Why artists are turning to video as a medium

Jonathan Brooks-Jones explores a burgeoning art form

Artes Mundi is a biennial competition that showcases the work of emerging artists from around the world. It celebrates art that discusses the human condition and/or the human form. Within that broader area of interest each individual competition, or ‘cycle’, has a central theme that links the artworks. Two new selectors are enlisted each time, who determine each cycle’s theme. This year, its fourth, the selectors are curators Viktor Misiano from Russia and Levent Çalikoğlu from Turkey. Both have a keen interest in political art, and a belief in its capacity to encourage debate. This year, the theme is migration and social mobility, although many others permeate the works, such as globalisation, and the fall of communism.

From over 500 nominations, Misiano and Çalikoğlu short-listed eight artists. A new panel of independent judges from around the world is selected each year, made up of artists, art historians, critics, theorists and curators. The winner of the £40,000 prize will be announced on the 19 May. It is the largest arts prize in the UK and is dedicated to providing a platform for emerging artists.

While there are paintings, drawings and photographic works, it is video art that has the most gallery space. This has drawn a mixed reaction from the public, many of whom complain that there is ‘too much video’.

This might have been expected, but it does seem a little odd that people aren’t excited about the chance to experience what is to many a new art form. In fact it’s not even that new. Video art has existed in the contemporary form since the 1960s, and in other forms even longer. However, the Welsh audience is rarely exposed to it, as there is a lack of modern art galleries in Wales. Video art can be difficult to interpret for one who is not acquainted with it, so I will here try to explain some of the central ideas explored in video art, and why artists are turning to video as a medium.

A common objection is that the artist could have or should have made a movie instead. It is true that artists could make movies instead, but why should they? It is not the sole right of movie-makers in Hollywood and such places to use the medium of film, and it has always been a part of artistic creation to take advantage of new technologies and ways of working. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of video art is its capacity to deconstruct our experience and understanding of moving images on a screen, making us think about how we view television and movies.

Most people are well acquainted with the protocol of visiting the cinema. You sit in your seat, watch the film and keep quiet until the end, when you are once again allowed to talk and move around. While you are entitled to leave whenever you like, there is a tendency to sit it out to the end and ‘get your moneys worth’. Video art, on the other hand, grants the viewer much more freedom.

Bulgarian Ergin Çavuşoğlu is one of the short-listed artists whose work deconstructs our understanding of video and film. He takes up the theme of migration and boundaries in two pieces, Voyage of No Return and Liminal Crossing. The former uses five screens, which are separated, placed at different heights with one placed on the floor, facing up and angled slightly towards the viewer. The central screen features the dialogue and beneath it is the fifth screen, with Welsh subtitles projected onto it.

This film is about migration and questions surrounding identification with a particular place, and seeing it as ‘home’. Voyage of No Return was filmed on location on Oban, an island historically used as a pit-stop when travelling on to the Hebrides, or back to mainland Scotland. Migration is therefore a key part of the island’s history and character. Here, the method of splitting the film onto different screens is used to establish locality, and to try and capture the atmosphere of Oban. This fragmentation of the screens encourages the viewer to interact with the work, perhaps walking up close to a screen and blocking the shaft of light, causing a silhouette, thus in some way becoming a part of the piece. In previous exhibitions he has projected the film directly onto the floor, so the audience can literally walk through it.

One of the interesting aspects in his other piece, Liminal Crossing, is the use of sound. In this film, a group pushes a piano across the Captain Andreevo border between Bulgaria and Turkey. The video is projected onto two screens, which face each other at a 45 – 90 degree angle, with a gap where the two edges meet. The only sound to be heard is that of the wheels turning as the piano is pushed along. This, coupled with the absence of human voices chatting, points to the sombre and somewhat lonely atmosphere. This use of diagetic sound adds realism, and in turn, tension to the piece. This contrasts with his use of a musical score in Voyage of No Return.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the soundtrack is his use of reflections. The purpose of the gap between the two screens is to encourage the viewer to walk behind the screens where only the soundtrack is perceptible. If we venture deep enough into the empty space, we hear the sound as it hits the back wall and reflect back to our ears. This amounts to a rather strange and unique sensation, one rarely experienced outside an acousmatic music event.

Here, Çavuşoğlu is at once deconstructing our understanding of video and film (which really is a post-modern pass-time), and also reforming an idea that has been in circulation since the impressionists, that of light and its reflective qualities.

