"Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism"
Artist: Barbara Borčić
Title: Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism
Production: MIT Press, Massachussetts, USA
Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism
The Eighties: the Social and Media Use of Video
Although the division into decades could be misleading because, as a rule, boundaries and crossings are placed where there are none, in the Yugoslav milieu it seems appropriate if one considers that the decades in question coincide with certain social changes. The seventies were still a remnant of a social-political system which exerted intensive control at all levels, while the eighties were marked by the rise of new social movements as a critical reaction to the socialist system. This was particularly true of the westernmost Yugoslav republic of Slovenia.
In Slovenia the eighties were marked by a slow but important process of liberalization at several levels – political, ideological and cultural. The alternative scene was a conglomerate of artistic and cultural protagonists and new social and theoretical movements (New Left, Post-Structuralism and Lacanism) which eventually constituted a civil society. Although the aim of the civil society was to embrace the whole Slovenian population, in reality it was formed from marginal groups, subcultures and other alternative movements such as the peace, ecologist, feminist, gay and lesbian, alternative art and culture and theory movements, which proposed that a 'parallel society' be organised on the fringes of the dominant, socialist one. These were actually the propelling forces behind the deep social transformation during the eighties which eventually led to the fall of the one-party rule and to the introduction of the pluralist parliamentary democracy.
So far we have spoken about video art which was created, accepted and interpreted in the context of (visual) arts where both the authors and their video works were analysed by art critique. In contrast to this, the mass video production and practices of the 1980's could no longer be easily placed within the context of art, since they occurred outside the institutional frameworks and belonged to the context of alternative (rock, punk) culture and new social movements. Young university educated artists at the time also overwhelmingly saw themselves as part of the alternative scene and acted within it, rather than as part of (postmodernist) art. The only valid reference until then – video art – was no longer adequate and it did not hold up. The field of video usage became wider and social usage emerged in place of the purely artistic phenomena. In other words, the widespread mass creative usage of video technology in Yugoslavia was developed only in marginal milieus, in the domain of subculture whose protagonists wanted to draw attention to their activity, to document it and present it abroad, although perhaps to a specific public. Documentation helped consolidate the scene, the scene recognized itself in it, and instead of artistic video the term used was "author video" (vidéo d'auteur), distinguishing this production from artism and denoting a specific author's approach in considering the topics directly related to this scene.
In brief, video practice and production made up a considerable part of the club and multimedia practice of this so-called "Ljubljana subcultural alternative scene" and there were two student cultural organizations set up under the name ŠKUC-Forum: the Students Cultural Association Forum and the Students Cultural Art Centre from Ljubljana. Membership of these two organizations, like in other Yugoslav centres, was not limited only to students. Progressive younger creative individuals and groups were particularly active there, showing resistance and disobedience, finding new means of cultural action and presentation which would reach a wider public and exert a (cultural, even political) impact on society as a whole. In socialist Yugoslavia political activity was impossible, albeit illegal outside communist parties or Socialist Leagues of the Working People and the Socialist Youth League. From the 1970's on, however, these organizations were increasingly joined by individuals who wanted to change the system from within and influence the development of the socialist state by liberalizing its system and functioning.
The main centres of subcultural and civil social events, production and presentation, linked to mass culture as well as constructive theoretical and critical practice, were the student media Radio Študent and the magazines Mladina and Tribuna; here we could also mention the theory periodical Problemi and the film magazine Ekran. As regards multimedia and video practice, there was the club Disko FV (led by the members of the FV group, in particular Zemira Alajbegović, Aldo Ivančić, Neven Korda, Dario Sereval and others) and the ŠKUC Gallery (led by Dušan Mandić, Marina Gržinić and Barbara Borčić) in Ljubljana.
Video equipment became more accessible to a greater number of people thanks to the FV group, which started a multimedia program of the alternative club Disko FV. They filmed various events on scrap computer tapes with used video equipment which had to be borrowed for each occasion: thematic music nights, film and video projections, concerts, photography exhibitions, graffiti and (Xerox) posters and multimedia projects which took place in the club, which due to frequent (forced) changes of location all became a symbol of the alternative scene's struggle for space. The Yugoslav socialist regime at that time no longer functioned through strict supervision and ideological censorship, but rather regulated events and production by granting or denying funds and premises. Despite all this, the 'subcultural and alternative scene in Ljubljana' in the mid-1980's was the most widespread cultural movement until that time in Slovenia, developing an exciting cultural and social practice which met with a highly enthusiastic response. A number of exhibitions, performances, multimedia projects, concerts, even symposia and round tables were organized, reflecting the events and the production. Since the foundation of the ŠKUC-Forum video section in 1982, video technology was used for production, distribution and the promotion of video, especially when it received its first VHS equipment as a gift from a successful Slovenian factory, which was used for documentation as well as for the realization of the first author videos.
