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Lucy Knight

'Video Vintage'

Beirut Art Center exhibits video art from 1963 to 1983

Video Vintage
Video Vintage
Video Vintage
Video Vintage
Video Vintage
Video Vintage

What do you look like when watching the TV? Upright a la Jane Austen in the library or are you splayed on a sofa or bed, in a state of undress? It would be a very odd feeling to find that someone was watching you while you were watching the TV, not just because you might be doing it in your underwear, but because of the glazed look that usually comes over people’s faces when mesmerized by the little black box – we seem to turn into zombies.
 
Of course, we were always told that TV was bad for the brain. It wasn’t just the dawn of music television or mindless soap operas that brought about that opinion - it’s been said from the very start. Part of the Beirut Art Center's latest exhibition examines artists' views on exactly this.

On loan from the Pompidou Centre's New Media Collection, Video Vintage 1963 - 1983, is a collection of 72 pieces by 50 international artists; various works created are displayed using the medium of video.
 
All pieces are displayed on aged TV sets, in little makeshift sitting rooms within the gallery, with replica teak furniture and the odd potted plant. The presentation of the pieces has a 60s and 70s vibe and is inspired by the work of the artists collective, Ant Farm, and their seminal 1975 work The Eternal Frame, which was a commentary on the pervasive media culture in America at the time.  Pictures of President Kennedy hang on the walls of the BAC and a TV is placed neatly in the corner of the room, which then goes on to show this artist collective’s re-enactment of President Kennedy’s assassination.
 
The decades dealt with by this exhibition saw the nascent criticism of TV, as well as a move by broadcasters to define themselves as apart from cinema. In order to achieve the latter, various broadcasting companies in the US and Europe took the opportunity to invite artists to use the latest developments in the technology and work with the medium, being critical of it if they wished.


Austrian artist Valie Export is one such individual who decided to take a critical approach to the little black box. Her piece Facing a Family was broadcast on the Austrian ORF channel’s show Kontakte in 1971. The five-minute film, a ground breaking piece of video art, shows a family sitting together at a table, presumably facing their own television screen. Her aim was to hold a mirror up to the middle classes and other TV consumers of the day - the glazed looks are there, and so are the half-hearted conversations of a person with half a brain on the box and half elsewhere. The speechless conditions of the scene are indicative of television watching, and something we can all, no doubt, relate to.

Over in the US around that time, WGBH, the Boston based broadcaster was also a keen supporter of the creation and development of experimental video art, their Series: The New Television Workshop laid seed to the work of Bill Viola.
 
During the 80s, Viola produced 42 30-second ‘portraits’ of individuals watching television. Entitled Reverse Television, the project consisted of scenes of Boston residents in their sitting rooms or TV rooms being suddenly streamed into the sitting rooms of watchers; played instead of adverts, they imposed a televisual silence on the audience. Much like the work of Export, a mirror was being held up to the viewer. The act of someone seeing themselves takes on a new twist in Mona Hatoum’s 1980 work Don’t smile, you’re on camera. Hatoum turns the camera on her audience, interspersing shots of them with images of x-rays and naked bodies. It’s bad enough that we all look comatose watching the screen, but naked too? Stripped bare, down to our very bones, these videos are unforgiving.
 
For the sake of the layman, the work of director Jean-Luc Godard is also on display, furthering the exploration of the theme of criticism. In 1977, French public television asked Godard to put something to the music of Fugget by Jean-Michel Jarre and Patrick Juvet. Faut pas rever was the result: a nearly four minute long piece in two sections. The first shows a young boy finishing his dinner and talking to his mother who is in the background, as he is looking toward a TV. Again, he is absent in his demeanor, half listening to what his mother is asking him. But this is a slight departure from simply asking the viewer to think about their actions. Political ideology was Godard's objective - the second part of the video piece is made up of text asking the question "when the left is in power, will the TV have so little connection to people?"
 
Of course, no matter who is in power, it’s safe to say that sitting for any amount of time in front of a screen (ahem, this computer screen right now) could easily send you off into a daze - nothing going in, nothing coming out. If this exhibition does nothing but, at the very least, have us question just a little our watching habits, then it has achieved a great deal.



VIDEO VINTAGE 1963-1983, a selection of the New Media Collection, Centre Pompidou, Paris will run at BAC until June 27.

Bill Viola, 'Reverse Television - Portraits of Viewers', 1983-1984. Production WGBH, Boston. (Image courtesy of BAC)

Political ideology was Godard's objective - the second part of the video piece is made up of text asking the question "when the left is in power, will the TV have so little connection to people?