ORIENTATIONS: BOUNDARIES SURVEYED was an hour-long screening I curated for the 14th Experimental Film & Video Festival in Seoul (2017.07.13-20) on initiatives in contemporary video art in the Asia Pacific.
This is no comprehensive survey of the roots and histories of video art. Orientations is rather a response to the standard story of video art in Europe and North America, which spins off familiar, great early video artists such as the Vasulkas, Nam-June Paik, Beryl Korot, Mary Lucier and Peter Weibel. The six artists in Orientations are those I have met and with whom I had conversations in the past year — from Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia. The eight works assembled here are the “documents” of our chance encounters. I take stock of the diverse conceptual sources, artistic roots, experimental modes and personal commitment they exemplify. The 60-minute program here, therefore, maps a trajectory of positions, intentions and inventive desires for how video art has been practiced and used.
Video art was notably a product of, and reaction against, broadcast television, catalyzed by the almost legendary Sony Portapak in the 1960s. Whereas the former brought moving images into the domestic space, the latter turned moving images from absolute private ownership (of the film industry) to a new domain of democratized access and creative initiatives. Coming alongside was also a new range of technical experimental possibilities and an aesthetic vocabulary different from that of the normative film language — from polarization of the gray scale, colorization, eye-body separation, to signal interference, feedback noise and new image-making capabilities with the synthesizer. In this program, Hector Rodriguez comes closest in spirit — as he scrutinizes digitality as the very object of deconstruction, and computation an artistic medium that commands a new system of artistic knowledge using mathematical concepts.
In the early days of video art, there was definitely something very “video” that is not cinema. As we look around today with all audio-visual equipment digitally reconceived, defining video art has become more a series of polemics. No doubt, video is more often the synonym of intermedia, as much as a platform of media convergence. There is no more “pure video,” as the works of Toh Hun-ping and Kevin Ng manifest in this program. What connect contemporary moving-image makers with those in earlier phases of video art experimentation are perhaps the following. Portability remains important, with our cameras ever lighter, more literally the extension of us, and more omnipresent. The term “video art” is also often kept to preserve the space for a single-person artistic platform, as opposed to crew-based production. Such is the case of all artists selected, including Diego Ramirez whose work deployed a small crew as he is himself the performer-protagonist in his work. The term “video art” has continued to preserve the space for the experimental, the alternative, the subversive, where one speaks the unspeakable, challenges set conventions, and raise critical meta-issues of media in society.
The recent moving image works of artist Jamsen Law (LAW Sum-po) are made for video concerts or video operas. In this program, I picked an early work of his, a single-channel piece published in 1997, Getting Used to Run, to the local independent film/video community of Hong Kong. Self-identified and classified as “music video,” it suggests the “alternative” status and subversive overtone music videos enjoyed in that earlier moment of video art in Hong Kong. In a research interview I conducted with him, he emphatically stated his conceptual source was from television and painting but not cinema. Law’s video works, since 1997, consciously explored the “palette” of television colors.
The cinematic root of moving image as well as a fine art sensibility is evident in the two pieces by Toh Hun-ping. He is strongly entrenched in the experimental cinema tradition in which montage and fragmentation are rudimentary, reminding us of the diary films of Stan Brakhage, with a digital twist. He deploys the digital “video” format as a free platform on which many existing artistic operations are possible — still photography, drawing, sculpting, filming, painting and thus animating. Blueprints for Volition City (2006) and Unconcealment of the Aftermath (2009) are not only the hard work of an animator. As we watch the two works, we are also watching Toh’s invisible hands performing his emotional outbursts unfolding and materializing through his “frame-by-frame” marking and erasure of image surfaces. Like Jamsen Law, personal doubt or depression is never just personal. The outbursts in Toh and Law’s works are full of references of contemporary life and specific locales of their city-states — Singapore and Hong Kong… The use of found material to both artists, however, is subject to very different micro-narrative strategies.
The impulse to remember is an equally performative yet a different game in Diego Ramirez‘s exotic semi-horror aXolotl’s Happiness (2014). The work highlights the artist’s interest in active re-reading of existing popular objects to generate new texts of resistance. To Ramirez, Melbourne-based with a Mexican origin, video is a handy tool and a subversive space of culture marks. His performance of banal everyday chores can be understood as fictional ethnography, pointing back to the representational immediacy of camera presence. He exposes the erotic, pornographic undertone of (visual) ethnography as a practice, as he told Katie Paine in an interview. In aXolotl’s Happiness, Ramirez “embodies” the character himself, a practice he gradually abandoned and turned to “delegated performance” in his later works to overcome the unexamined auto-biographic assumptions imposed by viewers. In either case, he persists in interrogating how camera presence defines and moderates “otherness” in identity politics.
