Video art is often considered impenetrably abstract and far beyond the comprehension of everyday art-lovers. But if you've ever secretly wanted a route into this bizarre and dreamlike world, here are 10 of the best artists working with the medium today.
Video footage is the smudge-faced Cinderella of the art world. While sculpture, painting and photography get glammed up to be fawned upon by countless admirers at the ball, video’s invitation is all-too-often overlooked because it seems too pretentious or confusing.
Yet such a blinkered view negates the fact that video artists are some of the most important creatives working today, and the medium is going from strength to strength. In many ways moving footage is the perfect means of satire and critique of our modern, media-obsessed age, being one of the youngest major artforms around by some degree.
So, if the world of video art still remains as murky, obscure and indecipherable to you as a screen full of static or an after-hours test screen, read on for our list of ten of the most important names you need to know to begin cracking this most exciting of genres.
If you have even a passing acquaintance with video art, you're probably familiar with The Clock (2010), which is perhaps the most hyped art film of recent years. The premise was deceptively simple: it ran for 24 hours and was a mash-up of movie scenes featuring either a clock face or a reference to time that was synonymous with the actual time. So, if you were watching the film at half-past three, half-past three would be referenced either visually or verbally (or both). It brought out a ruthless pub quiz instinct in viewers, prompting you to hunt desperately for the time reference in each scene before it ended. Cue queues around the block and all-night viewings.
The hype is not unjustified. Marclay's been a Very Big Deal in the worlds of art and sound since the late '70s, when, according to critic Thom Jurek, he was perhaps "the unwitting inventor of turntablism." Marclay's credo is to take "images and sounds that we’re all familiar with and reorganize them in a way that is unfamiliar" and although The Clock is still touring five years after it was first aired (currently showing at LACMA in LA, if you're interested), Marclay's not resting on his laurels. This year he had a multimedia exhibition at London's Bermondsey White Cube, which was composed of paintings, audio and, a centerpiece video: Pub Crawl (2015). This installation of 11 videos focused on the artist's feet as he navigates the city streets showing the destruction of the Saturday night before.
Pipilotti Rist, AKA Elisabeth Charlotte Rist, is a Swiss video artist who's been making statements about gender, the body, sexuality and pop culture through her videos since her first breakthrough hit, I'm Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986).
Rist went quiet for a few years after the millennium, claiming she felt burnt out, but her big comeback was Pour Your Body Out (7534 Cubic Meters) (2008) – a kaleidoscopic video work which was made to fit the proportions of MoMA's intimidating second-floor lobby atrium. When it showed, it attracted over 6,000 visitors per day, and reflected what the New York Times called Rist's "obsessive curiosity about nature," with sweeping close-ups of lush tulips, ripe strawberries and apples juxtaposed with abrupt moments of disgust.
While Rist's work has been criticised for being too accessible — often made up of the sort of colorful quirkiness you might find in a particularly avant-garde music video — she argues that video work is comparable to a particularly spacious woman's handbag. That is to say, it's a medium with "room in for everything: painting, technology, language, music, lousy flowing pictures, poetry, commotion, premonitions of death, sex and friendliness."
There's no better introduction to Rist's work than her 1997 video Ever Is Over All, with its distinctive combination of bright color, femininity and playfulness laying the groundwork for what would follow.
If Urban Outfitters made artists, then Cory Arcangel would likely be the product of their labors. This Brooklyn-based multimedia bro's work deals with what he calls "the preservation of obsolete technology,” and obsessively harnesses the dubious power of everyone’s favorite font: Comic Sans MS. This translates to the hacking of old-school video games to comic effect, the programming of drum machines to play retro beats on loop and the creation of humorous YouTube collages – though admittedly, all with a palpable sense of warmth and affection for his subjects.
His most famous work is Super Mario Clouds (2002), where he physically hacked a Nintendo Super Mario game cartridge so all that was visible are the clouds sailing lethargically against a backdrop of blue sky on loop. This allowed viewers to cloud-watch digitally, much in the same way they might do in "real life." While the YouTube video merely shows the actual footage, when exhibited, the work was projected on many different screens at different heights and of different sizes, creating something surreally immersive.
A few years later, he created the video collage a couple thousand short films about Glenn Gould (2007) , a masterpiece of editing which took clips of amateur musicians playing instruments on YouTube and spliced them together to create a reconstruction of the first of Johannes Sebastian Bach’s "Goldberg Variations." This followed on from something arguably much more fun: a YouTube video that painstakingly edited together footage of cats walking on pianos to create Arnold Schoenberg's classic atonal piano piece “Drei Klavierstücke.”
Black’s short, snappy meditations on pop culture may at first glance seem like cute bits of celebrity – her Team Jolie (2013) video, for example, explores the way love rivals Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie are perceived in popular culture – but you only need to peruse this intimidatingly smart British artist/writer’s articles for The New Inquiry to see how much theory and philosophy go into her ideas.
A standout piece is her film My Bodies (2014), which assembles audio clips of black female recording artists (Rihanna, Beyonce, Whitney, Ciara ) singing the phrase “my body” and lays them over a montage of images of wealthy white men (Black describes Googling the words “CEO” and “executive” to source the images). The images are so close up the viewer almost gets lost in their pores, creating a surreal, disjointed commentary on traditional biases surrounding race and gender.
It's hard to talk about video art wunderkind Ryan Trecartin without gushing, so let's try and stick to the facts. Born in Texas in 1981, currently residing in LA, Trecartin makes colourful, jarringly surreal videos that challenge a New York-centric, heteronormative vision of art in the framework of everything digital.
