What Do Artists Need?

Contemporary Practices, Vol. IV, March 2009

WHAT DO ARTISTS NEED? Reflections on The First Örebro International Videoart Festival

by Madeline Djerejian

It’s a commonplace that every artist needs an audience but I’d like to put forth a secondary aphorism I feel too often goes unsaid: what artists really need are other artists.  The veracity underpinning this claim, which purports that art – and the audience for it – is built first and foremost by and amongst artists themselves (only to later extend or seep outward like a spiral or viral form) was brought home to me following my participation in a new video art festival taking place in Sweden last year. Billed as the first video art festival in the city of Örebro, last October’s inaugural edition of the Örebro International Videoart Festival ran Oct 24-26 and screened 100 international works in programs selected by twelve curators [this writer included] working from Australia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, Egypt, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Serbia, Sweden, and the USA. This first and promising edition of the festival centered on the need for a venue that would function as a nexus for sustained, critical inquiry into the changing direction and current practice of the video art form. Aided by support from public authorities, businesses and art institutions, the festival offered its first audience - viewers and practitioners alike – opportunities for engagement and exchange over work. The score of screenings, held at three sites throughout the city (Örebro Konsthall, Örebro Läns Museum and Bio Roxy cinema house), were complemented by a series of lectures, debates and presentations. The festival’s hosting of events across three city venues suitably underscored one of the most vital aspects of video today: its transportable, amorphous, essentially ‘homeless’ nature.

The 2008 edition of the festival was organized by Art Video Screening, a not-for-profit initiative run by artists Jonas Nilsson and Eva Olsson, in cooperation with the Konsthall, Läns Museum and Bio Roxy. Art Video Screening works to promote video art and support artists, with a focus on video in its single channel form. The concept to bring an international video art festival to Örebro was in fact Nilsson and Olsson’s own, a natural extension of the work Art Video Screening has been doing since 2005. By staging an ambitious program in their home city, Nilsson and Olsson committed to addressing a need they obviously felt as both artists and cultural organizers. Theirs is a need shared by all artists, but particularly those working in diasporic conditions or simply outside of art-laden or urban centers. One might characterize this as the need for a context apart from the venues of the marketplace for a rigorous and focused exchange of ideas addressing 1) the nature of good practice and 2) the shifting conditions under which artists are working today. Recognizing that creating a context for one’s practice begins by networking within a like-minded community, Art Video Screening engaged curators who are either video practitioners themselves or organizers of video collectives, cooperatives and exchange platforms. The curators presenting programs in the 2008 festival edition were: Agricola de Cologne of VideoChannel (Germany); Chris Bennie of MSSR (Australia), Igor Bosnjak of namaTRE.ba (Bosnia & Herzegovina), Jeanette Land Schou of Fast Video/PIXEL (Denmark), Kristín Scheving of 700IS Film Festival (Iceland), and from Art Video Exchange: Mona Bentzen (Norway), Viktoria Ilyushkina (Russia), Katarina Stankovic (Serbia), and this writer (USA). Sherif Awad of Contemporary Practices (this journal) and Art Video Screening added further presentation programs to the mix.

In Örebro creating that context also meant making an effort to educate the public about the contemporary practice of video. To this end the festival was opened by Swedish art journalist Christoffer Barnekow, and all screenings were introduced by the attending curators or their representatives. In addition two lectures, concentrating on Swedish and international video art, with debates took place: one by Max Liljefors, writer on video art, another by Filmform, a foundation dedicated to the promotion, distribution and preservation of Swedish art film and experimental video. The result was that this young festival felt less like a biennial-type ‘fete’ and more like an intense 3-day artistic conference. The remit to “show recent works by established artists or artists in the beginning of their careers, giving audiences a variation of video art from different countries or regions, and cultures” gave curators the freedom to submit programs according to their personal or organizational positions. What was fascinating to reflect on was how this broad-brush remit was interpreted by the different curators. Some fastened on thematic conceits (e.g. Agricola de Cologne, presenting a 10-work program under the heading of “Identity of Time’); others made an elegant grouping of notable works by members of their collectives (eg. MSSR, Fast Video/PIXEL, namaTRE.ba). Mona Bentzen’s program featured a number of works by Norwegian sound artists and musicians currently working the video format, while Viktoria Ilyushkina used her curatorial platform as opportunity to introduce audiences to a group of artists working from her home city St. Petersburg. My own was a compilation of works by women artists based in the U.S.A.  All the programs (each 30-40 minutes long) were looped to run for six hours on a given day. This proved a useful format as it allowed viewers to revisit works, take breaks, and digest 100 videos at their own pace.