Although amateur VHS equipment could not match that owned by television centres and initially editing was possible only on the spot, during filming, it nevertheless had an unanticipated influence on a number of protagonists of the 'alternative scene in Ljubljana'. Besides (polaroid) photography and the photocopier, the video was the one "instant" medium which was accessible, cheap, fast and at the same time not subject to control and censorship. Video projects were linked to rock music, punk and club events, as well as to multimedia practice; they were at the same time a constitutive part of that scene and its (media) effect. Countless author and author-documentary video works were made, with an emphasis on the content and message characterized by interweaving author and documentary material and approach, which was also characteristic of music videos at the time. This fact clearly demonstrates the role and function allocated to the video by the alternative scene protagonists and the effects they wanted to produce. Video was a rather new medium of image and sound for that scene; nevertheless, it had retained certain characteristics of the cinema and photographic alternative practice, at the same time introducing new ones which derived from technological innovation and different ways of coding meaning. The authors were not interested in technical perfection, they turned to specific resourceful technical solutions and 'crude' form, just like the introduction of new meaning codes content wise through direct messages which produced works of social and cultural critique. Video projects took up marginal and taboo topics whose main references were on the one hand socially endangered groups, unspoken violence and hidden sexuality, the socially unacceptable lifestyle of young people and its particular image, and on the other social events and state rituals, centres and relationships of power, as well as the myths and taboos of the socialist system – all this in order to raise the issue of the relationship between the social mechanisms of power and the libidinous structure of individuals.
The left wing post-structuralist theory of unveiling the ideological apparatus of the state and the theory of representation which was, particularly in the Slovenian context, developed by a circle of Marxist-Lacanian theorists, e.g. Rastko Močnik, Braco Rotar, Slavoj Žižek and others, was directly and mutually related to the "alternative subcultural scene in Ljubljana". Film theory was also highly developed, reading film as a discourse of symbols, acting at the same time as social critique, since the imagery it researched did not by virtue belong to the medium but was presented in it in a specific way.
The deconstruction of the state ideological apparatus from which art was not excluded, also produced a dialectical confrontation between a certain kind of heroicism of the already defunct system which functioned by means of prohibition and its own unattainability and distance from society, with the first hints of approaching the Western systems of liberal capitalism. The great pride which filled the multiethnic composition of Yugoslavs at the sight of Tito, Nehru and Nasser's handshake at the adoption of the Declaration of Non-alignment in 1956 on the Brioni islands in Yugoslavia could, for example, be compared with humanity's enthusiasm at Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon in 1969. It is therefore not surprising that this shot found a place in the video American Dream by Marko Kovačič (1986). The video confronted the principles of the East and West in the form of a non-stop game of the accompaniment of the two main characters (the author in the role of the accompanying and the accompanied: on the one hand an avant-garde performer, on the other a pop businessman) and the usage of state and popular iconography and products which belonged to the Russian avant-garde art or pop art. Kovačič's video works were all, in fact, specific kinds of Gesamtkunstwerk, blending the artist's experiences with constructivist sculpture, experimental film, alternative theatre and new wave music: he created everything in them himself – the set, the costumes and the paraphernalia – and he was also their main protagonist. In his video works, made according to the model of performances, by means of a chroma-key he combined real space and human figures with fabricated scenes and mechanical beings, in order to expose contradictions in social reality and their effect on the individual.
The predecessors of a certain more narrative kind of video at the time can be identified in the films made by socially engaged directors such as Werner Rainer Fassbinder, Lothar Lambert and Andy Warhol and the films of the so-called Yugoslav Black Wave from the 1960's which were declared "socially unacceptable and undesirable" by the authorities and often ended up in bunkers. These films were all shown in ŠKUC in the 1980's. Through state rituals, social relations and psychical obsessions, the early works of Dušan Makavejev, Živojin Pavlović, Želimir Žilnik, Lazar Stojanović and others emphasized the subject of death, sexuality and violence and also critically presented those aspects of life which were deemed by general consensus to be negative. The group “Meje kontrole št. 4” ("Limits of control no. 4") - Aina Šmid, Dušan Mandić, Marina Gržinić and Barbara Borčić – active in the early 1980's, critically presented the socially conditioned traumatic story of marginalized individuals in their video works. The story concerning the relationship between the individual and the institutions of power, as well as the visual pleasure experienced from eroticism and sexuality, was built up through dialogues and fabricated scenes, while the products remained on the edge between the documentary and the artificial thus making the state of isolation, helplessness and control was even more striking.
