From grainy scenes of nineteenth century mill workers to the latest YouTube upload, the moving image has long hovered between the realms of leisure entertainment, social science and art. Jamie Holman unpicks a century’s worth of definitions and ruminates on the futures of the artist’s film.
In 1994, approximately 800 film negatives — a treasure chest of moving images — were unearthed in a chemist’s shop in Blackburn. I pass the street where they were found every day, and often glance at the plaque which informs you that one of the first ever cinemas was located in this building. It always makes me smile to think that in this small industrial town that I call home, filmmaking had an unlikely birth.
The names on the plaque are those of local entrepreneurs Mitchell and Kenyon. They were early pioneers of the filmic medium in the late nineteenth century, making naive versions of what we would now call ‘corporate videos’, earning money by documenting the activities of workers at the request of mill owners (and earning a little more by later having the workers pay to watch themselves on screen). They also made proto-propaganda films in the Lancashire countryside at the outbreak of the Boer War and can even lay claim to the first ever western with their 1899 short, Kidnapping by Indians.
Before all that, Mitchell and Kenyon had simply pointed the camera at the town itself, capturing whatever they saw through the lens, then showed the footage of workplaces and city activity in the type of improvised screening spaces —community halls, shop back rooms etc. —which preceded cinema theatres. The first reported showing took place on 27 November 1897 at Mitchell and Kenyon’s premises in Blackburn. The film was Blackburn Market on a Saturday Afternoon. You can imagine the content. Ordinary, even banal to an onlooker at the time, the transformative potential of this new medium would become apparent when townspeople gathered to watch themselves on screen, in the past tense. Long before Warhol’s much quoted “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” sound bite, Mitchell and Kenyon recognized that, quite apart from the miraculous nature of film itself people were fascinated by watching their own reality, documenting, celebrating and making sense of the world around them. It was basic record and playback, in the same (if considerably more technologically cumbersome) way that, today, mobile phone clips of a wedding, football match or street fight are uploaded to YouTube.
Mitchell and Kenyon did not perceive themselves as artists, or even as ‘important’ film makers. They were businessmen who embraced an emerging technology and exploited basic human demand in order to make a living. But over time the currency of their accumulated footage has significantly increased. Their films are documents, not ‘documentaries’, yet they are so much more than simple archive material, capturing, as they do, lost moments from a tantalizingly familiar yet elusive world.
“Just as collage has ousted oil painting, so the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas.” — Nam June Paik
In the autumn of 1965, Nam June Paik used his new Sony Portapak camera to shoot footage of Pope Paul VI’s procession through New York. That same day, Paik replayed the footage in Greenwich Village’s Café Au Go Go. This work is often cited as one of the first pieces of what became known as video art. Of course, there were already artists who worked with film, but film was prohibitively expensive, and time-consuming. Film was shot and then had to be processed and edited by splicing frames together. A new print could be made with the possibility for duplicating reels, but it all cost a fortune. Video cut through all that: it was reusable and could be played back instantly without escalating costs or a frustrating time lapse between recording and viewing. The availability of the Portapak was crucial. Its potential would be investigated and exploited throughout the late ’60s and ’70s by Paik and other artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gary Hill and Bill Viola. While these artists shared a common medium, the resolution and presentation of the work varied between monitors, projections and mixed media installations. Their objective was to embrace a medium that was neither cinema nor television, sidestepping the gallery system and notions of art’s ‘collectability’. A video tape contains the work, but a tape is not an art object or even desirable in its own right. This sparked up a dialogue that was critical, agitational, appropriating and experimental; indicating that our understanding of video derives in part from its relationship with other media (cinema and television). And as the technology developed, so did the practice. Recording equipment, monitors, projectors and video walls all expanded the range of the work produced by the artists using them. Formats came and went, Beta, U-matic, SVHS, Hi 8, VHS, laserdisc, DVD and beyond; each with individual inherent qualities and varying potential for quality of audio, image and reproduction.
