The New New: video art in the 21st century
What is new about video art in the twenty-first century? This question underpins my enquiry into the new approaches and modes of practice that have changed both the ways in which recent video art has experienced a hybridisation of other influences – such as the music video clip, the computer game, and cinema – and to how this is positioned through Media Arts and elsewhere.
The logic that binds this enquiry is based on a foundation of themes that, when combined, gives rise to a consolidation of positions. If you asked a new media theorist, it may be in terms of shifting ideas and theoretical historicity or, if you asked a video artist, this may be in terms of pictorial and technological issues. From these perspectives, the key points of ideas, history, and images are central to not only understanding how video art has changed but also in terms of grasping how artists have articulated the world around them through popular culture, the socio-political, and self representational.
These issues characterise the nature of new video art: a visual language that is historically experimental, conceptually referential, instantaneous, and digitally umbilical. Yet video art is no longer an experimental medium nor is it the poor cousin of cinema; it has, over time, become an established part of the visual and media arts with its own tradition and genre-based ancestry. ‘The once new technology of video has now taken its place beside other, more computer-driven media.’
Moreover, video historians such as Michael Rush, who, in Video Art, believe that the medium is shifting from its understood position to something else, something new and historically untested. He states:
‘…video art is no longer what it was before the digital age…video technology is now in a hybrid stage, combining all manner of digital technologies in the creation of what is likely to be a new medium.’(Rush, 210)
Overtaken by new media, one might consider that the position of video art is now in a hybrid state shadowed by on-line, virtual and immersive technologies that are, in any case, experimental. Given this, throughout my essay I will refer to video art as: first, an analogue and digital time-based medium which is informed by global shifts, history, and the language of cinema; second, the result of a generational movement of artists who began to experiment with video technology in the mid 1960s so as to find a new representational value through abstract, performance, spatial and non-narrative driven images and thus developing through the poetic, the political, and the self-referential to become an established inter-disciplinary medium; third, an artform that compliments new media; and forth, an artform positioned as either a reflection of, or makes reference to, the wider cultural and socio-political spectrums, and to that of an introspective, often poetic expression relating to, yet not exclusively governed by, identity, memory, and self.
Locating these perspectives across the wider base of new media technologies is found in, and incorporated through, mainstream interactive devices: mobile phones, the internet, computer games, CD-ROMS and DVD-ROMs, interface displays and menus, virtual reality, immersive environments, and digital television. Yet, the artform itself is still primarily distanced from new media simply because it is, and most probably never will be, interactive. As soon as an interactive component is introduced to video, it ceases to be video art and becomes a type of interactive display, which obviously uses video art as part of its logic. Instead, video has become, as later discussed, a part of moving image heritage; ‘it is time for video to assume its place as simply a ‘filmic’ medium’ and with this, hybrid cinema.
This idea is common to Lev Manovich who argues that ‘new media is interactive, in contrast to old media where the order of presentation is fixed.’ (Manovich, 55) From this perspective, I associate video art as being a part of new media, but as an external and outside source available to, and used in conjunction with, interactivity; a stand alone medium. To assume that it is part of the interactive field simply because its current practice is digitally based is to deny not only the interactive nature of new media but also the relationship video art has with cinema and film. When considering these factors, the quest to find what is new about video art is further governed by the affect of current perceptions regarding time-based mediums: the public versus the institution, and as later discussed, production and technology.
Regarding this, screen-based communities, such as Generation X and beyond, are clearly becoming narrative centric given the type of media with which they are continually – daily – bombarded with: the fast paced nature of the music video clip, the Internet, the action game, and the 30-second trailer. In somewhat opposition to this is the institution which appears to be more focused in recent years on the continuation of non-narrative representations; often slower or more contemplative, thus created and resolved through academic enquiry partially attributed to the increase of, and greater experimentation made through, non-narrative artworks. Steve Thomas in his essay Cinema for Thinkers describes these as ‘thesis films’ – artworks and hybrid film practice developed through research and also through exegesis in Masters and production PhD degrees made popular in the last ten years at university Fine Arts and Media departments worldwide. These current bi-polar environments give us an idea as to the differences between twentieth century and twenty-first century video art in terms of both popular and institutional practice: poetic and contemplative / fast moving and narrative centric.
