Video Positive 1991

VIDEO POSITIVE 1991, Art Monthly, Issue 147, June 1991

The 1991 ‘Video Positive’ Festival in Liverpool is the second of what now seems set to become a regular, bi-annual event. This year’s festival extended the scope of the 1989 ‘Video Positive’ to include video work by Australian, German, Yugoslav, Canadian, Dutch and American as well as British artists. The festival catalogue included a useful chronology of British video art as well as an excellent historical survey of UK installations by Jeremy Welsh. The scale of the festival was impressive. There were more than 14 installations in 6 venues around the city centre, a range of screenings and seminars, and a community and education programme. The organisation and coordination of the festival was impressive too; festival director Eddie Berg and his team at Moviola marshalled a dazzling array of talents and technology. As with the first ‘Video Positive’ , technology featured strongly, indeed the buzz-word of the festival seemed to be ‘interactive’, and two installation works, Chasing Skirt by Australian duo Severed Heads, and Alchemy by Simon Biggs, explored interactive techniques. Chasing Skirt was an interesting demonstration of one notion of interactivity, the principle of the work being that the viewer’s location and movement within the exhibition space triggered certain pattern and colour changes on two video screens and a ‘midi’ controlled keyboard. Despite this use of interactive technology, it was ultimately the lack of interesting imagery which limited the imaginative scope of the work. Alchemy was a beautifully integrated work, which transformed two vertically aligned video monitors into the open pages of an animated illuminated manuscript. By passing a hand across a sensor placed adjacent to the ‘book’, the viewer could turn the ‘pages’ backwards or forwards to reveal the next (or the previous) image. Although there was a purity of form in the presentation of this work, it also seems ironic that, despite the use of sophisticated state-of-the-art technology, the best model for interactivity remains the humble book. The alchemical theme connected much of the work at the Tate, and I feel that this fascination with the elemental and environmental reflects a curatorial preference as much as it indicates the concerns of artists currently using video. The wide use of landscape imagery made the works all seem curiously similar. A lack of consideration of the sculptural elements of video installation was also a common problem here. A sculptural sensibility was more in evidence in the work at the Bluecoat Gallery. For example, The Fujiyama Pyramid Project by Peter Callas had multiple video monitors supporting a four-sided pyramid representing both Mount Fuji and the Masonic symbolism on the American dollar bill. This related to computer generated images of a Japanese ‘Uncle Sam’ on one side and an aggressive U.S cop on the other. The sculptural and imagistic juxtaposition becomes, in the artist’s own words, ‘a symbol of transaction/ translation between two cultures whose two economies form a tense collaboration’ (Wishing) Well by Catherine Elwes was, in terms of the technology employed, the least complex work in the festival. But this elegant simplicity was also its strength. Entering a darkened space, the viewer encountered a cool, font-like construction, from which emanated occasional sounds of splashing water and the muffled, echoing voice of a child. The viewer was invited to climb up and look down into the ‘well’ only to be confronted by the apparently reflected image of a child, periodically broken up by the child apparently dropping coins into the water. The physical demands of this work created another form of’ interactivity’,a play on reflections. This in turn opened up an imaginative space within which to contemplate the nature of the illusion and our relationship to the child within us. The quietness of the space, combined with the unusual proximity of other viewers as one peered down the well, produced an uncannily intimate experience of video. In contrast, Clive Gillman’s Losing at the Open Eye Gallery dealt with a public theme, that of mass entertainment. The form and ritual of football were used as the basis for a complex and carefully crafted multiple monitor installation. The game was portrayed as a mysterious, almost mystical activity. Gillman presented the viewer with an integrated combination of computer-generated graphics and live-action footage which unfolded as a repeating narrative across the gallery space. Like (Wishing) Well, Losing exploited the sculptural dimension of video installation to reinforce and inform the meanings and resonances of the work. The frenetic image-processing of the 1980s was not much in evidence except, perhaps, in the virtuoso montage of Lei Cox’s Magnification Maximus. Judith Goddard’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights turned computer effects into a sumptuous contemporary reworking of Bosch’s visionary paintings. These works confirm the value of artists’ creative use of technologies normally the preserve of commercial interests. ‘Video Positive’ has clearly been a great success. At the Bluecoat Gallery attendance figures broke all previous records, the last one being set by ‘Women’s Images of Men’, back in 1981. Public interest was also reflected in the fact that media coverage included both local and national radio and an extended Channel 4 news feature. The additional interest generated by the international artists was significant, and one hopes that this festival will help to raise the profile of UK video artists abroad, especially in Europe, where they have been virtually ignored.

Video Positive was at the Tate, Liverpool and at several other venues from Apr 20th-May 6.