A wave of visual experiments is sweeping across Ukraine as video art blossoms and the cinema avant-garde of the 1920s and the 1930s is back in fashion
Several landmark video art events have recently taken place: the VAU-Fest 2011 International Video Art & Short Film Festival in Ukrainka, the New Media Ukraine (part of the MUKHi 2011 project) and Record > Again! 40 years of video art in Germany, Part 2, which is a retrospective exhibition of German video art in the National Art Museum in Kyiv.
“The developments in media art over the past several years have to do for the most part with a new generation of artists who are used to using the video camera together with the computer and programming,” says mass media expert Yanina Prudenko. In her opinion, this generation (she refers to the UBIK group and Denys Salivanov) proves that working with new technology is not an outside impulse for Ukrainian art, as was the case when the Soros Center of Modern Art, founded in the 1990s, operated. However to become established, these artists and the media archive are in critical need of financial, technical and information support. Some aid should be coming soon as Ukraine is about to join Monoskop, a powerful media art network widely employed on a global scale. Remarkably, many things only take place due to non-commercial initiatives, including the NonStopMedia festival in Kharkiv whose volunteers cleared a cellar to make room for the festival.
The National Art Museum is now hosting an important part of world video art – an exhibit of German video art from the 1960s until present, which is a continuation of the last year’s exhibit, BEUYS. PAIK. VOSTELL. Actions and videoart 1960s-1970s. Dr. Georg Elben, curator of the Videonale e. V. festival in Bonn, shares how to present video art in contemporary conditions. According to him, a rational organization of space and conceptual tools (in this case individual monitors rather than video fragments projected onto a wall in succession) are the kind of experience Ukrainian festivals should adopt. This is because presenting video art is costly and space-consuming: for example, this year’s exhibit should have occupied require three times as much area as it did, but due to space constraints one screen was used to show three films.
A PENCHANT FOR THE SPECTACULAR AND TV CRITIQUE
The first video art efforts in Ukraine came during the massive transformations that accompanied the break-up of the USSR. These included performances, meetings in apartments and art studios, musical experimentation and the “new wave” in painting. Kyiv and Lviv were the initial centers of video art in Ukraine.
Performances provided the first impetus to video art in the form of interactivity. One of the best known projects in the early 1990s, Art in Space by Ihor Podolchak and Ihor Diurych, represented Ukraine at the São Paulo Art Biennial (Brazil). Lviv artist Vlodko Kaufman shows interest in the medium and information environment: in “Filling Versions” he poured spirit and ink into water with swimming fish. “Letters to the citizens of the Earth” was marked by an unusual organization of space in the Church of Poor Clares. The most recent video art uses documentary methods and focuses on various aspects of life and art. A good example here is “On a Volcano” (2004) by Kharkiv artist Serhii Bratkov in which he offers a comic report from a mud cure resort.
Another remarkable topic – criticism of television for churning out mass products and being a tool for manipulation – emerged in Ukrainian video art several years later and is still being exploited today. Hlib Katchuk’s “Apocalypso” mixes irony and psychedelics: the title itself is a portmanteau of apocalypse and calypso, a drug popular in the 1990s, while the plot contrasted beautiful illusions on the screen and the growing noses of audience members, naturally reminiscent of Pinnochio. Brother TVs – anthropoids with TV sets instead of heads – make some comic dialogs in Ustyn Danchuk’s film screened in Kharkiv in 2008. Another recent work, Dmytro Shyian’s “Time,” dwells on the same topic: it shows a long series of welcoming statements from anchorpersons with an emphatic final chord – the one clip with a good-bye.
Both trends – the focus on performance and TV criticism – marked the origins of video art in a number of other countries as well as Ukraine. The oft-cited parallel is TV critique leveled in the Fluxus movement, documented performances by Joseph Beuys and Yoko Ono and the Ant Farm (1968-78, USA). These elements are also easily recognizable in the retrospective show of German video art and even in the works produced by video art pioneers, for example, in Serbia in the mid-1980s.
