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The Politics of Storytelling

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Khaled Sabsabi, Guerrilla, 2007, single channel HD video projection with sound, 25 min 44 sec, Language: Arabic with English subtitles, image copyright the artist and courtesy of Milani Galley, Brisbane. Touring nationally as part of Giving Voice: the Art of Dissent presented by Salamanca Arts Centre.

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Video as an agent for political discourse owes much to the conceptual art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. International and Australian artists, such as Les Levine, Martha Rosler, Joseph Beuys, David Hall, Mike Parr and Peter Kennedy, pioneered the use of the video camera as a tool for making art. Their embrace of this unconventional form of expression was viewed during this time as ‘a political action in itself' (1). This documentary technology opened up new avenues for questioning art. It provided a platform for contemplation and a mechanism for broader social and political commentary, which has been explored over the past four to five decades by artists globally.

The works of multimedia artist Khaled Sabsabi are deeply rooted in personal experience. Having fled civil war in Lebanon during the late 1970s, Sabsabi and his family settled in Australia as refugees. These childhood experiences in addition to a direct engagement with marginalised, incarcerated and underprivileged people in Australia and internationally have shaped his practice. Sabsabi’s single-channel video Guerrilla (2007) (2) documents the personal narratives of former guerrilla fighters, interwoven with silent pictorial landscapes of urban ruin. These confronting images evoke dismay and compassion, encouraging a greater search for meaning. In the words of the Sabsabi:

“…art making is the aesthetic resistance against the way things are, a constant movement towards pushing limits and testing perceptions, on these fringes or borders is where we learn and find new ways of engaging, because through art it becomes expression and through expression one finds a platform for reason”. (3)

It is this interest in the individual experience, such as living through the atrocities of war, that helps us to navigate our understanding of the world and of our own identity.

The use of video to push against the mainstream, to diffuse xenophobic and extremist ideals, is best seen in the work of artist Cigdem Aydemir. Her works Bombshell (2013), Smile (2014) and Whirl (2015) (4) tackle most pointedly the politics of fear by way of provocation and wit. The artist positions herself centrally as an “exploration of the veiled woman cipher as resistant female Other and as lived experience”, directly confronting issues surrounding culture, religion and gender (5). The hijab, niqab and burqa feature often, juxtaposed against popular culture reference and conventional notions of beauty and sexuality. The element of sound is integral to the mood and impact of her work, as in Extremist Activity (Blow) (2013), (6) a startling and unsettling sequence of stills which test the boundaries of perception and expectation. Aydemir’s videos provide incredibly poignant commentary on global politics, yet they remain highly personal works.

Cigdem Aydemir, Extremist Activity (blow) video stills taken from performance piece, 2013, Single channel HD video with sound, 7 min 54 sec. Performed and exhibited at Alaska projects, Sydney. Courtesy of the artist.

Worldwide instability and unrest has resulted in an unprecedented number of displaced people seeking refuge. It is a global problem lacking a united solution. Danae Stratou’s video installation The Globalising Wall (2012) (7), based on the text by economist Yani Varoufakis, is a precursor to the most recent escalation of this issue. In one long moving image sequence, the work documents the barriers constructed across territories restricting the movement of people and goods. The recognisable landscapes of Cyprus, Kosovo, Ireland, Ethiopia, Palestine, Kashmir and Mexico flash by, showing evidence of human existence in the graffiti, rubbish and debris which decorates these unforgiving places, emphasising the importance of bearing witness.  

Danae Stratou, The Globalising Wall, 2012, video installation based on text by Yanis Varoufakis, 9 min 4 sec. Courtesy of the artist.

Misadventure (2007) (9) by artist Alex Seton, highlights the division of citizen and state in response to heightened security measures implemented in Sydney during the APEC Summit in 2007. Recorded in lo-fi video format this work documents the restricted passage and altered landscape of the city. Seton’s work shows how video can connect the local and with global and how the sharing of information is key in keeping political activism alive. We may be divided yet we are all in this together.

The major divide which exists in Australia in relation to key Indigenous issues is confronted head-on in the video trilogy Imagining Victory by Aboriginal artist Richard Bell. In Scratch an Aussie (2008) (10) Bell interrogates the inherent racism which pervades Australian society. His intension is to shock, bemuse and unsettle pre-conceived ideas around Aboriginality, the impact of colonisation and a continual lack of recognition.

A more intimate response to cultural trauma is presented in the multi-video installation Seventy Times Seven (2011) (11) by artist Bindi Cole. Informed by her position as a young Indigenous woman, Cole presents a series of up-close portraits of Aboriginal men and women repeating the phrase ‘I forgive you’ generating a mantra for self-empowerment and collective healing. This video work responds to intergenerational trauma as well as Cole’s own lived experience:

“I was a very broken person. When I look around at my community, the Aboriginal community, I see a lot of broken people. For me to stop being disempowered by the people and events in my life, my parents and my ancestors’ lives, I had to forgive”. (12)

Seventy Times Seven responds to the power and politics of words; the path of forgiveness without forgetting, as not to repeat the past.

Personal politics reside at the forefront of contemporary art practice and for many artists video is a tool which bridges diverse concepts, approaches and ideas. The political agenda of video lies in its perception as a recorder of truth, albeit in existing and constructed realities. Through this medium the individual is asserted as an intrinsically political being, responding to issues of race, religion, gender, class, sexuality and so forth most often from a place of lived experience. Narratives expressed on screen have the ability to unite maker, subject and viewer by bringing our inner most thoughts, fears and desires to life. An extension of the artists’ voice, video channels the ancient and fundamental art of storytelling in a new and burgeoning media. We engage with it to escape our immediate reality only to be confronted by a reflection of ourselves.

Bindi Cole, Seventy Times Seven, 2011, HD video, 10 min 21 sec, courtesy of the artist.