Taken together, the twelve programs resulted in a rich array of work generously reflecting what the medium of video has to offer in terms of range of technique and subject matter. There were works that delved into urgent political and social matters as well as those that hewed more closely to the fantastic, the absurd, and the poetical. Most notably, humor – black, brazen, dry and absurd – was found throughout all programs, which ran the gamut from animation, stop-action, and performance to text-based works and filmic – or PowerPoint – narratives. Mimicking the idea of the commercial ‘break’ or message, one artist, Molly Stevens, created an interstitial work for the festival that threaded throughout the U.S. program.

The festival was a smorgasbord repast ensuring there would be something to suit each viewer’s taste – even when least expected. And as is often the case with any large-scale screening program, viewers were inclined to think about how works from one program found resonance in others, either obliquely or directly. Indeed, this opportunity for establishing relations between superficially divergent works seemed to me to be one of the more significant opportunities this young festival afforded its audience. With several works hinging on wistful longings, expressive yearnings, and morbid enchantments, Ilyushkina’s program of work originating in St. Petersburg inhabited the realm of fantasy, dream and horror.  Drawing inspiration from a Russian fairy tale, Olesya Shchukina’s Yellowhead–Semolina Porridge is a mix of live action and stop-motion set to a peppy soundtrack, the story of the selfish girl who brushes aside friends and their kindnesses only to meet her demise drowning in a pot of mush. Then she wakes up. Phew, it’s a nightmare. Or is it? Shchukina’s comic ending twist makes this hard to say, but this work felt decidedly fresh and vibrant. Likewise Symptom of A Sofa, Olga Zhitlin’s near-hallucinatory journey through the mind of a lay-about who inertly muses about participating in the world that lies beyond the refuge of her couch. Apparently many of the artists featured in Ilyushkina’s program are younger artists: I found her inclusion of two striking videos centered on suicide particularly poignant given this context, with Olga Lovtysus’sFake Suicide perfectly capturing mixed feelings of languid boredom and arrested confusion. One wonders what societal pressures or economic conditions the youth of St. Petersburg are responding to. But given the uninhibited, surrealist tinge to many of these works, one message was clear: life may be drearily dull, or confining, but video is a powerful tool for expressing the world of the imagination.

The uneasy mix of impotence and anger displayed by the protagonist of Mounir Fatmi’s Man Without a Horse dramatizes the conundrum of the disempowered. Given that Fatmi is from Morocco but also lives and works in France, an audience might not help but see this work in a political context. But certainly the image of an equestrian divested of his horse and kicking a heavy book – titled ‘Histoire’ – down a muddy road invokes the gap between aspiration and disappointment, and intellect and action. Yet watching this work unfold in the context of this festival, I found myself imagining some strain of Fatmi’s grey-haired protagonist featuring as a character in a later work by one of the St. Petersburg artists. While such works put us in a contemplative or concerned mood, others held us by altogether different means. For pure voyeuristic pleasure– of the titillating variety – Toilet by Unnur Andrea Einarsdottir (Iceland) nabbed my vote. Now, the position of onlooker can be simultaneously entertaining and discomforting: Einarsdottir knows this. Scantily clad in slip and high heels, and positioned on her hands and knees, Einarsdottir proceeds to lick from a green toilet seat that has been covered in cream (but nicely punctuated – with cherries). What’s more, the artist toys neatly with our sense of both objective and subjective time: watching Einarsdottir slurp and swallow her way through this confection, I felt like a captive at a sorority hazing – but like everyone else at the Bio Roxy, I was compelled to see her finish it off, determined to see this artist lick her bowl 'clean'. But Einarsdottir’s was a cringe-worthy performance only masked as cheap thrill: given its blatant references to anal and oral sex, Toilet clearly proved her point: getting down means getting dirty, no matter how nicely you dress it up.

