For anyone who spent much of their teen years glued to Rage on Saturday mornings, the music videos were as absorbing – sometimes more – than the actual songs themselves. We all remember when we first saw certain videos, whether it was Madonna showing us how to Vogue or the synchronised treadmill dancing of OK Go’s Here It Goes Again. And with the increasing distribution of videos via the internet, where a single music video can garner millions, even billions of views, the music video may perhaps now be the single most accessible art form today.
So it is long overdue for the music video to enjoy light in the artistic sun in the form of a major exhibition. From September 26, ACMI will be hosting Spectacle: The Music Video exhibition, an interactive, immersive experience where over 300 music videos have been brought together across nine decades. The exhibition is curated by Jonathan Wells and Meg Grey Wells, co-founders and directors of LA-based art and video collective Flux. When we spoke to Grey Wells, we found she’s as big a fan of the music video genre as the rest of us, and just as excited about Spectacle.
While there are a lot of readers who probably think that the music video was born out of MTV, Spectacle actually goes all the way back to films made to songs by jazz singers like Bessie Smith and Cab Calloway. “It was definitely amazing and also very illuminating to find out that the music video has been a form of creative expression from as far back as anyone even had a proper name for it,” says Grey Wells. “Spectacle begins as far back as the 1920s, when [music films] were called ‘soundies’. Seeing some of the videos from that time are special, because when you look at the techniques behind the work it will amaze you how relevant they still are.”
Given the enormous breadth of the subject matter, it’s surprising to hear that both curators knew how they wanted to present the exhibition from the start. “We did have a pretty clear idea of the themes and subject matter we wanted to present and explore. As with any creative process, exploration leads to new discoveries and the challenge was how to contain everything we possibly wanted to show in one exhibition,” says Grey Wells. “It’s impossible to present every single amazing video out there in the world. With Spectacle, we mean to inspire and it’s a starting point to get viewers thinking about and truly appreciating music videos, and to drive people to keep discovering new work or re-discovering old ones.”
There’s quite a few artists who have multiple videos featured in the exhibition – the White Stripes, Bjork, Kanye West, to name just a few, leading to the question: is the music video still a means for an artist to differentiate themselves? Has this idea only increased in cachet in the internet age?
“Without a doubt, and especially with the internet because it provides such a wide and global reach,” says Grey Wells. “When you think of music videos it’s very easy to reference musicians like Bjork, Madonna and Michael Jackson because they used the art form to define their visual image. But that was in the days of television and cable. With the internet, it’s opened up a whole new arena and now when you look at the true power and influence of a music video, you see Gangnam Style which became a global viral phenomenon with over 1 billion views on the strength of the music video alone. People were not initially drawn to the song or the artist, they were moved and compelled solely by the music video. It’s evident that this influence is only going to continue when it can inspire and unite people from around the world. Imagine, over 1 billion people around the world now have a shared experience with that one video alone.”
Spectacle is also highly interactive, which relates again to artists taking full advantage of the new ways of audience engagement born out of the internet – for instance, the exhibition features an interactive installation based around the videos of Arcade Fire, who have incidentally just released two music videos for their newest song Reflektor. One is a more standard black-and-white work directed by Anton Corbijn, while the other is an online-only film that encourages viewers to manipulate and upload their own footage to create their own personal version.
For Grey Wells it was integral that Spectacle highlighted the fact that music videos are now a participatory art form. “Technology as well as audience participation are shaping new ways that music videos can be perceived. It’s a natural evolution and a good one. It’s allows democracy in creative expression and none of the old rules apply. Who said music videos have to necessarily be passive? Who said you can’t splice images and turn them into newly re-imagined versions of the original? It’s so much more interesting to discover, be surprised and open to new ideas.”
Spectacle: The Music Video Exhibition runs from September 26 2013 to February 23 2014 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.