbers in population, nor the support structures within the cultural community, to establish an international identity and presence in the way that Chinese, Lebanese or Iranian artists and film makers have done in recent years. Perhaps herein, lies the strength of this small cultural community whose defined boundaries can be limiting but can also lead to a positive questioning and resistance to claustrophobic discontent as eloquently illustrated by Nicos Synnos’ ‘Attention: Fragile’ 2010, a work which examines the absence of voice within the excess of old stories no longer comprehensible. If we manage to shed the ideological imposition of the overbearing agenda of the ‘Cyprus Problem’ together with the liberation from appropriated grand cultural/historical narratives and no longer viable ideological agendas, we could and would generate a sense of release and triumphant re-focus much in the way of a Hegelian narrative of self-critical, self-aware works which questions identity and position embedded in social critique. More artists could generate autonomous works where the form is a major and essential factor within the content. A successful example of the marriage of form and content is found in Dia Theodorou’s ‘Two at a Time’ 2002 where the consciousness of the dichotomy of society is powerfully rendered using a minimal composition which personalises the national political divisions suggesting the inevitable responsibility of the individual to question uncertainty. Other successful examples of video’s impact as a vehicle for the self-critical are achieved through humour and satire, such as in Antonis Antoniou’s ‘Love at First Sight’ 2008, Giorgos Ioannou’s ‘First Attempt’ 2008, and ‘Training the Squad’ 2010, by Demetris Neokleous which effectively use wit, parody or absurdity to make their observations.

In spite of the strong influence influence of internationalism, current art terms such as ubiquitous computing, locative media and tactical media are yet to enter common usage amongst the Cypriot media scene and the net has yet to be embraced as an art medium, perhaps this is due to the relatively slow and expensive connections in Cyprus but also due to the lack of interest by scripters or programmers to collaborate with artists. This, in our view, is a direct consequence of the inadequate existing cultural and funding policy and the general attitude of the artist as a non-professional. In addition, the major funder of cultural events is the Ministry of Education and Culture. This source of funding, by its very nature bestows an informal criteria of ideological and content control with preference given to works which reference the ‘Cyprus Problem’ either directly or indirectly. Thus the resultant works might contain great feeling and sensitivity about the experience contained within the subject matter but the experience of the work itself, and in particular the process of video or cinema production relevant to theory and technique is usually approached through banal cliches confirming the already defined syntactic experience which almost always bear traces of strategies of inclusion, or at best, sardonically using these cliches for conscious re-evaluation. Even so, some Cypriot video makers do succeed in referencing local codes as cultural signifiers without the usual indulgence of sentimentality as is apparent in the video ‘Rockets and Satellites’ 2010, by Chrisanthy Christoforou where the artist explores the dynamics of personal mediated experience within the constrictions of a small community that promotes social hegemony rather than individual introspection. Contemplation is also a central concern in Aggela Chimona’s, ‘Do you remember?’ 2009 which questions the reliability of individual memory, a false collective memory that the narrators claim as their own presenting a dislocated narrative within a visual coherence.

Our present situation is in a state of flux indicating a transformation beyond the superficially coherent and hybrid political ideology that has been marketed as the dominant cultural product. The ongoing narrative, although remaining the main political concern, has now socially transformed into a personal experience of fragmented memories, a ‘collection of moments’ as seen in ‘Trespassing Body Boundaries’ 2007 by Savva Stavrou. This ‘collection of moments’, a disintegration and re-evaluation of past experience is contributing to the general questioning of visual media and the associated responsibility of the artist as documenter of the prevailing partisan relationship between art and politics. Emphasis now, although initiated only by a few individuals at this stage, is on the search for a new intertextuality and new collaborations in order to communicate meaning pertinent to the changing socio-political and scholastic climate of Cyprus. “Fear is a man’s best friend” 2010 by Yiannos Economou references Michel Serres view that it is within the interplay of white noise and chaos that meaning can be discerned so perhaps this work may be also read as a barometer of hope and change.

