What our Netflix and YouTube habits can teach us about video art

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With Filipinos spending more time in Netflix or Youtube, Cocoy Lumbao — a writer and video artist — makes the case for video art as a democratic tool that can empower citizens. Photo courtesy of COCOY LUMBAO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Cocoy Lumbao, a writer and artist who primarily handles video material, began working on his film oeuvre as a film and audiovisual communication undergrad at the University of the Philippines. He had gone into film school with a love for films, movies, narratives, and music videos: “I knew they were all I wanted to do back then.”

But instead of the full film productions with heavy crew and cast involvement typically presented by film students who do eventually go into this field, Lumbao turned to video art instead.

“I wish I could say it grew from an insatiable desire to create new, stimulating forms of moving image, but it was actually quite the opposite,” he says. “It grew from a kind of frustration not being able to, given the circumstances.” The circumstances, it turned out, mainly revolved around Lumbao’s introversion and solitary nature.

“I found out that in film school — or at least, in the aspect of film production — a timid, withdrawn attitude will not fly … I knew I didn’t have the demeanor back then to round up a crew and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you all work for me to shoot this vision that I have.’ So I found it necessary to do things alone.”

Still, Lumbao’s devotion to and love for the medium, and his desire to create something out of that love, would not be deterred by the lack of a production team. With all the tools he had discovered and began to love — cameras, editing machines, digital software, and videotape players — he began to search for other forms.

“This search to suit my solitary inclinations led me to works of Vertov, Michael Snow, and in video, Bill Viola and Gary Hill, and so on to other artists working with the medium,” he says.

Ultimately, it was a copy of an obscure buyer’s guide type of magazine — “Zen and the art of filmmaking,” it read, which he found to be a crude association with the whole concept of Zen and mindfulness — that sparked the beginnings of his process. On the cover was a lone man with a camcorder “aiming his camera at nothing but the empty lake before him.”

As one of the few artists who work primarily with video, Lumbao’s expressions involve exploring it as a tool, focusing on possibilities of what it can do, rather than just simply looking at it as a means to deliver a kind of story that’s different from art’s — or, at least, most commercial art’s — usual fare.

Lumbao’s video art exists in single-channel and installations. In 2016’s “New and Selected Video” at MO_Space, for example, Lumbao plays with illusion, presenting familiar images, interspersed or disrupted with other familiar views to create, at times, an otherworldly moving image. In “Untitled (Talks)” that same year at Blanc Gallery, Lumbao works with found footage — clips of videos from online streaming websites we encounter daily — playing in front of a rapt audience.

Video art seems intimidating to a lot of people, whether or not they are used to art and are exposed to it. In some ways, it feels like uncharted territory, where those who dabble in it are thought, automatically, to be experimental pioneers in the medium. But Lumbao insists that video, with its literal accessibility (by way of smartphones and online videos) and constant presence in our daily lives — is the perfect tool for him.

“It records in sync, it gives room for intimate takes and mistakes, it doesn’t have to be perfect and is dependably instantaneous,” he says.

Lumbao recently finished his residency run at Gasworks, a U.K.-based “non-profit contemporary visual art organization” whose alumni have gone on to be nominated for, or even win, major art awards such as the Turner Prize — a distinction previously won by artists like Gilbert and George, Wolfgang Tillmans, Damien Hirst, and Steve Mcqueen.

In in the previous year, Gasworks selected Filipina-Dutch artist Martha Atienza as one of its residency recipients. Another Filipino artist, Pio Abad, is part of the studio as well. For Lumbao’s residency at Gasworks, he aimed to “explore how text can find its own language within the culture of the moving image, focusing on end credits as a key but often overlooked cinematic trope.”

Cocoy Lumbao Spring Open Studios 2017, Gasworks. Residency supported by Mercedes Zobel in partnership with Outset. Photo courtesy of COCOY LUMBAO/GASWORKS

CNN Philippines Life spoke with Lumbao about his residency experience and the resulting projects with Gasworks in London; Lost Frames, a small film screening he has been continuously arranging; and his own experiences with the moving image over email. Below are edited excerpts of the interview.

What about video art made you decide to pursue it over more accessible or “safer” forms of film and audiovisual media?

You mentioned “safer,” in reference to, I guess, more popular uses for the moving image, like entertainment or broadcast. But for me, [they’re] only safer in the sense of acceptability. But in reality, I just want to make clear, that these are the more dangerous forms, forms that beg for more responsibility from their producers because of the power to influence and to mold a bigger audience.

So it’s not really a question of why not take the “safer” route because it would seem that I took the role of a daredevil, which I did not. It’s a question of the readiness to take this route which I think until now I am still preparing myself for. So who knows, once I find that I am willing to be held responsible I might still take on these forms.

Can you talk a bit about video art, video art as you can see it situated in the Philippines, and perhaps, your own understanding of the medium's capacity as an art form?

