(Note: This essay first appeared in the arts blog Practice Based Re/Search written by Michael J. Masucci)
There has never been a time, in all of recorded history, when art and technology were not intertwined. Each inform the other and both are really an extended continuum of the creative process. Sometimes technology suggests new forms of art based practice.
Kenneth Hughes is an actor, dancer, and filmmaker currently working on his latest feature film “M-theory”. He has known EZTV back in the days when it served as much as a community service organization as it did a curatorial think-tank and production space. That was in the 1980’s and so much has changed since then.
Out of the blue, Kenneth had sent us an email rich in emotions and from that, we had quickly found a kindred spirit who understood the significance of the space at a time when many merely took it for granted.
His honest vulnerability, as he recalled confronting an aspect of his childhood that was complex, perhaps painful, and clearly at times embarrassing, was another validation of the varied purposes which early EZTV had served. He wrote:
“I made my first documentary about my homeless mother at EZTV in West Hollywood. I had no money and it was the only thing that was out there that was cheap enough for me to do. It meant a lot to tell that tale. I edited VHS tape deck to deck…crazy!! and very cool. Sure it looks like crap…but it was important and good and told my story that I really needed to tell”.
The critical mission of fostering truly independent voices, absent support from either commercial or museum-styled interests, was at the very core of one aspect of EZTV’s early history. That mission, which today would be called ‘social entrepreneurship’, was to do something good and proactive while finding community-oriented ways of financially supporting an alternative arts space. And therefore, keeping independent of the restrictions and curatorial biases inherent in traditional institutionally-supported media art centers of the time.
EZTV wanted to exist outside the ‘trickle-down’ modality of Reganomics in which so much of American arts practice has been stuck in. We asked those who wanted use of our tools to share, somewhat, in the enormous costs of operation, and, if possible, pay a modest and affordable amount for equipment access. Today, it is hard for many people to imagine a time when simply editing your video was a cost-prohibitive challenge. A challenge that could very well prevent one’s project from ever even happening.
Kenneth’s deeply moving first film “Blue Eyes” was an essential and emblematic example of a new type of late 20th century contemporary autoethnographic art history – the emergence of the personal video-film. Now commonplace, the personal narratives of our diverse and multicultural global society are shared widely. But in the 1980’s, not only was it difficult to get work produced, but equally difficult in getting it shown once completed. Every project completed independently of either the Hollywood system or the equally restrictive contemporary art system is and must be seen for the triumph that it is.
Analog video is especially vulnerable to time, humidity, and heat, and Kenneth’s VHS edited master tape has suffered much deterioration in the decades that followed its creation. Although he has located the original source tapes that his piece was made from (and he intends to someday re-edit them using modern digital tools), the surviving master edit, although damaged, demonstrates a true sense of space and time which still merits viewing. Despite the technical glitches which have now overlaid themselves on the antiquated videotape, the raw honesty of its subject and the openness of its author, comes through as well as ever. This 3-minute excerpt captures the raw power of DIY filmmaking, and demonstrates once again, the universal importance of the independent voice:
Be the experimental, narrative or abstract, political or not, informed by conceptualism, Dadaism, fluxes, or B-movies, these individualistic journeys through self and soul would form the true foundation of the EZTV post-modern aesthetic. No, actually much more than merely an aesthetic, but as writer/filmmaker Nina Rota has called it, “a philosophy”.
When Kenneth learned that we had somehow managed to preserve much of EZTV’s history and that now ONE Archive at the USC Libraries was in the process of acquiring some of our early materials, making them available to scholars and, hopefully, acquaint a new generation to EZTV’s history, he wrote:
“Very good stuff to hear. It’s shocking and amazing that for once in our world someone does not let the spirit and originality of all that history fade away. It is important and is/was an amazing thing to experience…I do not think I knew it as much then as I do now…the spirit of fostering independent voices when things were not so easy to do and very affordably…”
We were so glad that someone remembered when so many have chosen to forget. He continued:
“…It warms my heart to hear of the respect given to the history of EZTV…it remains a very important part of my experience as a local, as a film-maker/artist, and as a human being having grown up under the extreme conditions of a homeless mother and needing (to) cobble together my way of telling the tale. I could speak endlessly on how significant of an experience it was…I remember how so few knew how important the activity then…but I always knew.”
Many people these days call themselves ‘filmmakers’ simply because they have a video camera and some editing software. Some of the films they create are certainly inspiring, informative, and creative. Some are purely narcissism, reflecting back to the contentious debate that Rosalind Krauss put forward in her 1976 essay: “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism”. Is self-reflection ‘self-indulgence’? And is self-indulgence a legitimate arts based practice? That discussion continues.
Today, almost all contemporary artists are ‘media artists’ in some way, which I think is a good thing. Many continue to come from a conceptually-based DNA and some more from the vocabularies and traditions of classical cinema. A strange brew is cooking, resulting in a fascinating hybrid whose intellectual and aesthetic parentage stems from both. That merger of so-called ‘high-art’ and so-called ‘popular culture’ is at the basis of the essence of post-modernism.
Clearly what ultimately separates the EZTV paradigm, in a purely intellectual sense, from so-called classical ‘video art’ is that essential need which Kenneth Hughes experienced; demanding of him that he create a film and not as Krauss would call ‘Mirror-reflection’. Such films exist outside their creator and are not only an extension of them. They are more than art (not, of course, that there is anything wrong with just ‘art’). They are more than what is labeled today as ‘citizen journalism’. They are both. They become as I say, “art as anthropology”. This distinction assumes a self-realization of the intrinsic socio-relativism contained as such an endeavor. A work that is sensitive, through proximity, to the cultural memes inherent in the sub-textual aspects of such a film.
But is observance possible without mitigation? Is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applicable to arts-based research? I think so. Observation becomes intervention. It interrogates the very notion of art criticism. The new role of the ‘artist-scholar’ seems to demand a new emergent appreciation of the social sciences and perhaps even the physical sciences as well. If we, as artists, are to continue to ‘comment’, then such commentary, it would seem, requires knowledge-based research and investigations into realms beyond mere reaction. Mere ‘commentary’ seems so irrelevant.
Back in the 1980’s, a younger Kenneth Hughes, so early in his arts practice, used a consumer camera as a means of expressing deeply personal vocabularies; so as to inform as an anthropologist does. This is a respectful conveyance of a world that many will never know. His courage to reveal his mother’s personal story, with all the ensuing emotional baggage that would result, is at the heart of so many of the early projects, facilitated in some small way, through EZTV. Home movies as social document or perhaps as high-art.
We are so glad he remembered the artist-run space, which in some small way, allowed his work to happen. Thank you, Kenneth, and welcome home.