Random Acts: Artists Interventions into Broadcast

Dangerous Games is a powerful new video artwork by Marina Abramovic, and is a complete departure from the 1970s feminist, bodily work for which she is known. This new film was produced in Laos, Southeast Asia, and shows a group of youngsters dressed as soldiers pretending to kill each other; attacking each other as they sleep, shooting each other in the back with toy guns and filling up a bathtub with their tiny corpses. A reworking of the Lord of the Flies storyline with a cinematic debt to Bugsy Malone and Battle Royale, it addresses the very contemporary issue of child participation in war.

I am excited and want to talk about this new film as I am a huge admirer of Abramovic’s work. However, what is interesting about the art experience here is that I am not in the gallery; I am sat at home watching A Dangerous Game in my pyjamas on my laptop. Her film has been produced as part of Channel 4’s Random Acts short form video strand, which broadcasts 3-minute films late at night, and then makes them available on their website. Including artist films, performance, poetry and music, Channel 4 have partnered with creative hubs to find cutting edge practitioners.

Last week I attended the day of Random Acts Artist Interventions into Broadcast at FACT. The objective of the day was to promote and analyse Random Acts’ partnership with FACT (which has involved the commissioning of 25 new artist films for the strand) and put this work into the context of artists’ relationship with TV going back to the 1970s. Alongside performance art matriarch Abramovic, FACT and Random Acts have produced films by Mark Titchner and Richard Billingham, amongst others; prompting work that spins the artists off into new directions.

Random Acts’ predecessor ‘3 minute wonder’ in many ways anticipated You Tube and the resurgence of interest in short form film. The difference is that Channel 4’s short film strands “are not what viewers have ordered” and interrupt the TV experience by unexpectedly filling a slot usually occupied by a commercial, says Tabitha Jackson, Commissioning Editor for Arts at Channel 4. The idea of being able to broadcast directly into people’s homes excites artists, even (or especially) at a time when the format is evolving and viewers can ‘curate’ their own viewing schedules. The viewing potential of TV, compared to galleries, is huge – with upper figures of millions rather than 10s of thousands – and TV has a down to earth sensibility that galleries find it hard to compete with.

The story of artists’ interventions begins (for the purposes of this day) with Ant Farm, a group of former architecture students who in the early 1970s went on a road trip across the US in a camper van they had retro fitted as a recording studio. Blurring the lines between art and journalism, they would stop off at universities to screen their films along the way. Founder Chip Lord says that the group were reacting against the “optimism of the 1950s” which had come crashing down around young people as they were drafted for the war in Vietnam (an interesting connection to Abramovic’s film). The group were using new technologies and “the gesture of the spectacle” to give themselves a voice and an identity; in a way that perhaps the concurrent hippie counter-culture were trying to do with drugs and music.

Although the 1970s was still relatively early days for television, it had already become a symbol and a medium of capitalism. The hidden messages within the medium is a conversation that is still taking place both within art and the media; just last week I read an article on the Guardian website about how TV is not actually bad for children. In a similar vein, when Director of FACT Mike Stubbs said at this event that the distinctions between high and low culture no longer exist in our “post-capitalist world”, I was (as a regular viewer of dubious-quality TV show The Only Way Is Essex) relieved, if not wholly convinced. It seems that if it were that simple, there would not be a new generation of video artists taking the murky grey area between ‘high art’ and popular culture as their starting point – more about them in just a minute.

The next era in the chronology of artists and tv was the 1980s and the first wave of MTV, this part of the story represented by Judith Barry. Barry began her career as an artist filmmaker creating “bumpers” or “wraparounds”, 15 seconds of film punctuating music videos, where the only brief was to incorporate the MTV logo. Very relevant to the Random Acts initiative, Barry says that she has been motivated throughout her career by the desire to make “better popular culture”. Interestingly, she went from the gallery to TV and back again. At that time galleries were struggling with the logistics, and Barry described how even at the MoMA “videos were shown in basements and in corridors on the way to the toilets”; video was having a moment but it was still struggling to shake off its low cultural roots.

Lucky PDF brought the story of artists and TV up to date. My earlier mention of TOWIE was not totally flippant, as for one of Lucky PDF’s films, they invited TOWIE ‘actress’ Chloe Simms to an opening at the ICA and filmed her responding to the works on display. This was a critique of the ritual of the art opening, but also a test of the audience watching the film; could we divine which was Chloe and which was her TV persona? It also meant that the art work became part of mainstream culture. One member of the group, James Early, said that Lucky PDF use “What the fuck?” as a starting point and work backwards; their other aim he simply sums up as “blurring those boundaries” of art and TV.

The idea of parameters as the catalyst for creativity and experimentation permeated the day. There are two aspects to this. Firstly, without conventions it is hard for artists to intervene and disrupt: TV is steeped in ritual and collective experience and this makes it fertile ground for artists to investigate. Secondly, sometimes it happens that a defined framework can actually provide a focus for artists’ output and encourage exciting new work. The Random Acts platform is one example of this; by enforcing the 3-minute limitation it maintains a piquancy, where other arts programming or websites showing short film content can seem a bit floppy.

The idea of the ‘trusted guide’ is another theme of the day. This can be a curator, blogger or collector; a publication, an arts venue, website or brand. In fact, any person or organisation that filters the online world or the art world – or both – to reliably signpost us to great new cutting edge content. Random Acts may not use the expression directly, but they seem to aspire to trusted guide status.  They generate new arts content and introduce users to new practitioners and ideas, but ultimately want to be a first point of call for accessing the arts. FACT, too, is a filter of new media arts content for Liverpool and beyond via a number of strands of activity. The joining up of two guides can be a powerful entity indeed (see the History of The World series, broadcast on Radio 4 and fronted by Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum).

The day concluded with a panel discussion entitled The Future, and a video artwork by FACT resident artist Jeremy Bailey called The Future of Television. Bailey’s short film appeared like a live skype call, but portioned up on the plains of his face were TV channels, allowing him to ‘share’ his likes, dislikes and interests with others in augmented reality. I am not sure when he was predicting that this new mode of viewing would happen, but I don’t think I’m ready for it. The panel stuck a little bit closer to now, with all in agreement that although TV is evolving, it still plays a big role in society, therefore artists will want to get involved. Panellist Jacqui Davies, who produced the 25 artist films FACT and Random Acts commissioned, pointed out that “good art is asking questions rather than telling a truth”. Art doesn’t always have as strong a message as Dangerous Games, but it is fundamentally about communication, and TV remains one of the best tools out there.

First published on thedoublenegative.co.uk on 5 November 2012

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