“When I started I was one of two or three dozen video artists in 1970. And now, to paraphrase Andy Warhol, everyone’s a video artist. Video, through your cellphone and camcorder, has become a form of speech, and speech is not James Joyce. It’s great, and to be celebrated, but it has to find its own level”— Bill Viola
Video art has rapidly evolved way beyond the initial promise of the Portapak with the emergence of the Handycam, mobile phone technology and cheap desktop editing software. Add to that the universal digital platform offered by the internet and you will see a loop of democratic access to film that began with the likes of Mitchell and Kenyon. Just as the early filmmakers existed outside of the parameters and expectations of cinema, video artists could exist outside of the conventions of television or the gallery, now a video maker can exist beyond the strictures of established distribution, exhibition and broadcast infrastructure. Basically, if you make it, it can be seen.
Free, democratic access is YouTube’s most seductive quality, yet also what causes most concern to video artists. As a viewing arena, YouTube’s constraints in terms of image scale, quality of audio and replay duration are particularly rigid. For example, no work can be more than ten minutes in length. In addition to these limitations, the work could be bracketed between any kind of, often unrelated recordings, and viewed in contextual environments beyond the control of the artist, all of which has the potential to compromise the intention of the work. YouTube functions best as an archive, a broadcast platform even a magazine, but not as a gallery space.
The quality of the material on YouTube ranges from the naive to the technically complex, from the revelatory to the mundane, from funny to shocking and everything in between. What is lacking, however, is video art that has been intentionally uploaded to be viewed in the context YouTube offers. What you might find is gallery art filmed on a mobile phone and simply uploaded; or poor quality versions of an existing piece of work. Most agree that the archival facets of YouTube are thrilling; it’s possible to unearth long-lost pop videos, interviews and early avant-garde films, and disseminate all manner of lost treasures in reasonable quality. By contrast, there remains a dearth of visual work made specifically to exploit the YouTube format.
This is where the lines begin to blur. There is an area of video art that became popular in the early nineties which rejects the language of television and cinema altogether. It is work that may be constructed with a single, unedited shot (for example, Gillian Wearing’s Dancing in Peckham from 1994, or Cheryl Donnegan’s Head from 1993). Work of this kind begs a superficial comparison with a lot of material on YouTube. In some cases, there is footage that looks like it might be art, in the same way that elements of, say, fashion photography or design, do. Gillian Wearing, Georgina Starr, Sam Taylor-Wood and a host of other artists made work in the nineties that was intentionally produced to look lo-fi and slightly amateur, purposefully rejecting the slick ‘Art Film’ look. These artists employed various strategies ranging from the representational, formal and performance based recording in order to articulate proposals for their art.
They made the decision to insert distance between the gallery space and the dominant language of commercial media. The emphasis was then on the content of the work, not the conventions or aesthetics of production. This faux lo-fi finish was subsequently adopted as a style and appropriated by advertising, and now, en masse, by YouTube users. Gillian Wearing herself was embroiled with Volkswagen, who co-opted her ‘Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say’, 1992-3 for a late-nineties TV ad campaign, over the alleged loss of intellectual copyright.
In many ways, these aspects of video art — the immediacy and the formal simplicity of the single shot — have become marginalised by the wider media it initially rejected, in as much as this simplified language is now part of the vocabulary of ad makers and pop promo directors (compare Georgina Stan’s ‘Cry’ Video with Duffy’s ‘Warwick Avenue’ pop promo). Artists supply the ideas, and the media steamroller excels at exploiting them. Now, we have a new generation of have-a-go video makers who have embraced this style of working and applied it to everyday, mundane aspects of their own lives, simply because they can. YouTube spews out video as wallpaper, novelty, document, and at its best, archive, but, as Mitchell and Kenyon would surely attest: not art.
YouTube is not the future of moving image; just a viewing portal to the past. It is not a replacement for anything, merely another option. YouTube cannot replace the gallery for the same reasons that the internet has not replaced books or the VHS/DVD has yet to supersede cinema. It is a different proposition with its own inherent boundaries, making it difficult to curate. Additionally, the technical quality is low while issues of authorship and ownership remain ambiguous. And that’s the root of the problem. If the intention of the artist is lost in the context of reproduction or presentation, the meaning is also lost, and the work is reduced to the lowest common denominator. That’s the problem with democracy.