Toilet’s virtues aside, we will place ourselves in front of work to engage in a different sort of pleasure. Of the many festival artists working the screen as a canvas for abstraction and patterning, Naho Taruishi’s (USA) had a most visceral effect. Close Your Eyes begins with white text on a black background, its instructive message – “close your eyes” – reinforced by a disembodied voice (think a kinder, gentler, feminine version of Hal from Kubrick’s 2001). As the darkened screen dissolves into flashes of flickering color and light, a subtle play of hues delicately suffuses the eyelids, converting them into an internal projection screen. Taken at face value, Taruishi’s miniature theatre of vision certainly challenges the way one typically experiences art and visual phenomena, inverting the very act of ‘looking’. But as whenever a work of art makes demands of its beholders, not all will toe the line: many viewers kept their eyes open, only to be assaulted by a blinding barrage of stroboscopic visions. This was, in a word, painful. But Taruishi’s mischievous twist made us reflect that the beholder of art, never free of obligation, always has freedom of choice. And here the choice was clear: art as pain and punishment, or pure visual pleasure?

Pain – or more precisely, power – is the conceit, as explored by Frédérique Chauveaux (France) in Faim Blanche. In what commences as a game, two lovers take turns kissing each other. As their kisses devolve into nips, then bites, the lovers spring apart only to renew their erotic ‘attacks’ in increasingly aggressive ways. Flesh, pulled harder and harder, is stretched to the point of unbearing: this couple’s aggressive play borders on the sadomasochistic. Drawing a line from tease to hurt, Faim Blanche explores the shifting tensions inherent in desire, subjection, and control, pointing ultimately to the near divide that separates love from hate. Filming in black and white, Chauveaux underscores the idea of stark contrast with the ‘grey areas’ that go hand-in-hand with willful domination and possession. The strange interplay between Chauveaux’s lovers finds curious consonance in a brief yet beautiful set of actions taking place between two utterly different bodies, the elastic rubber bands of Elin Kromann’s It Takes Two. Here twobands plop into the frame; immediately they coil, twine into each other; then twisting, they pop apart, finding escape in release. Set to a spare soundtrack, It Takes Two is a minimal, humorous work demonstrating the strain between singularity and duality. Artist Jeanette Land Schou spoke of video’s potential for poetry; this was haiku.

Public address as parody found expression in the works of several festival artists. In Being Babette Francis, Australian artist Nicola Chatham quotes from Robyn Rowland’s book ‘Women Who Do & Women Who Don’t – Join the Women’s Movement’. Presenting herself topped with a jaunty hat, and scarlet-painted lips, Chatham mouths the refrain “I like men and find them more intellectually stimulating than women.” Chatham’s repetition of this phrase, spoken with the deadpan delivery of the skilled comedienne, reads by turns: coy, sly, fatuous, challenging and outright mocking, and she continues to undermine the credibility of this statement until finally it rings preposterously inane.  This performative use of language was echoed in another spoof, this time by Birgitte Sigmundstad (Norway). In How to explain direct action to a live rabbit a black-masked member of the Animal Liberation Front addresses the audience in a monologue cobbled together from bits of texts by Herbert Marcuse, John Zerzan, and an article pithily entitled “How to Explain Terrorism to Your Child”. Posturing and pontificating while nestling amidst a bevy of farm animals (and gently caressing a rabbit), this erudite worthy – the most drearily-earnest of radicals – attempts to convince us of his arguments, continuing to plead his case despite the fact his lecture notes and garb are being nibbled away by the barnyard goat. Now, I’ve not read my Zerzan – but I daresay George Orwell would have approved.

End Game zeros right in on the condition of the contemporary artist. Set to the honeyed crooning of Frankie Valli, a film’s credits roll. Watching the names stream by we soon realize that every name on this list is but an anagram of that of the artist who made it: Goran Micevksi. End Game’s cascade of contorted credits serves to remind one that today’s artist is a performer, worker, entrepreneur, marketer, capitalist, organizer, aesthete – and more – all bundled into one. Every role it seems is taken. But wait: one role remains uncast. Who will complete this work? Who will be the audience member?

