Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Electromorphologies curator Vince Briffa
Photo: Marco Giugliarelli for Civitella Ranieri Foundation, 2018
The advent of Video Art towards the latter half of the twentieth century coincided with a newfound economic viability for domestic video-making. It was only in the 1960s that artists could afford to invest in their own video-recording equipment, and with this new chapter of technological possibility came a period of radical artistic experimentation. The work created by the artists from that period in art history still informs much of what is created today in emerging artistic movements. In Electromorphologies, a collective exhibition curated for Valletta Contemporary (VC) between the 11th - 28th September 2018, artist and curator Vince Briffa brought together a selection of some of the earliest exponents of moving image in Contemporary Art. Here, he speaks to Ann Dingli about how Video Art changed the artist-viewer relationship, as well as the places and moments where it cross-fertilised with other movements and disciplines.
Ann Dingli (AD): Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase, “the medium is the message” rings especially true with the introduction of new media around the 1960s. You, in fact, talk about the tools and technology of cinema and TV as equalisers between mainstream media and art. Until the advent of Video Art, artists had been breaking down traditional conventions in painting and sculpture in order to demystify the image of the artist and transform the role of the viewer. How does video, as a medium, figure in delivering this particular message (that the artist is no longer 'god', or to be revered)?
Vince Briffa (VB): Since its inception, video has been a problematic medium to define. In his book Being & Time: The Emergence of Video Projection, Marc Meyer describes video’s enigmatic character and its unstable relationship with the plastic arts as one that “would connect it more appropriately to the temporal arts of music, dance, theater, literature or cinema”. He explains that through a set of complicated electro-magnetic devices, “video is more an end than any one specific means; it is a series of electronic variations on an audio-visual theme that has been in continual progressive flux since its inception”. When looking at the medium from the already established, plastic arts point of view, Meyer at the time of writing explains that “video’s theoretical and practical possibilities are so inconceivably vast, its versatility so immeasurably profound and of such perplexing unorthodoxy, that even after a quarter of a century, the medium’s defenders are still struck with vertiginous awe as if glimpsing the sublime”.
In this light, it becomes rather clear why video, unlike many other mediums of creative expression, was practiced in mostly unorthodox ways. So much so, that in the 1960s and approximately the decade after, the art world was still trying to allocate it a suitable art-historical pigeonhole in order to make sense of what a relatively small group of artists – who understood the medium’s intellectual and communication potential – were producing and showing on TV sets*; the same devices that had by then become the most popular source of information and entertainment dissemination.
It was, therefore, through this strange amalgamation of intellectual and increasingly political artistic practice, carried through this popular mass communication device, that Video Art practice deconstructed and dismantled the ‘preciousness’ of the art product, and, subsequently, the revered status of the artist.
* The TV set and the vision monitor were the only means of dissemination of Video Art prior to the video projector, which was only developed in the late 1980s and popularised in the early 1990s.
Mona Hatoum, So Much I Want To Say, 1983
AD: The use of sound and moving imagery in Video Art sought to eradicate conventions of meaning transferral between artist and viewer. Eventually, when Video Art became widely accepted within the gallery space, this dynamic was once again transformed. Do the works selected for Electromorphologies seek to capture that moment in time before Video Art was inducted into the mainstream gallery/museum experience?
VB: Electromorphologies brings together some of the earliest exponents of the moving image in Contemporary Art and presents works that precede Video Art’s dispersion within the mainstream of the museum and gallery convention in the 1990s. The exhibition focuses on two areas of artistic concern and handpicks key works that manifest artists’ engagement with the many layers of language – particularly those of a conceptual and linguistic nature. It also includes works that propose audio-visuality’s aesthetic as a new language of creative expression.
This curatorial decision was taken in light of the fact that this exhibition was to be the first of its kind presented to a local public in Malta. The exhibition’s body of work belongs to the experimental phases of Video Art when, even internationally, the work struggled to establish itself within the mainstream art scene. It certainly had little or no relevance to the local artistic scene of the time when it was being presented in the 1960s and 70s – so these specific parameters were key to the selection of works. Locally, Video Art started being practiced and exhibited towards the mid-to-late 1990s, when the genre had already somewhat taken form internationally.
AD: Aside from the influence of cinema and TV, did scenes from the news reportage of the time shape the way Video Art took course? With televisions in the average viewer’s home showing scenes from high-profile assassinations (JFK, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, John Lennon, etc.), and politically motivated riots and demonstrations (Vietnam War, Berlin Wall), did emerging Video Artists induct the lexicon of real-life commentary into their work?