The ŠKUC-Forum video production, which stood against the predominant (post)modernist artistic (also video) creation or television production, became a concept which was deeply etched into the national conscience. It included a number of authors and groups: FV, Meje kontrole št.4, Kolaps, Borghesia, Marjan Osole-Max, Mare Kovačič, Goran Devide, Andrej Lupinc-Keller and Igor Virovac who mainly appeared alone without a precise allotment of roles – they were directors, cinematographers and editors at the same time and they included video in their multimedia projects and performances. Dušan Mandić, an alternative scene protagonist and video project co-author, who was the only one to write about production at the time, clearly defined the distinguishing traits between the 'formalist approach to the medium' in 1970's video and the 'mass dimension' and 'socially engaged audio-visual research' of the 1980's video. He also warned of the need for textual reflection and the documentation of this production in the social environment and history, particularly due to "undesirable 'effects' which could cause misunderstanding and misinterpretation". He illustrated this 'danger' of exposure to ideological manipulation by citing the example of the effect produced by a TV presenter while introducing the controversial and provocative Slovenian music group Laibach on Ljubljana TV, when "the reality of the video tape temporality turned into a political excess", while the program plainly demonstrated the ideological process of social control. What had happened in the studio? The members of Laibach transformed the interview form into a performance with manifesto statements, while the presenter declared them enemies of the state, warning the viewers about 'this dangerous group' and rhetorically asked whether we intended to tolerate them in our environment. It is interesting to note that in the sense of mutual manipulation, the group Laibach retrospectively appropriated this television show as one of their most successful video projects. In any case, the period of the aesthetics of boredom was over and the 1980's brought political, entertaining and visually rich fast changing shots, including the media use of video. The events related to video in Ljubljana between 1982 and 1985 were unexpectedly intense as regards the development of the video medium and decisive in the development of video in Yugoslav circumstances. Two international video biennials were held at the Cankarjev Dom cultural centre, video was produced and screened at Disko FV, a Sunday video club was opened; in the ŠKUC Gallery, which had a Saturday Video Box Bar according to the visitors' choice, foreign and local video production was screened such as for example the Australian tandem Randall & Bendinelli. These places, without exception, were constantly full to the brim throughout this period.
The first spectacle-type media program which combined mass entertainment and art through the application of new technology was organised by the FV group at the New Rock musical show in Križanke (Ljubljana) for several thousands of visitors as early as in 1983 and many times after that: there were columns of television sets, which intensified the events on the stage, with video clips screened during the interval including art video and live interviews with members of the bands.
In order to reach a fuller understanding of the video activities of the FV group and their contribution to the decisive steps forward in the field of the video medium, besides turning to mass culture, we should also note the usage of audio-visual television material. Although it is true that we did not watch much television in the 1980's – here I mean the alternative art scene, since our subculture took place elsewhere: in (disco) clubs, at concerts, through multimedia projects, spectacles, in the street and at the cinema, television – that "hateful medium of manipulation and passivity" - became an object of obsessive contemplation and research. Not only did some of them (e.g. FV members, Neven Korda in particular) watch it for hours – with a purpose, a plan, as their research material for video production, but also at that time there were quite a few things to see on TV, on the screen. Programming varied from alternative video production produced by the stage protagonists themselves to what the mass culture machinery produced around the world – in the segment which was the possible identification point of activities on the alternative scene, e.g. the production of the New York based "The Kitchen", Laurie Anderson's video clips, PIL, Siouxie and the Banshees, 23 Skidoo and others, as well as the cult film The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle by the Sex Pistols, then Jubilee etc. Of course, those video cassettes and recordings as well as long playing records, came from the developed capitalist world to our country through semi-legal channels.
In brief, this period was marked by a move from the question what (damage) the medium does to the viewer to the question what a (potential) reader of the television "text" can do with the medium. The viewer was able to select television shots, appropriate them, truncate them, recode them and change their meaning. There were unanticipated possibilities of problematisation at the level of media message with the usage of ready-made television segments. As if it was literally taken for granted that a television program is not a concept, but rather an object which breaks into segments, while its message is created only by means of a communicational relationship with the viewer and his reception.
