Saturday, September 01, 2007

Top Five Video Works Ever

A while back I gave a talk at ACMI on the top five video works ever. I began by thinking not so much about what works to consider, but WHEN and WHERE I would like to see specific works – like making a wish list for someone who has a time machine. Video is not timeless, nor placeless, something that’s easy to forget when DVDs can be sent all across the globe for curators to install in museums that in many ways look the same, and use the same equipment, the same brands, the same paint on the walls. Many of my favourite pieces of art are those that speak to the conditions of their production, that include a consideration of context that either makes it difficult to move them through space and time, or is internalised, so that the context is swallowed but not digested.

I would, for example, have loved to have seen Chris Burden on American national television in the late 1970s: both his piece called Hijack TV, where he “hijacked” a television broadcast in a live interview, much to the horror of the interviewer and the network, and another one called "Through the night softly" 1975. Through the night softly was 30 seconds of footage of Burden crawling across broken shards of glass, filmed in black and white. It looks completely gorgeous - he drags himself on his chest through this sparkly, glittering universe of fragments. Burden screened the work as a commercial. He actually purchased a months worth of advertising slots – when the network head was lazing about on the couch at home one night and saw Burden's footage he freaked out and immediately moved to revoke Burden's contract, but a contract is a contract and they were obliged to screen his “commercials” on prime time television. Burden later did another commercial that he called poem for L.A, which went to air in 1975, apparently the network was inundated with phone calls from perplexed viewers. Trying to insert footage like Burden’s glass crawl into prime time television scheduling today would be totally impossible – and this says a lot about the conditions by which images are screened and delivered, consumed. Consumption and control were both big deals for Burden – he said once in an interview that he used to take photos of people he didn’t like with a little spy camera and then chop up the negatives, sprinkle them on his breakfast cereal and eat them. He said it was a means of empowerment and control. Burden’s television commercials, by contrast, sacrificed control for chance encounters – they would have been encountered randomly, unannounced and unexplained, in the middle of dodgy shampoo ads and corporate broadcasts. In a way these were images that only survived by falling through the cracks.

I would also have loved to have seen Douglas Gordon’s Five Year Drive By installed outside in the American desert in Southern Utah. I saw an image of this work in reproduction years ago – a slide that showed a projection screen erected in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by low scrub and red earth, with endless horizon behind. The piece is a five year-long version of The Searchers, John Ford's epic western starring John Wayne. The duration of the film was stretched to match the duration of the narrative (five years from start to finish). Gordon calculated that 113 minutes of cinema time was equal to (2,629,440) two million, six hundred and twenty nine thousand, four hundred and forty minutes – so one second of cinema time had to last for 6.46 hours in real time, a durational leap that can only be made using video, not film. The landscape that surrounds the projection screen is the landscape in which the Searchers was shot – the Monument Valley in Southern Utah. Gordon said: “I like the idea of a physical monument to the idea of the search, the potential view has to be involved in a physical journey in order to see the work, this is a real parallel with the story.”Gordon’s Five Year Drive By played day and night - during the day it wasn’t visible, just the white screen in the desert. I like to think of this work as a kind of clock. You could visit it every now and then over the course of its duration, as a kind of life marker, a means of checking the passing of time against a narrative, so that the fictional story actually bends outwards to imprint upon real events over the course of five years of your life. There’s a sense of melancholia I get about this work, absolutely motivated by its absence, the sun takes over the image, the search is never completed, the whole is too big to experience, the fragment tells you where you are in time, like a chronological map.

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