The Vasulka’s anarchic playground

Still from Noisefields, courtesy of the artists and Vasulka Chamber, the National Gallery of Iceland

Steina and Woody Vasulka – Machine Vision at Raven Row Gallery until 5 June

Unlike most of the youthful video art fans/liggers at this opening who were either new arrivals or merely a distant gleam in their parents’ eyes in the 1970s,  I found this a real nostalgia trip. In 1974 the Vasulkas were exploiting the early “portable” video cameras. I was in my gap year assisting a budding artist keen to make a documentary about my old school. We secured the loan of a Sony Portapak camera from a local teacher training college and as we played with it I had a glimmer of what I would later learn to label “technological fetishisation”. Those were innocent times: the artist argued we should interview the Headmaster dressed in clownsuits.   This element of safe anarchism was all that remained of the intense political  fervour of 1968. It was fun but not likely to change the world.

Steina Vusulka recalls how people detecting the pleasure she gained from her artistic creativity accused her of “just playing”, to which her amused response was to take it as a compliment. Hearing the Vasulkas talk about their pioneering days in the sixties conjours up visions of lunar explorers feeling their way into the darkness of a new medium. Exploration is a serious business but it also involves a childlike daring and curiosity. They were not absolutely sure what their computers and video cameras were doing to their inputs but they were excited by their outputs. As Steina puts it: artists must live on the fringe and not “kiss the ass” of the art establishment. Seen in this context even playful artistic anarchism is political.

The curator has usefully restricted the works in this exhibition to the 1970s, the Stone Age of video art technology, which provides us with a case study of the emergence of a new art form. In any transition like this an experimental approach is unavoidable. Some of these works are like video sketchbooks where the struggle to mould the new technology to artistic ends is presented with post-modern transparency. In Orbital Obsessions (1975-77)  the couple are initially heard discussing the set up for the filming. Steina is seen heaving around a huge monitor to keep pace with a revolving camera that is recording it. The cumbersome equipment and the tangle of power cables add to the sense that knotty problems were being solved on the hoof. When a doorbell rings Steina walks out of the frame to answer it, playtime suspended temporarily.

The most exciting feature of their collaboration is Woody’s engineering expertise melding with the warmth of Steina’s musical sensibility creating some startling sound/image correspondences. In Violin Power (1978) computer manipulation converts the pitch of the note played on Steina’s violin into a visible oscillation of the bow. Noisefields (1974) has reached a certain iconic status with Youtube views exceeding 12,000. Its appeal derives from the frenetic and layered audio track which includes bleeps, squelches and squeaks of differing tempos in lock-step with the eye-popping but schematic video track. The circle in a square is constant but the colouration and flicker vary, leading to thoughts of the big bang, planets, suns,  global warming, black holes and our own extinction. Its relentless energy is not just a prescient metaphor for our current information overload but taps into the atavistic brain restlessness that is a cost of our human consciousness.

Steina’s Machine Vision (1978) is real crowd pleaser: a complex and playful real time closed circuit installation with crazily rotating cameras and mirrors displaying the gallery visitors on multiples screens raising questions of voyeurism and exhibitionism. Peter Campus created several interactive video installations of this type in the 1970’s but their more formal simplicity had certain advantages.

Woody’s Reminiscence (1974) is the most moving of the video works (also viewable here) His footage of a visit to his rural childhood home in Moravia is processed so that the visual signals are degraded to a set of contour lines which we gradually learn to decode like a blind man suddenly having his sight restored. Skittering humps on the ground are farmyard animals. This misty experience so redolent of confused nostalgic visits ends in resolution with warm greetings from two recognisable human figures.

I left this exhibition reflecting on not just the value of play in the artistic process but on its necessity when new technologies present themselves. The challenge of the new technology also seemed to encourage artists to move away from the political activism of the sixties. The less threatening gently subversive approach in the seventies was very evident in the works on show here and in my own experience of being asked to don a clown-suit to video my headteacher .

London MI works : Feb-May 2016

It is impossible to review all the London MI art I see in depth, so here is a brief overview of works that have caught my eye in recent months.

Anne Tallentine – Hollybush Gardens

Morning Lane, a single channel video comprising a static shot of two contrasting surfaces on an urban roadside. Ripped polythene flapping in the wind and a single plastic cover that seemed to inhale and exhale. Schematic but visually arresting contrasts of this random fluttering and the rigid lines of the traffic traversing the view.

Themersons- Camden Art Centre

These Polish expat artists made a political piece for the exiled Polish Government during WW2. Calling Mr Smith is a rallying cry to wrest back Germany’s cultural heritage from Hitler. As an artistically driven documentary film it was way ahead of its time

Mark Wallinger- Hauser and Wirth

He offered two very  original videos.