He first gained international attention with his 2004 opus A Family Finds Entertainment, in which the main character, Skippy, locks himself in the cupboard of a bathroom at his own house party, comes out to his parents as gay, runs out into the road and then gets run over by a car, before he is magically resurrected. His videos are exactly as hyperactive and confusing as this description implies, and generally feature an ensemble of Trecartin's pals, garishly attired, improvising lines that are repeated over and over.
As Trecartin’s star ascended, he was chosen to show a set of immersive videos in the career-making "The Generational: Younger Than Jesus" show at the New Museum in 2009, while his much-lauded series of seven videos focusing on corporate life and personal branding, Any Ever (2010-2011), confirmed that things could only get better. Trecartin is endlessly prolific, so if you’ve got some spare time to go down the lurid rabbit hole, check out the video above before exploring his Vimeo profile.
Cyprien Gaillard Gaillard was first fêted at the same "Younger Than Jesus" show as Trecartin. However, his work is worlds away from the hyperactive technicolor of a Trecartin film. Gaillard is based in Berlin, but hails from France, and his works are primarily concerned with destruction and reaction to nostalgia.
Perhaps the best introduction to Gaillard’s work is Desniansky Raion, a short which documents the St Petersburg subculture of fight clubs. The video opens on a housing project in the suburbs of St. Petersburg, with the camera’s gaze sweeping over drab, Brutalist-style buildings before cutting to two groups of men marching towards each other, one group mostly attired in red, the other group mostly in blue. As flares are set off, the groups fall on each other, pummelling each other with unrestrained violence.
This violence is key to Gaillard’s work, whether focused on people (as in Desniansky), or place, as we see in Artefacts (2011), which shoots scenes from post-conflict Iraq and juxtaposes them against images of Babylon’s antiquities. The piece was shot on the artist’s iPhone and the digital video was then transferred to an older 35mm format on which the work is looped.
Andrew Thomas Huang
Not many artists can count Lost creator J.J. Abrams as a fan of their early work. That said, not many artists have produced a debut film that was nominated for Best of YouTube in 2007 and watched by over six million people. Huang’s breakout film Doll Face is equal parts inventive and unsettling, acting as a searing (if not exactly subtle) critique of the influence TV has on our self-image.
While Huang took a meeting with Abrams the day after graduating USC, he resolved to stick with the short film medium until he struck upon exactly the right subject for a longer feature. Since then, he’s directed adverts for brands like Google and Lexus and music videos for artists like Avi Buffalo and Delphic.
After raising $8,000 via Kickstarter for a new art project, Huang directed the 10-minute technicolor short “Solipsist," which won the 2012 Special Jury Prize for Experimental Short Film at Sundance and was an Official Selection at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Abrams isn’t Huang’s only famous fan. This year, he has spent most of his time collaborating with none other than Björk. The pair worked together on a 360-degree virtual reality video for her song “Stonemilker," where viewers could interact with the video at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City or at the Rough Trade shops in London or New York/ There was also a moving album cover for Vulnicura and an intense ten-minute video for the single “Black Lake”.
His website currently has a graphic titled “coming soon: FALL 2015”, so stay tuned for more outbursts of dark futurism later this year.
Wearing is a London-based photographer and video artist who describes her work as “editing life." She’s been a big name on the British art scene for decades and is so ultra-established that she’s both won the Turner Prize and has been elected as a lifetime member of the Royal Academy of the Arts in London. She uses the camera to explore the gap between people’s public and private lives and plays with identity, asking adults to lip sync to the recorded confessions of children or to disguise themselves with ultra realistic masks.
Last year, Wearing’s 21-minute film We Are Here showed at Maureen Paley’s landmark gallery in East London, exploring the interior monologues of a number of people who turn out to be “shades” (i.e. dead voices speaking from the afterlife), in an unidentified community space. The stories explore the isolation people experienced in their lifetime, whether from repressing one’s feelings to the loneliness a serious illness can provoke.
Her most recent project is a little less bleak, crowdsourcing the views from people’s windows and aiming to edit them together into one subtly emotional piece. This project appears to still be open for submissions, so if the idea of your bedroom view becoming the video art star of tomorrow appeals, submit here.
37-year-old artist, filmmaker and musician Luke Fowler is based in Glasgow. His videos are strikingly different to everything else listed here: whereas so many of the other artists I’ve name-checked look to the future, Fowler’s films focus on how to examine the past. While experimental, his films are far closer to documentaries than they are to stereotypical wacky video-art fare, but this hasn’t done much to hurt his chances in the art world. In 2008 he won the inaugural Derek Jarman Award, while in 2012 he was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize.
His cinematic collages have explored figures as diverse as famed Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who wrote extensively on schizophrenia, and experimental English composer Cornelius Cardew, while his film Depositions (2014), ran on the BBC last year and dwells on “potentiality: what might be, what might have been, what might still be if the world were to turn in a different direction?”
Adjectives people usually associate with video art: disturbing, overwhelming, pretentious, provocative. One adjective people don’t associate with video art so often: funny.
That’s why it’s a damn shame that Shana Moulton is so peculiarly under-hyped. While her video art’s highly influenced by Trecartin, it’s far more overtly humorous and accessible than his work. Her series "Whispering Pines" centers around her neurotic alter-ego, Cynthia, who’s a hypochondriac with a passion for new age kitsch, lurid decoration schemes, sand art, journaling and terrible haircuts. Think: Twin Peaks’ the Log Lady meets Amy Schumer.
I don’t know if Enya-based humor has the same impact as everyone else as it does on me, but I laughed forever at this...
Words by Sophie Atkinson for Highsnobiety.com