Spring 2007


Video Art: Is the world listening?

By Douglas Fogle, Curator, 2008 Carnegie International


In my travels as curator of the 2008 Carnegie International, I’ve met artists all over the world working in every possible medium, from painting to puppetry. What has really struck me during my research is the increasing popularity of video as a medium of choice among contemporary artists today.

I’m often asked when artists started using video in their work, and how exactly the medium is being used today. In the era of YouTube and Apple’s iMovie, when anyone can produce their own videos, it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t so easy.

As the story goes, it all began in the mid-1960s with the introduction of the Sony Portapak, a “portable” 30-plus pound camera and video recorder that could be carried (barely) by a single person. It was a far cry from the camcorders and phone-cameras of today, but at the time it was revolutionary. If you could get your hands on one, you could, for the first time, produce your own videotapes.

Among the first artists to adopt this camera was Nam Jun Paik who, as leg-end has it, was waiting on the docks when the first shipment arrived in New York in 1965. Some artistic early-adopters of video began to play with the medium. In Paik’s case, he famously made a sculpture by placing a giant magnet on top of a television set, distorting the broadcast image into a kind of abstract electronic painting.

Currently on view in Gallery 16 at Carnegie Museum of Art is Paik’s TV Rodin (1976–78), another great example of video as sculpture, in which a small bronze cast of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker studies its own “reflection” in a small video monitor.

Artist Bruce Nauman took video in a slightly different direction. Nauman videotaped himself in his studio in the 1960s, as he enacted a set of absurd but highly choreographed sculptural performances.

Paik and Nauman are just two examples of pioneers using video in their work. What followed was an explosion of interest in the medium, and some 40 years later, both established and emerging artists have started working in more cinematic modes, constructing documentary-based works or even more traditional filmic narratives in the vein of Hollywood.

Coming soon to the Forum Gallery is a video installation by an artist who both works from these traditions and turns them on their collective heads. Phil Collins, a young English artist (sorry, no relation to the rock star), uses video in his work to tap into the confessional impulse that is so prevalent today in reality television. Opening March 31, Forum 59: Phil Collins showcases his video installation the world won’t listen. Mining the world of musical fandom—in this case, the melancholic, emotional followers of the 1980s band The Smiths—Collins went to Bogotá, Columbia, in 2004 and Istanbul, Turkey, in 2005 to recruit collaborators through radio, dance clubs, and in wheat-pasted fly posters throughout the city streets.

Soliciting participants for the project, Collins invited “the shy, the dissatisfied, narcissists, and anyone who’s ever wished they could be someone else for a night” to come and perform karaoke versions of the decidedly melancholic and angst-ridden lyrics of this British band in front of generic, kitschy backdrops of nature scenes or faux-tropical islands. The resulting video installation offers us a series of heartbreaking portraits of its subjects that are at once intimate and voyeuristic, exceedingly sincere and tragi-comic.

In the end, Collins asks us to identify with his subjects, regardless of where they are from, by invoking a cross-cultural community of people tied together by their love of The Smiths. It is here—in the interplay between our own narcissism as spectators and that of the American Idol dreams of the singers on the screen—that the world won’t listen performs its magic. At once seductive and analytical, Collins’ use of video taps into the more popular legacy of this medium, as popularized by MTV and fueled by our own fantasies of do-it-yourself rock stardom. Aside from its incredibly pleasurable and more “popular” aspects, the world won’t listen also brings us back to the roots of the 1960s artists who set up the camera and performed in front of it. Rather than putting himself in front of the camera, Collins plays the role of director, interviewer, and television producer.

Perhaps the world won’t listen to his subjects, but he certainly will.

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Also in this issue:

One Hot Topic  ·  West Looks East  ·  Golden Years  ·  Off the Wall …and Into Packed Theaters  ·  Director's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  Face Time: Lareese Hall  ·  Artistic License: Bizarre Beasts  ·  About Town: Let's Explore  ·  Another Look: The Natural History Docent  ·  Science & Nature: In Search of the Best Visitor Experience  ·  Then & Now: Hillman Hall