A BAG OF TRICKS
Art critic Oleksandr Soloviov recalled that when he attended the Dokumenta festival (1992) in Munich with the Post-Anesthesia painting project and found that there was no other painting there, he had the feeling that Ukrainian national art was in “stagnation.” There was a need for new tools, he felt, including the video camera. However, video experiments were initially simplistic in terms of video processing, even though unusual phenomena and surfaces were chosen for shooting. The first works made in the 1990s present difficulties to the art media archivists, because they have to be sought out in private collections and digitized from VHS cassettes. However, Elben said he values the marks of time, such as noise and additional markings, because these document in a particular historical period.
Technical progress and video processing techniques advanced in Ukrainian video art hand in hand with the development of related organizations. These academic institutions, such as the Kharkiv Institute of Culture, which was the origin of the Camera Obscura group, and the Lviv University of Decorative and Applied Art where Alfred Maksymenko, professor and experimentalist, taught at the fairly conservative department of monumental painting. (The Akuvido duet which until recently organized internet art projects in Germany was made up of his students.)
Vasyl Karazin at Kharkiv National University recently opened a department of media communication with a promise to offer a course in media art. However, it is academic institutions which have for the most part provided contacts and access to equipment. The Soros Foundation, particularly the three-year-long Info Media Bank education program, had a much greater impact. Part of the works it funded by the foundation of the KIMAF (Kyiv Media Art Festival) which over time began attracting foreign participants. The program offered access to specialized equipment and foreign experience. So the works of Katchuk, Illia Isupov, Olha Kashymbekova and others are rich in experiments with synchronous and asynchronous movements, black-and-white and color frames and images pregnant with a range of connotations. The Odessa center of video art matured at the same time.
Paradoxically, these masters often no longer document reality, but look to the heritage of their predecessors — distant ones at that — traveling further in time than even Fluxus. They go back to the French and Ukrainian cinema avant-garde and the silent films of the 1920s and the 1930s. Cutting-edge technology has enabled Katchuk to produce a color version of a Georges Méliès film (Milies-2000) replicating multicolored images of the kind that are shown by old malfunctioning TVs. Oleksandr Roitburd has been able to grotesquely portray things like ballet or The Battle of the Ice using looping – a technique to reproduce a skipping effect and the repetition of movement.
IN A SPECIAL LANGUAGE
Now we come to the type of question which is usually asked at the beginning of any lengthy story about video art: What is it all about?
Trying to answer this question, Elben correctly warns against drawing a clear line between video art and films, because contemporary art films, not mainstream movies, often come close to video art. The cinema avant-garde, some auteur cinema and video art speak in their own cinema language – fundamentally distinct from narration, built on both visual images and sounds. At the same time, filmmakers juxtaposed it with the hackneyed language of literature and the often primitive and certainly manipulative stock language of television. In order to keep the language of cinema from degenerating into “talking,” the video or cinema artist has to focus his powers of reflection on the expressive means he uses. (Hans Richter, an avant-garde artist of the 1920s, said that a copy of reality is the greatest danger facing a person with a video camera.)
Researcher Helmut Friedel analyzed the works of German video artists of the 1980s and concluded that the present-time ability to create a film without a camera is a logical corollary of the awareness of its role and the perception of video images as a type of medium. Man Ray did a similar thing by creating photos without a camera back in the 1920s. Montage is another tool widely used in cinema art and recognized by theoreticians like Yuri Lotman, Gilles Deleuze and others. A number of contemporary video art techniques such as looping are based on montage in the same manner it was used by early artists like Dziga Vertov, Luis Buñuel and Fernand Léger.
The self-awareness of media artists was the concept behind the 2008 International Video Art Exhibit in the Independent Museum of Contemporary Art in Cyprus. The organizers proved that this art has now reached a level at which it can identify itself through its contradictions, including those between old and new techniques.
If and when a truly comfortable, comprehensive and well-known archive of Ukrainian video art is established, future artists will have food for new reflections.