And that I think almost perfectly encapsulates the state of video art today. There is an exuberant richness to the kinds of expressions we encounter in video. Yet one always gets the sense that very few people are actually watching. Let’s consider the art-going public: how many times does one hear complaints about the number of – or duration of – videos screened at biennials and art fairs, let alone local gallery exhibitions? With a glut of artworks jockeying for position to be seen, video comes across as the medium most likely to exhaust an audience’s capacity for attention, unduly taxing a viewer’s precious art-going minutes. And yet for video artists in particular, it certainly can be said that the current environment of digital communication has radically altered the landscape for artistic practice and reception. Accelerated developments in software technology, accompanied by a rising number of Internet-driven videoblogs, social-networking sites and YouTube posts all but ensure that a host of exposure and communication channels are available to the video artist. Without a doubt, the Internet heralds a new era of opportunistic reach for a medium that commenced as a clunky, somewhat cumbersome vehicle for artistic expression. So with all these platforms available to video art, one would expect display and dissemination to be the least of the video artist’s problems. But in stacking art media up like a totem pole, I’d venture you’ll find agreement that video tends to fall somewhere at the bottom, if not the base. Likening art to the proverbial dinner party, it seems too often we can serve video up but the guests won’t come - or if they do, too often they won’t stay to enjoy the feast. Considering all of this, what is the video artist - or curator - to do?

In 2008, maintaining the ‘need for an international video art festival’ in their home city, Nilsson and Olsson launched the first leg of a festival dedicated to examining the needs and practice of video artists today. Yes, artists do need other artists. Artistic expression is, after all, not simply ‘personal’ expression: it is the expression that results from the dialogue that occurs among peers, and the begging, borrowing, stealing, inverting, modifying, sampling – and rejecting – of other kinds of work. It is vital that artists understand how their own obsessions and expressions stack up against those of their colleagues. But when I say, “artists need other artists” I do not mean simply the need for feedback on the aesthetic merit or direction of one’s work. There is also the need to compare thoughts about the formal distribution of work, i.e. the shifting conditions of production and dissemination, the new ways by which to advance one’s practiceOnly by addressing these issues will the contemporary artist move her material, and her medium, forward into the world at large.

Looking at the shape of this first edition of the festival, it is clear that to achieve their goal of a establishing a nexus for community and exchange of artistic practice, the organizers were prepared to employ a variety of tactics, including networking, caliber and scope of work, education, and patronage. Given the point of the Örebro festival was not just to showcase a variety of works but to create agency amongst practitioners, to say that the festival was precisely about constructing connections between approaches to video would be to miss its larger theme. In the face of a spate of other equally ‘international’ art events taking place around the globe, the fundamental question as raised by this new festival is: Is diversity of use to us at all in art and culture if it cannot be harnessed to our needs? In other words, what good is the freedom to make a video on any subject whatever, if artists are unable to define and communicate their work to a public already primed to consume video?

It is evident that there must be “value added” to single channel video festivals such as Orebro, for in one sense they are going against the tide. They may in fact suffer like bookstores suffer on account of the Internet. In the current technological environment, video artists may feel a greater affinity towards an Internet-based platform. Some may even feel the most efficient way to penetrate the market is to abandon single-channel video in its familiar DVD-format. This is not as revolutionary as it sounds; after all, music did not cease to exist simply because the format changed from vinyl to tape to CD to MP3. And this is not to say that single channel video is dying – quite the opposite, in fact: single channel is the dominant format for commercial video. However, there has been one crucial development: video is now sized for optimal viewing on 2.5-inch hand-held screens or 6-inch wide YouTube windows.

Video art has long been the domain of the gallery, the museum, and the specialized collector. But we live in a digital world. In only a few years technology and the Internet have redrawn the landscape for the definition of what an artistic platform can be. Future art audiences will come from a generation of young viewers who never knew a world without video. Is it too much to assume this public will want to consume and appreciate art and culture – and video artworks – in new ways?  The first Örebro International Videoart Festival established a more than solid foundation. As an artist and curator I hope future festival editions will continue to address the needs of video artists, focusing on the more vexing issues of distribution and technological advance, perhaps even examining the actual conditions within which video competes for the attention of the public. In the meantime, Silicon Valley tells us it won't be long before FlashPlayer comes to the iPhone. Stay tuned to see what artists - and others - will make of that.


For a full listing of programs see: www.artscreen.se