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Video Spell Catalogue

Blair French

Video Spell

Video Spell is the umbrella title for a program of four exhibitions presented by Performance Space during 2003 and 2004. This program was conceived in response to the extraordinary currency of video within contemporary visual arts practices, both within Australia and overseas, and particularly with regard to the pervasive performative condition of much video art at the present moment. But video has formed a core area of Performance Space programming for some years, most recently evidenced in the exhibitions Spectrascope (2000), Cerebellum (2002) and Film noir, politique blanche by Adam Geczy and Mike Parr (2003), to name just a small few. The Video Spell series of exhibitions also provides the platform for Interlace - an exhibition similarly concerned with the performative condition of much contemporary video-based art but one comprising entirely of newly commissioned works developed by the three participating artists in the context of an ongoing discussion with the curator. Both these undertakings - Video Spell and Interlace - furthermore sit alongside the development of another program of major solo artist video survey exhibitions, the first of which, John Gillies: Video Work 1982-2001, was presented during April-May 2004.

The Video Spell series of four exhibitions - three already presented, one to appear in October 2004 - is modest in both curatorial intent and staging. It most certainly does not constitute a proper survey of current video practice in Australia, although it equally has provided a fresh platform for a handful of works that would sit at the centre of any such survey. Each individual exhibition posits a simple thematic premise that acts as a point of focus or entry to works either previously presented in other venues and contexts or already in development. These themes are primarily concerned with the material forms and performative strategies deployed by artists, but should by no means be considered exclusive or comprehensive in their contextualisation of individual works. There are no large multi-channel and screen productions in this series, no interactive or professedly immersive installation environments. Where it has formed an integral element of the work, specific installation environments and arrangements of hardware have featured (Lucas Ihlein, Brendan Lee, Tom Nicholson), but generally the exhibitions have concentrated upon the core moving image and sound aspects of video practice. Our interest has been in the fundamental features of the medium as utilised simply and directly by individual artists. Nonetheless, each work has been configured spatially so as to remain a permanent presence within the overall exhibition, or in the case of the alternating works of Léa Donnan and Brent Grayburn projected at opposite ends of a gallery space, to create a reoccurring and lingering presence. In this, we have avoided a screening program model for Video Spell, seeking instead to enable the works to inhabit and transform the gallery spaces and creating, in the words of American critic David Joselit writing on video projection, "an electronic skin" for the architectural form of the gallery. [1] More significantly, this installation approach encourages audiences to move back and forth between works – between these transformative experiences of and within space created in the main by moving image and sound – making connections and weaving their own networks of response and reference.

The history of video art is inextricably intertwined with the recent history of experimental and hybrid performance, in particular through the dispersed frameworks of conceptual and so-called post-conceptual art. The impact of this history is readily apparent both in so much of the video work produced by a new generation of artists, and in contemporary hybrid performance. In recent years video has become ubiquitous across contemporary arts practices, in part due to its collapsing of the aesthetics of avant-gardism and popular visual and media culture, its ready connections to a telemedia-conditioned populace, its link to real time actions of record and authentication, and its technological accessibility. Video is both a mode of mediation across practices, and a complex mode of representation and communication in and of itself within the sphere of contemporary art.

Following the video explorations and documentations associated with conceptualism in the 1970s in particular, through its long and ongoing embedding within various modes of experimental and physical performance, its particular profile within 'appropriation' art of the 1980s and early 1990s along with early experimentations in digital imaging at the same time, through its revisitation as an art of the everyday in the mid-1990s, we now find ourselves in a situation where video in a myriad of forms features prominently across a range of major group and survey exhibitions. To name just a few recent occasions, there has been the 'new media' Primavera exhibition of 2003 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (MCA) as well as further exhibitions professedly dedicated to other forms of practice such as the 2003 Still Life sculpture exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and the 2004 photo-media Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.[2] A survey of Australian video art, Screen Life, curated by Max Delaney and Stuart Koop for the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid as part of the Australian presence at ARCO 2002 is being followed this year by a substantial exhibition of current video at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) as part of the massive 2004 contemporary Australian art survey project with the National Gallery of Victoria, whilst a further touring exhibition, I thought I knew but I was wrong: New Video Art from Australia, is being prepared by ACMI in association with Asialink for a tour of venues in Bangkok, Beijing, Singapore, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur over 2004 and 2005.

