One thing that has united commentators and visitors to this year’s Liverpool Biennial is the recognition of the amount of video installations on display. A common interpretation of why film art is increasingly utilised by artists and embraced by institutions is because the modern age demands the prevalence of the moving image. The act of filming has universally become a daily occurrence, a fundamental part of how we represent ourselves and see the people and institutions around us.
For video art, this presents both opportunities and challenges. Because film can capture multiple moments and movements, it often comes with expectations of a narrative – but what this narrative has to look like is up for question. Several films in this year’s Biennial have a rather literal documentary style, such as Madiha Aijaz’s These Silences Are All the Words (at Open Eye Gallery). Whilst their subjects are interesting and undoubtedly raise questions responding to the theme of Beautiful World, Where Are You? their dictation of facts raises questions about artistic intention. As the audience, we are left with little space for individual contemplation or interpretation. Countering this is the work of Aslan Gaisumov, one of this year’s standout artists, whose work can be seen at the Victoria Gallery and Museum. People of No Consequence observes the entrance of 119 individuals to create a final image which would be an acceptable photograph. Capturing the process of these people literally take their seats as witnesses to history presses home the identities of who these people are.
As the 21st century is teaching us, just because a scene is presented as narrative truth does not make it so. The inclusion of Agnès Varda in this year’s programme has been deservedly celebrated, and her work Ulysse at FACT is a brilliant study in questioning the space between memory and history. Telling the story of the creation of a single photograph, Varda raises as many questions as she answers about the ambiguity of personal interpretation.
Perhaps video art’s most relevant contribution to the modern experience is the demands it makes of our time. Many of the films this year are, at a minimum, over 5 minutes long. Far from being disposable experiences, film demands our extended attention like no other medium. It is therefore up to us as viewers to decide how much of our time are we willing to give to discovering what the artist has to say. Video installation then has to create a particularly unique experience – one which can be understood within a few seconds, but which becomes more rewarding as we dedicate more of our time. Not every piece in the Biennial successfully achieves this: watching Ari Benjamin Meyers’ Four Liverpool Musicians (Liverpool Playhouse) results in frustration; we are left feeling disconnected from its indulgent portrayal of what should be the shared power of music. But while not every video installation across the city succeeds, the extensive selection of video on display gives an effective insight into the potential of what the medium can achieve.
Julia Johnson is a writer based in Liverpool, interested in how engagement with art can be opened up to the widest possible audiences.
Liverpool Biennial 2018 continues in venues across the city until 28 October.