Napoleon once said “You can always recover the space lost, but you can never recover the time lost2. The present political situation – although complex due to its historical context, has evolved predominantly as a spatial issue. The ensuing duality between space and lost time bestows a greater significance to the specific medium of video which so effectively embodies the recording of time. Of course, one way this could be plausibly demonstrated is through the experience of innovative non-linear video which may create an alternative time experience distinct from the popular narrative cultural forms and thus, resonate more aptly, to the rapid social and urban changes. The video by Marianna Christofides “Along the G-Line” 2009, appropriately explores the green line space dividing Nicosia. Using the repetitive motion of a young boy doing cartwheels, Christofides reconstructs the child’s rhythmic movements into a form of scale measuring and perceiving space thus transforming this zone into syncopated experiences of time and presenting the spectator with another more personal and intimate reading of this politically loaded space. Similarly, Kyriaki Costa’s ‘Family’ 2009, introduces a family suspended in a constructed pastoral environment punctuated by threatening interventions of forms and sounds which are used to fragment the experience of both time and space and raising the question of what experience is truly real.

…Video’s versatility lies in its flexible interface and video, television, radio and photography merge with each other creating new ‘in between art forms3. This cross-media characteristic of video helped in its democratization as the language of the mass media was already established, understood and assimilated. This commonality or hybridity has provided a platform for some Cypriot artists producing films and/or videos to develop works which deliberately and successfully challenge conventions. This transition makes individual voices matter and more importantly, it generates a dialogue. We optimistically cling to the notion that artists can, and do, act as change-agents through the use of technologies in their artwork. All have the capability through simple actions to challenge the norm, raise public awareness, encourage curiosity, and influence societal actions and perceptions and to do this with greater self-confidence using the tools of video. Eva Korae and Monica Herodotou’s ‘Handmade’ 2010, focuses on the use of hands in everyday life, a simple gesture with layered translations regarding the skill and importance of communication on a most basic and essential level. Panicos Petrides’ video ‘Distorted’ 2010 presents us with a view of urban decay in contrast to rural landscapes, a twofold view of landscape emphasising environmental dislocation and destruction due to human neglect and inappropriate intervention. ‘Waste Deposit Zone’ 2010 by Suzana Phialas also acts as a critique to the waste society with its ambivalence and irresponsibility toward the natural environment.

In conclusion, and apropos to the Satrian paradox “I am always not what I am, and, I am always what I am not4, Cypriot artists, like many other artists elsewhere, experience this incongruity. The popular idea of the independent and autonomous identity of a Cypriot today no longer exists… without adding an ethnic origin prefix. A paradox which ensures that the duality unfortunately remains, but, and more importantly, this incongruity has stimulated an engaging and evolving dialogue through the production of interesting art works especially video works which explore the transformative power of art and its relationship to politics and other social concerns. It is these works which deserve a wider public visibility.

Notes

  1. David Hall, Using Video and Video Art, Aspects Magazine, Winter 1978^
  2. Nam June Paik, INPUT-TIME AND OUTPUT-TIME, 1976, http://nobetty.net/parsons_video/paik_inputoutput.pdf sighted 10 August 2010.^
  3. John Conomos, ‘Rethinking Australian Video in the Nineties’, Electronic Arts in Australia: 136^
  4. Nam June Paik, INPUT-TIME AND OUTPUT-TIME, 1976, http://nobetty.net/parsons_video/paik_inputoutput.pdf sighted 10 August 2010.^

Yiannis Colakides & Helene Black
Oct 2010

Participants in “Dialogues with the machine”

Nicos Synnos, Marianna Christofides, Antonis Antoniou, Aggela Chimona, Yiannos Economou, Panicos Petrides, Maria Lianou, Kyriaki Costa, Savvas Stavrou, Panayiotis Michael, Chrisanthy Christoforou, Suzana Phiala, Eva Korae & Monika Herodotou, Dia Theodorou, Giorgos Ioannou, Demetris Neokleous.