In all art, light must first of all play a physical, and perhaps rather obvious role, in that it enables us to see the works in the first place. This is true in painting and other forms of art, but its role is extended in video art. Light must first hit the subject, reflect into the artist’s eye and the lens of the camera. Light is then shone through the film in order to project the image onto the screen. From there it is reflected into the eyes of the audience. As with the impressionists, the importance of light has taken on a role of conceptual importance, in which the art comes to discuss light.

For example, Per Speculum by Albanian artist Adrian Paci, draws our attention to the importance of light. In the final, wide-angle shot, a group of children sit in amongst the branches of a tree and use the broken pieces of a mirror to reflect the sunlight back to the camera. This draws our attention to the distance travelled by light, especially in video art. Paci also draws our attention to the projector, a unique feature of video art. He does this by using a particularly old-fashioned and noisy one (however, against the artist’s intentions, for health and safety reasons it had to be sealed in a metal box, thus trapping much of its sound).

The importance of light and the projector may also be seen in Çavuşoğlu’s choice of where to mount the plaque with his name and title of the work (Voyage…). It is placed on the wall onto which the projectors are mounted. This suggests that the projector, and the role it performs, is of equal importance to the installation as a whole.

For many, video and film seems too commercial, because we are so used to it being used for commercial purposes such as adverts, television, movies and music videos. While some of these may be termed ‘artistic’, video art’s focus is directed exclusively on the artistic capacity of video.

Part of video art’s power comes from the fact that we are so used to seeing video and film in other forms. This means that when we are asked to look at video as an artistic form, and it contains images we are not expecting, the effect is automatically, at first, surreal. Imagine tuning into the Chris Moyles show and hearing the music of Arnold Schoenberg! Hearing music without a tonal centre is likely to be a new and unsettling experience for the average Radio 1 listener in any case, but it is doubly surprising because that is the last place one would expect to hear atonal music. Similarly, we are so used to the kind of content normally contained on video, that when we see something more artistic and adventurous than, say, Coronation Street or Big Brother, it tends to shock. This gives video art added depth of impact.

As Çavuşoğlu demonstrates with his experimental approach, one thing video art does is reference other forms, styles and techniques. In a sense this makes them ‘antique’. The new, reformed use of an old style can bring us a new awareness of it. Previously we just took it for granted and didn’t normally think about where it had come from, it simply exists. When something is presented to us again, and we are asked to look at it afresh, we tend to understand it differently.

While some artists dispense with the use of a narrative plot, others make use of a reformed narrative style in order to get their point across. Israeli artist, Yael Bartana, makes use of narrative form in her piece Wall and Tower, which is, in my opinion, one of the strongest pieces at this year’s Artes Mundi. This piece, which is the second in a trilogy, raises questions about nationalism and Zionism by depicting the construction of a kibbutz (which has a striking resemblance to a concentration camp) in what used to be the Warsaw ghetto. The film opens with a speech written and delivered by (real-life left-wing activist and campaigner) Slawomir Sierakowski, calling all Jews to return to Poland.

This piece is one of the most thorough and comprehensive works in the exhibition, in which each part bears the weight of the whole. The enlistment of a real-life political activist, the use of propaganda film styles, through to the printing and supplication of the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland’s manifesto, as well as instructions on how to build a wall and tower like the one in the film. The artist’s instructions are to ‘take and distribute’, adding yet another layer to an already complex piece. It is also interesting because the movement did not exist before the first film had been made, and Bartana apparently did not even intend to start the movement by creating this artwork. She was merely trying to “ask questions, not tell people what to think”. A likely story! In any case, those questions are being raised, about nationalism, Zionism, the situation in Israel and Palestine, and also Poland (an interesting blog about the Polish reaction to this piece can be read here).

This film makes use of cinematic, documentary, and propaganda film techniques. It is a highly effecting piece, due to the polished acting and musical soundtrack, featuring the triumphant sounding Polish national anthem. The use of cinematic formulae probably makes it easier to digest for the uninitiated, while the content remains highly engaging and requires the viewer to keep watching in order to see where it is going. This is also an example, by the way, of a film that probably should be seen all the way through in order to fully appreciate the meaning, which is not immediately given to the viewer on a plate, but is slowly teased out as the events unfold.

Another idea at work in video art is the performative aspect. Considering a piece of video as a performance raises the question of which part, exactly, does the art consist in – is it the subject? The film of the subject? The (temporary) projection of the film? Which part is valuable? Is it the film itself, or the moment at which it is projected onto a screen? Is the screening to be considered a ‘performance’?

