Jim Moir shooting the stars in the history of video art

TV coverage of video art is strangely scant so the BBC Four documentary Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s weird world of video art screened in November 2019 which I have just watched on iPlayer was a treat. Without attempting a measured scholarly account, this one hour canter through the last 55 years nevertheless covered many of the important events of the history of the genre and unearthed a mass of intriguing anecdotes. Presented by comedian and artist Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) it was informed but refreshingly unpretentious. At one point Moir’s question to the duo of John Wood and Paul Harrison, “Has video art changed over the years?” was met with the simple “Yes” before they all collapsed in giggles at the question’s banality.

Vic and Bob’s absurdist and irreverent shtick made their Shooting Stars TV celebrity panel show in the 1990’s a weekly must-see for me. According to Moir, they were inspired by Gilbert and George so we get to see a (mercifully short!) clip from their self indulgent 11 minute film Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (1972). I fail to see what we gain from watching two irritating toffs slide into polite inebriation for this length of time. However the more self effacing duo of Wood/ Harrison was rightly given ample screen time to present their austere, hilarious and often startling videos which will get the attention they deserve in my next post.

Gilbert and George- still from Gordons makes us drunk (1972) courtesy of the artists

Much was made of the genesis myth of video art in New York, October 1965. Nam June Paik points his recently purchased Sony Portapack out of the window of his gridlocked taxi to record the Pope’s cavalcade, footage he then shows to his friends that evening. This immediacy and shareability that we now take for granted was clearly a revolutionary moment.

Catherine Elwes, a doyenne of moving image art academia and a pioneer of feminist video art in the 1970s, emphasised the video camera’s portability as the factor that led women artists to employ it in preference to 16mm cine camera which needed a crew. She also reminded us that unlike painting and sculpture, the new medium of video appealed to women as it came untrammelled by patriarchal art historical baggage. Her body of art and scholarship looks interesting and will get a closer examination in a future post.

Our smartphones mean we can all aspire to be video artists. Although some critic made the sweeping judgement that there was an inverse correlation between the ease of making the video and its quality, Moir immediately quashed this by creating a hilarious piece using his phone, a nearby odd looking processing machine as a prop and an image modifying app.

In the early seventies the immateriality of the video signal compared to celluloid was the breakthrough idea. The earlier Abstract Expressionist revolution was given a reboot through the development of computerised image processors. UK artist Peter Donebaur, like the Vasulkas in the US, had developed an image-processing synthesiser, Videokalos, which allowed action painting in the style of Jackson Pollock with the screen acting as an electronic canvas. Works could be created and viewed in real time and integrated with a music ensemble responding to the images.

Peter Donebauer- still The Creation Cycle (1974) courtesy of the artist

Absence of Satan , George Barber’s scratch video piece from 1985, was constructed from syncopated cutting and looping of clips from B movie footage and is a pivotal work. It was an extension of Steve Reich’s early experimental minimalist works in the sixties (Come out and Its Gonna rain) and is a precursor to Christian Marclay’s masterpiece Video Quartet. The producer of the 1985 number one hit, 19 for Paul Hardcastle apparently attributes the stuttered N-N-N-N- Nineteen chorus to Absence of Satan’s inspiration. The links between video art and music video are extensive and their use of archive footage is perhaps the most obvious one. Over the last ten years electro-rock band Public Service Broadcasting have built up a body of work around sampled archive sound and footage. Visuals are so crucial that the fourth member of their on-stage line up is a video director mixing live and archive feeds. Another focus for a future post.

George Barber- still from Absence of Satan (1985) courtesy of the artist

Key developments over the last 30 years were skated over rather quickly but the programme highlighted the multi screen installations of Isaac Julien and more obscurely the AI mediated work of Jake Elwes (yes, a relation) who uses GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks), the same technology behind deepfakes. This is an intriguing new direction for video art which will also get a blogpost to itself. The subjects for my next four posts have been generated by Moir’s documentary which must be some kind of endorsement. If only the BBC would commission a series!

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