The Landmarks Video Program
by Macy Ryan
What does it mean to pay attention? What does it mean to engage with and experience art? These are the questions the Landmarks Video Program at the University of Texas (UT) challenges us to answer.
The Video Program is part of the Landmarks Program, the University’s public art initiative created in 2008. Locations for the art are chosen based on the buildings undergoing capital improvement projects; 1-2% of every renovation budget is dedicated toward the Landmarks Program.
“As a University collection, it’s our responsibility to educate, to demonstrate some of the major artistic trends that are happening in the world. Public art is the most democratic form of artistic presentation. It is absolutely free and broad and accessible to everybody. As an educator and someone who is deeply concerned with cultivating informed minds, I think that it’s important, especially for people who aren’t inclined to engage with art, to have that kind of exposure and opportunity. I want them to ask, “What is it?” “Why is it here?” “Why does it matter?” In asking that, they might discover something that they wouldn’t otherwise. I don’t know any other art form that can do that, routinely, as a core part of its service.”
-Andrée Bober, Director of UT Landmarks Program
When it was time for the ART Building at 23rd and Trinitytoundergosomemajorchangesin2010,the Landmarks Video Program was born.
Bober uses a wide range of criteria to guide the selection of work. The pieces she chooses must tie into the landscape and extend the architectural theme of the buildings they accompany. When it came to curating a piece for the atrium in the ART Building in 2010, where experts and students of art history, studio art and advertising traverse, she knew something different was in order. She began to think of how artists conceptualize process. Instead of curating one fixed piece to be emblematic of a place with such dynamic focus, talent and interests, she began thinking of a platform that could showcase many kinds of different artistic production. She pondered what was missing from UT’s Art and Art History Departments, which had been very strong in the more traditional forms of art production. She realized this was an opportunity to present something that most students didn’t have access to: video art. “These (videos) are not widely circulated typically, and many of the works that are most influential have very, very small editions. They’re not on YouTube, and they’re not online, so the idea of bringing these works of art to the students who are studying about art, and aligning that form of art making with other traditional forms, seems to really have a place,” Bober says. By using video, Landmarks presents a way to experience different eras and different perspectives by accessing not just sight, but also sound. Being immersed within the moving image is a highly visceral experience
because it touches multiple senses.
Bober curated the Video Program on her own, until bringing in Kanitra Fletcher to co-curate with her for the 2014–2015 academic year, after which Fletcher will solely direct the program. Bober and Fletcher’s curatorial processes include drawing from critically lauded pieces, as well as researching, consulting and visiting other video art exhibitions and festivals. A different piece is on exhibition at the Landmarks Video Program every month, making for 12 pieces per year. However, each year, one month is dedicated to ANIMAL by David Ellis, a piece commissioned by the Landmarks Video Program that’s a favorite of the students. The other 11 pieces for the year are borrowed or rented.
Video art emerged in the early 1960s, and the Program spans this history with typically three or four early pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, a few from the 1980s and 1990s, and the rest from the 2000s onward. Within that mix, Bober and Fletcher vary the artistic perspective, the presentation of the material, the mood, the character and the technique. The videos are also curated, so that the more meditative or risqué pieces are shown during the summer, when schedules are slower and the audience has more time, while those with shorter and faster narratives are shown during the school year, when traffic is heavy and hurried. The videos illustrate the particular zeitgeist of their respective eras. The earlier works from the 1960s and 1970s focus on pieces that had a profound impact on culture, while the later works are chosen based on a principle Bober and Fletcher use called “stickiness,” a Malcolm Gladwell term. “Sometimes there are these videos that you watch that just bore into your brainstem. You find yourself thinking about them three months later and six months later and a year later, and you realize that there’s something in that, that I really want to dig into deeper. I want to learn more, and I want to learn more about this artist. Those are the ones that we tend to gravitate toward,” says Bober.
