Art Like most other forms of advertising, it’s impossible for me to remember when I must have seen my first pop video. I do know when I began to pay attention to them, watching The Chart Show on Channel 4 then ITV each Saturday lunch time, which for those of us without Sky and so Mtv and multi-channel television, this was the only place to see promos for the latest songs in a block interrupted only by other adverts and the strange Commodore Amiga based desktop graphic in which a pointer would open folders to reveal information about the acts during instrumental sections.
Even then, I could detect that the difference between a video which had been knocked together from a live performance because a track had been a surprise hit (Black Box’s Ride on Time) and something created by an auteur with a seemingly infinite budget creating something that looked like a four minute movie (anything featuring Michael Jackson). But it’s fair to say that at that young age it didn’t occur to me that what I was watching could in any way be considered an art form. Mostly it was an opportunity to gaze longingly at Kylie as she grinned at me through the screen whilst dancing around random pieces of polystyrene.
It’s only later, when seeing the claymation videos for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer on an Ardman Animation compilation dvd or those Kylie videos projected onto the wall of an art gallery that it really sank in that pop videos are of those occasions when commerce and artistic expression intersect and that just as many so-called "fine" artists work in that industry as their own. But that there remains a strange hierarchy of taste which means when Derek Jarman produces At Home With Duggie Fields it is deemed worthy of appearing in an art gallery. When Derek Jarman works with the Pet Shop Boys it isn't.
FACT’s new exhibition, The Art of the Pop Video, as the title suggests, seeks to redress the balance. Curators by Michael P Aust (a film producer and director of SoundTrack… Cologne) and Daniel Kothenshulte (film academic), both of whom have made this idea their life, collect together examples of pop videos from across the years mixing the expected classics (Bohemian Rhapsody, Video Killed The Radio Star) with an eclectic range of lesser known titles to investigate genres such as amateur, dance, politics, urbanism and filmic crossovers.
The genius of the exhibition is in the approach. As part of the press pack, I have a list of all the videos which are included and with half an hour to spare, could throw together a playlist in YouTube collecting them all together and it would give a sense of the exhibition and the careful curatorial decisions taken by Aust and Kothenshulte over the past eighteen months. Before the press view, that’s roughly what I was expecting, a giant projector in each of the galleries playing them in a loop for about an hour, just a tiled floor, cheap bar and speaker stack away from being a mid-90s student's union.
Instead, the curators have treated the pop videos with the same respect as other art. Entering the space we’re confronted with walls and walls of television screen each showing one or two of the videos. At first it's startling, bewildering and distracting but we quickly realise that what we’re seeing is a similar arrangement to most other art exhibitions, except the pictures are moving and thanks to the attached headphones we can be absorbed into each of their worlds. Rather than fighting for our attention within a block of other content, they’re left to stand alone.
Almost, because within another couple of seconds you realise that in treating the videos with the same respect as other art, the curators have also carefully chosen how the videos will be juxtaposed. In the press tour, Kothenshulte spent some time explaining how the videos in the first, “history” room are interrelated despite the decision now to present them in production order. There’s Fred Astaire in hoofing away in Top Hat, next to Spike Jonze’s Hollywood musical influenced piece for Bjork’s It’s Oh So Quiet whose technicolor seeps seamlessly into Oskar Fischinger’s block animation, Kompostion in Blau next door.
Those connections continue right around the room, making it possible for us to see that the found footage approach of the promo for Johnny Cash’s Hurt is at least spiritually in the same continent as the dayglo Soviet postmodernism of The Pet Shop Boys’s Go West and that all of them have a solid, artistic underpinning that reaches deep below the surface, even the slapdash montage of the trashy film for Brigette Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg’s Comic Strip and that unlike static, silent painting, each has duration which invites us to concentrate on it utterly.
Except because of the proximity of the screens it is possible to become fascinatingly distracted so that Fred Astaire is dancing to Bjork or The White Stripes are providing the soundtrack for a Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance. It replicates somewhat the experience of listening to music via headphones in "real" life, our chosen music soundtracking our exploits however mundane, the walk to work becoming a Bittersweet Symphony (though presumably without as many collisions).
The videos have different durations. Some visitors will be content to join a song in the middle but in the more narrative promos there’s nothing fun about missing the beginning. I quickly realised that there was always a gap and blank screen between the end and start of a video and it’s possible to skip across the room and quickly jam the headphones on for the beginning. Then, at the end, returning to the middle of the room and wait for the next in. How this will work when the gallery’s open to the public I’m not sure but it meant I could see everything in a relatively short segment of time.
Or everything in the first room. The reason I've been concentrating on the contents of that first room is because this is a massive exhibition and impossible to see in a few hours let alone even the normal opening hours of the gallery if you want to see and hear everything from start to finish and once you’ve started you will want to see and hear everything. It’s the kind of exhibition which appeals to my collector mentality so I’ll be dropping in for a bit each week for the duration of the show and seeing the next section.
Eventually I’ll reach the upper gallery, where the curators have position pieces which the makers very specifically suggest are art pieces but whose content is barely dissimilar to the work downstairs (at least from the glimpses I had). Such distinctions become important in the preparation of the exhibition. The pop videos are covered by a fairly bog-standard PRS music license, but the art pieces had to go through the usual channels and permissions of other art galleries and the artist’s themselves. It rather seems to depend on the purpose the work was commissioned for.
Is there a bias in the selections? Of course there is, all exhibitions to some extent express the tastes of their originators. Aust and Kothenshulte are most concerned in the intersection between art, pop and film and showing the best of the form so they’ve little interest in dedicating a screen to examples of the mediocre, the generic, the dull. In selecting the work of film directors, it’s the Finchers and Jonze’s who’re prioritised rather than Russell Mulcahy or McG. Fans of the New Romantics and will be disappointed.
With my interest in film history, archiving and restoration something which did astound me was the difficulties the curators had in sourcing good quality prints of even the most famous pop videos. Aust explained that when this work is created, most often the master tapes reside with the given promotional company and very often if they’re having a clear out or closing, like much of television history before the 1970s it, the tapes would either be re-used or thrown in a skip. Some artists, when they want to release a greatest hits dvd rarely have access to the original masters, many of which have been destroyed.
Needless to day I was flabbergasted and said so. I had always assumed that the pop promos were treated with the same care as the music they’re advertising, stored in record company vaults (record companies often owned by the same media conglomorate as a movie studio) and yet it's true that there are greatest hits dvds in which classic videos are represented by obvious VHS recordings and this also explains why even on official artist YouTube channels, the quality of the image is barely standard definition. Part of the work of the curators is rescuing the tapes when disaster strikes like a two man BFI for pop promos.
However it was dragged together The Art of the Pop Video is an awesome exhibition to open FACT’s new two year project to include more shows with a pop cultural aspect intermingled with their usual programme. It’s early days, I’ve only properly seen one room, and yet to experience it with the rest of the public, but right now I can barely think of a criticism. Even the headphones are well chosen, Sennheisers with comfortable ear cushions and little leakage so that the visitor isn’t aurally distracted by the audio surroundings. Room Two next week then. Godley and Crème, The Prodigy and Nirvana…