Elaine Wong‘s use of video in Phantom of 20C is not only personal, but also inner. She breaks down figurative forms for a state of mind that can only be attempted, felt, but not comprehended. How to dramatize the anxiety of living in an info-loaded, opinion-loaded environment? Video is the final containment of an aural-visual experience that evolves from literature, video projection, installation, phonography and collage through a series of representational disembodiment towards pure sight and sound.
To Kevin Ng (NG Chak-hang) video is the body of multi-iterative visual composition that goes hand in hand with industrious visual ethnographic field-shooting. In Ver. VII, video is also animation — he brings back to life architectural presences that we normally push away to the backdrop of our daily encounters. Architectural entities now acquire a life of their own.
The pulse of the city space of Hong Kong runs not on found live action activities, but on calculated collage of geometric and graphic components of the cityscape.
Hector Rodriguez‘s two works in this program are instances of turning video into a generative “writing machine,” which is at once a software that reads and writes and a library that supports writing. In both Theorem 8 (2013) and Boxing Mothlight (2016), the “library” is a database, which contains the audio-visual information of the digital version of existing moving-image works. Each work deploys different mathematical concepts to “read” the original works mathematically-analytically to generate lower-level data, the raw material for generative “re-writing.” Theorem 8 reads and rewrites Godard’s Alphaville and Maya Deren’s Witch’s Cradle whereas Boxing Mothlight (world premiere) analyzes Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight at the same time shows the deconstruction process as a new procedural, visual narrative.
Rodriguez’s Theorem 8 and Boxing Mothlight supply a paradigm for the exploration of the dialogue between science and video art. They are essential for the completion of the trajectory of contemporary video art I am surveying. It embodies and anticipates a totally new horizon on which mathematical concepts are not just metaphors or functional facilitators, but re-define the language of moving image. At one end of the trajectory, we have works that draws from the cinematic tradition; and interdisciplinary tendencies intensify through the incorporation of fine arts and cultural studies sensibilities. At the other end of the trajectory, Boxing Mothlight takes us beyond moving image as a perceptual experience. It turns videography into software-writing of potential moving image works, thus dialoguing with a long tradition of rule-based artistic creation in the history of art on the one hand, and re-defining the status quo of found-footage on the other.
Getting Used to Run | Jamsen LAW
1997 / 9m23s / B&W / Stereo / 9min 23sec / SD
How do I prepare myself psychologically before I run? How does acceleration, deceleration, stasis and exit come into the picture? How would I feel after being used to running? What would I think (of) (you) if you run? How would you feel if I run? And how would it be if we run? The video is the artist’s reflection on Hong Kong’s handover to China. Abstract movements express his unspeakable emotion towards the unforeseeable chances. (Music in the piece is by the artist’s friend, independent musician PUN Tak-shu)
Jamsen Law has held solo screenings in Toronto, Tokyo, Busan and Hong Kong. His independent video works have also been shown at Videobrasil, Transmediale Berlin, the Gwangju Biennale, the Ogaki Biennale and other festivals in Europe, Asia, and North and South America. Law has taken artist-residency at Artspace in Sydney and Castle of Imagination, Poland. He received his art education at Chinese U’s Fine Arts and the Institute of Advanced Media Art and Science in Japan. He now teaches visual arts at the Hong Kong Design Institute.
Blueprints for Volition City_TOH Hun Ping [trailer for various works]
Singapore / 2006 / Color / Stereo / 7min 47sec / HD
A dirge for Singapore; a prophecy for its demise. A prevision of its extremizing man-willed urbanity; its mouth-gagging noise; the dirty quality of exposed skin, bare cracking concrete, shattered glass and rusted steel; its voids, its scars and bloodied veins; percolating wastes from the seams; erogenous secrets abused and genitals torn apart. Blueprints was created entirely via stop-motion. Through hand-manipulations of digital photographic prints, found footage from uncredited sources, the work “performs” decaying substances and violent outbursts, which become visual and aural unrest for the audience.
Unconcealment of the Aftermaths_TOH Hun Ping
Singapore / 2009 / Color / Stereo / 10min 24sec / HD
Unconcealment of the Aftermaths is the artist’s expressionistic attempt to come to terms with self-doubt, uncertainty and the profundity of it all. Taking a year to complete, it began with the artist’s solo travel in 2008 to Vietnam, Laos and Taiwan, including his ancestral home in Kinmen, through which he struggled to strike away extreme depression having worked for sheer income, was baffled by images of the dead, and tumbled into peace at his ancestor’s homeland. All this drove him to breathless visual compositions, which evolve into animation loops that appeared to be “suspended” or “in stasis” — the artist’s articulation of peace and mental stability.
