‘Parallel Universes’ showcased the often overlooked genre of video art in its negotiation with technology, radical politics, performance documentation and interdisciplinary art practices. With few artists continuing to sustain the medium today, this was a rare opportunity to see many pivotal works which are now considered major precursors to today’s multimedia art. Because of the fragility of the medium, you could not find a hissing VCR in sight, instead the works had been reframed on Apple computer screens in digital format. To give the exhibition an up-to-date feel, the curatorial team of Matthew Perkins, Dr Mark Pennings, Lubi Thomas and Rachael Parsons chose QR labels, for use with a smart phone, to label the artworks. This was the first time I made use of that app, however most gallery viewers were content to explore the multitude of screens in a random and unguided approach. The exhibition was also followed up with screenings of Bill Viola’s films and with panel discussions, in which Danni Zuvela, Naomi Evans and Reuben Keehan responded to issues such as the movement’s rejection of objectification as art; the interdisciplinary and disposable aesthetic of the medium; and the ways the tools of the medium have been modified and adapted to artistic purposes.
David Perry, one of the co-founders of the Sydney based Ubu Film Group, opened the exhibition and introduced his film Mad Mesh (1968). Working at the time for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Perry became fascinated with the possibilities provided by a malfunctioning image orthicon tube, which, then, was a component in television cameras intrinsic to converting the optical image into an electrical signal. Manipulating the signal with magnetic interference and using coloured filters, he produced startling swirling psychedelic images, punctuated with flashes of red blurs. Accompanied by the radical avant-garde music of Ken Parkyn, the immersive experience must have been awe inspiring at the time.
The gallery space was divided into three curtained off areas, each with a distinctive thematic—‘Performance, Identity, Video’, ‘Media is the Message’ and in the third, ‘Politics of Narrative’. Nam June Paik’s iconic Global Groove loomed large over the second room, with its frenetic collage of art luminaries, Pepsi commercials and world political leaders. The iridescent flux of chaotic sequences anticipated the phenomena of channel surfing and YouTube, foreseeing a harmonious global exchange of ideas and experiences. Paik’s Japanese counterpart, Nobuhiro Kawanaka might have seen things differently. His black and white film, Kick The World (1974), features the artist kicking a Coca-Cola can through a derelict miniaturised world of global monuments. The inane gesture suggests an uneasiness about the impact of globalisation. In Australia, Stephen Jones, who would later become a member of the band Severed Heads, made TV Buddha (Homage to Nam June Paik) (1978), originally on Super 8. Jones’s homage was made after Paik’s visit to Australia in 1976, when he made a Sydney version of his TV Buddha is Maitreya (The Buddha of the Future). Jones’s work demonstrates the use of hyper-iridescent colours to give a radiating halation around Paik’s ‘Future Buddha’.
In 1972 the performance artist Mike Parr collaborated with Peter Kennedy to produce the Idea Demonstrations. Originating from a long list of pre-written performance actions, in this work, Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy attempted to investigate the transition between language as instruction and the resulting physical action, the threshold or point of exhaustion from excessive pain, and the role of the camera in mediating the documentation. The raw document defies lucid comprehension; in one segment we see an ecstatic look in Parr’s eyes as he gasps against some excruciating pain, then suddenly he keels over as the apparently hand held camera topples to the floor. Bruce Nauman also was fascinated by the processes with which language structured reality and how video might alter that. Nauman’s video Lip Sync (1969) features a close-up inverted image of the artist’s chin and mouth while he is wearing headphones—an unlikely parallel of how we experience the piece today. Like many video artists, Nauman was fascinated by the live feedback potential of video. He repeatedly enounces ‘lip sync’ and attempts to synchronize his lips to his own audio. As the sound and image slowly become dislocated, or out of sync, the video becomes increasingly disorientating.
Joan Jonas’s Vertical Roll (1972) makes intentional use of the rolling horizontal bar phenomenon of a TV on the blink, transforming it to a device of visual rhythm. In a style that recalls the film Flaming Creatures, Jonas adopts her alterego Organic Honey, as an ‘electronic erotic seductress’, through whom she produces a self-portrait using costumes, masks and veils. The vertical roll malfunction becomes intrinsic to the process of creating a playful mirror kaleidoscope, where her identity is never stabilised or captured, but remains elusive, distorted and perpetually concealed.
David Perry, Mad Mesh, 1968. Video still, single channel video, colour, sound, 00:03:26. Courtesy the artist.
Nam June Paik and John Godfrey, Global Groove, 1973. Video still, single channel video, colour, sound, 00:28:30. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) New York.
Joan Jonas, Vertical Roll, 1972. Video still, single channel video, black and white, sound, 00:19:38. Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.