BY Chris Darke in Frieze | 11 SEP 95
Featured in
Issue 25

Video Positive 95

Looking up, I watched a light aircraft plunge into the side of a tall building, its nose and fuselage appearing to cleave into the steel and glass structure

BY Chris Darke in Frieze | 11 SEP 95

Looking up, I watched a light aircraft plunge into the side of a tall building, its nose and fuselage appearing to cleave into the steel and glass structure. Cut. Without leaving time to blink, the same scene of impending disaster repeats itself before my eyes. Surgically edited to remove the moment of catastrophe, the tape opens up the image-repertoire in my head, calling forth a catalogue of second-hand images from TV reportage and 70s disaster movies that feels like watching an illicit assemblage of images from the archive of some disaster-ghoul. That nodal edit told me everything I needed to know about the vital quotient of dispassionate observation present in the perverted fascination with images of collision. Terminal velocity indeed. In Not Final (1994), the Israeli artists Dana and Boaz Zonshine have fashioned a work as accurate, ironic and disturbing as any of the images delivered by the technologically-obsessed monomaniacs of J. G. Ballard's fictions. Like the prose of Ballard's early dystopias, the visual language here is necessarily flat, almost drab, withholding the formal pyrotechnics in order to excavate a single, horrifyingly repetitive image. Always crashing in the same plane.

Liverpool's Video Positive 95, the largest festival of its kind in the UK, boasted 20 installations distributed across six Merseyside galleries; seven solid days of seminars and conferences; plus screenings of 15 programmes of new video and computer art. Coming away from this embarrassment of electronic riches with the single image from the Zonshine's work lodged implacably in my head, revealed something about the current state of play and mode of working in electronic art. The emphasis was on interactive multi-media pieces, predominantly large-scale works that aimed at spectacular impact and high-tech polish. Why is it that nothing disappoints as thoroughly as so-called 'interactive art'? The button-pressing, pad-tripping, field-activating physicality called for by such pieces is often presented with a grandiloquence of means and paradoxical minimum of effect. This owes in part to the need to demarcate the space in which an interactive work can operate effectively and was evident in the number of pieces that took up the challenge by creating curiously theatrical mise-en-scènes in which to stage their promise of interactivity. Some did so more effectively than others, of course. Lei Cox's Flowerfield (1995) ­ a lurid pasture of talking flowers presided over by a screen-panel of self-immolating wasp-like humanoids ­ made a virtue of its garish colours, kitsch kid's-TV associations and the fact that it was almost alone in being staged in a well-lit space. Apart from this comparative 'open-air' element, nothing about this work stayed with me, but self-conscious kitsch often leaves me cold and hostile. Those interactive works that used their staging to focus straightforwardly political and ideological content tended to fare better. Keith Piper's Reckless Eyeballing (1995) for example, put its participants literally in the dock, behind three lecterns and face to face with black male rage. Lynn Hershman's America's Finest (1995) positioned the user behind a mounted M16 automatic weapon and, by means of a micro-camera, simultaneously placed one inside the gunsight along with scenes from history in which the weapon had been used.

To declare a more than casual interest, I was in Liverpool to chair a panel during the Festival's two day student conference. The extent to which a sense of video's past was notably absent from the proceedings was revealing . Stuart Brisley, one of the panellists, explored this in astute comments that expressed his misgivings about the current seductiveness of high-end technology, stating a preference for low-tech video that, to his mind, is able to express greater 'sensibility'. It's an interesting word suggesting, as it does, the themes of signature, authorial presence and singularity. But the ahistorical element was seemingly built into the Festival this time round, as the catalogue preface indicated with the statement: 'Video Positive has not stayed tied to the restrictions of its history or its title, and has become a festival of electronic arts in their ever-increasing diversity'. Perhaps I appreciated Not Final partly for the work's clear sense of its own history, which owed something to a 'previous' paradigm of video art grounded in a critical relationship with other, dominant forms of media, whilst at the same time being very sharp and formally pleasing.

One interactive work, shown at the Open Eye Gallery, confirmed its creator's unparalleled grasp of the possibilities of such technology ­ Toshio Iwai's Resonance of 4 (1994). Four small podia were arranged in a cube in a darkened space. One participant standing at each could, with the help of a mouse, put dots on four grid images projected on the floor. The placing and movement of the dots within the grids produced notes on a melodic scale that combined with the sounds produced by the other participants to produce something truly interactive ­ literal and musical play.

The experience was like participating in an utterly enthralling jam session, or an electronic quartet. Predictably, the piece was chastised for being too 'entertaining', not sufficiently overburdened either by the ill-digested educational purpose or the substance-free trompe l'oeil technology common to many other such pieces. But Resonance of 4 was the only work that I saw people queuing to play with.