1  A barber’s shopfront seems eerily still with only the revolving spiral red pole showing the passage of time. However this is an illusion as the film consists of two frames which alternate at a high enough speed to give the sense of continuous movement.  Time has actually been caught in an endless loop that we can see by the metronome action of the second-hand of the shop’s clock.

2  The viewer is inside a four screen installation of the same scene in the four seasons. It happens to be a roundabout with an ancient oak tree at its centre in Barkingside that I know well. The film is shot from a car driving endlessly around the roundabout similar in theme to the infinity loop of his  Circle Line train cab video.

Aleksandra Domanovic at the  Zabludovicz Collection- Emotional Supply Chains

19.30 is a two channel video feature a vast array of TV news  idents from ex Yugoslav republic TV stations selected from the archives. This is set against footage of impromptu rave parties. She conjours up nostalgia for analogue formats in the pre-digital  broadcast age.  Interesting to see how the ubiquitous globe in the newscasts is retained when model props in the 70’s were replaced by computer animation in the 90’s. This is paralleled by the stentorian  timbre of the music intro themes  that survived the usurping of live musicians by the MIDI synthesiser.





The holiday video subverted: Blandy and Conroy


Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection until 17 July

When an artist turns the camera on themselves there is the risk of a narcissistic selfie. Gilbert and George assume that their personas are intrinsically interesting as human artworks and as a result their performance videos appear self-absorbed, cloying and flat. Self portraits can generate universal insights but this usually requires the artist to have a certain modesty and to locate themselves in a compelling context. David Blandy has managed to pull off this trick many times over the past twenty years and his refreshingly honest video Child of the Atom (2010) now showing as part of the exhibition Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection is an example for other budding MI artists to follow.

Blandy’s starting point is a family holiday video with ultra high production values capturing beautiful views, a peaceful park, a homely cafe and a cute toddler clambering around. The normality of this scenario is in dissonant counterpoint to the horrific context of the film – the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. Blandy and his daughter  wander around the reconstructed city encountering newly built memorials and the poignant husks of buildings that remain from that fatal day in August 1945. The role of narrator is generously handed over to Blandy junior looking back on the trip. Her tentative musings on the morality of the military choices and their personal impact create a meditative mood. This is helped by the video’s installation on a raised platform with a traditional rush tatami mat to sit on which adds to the sense of intimacy. She tells us that her grandfather was a Japanese POW and by ending the war the bomb is said to have saved his own life and permitted her own arrival into the world:a puzzling and heartfelt moral dilemma.

Blandy  does not avoid the brutal truths of the attack but instead of using archive material which we all know too well he chooses to switch to home-grown anime clips. This serves to leaven the atmosphere with an absurdity that any consideration of nuclear warfare demands. The bomb personified as a superhero diving headfirst to ground zero is reminiscent of the iconic scene of a war crazed US major riding on a nuclear missile in Kubricks’s  dark satire, Doctor Strangelove illustrated above. Interleaving  animation with live film has been  a key feature of MI art in recent decades and has been developed by Blandy in many of his films. It reminds us of the fantasy/reality confusion that we are all emeshed in (including the nuclear Cold war strategists).  It has also been exploited to great effect in both this year’s Jerwood/ FVU Award films so its popularity is not waning.

Similarly gripping is David Raymond Conroy’s You (People) Are All The Same.  Also set in a city with a dark alterego, it also plays on holiday video tropes, opening with a blurry meander around his Las Vegas hotel bedroom.  The washed out footage undermines the stereotyped garishness we anticipate from the cityscape as we hear the artist’s gloomy prognosis of what sort of film he will eventually be able to concoct. Bravely, the lo-fi production values are maintained throughout but this is consonant with his mission to reveal the bleak underbelly of Las Vegas life.  The film is a mini thriller with dramatic turns as the artist desperately attempts to reconcile his twin goals of doing good to others while making an artwork. His altruism is pitted against the fear that he may be exploiting the homeless people he is trying to help. By alternating between his own story and that of his potential subjects he avoids charges of egotism and by handing over much of the commentary to others we get different takes on his struggle.

All the potential scenarios discussed involve divesting himself of the grant that he has been awarded but none of them get filmed. We assume that this is because of the artist’s moral squemishness but it may also be the result of his failure to identify or recruit genuine homeless subjects. Conroy has given us an original portrait of Las Vegas while interrogating the ambivalent relationship of the artist filmmaker to his subject. As with Blandy, the personal and the political are subtly entwined to give a powerful sense of artist’s convictions without descending into an egotistical diatribe.

