by Nada Prlja, 2010 for Nolens Volens

Can video artists create alternative working methodologies?
Words in progress for Nada Prlja’s forthcoming project for Manifesta 8 – Foreign Language for Beginners

Artistic work has the potential of questioning and problematising the notion of modern communicational methods. It has the potential of introducing doubt and an awareness of ambivalence in relation to the notion of truth.

The aim of the essay is to explore ways in which artistic production relates to reality, by examining the artists' position as a mediator of certain information. Can video/media artists create alternative working methodologies to those applied by media used for communication?

The video medium as research tool

Since the 1960’s/70’s, conceptual art has been interested in photography/video as a tool of documentation. During this time, the artist’s urge has been to redefine aesthetic/artistic practices and the questions of photographic/video theory - issues which were, to a large extent, ignored by previous generations of artists.

Guy Brett points out that in the project by Darcy Lange entitled Work Studies in Schools, Lange ‘uses the video as a means of involving himself with real people and real problems of life.’ Darcy Lange’s videos are freed from electronic editing equipment, which results in a process-based, unfinished product, encouraging the development of what could be called the ‘process video’. His video works are close to a realistic representation of the situation, with a realistic time frame and authentic environment. This method reinforces ‘research’ as the artist’s method of working, where the ‘research’ is the observation of everyday activities.

More importantly, Lange is not purely interested in representation; his work serves as a research tool for the schools or work places that he has been filming over years. He uses the medium of video to achieve more. His projects reinitiate some of the traditional ideas about photographing/filming – reinforcing the factual and documentary power of the image, the use of footage as a reference to the living condition (referring to the work by Walker Evans, Eadweard Muybridge, etc). Lange’s video projects target even further - he uses the footage to initiate an action/reaction to certain conditions by the subjects themselves. This aspect can most clearly be seen in his 1977 work entitled Work Studies in Schools, where he compares the realities and methodologies of teaching environments in comprehensive and public schools in the UK, comparative observations (research) which are then used as a platform for discussion by the staff members and pupils themselves.

Working with momentary documents

Contrary to Lange’s ‘research videos’, journalists use straightforward forms of media communication, in which the relations are clear, and can be set out as follows: 1 - the subject, as the object of concern; 2 - the 'deliverer' (the journalist) 3. the audience, as the recipient.

Journalists address the population in a direct way, their information based on (presumably accurate) facts, delivered as information. The producer of the information (the journalist or the editor) does not expect or demand any further engagement from the recipient, the viewer. The journalists’ professional interests are based on the delivery of the information. The editors set the rules and initiate the relevant topics and themes of interest; journalists work under commission by the editors. As the coverage of a certain moment is filmed and delivered to the public, the editors’ and journalists’ work is complete.

In some artists’ work, a similar methodology is applied. If the artist's video/media project is stripped of its 'intellectual', visual and textual qualities/content, the work’s main aim will consist of informing the audience about certain conditions or situations. In this case, the artistic activity resembles and could even be compared to the straightforward, simplistic media model of communication, characteristic of journalistic reportage. This kind of work becomes a form of aesthetic reportage and does not serve society any more or differently than mere journalistic information. (Examples of such an approach can be seen in Tanja Ostojic/David Rych’s Sans Papiers, in certain works by Oliver Ressler & Dario Azzellini, etc).

The strength of the artistic activity or its characteristic potential is to go further, beyond the simplified media model of delivering certain information – the reportage. The artist’s possibilities while working with documentary imagery are very diverse; the artist can either question the character of the document/information itself, and/or provide individuals with potential (alternative) solutions to a concrete situation.

The second potential of the artwork – the ability to offer alternative solutions - could be achieved through two separate methods/directions: one could be called the ‘micro aim’ (the work of art that contributes toward affecting personal lives); the other could be called the ‘macro aim’ (the work of art that could influence society as a whole).

The context for the project Foreign Language for Beginners

The project ‘Foreign Language for Beginners’ documents particular social conditions that have been captured by the insider / the inhabitant of these particular conditions.

