How does the context in which a work of video art is displayed affect the way in which it is received?
ABSTRACT: Comparing the works of two contemporary American artists working in video, Bill Viola and Kahlil Joseph, and the various arenas in which their works are displayed, from gallery installations and environments outside of traditional institutions, through to presentation and dissemination of their work via digital file online video channels and social media – this paper will discuss how these varying contexts affect the reception of and reaction to works, both in terms of singular and group audience experiences, and on wider reception and implications this has on the artists’ bodies of work and status.
THE WORK OF ART
In order to adequately discuss works of art and how certain contexts influence their reception, it is important to first define the terms and parameters within which any critical inquiry takes place. Perhaps the most important, but most difficult, definition is that of the work of art itself; what theories can be applied to adequately address this question?
“To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld,” (Danto, 1964, p580). When applying this theory, the key factor to consider is its context – i.e. whether it appears within the framework of, and is therefore legitimized by, the institution of the ‘artworld’, an institutional theory as coined by art critic Danto. The most easily identifiable of these is the gallery or museum. This would be understood to mean appearing within a recognized art institution – the exclusive arena guarded by the art historian and connoisseur – but could be extended understood to extend to anything said institution lends its name to and therefore acknowledged by these exclusive bodies.
Though this rule can be applied to help understand pieces of art, to grasp how they work fully requires a holistic approach; to say, any example where an institutional theory can be applied comes with the observation of a secondary (but equally potent, and perhaps even more commonplace) phenomenon – the recognition by the artworld, and the viewer, of the artist’s credibility. Once an artist’s work has been legitimized by the artworld, by inclusion within the gallery context, this cumulative lens is then used to view future works – providing a different perspective than if those same works were viewed in isolation.
Though this institutional theory goes a long way to help create a framework for reception, it takes a rather mechanical approach to something inherently centred on subjectivity. Interestingly, modern technological innovation and a move to modernism in art has made this even more apparent:
The new focus of philosophy on subjectivity established by Kant accompanied the complex and contradictory changes wrought by ‘modernity’… and the appearance, together with aesthetics as a branch of philosophy, of ‘aesthetic autonomy’, the idea that works of art entail freely produced rules which do not apply to any other natural or human product.” (Bowie, 2003, p2)
Bowie then positions the work of art within a capitalist marketplace: “[E]ven though artworks clearly do become commodities, neither their use-value nor their value as commodities can constitute them as works of art”, (Bowie, 2003, p4). This suggests that not only are the aforementioned “freely produced rules” separate from the structures that govern the rest of the world, they have the potential to manipulate those structures, for example making themselves covetable and commodifiable because they defy these ‘rules’.
The advent of technological reproduction brought new considerations when seeking to define the work of art; what Walter Benjamin famously described as its ‘aura’, identified through its gradual degradation through limitless reproducibility. “We can say: what shrinks in an age where the work of art can be reproduced by technological means is its aura”, (1934, p7). Though this sentiment is understandable, when considering the proliferation of modern art forms that perhaps seemed more in line with the products of industrialisation than the work of craftspeople, the identification of photography and film as increasingly respected artistic media throws into question Benjamin’s theory.
Video art is, perhaps more than any other, bar maybe performance, literally defined by the (technical) means of its production. It would therefore seem easy to apply formalist thinking, impressing an emphasis of form and application over content or meaning, and allow this semantic distinction to hijack assessment, creating a set of defining criteria centred on the application of the work-practice technology. In reality, this risks undermining what lies at the core of the artwork that, though using this technology, may have no connection to it other than one of convenience. Sylvia Martin defines this idea in her book Video Art, where she describes “an explicitly time-based artistic medium,” (2006, p17) pointing out the flaw in allowing the medium to define the content of a work, instead stating that “the job of the technical apparatus is to record temporal sequences and produce temporal structures,” (ibid), that the ‘video’ in video art is a means rather than an end.
On the flipside, there exists a practice in the history of video art that goes hand in hand with the emergence of radically new forms of video technology, one that allows the form to hijack the intention. “…one feature of the culture of modernity is a lessening of critical attentiveness and… this diminution of attention goes hand in hand with the emergence of spectacular technologies,” (Townsend, 2004, p12).
In condensing the above theory, we can state simply, “Art must be placed in a context that declares it to be art. Art exists for discourse and people who recognise it as such… Even artwork not found within institutions carries with it formal and conceptual codes created by institutions,” (Troemel, 2014, p38). So, by this reasoning, video art, and by extension, internet art, exist not as new alternatives to the institutional contextbut simply a new arena for artistic dialogue .
When discussing his own practice, artist Jon Rafman rejects any break in continuity between his work, undeniably rooted in digital technology and online communities, and the history of art that preceded it: “I don’t see what I’m doing as new, I see the materials as new, and the technologies, virtual communities and subcultures that are emerging a mine of material for artistic practice.” He refutes the assumption that as new media, the content of video is therefore automatically ‘new’, even in cases, as with his work, where almost every aspect of the content and its conception is visibly recognisable as inherently of the now – connected as it is to technologies that previously did not exist – from what he puts in the complex works, often sourced from the internet and gaming worlds, to the use of plasma screens to display them.
Though the emergence of video as a central and increasingly practiced and presented artistic medium is itself a by-product of ongoing technological innovation, it is an entirely different set of technologies that have shaped the way in which works are made and presented, and caused radical changes to the landscape to the artworld (if not, as suggested above, to the actual artworks themselves).
With the advent of the internet, content could, for the first time, suddenly be consumed from anywhere with a connection, and more vitally, the rise of Web 2.0, which saw “a gradual shift from the majority of Internet users accessing content produced by a much smaller number of professional producers to users increasingly accessing content produced by other non-professional users,” (Manovich, 2008), had a hand in a kind of democratisation of information exchange, and opened up the potential for a shift in whose opinion would be heard. “In [the] 2000s [the internet] became increasingly a communication medium”, (Manovich, 2008), meaning, rather than being simply a resource for information acquisition, it became a resource for information sharing. Now anyone with an internet connection could have their say via posts, comments, likes, etc. and, with the added extra of a domain and hosting platform of your own, any opinion and other media you wished to share.
Similarly, but perhaps secondarily, the exponentially increasing amount of information that began appearing on the internet, and the lightening-fast dissemination of information found there, has made almost anything immediately searchable. This offered the potential for an artist to be vastly more recognisable to a global audience than perhaps he or she may have been beforehand – meaning that the artist now had the potential to connect to individuals directly, rather than relying on the reach of the artworld, or on people showing up to galleries to see their work.
One argument for a loss of legitimacy as a result of this democratisation is that the institution of the artworld has a history of credible and regulated research and structure. However, in The Curators New Medium (2014, pp78-89), Omar Kholeif poses the idea that the connectivity of the internet and social media offer a comparable path of intellectual discovery to what a museum curator might, and even implies the algorithms of Amazon, etc. might be able to offer insight equally useful and considered as those of a curator.
This raises an important point about the implied difference in accessibility between the exclusive institutional context of the gallery or museum and the supposedly democratic arena of the internet – and questions it.
How does such a platform engage with curatorial practice? …does this platform suggest that the virtual is additional to the physical, or are the two entwined? And if so how does this shift the position of artists or curators who choose to work solely or predominantly online, now that ‘real space’ artists are seeking to invade their territory by commoditizing their creative [ibid]
VIDEO ART BEFORE THE INTERNET: BILL VIOLA
When considering how theories of art apply to a work of video art, and how the rise of new media and internet connectivity affect its presentation and reception, it is useful to first examine the work of an artist whose practice precedes the internet entirely, and whose work has since engaged with, but not been too significantly impacted by or assimilated into, the digital landscape.
With a formal art education, a career working for museums and universities in the USA and Europe immediately after graduating, and a portfolio of work that, from the outset, includes predominantly art made for gallery installation, Bill Viola’s work developed in the context of a newly emerging video art tradition heavily connected to the institutionalised artworld.
Despite his status as a leading figure in the world of video art, Viola is surprisingly not overly concerned with post-production techniques, and rather uses high quality live-capture equipment – and teams – to document actions that must seem as spectacular in life as they do on the screen. Bar his signature slow-motion approach, which is used to further emphasise the action captured, Viola’s work could be said to have as close a relationship to performance as any other media. It is in this uniquely direct approach that the power, and most likely the popularity, of his work lies:
Seeing Observance in ‘The Passions’ exhibition at the Getty Museum, I was shaken and deracinated. I began to weep uncontrollably. I could not leave the spot but watched the work over and over, trying to come to terms with it. (Freeland, 2005, p28)
Philosophy professor Cynthia Freeland’s description of weeping at being confronted with a work by Viola is not uncommon, and, like hers, each account touches upon a reaction that is deeply personal. The work she’s referring to presents figures – actors – against the artist’s signature black infinity background, looking out past the viewer with an expression of extreme grief or discomfort. The emotion laid bare in this work exists outside the complications of narrative context; there is no way of knowing what the actors appear to be looking at, but its effect is extreme all the same, “capable of grabbing its audience without platitudinous explanation: it works on you at a visceral level. You have to see it,” (Townsend, 1996, p8).
This direct connection to the viewers – which can, and has been compared to visceral reactions to religious iconography – brings with it a whole host of considerations regarding presentation. “Viola’s art…is an art of effect. It is rare…to witness anyone weeping before a work of art. Yet almost every Bill Viola exhibition that I have visited I have… seen someone in tears”, (Townsend, 1996, p8). Presenting work in immersive environments, subjects are presented in infinite spaces of dense black, or vast desert landscapes, allowing the viewer to focus solely on what unfolds between them and the subject, and perhaps even allows them to project onto this blank canvas a host of personal associations.
The work referenced in Freeland’s account has particular associations. Taking inspiration from a set of altar wings by German Renaissance painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer, and presenting the video in the form of two upright screens, Viola here presents a reference to not only the spiritual practice his work may be said to try to emulate, but the formulation of a certain set of practices or formats used in this practice. The physical make up and action of religious reflection is implanted into the gallery space.
A similar work, the 2014 Viola piece Martyrs, sees a similar scenario, that conjures a very different effect. Permanently installed in a flanking altar of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, the silent seven-minute piece sees four figures appear against a black infinity across four screens, each violently confronted with one of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. Putting both the obvious connection of Viola’s work to such a religious institution and the content of the piece aside, it’s place in the church removes the work from the immersive installation as we know it, and into an arena where it must fight for space and meaning. This work gave Viola the opportunity to express what he hopes for all his works, that they exists beyond their status as art objects, becoming instead “practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”, (Jones, 2014). Seeing the work in the flesh, as it were, there is the sense that its impact, though perhaps not diminished, is altered by complications that come as the result of engaging with a specific religious denomination, or perhaps something as simple as the distractions of light and sound that bleed into the space.
“In addition to attentiveness, we must be ready to let the work have an effect upon us… this takes time… it [may be] necessary to devote oneself to a work more than once, and to deal with its relation to other works,” (Neumaier, 2004, p59). Intended, one would assume, to advise multiple visits to view a work in the context of its installation in order to fully engage with it, this argument could be applied in support of pieces being viewed online. Despite his consistency of practice and emphasis on immersive installation, as well as his position as an institution in his own right, Viola’s work is not absent from the web. A Google video-search brings up nearly half a million results, mostly falling into two categories: those adapted by the artist for viewing online, published through editorial platforms as a means of promoting a gallery or museum show, and those captured without the consent of the artist, taken secretly in the shadowy corners of a darkened installation, or ripped from some other unknown source, and uploaded onto personal accounts of video-streaming channels.
On the occasion of the 2013 exhibition, Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures, at London’s Blain Southern gallery, Viola shared a single-channel work “Inner Passage” from the show on online video platform NOWNESS. Though the immersive aspect of prior presentations may be lost, this new method of presentation by the artist opens a host of new possibilities for reception: once published, the video can immediately be viewed from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Just like an exhibition catalogue, the artist is given opportunity to put forward the ideas that surround the piece, but, thanks to a comment box, opens up the possibility of instant dialogue with viewers, even if, as is the case with this piece, this is no more than a single comment reading “boring,” (NOWNESS, 2013).
Multiple viewings, as Neumaier suggests, is pivotal to understanding Viola’s work. But rather than be confined to physical access to a gallery space, in this new context a video can be viewed anywhere, at any time, hardware and connection permitting. It may even be the case that this kind of viewing, though less immersive, is better suited to the ways in which consumption behaviour has evolved in the age of the internet, social media and the smartphone. “It seems that we are more willing to take into account the temporal dimension of video works if we view them on a TV,” (Neumaier, 2004, 58) an idea that extends rather neatly to the internet, viewed on a small, and ever smaller, screen. When discussing the work To Pray Without Ceasing, which lasts an entire day and loops in a way as to create an infinite number of configurations, Neumaier furthers the above point, stating that our “relationship to the exhibition of pictures induces us to assume that it can be grasped just by ‘glancing at it’”, (ibid).
A NEW CONTENDER: KAHLIL JOSEPH
Viola’s work is largely, perhaps due to the nature of his background, easy to place within the context of almost any theory of art. Initially making work for gallery installation, drawing on a wealth of references in art history, a narrative trajectory his own work fits neatly in line with, the existence of his work online is that of an artist living in the offline realm, dipping a toe into the digital sphere. Another American artist, Kahlil Joseph, whose work touches on some of the same core ideas, and engages his audience in a similar way to Viola, exists in a wholly different way.
