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New ethics of new media

Peter Kirkwood |  02 July 2009

New media throws up new ethical dilemmas. The video featured on this page presents an artwork in a way its creator did not intend. It's a substandard, pirated copy of his creation posted on YouTube. But for most of us, it's the only means of seeing some of the most celebrated work of one of Australia's leading emerging artists.

Now in his mid-30s, video artist Shaun Gladwell has exhibited extensively in Australia and overseas. He shot to prominence in 2007 when this video, 'Storm Sequence 2000', sold at a Sotheby's auction in Melbourne for $84,000. It portrays the artist skateboarding in slow motion in front of a stormy ocean backdrop at Bondi Beach.(Continues below)

Gladwell is the main artist featured at the Australian Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale, which opened at the beginning of June. His work on show there, called 'Maddest Maximus', is a series of videos inspired by the Mad Max films.

Shot in the desert and on the long straight highways around Broken Hill, they feature haunting images such as a motorcyclist clad in black leather cradling a roadkill kangaroo, and a figure car-surfing in front of a brooding stormy sky. Still images from the videos can be seen on the official Australian Pavilion website.

So why isn't the work of prominent video artists such as Gladwell, Bill Viola and Nam June Paik, freely available on the internet? There are two reasons.

Firstly, the artists have stringent technical requirements for showing their works — darkened sound-proof spaces, large screen projection or monitors, and high quality sound. So galleries are the only public spaces where they can be optimally exhibted.

Secondly, there are financial considerations. Usually works are only available for sale in very limited editions.

As an emerging art form it's struggling to find its place alongside other forms. As art critic for The Australian, Christopher Allen recently observed, video art is 'something of an ugly duckling in the world of filmmaking', and hasn't quite made it yet in the realm of the 'swans' of visual arts.

Sydney Morning Herald critic, John McDonald, is not a fan of Gladwell; I suspect he's not enamoured of video art in general. In his review of the show at the Venice Biennale, he said: 'I've always been strangely immune to the enthusiasm that has grown up around Gladwell's videos but I'd hoped this display would be more persuasive.'

But I am a fan, and in this visual age where so much is communicated via moving images — by TV, film and video — I want to spread the word about these new artists.

To put a theological spin on their work, good art, like good religion, provides a different lens to view mundane reality. Gladwell's 'Storm Sequence' transforms that scene, making it more than just a guy skateboarding, infusing it with a hint of the transcendent, a rumour of angels, a glimpse of sacred time and space.

Getting back to the ethical dilemma, you'll have to decide whether you proceed to view the video. I think it's okay provided you realise it's the equivalent of a bad reproduction of a painting in a second rate art book.

And next time you're in a public gallery, or you see an exhibition advertised, search out the video art, and appreciate the works in the conditions the artist intended.


Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

 



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