The late sessions

Half Dozen Festival 2006
George Street Cinema Complex, Sydney
25 January 2006

Halfway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, it seems almost glib to observe the popularity of video art. And yet not ten years ago, video was struggling to promote itself within the broader field of Australian contemporary art. As we now know, the development of affordable, durable technologies saw its stocks rise as a marketable and collectable form, while its portability made it eminently attractive to a proliferation of international biennales eager to reign in their substantial freight costs. With this sort of commercial and institutional legitimation, debates that were so prevalent in the mid-nineties, around defining video as a discrete set of moving-image-–based practices, have generally abated in favour of an unquestioning acceptance of its near-ubiquity in contemporary exhibition culture. At the same time critical engagement has tended toward attempting to deal with the medium on its own terms.

The problem is that these terms are not particularly clear. What should be made, for instance, of the sheer diversity of practices incorporated under the umbrella term ‘video art’, from performance documentation, to highly scripted narratives, to medium-specific technical experiment? Of the tension between co-existing modes of presentation, including modular approaches that regard video as simply a self-contained sequence of images reproducible through any given display mechanism, or highly determined installation-based practices according to which viewing context is a crucial consideration? Or of the ongoing prevalence of an intertextual approach to more popular manifestations of screen-based media, such as music video, computer games, documentary film and especially cinema, both experimental and mainstream?

These questions were not so much raised as provoked by The Late Sessions, a recent program of contemporary Australian video art presented in a pair of back-to-back evening screenings at Sydney’s George Street cinema überplex. Organised by the artist-run Half Dozen Festival, and curated by Dominique and Dan Angeloro AKA Soda_Jerk, the program consisted of twelve short video works, almost all of which had been commissioned especially for the event, and almost all of which had been produced by a decidedly younger generation of practitioners. The Late Sessions, then, was ostensibly an opportunity to observe how certain sectors of the current video art scene would deal with the problematic posed by its highly specific viewing context, namely the question of their medium’s relationship to cinema.

It might be pertinent here to note that there are certain factors that distinguish the two media. The Angeloros wrote apologetically in their introductory note to the accompanying catalogue that ‘the only definition of video art that we could come up with was that it happens in a gallery’, but this is actually almost correct. Cinema relies on the supposition of a degree of passivity, or at least complicity, on the part of its audience for a structured period of time, and on the assumption of the theatre as a neutral viewing space, so that one’s experience of a film is primarily visual and auditory. Video, on the other hand, engages in a broader dialogue with other forms of artistic investigation, such as painting, sculpture, installation and performance, and, regardless of its modularity or otherwise, is subject to the same viewing conditions as these media, be it presented in a gallery or in the public space. Video thus grants its audience a degree of agency to determine their relationship to the work, not just spatially, but temporally. This in turn offers artists greater freedom in dealing with the durational aspects of their work, its use of narrative and its production values, and, indeed, the formal qualities of its presentation.

The Late Sessions curators chose not to pursue any theoretical expansion on these issues, but their selection of artists pointed to them anyway. Taking the venue as a point of departure, invitations were extended to artists whose practices incorporated ‘aspects of screen culture’. Leaving aside the fact that the only non-commissioned work, Daniel Askill’s We Have Decided Not to Die from 2004, appeared to all intents and purposes to actually be a short film complete with high production values, lengthy credits and even an Australian Film Commission Logo, almost every aspect of The Late Sessions referred directly to cinema, and in some cases to the particular cinema in which it was being shown.

