Issue 2/2004 - Net section

Twenty-Five Years of Video Aesthetics

The exhibition »Video« in the NRW- Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft in Düsseldorf

Cosima Rainer

»Hello – I’m Malcom McLaren. Welcome to VIDEO«. That is what you hear when you go through the entrance to the NRW-Forum. When you learn, shortly afterwards, that most of the euphoric, hysterical text in which McLaren announces that the borders between the areas of art, music and advertising are vanishing was written by the head of the NRW-Forum, your pleasure at the personal greeting subsides. McLaren, one of the major figures in the London punk scene in the late seventies and the manager of the Sex Pistols, stands for membership in the scene and dissidence. He is the first example in the exhibition to show that these qualities are a form of capital and can be appropriated.

But how different the forms taken by such practices of appropriation can be is only indirectly the theme of the exhibition. It has set itself the goal of showing the 100 most influential videos from the fields of music, advertising and art. The selection of works starts in 1975 with the video »Art Must Be Beautiful« by Marina Abramovic and ends in 2003 with an IKEA advert by Spike Jonze.

With this wide variety of material, the exhibition would have a great potential to present analytical observations on contemporary visual culture. In the catalogue, which was edited by Ulf Poschardt, one of the curators, you do find theories, questions and insights – from Diedrich Diederichsen, Klaus Theweleit and the editor himself, among others – that open up interesting perspectives. What is strange, however, is that these produce no correspondencies in, and have no effect on, the exhibition. The visitors find themselves in darkened rooms with soft UV lighting in which – with something of the look of a military cemetery – hundreds of uniform monitors with headphones on stands are arranged symmetrically. A scientific view of things is probably not what a »Forum for Culture and Industry« is interested in. This is also shown by the pragmatic selection made by the curators - Thomas Sabel (On Air Director, MTV Networks Europe), Hermann Vaske (Hermann Vaskes Emotional Network, film production company in Frankfurt) and Axel Wirths (head of 235 Media, video-art archive in Cologne) – who have not worked out any connective contexts or theories, but made available videos and films from their archive for the exhibition. The exhibition display, press text and title suggest the total levelling out of all differences under the motto »video« and »flood of images«.

But what are video aesthetics, when most music videos and adverts are not made on video, but on film? Video was only used for a short time as a means of production for clips; because of its quality defects, many directors swapped back to film as early as the mid-eighties. As far as aethetics are concerned, if one were to refer to the fine arts, which carried out pioneering research and tests on the medium from the sixties, then video aesthetics would first of all have to do with installations, closed-circuit situations, filmed body actions and media-reflexive experiments, but also with the hope for a revolution in means of production and a transformation of the broadcaster-receiver structure. These are, however, not the aesthetics that are meant in the exhibition and that characterize the ads and music clips shown. This set of aesthetics arose in connection with the electronicization of »post-production«, i.e. with the electronic processing of film following production as practised since the late seventies. This development nearly eliminated the contrast between photographic and electronic production and led to faster cuts and completely new, artificial images. And finally, the aesthetics of music clips are characterized by cinematic and art-historical references to experimental, musical, music and surrealist films, meaning they should be analysed as a genre that is neutral with regard to media, as Diedrichesen proposes in his essay in the catalogue. In view of these different historical references for video art and ads and music clips, the questionable marker of »Twenty-Five Years of Video Aesthetics« becomes obsolete. The transfers between the areas of art, advertising and music are many and complex, but what is still decisive are the intentions and effects of the production of such references and appropriations. And this is something that only be examined by looking at individual works and their contexts.

Here, adverts and music clips in particular provide illuminating material that, in connection with current socio-analytical discussions, can lead to some interesting observations. Some contemporary clips, for example, reflect the observation that artists, musicians and non-conformists have become »role models« for workers and actors in the neo-liberal world. They serve to stylize the readiness to take risks, creativity on demand, individualizing eccentricities, a variety of ideas, responsibility for oneself and flexibility as attractive characteristics.1 This can be clearly seen in an advert for Apple (Jennifer Golup, 1998), in which a series of portraits of famous »non-conformists« such as Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mahatma Gandhi, Sigmund Freud, Jackson Pollock and Maria Callas are taken as examples of how lunatics, rebels and people who dare to think differently »change« the world.: »They push the human race forward«. This euphoria of progress, coupled with rebellious, »exotic« subjects produces the right image mix for the target group of Apple users, whose everyday working life usually combines the demand for creative madness with self-exploitation: »Think different«.

In the same way, insights gained from cultural studies about the self-empowering functions of popular consumer products are also now used in the rhetoric of adverts: in the clip »Double Life« for the Sony PlayStation (Frank Budgen, 1999), we see virtuosically presented loser types from the neo-liberal economic system who, despite their desolate social existence, look at the camera with self-confidence, and speak proudly about their »double life« with the Sony PlayStation. »At least I can say I have lived«, is the cynical closing line.

Today, dreams and emotions triggered by images are the raw material for value creation. Sensational, provocative and once political images are appropriated, joined to brand names, and convey the necessary dash of »thrill« and authenticity. A recent example of this is the »Freestyle« ad from Nike (Paul Hunter, 2002), whose soundtrack was composed by Afrika Bambaataa, one of the inventors of hip hop. The fact that appropriated images from popular culture can also be treated in a deconstructive, analytical and recalcitrant way is shown by the video »Wonder Woman« (1978) by Dara Birnbaum, cut and combined with music in a virtuosic fashion.

The selection of the music videos does not begin until 1986 with »Take on Me« by a-ha (Steve Barron, thus ignoring many of the major productions of the seventies and eighties (such as Frank Zappa, David Bowie, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, New Order, The Resident). Since the nineties the videos of advanced musicians have become more and more unconventional, more independent, more deviant from the »norm« and more self-reflexive. Sometimes there are no longer any stars to be seen. Musicians like Fatboy Slim, Mansun, Prodigy, The Aphex Twin, Air, Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers occasionally do not appear at all, but are represented by experimental, conceptual visualizations or weird stories (it would interesting to ask whether this phenomenon also has gender-specific components). In this connection, a sort of »music clip d’auteur« has evolved that, particularly in the German music scene, has numerous talented practitioners and, since 1999, has been given a forum at the MuVI Award of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. An important festival, but one that was completely ignored in the exhibition (despite the fact that it takes only 30 minutes to get from Düsseldorf to Oberhausen), along with the entire German-language music-video scene. The biggest deficit of the exhibition, however, is the complete lack of any socio-cultural, economic and historical information, particularly about the history of MTV and its censorship-like selection procedures, important publications or TV programmes that have already dealt with the history and reception of the music video, and, above all, the different social uses and conditions of conception and production of adverts, music videos and art videos. Here, the main interest of the exhibition becomes apparent: to blur differences and to celebrate advertising as an aesthetic and economic phenomenon.

The exhibition »Video – 25 Jahre Videoästhetik« was on display from 24 January to 18 April in the NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf.


Translated by Timothy Jones


1 See Marion von Osten (ed.), Norm der Abweichung [The Norm of Deviation], Zurich and Vienna/New York 2003