In the FV video projects shots were taken from national television – recognizable political personalities, rituals and manifestations, including Tito's funeral, or popular Yugoslav music stars were screened through methods of fragmentation and serial repetitions, by means of an editing approach with counter pointed scenes of the members themselves performing sexual scenes. An important element of these videos were the "live" appearances of the members themselves in scenes of 'unnatural' sexuality, sado-masochism, homosexuality, violence, solitude and despair. The chosen shots were thus transformed and re-edited, reinterpreted and placed and also screened in a different context. In other words, not within the framework of family TV at home, but in the "space of difference" as an event which essentially targeted the viewers who knew what they wanted and at the same time "strengthened" their position. It was, above all, a position of creative critical distance which strengthens the conscience about the functioning of state apparatus ideological mechanisms, about the relationship between ideology and aesthetic effect, about the social contingency of artistic practice; it was also a position of rebellion which was perhaps best expressed by phrases such as "No fear! No hope! No solution!" Or, if we sum up the words of Dušan Mandić: "Artists are producers of culture – they produce the giving of meaning. All societies produce and cultivate conditions in which they cultivate forms of cultural practice – art and artists – which are a necessary support to ideologies of particular systems whose function, among other things, is to make the system of supervision invisible. In such a situation artists who stand up against the dominant 'view' of "their own society have no other choice but to attempt to present the supervision and thus make it 'visible' for analysis."6
Thus on the alternative scene the television set was at the same time despised and loved and this antagonistic attitude penetrated through several screens, producing intertextuality and investment in artistic desire and at the same time marking the interpellation of the participants in the alternative scene as the most overwhelming cultural movement in Slovenia to date. Of course, the range of such video projects, as well as the alternative art practice as a whole, was very limited. The viewers identified as a specific social group during the spectacle/exhibition/club event could hardly be compared with a television group in terms of their numbers. Certain video productions were not included in the first international video biennials in Ljubljana as they appeared too radical and inappropriate even to the organizers. The utopia that video, as an appropriate means for expressing radical viewpoints, could arouse the wider masses was simply confronted with the impossibility of penetrating the main mass media. Here we should also mention the interest and great expectations personified by ATV as the first independent Yugoslav television house in the mid-1980's
Marjan Osole – Max, author of numerous videos, including some musical and documentary videos about the group Laibach, co-produced and edited a great number of alternative video works in his Studio Brut during the 1980's. In cooperation with Bogdan Lešnik, president of the cultural and artistic association, ŠKUC-Forum, he elaborated the programming scheme for the first alternative i.e. autonomous television house in Yugoslavia named ATV, which was supposed to be based on the authorship principle thus enabling anyone to create a program and broadcast it. The concept derived from the recognition that a certain social, cultural, artistic and theoretical practice was destined to marginalisation and that even in the future it could not be adequately represented in the official media. A three-and-a-half hour promotional program was produced in Studio Brut in 1987 as the embryo of a future programming scheme. Unfortunately, despite an interesting concept and economic subsidies, ATV never really started working as a real television station because it encountered incomprehension from the power structures.
Another aspect of the mass usage of the video in the 1980's were musical video spots. The mutual influence between music and video in Yugoslavia produced a series of video clips; almost all Yugoslav rock, punk, new wave and other groups presented themselves through this medium, e.g. Laibach, Disciplina kičme, Film, Borghesia, Niet and Idoli. Despite the fact that they were based on urban iconography and everyday reality, they differed from the video clips shown on MTV (Music Television) – which could not be watched in Yugoslavia at the time as there was no cable or satellite TV. In urban milieus in Yugoslavia, music was the rhythm of life, especially nightclub life, as well as the domain of opposition to the ruling ideology, and the music clip, which did not depend on the (non-existing) market was not subjected to its demands and, as an integral part of the artistic concept, it offered a platform for experimentation. 1985 saw the release of the first Yugoslav video cassette - Tako mladi ("So Young") by the multimedia music group Borghesia produced by the FV publishing house; it was more a product of media research than a market/commercial accomplishment. Nevertheless, it was distributed both within and outside Yugoslavia through private channels and independent networks, since the rock and punk scenes in Yugoslavia were very well connected, so the infrastructure of independent distribution was well developed.
In 1987 the first Yugoslav music video clip festival was organized in Zagreb under the name Videomix 001, comprising both author video and international rock video shots and films during its five day program. It was an important platform for presentations and encounters, and at the same time it attempted to set up criteria for the evaluation and discovery of author approaches. The festival was held for several years in sequence and was regularly covered by Zagreb Television. Thanks to this and also to their fairly regular screening on Yugoslav television stations, music video clips occupied an important place in the shaping of visual culture and public opinion.