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Pictures came and broke your heart

Annika Strom, '16 minutes', 2003

Annika Ström 16 minutes (video still) 2003
Courtesy: The artist; Casey Caplan, New York; c/o Atle Gerhardsen, Berlin; and Galerie Drantmann, Brussels

'Pictures came and broke your heart'

Essay by Nicholas Chambers (co-curator, 'Video Hits: Art & Music Video', 2004).

Annika Ström takes the music video form and uses it to build bridges between her life, her work and her audience. Ström composes and performs her own pop songs ― disarmingly simple Casiotone keyboard melodies, accompanied by wistful vocals about everyday insecurities, love and loss. In her video 16 minutes 2003 songs fade in and out, creating a kind of overture that underscores informal scenes from the artist's home and studio. Ström's meandering daydreams and memories, and those of her friends and family, are set to music with the effect of creating a longing for something hovering in the vagaries of her lyrics. She sings: 'All these days and all these months / all these days / I'll get over it / maybe next day or maybe next month or maybe next year / I'll get over it / I'll get over it / hmm hmm hmm hmm' and, although we can't be sure of the origin of the artist's melancholy, we can feel its emotional resonance. The work is acutely self-referential, however, the universal sentiment of the songs leaves us with the sense that they could also provide a soundtrack to our own memories and experiences.

There is a correlation between the affectivity of the music video form and the way our memory operates in relation to music. The pervasiveness of pop music in the latter half of the twentieth century has, for some, resulted in the construction of our own music video moments. In doing so, a link is established between a song and mental images of particular moments drawn from life. Candice Breitz speaks of the historical dimension of pop music and its capacity to act as a vehicle for memory. Despite our consumerist relationship to pop, we come back for more because, in Breitz's words:

Pop music becomes the soundtrack to one's past . . . when we think of our lives in historical terms, then we think not only of where our grandparents are from or what neighbourhood we grew up in, but also of the first album we bought, the first concert we attended, the first song that inspired us to play air-guitar. We define ourselves by the music that we listen to, by the songs that we heard at key moments in our past.

Pipilotti Rist, 'I'm not the girl who misses much', 1986

Pipilotti Rist
I'm not the girl who misses much (video still) 1986
Purchased 2004
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
Courtesy: Bureau des Vid鯳, Paris

Our personal history mixes with pop's prepackaged dreams and desires, and enmeshes us in its commercial imperatives. Pipilotti Rist recognises and resists the power of the seductive hook in I'm a victim of this song 1995 in which she sings and, eventually, screams along to Chris Isaak's 'Wicked game', disrupting the flow of his melody and gradually replacing it with her own. Also a victim of the song's video, Rist substitutes the footage of Isaak and a scantily-clad supermodel frolicking on a beach with her own sequence of images.

In 1981 the sound of squeaking synthesisers and the image of British new wave band the Buggles launched the programming for MTV with Video killed the radio star. Australian director Russell Mulcahy had made the clip two years earlier as a promotional video to air on television programs such as The Kenny Everett Video Show (UK), Popclips (USA) and Countdown (Australia). Until the advent of MTV, however, promotional videos were a small component of record labels' marketing push with limited means of distribution. With a voracious appetite for material to fill its programming schedule, the new channel suddenly provided an extremely adept vehicle for the dissemination of videos, and engendered an industry capable of producing them on a massive scale. Promotional pop videos were transformed into an influential cultural form which changed the way we thought about music and images. Bombarded by the sheer volume and variety of music videos, we increasingly associated pop music with a visual sequence and this came to infiltrate our lives ― showing us what to wear and how to dance.

The format established by MTV was best suited to material which would be rewarding when viewed over and over again. Successful clips experimented with the format and presented viewers with sophisticated, layered videos which were not easy to decode after a single viewing. Mulcahy described his approach as an attempt to achieve an 'abstract, non-committal quality' which encouraged an active engagement with the video and allowed an open-ended interpretation.2 As artist Elizabeth Subrin points out, despite the underlying commercial intentions of the medium 'there is still some room to experiment formally with sound and image'.3 In fact, she speculates that 'contemporary music videos are the first and perhaps only exposure most young American television viewers have to non-narrative cinematic forms'.4 The repetition of clips and the complexity of their visual language intrigues and seduces us into their fantasy world. In his clip for the Chemical Brothers' Let forever be, French music video director Michel Gondry combines video footage shot on location with celluloid shot in a studio. Via a series of carefully crafted transitions, the rough video sections depicting a young woman running to her job at a department store are spliced seamlessly with the film footage in which she participates in a hyper-real, choreographed dance routine. Just as we are fascinated and seduced by the clip, the girl is drawn out of her mundane daily routine into the imagined realm of the music video.

A characteristic common to music video and some visual art is a desire to affect rather than inform. MTV co-founder Robert Pittman recognised this quality in music videos saying:

As opposed to conventional television, where you rely on plot and continuity, we rely on mood and emotion. We make you feel a certain way as opposed to you walking away with any particular knowledge.5

Music, of course, is proficient at conveying mood ― it foregrounds our emotional response. The relative affectivity of our faculties of sight and sound has long been recognised by film-makers who use music to enhance the emotive impact of their images. In the music video form, however, music and images coalesce to achieve a particular response from the viewer.

