Film in the age of vernacular video

This post is a reflection on Tom Shermans essay ‘Vernacular Video’ and my weekend at Different Directions film festival –

Manifesto on Art / Fluxus Art Amusement by George Maciunas, 1965 –


To justify artist’s professional,parasitic and elite status in society,
he must demonstrate artist’s indispensability and exclusiveness,
he must demonstrate the dependability of audience upon him,
he must demonstrate that no one but the artist can do art.

Therefore, art must appear to be complex, pretentious, profound,
serious, intellectual, inspired, skillful, significant, theatrical,
It must appear to be caluable as commodity so as to provide the
artist with an income.
To raise its value (artist’s income and patrons profit), art is made
to appear rare, limited in quantity and therefore obtainable and
accessible only to the social elite and institutions.


To establish artist’s nonprofessional status in society,
he must demonstrate artist’s dispensability and inclusiveness,
he must demonstrate the selfsufficiency of the audience,
he must demonstrate that anything can be art and anyone can do it.

Therefore, art-amusement must be simple, amusing, upretentious,
concerned with insignificances, require no skill or countless
rehersals, have no commodity or institutional value.
The value of art-amusement must be lowered by making it unlimited,
massproduced, obtainable by all and eventually produced by all.
Fluxus art-amusement is the rear-guard without any pretention
or urge to participate in the competition of “one-upmanship” with
the avant-garde. It strives for the monostructural and nontheatrical
qualities of simple natural event, a game or a gag. It is the fusion
of Spikes Jones Vaudeville, gag, children’s games and Duchamp.”

I spent last weekend in Galway at Different Directions a festival of experimental film. On my way back to Belfast I got chatting with with a fella on the bus he scoffed when I told him what I was at, assuming that experimental also meant boring. I prefer the word ‘challenging’ myself 🙂 . Anyway it was far from boring. It was in fact one of those rare weekends after which I felt my passion for film entirely revitalised. One of the highlights was Jean Luc Godards ‘L’Histoire(s) Du Cinema’.
Godard began working on the film in the late 80’s and completed it in 1998. Its an epic 266 mins long. The ultimate in remix and montage, the film draws on Godards unique knowledge of cinematic history, reaching into his personal video archive ‘L’Histoire(s)’ features clips from hundreds of films. Much of it was shot on video and I’m told edited manually (ie. without computers shock horror). Which is surprisingly low-fi for someone like Godard. Who we might expect would easily have access to the best technology of the day.
Its astonishing to consider how much the mediascape has changed over the past 10 years.

Tom Sherman in his essay ‘Vernacular Video’ said –

“Video in 2008 is not the exclusive medium of technicians or specialists or journalists or artists – it is the people’s medium. The potential of video as a decentralised communications tool for the
masses has been realised, and the twenty-first century will be remembered as the video age. Surveillance and counter-surveillance aside, video is the vernacular form of the era – it is the common and everyday way that people communicate.”

The moving image is reaching its considerible potential as a fluid medium of human communication. Practical limits to expression in this form are overcome by new technologies every day. Making access to the means of video production and distribution ever more accessible and affordable.
There may be more of a ruff and ready aesthetic to video online today, but perhaps this is because we are just at the beginning of a new stage in our relationship with the moving image. A wider engagement in the production processes behind video\film making encourages a more media savvy public. One that not only understands the language of the moving image and is capable of critically challenging its use by those with bigger megaphones (hollywood/advertisers), but a public who rather than rehashing the old aesthetics create their own. In time availability of greater bandwidth and greater media fluency may well smooth out the ruff edges we see today.

‘Video artists must have something to say and be able to say it in sophisticated, innovative, attractive ways. Video artists must introduce their brand of video aesthetics into the vernacular
torrents. They must earn their audiences through content-driven messages.’ – Tom Sherman ‘Vernacular Video’

Instead of artist having to make ‘content driven messages’ to compete for audience attention spans to make a career for themselves in the realm of vernaculer video. Instead of seeing the abundance of the gift economy as a highly competetive space, why not see it as an open space for diversity of creative expression, including the development of artistic practices that are not shaped by a need to compete, the internet supports such autonomy. We cant always say what art is for or what its meaning is, playing with this ambiguity is one of the great things about art. It not neccesarily the artists intention to baffle an audience, more often the artist respects the audiences ability to participate in creating their own interpretations of the work.

