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Art Project Breathes New Life into Closed Video Stores

RIP VHS.
September 22, 2015, 5:21am
Tempo video centre, all images courtesy of the artist

Remember heading down to your local video store and poring over the rows upon rows of VHS tapes? Sometimes you’d spend what felt like hours in there, walking away with a carefully selected stack that might include everything from Fellini to Forrest Gump. Of course, that’s all available now at the click of a button, but what’s missing is the ritual found in borrowing and returning. We’ve traded in the culture and community surrounding the video store for convenience, accessibility, immediacy. As video stores have basically shut up shop, out of demand because of on-demand, Melbourne-based artist Jessie Scott pays tribute to your old local with her latest project 'Miraculous Ribbon'. Described as a "spontaneous archive", 'Miraculous Ribbon' is a residency at Grey Gardens gallery that remembers video stores and unearths people's personal tape collections. We caught up with Jessie about the project/residency, now in its fourth and final week.

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The Creators Project: How did you feel when you found out that your local video rental shop was closing?

Jessie Scott: I was unbelievably gutted, and surprised by how upset I was given how obvious it should've been that a video shop could not really survive very long in this day and age, especially since I myself have been downloading TV shows illegally for years and had signed up to Netflix as soon as I could. The realisation that my cultural actions had real-world consequences was deeply unsettling…

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So is there a bigger metaphor at work in the 'Miraculous Ribbon' project, a comment on the changing state of the world and the individual’s powerlessness to stop these cultural shifts?

I think that is definitely one of the comments I'm trying to make. Well spotted! But I'm also trying to suggest that we are not as powerless as we think—we don't have to just accept these kinds of changes and be subordinate to the whims of the market, or technological change, or our own laziness. We can keep the things we think are good and valuable; we don't have to surrender to it all.

Given your nostalgia, does it freak you out that in a few years we could be all getting around wearing Oculus Rift headsets and navigating through virtual worlds? Or are you pretty open to new technologies?

No, I mean I think that's kind of the irony of the whole thing—I’m not generally given to uncritical nostalgia. I’m openminded about new technology. I think it's more that I'm uncomfortable with this awkward teething period or paradigm shift we are living through. It's painful and messy and slow, with no clear resolution in sight. I want it to be like Neuromancer now, already. I'm a low-level sci-fi nerd and I'm ready to stick things into my brain.

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At the residency you've been creating your own cataloguing system, archiving tapes, creating new artworks from the mateirals and more. How's it all going so far?

It's going great. I’ve basically created a happy place for myself—a dark little video cave that I disappear into for two days a week. The best part has been making contact with a whole range of VHS enthusiasts; people who collect and swap VHS tapes and video shop memorabilia, people who have their own video shops, who organise screening nights, people just getting rid of once-loved tapes who are happy to donate them to a good place. I even spoke to a guy who runs a VHS distribution company and releases films on tape! It's the conversations and stories that have been shared via the project that have been the most valuable part of it. I see 'Miraculous Ribbon' as an elaborate lure to attract fellow video nerds and create a space for reflecting on and memorialising the culture surrounding the medium.

'Miraculous Ribbon' residency at Grey Gardens

How many tapes have people donated, how many do you have altogether now?

I haven't actually counted them, but I estimate I have about 300, with some more coming in this week. I have had to let go of the idea of them all being entered into the database now. I have been archiving like the wind, but it's just not going to happen… I've got about 65 entered into the database, and it's surprisingly slow-going. Plus I want to use the time to make some artworks as well, not just stare at a computer screen!

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Have you had any surprises throughout the residency so far, any enlightenments about the meaning of life through your immersion in reels of tape?

I've been really surprised by how bad VHS actually is. Obviously these are old tapes that have been well-worn, and are decades old now, but still, I don't remember it being so crappy, I just remember all the movies I watched. This revelation made me reflect on the vast amount of poor quality video available online now—and how no-one cares about that really, how access trumps "quality" every time. VHS was a trash medium, but it was way more important in what it enabled people to do culturally than what its objective merits as a technology were. In fact, it was a revolution in our culture that established an expectation of access that indirectly prefigured the internet, that laid the imaginative foundations for what the internet was to become.

What is it about video that attracts you over other mediums for your own art practice?

Video is a shape-shifter that continues to be a currency in our culture. It's a mess of contradictions: it tells the truth, and it constantly lies. It's accessible to all and sundry, and yet most of have no idea what goes on inside the box or behind the screen. It's everywhere in our daily lives—in our homes, in the street, in our pockets—and nowhere at the same time, only really existing now as 0s and 1s. It is a most fascinating, confounding and elusive medium and being so embedded in every aspect of modern society, it has the ability as an art form to address all the issues that face us as humans on this planet. What's not to like?

'Miraculous Ribbon' residency at Grey Gardens

What inspired you to launch Channels festival in 2013?

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Video is more popular than ever with artists, but it's never been translated that well outside the gallery in this country. It has a reputation for being boring and self-indulgent—the epitome of "art for art's sake”—and we really wanted to once and for all retire that cliche. We wanted Channels to be an interface between video art and the public that would not dumb it down, but would let people see what an incredible, switched-on, diverse and challenging art form it actually is.

What are you really looking forward to checking out/any particular video artists we should be keeping an eye out for?

So much! Everything! I don't really want to elevate any one thing above the rest, but the screenings at ACMI will be great (I love seeing video on the big screen), Sam Smith at Screen Space was a long-held dream of the original committee and we are so excited that Channels 2015 pulled it off, 'In the Epoch of the Near and Far' at Grey Gardens also looks pretty wild, Video ARI upstairs at Screen Space… The list goes on…

In your 'Miraculous Ribbon' artist statement you speak about an unashamed blending of high and low culture facilitated by the video store. What’s your guilty pleasure when it comes to film?

I'd have to say Star Trek Voyager is the top of my guilty pleasures list: the most right-on of all the Star Treks. And next to that The Mirror Has Two Faces. Babs at her best: smart, sassy, topical, and above all, falsely modest. Saying that though, I choose to live guilt-free, culturally speaking. As one of my old lecturers used to say, “There's no high and low: it's all just stuff.”

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Tempo Video Centre

Tempo Video Centre

'Miraculous Ribbon' is in its final week at Grey Gardens, Fitzroy. Find out more about the project here. Channels Video Art Festival runs from September 18-27. Check out the complete program here.

Related:

Festival in Melbourne Celebrates Contemporary Video Art

Contemporary Artists Are Bringing the Video Store Back from the Dead

[Premiere] VHS Footage Gets Synthesised in Midday Veil's "Cages"