An of example of the later is found in Brendan Lee’s Extreme Filmic Challenges series (2005) where the artist locates his own recollections of Australian film: Mad Max (1979) and Romper Stomper (1992), and also of fan boy genres, which are then pieced together with a fusion of ‘the problems faced in cinematic narrative’ and aesthetic reconfiguration. The undercurrent in this particular series of work is the Australian car culture pastiche, located throughout much of the types of subjects that Lee makes reference, and to how the American influence on Australian car culture, and that of cinema, is prevalent in production today.
While Lee involves the past as his own experiences are mapped together with filmic references, the artist achieves this through his subjects – violence, anxiety and seduction – which are never still. There is always a sense of movement, carrying the viewer from one shot to the next, always progressing forward and jumping through motion. His quick moving editing technique is not unlike the fast pace nature of video games, such as Tomb Raider and Doom 3. In fact, the comparisons between the aesthetic logic that navigates these kinds of games and Lee’s video art are closely tied in together, as both items provide visual clues to spatial and narrational surroundings; it is up to the viewer to participate and move through these kinds of spaces to reach an understanding, an end game, to the story and that of the artwork as a whole.
Qualities such as these are emulated in specific moments of Lee’s revisualisations, and also directly from source films chosen to support his mnemonic narratives. These are, on the one hand, beautiful while on the other hand, sociologically disturbing, as found in Shooting from the Hip (2004) as the viewer is presented with a sequence of re-enacted shoot ‘em up footage paralleling not only genre cinema but also B-grade television such as Bonanza and The Soprano’s.
In this artwork, Lee’s gangster cum action hero fires multiple rounds of ammunition from dual pistols, combined with the filmic taboo of multiple cross dissolves and the resonating of cartoon-like yet somehow cathartic and rhythmic choreography. We witness debris ricocheting around Lee’s office film set while at the same time prompting the viewer into cinematic memories of their own – bar fights in the spaghetti western, the grand finale of a gangster film or even Deckard shooting Pris through glass frontages. Our own memories of cinema are brought to Lee’s artwork which communicate to us like a story teller on speed, narrating action packed schizophrenic sequences; double layered dialogues which establish an interrelationship between what Lee brings to the subject from his own memories only to be then reconfigure with our own, and to the broader implications of cultural histories attached to, and generated from, the types of films which he uses as departure points.
A fundamental aspect of his work is the nature of its enquiry – Lee questions his subject yet never provides an answer. ‘My artwork raises questions about narratives in film but doesn’t answer them directly”, says Lee, “that’s up to the audience.” Although this method contains the tell tale signs of new directions for video art it is through other influences, such as the music video clip, where other artists, such as Kati Rule and Tony Schwensen, employs similar visual devices to translate a deconstruction of narrative and that of a filmic historicity.
Nicholas Chambers, in his essay ‘Pictures Came and Broke Your Heart’, in Video Hits: Music Video and Art describes Rule and Schwensen as:
‘Mim[ing] their memory of videos from the 1980s and bring the spectacle of the hit video down home. Through memory and place they interrogate the space between the spectacular world of the video and their own lived experience.’(Chambers, 45)
I use this reference in relation to Lee’s work, for there is little difference between the conceptual framework of their art. Like Rule and Schwensen, he concentrates on revisualising memories, which can be at times a powerful dissection between recollection and identity both in regards to visual language and cinematic presence.
Moreover, until recently, the ways in which these artists use video and memory, and also narrative and identity, in their creative processes is not unlike the principles that visually establish music video clips as a kind of nexus between commercial film and video art.
Even though the music video clip remained for many years outside the Media Arts arena, experimental video practice was a major contributing factor to not only the birth of music video clips in general but also that of the iconic launch vehicle for the medium – MTV. In a contemporary sense, many artists who have grown up with MTV styled media have now returned to its base and brought their childhood and teenage memories with them.
The King Pins revive such nostalgia with their crude yet intricately choreographed artworks that are one part critique and one part just downright fun. They ‘are a group of flour close-knit female collaborators who began working together in 2000’ who, in Welcome to the Jingle (2004), play out fast moving edits and music video clip-centric camera angles through satirical ‘mockumentary’ styled reconfigurations of popular music from the1980s and early 1990s. Their participation in the 2004 Sydney Biennial was described as:
‘Dressed as athletes, they traverse the urban geography of Sydney using Starbucks cafés as a recurrent reference point, a franchise The Kingpins see as a parody of the European style café. Welcome to the Jingle speaks of colonisation of the city, through franchised and homogenised chains of fast-food culture, masquerading as sophisticated networked meeting houses.’
Through the ‘fun’ aspect of their work, a deeper side lurks – sociological commentary drawn from the peppering of popular culture, multi-national iconography and relationships between the way we interact with fantasy; secretly negotiating rhythmic dance moves in front of a television through voyeuristic rituals that no one else can see.
