|Not really about noise. Talk given for the University College Cork Arts Society, March 2004.
I: Music Video Production
In this talk, I will end up presuming that a music video works as a piece of art, even if historically, it has had a different purpose. So we are going to detour through that purpose and a few ideas on the status of video art, before looking at Cunningham as such. The video is designed to sell a single, a particular song, and then the better that song does commercially, the better the album and merchandise sales for the artist. The arrival of MTV in 1981 meant that record companies could bring the performers to you, and video as a domestic technology meant that consumer expectation of home entertainment rose rapidly. Live events reduced in importance, and the image of a musician or pop star could be produced and disseminated widely. Right from the start, musicians subverted this form, and tried to use the format as a means of visualising the song, or getting someone else to do it. In the 1980s, performers such as Madonna or Bowie could show a continual change of image, and in so doing, changed have you heard the new song by... to have you seen it. The more innovative the video, the more it would be shown, so record companies started investing heavily, producing epics like Thriller, or controversial videos. Both these elements have returned strongly in the last five years, with huge amounts spent on science fiction videos for hip hop stars, arty videos for the marketable leftfield (Radiohead etc), or on special effects (the genre of soundtrack video is something else). Smaller record companies encouraged low budget innovation, which helped entrench the commodity video as an artistic product.
One of the curiosities of video is the invisibility of the director so Radiohead collect the Brit award for best video. This means that authorship is strange in video. The purpose of the video, however commercial and cynical, or brilliant and creative, is deemed secondary to the piece of music it re-presents, so it is as if the video director is an assistant rather than artist (these recent videos try to redress this, with CC, Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze) if you look at [Frith et als] Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader, the semiotics of a music video revolve around the primacy of the music performer. And yet, this very centre is being de-centred, becoming a strange object as not quite object the format and the standard way of reading it has actually produced a scene straight from Barthes and Foucault, where the author is lost, and yet still there as figure, and multiple.
Thats not all. The song, too is becoming less and less relevant, as the videos now exist to promote an artist (diminished as artist as their piece loses its value) rather than to make you buy that song. Sales of music in general in falling, sales of singles are plummeting, and despite the excitement over downloading, consumption of music is probably in decline. Record companies and shops know this, they also know the anxiety of a consumer to acquire legitimate product, which has more of the feel of authenticity, proximity to the source and so on so, what we have is an increase in the value, cost and popularity of concerts, and the sale of those on DVD. DVD and video now occupy prime spots in record shops. The function of video today then is to sell itself and this is not all bad CCs Windowlicker was a major hit as a video you could actually buy. But the DVD brings no musical extra your extra value is strictly extramusical, even though a DVD could be used to put several albums on, at CD quality one group, Framers Manual, have actually put all their live recordings on a single DVD, which is over 90 hours long (RLA).
In terms of content, the conditions of production, or more accurately, the needs behind those conditions, have meant that abstraction is discouraged Top of the Pops even had a rule at one stage that the musical artist had to feature in the video. Abstraction with a mimetic purpose to present the music visually has largely led to rubbish wallpaper, an impoverished visual vocabulary, based on making two abstractions - if its instrumental music, somehow meaningful, even if only at some sort of emotional level. The worst kind of stuff in this style is the notion of chill-out videos, which would soothe you, or stimulate you, but gently, while youre on ecstasy, with their pulsing colours, and zooms, and crazy digital effects. So videos with a formal interest beyond that of reading for the content where the content is always what the singer is doing have largely engaged with narratives, and in fact, like Freuds Little Hans, throw narrative out and reel it back in (like Magnus Carlssons video for Paranoid Android). At a practical level, the more interesting end of video involves close collaboration between musician and filmmaker (as with Greenaway and Nyman), or a conflict of vision, like remixes which bear little resemblance to the original.