VIDEO ARtMY

At the height of the 2009 economic crisis, the first edition of MADATAC (Muestra Abierta de Arte Audiovisual Contemporáneo) came as a salutary shock. Based on the interchange of experience and know how, MADATAC is a unique and inclusive springboard for cutting edge audio-visual art; this year it’s back… and stronger.

From 1st-5th December 2010, MADATAC will bring together an army of video creators within Madrid’s ‘Mile of Art.’ They come armed with a lethal selection of pieces which shun classification, pre-selected from works submitted to competition via the audio-visual arts TV programme, Transfera, comprising videoart, digital animation, reinvented landscape or iconoclastic experimentation. They threaten to unleash on the city an epidemic of viral art which neither cinema nor television will be able to appease.

Among the host of activities on offer are:

  • Inaugural action at the Flagship Store Fundación Telefónica (Gran Vía 28, Madrid), December 1th at 9:30 PM.
  • Daily screenings of video creations selected for the International Section at the new Sala Berlanga, fully-equipped with state of the art technology. The International Section brings together almost a hundred works from over 30 different countries; prizes will be awarded by an international jury.
  • An exhibition of 3D audio-visual installations, including Ouka Lele’s stereoscopic images and Kye Wilson’s video installation ‘Unsettled-Beautiful’, at the Circulo de Bellas Artes, from 01.12.10 to 5.12.10.
  • A lecture at the Instituto Cervantes delivered by Bernd Lintermann, a distinguished representative of new media art and head of the Institute for Visual Media at the ZKM (Karlsruhe Centre for Art and Media).
  • Invitations to guest countries with little-known audio-visual production. This year it’s Cyprus, with a special programme entitled ‘Dialogues with the Machine’ presented by Yiannis Colakides and Helene Black, co-founders and co-directors of NeMe.
  • The participation of Casa Arabe, one of the city’s emblematic cultural organisations, which will host the programme entitled ‘Resistance[s]’ – a selection of videoart from the Middle East and North Africa. The co-curator, Silke Schmickl and the Algerian video artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah, will attend, together with a video artist from the region.
  • The Large Format Section, with screenings of two Spanish experimental features; ‘Nunc et in hora’ by Francisco Brives and ‘La Ciudad de los Signos’ by Samuel Alarcón. Round table discussions with the directors will be held after the screenings.
  • Performances by multi-media artists who incorporate new technologies into their work. Suguru Goto will present his interactive and robotic audio-visual performance, ‘L’homme transcendé’ at the Sala Berlanga.
  • Juan Zamudio’s interactive installation ‘In-Comunicados’, at Espacio Valverde (Valverde 30, Madrid) from 30.11.10 to 5.12.10.
madatac 2
 

MADATAC Awards

At this second edition of MADATAC five awards of a cutting-edge work of art by Silvia, together with the professional recognition implicit in receiving this award.

  • Best Video Art Work
  • Most Innovative Work
  • Most Promising Video Artist
  • Best Visual-Aural Interaction
  • Special Audience Award (granted to the Best Video Art Work as voted for by festival audiences)

Metrópolis Awards

The well-known TV programme, Metrópolis (shown on Channel 2 of Spanish public television) will select and award works from the Official Section, totalling 27 minutes. Winning artists will be paid €100 per minute for broadcasting rights and the winning videos will be shown in a special programme dedicated to MADATAC to be broadcast in December.

Transfera Awards

MADATAC and the auction house, Subastas Segre will select from three to five of the winning pieces to be sold at public auction in mid-December at 18, Calle Segre, Madrid. The works will be exhibited from the first week in December and starting prices from €900 for editions of 3 copies on DVD. Artists will receive the final sale price less a percentage commission for administration and sale fees.

Samsung / MADATAC Award

A single award for technological-artistic creative excellence to the artist who best fuses the worlds of technology and imagination in a single work of art. The prize is a state of the art product granted by Samsung.