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What have Michael Dukakis (the "education President") and Terry Metherell (the "education reformer") got to do with the 1988 Australian Video Festival you might ask. A tenuous relationship perhaps, but the prominence of education as an issue in the current political arena has partly come about through a growing concern that kids increasingly can't and/or won't read, can't spell, can't write grammatically let alone utter a sentence without using the word "like" as freely as salt on chips, and, in this information-age, are incapable of thinking independently or philosophically, and that this has largely come about, paradoxically, as a result of the electronic, information age. Television reaps the most recriminations, its homogenising effect, in terms of time-slots, format and presentation, seen to make people incapable of distinguishing Rambo from Oliver North, Dynasty from a Thatcher-led Tory conference, Miami Vice from car or fashion ads, and video-clips from news-bites. In effect everything is reduced to a common denominator - entertainment (and that mediated by the advertising dollar).
If the far-reaching ramifications of the infotainment age are worrying educationalists like Nail Postman who sees the U.S. as "amusing itself to death"1, so to, in the more esoteric field of video art, related concerns are also being discussed. The relationship between television and video art has always been an "uneasy" one, as relationships between parent and offspring can often be. Some video artists work from an overtly, critical stance to television while others would woo television as access to a far wider audience, and there are those for whom television has no relevance at all, either as content or as a means of distribution. Increasingly, however, since the advent of Channel 4 in the U.K. and Canal Plus in France, not to mention the various public access stations in the U.S. such as WNET-TV, WGBH-TV, and PBS - which not only broadcast video art but also provide, sometimes substantial, funds for productions - artists are making works with television targeted as the prime viewing mechanism.
The problem that this raises and, to my mind, one which was particularly evident in the Danish, French, and Italian programs in this year's festival, is that video art, seduced by television, ends up on the whole, looking no different from television, no different from the latest video-clip, no different from an ad produced with all the latest image-manipulated gimmicks thanks to A.D.Os, Mirages and Harrys.2 Quite frankly, I'd rather be a lounge-potato in the comfort of my lounge, with a glass of good wine in one hand, remote-control in the other, than sit through several nights of television in those so-uncomfortable Chauvel seats.
Initially I was angry that I was watching so many works that were no more than videoclips, but this anger turned to inquietude, a gnawing worry, was this really what TV was doing to video art? Would this happen here in Australia if art ever made the big break to TV? Then I went to the British program and my fears were somewhat allayed. Here was video with thought and content, idiosyncratic as only the English can be, even when funding had been provided by Channel 4. Graham Young's wonderfully understated humour, full of anticipation and melodrama, Stuart Marshall's work on AIDS and Mona Hatoum's beautiful, layered Measures From Distance, where image, sound and text provided an intimate, yet widely accessible reading of cultural dislocation, were some of the high points of a particularly good program.
Of course, there was much more at the Festival, one of the most important being Metro TV's Break in Central Transmission which presented videos by collectives such as Paper Tiger (New York), Sistema de Sandinista (Nicaragua) and Walpiri Media Association (Yuendumu), groups using TV very much for their own political purposes, and good to see after an excess of music and fashion clips.
1. Postman. Nail, Amusing Ourselves to Death Penguin. New York. 1986.
2. There were exceptions of course, Jean-Paul Fargier’s wonderful Robin des Voix, a homage to Armand Robin, out also an exploration of sound as image and, as Fragier puts it, "images as the echoes of what they depict", and Marc Guerini's Falaises d' Esnandes, which drew on theatre/performance, and was delightful.