Video art differs from other forms of art because paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings etc. are physically there, mounted on the wall, or placed on a stand or otherwise. Of course, a projected video is in some way ‘physically’ there, but in a different way, it is, rather, the projection of something which has happened before that has been captured on film, and is not actually happening any more. Note the difference between this and a play or performance art piece, which are viewed as they happen.

Artists have always been interested in the elements that are unique to a particular form of art. For example, sculpture has the greatest capacity for three-dimensional work. However, it is also interesting that some painters have taken their work in a three-dimensional direction. Expressionist painter Frank Auerbach layers oil paints onto the canvas in thick measure (‘impasto’), thus creating works that have a three-dimensional quality. This links in with the earlier point about the practice of reforming other styles, which much modern art is concerned with.

So, for artists making video, the materials that are unique to them are movement and time. No other art form has the capacity to explore those materials in quite the same way. Performance art, of course, features movement, and is often referred to as ‘time-based art’. However, video has a greater control over these materials, as video can be sped up or slowed down to any degree. An interesting example in which this is done is the film See you later / Au Revoir, by Michael Snow, in which a 30 second interaction is slowed down to last twelve minutes. Video art has a somewhat stronger hold over the manipulation of time as a material than performance art. However, performance artists have a stronger hold on the performative aspect, which video art sometimes tries to incorporate, as touched on above.

Finally, something must be said about the political nature of much of the work at this year’s Artes Mundi. It was suggested during one of the lunchtime tours, that the serious political nature of many of the pieces makes it difficult for those who are new to video art to get the most out of them. The fact that it overwhelms some may be taken to show that video is worthy of political art, in that it has the capacity to convey the seriousness and magnitude of social and political problems, themselves often overwhelming.

The crucial point to make here is that for political art to be successful in raising awareness and encouraging debate, it must refuse to offer any resolution. If a work of art has a political impetus, and that political issue remains unresolved, the film must end without having supplied resolution. If a film supplies resolution, it makes it far easier for the viewer to walk away and forget all about it.

Many of the pieces at the Artes Mundi resist the supplication of resolution. In particular, Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen’s work features the staunchest resistance to resolution, and is unlikely to leave the viewer’s conscience for some time once it has been absorbed. His films entitled Empire’s Borders 1 & 2, feature women from Taiwan telling the stories of how their husbands have been detained for no good reason whilst traveling to in and out of Taiwan. There is no resolution, because the men are still detained, and their wives have no idea when they will see them again. Bartana’s work also resists the supplication of resolution, partly due to the fact that the final part of the trilogy is yet to have been made. It will be interesting to see how the final installment turns out.

In conclusion, we have seen that there are a great number of ideas at work in this burgeoning art form. We can see that it is valid, not least because it has often been thoroughly worked and reworked at all stages from conception to production to screening. Avant-garde film is almost always designed to confront the viewer, who is often forced to concentrate and think about what it is they’re viewing.

It is also important to remember that as it is a new form, there is an element of experimentation to video art. This can cause problems, such as the overflow of sound between pieces in close proximity to one another. The worst case of this at the Artes Mundi is that the soundtrack from Wall and Tower can be heard when one is watching Chieh-jen’s other piece, Factory, which is meant to be a silent film. However, I would say that while this is unfortunate, it is perhaps to be expected, as the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff was never designed to exhibit video works, and was not purpose built to prevent such overspill. It is also indicative of something larger and more exciting happening in the world of art, the growth of something that feels like a new form.

The public’s unfavourable reaction may be put down to a general reluctance to appreciate something new and crucially, unfamiliar. In a world where we are bombarded with the eternal sameness of mainstream art, music, theatre and film it can be difficult for people to accept something more or less unprecedented in their cultural experience. It requires more ‘cultural capital’, to use Bourdieu’s phrase, than dominant mainstream culture provides us. However, the galleries were busy on many of the occasions that I visited. This is down to the good work of the Artes Mundi association, which no-doubt encourages interest in the avant-garde.

Indeed, as a burgeoning art form video is conceptually and aesthetically rich. It provides the artist with unique opportunities to experiment with a vast array of elements: screen, soundtrack, projector, content, style, and others. While it may require a little more effort to unravel the meaning of a piece, it can be a highly rewarding and unique experience, one that is likely to become easier the more often we’re exposed to it. It is helpful, therefore, that Artes Mundi employs a team of ‘live guides’ who have met the artists and discussed the pieces with them. They act as the link between the artist and the public that is all-too-often missing from modern art galleries. They provide a valuable insight into the meaning and history behind the works.

Jonathan Brooks-Jones is sub-editor for ClickonWales

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