Popular Video
Originally screened for Lux Critical Forum and Edinburgh Artist Moving Image at CCA Glasgow, 05/12/17

Tree Throw, Hannah Taverner 3:31 2016 (not available online)
Substation, (edited) Nick Collins 3:04 2017 (not available online)

approx. 55min

I started making videos on my phone after seeing the televised mobile phone footage of Gaddafi’s overthrowing in 2011. While drawing from the footage on YouTube, these blocky, blooded forms presented a contradiction in their visceral honesty and mediated illusion. While my phone at the time had just reach HD—something my school was barely achieving—this tangible mediation remained foregrounded, and I’ve made videos on my phone ever since. I’m still figuring out why I find this approach so rewarding, of which this short text and programme aims to shed light the experimental potential of ‘Popular Video’.

My understanding of Popular Video is that made on a popular device, to which the viewer is also a user. They are not ‘popular’ in their content, far from it in cases. These videos can be boring—if you let them—set more in a state of contemplation than stimulation; resulting from moments of inspiration and intuition, which may be sought after or hunted by the artist, though refrain from premeditated purpose beyond their existence as videos. Many of the selected artists improvise long continuous takes with sync sound, inclusive of accidents, flukes, failures, serendipity and error. Here the camera becomes less apparatus and more instrument, sitting somewhere between improvised music and observational drawing, made possible through the accessibility and functionality of smartphones. 

The smartphone user has become the dominant image maker, to which the image of popular culture no longer resides in content (i.e. a coke can) but in production (i.e. @therock’s Instagram feed), with the celebrity selfie a transition between the two. We can see this in the billboards of Apple’s ‘shot on’ campaign, showing images made by users that without this context are generic desktop wallpapers. Their value is reliant on this user-generated production, to which an image taken on an iPhone is more of a popular culture gesture than an image of an iPhone. This accessibility is the shift of ‘spactator’ to ‘user’, as the audience becomes conscious to the nuances of popular imaging, holding value in honest representations; i.e. #nofilter. For artists experimenting with popular video then, their is a benefit from an honest practice, which often results in a non-narrative (though diaristic) and non-illusionist approach, holding some ties to the demystification of Structural/Materialist filmmaking, inspired by the films of Pop artist Andy Warhol. 

For Structural/Materialist filmmaker Peter Gidal, a materialist film presents its own ‘coming into presence’, resulting from the celluloid strip. For video, this presence is the result of mathematical algorithms and data; the development of which has lead to the popularity of digital imaging, as algorithms automate the majority of popular imaging tasks. And it isn’t just us they are helping, they are also making the images 'better', as the reason our tiny smartphone cameras can produce images that cover billboards isn’t due to the ability of the camera apparatus, but the algorithms employed to render what the machine thinks is accurate. In the race for ‘best’ smartphone camera, this ‘better’ image has become a platonic ideal, diverting the pursuit from accurate to likeable representation. 

These developments ask the machine to make both functional and aesthetic choices for the user in the guise of usability, pursuing a level of conformity, heightened by autonomous developments such as ‘selfie drones’ and Google Clips. By asking the machine to make decisions for us, our devices are engaging in the structure of the image, one that Vilém Flusser described as ‘quantum [...] a doubt made up of points of hesitation and points of decision-making’. This 'quantum' structure is made up of decisions, from which the machines influence as a decision-maker forms a dialectic between machine and human. The demystification of this, to go back the Structural/Materialist thinking, is the present these decisions, from what could be understood as a 'Quantum Materialism'; and one that is most present in heavily automated use, such as popular devices.  

Some of this programme, as I’ve mentioned, may induce moments of boredom. In this state, you are forced to reflect on the images you are watching, the space you are in, and your part in this dialogue. Here you may ponder, remember, squirm, or rationalise. In the past, some have held their heads in anguish to 6 minutes of a ladybird in long grass, others have covered their faces with coats to shield themselves from flashing imagery. Others have stared intently and in focus, and have gone through the abyss and come out the other side. I first experienced this with Simon Payne’s Point Line Plane, generating moments of reflexive euphoria within a palpable video duration.

Video is our dominant form of entertainment, and as such, we view it as a provider of stimuli. This is not the case for most other art-forms, and going against the moving-image as stimulus has been an endeavour for some time—such as Warhol’s anti-films, which are rarely experienced due to this fear of boredom. Siegfried Kracauer, in his 1924 essay Boredom, notes how advertisements, movie theatres and loud speaker music has removed the self from experience, requiring ‘extraordinary, radical boredom’ to bring it back. Nearly a century on, we have entered a state of constant stimuli, becoming an entertained society, to which even the notion of boredom is met with such distain that it has itself become a form of stimulus—as it could be read in this text. 

Our society is packaged through this view: we get our news from comedians while newspapers pander to click-bait headlines; we protest through Facebook posts, ‘angry’ buttons and profile picture filters; we pursue activities for their record as social currency rather than experience; we only know what entertains us, everything else is Googleable. The entertained society has become anxious in this fear of boredom, and thus of the true experience of the self in reality. Yet it is in video, the medium used to relieve the anxiety of boredom, that we perhaps let our guard down in anticipation, allowing a more radical boredom to seep in. 

This is not to say that the works in this programme are made in the pursuit of boredom, this is merely a side effect of an honest practice. While I have used ‘boring’ as somewhat of a stimulus in this text, terms such as meditative, contemplative, reflexive may also account for experiences in these videos. In this state the viewer/user can delve further into the image, past the anxiety, and doubt the image, of its human and algorithmic origins—its Quantum Materialism. Their simplicity adds to this, with some viewing them as ‘sketches’ in an apologetic lack of labour; possibly ‘slacker art’ if in a traditional medium. Yet these terms do not reflect the digital’s ability to pick up the slack, in postdigital and postindustrial acts of labour/slacking, influenced by an awareness to the aid of the machine—the same awareness we will come to know through driverless cars and surgeonless surgeries. 

These are some of the wider meandering thoughts that brought this programme together, and the methodology behind at least my way of approaching video. There are many things I haven’t discussed, such as the use of improvisation and unfolding events; of natural, formal and impressionist concerns; the occasionally comical drawling, droll imagery; the accessibility of digital works online; the video game/play approach to some of the works; and the overarching naivety of approach. These thoughts will not fit on this page (original A4 programme notes), and for most are still being figured out into words. I hope these interests come out in the works themselves, perhaps emphasised in this programme, highlighting this subculture of video artists working against the grain of conventional cinematic and high production and postproduction values, through the use of Popular Video.