Installation view of “Cognitive Dissidents: Reasons to be Cheerful,” at Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane, 2020. Photo by Carl Warner. Courtesy Griffith University Art Museum.

Infinite Feedback in “Cognitive Dissidents: Reasons to be Cheerful”

Griffith University Art Museum

“Cognitive Dissidents: Reasons to be Cheerful” was a dense, historical exhibition that cast a wide net over Australian video art from the 1970s to ’90s. It was a show created from the inside—curator Stephen Jones has worked in video since the ’70s—and comprised a group of artist’s artists who may have slipped into obscurity in recent years. Jones argued that early Australian video practice was driven by the medium’s unique capacity for social dialogue and critique; unlike documentary photography and film, video was inherently more democratic as it enabled the subject to review the footage instantly. Video also enabled another kind of “feedback,” whereby the camera was pointed at its own playback monitor to create one of the earliest forms of image synthesis. These two modes of feedback, one political and one formal, are for Jones the defining characteristics of the medium.

Following this premise, "Cognitive Dissidents” established a distinct history of video art in opposition to cinema. That said, a number of works were of a cinematic character, suggesting that video’s ascent was set forth, or at least moderated by, traditions in film. Payback (1996) by the Kaytej artist and filmmaker Warwick Thornton was a captivating example. A precursor to his later features like Samson and Delilah (2009), this ten-minute, black-and-white film follows an Aboriginal man, Paddy, on his release from prison. When he returns to the outside world, Paddy encounters a kadaitcha (wise man) and is told that he must “pay back” his community. The short film ends with a surreal scene in which Paddy is circled by TV journalists and kadaitcha men in ceremonial dress, before he is finally speared to the ground. 

WARWICK THORNTON, Payback, 1996, still image from film transferred to video, monochrome: 10 min 20 sec. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne.

In a very different mode, Debra Beattie’s Expo Schmexpo (1986) casts a satirical eye on Brisbane’s 1980s urban expansion. Beattie shot the work two years before the now-famous World Expo 88 that transformed the city’s industrial South Bank into an epicenter of leisure. Expo also marked the largest celebration for the bicentennial of colonized Australia—a year that ignited many debates on official national histories and spurred a resistance movement led by Indigenous Australians. Expo Schexpo stars comedian Gerry Connolly as the notorious conservative politician Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the premier of Queensland from 1968 to 1987. Throughout the video, “Bjelke-Petersen” stutters about the promise of Expo 88, flippantly disregarding the dispossession of Indigenous people in Musgrave Park, a long-held center for activism, to make way for the event.  

DEBRA BEATTIE, Expo Schmexpo, 1986, still image from 16mm film transferred to video with color and sound: 5 min 30 sec. Courtesy Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane.

BUSH VIDEO, Meta-Video Programming, 1974, still image from Sony video cassette, Umatic KC-30 with color and sound: 30 min. Courtesy the artist.

“Cognitive Dissidents” also paid homage to the great formal experimentation by video artists in this period. Meta-Video Programming (1974) by the short-lived collective Bush Video relayed a psychedelic ebb and surge of color. One of the first experiments with video feedback, Meta-Video Programming creates a kaleidoscopic visual plane of infinite regress. Similarly, Joan Brassil’s Kimberley Stranger Gazing (1988) reimagines the video monitor as a surface of rippling patterns to evoke the marks of colonization on the Australian central desert. A pioneer of video and sound art, Brassil superimposed footage of corrugated iron upon microscopic images of grass seeds and cartographic contours, all set to the sound of clashing telegraph lines. The artist originally projected Kimberley Stranger Gazing behind curved sheets of Perspex, making the film’s wavering images even more liquid and hallucinatory. Having trained as a sculptor, Brassil never lost sight of the spatial potential of video in her practice; yet, in “Cognitive Dissidents,” her work simply appeared on a medium-scale, 16:9 monitor.

In fact, nearly all the works in the exhibition were displayed as such, bar three projections and three heavy, 4:3 TVs clustered in the center of the gallery. The show’s historical rigor was admirable, given how many curators trade focused research for vague themes, but it lacked the diverse scale and texture of video. Twenty works was too many for a show of this scale to sustain, and perhaps with fewer one could have afforded to extend works like Kimberley Stranger Gazing to their full glory. Video is a medium of political exchange and feedback, as Jones rightly claimed, but also one that has molded to a number of forms that were sadly absent in “Cognitive Dissidents.” 

Cognitive Dissidents: Reasons to be Cheerful” was scheduled to be on view at the Griffith University Art Museum, Brisbane, until April 9, 2020. Please check the exhibition web page for up-to-date information in light of Covid-19.

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