Artsdesk: PLASTIK: An Immense and Unexpected Field of Action

PLASTIK: Festival of ArtistsMoving Image returns to Temple Bar this month exploring the development of video art beyond film to encompass the diversity of technologies and platforms offered by digital and the internet.

“I think there’s a massive fluency that many people have with the moving image that they don’t even realise – they have the capacity to read images and they forget that they learnt it because they maybe learnt it when they were tiny.” – Maeve Connolly

There’s a frame around lots of parts of reality – the window frames of houses, cars, trains and planes, mirrors, doorways, haircuts framing faces, tree branches framing sky – each frame creating an image. Our eyes are trained on images, naturally occurring and man-made, from the start of sight. Images are used to explain, to sell, to teach, to direct, to sell, to convince, to remind, to warn– and sometimes, as a means of exploration, of trying to get around and behind life to see it in a new way.

This is what the images in the Dublin-based ‘PLASTIK: Festival of Artists’ Moving Image’ are for. The second run of the festival (the first was in 2015) is a celebration of a form that has its genesis in video art and experimental film. Cumbersome in the mouth, the name ‘artists’ moving image’ is an expandable label that has emerged in recent years to cover the development of video art (knocking about since at least the 60s) beyond film to encompass the diversity of technologies and platforms offered by digital and the internet. There are no concrete rules for these works – they may feature dialogue or not, music or not, be feature length or not (usually not – the pieces in the programme vary in length from one to thirty-seven minutes). They may obsess over the materiality of how they’re made, exhibiting a nerdish preoccupation with types of film and camera and lens, or they may be defiantly lo-fi with an emphasis on concept.

 

The name also covers the ability of the form to straddle the cinema and the gallery space (and other platforms, like the internet), adapting to the particularities of each. Hillary Lloyd’s Woodall, an exhibition in PLASTIK’s programme that has been installed in TBGS since February, combines moving image projections with wall hangings, and presents the objects mediating the images (wires, projectors) as a part of the exhibition – in this case, ‘artists’ moving image’ includes objects and imagery.

Artists’ moving image has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. As one of PLASTIK’s directors, Sibyl Montague, points out, “The Turner Prize winner, for the last few years (apart from last year) has been a video artist, which is really unusual.” She attributes this proliferation to increased access to technology and what she terms the ‘post-studio’ situation, which causes some visual artists to turn to their laptops and the 2D realm of video to make art in times of studio scarcity. The malleability (or possibility) of the term ‘artists’ moving image’ can be seen in the inclusion of an artist like Ann Hirsch in the PLASTIK programme, who will perform live as part of the festival. How does live performance square with a festival devoted to artists’ moving image?

“…she’s responding to images of porn, and to the internet as a site of dissemination for these images, and how that affects her and affects her relationships. And she’s reflecting on those levels of mediation that are all incorporated into this performance piece. So that’s why it made such a good fit with PLASTIK because it’s not just a standalone performance piece, it’s also her reflecting on moving image and incorporating moving image in a way that is quite complicated,” says Daniel Fitzpatrick. (Daniel and Sibyl, along with Jenny Brady, make up the directorial team of three behind PLASTIK, all hailing from different artistic backgrounds.) In the same way the objects mediating the moving image are made explicit in Hillary Lloyd’s work (the projectors and wires), Ann Hirsch is herself the mediating object for a world of moving imagery found on the internet (also now a sort of ‘gallery’ site for artists’ moving image).

This flattening of the hierarchy of what counts as the content of an exhibition points to one of the main themes of the work in PLASTIK – how we view the material world and our place in it: “One thing that’s notable about the PLASTIK programme is that I think quite a lot of the artists and the curators are interested in moving away from a human-centred worldview, and there’s quite a shift towards thinking about object-hood, maybe thinking about other kinds of lifeforms, or other ways of understanding the world that humans see themselves as the owners of – and I think that film has a capacity to create those conditions of projection and imagination. It is still a human projection, you can never escape your own human-centredness, but there’s something that film can do that is perhaps particular to it that can allow for that kind of projection or invention or imagination. Even just in terms of scale, to show you something incredibly tiny or incredibly vast, or to move you through time in a way that shifts you from your usual biological rhythms. I think where film can be particularly interesting is where it does that work of shifting,” says Maeve Connolly, advisor to PLASTIK and a researcher who lectures in the Faculty of Film, Art & Creative Technologies at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology.

