Let’s get one thing straight before we get going. It’s probably the most important point you need to take on board before you keep reading. Video art is not cinema. The use of audio-visual equipment might make you think you’re seeing a film or TV show, but video art is as distinct from film as photography is from painting. Video is art in a more traditional sense, if in a seemingly inaccessible one. Think of it like this: the camera is the paintbrush and the screen is a canvas.
Now let’s talk about an artist who uses films in his work. Scottish artist Douglas Gordon treats film like another artist might use an object they found on the street. It’s there to be played with, poked at, stuck on a canvas in an interesting new way. Video art allows a way to explore ideas that a still image couldn’t – watching a body move is different from seeing a photo of a body.
24 Hour Psycho is a video installation which is comprised of two massive screens facing each other, both playing a silent and slowed down version of Psycho so that its running time comes to 24 hours. How ever would you have worked that one out? It’s an endurance test of an artwork through which Gordon is able to manipulate the footage so it becomes both familiar and unfamiliar, playing with our conception of time and expectation. We all know Psycho. If you’ve not seen it, you’re aware of its status, and the famous murder in the shower. Slowing the film down to an absurd degree makes the moment being played out exist both in the present and in the future, the caveat being the future is so far away it may as well not exist at all. You might be standing in front of the work thinking ‘I know Bates is going to stab her in the face.’ Well yes, he will eventually. If this was the film at normal speed you’d know exactly how and where his knife lands, along with the exact moment she screams. Time has been slowed, so the tension of that moment is completely lost. But if you’re waiting for the stabbing, you’ll never know when across the next 24 hours it’s going to happen. Tension is there, just not in the moment the original film intended. Isn’t that just more than a bit clever?
Gordon uses films again in a slightly different work, through a looking glass. This time it’s the ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene from Taxi Driver played on two opposite screens, one image flipped like it’s in a mirror. They begin in sync, but gradually the audio and video begin to lose track of each other. This lasts for an hour. As the audio and visual become out of sync, the ‘real’ Travis is lost in the confusion, the viewer standing between the screens no longer certain which Travis is even the real one. His loss of his sense of self is mirrored through the two videos.
Video art can push at the boundaries of cinema and moving images in a way no other art form can. Gordon’s work has appropriated films like Psycho, Taxi Driver, and The Exorcist to show the limits of film. When they enter mass culture and become iconic, there’s almost nothing left for them to say. Their creators churn out the same words in different interviews. Video art picks up where it leaves off.