II: Video Art
Music video, and commercially available films already represent a divergence from videos principal use in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The early days of video represented a breakthrough for avant-garde artists, notably those with social or political commentary in mind the relative cheapness of a video camera initially represented a democratisation of new media in art, and the medium really was the message, in terms of subversively recording police activity at demonstrations, or the politics of the everyday, for example. A lot of early influential video art is oddly homely, even when as extreme as Chris Burden, because now you could film anywhere, why leave your house or studio? The banal and the simple rub shoulders with documents of performance art (with Marina Abramovic incorporating TV and video into performance) and imposing installations by e.g. Nam June Paik. So video, in McLuhanesque terms, drives artistic change, encouraging forms, and arguably contents that had been elided by even the avant-gardes of the earlier part of the century. Early video art is nearly always keen to de-emphasize the artistry of the filming, and the art moves to the content of the video, only for the content to be itself highly formalised, often despite the intentions of the artists. In addition, artistic form would return, even when repressed in the form of the installation, as how you would see the piece would be important, even where the ordinariness of viewing (in a simple TV and video combination) was emphasized. Will Straw (in his introduction to Sound and Vision) argues that under the imperatives of artistic modernism and their valorisation of medium-specific practices, videos most appropriate use seemed to be as part of site installation art (13), and this principally due to how it worked as a medium: i.e. you could record sound and visuals at the same time, and play them back together. Its portability was not envisaged, nor was its place in the transmission of what was on video.
In recent years, video has expanded back out of personal use and occupies epic space in galleries or outside the gallery space but this mutation also raises the question of the specificity of video art as medium, which has been questioned by Krauss, and unquestioned, as in ignored by many. Does video drive video art? Access to the means of production isnt enough, as that applies to most if not all art formats. Historically, it can be shown that video affected the format of certain genres in the 1970s, but even here, the video is usually illustrating or presenting some hybrid of conceptual art, performance and installation. If we think of video as a time-based medium (as the Tate Modern bookshop does), then it is only ever in the same realm as sound or any images or processes that evolve. Lastly, video art today largely takes place apart from video. Even where artists use super-8 film, video, film etc, the product we see in the gallery has come via digital technology. There is, then, a distinct possibility of video being meaningless, and/or obsolescent as medium. But to insist on video as not being a real (meaningful) medium is, paradoxically to strengthen it, as taking the notion video art more widely would diminish its significance but make it workable, whilst to say it is not a relevant medium is to claim the thing that isnt important is nevertheless highly specific and locatable the use of videotape - conferring a new importance. In practice, to say video is irrelevant as medium is shorthand for dismissing the products of video art. Any failure or weakness on the part of video art might actually make it more interesting.
Digital video and sound enjoy a heightened acceptance as generators of artforms, with a greater perception of artfulness ion the production. Furthermore, digital pictures are easier to manipulate, easy to transport or transmit, easy and cheap to copy, so digital technology can prolong the social-utopian element of videos history. Ironically, though digital technology is a hypermedium one that subsumes many others and is a medium without direct physical form which can allow it to acquire a transparency, or even an absence as medium which is not allowed other media (although some digital art draws attention to the medium).
Which brings me to how music video and video art come or dont come together: the easiness of reproduction of DVD seems to have created a new preciousness about the value of the piece when finally everyone could have their Bill Viola, we have to be shown how that is not the case. The DVD artpiece is owned by its purchaser, and installed in such a way that, whilst making it an interesting installation, also serves to recreate a sense of authenticity and originality. Video art has to go the way of the cinema, and offer an added value, which is this is how it is supposed to be seen, with the added bonus that we still believe it carries the imprint of the artist in a way a commercially available film does not. Music video, meanwhile benefits from this change in perception of the art credentials of video. We can also see some mutual backslapping, notably in Chris Cunningham, whose Monkey Drummer well be looking at, and which featured in the Venice Biennale, 2001, and was in Dublin last year, along with the portentous Flex. Curiously, or not, on the DVD of CC, you only get an extract of Flex so somewhere out there is an original, and this is the plug for it (he has also done actual commercials). At a more general level, the interface of music video and video art is where the problems of both get smoothed out, or become productive: e.g. in Steve McQueens video (not commercially available or used as promo) of Tricky recording vocals in a studio booth. That piece is the absence that informs the presence of CCs videos in this talk