1- Storytelling in media art by Sandra Fauconnier

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Storytelling and mass media

Telling stories is a very attractive and universal human activity. Stories usually have strong entertainment value, but can also be used for educational, ethical or political purposes.
Many media artworks do have a narrative focus, trying to tell a story to the viewer, often in an experimental way.
Characteristic for media art is the fact that the work often contains a strong comment on mass media. Most people are nowadays exposed to narratives via cinema and television, which have unconsciously defined our expectations on the nature of entertainment, how a story is told in a filmic way, and have taught us established viewing patterns. Narrative media art attempts to challenge the way we look at mass media. At first sight, media artworks seem hermetic because of this; artists use and play with conventions of storytelling and often turn our expectations about editing, narration and plot development upside down.

1970s: storytelling as media critique

Narrative video art was very rare in the 1970s when media experimentation and critique were more common themes. But several exceptions do exist, for instance, the performative work ‘Television, products, etc.’ by Servie Janssen from 1975, where the artist creates a pile of clip- pings from magazines – advertisements for consumer products, but also images referring to birth, life, disease and death. Our mind tries to fill the gaps between the images and creates a unique story all by itself.



1980s: the rise of narrative video

In the 1980s, narrative video art became more prominent; this is partly due to cultural devel- opments, partly to improvements in editing technology. Robert Cahen’s ‘Juste le Temps’ (1983) is still largely an abstract and conceptual work, but it contains narrative elements (the meeting between a woman and a man in a train) that are chosen to underline the temporal structure.
Like many of her contemporaries the Dutch feminist artist Lydia Schouten switched from per- formance to narrative video art in the 1980s. Her ‘Split Seconds of Magnificence’ from 1984 features actors for the first time in her oeuvre; text and colouring are used strategically throughout the work. The storyline itself is rather associative and refers to female beauty ideals.


1990s-present: maturity and diversity

From the 1990s on, narrative media art becomes more and more prominent and visible in museums and festivals; at the same time the works become more sophisticated, both artistically and in terms of technology.
In the early 1990s, we see the emergence of interactive and internet-based art. Jeffrey Shaw’s interactive installation ‘Legible City’ dating from 1989 offers a textual 3D model of a city through which the visitor can navigate with a bicycle. The buildings are replaced by archival texts; the participant constructs his/her own story while navigating through the streets. This work is more or less an example of hypertextual and non-linear reading.




Video art and cinematic narrative

Meanwhile, narrative video art is moving closer to cinema, although it stays firmly rooted within the context of the visual arts. With the rise of personal computing, editing techniques are evolving further and are also becoming more affordable to artists.
An interesting work which combines 1980s narrative experimentation with 1990s editing techniques is ‘Sand Collectors’ (1995) by the Slovenian artist duo ZANK (Zemira Alajbego- vić and Neven Korda). This work is a reflection on 20th century art history as well as a trea- tise on feminism and a layered analysis of the protagonist’s psychology.


The layered complexity of this work is also present in many other contemporary video pieces. Several topics seem to return frequently: science fiction and futurism, personal history, and appropriation of genres from entertainment in mass media. The Otolith Group, for instance, addresses an apocalyptic vision of the future in its ‘Otolith I’ (2003), where life in zero gravity has altered human anatomy so profoundly that an entirely new human species has evolved. This futuristic element is also present in various recent works by Hungarian artist Gusztáv Hámos together with Katja Pratschke: ‘Transposed Bodies’ (2002), and to a lesser extent ‘Rien ne va plus’ (2005).
Media critique through re-appropriation and remixing of images from mass media takes place in Pierre Bismuth’s ‘Al-Haj Mitwalli’s Family: Proposal for an Improbable American TV Program’ (2006). The simple intervention of superimposing an English-language voice-over on an Egyptian soap opera raises many relevant questions related to language, globalisation and cultural homogenisation.

Stories and deception

Many of the stories told in media art today are, in themselves, modest and not very eventful. It is through the subversion and exposure of cinematic language that artists add new layers of meaning to their work. Keren Cytter is an artist who consistently works in this manner; her works (like ‘Der Spiegel’ from 2007) feature simple story lines related to love and relation- ships, but that become complex narratives because the artist plays with cinematic interven- tions. In ‘Telephone Arabe’ by Sabine Massenet (2004), the storyline even totally disintegrates as it is being told time and again by different narrators. How sustainable and truthful is story- telling really? Finally, ‘Interview with Saskia Holmkvist’ by Saskia Holmkvist (2005) is at first sight a simple interview, but then turns into a video work about illusions, reality and the ma- nipulative constructions behind mediated stories.

by Sandra Fauconnier, Netherlands Media Art Institute, July 2009

List of works

Servie Janssen: Television, products, etc. (Monte)
Robert Cahen: Juste le Temps (HE!)
Lydia Schouten: Split Seconds of Magnificence (Monte)
Jeffrey Shaw: Legible City (Ars, some documentation also in Monte collection) ZANK: Sand Collectors (SCCA-DIVA)
Otolith Group: Otolith I (Argos)
Gusztáv Hámos & Katja Pratschke: Transposed Bodies (C3) + eventually also Rien ne va
plus (C3)
Pierre Bismuth: Al-Haj Mitwalli’s Family: Proposal for an Improbable American TV Pro- gram (Argos)
Keren Cytter: Der Spiegel (Monte)
Sabine Massenet: Telephone Arabe (HE & Instants)
Saskia Holmkvist: Interview with Saskia Holmkvist (FilmForm)