Other critique suggest that:
‘The Kingpins draw the relationship between Drag and the Australian urban landscape. In the format of a music video, they formulate fictional, non – linear narratives within their local neighbourhoods of inner-city Sydney. Both This is my Remix Baby and Mens Club plays with the relationship of the body within spatial perimeters, the marking and ownership of territory and the visibility of gender within architecture. In placing these ‘foreign’ bodies within a local landscape, Australia is exposed as sufferer of the cultural cringe and it’s society a pastiche of influences. Mimicking mono-American culture, pseudo European cosmopolitanism, whilst strongly emulating Asia, Australia is a reflection of cheap imitations. The Kingpins are themselves cheap imitators, simulating pop icons and pillaging media stereotypes, giving birth to their own reinventions.’ (Primavera)
While their work is undeniably theatrical, when considering narrative, there is less of an involvement of critiquing their source material and more in the way of how we interact with video clips. By using video as a medium to convey such stories – the shake of the head, the flick of the hair, the gyration of the hips – one might consider video art ion this instance as becoming less about the subject and more about the relationship with the viewer. This is undeniably so when viewing Welcome to the Jingle and others works because the viewer is witnessing a reconfigurational mish-mash of music video clips that may be remembered in some degree of clarity. When I view this work, for example, I am taken back to memories of dancing in my parents living room passionately executing air guitar solo performances to the music of Bon Jovi and Guns and Roses. The vulnerability in such memories is the notion of getting caught in a moment of private spectacle and this translates to the artwork
So how is this new? In sum, music clips are best appreciated with a sense of history and most certainly when we have something to compare it with, as found in the work of the King Pins. When music clips were first becoming popular in the early to mid 1980s they were new. Now, twenty years plus later, they carry a distinct separation between now and then, and, of course, for children who grew up with MTV, we are now adults looking back at our teen years through nostalgia. Therefore, the music video clip genre is now generational and a sense of history is visually malleable; a factor that was not as powerful even ten years ago as it is now.
This is undoubtedly one recent influence on video art that is mirrored by its roots in popular culture and that of television: throughout its forty-year history, video art has often parallelled media content found in mainstream popular culture, including film and television, which in turn has influenced both areas, as found in TVTV’s affect on interviewing techniques of live news reporting, and Nam June Paik’s affect on the aesthetic of motion graphics used in MTV and beyond.
Another example of recent video art is located in the work of Chris Cunningham, who takes the medium and blurs the boundaries between where music video clips stop and video art starts. The climatic All is Full of Love (1999), which Cunningham himself calls a ‘kama sutra meets industrial robotics’, marks a division in the production of video art. Although the work was produced as a music clip for Bjork with a song by the same title, it was embraced in the years after by institutions and artists alike, in combination with other artworks of a similar vein that employed both the same technologies and editing/cinematographic styles.
The artists web site describes All is Full of Love as revealing ‘a landscape in which the cold beauty of technology melds sexually and sensuously with the organic world.’ Here see two human-like robots choreographed with other machinery, in a sensuous and seemingly erotic embrace. Cunningham states:
‘As a teenager I had quite an obsession with industrial robotics and electronic music. I always thought it would be nice to mix that aesthetic of robotic fetishism with something completely conflicting. All Is Full of Love is so much about romance and sexuality that I thought it might be interesting to push those ideas together with a sort of cold technology, and see if we could make it work…’ (Cunningham)
These qualities – sensuality and emotion – are further developed in other works that travel through darker passages and into the realms of the grotesque. Rubber Johnnie (2002) is a psychological butchers shop of cinematic dance theatre: Frankenstein meets ET, Hitchcock meets a techno Blair Witch Project, which display fast paced editing, quick pans complimented with unrecognisable CGI and further enhancement.
In this work, a night vision video sequence of a disabled naked mutant human with a super-sized head blurts out the words ‘mama’ amongst convulsions of paranoia before dancing in a wheel chair to the Aphex Twins track titled AFX237V7. In complete contrast to his earlier All is Full of Love, this grotesque and utterly disturbing artwork takes Cunningham deeper into a self-created nexus that rests in between video art and music clips, only to return with a consolidated platform that makes distinction between commercial product and artwork. It is because of his narrativity juncture, as found in Rubber Jonnie that the artwork is, arguably, part of video art and, moreover, film. What is striking about this factor is the combination between the fast past, blink of an eye editing, and the slow paced, abstracted movement, which seems to combine an oddity with both computer game action and the institution’s non-narrative contemplativeness.
