I remember the good ol' days. Video art was categorised as multimedia and using a computer to do anything apart from your CV had to be kept top secret. How times have changed. Today, video is inescapable and as ubiquitous as the LCD screen. How many inches is yours? Art galleries (the epitome of conservatism) even have screens promoting what videos are on show. Galleries have gone into a video frenzy. Suddenly projectors are cheap, freight and shipping of artworks non-existent and you can fill an entire gallery with one piece and a bench. Galleries have it made. Overheads have been reduced; artist fees turned to smoke and a bottomless pit of eager artists have backed up the s-bend ready to put out at all costs.
Welcome to the video age.
Just as painting had its day and assemblage saw more than it deserved, it's now time for video to take centre stage. But be warned. Just because it's video and happens to be in a gallery doesn't mean it's art... anything can look like art, yet we now know from experience that a painting of the city skyline (in various pastel shades) or a photograph of Bondi Beach at sunset is not art. From one day cock of the walk, the next, a feather duster. All mediums take a dump at some point. Here's a perfectly feasible scenario. You walk into a gallery and see a number of artworks on display. The theme can be anything you choose, but best bet it's non-political and is quite fashionable. You'd be safe to assume that there are at least four videos in this show. Most would be performative and all of them poorly projected onto an unmasked wall or screen of inappropriate ratio. If you were to actually view them all you'd find a few basics in curatorial practice. One video has to ambiguously break copyright (you only care if you've sold it to the gallery); one would portray the artist on their way to a fancy dress party and most likely another one goes on and on forever without much happening (did I mention a happening?). The last slot in the show uses found footage re-edited or manipulated in some way to make the artist seem all wizardly in their computer sorcery, although handheld footage taken on a stroll through the city fits in here too.
Now there isn't anything wrong with this at all. It's abnormal in today's gallery system not to have multiple videos in an exhibition. What must be asked is why there's a distinct lack of alternative video art modes being shown. What I mean by 'alternative' is video art that has a level of sophistication that challenges the viewer. We're all familiar with the artist reels where they dance around for us, but what about the works that use the medium because it's the only medium that will do.
Australia has produced a few artists that have learnt how to adequately communicate the strengths of the moving image. Anything by David Rozetsky or Daniel Von Sturmer is going to be breathtakingly fantastic because they understand how to get the best out of their medium, how it's installed and how it's viewed. As a template in video installation look no further than the past works of David Noonan or Patricia Piccinini. The video is integrated into the exhibition space. Half of the pleasure in seeing their works is the experience. You should feel privileged to be in a position to see their works in a similar way to seeing a great band. You inhabit their space. You are welcomed in and treated with respect. David Noonan's installation Films and Paintings 2001-2005 at the Monash University Museum of Art in 2005 had several raised platforms beautifully carpeted from which the viewer could reflect peacefully upon what was presented before them. SOWA at Artspace in 2003 used a similar elevation with wallpapered constructions to position the viewer within the mise-en-scène. Piccinini's Swell (2000) and Breathing Room (2001) psychologically tampered with that same mise-en-scène to put the viewer at the heart of an audiovisual experiment. Sadly, Noonan and Piccinini have vacated the world of video art only to leave a gaping hole of technical proficiency and a genuine sense of anticipation for us to mourn.
And why not use the medium of video to examine the god of the moving image: cinema. What better a medium is there than video to make a comment on the very nature of cinema. Filmmakers are the first ones to jump up and down when calling a video filmic. 'It isn't a film', they cry out like small children. Well if you were to follow that kind of mentality then Wolf Creek (2005) isn't a film either, or Superman Returns (2006). In some ways video is best suited to stick the big one up those guys. The little man can kick the big man. I had a critic say how much he liked my work until he found out it was shot on digital. What a wanker. The medium can be part of the message yet what's flickering before you is what it's all about. The addition of High Definition to the arena is making waves in an already confused moving image environment. We've got a new divide on the domestic and professional circuits to confuse the hell out of the average punter. Now more than ever the artist has to choose wisely, as they too may fall under the watchful gaze of the critical tech savvy film connoisseur. If it looks like film it's going to be assessed as such, so beware of letting the devil in unless you mean it.
John A. Douglas' pieces of cinema or Shaun Wilson's hangover durationals best illustrate how cinema can affect another medium and comment on it. Why not make your own versions or allegories of already existing cultural icons? Douglas has covered such films as Wake in Fright by Ted Kotcheff and Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (both 1971) allowing the viewer to make comparisons on a theme. Now why didn't he just get the copyright and edit together a mash up? It's by remaking the films that Douglas gets closer to the original. There's less of a distance between the subject and the materials. By simply re-editing found footage, Douglas wouldn't be able to level out the playing field. His works are video doubles alternates where we get to see similar themes that carry across cinema's history in a consistent and unique style of Douglas' own. Shaun Wilson takes this same history from within a domestic positioning. He steals memories from filmic locations, ones that carry the loaded weight of time and uses film techniques to burden us with their significance. Only by using video could Wilson temporally hold us in his Altered States-like hyperbaric chamber. To use film would cost Wilson a fortune and slow him down (and it's the work he wants to slow down not the process). Wilson and Douglas are playing a game of cinematographer's karaoke and taking a poke at the great millstone of film history at the same time. They sit in a grey area –the spaces between commercial production, the role of the director and the positioning of the viewing space. It's within this militarised zone that video art can forge a universal appeal and communicate to more than a couple of art students.
