Dr. Jennifer Allen

Digital Killed the Video Star

What is our relationship to things today? What Lucy Lippard once qualified as »the dematerialization of the art object« could apply to a host of objects that are disappearing through digital technologies. Many solid things have melted into the air of digital clouds, from LPs to books; smart phones have swallowed up intricate devices, from stereos to cameras. Despite these disappearing acts, commodity fetishism seems to be alive and well, although even traditional commodities are no longer discrete objects with singular qualities but brands which imply entire lifestyles, instantly shared with others. Compare the leather-bound novel, carefully handled at home, with the tweeted quotation, tipped on a smart phone to a potentially global readership. Has our experience of things changed with digitisation? Do we still own them in the same way? How do we form attachments to them, if at all?

Joep van Liefland addresses these questions with his new exhibition Traces. The works – sculptures and vitrines – initially evoke the Minimalist canon with their mute simplicity, square forms and shades of black and white. Yet they constitute the relics of the popular culture of video for analogue television: VHS players, cassettes and cases as well as the once-ubiquitous remote controls. It seems only fitting that the exhibition invitation is an advert for a used player, drastically marked down in price. While video is a victim of digitisation, its rapid rise and demise anticipated the celerity of our current digital culture, which continually updates programs, formats and gadgets. Compare the lifespan of a book, a video cassette and a mobile phone application. An entire era was recorded, distributed and experienced on video, only to disappear in a decade; today, we entrust our entire lives to digital gadgets, only to update them every few years, if not weeks. However obsolete, Traces gives us a taste of obsolescence as a dominant mode of perceiving and experiencing objects: picking them up and trying to remember how we lived with them and through them. Again, compare books, videos and apps or an old dress, a family photo album and an outdated version of Microsoft Word.

Starting with Minimalism, Traces turns into a process of recognition and loss – a direct confrontation with objects that hold not only the artist‘s fingerprints but also the fading warmth of the touch of previous users. The sculptures 2013-1 and Distribution 1 (both 2013) are in fact video cassettes cast in bronze (along with a handy carrying crate, albeit originally used for loaves of bread); the series Le Discours des Medias (The Discourse of Media, 2013) consist of grids, fashioned out of empty VHS cases while Untitled 10 (The boys club), (2013) or Untitled 11 (Die Indianer von Cleveland II) (2013) are grids of cassettes, covered with the lightest coat of white spray paint; the vitrine The Reality of Objects 3 (2013) features remote controls, hung together on white pegboard. While equating the aesthetics and the seriality of Minimalism with VHS, van Liefland recalls the emergence of a new mode of temporary ownership of objects since the majority of videos were rented. His early series of interactive installations Video Palace (2002–ongoing) – fully operational video rental stores set up temporarily at various locations – eventually emptied out, like the stores themselves, to become vacated spaces, as in Video Palace #34 – Le Discours des Medias (2012). With Traces, van Liefland continues this process of erasure by removing the colourful label wraps that once covered the cases, like mini-movie posters, displayed on shelves instead of billboards. The cases are video skeletons, missing the promotional flesh of the films they contain; the cast bronze cassettes suggest fossils, which have hardened over centuries; the white paint covering the cassettes is like hygienic dust – an instant ageing that underscores the brief reign of video as a popular culture. By presenting only its technological traces, van Liefland deprives us of the nostalgia of recognising this blockbuster movie or that bygone star. Here, the medium is truly the message: a uniform culture with few chances for individual contributions, beyond the rental fees. Indeed, the real ›traces‹ are the scratched cassettes and the worn plastic covers on the cases; the fading labels and stickers, sometimes with typed or handwritten tags; the classification categories of so many bygone collections. Van Liefland also portrays an evolution of touch: the gradual alienation of the human hand from objects and the reduction of their use to a fingertip. The nozzle on the spray can, pressed to paint over the cassettes, and the buttons on the remote controls can both be seen as successors to more gripping tools like scissors and as predecessors to simpler ones like the mouse and the touch screen. Almost devoid of traces of human touch, the VHS cassettes – inherently nomadic – speak more about an era than people or places; they speak about time, above all the durations that they hold as movies. Each cassette represents not only the approximate ninety minutes of a movie but also the endless repetitions of these ninety minutes in front of countless viewers. They are time capsules that don‘t contain much more than time itself. Perhaps video cassettes possessed us more than we possessed them.