Like Flex, as ‘shown as part of Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art at the Royal Academy of Art in 2000’ (website, Cunningham) Cunningham takes video art in new directions, using industry standard software including compositing and CGI complimented with an array of high end video and film cameras. If it were not for the digital revolution, his work, and others, might not be reliant on visual effects to the level with which we see today.
Moreover, since the mid 1990s, digital technologies have become increasingly popular, and in recent years necessary, for the video artist thanks to a ‘revolution’ which redefined production, postproduction and distribution media. Partly responsible for spearheading this shift was Apple computers. When ‘iMovie’ was released in 1998, it became one of the first widely available digital softwares to simply and effectively bring about a basic, yet comprehensive editing suite into the homes of both artists and the amateur filmmaker. With this came rapid changes that affected video art given that now everyone can film and edit their artworks with relatively little expense and expertise. At this point, things changed and so did the type of artwork made by artists. Within 5 years, the VHS tape was out and the DVD was in. Suddenly, video makers found themselves capable of producing, at a price, Hollywood standard effects compiled on High Definition video that mimicked the look of film. Further enhancements by applications such as Premier and Final Cut Pro provided complicated edits and processing, thus more resolved postproduction without the need for in-camera or reel-to-reel editing.
As technology advanced, a generation who never knew life without the internet emerged, and from here, a different expectation of the quick flashing, narrative screen-based genres emerged that has ultimately impacted on art schools training video artists as well as the availability of digital video technologies.
Yet has this changed video art lost the qualities found in pre-millennial artworks? No. The lyrical narratives are still with us, found in the works of Lorna Simpson and Mary Lucier, the poetic is still located in the works of Viola and Grahame Weinbren just as the political is still with us thanks to artists such as Tracey Moffatt and Shirin Neshat.
However, through the recent contributions of Brendan Lee, The King Pins, and Chris Cunningham, we see new pathways emerging for video art, representative of cultural factors, societal changes, and the advancements in cinema and technology.
By these examples and others it can be recognised that new video art practice is understood as being; first, a distinction between both the narrative driven, fast paced action of current new media-based mediums and contemplative non-narrative approaches; second, more advanced aesthetics and effects can now be attained thanks to the advancement of the digital revolution; third, the questioning of narrativity through cinema; and forth, the integration of history as theme through critiquing music video clips while at the same time articulating memory as a mode of understanding and coming to terms with this history, and that of personal identity.
Where this leaves video art is at a crossroads intersected by cinema and interactivity. More filmic than interactive, video art will continue its forty-year history with new ideas and evolving practices. The new new has begun.
- Michael Rush, Video Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003
- Michale Rush, New Media in Late 20th-Century Art, Thames and Hudson, London, 1999.
- Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2001.
- Steve Thomas, ‘Cinema for Thinkers’, Broadsheet, Open City Inc, Sydney, August/September 2005, No.68, p.19.
- Nicholas Chambers, ‘Pictures Came and Broke Your Heart’, in Video Hits: Art and Music Videos, Queensland Art Gallery, 2004.
- Kathryn Weir, ‘Jump Cut: Music Video Aesthetics’, in Video Hits: Art and Music Videos, Queensland Art Gallery, 2004.
- Christian Metz, ‘The Fictional Film and Its Spectator: A Metapsychological Study’, in Apparatus, ed. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Tanam Press, New York, 1980.
- Primavera website, www.mca.com.au/modules/primavera03/ (accessed 29th July, 2005).
- Chris Cunningham website (accessed 29th July, 2005).
Dr Shaun Wilson is a Melbourne-based artist, curator and academic working with themes of memory, place and scale. He is currently a Lecturer and Coordinator of the Digital Cinema Research Group in the School of Creative Media at RMIT University. Shaun teaches Video Production, Experimental Video and Media Theory (Modernity and Post-modernity) in the Bachelor of Arts (Animation and Interactive Media) undergraduate program. Shaun holds undergraduate degrees in Fine Arts from Monash University and RMIT University, a PhD from the University of Tasmania and is currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate at the College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales. Exhibitions and screenings have included the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Australian Centre for the Moving Image; Bilbao; Museum of Contemporary Art Fenosa Union; Centre of Contemporary Culture Barcelona; Kunstmuseum, Norway; National Museum Centre of Art Reina Sofia; 24hrArt; and the Academy Gallery.
This paper was first presented at Vital Signs conference in Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne