Performing for the Camera, curated by Kelly Doley and Diana Smith, is currently showing at Firstdraft until August 2nd. An impressive collection of pieces by artists working at the intersection of video and performance, we asked Diana Smith about the background to the show…
How would you describe the sort of practice that is featured in the show? Is it video, performance, or something else?
Diana Smith: The works that are featured in the show are ‘performances’ that are staged for the video camera. They are first and foremost performances however; inevitably they are video works as they are captured through the camera lens, and in most cases only viewed through a screen. The artists approach performance and the documentation of the ‘live’ act in a variety of ways. In some cases the camera is an objective onlooker that simply documents a particular task, such as blowing up an air mattress; while at other points it is directly acknowledged and serenaded lovingly.
Are the artists in the show representative of a particular way of thinking about contemporary performance? Would all the people in this show consider themselves to be ‘artists’?
DS: I’m not sure that the artists in the show are representative of a particular way of thinking about contemporary performance but rather reveal the convergence of performance and video art practice. The artists selected are part of what I’ve observed to be an emergent trend of ‘performative video’ and are indicative of the pervasive performative condition of much video art at the present time. This is by no means a new mode of expression and can be traced back to the mid 1960s with artists such as Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, who literally turned the camera on themselves in fabricated situations or in their studio. In Sydney, this type of work started to emerge in the 1970s with the appearance of Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy at Inhibodress Gallery. Drawn to the real time immediacy of video, Parr and Kennedy also used the camera to document their gallery performances such as Idea Demonstrations (1972) and Trans Art 1(1972). The video camera developed during this time as a fairly natural companion to experimental performance practice and continues to do so today. I imagine that the people in the show would all consider themselves to be ‘artists’ but perhaps they would equally consider themselves to be ‘performers’ or performance makers or video artists. Having said that many of the artists in the show have visual arts background and have often strayed from more traditional disciplines such as painting and sculpture and often incorporate this practice into their performance works. For instance in Agatha Gothe-Snape’s Corporeal Mime-Daily Practice (Crest 1964) (2008) she literally transforms her body into a living breathing Op art canvas. In this works a cropped image of her truncated torso moving inside a black and white shirt, which references mime performance along with painting, creates a mesmerising optical illusion.
To what extent do the artists tackle the vexing question of the language of narrative film in their use of video?
DS: The artists in the show are more preoccupied with the contemporary compulsion for one’s existence to be expressed and inscribed through the camera lens than exploring the language of narrative film in their use of video. The works selected perpetuate and critique the incessant desire and inevitable failure to perform in a culture that is addicted to being ‘seen on screen’. With the proliferation of screen-based technologies, the advent of reality TV programming and the prevalence of surveillance cameras in public spaces, the experience of being filmed has become normalised. Trends towards self-surveillance via YouTube, Facebook and the ability to upload information on the net has spurred on a generation of artists to pick up a video camera, stand in front of it and press record in order to express themselves. The language and conventions of narrative film are of course embedded in the way artists approach performing for the camera and the construction of screen personas. One artist who tackles these questions most directly is Kevin Platt in his Clark Gabel Dines Alone and Shaves His Moustache (2008) in which he considers the role of celebrity. In this performance Platt imagines himself as the iconic American actor Clark Gabel complete with his signature moustache and slicked back hair. However, in Platt’s vision Gabel is not the heroic Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind (1939), but simply eats a meal and shaves his moustache. The language and traditions of narrative film are acknowledged but ultimately obliterated, as simply nothing happens. What appears at first to be the beginning of a narrative turns into a task based performance in which the audience witnesses Platt’s ritual of eating an entire bowl of spaghetti bolognese.
How have artist used available technology in their work?
DS: The majority of artists in the show have simply used their own hand held video camera and basic editing software such as iMovie to create the desired effect. In most cases it is not only about what technology is available to the artist but also what setting, props, sound and lighting are at hand at that time. The works are often reminiscent of a home movie or a youtube video and are often shot in the comfort of the artists’ own homes. For instance Kate Murphy’s I’ve been to Paradise (2002) the artist passionately mouths the words to Never Been to Me by Charlene on top of her beige leatherette couch in her living room; while in Liam Benson ’s Desiderata (2008) the camera becomes witness to Benson’s private ritual of dressing up under his hills hoist in his suburban backyard.
Humour has been a dominant trend in both video work generally and in performance. Does humour and irony play a part in these artists work?
DS: Humour is central to the works in the show. I’m not sure if it possible to produce work anymore that is not partly humorous or ironic, particularly in performance. When you turn the camera on yourself there needs to be a certain element of self reflexivity, otherwise it becomes a little bit silly! There needs to be a certain acknowledgment from the artist/performer that someone on the other side is watching, or inevitably, will be.