Joan Jonas, Volcano Saga, 1989
VB: Definitely. If we rewind some fifty years to the late 1960s, a time where Conceptual Art, Body Art, Arte Povera, Kinetic Art, and Minimalism had already been around for a decade, and where Installation Art was taking its form, the artist was now able to add another tool to his or her arsenal – the Sony Portapak. This combination of camera and portable recorder equipped the artist with a device that could record and instantaneously play back sound and vision, unshackled from the more expensive process of celluloid film which needed developing and projection. With the Portapak, the artist could not only speak with the same language of the journalist, but also blur the boundaries between the plastic and the media arts. It is through the availability of such technology, and its appeal to the grass roots of society, that a lot of early Video Art was able to be used to expose or spread awareness on issues and information of a political nature. The innovation of the medium particularly appealed to artists who were trying to push limits in contemporary society. Spreading the artist’s message took on a whole new dimension, as can be seen in the Feminist Art movement of the time, where video became the medium of choice for many female artists who sought to distance female and male artistic production and sensibility.
AD: I ask about the news and its influence on these artists because, as a pattern, the time-frames within which a lot of the artists showing in Electromorphologies worked was fraught with tensions between conservative politics and the progressive public. Do artists like Mona Hatoum, Gary Hill, and Joan Jonas use Video Art for greater impact in delivering politically-motivated messages? If so, how is language specifically used as a tool in this respect?
VB: Although all three artists have in some way or another used their work as vehicle to carry messages of political nature at some point in their careers – and I contend that at the outset that all artwork in one way or another, and to varying degrees, cannot escape being political – the works chosen for the exhibition were not selected for their political motivation but for their involvement with language, both textual as well as material. Hatoum’s work can be regarded to be the more political of the three artists in question. Made at a very early stage in her career, when she was forced to settle in the UK from her native Lebanon caught in the outbreak of civil war, cut off from her family and fearing for their safety, the work reveals the face of a woman while two male hands gag the woman and cover parts of her face, sometimes even completely. The work encapsulates this difficult personal situation through the voice-over, spoken by the artist herself, which nauseatingly repeats the phrase “so much I want to say”.
Gary Hill’s ‘Why do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia)’ is a very complex work that explores the relationships between the direction of time and the order of things, employing an elaborate technique of reversing the characters’ lines – originally performed through phonetic interpretation backwards. The work purposely mixes forward and reverse actions in the video and audio to suspend meaning. On the other hand, Joan Jonas’s ‘Volcano Saga’ ingeniously translates a previous performance by the same artist into a video narrative that uses the science and technology in its own materiality as metaphoric layers of illusion and reality.
Gary Hill, Why do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia), 1984
AD: In the 1980s artists like Haring and Basquiat were taking their art to the streets, breaking down traditional artist-viewer conventions in the most immediate and palpable of formats. How implicit or explicit has Video Art’s relationship with activist art been over time? How strong is the relationship between the two?
VB: In his introduction to ‘The History of Video Art’, Chris Meigh-Andrews mentions that the beginnings of Video Art were not only problematic due to video’s ambiguous relationship with the broadcast media, but because Video Art was referred to by many different names, namely ‘artists’ video’, ‘experimental video’, ‘artists’ television’, ‘the new television’ and even ‘Guerrilla TV’. The latter reference arguably came about through the radical youth movements of the 1960s and ’70s, and the larger alternative media wave that swept across the US, particularly through the political use of media vehicles – radio, music, film, video, and television; but also including newspapers and magazines, as well as the fine and performing arts practices.
Video naturally was one of the most utilised mediums, even to the extent of coining the phrase ‘video activism’ – an activity that actually preceded the 1980s breaking of artist-viewer conventions by nearly two decades, through its process of mass dissemination on the airwaves. This strong bond between Video Art and activism has found an even better platform for wider dissemination through the introduction of the World Wide Web, and particularly through the many social media channels available on the Internet.
AD: Bringing our conversation forward to present day – at a time where language has taken on increasingly new roles in media, commentary, and communication – has its power become diluted in these works? Or is it all the more potent in an allegedly post-truth world, where metaphor has largely been usurped by explicitness and unedited commentary?
VB: When one looks at technology and the speed with which it is changing the media scenario and the way we communicate – particularly at how the moving image (as the term ‘video’ has quickly become obsolete) is being produced and disseminated – one cannot help but wonder how this most common ‘language’ of communication has evolved to become even more reachable by all. In less than a decade, the production of a ‘video’ – which ten years ago needed dedicated equipment to be shot and edited, and which needed some resource allocation in order for it to be distributed – can nowadays be handled by tools at everyone’s disposal. The advent of the mobile phone, movie software, video platforms, social media, and live streaming apps have made the language of activism not only available to anyone, but also virtually extremely difficult to monitor, as one can see from the huge number of terrorist propaganda and hate videos one can find online. This raises serious doubts about the democratisation of the ‘language’ of video, and its distribution channel that we call Web 2.0, a platform that focuses entirely on the ability for people to collaborate and share information online.