The Starry Messenger
Derry's Void gallery exhibits a cross-section of video works shot on 16mm film
With the rise of digital, inevitably there have been casualties.
Terrestrial television and analogue radio signals have been switched off; hard copy music formats like CDs have lost prominence; and in cinema, plastic film has largely made way for a plethora of digital file types, captured on memory cards and reproduced, transported and played back in theatres at a fraction of the cost.
Now the fightback has begun. A coalition of directors – led by Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, among others – nostalgic for the traditional format on which so many of their favourite movies were produced, have successfully lobbied Hollywood studios to order tape versions of new releases from the iconic Eastman Kodak Co. to ensure that film does not die out in the home of western cinema.
Meanwhile, in the UK, JJ Abrahms is producing the new Star Wars episode in the same way that George Lucas produced the first, and best-loved, episodes – on old school film – in a bid to recapture the spirit and feel of the originals.
Commissioned to coincide with the CultureTECH digital arts festival, The Starry Messenger: Seven Artist Filmmakers at Void gallery in Derry~Londonderry makes the case for the continuance of traditional film as a medium in contemporary art. Having joined the ranks of the rebels, Void leads from the front with an educational exhibition bound to alter opinions of video art, that most subjective and devisive of mediums.
In 2013, audiences in Derry~Londonderry were treated to Laure Prouvost's Turner Prize-winning work 'Wantee', a humorous piece set in the living room of Prouvost's fictional grandfather. Part installation – the viewer could observe the video while sit at a table cluttered with domestic detritus, an extension of the living room shown on screen – it was an accessible work driven by narrative. Not particularly challenging.
There are plenty of video works that are, however – pieces showing artists defecating into toilet bowels; poets and footballers sleeping for hours on end; actors performing fellatio; performance pieces featuring artists with buckets on their heads; and disorientating jump cut works designed to unsettle and with confusing titles and artist statements attached that only manage to antagonise and alienate viewers all the more.
Unfortunately, the public perception of video art has been largely informed by these types of pieces, rather than the more approachable, easily understood works of Prouvost or even Willie Doherty, Derry's own Turner Prize-nominated visual artist, whose video work often refers to the legacy of the Troubles.
The Starry Messenger does includes challenging exhibits – the viewer is invited to consider the ravaging of the South American natural landscape in Ana Vaz's beautifully shot 'Sacris Pulso', for example, or the indoctrination of young people in Utah, where 63% of the population are registered members of the Church of the Latter-day Saints, in Talena Sanders' 'Liahona'.
True, none of the films feature human blood splattered across the lens, high-pitched screams let out in the stairwells of Soviet high-rise apartment blocks, or strobe lighting effects that should come with warnings for those of a nervous disposition, but they're not exactly Disney shorts either. Yet the overall tone is warm and welcoming.
There is a particular quality – a peculiar visual texture – to 16mm film that makes the most mundane of images feel familiar and inviting. Curator Declan Sheehan knows this, of course, and has chosen an interesting cross-section of examples sure to convince the most indifferent of viewers that there should be a place for film in visual art, as in cinema, in the digital age.
Too small a space to accommodate all of the films, Void has taken over the larger gallery spaces in the City Factory next door for the duration, and a booklet is available to help navigate the five separate galleries.
The main space is designated The Process Room, and features framed lengths of tape from each of the seven artists' larger works, individual frames backlit like miniature tableau. Keanu Reeves's documentary Side by Side – a history of digital and photochemical filming techniques – is also available to view, and there are printed copies of texts like Film Visionary: The American Avant Garde 1943-2000, as well as Tacita Dean's Save This Language radio documentary. For those interested in film, this is an invaluable free resource.
Elsewhere rooms are carpeted and walls draped with fabric, presumably to dampen the sound, and the viewer is free to drift from one room to the next through corridors entered via black drapes – it's all a little eerie, and all the more exciting and immersive for it.
Michaela Nettel's 'Garden' stands out as a particularly attractive piece – a three-minute study of nature, all sprouting buds, sunkissed berries and leaves of green, it is complemented by an ambient urban soundscape, which segues into a harsher, more autumnal denouement marked by jagged thorns, thick bark and the sounds of clipping, as we move from birth to death. I emerge from the womblike space unsure of what lies ahead.
Then, in Gallery 2, a selection of films are projected onto a smaller screen via a large, noisy projector straight out of a Beckett play, which the gallery technician tells me he bought for £20 at a car boot sale. 'It's all Netflix these days,' he complains.
For him, and the various artists featured in this engrossing exhibition, the rise of digital has been a bittersweet phenomeaa, on one hand opening up the world of cinema to makers and audiences through file sharing sites like YouTube, on the other sounding the death knell for film. This wonderfully presented and curated exhibition is a fine ode to that most tangible and evocative of filmmaking materials.