The problem comes from how we were slowly programmed to associate this form (or medium) with the kind of images we have been getting from popular media, cinema, and broadcast television, specifically. The form has nurtured a kind of expectation within us, and that is where the intimidation sets in.

If it does not quite fit the kind of stimulation we are used to getting from watching movies, the news, or soap opera, then it suddenly becomes alien, even with the fact that the image presented is actually less convoluted than movies, the news, or soap opera.

Cocoy Lumbao Video Still, Untitled (From the series, 'You Too, Can Be Empire') 2017 by Cocoy Lumbao. Photo courtesy of GASWORKS

It can be simply a footage of a sea, an image which is very familiar and diplomatic, yet the general art public might still turn their heads away from it not because they are intimidated by it, but because they were conditioned to demand more from it.   

In the Philippines, video art is no longer in the shadows, and all the major exhibitions and especially the art fair[s] can be proof that works in video have taken center stage recently. But of course, it is still not the dominant medium by any means, but I don’t really see it wanting to be one. And I guess it’s safe to say that it appeals less to the public because of its reproducible and ubiquitous nature.

What I do know from these characteristics is that it’s the most democratic medium out there, with Filipinos spending more time streaming footage online as well as more Filipinos having cameras in their pockets (via smartphones) rather than dealing with paintbrushes and canvases in their spare time. I see the format as the one with the most potential to empower the public. The only question is what do they want from it.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Gasworks residency?

First of all, being part of the Gasworks residency was a great privilege, which I felt I owe to other Filipino artists and peers I admire and whom I knew are equally deserving. I went there with a sense of duty to learn as much as I can with hopes of being able to share it back home. The great thing about the residency is that it is research-based, has a very liberal program, and can be tailor-fit to whatever the artist felt necessary during their stay. Which makes perfect sense because artists have different needs at different stages in their careers. It could be about the need for ample time to produce works, to network with other entities, or even to recuperate from art’s hubbub.

Cocoy Lumbao For Cocoy Lumbao, the show Lost Frames London was aimed as a sampler of video art being made in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of COCOY LUMBAO

What was your project about? What was the experience like for you?

In my case, I divided my time between generating ideas for works inside the studio and going out to absorb anything I can about the city and its people. I saw it as a great opportunity, since I am in one of Europe’s most iconic cities, to test my own occidental gaze — or maybe more accurately as it turned out: an inherent naiveté when dealing with an unfamiliar place. Or even more accurately, a Filipino dealing with the West. And since basically I am a videographer, it meant that I have to deal with the conditions and the imagery of my surroundings.

I felt, during my stay, that it was a crucial aspect of art residencies: to really let the place and the living conditions dictate a certain portion of your process, to allow several dynamics to interfere because of the environment at hand, whether they’d be about culture, race, gender, or even weather conditions (which is where I really struggled). Otherwise there would be no difference to working in your own studio back home.

As a result, I came up with three sets of projects during my stay which I tied into one unifying theme: one from an existing idea which I developed during my stay; the other one which was borne out of my being there, and the third one — which I think is most important — the project I failed to make.

It is important because it is a good indication that I might have learned something after all, through the shattering and dismantling of pre-existing notions I had before doing the residency.

Cocoy Lumbao Lost Frames screening at the Art Fair Philippines 2017. Photo courtesy of COCOY LUMBAO

You put together a culminating group show, Lost Frames. How has the reception of it? Will it be restaged here in the Philippines or was it an offshoot of the Lost Frames screening previously held at Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila?

Lost Frames London, was really an offshoot from the several screenings that were held in Metro Manila. The line-up was a compilation of different artists whose works we have shown from previous screenings. I’d like to think that it was more of a “sampler” for a London audience. So, I tried to make it as diverse as I can in terms of including works. Otherwise, in our own screenings here in Manila, we don’t really curate pieces and just invite anyone who’s interested in showing their works or works-in-progress.

Which brings me to what I really wanted to present during the screening in London: which is this idea of Lost Frames being built more around a community of artists wanting a platform to show works of moving images that may not find their way to more popular screening festivals or galleries. Which is also given justification through the screening’s reception, I’m proud to say.

A number of people thanked me after the screening, letting me know that if not for these kinds of initiatives, they, too, wouldn’t know where to see Filipino artists’ moving image. So I am glad that some of them were glad enough to finally see contemporary Filipino works. Also, partly sad, because it confirms the prevailing Eurocentrism in the arts.

I hope with these kinds of projects, especially in this format, talking about video which is relatively easier to stage through screenings, we can show what’s a little bit off-center. That’s why our group is pushing for more opportunities elsewhere. And hopefully this is a start.

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Cocoy Lumbao’s Gasworks residency is supported by Mercedes Zobel in partnership with Outset and he is hosted in the Outset Residency Studio. He has a forthcoming show later this year at Vinyl on Vinyl, Makati.