ART BREAKS 2012: MTV, MOMA PS1 AND CREATIVE TIME IN CONVERSATION

TEXT Matthew Kim-Cook
EDITED by Andrew Persoff

 

A rapping blingburger with deity arms. A dude who seems to want to tell us he works out, hopping through rectangles. A woman patting her regal white afro — is she proud, or hiding under it? If you’ve lingered long enough on MTV or any of its sister channels since March, there’s a good chance you’ve been treated to any one of these puzzling but inherently re-watchable, totally air-dropped nuggets of media. They come courtesy of Art Breaks, a collaboration between the network and contemporary art heavyweights MoMA PS1 and Creative Time, as one might learn by visiting the link that flashes briefly at the end of each video — the only thing any of them have in common.

Watching television, especially the vein of which we know as MTV, has always imparted dizzying aesthetic markers on the unsuspecting mind, punctuated occasionally by especially dynamic imagery. With the revival of their paean to the meme before it existed, MTV’s Art Breaks again suggests the random and brief as complement to its own miscellany. What started as a natural extension of MTV’s inclusive reach towards the extremities of television programming in the 1980s, featuring seconds-long blips and bloops from artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, now sounds, as many blogs have opined, foreign in its revival: sneezes of video art between the alternately crass and sardonic programming now synonymous with the channel. (And did we mention the rapping blingburger?)

Well, only kind of. Emerging somewhere between the post-post-modern delirium threatening to define this decade and its fission by-product of cultural miscellany, MTV’s 2012 update of Art Breaks offers to bridge these divides in our aesthetic discourse, challenging notions of category, format, and concept under a premise that before all else, culture is at least shared. “We wanted to choose artists who grew up with MTV,” explain MoMA PS1 and Creative Time, while MTV asserts itself as “a network that doesn’t grow up, or old, with its audience.” What may ring of conceptual conflict instead makes for necessary dissonance, as these artists’ MTV wasn’t necessarily ours or yours — certain videos seem to grapple with the gap, others ignore it completely. Zoom out to appreciate a larger interplay of art world and popular culture sensitivities, and what you have is distinctly unreplicable, if easily missed — update your DVR recently? (It’s okay, there’s also an official Tumblr.)

So as referential reinvention for a network that rarely looks back, it’s no mistake these whimsical and unnerving twenty-three seconds often defy their context, whether bordered by the last fifteen minutes of 16 and Pregnant or a Snickers commercial — because when art breaks, it’s never right down the middle.

DIRTY plays center field in a three-way discourse between MTV, MoMA PS1 and Creative Time on culture, perception, boundaries, and Art Breaks. (And there’s even time for Katy Perry!) Joining the conversation are MTV President Stephen Friedman with MoMA PS1’s Christopher Y. Lew, Assistant Curator, and Creative Time’s Meredith Johnson, Curator and Director of Consulting.

 

DIRTY: WHAT IS ART BREAKS?

MTV: MTV started as an experiment of creative expression 30 years ago, and since then we’ve used the power of television to shine a light on a diverse range of visionary artists who have shaped our cultural landscape – including everyone from Lady Gaga to Andy Warhol. Continuing that legacy, Art Breaks is a series of ten original video art pieces by some of the most exciting emerging artists working around the world today. The videos were commissioned and curated by Creative Time and MoMA PS1. They air on MTV globally, and are available on-demand on MTV.com, MTV’s Facebook page and a dedicated Tumblr page, bringing experimental artwork directly to MTV’s global audience of more than 600 million. The first five artists were revealed in March, and the next five artist’s videos will debut later this year.

 

 

D: WHAT ABOUT CULTURE TODAY MADE YOU FEEL THE TIME WAS RIGHT FOR THE REVIVAL OF ART BREAKS?

MTV: We’re continuously seeking out new, pioneering ways to connect with our audience.  When we talk to young people about what defines their generation, the overwhelming response is creativity, followed closely by self-expression. Given MTV’s rich legacy of working with vanguard artists, and the audience’s passion for different types of artistry, we felt like this was the perfect time to revive Art Breaks.

 

D: WHAT IS THE MAIN DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE AUDIENCE OF MTV AND MOMA, AND HOW DOES ART BREAKS FIGURE THIS DIVIDE?

MoMA PS1: Actually, there are many overlaps between the MTV and MoMA PS1 audiences. MoMA PS1 has always been place to present a range of experimental, contemporary practices ranging from contemporary art to music and performance. Our long-running Warm Up music series features bands, musicians and DJs over ten Saturdays each summer, all set in our outdoor courtyard amidst a special installation created by that year’s winner of the Young Architects Program (YAP). Visitors come to MoMA PS1 to experience new and challenging art — the same type of cutting edge work that is presented in Art Breaks on MTV.