The narrative body of the work is a journey laden with labyrinthine wanderings and persistent scavenging through the unfathomable middens. Technically, it combines hand-manipulated – bleached, crumpled, painted – paper printouts of digital photos and video frames, and scratch drawings on colour print film containing old family photos, all digitally photographed or scanned, then animated frame by frame. Unconcealment is a work of visual composition as much as compilation from found images of the artist’s own. The final sealing of the piece was a soundtrack the artist composed in response to the moving visuals.
Toh Hun-ping is a Singapore-based film researcher who has been experimenting with various methods of image manipulation through his video works and short films — from employing stop-motion techniques to bleaching film strips, recycling old 35mm photography reels and scratching digital printouts of old photographs. Toh’s works have been screened at international experimental film festivals in Bangkok and Paris, and presented in many art venues, as video installations and live-performance projections. He currently runs the Singapore Film Locations Archive, a private video collection of films made in various locations in Singapore. His works have been featured at the Singapore International Film Festival (2014) and the Hong Kong International Film Festival (2017).
[Excerpt of Toh’s work Ex.Toil …] [Artist’s own writing…]
aXolotl’s Happiness […] | Diego RAMIREZ
Austrailia / 2014 / Color / Stereo / 7min 15sec / HD
aXolotl’s Happiness is a video about an anthropomorphic axolotl (colloquially, a Mexican walking fish). The work references Julio Cortazar’s short story Axolotl, a narrative about an anonymous, and presumably Latin American, man living in Paris that turns into an axolotl after developing an obsession with the creature. This idea is repurposed in aXolotl’s Happiness, which features an anthropomorphic axolotl performing a series of domestic chores in a domestic environment. The video is set at a slow banal pace that is suddenly disrupted by an unexpected scene in which the aXolotl rips its mouth open with a hook. The character – capable of regenerating damaged tissue – resumes its everyday life without expressing discernible concerns.
[interesting reference: aXolotl…; artist’s writing]
Diego Ramirez is an Melbourne-based artist and writer. He works primarily with video and pictures to develop installation projects for gallery contexts. His research based practice deals with the legacies of colonialism in visual culture and the production of differences. He seeks to reconfigure vernacular archives and popular images that embodies the meaning-making of fear, desire, media mediation and the rhetoric of the image. His video works have been shown at Art Central Hong Kong (Hong Kong), WRO Media Art Biennale (Wroclaw), ACMI (Melbourne), National Museum of Art (Taipei) and so on.
Phantom of 20C [trailer…] | Elaine WONG
HK / 2017 / Color / Stereo / 3min 22sec / HD
She is never alone, even though she sometimes prefers to be alone.
They are here, always here.
‘Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.’ (Foucault 1978, p. 93*) We are surrounded by voices telling us what’s right and what’s wrong. In the rhizome of truth and post-truth, everyone has her/his say about everything. We listen, ignore, adapt, resist and compromise in the hyper-narrative world.
Phantoms of 20C is a world of intense, unnameable mental conditions in a 40-year-old apartment in Hong Kong, in the form of voices/noises from within the house and penetrating from outside.
Waltzing between what is internal and external, sight and sound in the work become thick, undefinable textures, forming a journey into darkness, with muffled dialogues reaching for experiential transformation.
*Foucault, M 1978, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, Pantheon, New York
Elaine Wong (WONG Suk-yin) holds an MFA (2017) from the School of Creative Media (Hong Kong) and was trained as a fine artist at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University where she received her BA (Fine Art) degree with distinction in 2014. In 2013 she was awarded the scholarship from Hong Kong Art Centre to attend the Culture, Graphic Design and Fine Arts program in New York School of Visual Arts. She is also the founder of Altermodernists in Hong Kong, an independent art group run by artists to promote art, appreciation and art education.
Ver. VII […] | NG Chak-hang Kevin
HK / 2017 / Color / Stereo / 9min 46sec / HD
To the artist, video is a platform, a tool, and a series of activities, to re-discover the cityspace of HK through geometric rendering. The actions applied — distortion, rotation, balance, kaleidoscopic construction and so on — are not just decorative beautification, but the artist’s way of procedural discovery of the familiar. Each graphic iteration resulted in his returning to field shooting with new strategies of videography and composing. As a result, the cityspace grows in thickness with imposed layering, and the objective-representational moving towards abstraction. What looks like a regular abstract animation executed by special effects software is, in fact, a work of diligent field shooting and ethnographic analysis of the concrete city space of Hong Kong. The viewer witnesses the graphic deconstruction of representational space; s/he gradually moves from seeing to listening.
