Legacies of the Television Age

Critic Dieter Daniels has written that the music video is the only ‘art form unique’ to the medium of television, with ‘examples of this form [attracting] accolades in the context of art and [becoming] part of museum collections’. Daniels traces the lineage of music videos as ‘a continuation of the 1920s avant-garde absolute films’.1 Although musicians had used videos and films to promote songs and albums on television since the 1960s (and an even earlier history of the visual recording of live performances), the launch of the United States–based cable channel MTV in 1981, and its subsequent sister channels and derivatives both in America and internationally, completely transformed the distribution and format of music videos. Following the original MTV tagline, ‘You’ll never look at music the same way again’, it provided a unique platform that allowed for high experimentation for the visual translation of music onto television – the videos, generally of a short duration, came to adopt and mix a range of formatting techniques, such as documentary, abstraction, live action and animation.2

Australian 1974–
You should let go of a dying relationship 2006
two channel colour video transferred to DVD, silent, 3 min 45 sec
Courtesy of the artist and Neon Parc, Melbourne and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney
© Darren Sylvester
The music video has, in Gilbert Vicario’s explanation, allowed artists to ‘unapologetically and successfully cross over between performance artist and musical performer’. 3 In You should let go of a dying relationship, 2006, Darren Sylvester meticulously restages two popular music videos: ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie (1977), and ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush (1978). Sylvester embodies each of the performers, and mimics their choreography and the videos’ editing sequences. In the gallery, the two clips run concurrently with the screens gently angled towards each other. Significantly, the artist has removed the musical soundtracks, allowing the performances to form a visual dialogue and what Sylvester describes as a ‘random interplay’ between the pop stars.

Rendering the clips silent focuses the viewer entirely on the mood and emotion of the songs’ visual translation through the music video format. The mirroring effect that Sylvester creates through his performances, and the display of the dual videos, draws our attention to the fact that these performers and performances exist only on screens. As Jared Davis has written:

Our lives are clearly demarcated from the world of these artists, by their inaccessibility through the impossible window of our screens. At the same time, we project and compare ourselves with these pop icons, imagining as if we are looking in a mirror. In You should let go of a dying relationship, we can see ourselves, mirrored in Darren Sylvester mirroring himself in David Bowie and Kate Bush.’4

Pipilotti Rist similarly adopts the presence, movement and persona of the singer and performer in the short video You called me Jacky, 1990; in this instance lip-synching and pretending to play guitar to the song ‘Edna and Jacky’ by Kevin Coyne (1973). Footage of Rist’s performance is superimposed with flashes of images from the moving carriages of a train. Intentionally quite basic in its production values, which sit in opposition to the commercial slickness associated with the videos of MTV, Rist nonetheless captures an emotional intensity in her performance. In You called me Jacky Rist appears to appropriate the language and format of music videos, but her presence gently confronts the expected vision of femininity and identity as often presented in such clips. As she has said, ‘I have the greatest respect for some MTV clips, since they have a power of innovation and a spirit of discovery that really surpasses video art’.5

Beyond a direct connection to MTV, Rist’s video is also influenced by her deep interest in popular culture and in experimental and feature films. The artist has discussed the technical and philosophical similarities and differences between her work and these popular forms:

I use the camera to guide the viewer. I guide myself and I guide you as well … Some music videos utilise interesting camera work. Maybe this is part of the connection people see between MTV and my work. Music videos are different from most video art pieces where the camera work is often very rigid and strict … The only difference is I do not have to sell someone’s product with my video works. I don’t have to sell a band. I use the same media, but I’m privileged to convey purely poetical, philosophical, and political content.6

The crossing over of performer, actor and performance artist and the blurring of creative and commercial actions are at the heart of much of the video work created by Kalup Linzy in the 2000s. Linzy has become renowned for his MTV-style videos in which he takes on the acting, producing and directing and soundtrack composition.

In Conversations wit de Churen II: All My Churen, 2003, Linzy draws on nostalgic childhood experiences of watching seemingly endless episodes of television soap operas always on in his family home: of these his favourites are Guiding Light, The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. The funny and melodramatic qualities of All my Churen are inspired by this style of ubiquitous TV programming:

I think that I was always interested in both comedy and drama. I was very into Def Comedy Jam and stuff like that when I was in high school, and so, if you take something like All My Churen, it’s a combination of the two – it follows the structure of a sitcom and a soap opera at the same time. But it all grew out of those aspirations of being a performer and an actor and filmmaker. I had all these dreams.7

Linzy’s video assimilates soap operas’ formulaic, recurring plotlines of intrigue, betrayal and heartache. Holland Cotter of The New York Times described the ‘Byzantine subplots’ created by the Linzy that pivot around the dramatic life of a young woman named Nucuazia:

If most of the characters, including Nucuazia’s sharp-tongued mother, soft-touch grandmother, wastrel brother and brusque corporate executive sister, share an uncanny family resemblance, it is because Mr. Linzy plays them all, brilliantly.8

  1. Dieter Daniels, ‘Television – art or anti-art? Conflict and cooperation between the avant-garde and the mass media in the 1960s and 1970s’, trans. Michael Robinson, Media Art Net <http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/themes/overview_of_media_art/massmedia/scroll/>, accessed 20 April 2015
  2. Robert Sam Anson, ‘Birth of an MTV Nation’, Nov. 2000, Vanity Fair, <http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2000/11/mtv200011>, accessed 20 April 2015. After two decades, MTV was being broadcast to 139 countries with a following of 40 million viewers – a cultural phenomenon for younger generations that has influenced fashion, graphic design, television programming and music itself.
  3. Gilbert Vicario, ‘Medianation: performing for the screen’, in Wendy Watriss (ed.), Contemporary U.S. Photography, FotoFest Inc., Houston, 2010, p. 221.
  4. Jared Davis, ‘Darren Sylvester’, in ART1, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2010, available at <http://jareddavisprojects.com/texts/DarrenSylvester.pdf>.
  5. Pipilotti Rist quoted in Henry M. Sayre, ‘1990–2005: in the clutches of time’, in Amelia Jones (ed.), A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, Blackwell, London, 2006, p. 12.
  6. ‘Interview with Pipilotti Rist by Rochelle Steiner’, in Rochelle Steiner, Wonderland, The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, 2000, pp. 92–3.
  7. Kalup Linzy in Chan Marshall, ‘Kalup Linzy’, Interview, <http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/kalup-linzy/#_>, accessed 20 April 2015.
  8. Holland Cotter, ‘Art in Review: Kalup Linzy’, New York Times, 25 March 2005.