There are numerous other manifestations of video’s ubiquitous presence across gallery spaces from the major museums of art to artist-run spaces. In Melbourne, for example, ACMI has already presented four major exhibitions in its huge screen galleries (Deep Space: Sensation + Immersion, Remembrance + The Moving Image Parts 1 and 2 and Transfigure) along with a range of other exhibition and screening programs; the new Australian Centre for Contemporary Art opened in 2002 with Susan Norrie's massive, multi-screen Undertow work; whilst the first contemporary project at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia involved a new video work by Patricia Piccinini (Sandman, 2002) and the redeveloped NGV International opened with a large video presence in the exhibition world rush_4 artists. In Sydney also the major institutions have embraced video projection over the past two years: Doug Aitken amongst others in Liquid Sea, Darren Almond and Fiona Tan in Witness, Ugo Rundinone and Susan Norrie all at the MCA; Denis Del Favero, Igor and Svetlana Kopystiansky, Adam Geczy and Mike Parr, and Philip Brophy at AGNSW. A range of dealer galleries are now beginning to move increasingly into the field of video work (whilst it must be noted that others have held a long – in the case of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, for example, two decade long – commitment to the presentation of video work). Video has become the stock-in-trade of the contemporary art space sector, with recent Artspace showings in Sydney including, for example, the Shangrilla Collective project organised by Maria Cruz featuring music performance videos by around 30 women artists and the wonderful multi-screen work The Neddy Project by recent Samstag scholarship recipient TV Moore. The work undertaken within this sector to critically examine, contextualise and publicly discuss burgeoning video practices has also been of great importance. Take, for example, the Video forums held by the Centre for Contemporary Photography and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces in Melbourne (see resulting publications in Globe E Journal 9). Finally, it has to be acknowledged that some of the most innovative practices in the field of video presentation have come from within the artist-run-initiative sector: the important Serial 7s and Projekt video catalogues from Sydney and Melbourne respectively; the Chewing the Phat video screening and discussion nights at Phatspace, Sydney or the new video-configured space at THE KINGS ARI in Melbourne.

But, whilst the above suggests that video has become a key default setting for contemporary art practices, this hasn't necessarily correlated to any clear identification of either video's form or its function within the spheres of contemporary art and culture. Any attempt at a precise definition is complicated by the vast range of production and playback technologies, analogue and digital, employed within the framework of 'video'. This dispersed set of reference points is even more pronounced when we approach video via its modes of application. Video is central to both a conception of a mediatised, interlinked global society and the commodification of contemporary life. The surveillance technologies of both public and private space, home video, digital televisions, video phones, reality television, the public architecture of video advertising, commercial cinema – all of these are enabled by video, and in turn play into our understanding of the term as we live through it on a daily basis. In the face of this complexity it has become commonplace to link the ascendancy of video within contemporary art as further evidence of art's post- or multi-media condition. Within a 'post-media' framework it is assumed that the material characteristics and historical genealogies of specific media deployed within an artist's wider repertoire are displaced as issues within and for art. In their place we are schooled to concentrate our focus upon subject matter, or upon the experiential situation of an encounter with the artwork.

The first of these emphasises is stressed by Delaney and Koop in their catalogue notes accompanying Screen Life. "Perhaps..." they write, "...the ubiquity of video in art and life has rendered it plain. We now look to the medium as we do to TV or other screens, as a content delivery system. The singular, novel characteristics of video have ceased to enthral us and the medium has become increasingly transparent."[3] The second is to be found in a range of writing and commentary at the moment expressing concern at the ephemeral nature of the video installation experience, which, according to the art historian Hans Belting, turns gallery visitors into "spectators and bystanders." Belting goes onto claim that "the permanence once inherent in the presence of art is thus replaced by rapid impressions that fit the fleeting nature of modern perception."[4] So here we have two areas of current concern – one regarding the dominance of content, the other regarding the ephemeral condition of form but both emanating from the saturation of video imagery across society.

Whilst acknowledging, indeed foregrounding, the status of video in current 'post-media' contemporary art practice, the Video Spell exhibitions constitute a curatorial endeavour to focus some attention back onto the material qualities and condition of contemporary video work. The works in these exhibitions suggest potential forms of experience ranging across social reference points as a material intervention in the world (or component fabric of daily experience) through to connections to other formal histories – for example that located in the history of experimental film within modernity, a media-specific set of practices laden with particular formal and conceptual concerns and languages. Without seeking to dilute the potency of video as a mode of content delivery, the clustering of otherwise apparently disparate works in the Video Spell exhibitions operates to suggest that video's material qualities cannot be separated out from its experiential elements and modes of meaning.