I agree there is certainly a rear guard tendency in the visual arts towards the emerging culture of vernacular video (different from the rear guard mentioned in the fluxus quote above). Some of this is generational, many experienced artists (often also educators) whos own practice, established in the gallery system, have simply no understanding of new media. The internet is not on their radar, nevermind the commons.
The question to ask is what world does the artist situate their practice in? Who are your audience? Is it more important to reach a thousand people geographically spread across the globe or to reach a thousand people in your town or city. Oddly it seems easier to get your work seen by people online spread across the world than to connect with local audiences.
My own hope is that this trend towards decentralization of cultural production will redress the balance between the consumption of mainstream globalized culture in favour of greater support for smaller local cultural producers?

Millions of videos are uploaded and downloaded everyday, but to produce a film like’ L’Histoire(s) du Cinema’ takes a lifetime. Tools and materials we have a plenty but these are not enough. Great art is not a practical exercise. It is fueled by life experience and a sustained engagement with ones medium whether that be film, text, music or whatever. Commitment and experience makes a master and that takes time.

Another masterpiece of remix is ‘The Society of The Spectacle’ by Guy Debord (1973). ‘Godards enemy’ as one film maker at the festival referred to him . The situationist critique of spectacular society is more relevant today than ever and its popularity has grown over the past few years, in no small part due to the availability of what would be otherwise obscure Situationist texts and films online.

“The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people mediated by images”
“Understood in its totality; the spectacle is both the result and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real. It is the very heart of this real society’s
unreality. In all of its particular manifestations – news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment – the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that
have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production” – The Society of the Spectacle – Guy Debord

Its true today we live in a world in which we are endlessly navigating a dizzying sea of spectacles. However there are significant changes since the time of the Situationists. Today we have a growing decentralized sharing economy. An economy which significantly disrupts that dominant mode of production, the process of commodification and the alienated subjectivity it produces. Today millions of people participate in an incredibly productive commons where the products of our labours can circulate freely further enriching communities in a kind of exponential cross fertilization of the commons. The value of artistic contributions to the commons are more difficult to measure though no less important than the more practical contributions of the free software movement.

Think of your favourite films, books, or music. What makes them so special? We all have different tastes, but truly creative works resonate with us on a personal level, they communicate something both meaningful and timely. We recognize the value in such things though it is not something you can measure, something you can put a price on. In the same way gestures both big and small contribute to the diverse wealth of the commons. Creativity flows and cycles much like water through all forms and bodies, good and bad, without distinction. The art of the commons is naturally more creatively fluid and spacious than that bound by the rigid antagonisms of the market. Free creative works lend themselves to a more diverse aesthetics then the crash bang boom of big media. The commons grows exponentially. It may take some time for its qualitative wealth to accumulate. Eventually it will reach the point at which its value becomes undeniable. Its transformative power unstoppable will bring some much needed balance to all this market madness. This could take a generation.

My 11yr old niece saved for the past year to get herself a laptop. She video calls me regularly on skype accompanied by my nephew who will be 2 in January. For their generation a screen is not just something to sit and stare at. Its a portal, an interactive window to other worlds.
The dynamics of this relationship are completely different to the old screen media, television and cinema of the 20th century. These changing dynamics so many 20th century heads struggle with, are second nature to kids today. In these early days we are still in a position to wonder what these changes mean. It will take some time for the effects of this new dynamic to fully permeate mainstream culture. What will shape the history of 21st century cinema? The question is intriguing.

Many habitually continue to treat the product of the commons like market commodities. The lines that distinguish the commons from the market are not always clear, but for the gift of free creativity to continue to flow its important that those of us who do recognise those differences to continue to share the love with those who don’t. Ti’s the season after all.

Michael Szpakowski is one of my favourite artists working with online video a detour by his vlog ‘Scenes of Provincial Life’ is always enjoyable –

Kevin Flanagan –

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