Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 2#4 1 Jan 1988

Travelling Light

Are music videos art?

Steve Bode has his doubts but still reviews two recent compilations; Talking Heads and Depeche Mode. Okay, just this one time then.

For an ostensibly lightweight and trivial form, the pop promo(clip )
has, in the course of its short life , accumulated an awful lot of intellectual baggage. In this latter half of the 1980s, music journalists and media theorists alike ha ve vied to chart its history and its cultural effect; to fix its free-slide of fast-moving images along some sort of critical axis. Quite often a set of critical co-ordinates has been supplied by the terms of post-modern thinking; with both the pop video's practice of plundering and assimilating avant-garde and popular aesthetics, and its place in a seemingly closed and
directionless loop of tele visual images, celebrated keynotes of postmodernist


Broken narrative, bricolage, motley ensemble, call it what you will: the pop video's closest and clearest approximation is often that of the travelogue. More sharply, perhaps, than an y other phenomenon, the pop video sets up the notion of Stylist-as- Tourist - snapping and appropriating images at the surface , taking and touting some small sense of their meaning, yet never stopping long enough (never really interested) to ponder their depth. Whether moving - synchronically across a pro fusion of contemporary styles or - diachronically through a back-catalogue of art-historical moments and nostalgic modes, the pop promo has given itself free range: crossing borders between high art and low; blurring distinctions between previously demarcated areas into a universal homogeneous whole. Watching pop videos also best suits a wandering eye. We look at them a lot of the time like we would out of a window of a car or a train : distracted yet oddly engaged; left with a blur of impressions seen in passing , at speed ; each moment's significance erasing and rep lacing the last.
In this respect, it' s interesting to look at two new music video compilations that both take the idea of a travelogue as a guiding theme. The one - Strange by British electro band, DEPECHE MODE, and directed by well-known Dutch photographer, ANTON CORBIJ - an obvious pastiche of the filmic Road -movie genre. The other Storytelling Giant by TALKING HEADS, directed in the main by band member , DAVID BYRNE - a more innovative mix of music and visuals that takes a similar tack to BYRNE's highly original and influential film debut, True Stories.

Existential Patina

Strange is a 30 minute video; shot, apart from one brief moment, in black an d white and almost wholly on SUPER 8. Video effects are generally eschewed, with the exception of some slow-mo and subtle dissolves. A meandering narrative weaves in and out of a series of atmospheric setpieces reminiscent of CORBIJ 's photographic shoots. Much of this narrative, like so many pop videos, is, unfortunately, either wilfully obscure or completely half-baked; just what you' d expect from an itinerant photographer lending his style and his gloss to the impressionistic jottings of a band on the road - a studied wallow in alienation; a cheap Verfremdungseffekt.There are nods to the road films of WENDERS, to FRITZ LANG, to film noir, but what’s more interesting is the use of black-and-white's seriousness and SUPERs's grain to signify authenticity , a kind of existential patina built up out of accumulated memories of European art-house films. Although the look is one of depth, of abstraction from the mainstream, what we see is, at best, just a more selective kind of pastiching than that undertaken by more commercial promos and clips. At worst, it comes across like an advert, directed by INGMAR BERGMAN , for either RAY-BANS or black 501s.

The American Way

Less art-house but more artful, the TALKING HEADS' compilation is colourfully, even garishly resplendent in pop video's usual POLAROID glare . Like DAVID BYRNE's earlier True Stories, Storytelling Giant features him travelling like a latterday GULLIVER in and amongst the little people of the American mid-west, recording their oddball anecdotes and interspersing them with clips of TALKING HEADS' songs - often themselves with a small-town theme. These videos mark out BYR E as one of the most consistently interesting exponents of the genre: humourous, adventurous, eclectic; capable of creating a play of disconcerting effects out of either low or expensive budgets. Individual tapes like And She Was and Wild, W'ild Life are like their oddball anecdotes and interspersing them with clips of TALKING HEADS' songs - often themselves with a small-town theme. These videos mark out BYR E as one of the most consistently miniature tableaux of contemporary Americana, full of wry observations and droll indictments of the American Way. A video like Love For Sale, on this and on True Stories, makes the long-standing and rather dull question of whether the pop video is media art or merely more advertising almost completely redundant. Much of the video is made up of a montage of off-air advertising images - turned back against themselves as adroitly as you'd expect to see in more obvious video art like ILENE SEGALOVE's Television Stories or LISA STEELE and KIM TOMSCZAK's Working the Double Shift (The band are seen self-consciously packaging themselves (covering themselves in chocolate and coloured wrappers), providing their own deft comment on the commodifying process in which they're involved. ) Popular, contemporary and skilfully incisive, it's an instance that abolishes needless distinctions between music video and video art and only makes you wish for more things like it.
The compilation ends on the award-winning high note of Road to Nowhere - which again weaves a number of conspicious video-art devices into its whistlestop survey of the consumerist facets of the small-town American Dream. The tape cleverly draws its own conclusions, but never with crass conclusiveness that's able to be exhausted in any stock intellectual reading. In its open-endedness it manages to stay trenchant yet ambiguous and subtle; holding out more, rather than less, than meets the eye. As the saying goes, and as pop videos tend to bear out, it's still better to travel hopefully than to arrive .