The Art of Pop Video exhibition at FACT claims to explore the transformative power of the pop video on popular culture.
Indeed, popular culture is often stigmatised as being the bastard child of ‘high’ culture spurned by the upper classes arrogance but championed by those who seek to defy the contemporary agents of cultural hegemony. It is here were the exhibition examines the music video as a genre unto itself uniting across platforms, through various artistic forms to explore pop’s history, culture and technological development.
The Fact’s glass exterior towers above Wood Street somewhere between a grungy heavy metal pub and some pseudo-authentic tapas place. Once inside the grey expressionless sky outside made way for the familiar well-lit warmth of the main foyer were a friendly member of staff was on hand to point me towards the entrance to the exhibition and thrust a program into my hand. As I heaved open the heavy wooden door and started my descent down the dimly corridor I couldn’t help but feel a sense of unease. Somewhere below the faint murmur of a song I couldn’t make out surrounded me as I turned the corner into the first gallery, which resembled some sort of Kubrick-esque treatment facility lit only by the glow of several flat screen TV’s hung along the walls, each awaiting their next victim for a round of aversion therapy.
Taking a moment to scan the room before me, I noticed below each TV hung a lonely pair of headphones. Unhindered I began to watch each video in no particular order. Pop videos history begins with a simplicity that is solely about the performer from Duke Ellington to Fred Astaire, the medium apparently seeks only to showcase talent itself removed of any overt subversive nature. But digital and communication technology has developed a lot since then and indeed became more affordable. Combine this with the sociocultural changes post-World War Two the medium opened the door for amateurs and professionals alike to explore their creativity. With that in mind I jumped into The Beatles-Strawberry Fields Forever, a psychedelic version of the 60’s juxtaposed with The Kinks-Dead End Street and Bob Dylan’s-Subterranean Homesick Blues, who between them use their lyrics to offer a more than bleak portrait of social life hidden behind an aesthetic nostalgia for a decade that is often considered the birth of pop music and culture
The ‘amateur’ approach to pop video I was happy to find was exemplified by Fatboy Slim’s-Praise You, which was released at the very start of a You tube culture. The video’s aesthetic assumes a sense of originality detached from big budget productions made by the major record labels which as an approach opened the door to exposure and ushered in the beginning of online exchange. As I moved into the ‘dance’ section I headed for another personal favourite, Fatboy Slim-Weapon of Choice. Christopher Walken’s iconic performance shows how technology can be used to expel the limitations of movement and skill. Whereas Michael Jackson’s ability to build a narrative through dance alone is inclusive of most of his video’s with Beat It being a fine example.
By the time I reached the ‘wilderness downtown’ and ‘politics’ sections of the exhibition I found myself being mildly irritated by the layout of the second gallery and the clumsy laid out sections. Despite this I persevered through Frankie Goes to Hollywood-When Two Sides got War, Arcade Fire-The Suburbs, Pink Floyd-Another Brick in the Wall plus a few others. The overarching aim to investigate how our differing suburban and urban landscapes are instrumental in shaping our social and cultural values is successful in its attempt, thus providing a soundtrack capable of analysing contemporary civic life. But personally I draw the line at the ability of Lady Gaga’s-Telephone or George Micheals-Shoot the Dog as platforms to initiate political discourse as neither are hardly beacons of social and moral responsibility.
With over 100 videos on display there is no room in this review to mention them all, but what is clear from the exhibition if you wasn’t aware already is that pop video and indeed pop culture has developed into a genre that is more than just about the music, it has developed its own audio and visual vocabulary that need not be discussed in comparison to the boundaries of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. While video never quite killed the radio star(apologies) its continued success lies in its capacity to evolve in response to technological, cultural and social change. Its ability to parody and reproduce itself only highlights each generations struggle for originality. With that in mind as I re-entered the bright lights of the main foyer I notice a life-size reworking of The Beatles, St Pepper album cover with several heads cut out enticing a photo opportunity. I headed for the exit clinging in vain to what little originality I believe I have left. If nothing else, whatever your music taste, the opportunity to reminisce over a century’s work of popular music should not be missed.