Contemporary Magazine January 2005


Steven Bode

In the last weeks of 2004, the news that Britain's largest electronics retailer had decided to stop selling video cassette recorders in its chain of high-street stores prompted a spate of articles announcing the end of the video age. It saddens me to say it, but, for our home viewing habits at least, I have to concede they might be right. I haven't withdrawn my old VCR from service just yet, but the final day cannot be too far away. Occasionally, I may call upon it to record an hour or so of television, but in a multi-channel digital environment of plentiful distractions, where everything appears to be on all the time, I find myself turning to it less and less.

Within the contemporary visual arts world, on the other hand, video continues to thrive, its moment still current, its cachet undimmed. It probably helps that the definition of 'video' as commonly practised in the artworld is loose enough to accommodate work shot on film, edited digitally and played back on DVD; but that in no way diminishes the sheer breadth, vitality and range of moving image activity that is being produced and presented today. In the week of writing this piece, London seemed especially illuminated with new video shows: Catherine Yass's riveting and unremitting documentary study of Israel's new 'security' barrier at the Alison Jacques gallery; Dryden Goodwin's haunting landscape vignettes at Stephen Friedman; Ergin Cavusoglu's equally lyrical multi-projection installations at Haunch of Venison; Joan Jonas's still-vibrant genus of video, dance and performance at Wilkinson and (love her or hate her) Sam Taylor-Wood crying a river at White Cube. Elsewhere, there was a typically engaging new piece by Paul Rooney at the newly re-opened Gasworks space in south London, a hot-ticket solo show by the up-and-coming German artist Nina Könnemann at Cubitt, plus the usual strong film and video presence within the annual New Contemporaries showcase at the Barbican. And if you wanted confirmation of video's position in the contemporary art mainstream, you had only to visit both branches of the Tate: at Tate Modern, 'Time Zones' was a survey exhibition with a somewhat bleary-eyed panoramic ambition, while at Tate Britain for the Turner Prize, all four contenders, including three you wouldn't immediately associate with the medium, presented new video work. Within the ever-expanding universe of contemporary visual art, video's star shows little sign of fading.

It wasn't always this way. When I started as Director of Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) in the early 1990s, the gallery sector (private and public) was still sceptical, and slightly stand-offish, about most film and video work. Video installations were few and far between (Liverpool's Video Positive festival and the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, as was, deserve a particular mention for sustaining the form through this period) and soon-to-be-major installation artists like Tony Oursler and Mona Hatoum were struggling to get their work shown. It is instructive to recall, at this point, that FVU's first travelling programmes of Bill Viola's formative single-screen videos, such as The Passing (1991) or The Reflecting Pool (1977-9), were presented more often in regional cinemas than in recognized visual arts spaces. When the first invitations did come, they were sudden and unexpectedly far-reaching, extended first of all to established video artists like Viola, Gary Hill, William Wegman or Marina Abramovic and then, barely skipping a beat, to a younger generation: Douglas Gordon, Gillian Wearing, Pipilotti Rist, Stan Douglas, Jane and Louise Wilson. One of the most remarkable things about how this story has unfolded is that there has been no real let-up, reaching the point at Documenta XI in 2002, where the world's premier contemporary art showcase was awash with film and video.

Born in the shadow of film, in uneasy proximity to television, yet also related in spirit and affinity to many of the conceptual and interventionist strategies of the moment, video began, in the 1960s and '70s, by (somewhat self-consciously) exploring what made it new and 'specific' as a medium - its intimate, real-time quality, its uniquely direct feedback loop between action and recording. From this early formalist and materialist focus, video art (as it came to be known) broadened its influences and interests to other areas, reaching a point, during the 1980s, when artists started to engage openly with other visual languages, including those of cinema, television and even music video.

When video was finally admitted to major art spaces in the 1990s, people stopped referring to 'video art' as such, and more to a wider notion of 'artists' video' - a switch in semantics that helped to emphasize the artist's role over that of technology.

Amongst the profusion of current activity, it can sometimes be difficult to trace the outline of prominent trends. The vogue for new forms of documentary, so prevalent at the last Documenta (2002), is one preoccupation that persists. The raw, observational immediacy of the video image, its one-to-one relationship to reality, continues to have obvious attractions, although, as if to distinguish themselves from the popular documentary modes of television and cinema, artists have frequently chosen to present their material in the gallery in an uncompromisingly unmediated or multi-faceted way, highlighting multiple points of view, or foregrounding rival voices and perspectives. Alternatively, a simple, emblematic scene, drawn from the hubbub of everyday events, may stand in beguiling isolation, transforming the specific and contingent into something haunting and universal. The widespread availability (and extraordinary portability) of today's video cameras makes it possible to capture more and more of these fleeting impressions from the world around us, echoing some of the impulses and characteristics of photography.

Equally, what is played out in front of the camera may often be staged or posed. Competing with the apparent urge toward documentary authenticity is a parallel penchant for theatricality, developing from video's longstanding links with performance, but also drawing from the language and history of cinema. Video's ability to incorporate different visual textures and its facility for inter-textual resonance and allusion (as artists continue to quote, blithely or deconstructively, from popular culture, TV or movies) also marks it out as a hugely influential site of engagement and experimentation. And all this before starting to assess the many ways that video is staged in galleries or visual arts spaces: how the intimate address of a video monitor, singly or in combination, introduces a spatial or sculptural dimension to the work; the extent to which new wall-based plasma screens are making video increasingly accessible to other, less specialist audiences; the way in which a multi-screen projection hovers in the black box of the gallery, shimmering across your field of vision, while, at the same time invoking and underlining the viewer's physical presence in the space.

Although a show like Tate Modern's 'Time Zones' falls short of a definitive survey, it does succeed in putting many of these stylistic approaches on display. Fikret Atay's charming fly-on-the-wall cameo of two Kurdish youths larking in the lobby of a provincial bank in central Turkey dovetails neatly into Fiona Tan's vividly poised tableaux of Chinese archers. Yael Bartana's quickfire video study of the off-road pursuits of Israeli boy racers contrasts deftly with Francis Al˙s's slowly unfolding overview of Mexico City. Anri Sala's two-screen mirror-play of the passage of light and time is an evocative counterpoint to Wolfgang Staehle's live web-cam feed from a German monastery ... and so on; many of the contemporary modes of moving-image work are there. The 21 artists spotlighted in this video issue flex the template further, snapping it to grid or bending it into subtly different shapes. An alternative list of names, such as could very easily be summoned from the expanding ranks of emerging and established talent, would give it yet another twist. For its part, over the last few years, Film and Video Umbrella has, amongst others, commissioned the following artists: Johan Grimonprez, Jane and Louise Wilson, Mark Leckey, Mark Lewis, Marine Hugonnier, AK Dolven, Carey Young, Adam Chodzko, Anne Bjerge Hansen, Jananne Al-Ani, Crowe & Rawlinson and Julie Henry. Apart from the fact that they all work with moving images, I can't find too many immediate connections between them. Nor would I necessarily want to.

The video aesthetic is not single but multiple. Within today's visual art world, video inhabits a multi-channel moving-image landscape that stretches from artists' film to new forms of digital media (where works from these still-distinct practices are regularly shown side by side in large-scale survey exhibitions). Some of the specificities of video may have become increasingly blurred in this expanded arena (in the same way that the VCR is being slowly sidelined by advances in digital technology), but 'video' as a generic term for much of this work is proving surprisingly versatile and enduring. Artists' video, however one might choose to define it, continues to go from strength to strength.

Steven Bode is Director of Film and Video Umbrella