Known initially for his work in music, primarily with hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar, it was not until recently that Joseph would have been included in discussions of video art, alongside the likes of Viola. In 2015, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, held the exhibition Kahlil Joseph: Double Conscience, featuring video work by the artist. The piece, “m.A.A.d”, presented on two channels, was originally commissioned for, and used the music of, Lamar’s music release M.A.A.D. City. “The opening of Double Conscience inducts Joseph into the institutional framework that is contemporary art”, (Lampe, 2015, p18); the very act of his inclusion in the gallery space immediately legitimised Joseph as an artist, a literal account of the application of an institutional theory, cemented by critical acclaim, and the invitation to show the work at subsequent exhibitions, notably the video art super-show The Infinite Mix, held in London by the Hayward Gallery at Southbank Centre in collaboration with The Vinyl Factory.
Though following different career paths, Viola and Joseph’s work are thematically and formally very similar. Both artists are concerned with fundamental questions of life, death, a sense of searching for purpose permeating both deeply poetic bodies of work. Like Viola, Joseph’s videos tap into the viewer’s emotions in an almost primal way; the parallels between Joseph’s exposure to religious worship and the meditative nature of his work seeps into the very fabric of his films, namely through the use of music. Where Viola often uses mythic figuresJoseph uses everyday faces, which are anonymous but still strangely familiar; bodies the viewer is invited to project him or herself onto.
Unlike Viola, though, Joseph’s prior works are – or at least were – made with the intention of being screened or viewed in some other context, or may have been made without the considerations of presentation at all. The music video format developed with no real single place; where music television used to be a central arena where videos would be premiered at a single time en masse, now videos are released and replayed in an infinite number of ways. They may still be premiered on television, but increasingly they are first shown online, everywhere from specialist sites – from music to fashion and art platforms – to dedicated channels like VEVO, to self-published channels of artists, directors, etc. and even straight to social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram or Youtube. This is not to mention the limitless ways these different formats can synchronize, due to the multi-channel nature of the internet and its reciprocal relationship to other media or real-world institutes and spaces.
It’s also important to consider Joseph’s work itself – “m.A.A.d” is made with an amalgamation of various clips in different media, with no linear narrative, suggesting the act of capturing or collecting could mean each sequence of scene brings with it a different intention and set of considerations that precede any later consideration for context and presentation. Here comparison can be drawn between this kind of viewing with that of work in a gallery, which, though it may appear in its totality, is unlikely to be viewed in full. However, it is likely his initiation into the institution will have an impact on these considerations. “My video projects I’ve shown in art settings weren’t conceived for that, but now I’m thinking about how the work will be shown in that context,” Joseph is quoted as saying in an article in American magazine Art Papers, himself acknowledging how context may be a consideration in how his work is put together. The same article then highlights a later position: “I’m no longer concerned with a musician, or three to four minutes of run times, single channel or how the work will look on a laptop – I’m thinking about how I can transform a physical space.”
It is unclear how much these considerations really alter reception. Having viewed the aforementioned “m.A.A.d.” in London, and a later work Fly Paper, part of an exhibition Shadow Play at New York’s New Museum, a later work which one would assume brought with it the considerations of installation, both the response that could be viewed from those in the space, and my own, were much the same. In both spaces people filled the room, sitting on every inch of the floor available, and stayed for multiple viewings. However, the former is readily available online, allowing me repeated viewing, transporting myself back to that meditative experience, one that though the online video doesn’t recreate, wasn’t erased from my memory at leaving the space and so can be called upon. The latter is not available online. I must rely on the blurry photos and snapshot videos taken in secret when an invigilator’s back is turned, which it occurs to me I could very well upload this to a video channel to exist in the way I had found Viola’s previously.
Having examined works of art, defined through numerous theories, in a variety of contexts, it is clear these contexts do affect the way in which they are experienced and received, but in more complex and surprising ways than are perhaps assumed. The most significantly ‘different’ context proposed, the internet – suggested as a lesser platform that dismantled the structure of the institution – in fact exists as a continuity of that structure with a whole host of new opportunities. It brought a new arena in which the work of art could play out, allowing for wider, more democratic expression, and a greater potential for visibility. It allowed artists like Joseph to be invited into the artworld, who may otherwise not have been due to a lack of visibility, or a rigid view of what an artist in this context should be. Instead he has been given the opportunity to be place alongside more traditionally defined artists like Viola, perhaps broadening that definition. It also provided a new context for artists like Viola to share their work, who is also now provided with new opportunities for dialogue around it.
The argued diminution of work suggested by its appearance online, an extension of Benjamin’s ideas about art in the age of mechanical reproduction is, again, not necessarily any more drastic, only different. The incomplete nature of experience an artwork online impacts us in only the same way as the limitations of a gallery view, where viewing a work in its totality is unlikely or impractical.
It finally becomes difficult to draw a conclusion about how a work is received in these contexts when so many other factors affect the work’s presentation as much as it’s conception – from the artist’s position and status within the institution, to the core components of their very identities that may affect that position.
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