The Landmarks Video Program contributes to the creative landscape of the city of Austin at large. “Austin being a film- oriented city, to have these different places and different ways of watching film and video shows the breadth of that medium; not just narratives, movies, documentaries and those types of film and video, but the different ways the medium has been used. It’s a different category of film for the city in general,” says Fletcher. The Video Program creates a space that is like no other place in Austin. Perhaps it’s like no other place you’ve ever been. It’s an atrium inside an academic building like any other; however, instead of being a pass- through, it is a space where one is encouraged to sit, to watch and to listen. You can also choose to sit and do other things. Many of the students use the space to study and read. In total, about 3,000–4,000 students
travel through the atrium every day. The students might get the direct impact of the video on view, or maybe the impact is more subconscious. They may casually pass by many times, but at least once a month, most will sit down, watch and pay attention. “They know it’s something unique that they’re not going to find anywhere else, and it contributes to their overall awareness about the world of art,” says Bober. “It’s putting them in direct dialogue with these major cultural trends that are happening around the globe.” As such, the Video Program is functional, it’s a resource for student learning, and it’s infusing art into their daily habits, enriching even the experience of walking down the hall. It is the counterpart to the Visual Arts Center (VAC), the gallery that holds paintings right next door, where people go specifically to experience art, instead of happening upon it.
“Screens are so ubiquitous now—everybody’s always looking at a screen, always. Maybe it should be art, also. Why not think about how we can utilize screens to engage other aspects of culture?” Fletcher says.
In light of this context, what does it mean to pay attention and to engage with and experience art? As a culture, we tend to be overstimulated and overengaged; we are constantly connected and constantly interacting with our screens—our phones, tablets, computers, television—often, all at the same time. The Landmarks Video Program is another screen, but it is also providing another way, a much different way: a way of being transported into a meditative state. “Screens are so ubiquitous now—everybody’s always looking at a screen, always. Maybe it should be art, also. Why not think about how we can utilize screens to engage other aspects of culture?” Fletcher says.
The purpose of art is to both engage the viewer in aspects of culture that he or she may not be exposed to and it is to cultivate attention. By existing as public art, and not in a theatre where you’re forced to turn off your phone and focus, the Landmarks Video Program functions in the background of your daily life. It creates an opportunity for the sole cultivation of your attention. It invites you to watch; it gives you permission to focus only on it. But it also competes with the boundless information, data, and technology our society has access to by being able to be always plugged in. And we feel like we have to be. We feel like we’re missing out if we’re not. “It’s biological,” says Bober. “It’s all alpha waves, and you get completely addicted to them, and you get jangled when they’re withdrawn.”
It gives you permission to disengage from what you don’t need and to re-engage with what’s nourishing.
However, if you’re always plugged in, you’re also being jangled. You’re always reacting, always consuming, always absorbing—and in shorter and shorter spurts, without the opportunity for the meditative, longer experience. Herein lies one of the great values of art: It moves things into focus and asks for your attention. It gives you perspective. It gives you permission to disengage from what you don’t need and to re-engage with what’s nourishing. “For a long time, art was the understood part of an educated or a cultivated mind, the ability to have that visual literacy, to understand visual imagery and symbolism. Now, there’s a different kind of literacy, but it performs the same function, if you’re willing to accept the invitation,” says Bober.
And that is what the Landmarks Video Program is: an invitation to further understand the dynamic visual language of our time; an invitation to disengage from the noise of society and re-engage in a single, meditative perspective. Are you willing to accept the invitation?
The Landmarks Video Program is located on the University of Texas Campus, inside the ART Building on the corner of 23rd Street and Trinity Street. The video on display in March at the time this article was written was WALKING ON CARL ANDRE by Sylvie Fleury, and the video on display in April is ANIMAL by David Ellis. THE ELEVATOR by Burt Barr is on display in May. To learn more about the Landmarks Video Program and see a listing of upcoming videos, visit landmarks.utexas.edu/video_overview.