When most of us think of “art”, we think of classic paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet, hung up in a national gallery for people to admire from a couple metres away.
But nowadays, if we step into local galleries or even Bondi Beach, we’re greeted with playlists of videos, sculptures hanging from cliffs and interactive installations, all of which we tend to call contemporary art. Even though the term is thrown around, it’s hard for us to find a clear-cut definition, understand what constitutes as “contemporary” and what “art” really is.
At its core, contemporary art is the art of today, which many art historians consider to be any time after the late-1960s or early 1970s. But beyond that, it’s about challenging the traditional ideas of how we understand, produce and consume art. Despite the use of mediums, like videos and film, that have been considered as valid forms of art since the 1960s, the conceptual nature of contemporary art makes it unconventional.
We spoke to UNSW Art & Design graduate Lauren Carroll Harris, co-founder and curator of Prototype (an online newsletter that’s making contemporary video art more accessible to broader audiences) about her views of contemporary art and how our personal devices can change the way we appreciate it.
For those who aren't in the art & design field, how would you describe contemporary and experimental art?
Contemporary art is the art of now – the present, made by artists who are alive today! I watch a lot of television and film for work, and I find that the most exciting part of screen culture in Australia is the experimental space between cinema and video art. It's such a vital and new field, with lots of ideas and storytelling techniques crossing over from film into art, which is being used in very inventive ways.
If we're being completely honest, a lot of people seem to think contemporary art is just "weird" or a white canvas in a gallery, and so supposedly "anything can be art and anyone can be an artist". Do you think this is a misconception of art today?
Video art and contemporary art still have a sad and unjust reputation as being niche – despite the prevalence of digital culture. I do think that contemporary art often has a problem with exclusivity, and that galleries can present exhibitions that require a lot of visual literacy that's unavailable to the average member of the general public.
So with Prototype, I hope to make the most maligned and misunderstood art types open and accessible using a technology – streaming and the email newsletter – that is free, intimate and inexpensive. I wanted to make it so that anyone, anywhere – even outside a big city or without a postgraduate degree in art – can look at it for themselves, see the amazingly skilled things that young artists are making and be a part of real conversations that are taking place in contemporary art. That's also why every Prototype video work arrives with a short text to frame it – to contextualise and open up ideas within the art.
With the technological landscape changing and the boom of smartphones, things have become so much more visual... do you think it's changed what art is or could be?
Yes and no. There's amazing cross-fertilisation between documentaries, films, media types and art – for example, one of the artists in Prototype, Jason Phu, has made a storytelling work that riffs on the viral cooking video format by showing his dad cooking meals in woks in six different Asian languages. But weirdly, with the boom of smartphones, video art hasn't really gotten much traction with the general public. We watch heaps of video, but it's all content, and rarely art – which is just crazy to me.
So to combat the lack of viewership in video art beyond the gallery, you've created Prototype! What exactly is this initiative? How did it come about?
I was sick of the torrent of content and email newsletters that were essentially junk and advertising. I saw Australia Council's research that showed that digital & video art is the least attended type of visual arts event with only 17% of attendees – or 7% of all Australians – going to these events regularly. And I was receiving alot of great journalistic newsletters – but noticing that the email newsletter hadn't been trialled in a major way in the art world. Prototype comes from a place of great frustration and screen addiction – I get sick of being told that art and culture can't change in Australia, but I also am as compulsive as anyone else and constantly sit on my phone scrolling stupidly for hours. So I wanted to respond to my own frustration by creating a positive, new way of creating art with others and getting that art out there to the world. I spoke to my friend Alex Burke, who's a film and TV producer at a really forward-thinking company called Arcadia Films, and she came on board the idea, then I approached artists who I thought could make fun smart works that would work well online for a broad audience, and from there I wrote a grant application to Australia Council.
It's definitely an interesting concept, where you bring art to people's inboxes. What's something that you want your readers or subscribers to take away from Prototype?
That video art is good, and avant-garde cinema is good, and these things can be understood and enrich your life!
Also as a curator, what's the process like when you're choosing works for exhibitions or Prototype? How do you come up with commission ideas for the artists?
I curated the artists first, and their works second. I asked a bunch of artists to develop ideas for a project, and I workshopped those ideas with them until they were at a point where I said "yes, let's do it," and then I formally commissioned them.
Sometimes I pitched ideas to the artists, and other times I gave them lots of ideas and feedback throughout their own creative processes – giving notes on scripts, just being available and supportive, providing rigorous conceptual feedback on edits of videos. I didn't provide the artists with a thematic imperative – just the structural limitation of a single-channel video, to be presented on small screens online, not on a loop in a gallery projected large. Then I crafted and sequenced the program so that each video might speak to a natural progression to some aspect of the video proceeding it.
I kicked off the program, for example, with a work by Sarah Hadley that lies at this perfect Prototype-like intersection of narrative cinema and experimental video and concerned sexuality and queerness, and followed it with Cloudy Rhodes' video of gender nonconformity (another type of queerness), in which a male body and a female body are shot in close-up in exactly the same way, with the same perspective, so that you can't differentiate between each, and as the camera widens its framing, you see that the video is challenging gender norms really deeply. That video was followed by a work by Tiyan Baker about a community of toxic masculinity who model themselves on Tyler Durden in Fight Club, which was followed by a work by Conor Bateman about tropes of violence in horror films. So each work curatorially progresses a link in a bigger chain and is in conversation with the last.
Are there any particular concepts that you like to see artists explore? Or some that you think should be explored more of?
One trend I've observed in the works has been the subversion of storytelling and narrative methods within an art frameworks. Rather than three-act-structures like you'd find in traditional films, alot of the Prototype artists are taking conventions that they see in film and documentary – like voiceover narration, subtitles, original research – and remaking them within the context of genre-breaking video art.
And of course, do you have any advice for students who are looking to become a curator or experimental artist in the future?
It takes alot of originality to do anything. But I feel deeply that art schools still peddle the myth of the solo creator and the single visionary. What is really undervalued is collectivity – making work with your peers, supporting each other, binding together in collectives, setting up your own art spaces and finding new ways to collaborate that harness everyone's unique skillset into a strong team. Making work alone is isolating and demoralising; there are a million ways to get things done. But more importantly – Australia is a country that historically has had a very strong anti-intellectual and anti-artistic culture, the art market is terribly small, and finding new ways of working and living together is important to expand the strength of the arts ecosystem, to ensure artists can be artists in a longterm way, and to draw new audiences toward contemporary art.
Subscribe to Prototype for video art in your inbox every Tuesday here
Image credits to Gabriella Hirst