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Girls (and two boys) on film

Girls (and two boys) on film
02 November 2008 posted by John Wyver

I must have travelled to New York at least forty times but I've never been to the Brooklyn Museum. It's not hard to get to (subway lines 2 and 3 stop right outside) but somehow its offerings from Egyptian masterpieces to contemporary art have never tempted me out of Manhattan. Now, however, it's high on my list for a visit the next time I cross the Atlantic -- and that's entirely because over the last few months I feel I've got to know the museum through its excellent blog. On Friday the museum opened Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection. This is accompanied by eleven short video interviews online and (as above) in the galleries -- and these have focussed some questions for me about how museum videos are developing.

The show, which runs until 5 April 2009, is a display of around 50 works, mostly from the museum's collection but also some loans. Among the artists featured are Kiki Smith, Tracey Emin, Tracey Moffatt and Lorna Simpson, and as the exhibition website details,

Most of the paintings, sculpture, works on paper, and videos in the exhibition are by self-declared feminists and artists of later generations working within the historic framework of feminist art. The widely diverse forms and ideas on view suggest that feminist art is not limited to a specific look or reading.

As their blog and flickr group demonstrate, many of the staff at the Brooklyn Museum are very engaged by the possibilities of new media -- and indeed they just won an award, linked to the book Groundswell, for their implementation of social media in various contexts. (Museum 2.0 has a great five-part discussion of museums, social media and Groundswell, to which we'll return in one or more future posts.) For Burning Down the House they have recorded and posted 11 short video interviews with featured artists, and these run consecutively (or can be individually selected) in this YouTube playlist.

The artists (who include two men, Nayland Blake and Ward Shelley) were asked to define feminist art and to speak about the specific work included in the show. The responses of some to the first question are excluded, but those of others range from a nuanced resistance to the question (Polly Apfelbaum, Ida Applebroog) to a detailed discussion from Carolee Schneemann. But all speak thoughtfully and revealingly about their creations (apart from Ida Applebroog, who addresses only her resistance to definitions). Tracey Moffatt details the personal background to her 1999 video Lip, Suzanne Opton explains her intentions in her large-format portraits of soldiers serving in Iraq, and Carolee Schneemann's contribution is essential as context for understanding her iconic image Interior Scroll, 1975/2004 (which interestingly, given its explicit subject-matter, is reproduced in the video but not -- as far as I can see -- on the museum's website).

A blog post (from which the image above comes) discusses the museum's innovative display strategy using the iPod Touch in the gallery, but it's the production of the shorts that really interests me. They were recorded using the low-end Flip Video digital cameras, which can be bought on for under £80. The production quality is, well, let's say limited, with flat lighting and (and for some of the shorts this is being generous) variable sound.

Most important of all, and most disappointing, there are only brief, referencing shots in the videos of the artworks under discussion. These come at the opening of each video in the form of a single slide -- and there are no details, no movement over the artwork, no return once the artist has spoken, and no presentation of the material object in a gallery space. All of which might be fine if you're looking at the video in the gallery alongside the work, but is frustrating and limiting when you're accessing it on YouTube from four thousand miles away.

For me, it's challenging to contrast these shorts with our practice in making similar videos, both for theEYE series and also for galleries like the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. For these, we use broadcast-quality cameras and professional directors of photography. We take the time to film the actual artworks, which can involve travelling to shows, waiting for the works we want to shoot to be put on display, or (as with the Ferens) working with the gallery to have them specially installed for the filming.

All of which costs money, even when we work as cost-effectively as we do. At a complete guess, I'd say the likely differential in costs between the Ferens shorts that we produced and those from the Brooklyn Museum is perhaps at least in the order of 3 to 1. So does the economy-induced, comparatively low quality of the Brooklyn tapes matter? Or actually is it just the basic information that you want as a viewer?

Are these videos perfectly acceptable online and in the gallery? But would they also be appropriate for a DVD, or for a broadcast programme? Or are we looking here at the beginnings of (another) revolution in production? Is self-produced video like this the dominant form for museums (and potentially many other contexts) in the future -- and will we see a polarisation of production, with a great deal of low-end work like this and high-end, immaculately edited HD images reserved for broadcasting?

At the moment, I feel that I have more questions about this than answers. Doubtless it's a discussion that will continue, here on our blog as in other places. But the Brooklyn tapes are well worth looking at, not least for what the artists actually say. And next time I'm in New York I'll definitely get on the 2 or the 3 to pay a visit.



2 November 2008 15:21

Hi John, Thanks for posting this - it is a very interesting discussion. For us, we've got a couple factors going on. We love the video that the IMA, Tate and MoMA are producing. In the museum world, they are the leaders in video that we look up to and demonstrate the quality of production that you mention, but in each of those cases those institutions have entire departments devoted to new media and they have budgets for pro equipment. By contrast, we have one person who doubles on our help desk and we have a limited budget that covers prosumer and consumer equipment. So you are seeing an attempt to do more with less ... of everything :) For the most part, it means we can accomplish straight documentation of some of the larger events that happen at the Museum which helps us have the material available for people who want it, but keep the production time light. In this instance, with these 11 videos, I agree with you - on the web, it would be much richer to cut to the works when the artists talk about them, but in the exhibition experience we hope people focus on the works installed in the gallery. The slides at the top of the video are there to orient physical visitors to the work the video references ... at which point it would be ideal if the visitor shifts to look at the work in question. I won't know how well this is working for a while, but our thought was keep it as simple as possible to accomplish those goals. This is one of those instances where I wish we had more staff time to produce a second set of videos for the web that would cater directly to the needs of this audience, but we just don't have it :) In the interest of accessibility we decided to post these to the web anyway in the hope that they will be useful. I hope people will tell us if they find it frustrating or helpful, so we can know more for the next time around. They do seem to work well when we embed them on collection pages (grr, can't post a link, darn spammers) where the work is easily referenced. In a month or two, I'll post a follow-up with our usage findings. I'll remember to reference some of these issues. This is definitely a learning experience for us that we hope to share with others and discussion like this is exactly what we hope for :)

John Wyver

3 November 2008 06:55

Thanks Shelley -- really interesting response. (Sorry about not being able to post links; that's something we're considering at the moment.) I look forward to followiing more of what you're doing -- and to continuing the dialogue.

Deborah Wythe

3 November 2008 13:25

Hello John, Just responding to your note that the Carolee Schneemann photo is on the video, but not on our collection on the Web page. It's workload, not the fact that it's an explicit image. Priority for photography and scanning is based on requests by staff and members of the public and this one hadn't surfaced yet. Big collection, lots of photography and scanning to do! We're working on it ... Deborah (Digital Lab)

jan klink

8 February 2009 09:36

We are a small museum with stained glass art and enamel art. We make videos with a Sony VX2000 of artists telling something about there work. Visitors can view these videos at a tv-screen in the museum. They like these videos very much. We haven the videos also on our website and on Some visitors view the videos before they come to the museum. We have no professionals working at the museum. We are looking for museum with the same experience.

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