Video Spell has been primarily concerned with the intersection of video and performance, or performative modes within video. (There is, of course, a strand of thinking that figures video projection as in and of itself a performative medium, existing within finite temporal and spatial parameters and both constituting both a performative viewing event played out for the audience as well as requiring a performative mode of viewing - of entering and moving about a space.) The series has therefore sought to draw some connections to a couple of further, extremely important genealogies for video art. The first identifies the absolute centrality of video to the originary or first phase of conceptual art’s destabilisation of the category of art object. This occurred both through the feedback model of live video interface (such an important model to present day interactive and immersive installations generated in part via digital technologies),[5] and more significantly for much of the work in Video Spell, as a mode of record and documentation - a means of accessing and presenting the everyday - exploiting its link to real time actions of documentation. The second traces video's development through its function within 'multi-media' structures of experimental performance, theatre and dance – an area of great importance to the work of Performance Space over its 21-year history.

Video Spell has thus provided a focal point for consideration of a range of generative concerns and tensions in current video practice, including those noted above as well as that between the late-1990s vogue for a form of ‘low-rent’ performance documentation style video art and extraordinary high-end technological developments in the medium. Given the plethora of video imagery circulating in our society the possibility of an accentuated, slow motion collapse of fictional and actual world performance into an entirely screen-based conception of the real has to be acknowledged. This leaves us with the question: Can video as contemporary art provide some point of reflection upon this condition? Does video as art act, almost by default, to interrupt the relentless advance of this televisual condition? Or does it merely advance its causes (or ride its coat tails)?[6]6 The Video Spell exhibitions have not been set up to provide answers to these or other complex questions posed by and in the face of current video practices, they are simple attempts to situate artists' works as critical, sometimes transformative, always energetic and robust participants in the ongoing development of contemporary art, culture and ideas.

Blair French
May 2004

[1] David Joselit, "Inside the Light Cube", Artforum (March 2004), p. 154

[2] Primavera is an annual exhibition dedicated to the work of artists 35 years old and under; Still Life featured video in the form of a Ronnie van Hout installation work; and the inclusion of a range of video work in the recent Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art points in part to the extremely open-ended quality of the term 'photo-media'.

[3] Stuart Koop and Max Delaney, Screen Life: Videos from Australia (exh. brochure) (New Plymouth: Govett Brewster Art Gallery, 2002) n.p.

[4] Hans Belting, Art History After Modernism, trans. Caroline Saltzwedel and Mitch Cohen with Kenneth Northcott (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2003) p. 6. Belting's discussion of media art in this book shares certain concerns raised by critic Dave Hickey in his address at the 2004 Adelaide Festival Artists Week. I discuss this further in a short essay in the catalogue accompanying the upcoming 2004 survey exhibition being presented by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and National Gallery of Victoria.

[5] For a brief discussion of this 'feedback' model of video within conceptualism, and its contrast to current practices of projection, see Joselit, "Inside the Light Cube", pp. 154-56.

[6] I posed a set of further questions in an essay in RealTime magazine the preceded the RealTime / Performance Space Forum Video + Art =...? held at Performance Space on August 18, 2003 in conjunction with the second of the Video Spell exhibitions. There I wrote: "Is there a video art distinct from incorporation of video within post-media art practices? What forms of critical languages are needed to adequately encompass the range of practices and tensions in video art? Do they need to be cross-media, societal in epistemology, cross-cultural? Is there a language that can encompass both primarily visual/spatial and narrative practices? How as viewers can we adapt between the primarily Cartesian relationship to the screen of narrative based (filmic) screenings and immersive, more overtly multi-sensory experiences? Can individual works survive such translations in presentation structures across theatre screenings and gallery exhibitions? How possible, or indeed important is it for video 'art' to attempt to match the production values of commercial video (advertising, television, cinema), or to mimic its narrative structures? Does this simply risk its willing absorption into contemporary spectacle culture as another form of visual product? What are video's points of critical resistance to its commercial overlords? What does video offer ultimately offer art and artists? And vice versa?" ("Video goes big time: some crucial questions", RealTime 56, 2003, pp. 37/35.) I've drawn on aspects of that short essay for this text. For a report on this forum see "Video + Art =...?", RealTime 58, 2003/04, pp. 34/44. A further forum, The Video Condition of Art is being presented by Performance Space on 26 June 2004 in conjunction with the Interlace exhibition and as part of the Biennale of Sydney's 2004 Parallel Program.