Ugo Rondinone, 'Cigarettesandwich', 2003

Ugo Rondinone
Cigarettesandwich (video still) 2003
Purchased 2004
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
Courtesy: Bureau des Vid鯳, Paris

Artist Ugo Rondinone employs a reductive approach to the coupling of music and visuals to profound emotional effect. In Cigarettesandwich 2003, a short sequence of footage from a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film ― depicting a tracking shot of a young man walking along a brick wall ― is looped and combined with the hour-long 'Sleepy song' by English band the Tindersticks. With our attention focused on the detail of the continuously repeating images and dreamy soundtrack, we quickly become hypnotised and lulled into an all-encompassing melancholy. Art Jones is similarly aware of the ability of the music video form to manipulate our mood. In 'Over above', part three of Love songs #1 2001, a sample from Cibo Matto's 'Sunday part II' is combined with hazy images of police violence viewed from inside a moving vehicle. In this work, Jones comments on the distance from which we perceive everyday horrors. In addition to our physical distance from the violence, safe within a vehicle, we are emotionally detached from the events unfolding via the mellow soundtrack. The work puts the viewer in an uncertain position, oscillating between the soothing charm of the music and a recognition of what is ensuing outside.

Where Jones and Rondinone play on the seductive mood of music video, Kati Rule, Tony Schwensen and Georgina Starr mine their memory of videos from the 1980s and bring the spectacle of the hit video down home. Through memory and play they interrogate the space between the spectacular world of the video and their own lived experience. As a teenager, Starr was fascinated by narrative videos that depicted pop stars performing 'mini-movies' rather than playing music.6 In There's something going on in the sculpture studio 1995 she transforms the act of a studio visit into a parody of Lionel Ritchie's soap opera-style clip Hello. Casting her visitor, artist Georg Herold, in the role of Ritchie, and herself in the role of his love-interest, Starr comically interlaces an everyday event with Ritchie's kitsch video. For Rule, the release of Michael Jackson's Thriller in 1983 marked one of her earliest memories of music videos. At the time, it was the most expensive music video ever made, selling thirty-five million copies of the single, and prompting countless fans to imitate Jackson's astounding dance routine. Rule was amongst them and, in I'm a lover not a dancer 2002, she drags director John Landis's high production value clip into her garage. Rule plays out her childhood aspirations replacing the idealised footage of the fifteen-minute original with a true-to-life two-minute loop.

Like Jackson, Duran Duran's success in the early 1980s was partially the result of the band's lavishly produced videos. As soon as the beat kicks in on the Mulcahy directed Hungry like the wolf, images flash through our mind of Simon LeBon dashing around exotic locations. In his interpretation of the era, Schwensen presents us with his generation's experience of the song - dancing badly and self-consciously at a blue-light disco. In Schwensen's words, he has 'clear blurred memories of loads of school boys dancing, if you can call it dancing, hands clutched behind backs, stepping in discord to the music'.7 Schwensen repeats the awkward dance with the track on repeat for around an hour. High school shuffle 2003 is an endurance piece for both artist and viewer that, like I'm a lover not a dancer, drolly points out the gap between music video spectacle and our own experience of it.

Music video director Spike Jonze's clips also play with the relationship between life and fantasy. Regularly shooting on video and employing relatively low production values, Jonze often creates real spectacles that take place in the world rather than an editing studio. In his most well-known piece, Fatboy Slim's Praise you, an amateur dance troupe performing on the street appears to have been incidentally captured on video by a bemused passer-by. Here, the reality of our fumbling engagement with music infiltrates the cool world of MTV. In another attempt to introduce spontaneity in the flow of music television, Jonze conceived a clip for Oasis in which random people on the street would be asked on the spot to devise a concept for a video. He approached a wide range of subjects, played them the new unreleased single and then prompted them to describe how the video should look. Oasis rejected the idea but Jonze, nevertheless, assembled his footage into a mini documentary that irreverently and humorously suggested that 'everybody is a music video director'. The interviewees, including a middle-aged priest, young children and teenagers, possess a familiarity with the format and language of music video that enabled them to immediately imagine a sequence of images to accompany the previously unheard song.

Music videos have sold us style, hit singles and a fast-paced visual language. Their images and songs spill into our lives and mingle with our memories and experiences. Like Rule, we keep on doing the dances.

Endnotes
This essay takes its title, 'Pictures came and broke your heart', from the lyrics of the Buggles' hit, 'Video killed the radio star' 1979.
  1. Candice Breitz interviewed in Raimar Stange, Züruck die Kunst, Rogner and Berhard bei Zweitausendeins, Hamburg, 2003.
  2. Russell Mulcahy cited in Steve Reiss and Neil Feineman, Thirty Frames per Second: The Visionary Art of the Music Video, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2000, p.27.
  3. Elizabeth Subrin, unpublished interview with Kathryn Weir and Nicholas Chambers, January 2004.
  4. Elizabeth Subrin, unpublished interview.
  5. Robert Pittman cited in R. Serge Denisoff, Inside MTV, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick and London, 1989, p.241.
  6. Georgina Starr, unpublished interview with Kathryn Weir and Nicholas Chambers, January 2004.
  7. Tony Schwensen, unpublished interview with Kathryn Weir and Nicholas Chambers, January 2004.