Articulating with Tom Sherman and friends

I had the opportunity to participate in The Ottawa Art Gallery’s critical writing series called Articulation this past weekend. This edition was with artist and critic Tom Sherman, but it was really a value added experience as the workshop was full of very bright and insightful people. It was a rare group dynamic with enough tension between differing points of view to fuel engaging discussion, but never the less an adequate overlap of shared world views to prevent roadblock sized disagreements.

The basis of the workshop was discussion and exchange, however Tom started us with a singular writing exercise to give shape to the discussion of the day. We began with a description of our most persistent fears related to immanent technological change. This was a perfect intellectual icebreaker. As each of us focused the under currents of anxiety in our lives into more powerful and cohesive thoughts, we then pooled that concentrated energy into the shared social space so that it could fuel the days discussions.

My contribution concerned the wake of waste spanning out behind the crest of the constantly crashing wave of innovation. The market driven model of reward, which has fueled the rich breadth of technological development over the last century, seems to have such profound momentum behind it that to change its course seems unfathomable. Now, imagine 12 more people pissing into this cesspool of intellectual concerns. What’s perverse of course, is that this was a great start to a really enjoyable day.

Tom had provided a number of readings ahead of time for everyone. They ranged from one of his earliest writings first published in 1974 to one of his most popular pieces from the last few years entitled Vernacular Video. This last text struck the deepest cord with me.

If I remember right, Vernacular Video was first published on the listserv nettime, and has now made it’s way into a number of different publications. One of the interesting places it ended up was its unauthorized representation in Bruce Sterling’s Wired blog, where he added some, let’s say dude-ishly articulated comments. You can read that one here, but you may want to read a more legitimate version of the article here.

The text is at once a critique of the art worlds relationship to video and a positioning of it as the people’s language, as he says with this perfectly direct sentence: “The technology of video is now as common as a pencil for the middle classes.” I have taught many video editing workshops where I have tried crudely to express the ideas that Tom so eloquently spells out in this article.

From the perspective of a younger generation of media artists the text reads to me like a message from a cool uncle. It expresses disappointment at the unrealized potential of the kids I might hang out with, but simultaneously transmits faith in the possibility of my future.

“Artists must embrace, but move beyond, the vernacular forms of video. Artists must identify, categorize and sort through the layers of vernacular video, using appropriate video language to interact with the world effectively and with a degree of elegance. Video artists must recognize that they are part of a global, collective enterprise. They are part of a gift economy in an economy of abundance. Video artists must have something to say and be able to say it in sophisticated, innovative, attractive ways. Video artists must introduce their brand of video aesthetics into the vernacular torrents. They must earn their audiences through content-driven messages.”

I will do my best Uncle Sherman!


PS For a predecessor to the Video Vernacular article read Tom’s 2005 article in Canadian Art. It contains this fantastic sentences “Video, when served straight up (neat), is so direct and raw and explicit, it’s almost embarrassing.” But like a great ingredient the quality of this sentence is exponentially improved when taken as part of the whole meal. Read and enjoy.

PPS For more on the wake of waste read up about the Pacific Garbage Patch in the more enthralling prose of this 2007 Harper’s story, the open source fact finding of Wikipedia, the research center doing its best to bring this to light or simply watch this VBS TV hipsters go to sea doc.

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