Coincidentally Maria Eichhorn is exploring a similar issue in her latest work at the Chisenhale Gallery. She has closed the gallery and partly used her sponsorship money to pay the staff  to take a prolonged vacation.  Her subjects have no say in their involvement as without their cooperation there would be no artwork. Conroy’s film provokes some uncomfortable thoughts about this power imbalance. Jayson Musson has also produced a scabrously funny critique of this style of artwork, relational aesthetics,  which was one of the standout works at the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition Electronic Superhighway and  can be found on his Youtube channel presented by his alter-ego rapper art critic Hennessey Youngman. This is not to say that the audience cannot fruitfully be brought into the production of an artwork as the self-effacing Jeremy Deller has so elegantly demonstrated.



Urban authenticity: Susan Hefuna

Susan Hefuna- still from 150 minute film, London Crossroads, courtesy of Pi Artworks Istanbul/London and the artist

Susan Hefuna – Pi Artworks until 14th May.

As I emerge from the restyled Tottenham Court Road underground station the out-sized pop-art squares on the escalator atrium walls strike me as a desperate bid to be cool and contemporary. They might be a crude, overblown tribute to the subtly designed Paolozzi mosaics in the tunnels below. Mondrian or Matisse might also be referenced? Heritage design rather than cutting edge.

I join the pedestrian throng and realise that my bearings are completely lost. The Crossrail redevelopment has changed the psychogeography so I have to return to the booking hall below to get an exit onto familiar Oxford Street where I head towards the gallery in Eastcastle Street. As usual I pick up the exhibition notes from the reception desk but a recent experience of the strangulated style they are often written in means I only give them a cursory glance. However I do learn that the film London Crossroads I have come to see is 150 minutes long.

When an artist’s film lasts for two and half hours I would not rule out watching all of it. But when a gallery screens it in a space with no seating you are getting mixed messages. Either:

“This work is totally engaging and you will be so transfixed for the duration you won’t notice your aching legs.”

-or –

“This work does not require a full viewing – stay for as long or short a time as you wish.”

The tension between the two possibilities makes this visit to Pi Artworks a little disconcerting. A large screen fills the far wall with the image of an intersection somewhere in the West End on a miserable grey day filmed from a second floor office window. Pedestrians dribble by. Traffic consisting mainly of delivery vans career into the intersection from only one direction on a one way system unimpeded by traffic lights. They must exit at 90 degrees out of the bottom of the screen as all other roads are no entry.  I am viewing a corner bend of a racetrack that the pedestrians must navigate. Once this intriguing traffic conundrum has been decoded I settle down to appreciate the “art”. After five minutes of people watching I begin to think how much longer should I stay to give the artwork its due. Another thought occurs to me. This is the kind of experience that makes people ask: “Is modern art bankrupt?” The artist sets up the camera, disappears for two and half hours and then returns to collect their finished work.

I am about to leave when the closing credits come up which include a list of dancers from a contemporary dance school. Checking the curator’s notes (I should have known!) I read that the main artistic input to this film is the choreography of these actors in pedestrian moves that are almost indistinguishable from the real ones.  This gives me an incentive to keep viewing. It becomes a question of  trying to spot the interlopers and the significance of their behaviour.

The bright colours of hats, umbrellas and suitcases suggest an artistic intervention as do the people who exchange bags as they pass each other. The bearded guy blowing bubbles must be a set up. Only once do I spot a static balletic pose held for a few seconds. I am tempted to wait longer in case something really dramatic is imminent. I guess the main thrust of the work is the pro-social behaviour of the actors as a critique of urban alienation. Eventually I leave and find that fifty metres from the gallery I enter the crossroads that is the precise location of the filming. I have a strange feeling that I am under surveillance.

Anyone familiar with manic states of mind will recognise a common symptom: a heightened sense of the significance of events sometimes expressed as a conviction that the afflicted person themselves and those around them are not authentic autonomous beings but actors playing out roles. Mania may also be manifested as a fear that hidden cameras are recording the person’s every move, a combination of grandstanding and paranoia that is both exhilarating and unsettling. In the early stages of a manic episode it may be possible to dismiss these thoughts and feelings as delusional but lurking quietly in the shadows is the question: who are the real people around me and who are the actors?  A simulation of this mental confusion is what this film offers to the viewer.

As conceptual art this work was an undoubted success. I have reflected on its significance for weeks: the low level ubiquitous CCTV paranoia, our need for human contact in crowds and the tendency for public role-playing on the urban stage. An initial visually impoverished and intensely irritating experience eventually paid dividends. Perhaps the more pared back the image the  harder we have to think to invest meaning in the work.