“Version VII” marks the end of one of the many iterations. There could be more — Version VIII, Version IX… in future — just as an open journey of discovery should sustain an unbound generative series.
Kevin Ng (NG Chak-hang) is a fresh graduate from the School of Creative Media, the City University of Hong Kong. He has a strong interest in architecture and cityscapes. Video is his favorite creative medium. He started video-making in his secondary school days and received IFVA awards in the Youth Category.
Theorem 8 […] | Hector RODRIGUEZ
HK / 2013 / b&w / Sound / 6min 48sec / video software
Theorem 8 is an experimental video processing software that decomposes every frame in a movie using a fixed database of frames from another movie. By means of a mathematical technique known as orthogonal decomposition, it achieves a superimposition of frames from two different films:
Godard’s Alphaville and Witch’s Cradle, directed by Maya Deren. The technique of orthogonal decomposition is often used in surveillance software, and so the work aims to foreground and deconstruct the computational aspects of surveillance technologies. Its underlying philosophy is that radical politics demands radical artistic forms.
The artistic-creative process began with writing a custom software that decomposes and then reconstructs every frame in a movie using a fixed database of frames from another movie. The first step is the selection of a fixed set of frames (the “dictionary”), from the film Cat’s Cradle by Maya Deren and Marcel Duchamp. The second step allow every frame in a second movie, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, to make a shadow projection onto each of those frames. The elements of the dictionary are brightened or darkened by definite amounts so that their mixture approximates as closely as possible the source image. Every frame in the second movie is decomposed onto those various changing shadows. By mixing the different shadow projections, it is possible to achieve an approximate reconstruction of the current frame in the first movie.
Theorem 8 is a critical investigation that becomes an end in itself. The artist does not aim to achieve a practical end but rather to explore the intrinsic possibilities and limitations of the technology and its relation to the field of the visible.
Boxing Mothlight […] | Hector RODRIGUEZ
HK / 2016 / b&w / Sound / 4min 1sec / video software / *world premiere
Boxing Mothlight applies the procedure of box counting, often used in fractal analysis, to the avant-garde film Mothlight by Stan Brakhage. Both the image track and the audio track are generated using this mathematical idea. The result is a hypnotic meditation on the relationship between natural and digital texture. The box counting method, employed to analyze graphical patterns, is particularly interesting when applied to highly textured images, such as those in Brakhage’s work, a film made using insect wings, leaves, and other organic matter. The mathematical concept is closely aligned with the visual aesthetic of the source film.
The algorithm covers every image in the Brakhage film with a fixed grid of non-overlapping rectangular cells. If within one cell, there is some visual detail, the entire cell is rendered black. Otherwise, the cell is rendered white. The process is repeated with grids consisting of a greater number of smaller cells. This video consists of nine images generated in this manner. The image on the top left represents a covering of the frame with a very coarse grid, consisting of only four cells. As we move from left to right and top to bottom, the number of cells in the grid is increased (4, 16, 256…) and the size of each cell is correspondingly reduced. The nine images represent progressively finer representations of the same image.
The soundtrack is produced using a similar procedure. The source is an audio recording of bees. This clip is divided into various non-overlapping fixed-length segments. A Discrete Fourier Transform is performed on each of the segments and all frequencies are filtered out except the zero frequency. The signal is then reconstructed by appending the filtered versions of the various segments. The procedure is then repeated several times, always on the original clip, using a progressively larger number of (correspondingly smaller) segments. In this way, we obtain a sequence of clips that represent progressively finer representations of the original sound.
Hector Rodriguez is a digital artist and theorist whose work explores the unique possibilities of computational technologies to reconfigure the history and aesthetics of moving images. His animation Res Extensa received the award for best digital work in the Hong Kong Art Biennial 2003. His 2012 video installation Gestus: Judex received an achievement award at the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Awards and was a jury selection of the Japan Media Art Festival. He received a commendation award from the Hong Kong Government for his contributions to art and culture in 2015. His computational video installation works have been shown at the WRO Media Art Biennale (Wroclaw), Kasseler Dokfest (Kassel), Saatchi Gallery (London), Siggraph Asia (Singapore), Athens Video/Art Festival (Athens, Greece), “Recontres Internationales” (Paris/Berlin/Madrid), KLEX (Kuala Lumpur) and others. He was Artistic Director of the Microwave International Media Art Festival, and is now a member of the Writing Machine Collective. He currently teaches at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong. He has taught courses on art and science, game studies, generative art, software art, media art theory, contemporary art, and film history.
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