World Wide Video Festival in Amsterdam
by Storm van Rensburg
Negotiating the World Wide Video Festival was a bit like using the internet for the first time - overpowering in its possibilities and daunting in its information overload. The festival provided four types of platforms: exhibitions of video work; a series of screenings and talks under the banner 'Meet the Artist'; performance and crossover works under 'Live Events'; and 'Net Art' and single-screen showings accessible at 20 stations in a media lounge venue named 'Baby'.
At first glance, from the beautifully appointed media lounge to sophisticated parties, promotional material and an exceptional catalogue designed by the award-winning Irma Boom, the festival organisers meant big business.
Festival director Tom van Vliet states in his opening lines for the catalogue that "the 19th edition of the festival centres on the reorientation of the position of media art. The field of media art is subject to constant change and current analysis of these developments is reflected in the festival." Attempting to view some of these developments, however, proved difficult or impossible. When I tried to access the 'Net Art' component in 'Baby', via a bank of Macs set up for this purpose, I was told to "rather try from home" as there were serious problems with the dial-up connection. By day three of the festival no offline version had been set up yet.
In addition many presentations lacked serious curatorial consideration, and problems arose with each component of the festival. As one of the only dedicated platforms for media art on the globe, it is a pity that pre-packaged projects were co-opted, with very little consideration of their original context, meaning or presentation. Jose Ferreira's 'Sulsouth: Voyages into Mutant Technologies' only received a slot in the 'Meet the Artist' platform, and was reduced to a lecture on the project.
However, a successful translation was achieved with the opening event, 'unSUNg CITY', part of Rodney Place's ongoing ode to the Johannesburg urban politic, 'Retreks'. Whereas in Johannesburg Place colonised one of numerous deserted parking areas, in Amsterdam Europarking, a very in-demand car park in the centre of the city, was emptied out at what must have been an astronomical cost (at 8 gulden or R20 per hour per car) - a delicious comment on two (opposing) urban dynamics. In Johannesburg a troupe of largely white northern suburbanites took part in a procession through downtown Jozi towards the venue, but in Amsterdam a bunch of media representatives arrived at Europarking in a boat via a canal. Besides the artist's projections, it seems the only similarity was the fact that the screens fit into any car park, the proportions of which are determined by the motorcar.
The disappointment with the 'Meet the Artist' platform arose from overprogramming, with no repeats, making it humanly impossible to "meet" all 50 artists on parade for the festival opening (six artists over two days was a better count). The organisers also managed to reduce video art to film (which it could be, but mostly is not) by virtue of a flat screen projection, failing to effectively comment on or highlight the crossover between film, TV and much contemporary video art. A case in point was the session by Tracey Rose - no one in the room seemed to be familiar with her work or had seen her installation (due to technical problems) before coming to the "meeting". Audience members expecting a screening seemed perplexed to be (rightly) told by Rose that, since her work is installation-based, it was unsuitable for flat screen presentation.
Other opportunities to view the videos only highlighted these problems: video art becomes excruciating when sitting on a poof facing a flat screen Panasonic and wearing headsets with no volume controls, as was the case with the "menu zapping" viewing units at 'Baby'. Some comments were made around the white cube/black box inversion that video art poses, but I somehow felt that the lack of "environments" for works created a sameness and flatness - more and more of the same.
One of the few 'Meet the Artist' presentations that did work was by Cape Town artist Matthew Hindley. Setting up a screening that ran for four hours in a venue with a bar and tables, Hindley showed Allow Me to Observe, a complex work that made for riveting watching. Using technology developed in the late 1800s (the Galvanic Skin Response) coupled with some digital devices, Hindley made a recording contraption that turns the wearer into a surveillance machine. In one of the clips the wearer engages in sex, the sequence building in suspense as we watch a CD being activated, the closing of windows and blinds, the move towards a female figure standing pathetically at the door, like a lamb being led to slaughter. Extreme close-ups of her face fill the screen, moving rhythmically forward and away until, well, surrender. Emotion-triggered editing features built into the "machine" add their own twist - for instance, the camera blacks out if the wearer becomes bored. The work was a stinging comment on reality television and life in a constantly monitored environment.
Besides the readymade projects brought in, the only specially curated exhibition was presented in Arti et Amicitiae, an establishment artists' club in the centre of Amsterdam, with new works by Fernando Alvim, Tracey Rose and Minnette Vári. Their participation as Africans was trumpeted to such an extent that it was quite surprising to discover two other artists (one Dutch/English and an American) sharing the venue, ignored in most publicity material but somehow curatorially deemed relevant to be in the same space.
Vári presented an evocative installation comprising four translucent screens suspended from the ceiling in a huge white room - titled 'Chimera', "referring to Greek mythology, to the fire breathing she-monster represented as a composite of a lion's head, goat's body and dragon's tail" (exhibition catalogue). Projections filled the screens and filtered through to the walls, floors and ceiling, saturating the room with honey-coloured moving images. A soundtrack (which was not yet working when I visited the space on the opening) accompanied the installation. In this work Vári again takes on history, this time using the Voortrekker monument friezes as a starting point. Investigating movement and destruction: the Chimera slithers through these images.
Tracey Rose presented Ode to Leoness, a eulogy for her friend, a legendary Johannesburg drag artist who committed suicide some weeks ago. In the "dead end" of a narrow, lilac-painted room, three plasma screens were installed so that one had to look at the work surrounded by the screens on three sides. The dimensions of the space were calculated in such a way as to comment on the narrow streets and cramped personal space of Amsterdam. On the left screen a middle-aged performer - curlers in hair, fag in hand - appeared to be singing loudly and cheerfully (there was no soundtrack though, which made for a strange silent movie feel). The centre screen was filled with a close-up of a feathered creature with exaggerated camp movements while in the background a loosely draped, makeshift crocheted backdrop reinforced the poignancy of a work that revealed itself slowly.
As much as this blast of media work left one saturated and bloated, the festival highlights were truly that. I did, however, walk away with the feeling that a more sensitive curatorial hand in all projects would have been welcome, and frankly the whole thing could have been better organised. So often we look to the North as the epitome of good organisation, so it is ironically reassuring to see that they too suffer problems. One hopes that in future the token gestures of inclusivity (in this case Africa) will make way for serious investigations into the history and present production of work, not only on the continent but also its diaspora. It is easy and convenient to visit South Africa, but to take the extra effort to negotiate the rest of the continent takes balls which unfortunately this festival was lacking.
Until November 11
World Wide Video Festival, Marnixstraat 411, 1017 PJ Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Tel: +31 (0)20 420 77 29
Fax: +31 (0)20 421 38 28