 

The idea that humans are not the centre of the universe, a theory that has gained currency in recent years, is reflected in other strands of the PLASTIK programme, not least Sasha Litvintseva’s curated series ‘Vertical Landscapes’; Litvintseva’s research addresses the idea of the Anthropocene (a proposed geological era defined by the impact of human activity on the environment) and the need to reassess our view of the world, our place in it and how we impact reality, a reassessment that film is particularly well-placed to enable (see Maeve’s comments above re: film’s ability to do the work of shifting perspectives).

Apart from the plastic, reality-bending properties of film that mean it can warp time and space, and consequently our viewpoints, the reproducible nature of film (as Walter Benjamin says, “To an ever greater degree, the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility”) lends itself to becoming the medium for the art of and for the people.

Sibyl and Daniel, in talking about the first PLASTIK festival in 2015, both mention the unusual spirit of collaboration and community that surrounded it: “We collaborated with LUX and Benjamin Cook [on the programme] – a lot of his language is about community and participation. It’s not about consuming and producing culture, it’s about involvement and participation and creating a dialogue for this work. It’s very generous. I think we were really influenced by that.” LUX is a London-based arts agency that supports and promotes moving image work, and which developed out of the London Filmmakers Co-operative. Co-operatives have long been a feature of the world of artists’ moving image. As Maeve says, “People who’ve come through the experimental film economy, which is very developed in the US and UK and Germany, they would distribute their work through co-ops – you could put your film into distribution, as a member – and anybody could join. If the film prints started to get a bit old, they’d make new prints and people could rent the prints – money would go to the co-op and the filmmaker.”

 

In light of this communal heritage of the world of artists’ moving image, which initially embraced the spirit of accessibility and reproducibility that the form naturally implies, it’s interesting how the economy seems to have flipped. As part of the PLASTIK programme of talks (a key strand of the festival), Erika Balsom, senior lecturer in Film Studies and Liberal Arts at King’s College London, will discuss the question of ‘editioning’ – the trend to limit artists’ moving image works in number, thereby increasing their value on the art market. For some, this is the antithesis of the spirit of artists’ moving image and a defiance of their co-operative heritage, which gloried in pulverizing what Walter Benjamin called the aura of the artwork (the claim that uniqueness was an essential aspect of art).

For others, editioning is a necessary strategy to create an economy that can provide a livelihood for artists. It’s interesting to consider, as part of this conversation, that mainstream filmmakers like Steve McQueen and Gus Van Sant (who has a piece in PLASTIK) operate in both economies, making work with big budgets that is spread far and wide, but also editioned pieces. As Maeve Connolly points out, “Steve McQueen is not trying to limit the number of copies of 12 Years a Slave, but he’s still making editioned video works that circulate very differently in the art world.”

 

There is much in PLASTIK to stimulate different parts of the brain – questions about the economy of art, about the status of video and film as democratic art forms, about whether art like this has a sense of humour (there’s a whole strand devoted to that very question, curated by Mark Toscano). And there’s also the impressionistic, aesthetic, subliminal part, where works like Bruce Conner’s 1976 Crossroads (director Daniel’s top pick from the programme and the piece that will also close the festival) sit. As Daniel describes it, Crossroads is “entirely made up of images from the Bikini Atoll atom bomb test, at the time the most photographed and mediated event in history – it had so much film stock thrown at it that there was a shortage of film stock in Hollywood”. It’s thirty-six minutes of the detonation of the bomb over and over from different angles, an extended meditation on a malicious mushroom cloud, beautiful and nihilistic and without narration – just a series of moving images.

PLASTIK takes place over three days (24-26 March), between the Irish Film Institute (IFI) and Temple Bar Gallery and Studios (TBGS).

Words: Rachel Donnelly

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