A continual fall from grace

North American artists during the mid 1960s through to the 1970s, almost immediately began to use low-end, small-format, portable video recorders as an artistic medium as soon as they were invented. New York-based Korean artist Nam June Paik is credited as acquiring the first Portapak camera in the USA to record a papal visit. At this time Portapaks-portable video recorders- revolutionised the medium; unlike film, video requires no laboratory developing and Nam June Paik was able to immediately show his footage that same evening in a downtown bar. Video is no longer a new medium, as it was called in its early days. Decades after it’s invention, video has become a vast and complex medium; more and more artists are developing the medium and continue to progress it.

“At the time I started making video tapes I met Dennis Oppenheim, a New York sculptor who was doing body work using video. I thought it was a completely compelling medium and since ’72 I have never looked back,”- Colin Campbell, Now Magazine. http://www.colincampbellvideoartist.com/biography.php

Colin Campbell is regarded as a pioneer in the medium of video art, he is usually included in books charting the history of video art. Campbell was first introduced to video just as it began to emerge in Canada and he saw three main potentials within the new medium:

1. Theatricality
2. Performance
3. Narrative

These three tenants of his artistic production is what I identify my own practice as embodying; Campbell’s short narratives explore gender stereotyping within a consistently informal style. The artist used improvisational scripts and cheap homemade sets- filling them with a cast of close friends. His stories and scenarios centred around the turmoil and drama that infiltrate the lives of stereotyped characters. Campbell’s work can be viewed as being apart of a larger movement in narrative video art that began in the early 1970s. His earliest videos explored personal sexuality and identity with a personal viewpoint as in Sackville, I’m Yours (1972).

His narratives began to be more complex when he began to create characters through a variety of costumes and guises. The Woman from Malibu series features six tapes that star Campbell in the lead role as a cliche Californian mother, who reads a monologue describing her husbands death:

“wry and outrageous. Each episode is like a miniature morality play set in twentieth century California instead of medieval England – which means that the moral code is ambiguous and the woman correspondingly ambivalent. The action of the tapes is made up of the woman’s recollections of her past. Her voice mesmerizes as it records the process of her mind wandering in and out of her memories like a faltering ghost. Every detail is given the same significance whether it’s the ingredients of her hurry up lunch special which she recounts in the bath, or her description of her former husband’s practice of assembling animal skeletons. We are never allowed to forget that the woman on the monitor is really a man; or is it that the man is really a woman?”-Adele Freedman in Toronto Life magazine, http://www.colincampbellvideoartist.com/biography.php

Campbell’s videotapes have two levels: firstly, his work was innovative in structure in the use of medium itself- and secondly to the personal circumstance of the artist. These autobiographical elements are what give his work originality but also challenge and undermine the mediums artistic qualities. Campbell has described the television medium in interviews as a “conveyor-belt of reality”. By this I understand that the small scale, domesticity of the experience give the viewer a sense of familiarity that make us feel we could have witnessed the pictures and events that are being broadcast. Campbell’s characters and scenarios reflect this- we feel in some sense that reality television allows us to know a person well, put when it is put to us, we cannot be sure of anything about them. Despite how extreme the characters Campbell creates in his tapes, their actual portrayal is subtle and low key- I think this relates to the degraded quality of television imagery compared to that of the cinematic; this was to Campbell particularly apparent in the 1970s when the majority of televised imagery was still grayscale. All his tapes are low budget and unashamed of this fact, the home-made quality of video technology creates on screen tension when dealing with more uncomfortable subject matter. Campbell’s ‘drag’ persona’s are very different to those in mainstream drag entertainment; his role switching does not become an entirely new external entity- Campbell remains in the space between the personal and drag persona.

What is left in Campbell’s characters is an ambiguous identity, one with a heavy emphasis on artifice through conscious superficiality as every gesture becomes loaded with ironic meaning. His plots are always very simple and most of the narrative concerns the modern sensibility: through his fascination with anything different and foreign or sophisticated and then the immediate disappointment we encounter in the drab characters he portrays as complete artifice. Almost all of Colin Campbell’s characters emanate a glamorous ideal while seemingly caught in some continual fall from grace. The details of his tape focus on sophistication and pretension. All the dilemmas faced by he characters are funny and their jokes are tragic, it’s as if Campbell’s videos play a version of televised reality in reverse.

“It’s possible to complete projects very quickly, whereas films can take one to five years. As a result, video can reflect extremely current political and social situations. The subject matter can be at the very edge of what’s going on, and it’s there for people to ponder.”- Colin Campbell

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