During a series of video workshop days in the Detention Center Murcia, Spain, I made an attempt to initiate ‘micro goals’ by working with inmates with ‘Tercer Grado’ status, the status of semi-freedom which (apparently) allows inmates to spend eight hours daily in freedom. The process of allegedly ‘giving freedom’, is limited to the legislation manuals and is not applicable to reality; the inmates are literally ‘captured’ in the maze of European law. The project aims to show the realities of the ‘Tercer Grado’ system, based on research about their life under imprisonment, looking in particular at the migrants’ unfavorable condition.

The inmates, taking part in the video workshop, have recorded a set of videos that observe inmates currently detained under the ‘Tercer Grado’ system. The recorded material is captured without the artist’s involvement in the inmates’ process of filming. The artist thereby becomes a provider/agent of new possibilities for the detainees, who through this project, become co-authors of the video material. The ‘documents’ that were analysed as part of the project were different kinds of permits and legal documents, that are issued to the third grade inmates, but which remain unused/underused due to the documents’ irrelevance within the real situation.

In this essay, I will illustrate only a single condition – the situation of work permits for detainees.

Inmates are encouraged to look for work, however, not many do, as the reality of their situation actively discourages it. Some of them decide to call potential employers, but as they do not have a priority in applying and compete with the rest of the unemployed population of the area, their chances are slim. Some detainees ask for permission to go out for job interviews (as during working days, they need to obtain special permission for every outing). Despite having a concrete and legitimate reason for going out, permissions are nevertheless not always granted.

The alleged semi freedom allowed by the third grade status is contradictory, as in reality, detainees are only granted permission for trips to and from agreed destinations (for a duration of less than their legally rightful eights hours a day). Upon their return, every location visited needs to be reported, and a health check is compulsory. If there is any improper behavior by the inmates in relation to any part of the guidelines, this could influence further limitations and punishments; in some extreme cases, it could even provoke the reclassification of inmates’ status as ‘second grade’ (full imprisonment).

In a situation of confined lives (as within the detention centers), the authority’s guidelines provide the inmates with safety; the acceptance of the guidelines potentially reduces their sentence. As a result, the inmates’ activities are narrowed down to very basic form of living, as any ‘complexity’ in behavior is punishable. Inmates solve this situation by abstinence from everything, opting for a life without any meaningful form of activity, a life of waiting without thinking…and the constant playing of board games.

‘Micro aims’ in the project Foreign Language for Beginners in Murcia’s Detention Center

The first possibility (or the first ‘micro aim’) offered by my project/workshop to the detainees, was engagement in the ‘thinking’ and decision making process. I asked inmates to record videos - observations of their daily lives and living conditions, without being given specific guidelines. Individuals who would normally be expected to obey rules, and who would usually have to ask for permission for everything – were initially asking for guidance (‘what do you want us to do, what do you want us to record?). A direct answer was never provided, as I was primarily interested in allowing their own decisions and choices. The video project thereby provided the detainees with an opportunity to become part of a process, to become co-authors. This method and use of media, opposes the journalistic approach, which in its essence excludes real time, real situations and is engaged with scene-making and performance.

Other alternatives to mainstream communicational methods is offered by the actual video medium, which is capable of influencing the moment itself – to influence certain conditions. In particular, the process of filming and reviewing the video material on a daily basis, has made the inmates aware of their own situation, and provoked a certain critique of their life conditions. This is the project’s second ‘micro aim’.

The next step would be looking for possibilities of changing this situation entirely – working on a ‘macro aim’. Working in such a manner with the medium of video and engaging with documents and their application (by proposing alternative solutions for a concrete situation), creates an alternative to the journalistic mediation and to artworks with a reportage-like approach, giving a specific value characteristic only for socio-politically engaged art activity.

Epilogue – The notion of Positive Temporality

In one of Walker Evans’ photographs, an older woman appears carrying a plate tied around her neck. On the plate, in bold black letters, is inscribed the word ‘BLIND’ [Paul Strand (American, 1890-1976), Blind, 1916. Platinum print, Alfred Steiglitz Collection, 1933 (33,43,334)]. In this specific document of a particular time and social condition, we are aware that this document belongs to the past and is no longer relevant to us (pointing out someone’s disability in such manner would today be seen as offensive).

What is fascinating about this photograph, is that the image serves as a sharp commentary on its contemporary times. Photography/video, as a medium of the ‘moment’, possesses the capacity to influence the moment itself – it has the capacity to influence reality and particular conditions.

by Nada Prlja June 2010