Master’s Thesis Peek: “Raw Power: Video Resisting the Filmic”

The following abstract is from “Raw Power: Video Resisting the Filmic” by Barbara Elam (MS/MLIS candidate):

Over its almost forty-five year history, video art has evolved from works that highlight the inherent characteristics of the medium itself—immediacy, facility for real-time, a capacity for voyeurism and surveillance, and an intrinsic, unpolished flatness—to a more hybrid form of digital video/filmic works that emphasize high production values and a new professionalism. Once known for its intimacy and truth-telling capacity, by the mid-1990s video was fast dissolving into a vehicle for grand, cinematic works that favored a blurring between fact and fiction. By the turn of the millennium, as analog video morphed into the digital, video artists were increasingly creating works that emulated narrative cinema and the production values associated with commercial ventures. The projected image became favored over single-channel pieces, and artists that could afford it began bypassing video altogether and shooting their work on film.

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out, 2006  single-channel video, color with sound, 26:5 minutes

Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn, "Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out", 2006 single-channel video, color with sound, 26:5 minutes

As technology evolved to a point where image fidelity in digital video had moved closer to film, many video artists shifted their interest to film culture and the illusionism of storytelling. With this conversion, coupled with the aforementioned increase in expansive, spectacular environments in museums and galleries, the act of viewing video works became closer to a narcotic experience in which one forfeits self-consciousness—akin to figuratively “losing” oneself in a movie. In effect, the medium of video was transformed from an interruption to a seduction.

This thesis proposes that though the above shifts have indeed occurred there is a subculture of artists working primarily in digital video that show an interest in using properties of the medium that deny the filmic as strategies to challenge, provoke, and disrupt viewers’ experiences. These include digital-specific aspects, riffs on older analog video technologies, and in some cases, an embrace of new but highly democratized technologies. Like video art’s pioneers, many of these artists are both politically and socially engaged and show an interest in free-form experimentation and guerilla tactics. Many are also interested in DIY aesthetics, outmoded forms of technology, and early or marginal forms of cinema.

Exploring such topics as transparency, subversion, estrangement, and a continuing interest in video’s properties in spite of what Rosalind Krauss has dubbed our “post-medium” age, this thesis examines ten artists—Guy Ben-Ner, Omer Fast, Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn, Sarah Beddington, Kalup Linzy, Ryan Trecartin, Oliver Payne & Nick Relph, and Aïda Ruilova—focusing primarily on their work over the last decade. While not proposing that the above artists exist outside of the art market or subscribe to any sort of dogma chaining them to their medium, this paper instead suggests that, by refusing to reject the raw aspects of their technology as incidental, these artists (however subtly), call attention to it, creating works that critically engage the viewer in an active fashion. Ultimately, the thesis seeks to prove that in the face of ever-increasing production values and spectacular, multi-screen projections, the once marginalized medium of video—even in digital form—can still succeed in being progressive, vital, and provocative.

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