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Having trouble with durational film and video work

We still don’t know how to present moving image artwork, but it’s not for want of trying. Almost a year ago I went to a memorably poor tank.tv screening at the Tate Modern called I Am Future Melancholic. I’ve just found the notes I made at the time, and scribbled in pencil on the programme are the words “extremely very bad” with a cross full-stop. Among other less favourable things, it raised an important question: what are we supposed to do with ‘durational’ moving image work – lengthy or looped film and video normally intended to be installed in a gallery-type environment? It was hard work sitting through the dazzling strobe effects of John Latham’s Speak (1962) and Vito Acconci’s Breakthrough (1970), robust and significant films in their time but which felt tacked on to the end of the programme in a way that was utterly unsympathetic to the needs of the works and, accordingly, the needs of the viewers for whom the screening had become a bit of an endurance test.

Mouth That Roars 1

Last night I went to see Grad Fab, a one-night screening of video art by selected 2007 BA and MA graduates from the UK. The technical standard of work was very high and it was a treat to see such a variety of work in one sitting. It was a shame it only lasted one evening as it gave the event a private view atmosphere, in which some of the videos – and visibly, some of the audience – suffered from the auditorium/show-reel format. Otherwise memorable and eloquent works (Sara Bjarland, Tersha Willis…) were compromised by their length, a quality that in a more thoughtful setting would have allowed for a slow, cumulative contemplation through which the videos might have genuinely enacted the quiet power they merely described last night. As a private view it felt like the artwork was getting in the way a bit, as though we would have preferred wallpaper or background music (but isn’t it always the way with private views?).

Since the advent of the moving image no end of things have been written and said and done about the difficult relationship between the viewer and the film/video, and the ‘arts of sound’ have more recently begun to receive similar attention. Just as with audio work, it’s hard to physically accommodate moving image work without marginalizing it. There needs to be a middle-ground between the irksome show-reel format on the one hand, and on the other hand the traditional ‘static’ gallery setting that allows visitors to come and go as they please but which risks isolating time-based artwork by putting it in a room of its own, even regulated by a start-time schedule after which doors are closed and the ‘play’ button is pressed.

Mouth That Roars 2

Every now and then you see a thoughtful strategy for balancing the habits of the viewer and the needs of the artwork. For me one such initiative sprang up last night. The Grad Fab event was run by The Video Art Gallery and held at MTR Studio 23, where they have an innovative approach to viewing moving image work. They hire out the big screen to external organisers (Video Art Gallery in this case) and for the rest of the time they’re a video cafe. You go in, buy a coffee, pick an art-house video and watch it from one of the seats clustered around the little video screens dotted throughout the shop. And for the Grad Fab night these small screens were divided between the eleven exhibiting artists, and small versions of their work looped quietly amongst the conversations and the wine glasses all night, with headphones hooked up for serious watchers, of which there were many. It did real justice to the works, facilitating lengthy, enduring consideration, even if some of the time you were only aware of what was going on out of the corner of your eye. And in the social context of the event, the head-height screens entered into a nice relationship with the groups of viewers sitting around, as though the videos were chatting away along with the rest of us.

Tamarin Norwood

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