Universality has its pros and cons. Firstly it can get you into any of the Biennales held since Post Modernism lost its cool. Fortunately it still matters where you are from so long as you don't discuss any local issues, political events or marginality. We're now all equal; yet still struggle for uniqueness. This can be a problem when viewing video works advertised as being Australian. You've got to question the motivations behind most of what is being produced. Is the audience for the work really so generalised, flat and mainstream? Have we lost the ability to comment to a wider spectrum than the art audience? How many video artists can we identify as having an Australian angle on the international circuit? Even Shaun Wilson locates his works in every other country when it's patently obvious that he should be focusing his camera on local history as filmic memorial. The 1960s and 70s saw a major exodus out of this country for worldwide recognition not afforded to the cultural players at home. The 80s brought them back in a viagra-like resurrection in the lead-up to our great Bicentennial celebrations. Do we need another nation-building exercise to make the artists take a look at their backyards for inspiration and (God help us) political guidance? Can we blame our obsession with internationalism on the marketing machine, or a lack of self-confidence in local content defining the film and television industry: maybe all or none of the above? We may just be proving that we are as good as the rest of the world. Hell, we speak the same language don't we?
There will always be artists working on an international scale and a few doing the Rotary circuits and a couple of thousand who can't afford to even leave the country at all. We need the ability for some of us to slip into foreign countries in the same way that Eric Bana can perfect any accent or Ron Mueck become a figurehead of British art. There are now so many avenues for Australian artists to take a foothold. All the rules have been broken. It's just that video art isn't for everyone wanting to be special. Most of the video art out there now has outlets of its own, a collective voice and an audience. So lift the lid, take a seat and flush one down the YouTube.
If you fancy yourself as the next big confessional artist, join the queue. There are (according to Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal) 500,000 artists just like you. Start your blog and set up the web cam. Every day you can record the mundane existence you lead and cathartically let the world be your psychoanalyst. Yet we all know that getting your face onto the internet isn't the same thing as being enshrined in a white cube with wine drinkers giggling at each odd thing you say and unflattering angle you reflect. The ego stroking of one on one contact and corporeality of works in a gallery makes it quite alluring for an artist to be seen onscreen in their own presence. Yet in reality most artists' lives aren't that interesting. The anonymity of the internet serves as the perfect place for them to hide their pathetic secrets and save us the trouble of trying to get that time back owed to us. Life is too short.
Do you want to make art that is based on pop music or fashion? Then get a MySpace page (oh you already have, congratulations you're within the 12 - 21 year old demographic). The phenomenon that is Murdoch's MySpace has infiltrated every aspect of contemporary culture. It is so mainstream that it's taking away from television advertising, with people constantly checking and rechecking how many friends closer they are to Kevin Bacon within the past seven minutes. Now here's a test for you. Do a search on MySpace for well-known international artists. How many are there? Not many eh! All you'll find are fan sites. Why is this? If I were to hazard a guess it's because they are well-known. There is no need for faux legitimisation or massaging of the digital ego for them. They sit on people's shelves, pop up in library queries and are playing on screens in the major galleries. They don't have time to respond to the odd Norwegian in their first year of high school. Video artists are meant to be creating culture not creating the equivalent of standing in a queue for the latest Xbox game. Now I know there are artists who use this type of media as 'their thing', but why? If you think that by reflecting the current trend in media is to reveal something new to the art crowd, think again. Most of them (us) have children/siblings/students and have to wrestle MySpace everyday to get them back into our lives. Once upon a time an artist would form a band and have to make a fool of themselves in front of real people who could communicate with body language, now MySpace makes anyone on it a debased commodity of Murdoch looking for friends, not credibility.
Better still, put an object on your head and go for the IDENTITY ticket. Oh no! You've been beaten by forty years of other artists doing the same thing and mainland China exploring it with sincerity and a legitimate excuse. Hold off until the next Asia-Pacific Triennial and see how it's really done then stop, think and go form a band (oops, back to MySpace again). Unless you have something to say and it genuinely means something to you don't make up a persecuted persona. We don't need any more videos of you in the bath, you changing clothes or you walking down the street. If you were to be deformed in a knife fight or have a helicopter fall into your spa we'd be witnessing a spectacle greater than your art school wet dreams. Everything has its day and most people with a video camera are looking at the wrong calendar.
I'm not saying that it's impossible to cash in the identity chips. Kate Murphy has perfected the art of capturing people as they truly are. Fragile, old and small fat kids are perfect fodder for the development of video art. Murphy put old people in front of the camera years before YouTube had the old whinging geezer and singing and dancing kids. These weren't funniest home video material, in fact the opposite. We actually feel for these people. They aren't someone you go to school with or another artist that was drummed up at the last second. These are real people. The strongest piece by Murphy is titled Leaving Together (2005) where two extremely old people try and videotape each other getting closer only using the viewfinder as their eyes. Are we waiting for them to bang into each other, or complain about not knowing how to use the technology? No. We are too consumed by the beauty of a couple at the end of their lives living with technology and embracing it as if they were junkies with a fresh hit. Bill Viola's The Greeting (1995) doesn't come anywhere near Murphy's video in its conviction and sincerity to the subjects. This work brought a tear to my eye (and I'm not taking the piss either).
So next time you walk into one of Australia's ever-expanding art galleries and wonder why there's another Asian exhibition, photos of people with fruit on their heads or an enlarged children's toy just thank the curators that there isn't a video wall with a twenty-something pretending to be in a band or taking a camera for a walk, because if there is, it may have to be you that sits them down in front of the internet and gives them a lesson in video.