The Seattle Art Fair this weekend will showcase over 80 galleries featuring contemporary visual art in the Pacific Northwest region and the world. But there’s one exhibition that goes beyond visual art, highlighting how artists are using new video technologies like web series, streaming video and 3-D video, and even featuring an archive of early videos from artists and art collectives that used public access television as a medium.
We caught up with Lauren Mackler, founder of Public Fiction and Emily Zimmerman, Associate Curator of Programs at the Henry Art Gallery, to ask them more about this fascinating and unique exhibition.
What inspired you to make an exhibition of video art for the Seattle Art Fair?
Lauren Mackler: I’ve been working with Public Fiction in Los Angeles for the past 6-7 years now. It’s a platform that features select exhibitions for about 3 months with programs and screenings on one theme or topic, which then gets made into a publication in the end. For me, Public Fiction is about making a straight line from artist to public. Which is something that I see in the history of public access TV. So my interest begins with this idea of distribution or using a direct line from artist to public.
Emily Zimmerman: From the Henry’s perspective we heard about this project and it was very much in keeping with the film program we’ve been revitalizing over the past year, and in line with certain activist screenings we’ve been wanting to represent in our programming. Screenings we are doing are a mix of art and activism, so it fits with the mission of the Henry. A Witness and a Weapon will be an ongoing screening at the Henry for 4 days, so people can come and go as they please.
Can you talk for a moment about some of the ways the artists featured in this exhibit use the medium of television and video?
Lauren: The contemporary artists that we’re featuring are all using new ways of technology to distribute their work. So they’re using platforms like web series, or straight up YouTube channels, or streaming websites. But the archival works were all made for public access television, which was a ‘new’ technology at the time.
For example, Mark Leckey is using 3-D technology to recreate an existing artwork, sort of like recreating a poster or postcard. Meriem Bennani made a web series, a comedy of sorts, about making creative hijabs using crude animation technology, and is broadcasting these vignettes onto a YouTube channel. Rami George is an artist who cuts up existing information from the news and collages it into these new kind of photo essays.
Emily: A lot of the early work includes people like Laurie Anderson, Merce Cunningham, and Charles Atlas.
What makes this sort of work relevant right now?
Emily: Video and moving image technologies are such a deep part of our reality. Certainly I think it’s really important at this moment to look at the histories of broadcast media in relationship to current events and new technologies.
Lauren: There’s definitely a connection to our moment now. If you look at the beginning of public access television, like 1967-68, when portable cameras were made available, artists as much as activists were taking it upon themselves to be citizen journalists, and to be documenting reality from the ground. But if you look at current use of democratic video, starting in maybe 2008, with the Twitter revolution and the Arab Spring, and also the documentation of police brutality, it’s very timely right now. You can clearly see the symmetry between the moments in the beginning with the portable camera and the beginning of social media platforms and smartphones.
Can you talk for a moment about the title of the Henry exhibition, A Witness and a Weapon?
Lauren: ‘A witness and a weapon’ is a quote from Deidre Boyle, who wrote a book about guerilla television. And her full sentence is that video activism can be used as “a tool, a witness, and a weapon.” A great example of this would be the Videofreex, an early video collective that did all these interviews of the Chicago 8 trial, or with the Black Panthers, and so they gave voice to people who otherwise were not getting on mainstream platforms. ‘A witness and a weapon’ is a statement that seems so relevant today because the idea that the act of seeing in and of itself can be a political act, and transmitting back information and image has power, because it gives voice.
You can see “Middle Grays, Color Bars, and the comma in between” on display at The Seattle Art Fair from August 4-7, and the “A Witness and A Weapon” will screened be at the Henry Art Gallery throughout the weekend as well. Curators Lauren Mackler and Emily Zimmerman will be giving a talk at the Art Fair on Friday at 3pm. Tickets here.