From the opening cut-up of Bill Collins introducing Hollywood classics in a succession of garish suits, it was clear that The Late Sessions chief modes of address to cinema would be appropriation and overt referencing. Accordingly much of the work in the program was premised on the audience’s sensitivity to the cultural artefacts they were presented with, by and large exploiting the ‘camp effect’. This strategy, as Adrian Martin, quoting Andrew Ross, has put it, ‘seizes on pieces of a past “universe of representation” that once were effortlessly persuasive and seductive on the ideological plane, but now no longer convince … these fragments arrive in our time as obviously “old fashioned” and alien, suffused with a certain demented innocence and cheerfulness’. This is not to say that all of the work utilising found footage was necessarily unsuccessful, of course. Save for a tendency to dwell overlong on the effects of slowing video right down, Stephen Fox’s The Birds was mesmerising and uncanny, erasing frame by frame the avine protagonists of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller to leave only a menacing, violent blank. Ms & Mr’s work, which used the same technique (a danger in completely commissioned programs) erasing the bride and groom from a number of found wedding videos as the artists look on, also made for interesting viewing, primarily for its overall strangeness. But the recurrence across the program of certain cultural touchstones—2001: A Space Odyssey referenced in no less than three of the twelve works; Michael Jackson appearing twice; the unfortunate and no-doubt unforseen repetition of the erasure technique—pointed to a reliance on the indexicality of the appropriated elements, their history of meaning, as well as what Martin observed, this time via Will Straw, as a propensity in ‘anything goes’ pluralist postmodernism (this sort of work’s historical antecedent) for drawing ‘from what is, at any given moment, in fact a quite restricted repertoire of cultural icons and references’.

More successful—or rather more robust, less susceptible to the contingencies of meaning—were those works that addressed more general aspects of cinema. Grant Stevens’ The Switch, for example, presented the interwoven plot summaries of two Hollywood movies, Scream and 10 Things I Hate About You, in his trademark style of white text running across a black screen in time with the natural rhythms of human speech. Despite the specificity of the cinematic references, it was their generic qualities that Stevens emphasised, recasting individual elements to render them indistinguishable, commentary (if commentary were needed) on the banality of the fare offered at venues such as George Street. Brendan Lee, meanwhile, seemed to be making some kind of quotation, but deliberately obscured the source of that quotation. His cinematically shot and edited Out of the Blue constructed a narrative complete with a protagonist, a villain, a crisis and an apparent resolution, but with no clue to what these elements represented or what was transpiring. This sequence was then repeated exactly as before, using different actors and locations, completely inexplicably. There was a similar seductive inscrutability to Sam Smith’s Passage, a somnambulistic journey from an anonymous picture theatre to a series of surreal images incorporating filmmaking machinery that recalled early avant-garde photomontage.

The two most interesting works in the program, at least as far as the relationship between cinema and video is concerned, were those which, each in their own way, incorporated the context in which they were presented. Matthew Tumbers’ Six Degrees of Separation: Screen Culture painted an evocative picture—or, more accurately, Val Morgan-style Powerpoint presentation—of Sydney’s evolving urban geography, in which the George Street complex has played a defining role since opening in 1976 and expanding ever since. Accompanied by a Satie-esque keyboard, Tumbers presented an elegantly paced series of images and equations that defined an ‘international city’ through such variables as ‘busy modern consumer lifestyles’, ‘customer loyalty thresholds’ and ‘real fears of loneliness and human insecurities’, a landscape of ATMs, ‘multi-tiered undercover car parking’ and of course ‘multiplex cinemas’.

Brisbane duo Wilkins Hill’s Sunny was equally melancholic but less immediately referential to the circumstances of its screening. It took the form of an imagined film produced by the spirits of five European explorers who had perished in their attempts to map the Australian continent, attempting to relay accounts of their last moments for consideration. After close to a minute of darkness during which only the song of cicadas was audible, a series of colour-saturated landscapes filled the screen, over which real diary entries by each doomed explorer, attesting, often humorously, to the banalities of helplessness and loss, were read in the steady, synthetic voice of the Macintosh text-to-speech function. The combined effect of this simple, droning soundtrack, the elegant erudition of the text and the sheer scale of the images of sublime, alien landscapes was hypnotic. When the images on screen began to gently sway, dissolve or otherwise rhythmically interrupt their own stasis, it was difficult not to be drawn physically into the work, prompting a consideration of the spatial dialectic between the projected image and the perceiving body. More than any other work in the program, it exploited the unique viewing conditions of cinema—its privileging of the visual, its reliance on the dynamic unfolding of narrative—only to subvert them by introducing the key factor that distinguishes video art from other forms of moving image production: the element of space, a momentary disruption in the autonomy of the image.