 

 

D: DO YOU THINK THE PUBLIC CONSIDERS MTV TO BE A VENUE OF CONTEMPORARY ART?

CREATIVE TIME: People understand MTV is a venue for contemporary culture. The fact that MTV is commissioning and screening new works of art means that they consider visual art as integral to that role. Projects like Art Breaks begin to break down the often-perceived barriers that contemporary art is only something you experience in a sacred white cube. Instead, it is has the power to cross into each territory in which we live and experience ideas on a daily basis.

 

D: MOST OF THE ARTISTS CHOSEN IN THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF THE NEW ART BREAKS ARE IN THEIR THIRTIES. DID YOU SPECIFICALLY CHOOSE ARTISTS AT CERTAIN POINTS IN THEIR CAREERS? WHAT WAS THE CRITERIA FOR INCLUSION?

CT, PS1: We wanted to include artists who grew up with MTV. A generation (or generations) whose understanding of images and media would have been shaped in part by music, videos, and the kind of visual language that MTV perfected in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Although the artists are from around the world, and have a wide-ranging approach to video, they each came of age at a time when MTV was firmly anchored in visual culture and contemporary politics.

 

D: CREATIVE TIME LISTS ART BREAKS AS AN ONLINE PROGRAM, AND ITS ONLINE PRESENCE IS CERTAINLY GROWING. DO YOU SEE ART BREAKS’ ON-AIR INCARNATION AS PRIMARY OR COLLATERAL TO ITS PURPOSE AND EXPERIENCE?

CT, PS1: The on-air and the online versions of the program are two uniquely different ways to encounter these works — one isn’t necessarily privileged over the other. There is a wonderful moment of interruption or surprise when catching one of the Art Breaks in between programs on MTV’s channels. In making the works, the artists definitely had this context in mind. However, by having them available online, a huge audience who might not have caught one in the on-air context are now able to experience the program. It also allows those who have seen them on-air to learn more about the artists and engage further with the videos.

For some, the online version may be their only experience with Art Breaks, which is fine. This is not a collateral experience, but a new one of discovery as well. For this generation, watching on-demand video is part of a regular practice — from Hulu to YouTube, and in this case Tumblr as well. In many ways, Art Breaks utilizes the multiple platforms of TV viewing and is in line with how visual information is absorbed by this particular audience.

 

 

D: IT’S BEEN TOSSED AROUND ON BLOGS THAT PART OF ART BREAKS FORMER’S CHARM WAS ITS UNEXPECTED, “RANDOM” QUALITY. DO YOU THINK THE EXPERIENCE IS DIFFERENT IF THE CONTENT IS ALSO AVAILABLE ON DEMAND?

CT, PS1: It is absolutely different, but no less engaging. Catching the works at a moment of surprise during a commercial break is one of the fantastic things about this program. However, being able to also have the works available to view at a discrete moment allows for an entirely different and personal experience that wasn’t possible in the ‘80s. It is pretty amazing that the artworks of these talented artists can be accessed at any moment of the day, and that is how this audience of viewers experiences media in 2012. To not have an online presence would have in many ways been denying the current context of MTV and video. That said, this Art Breaks, like the Art Breaks before it, responds to how people interact with the channel as it is now.

MTV: Young people consume media differently today, so it’s critical that we reach them on every platform. By making the content available online, we’re breaking down boundaries and allowing viewers to watch the pieces multiple times, giving them room to form new opinions, expose themselves to other Art Breaks, to learn more about the artists, and to start a conversation or share with friends. At the end of the day, we want to expose these artists and their work to as large an audience as possible and making it available on demand helps us do that.

 

D: WHAT, THEN, DO THESE MULTIDIMENSIONAL CHANGES IN HOW WE EXPERIENCE MEDIA SIGNIFY FOR THE MUSEUM SPACE PLATFORM?

CT: Museums still very much act as monuments to culture. However, as visual culture changes so do the methods in which institutions reach out to their audiences. Museums are made up of the voices of artists and curators who live and work in the larger context of contemporary culture. No longer is the institution just a place to install an artwork and reflect on its meaning. It is growing more participatory, meeting the viewer at multiple levels — from performance and video, to lectures and publications, to “after hours” cross-disciplinary events. In many cases, museums are also extending their reach outside of their walls and presenting work in public space independently or through collaborations with other organizations. For museums to remain relevant to culture and true to the way in which artists today are working, they must adapt to contemporary practice.

 

D: A POINT, PERHAPS EVEN ONE OF CONTENTION, BROUGHT TO SURFACE BY ART BREAKS IS THAT OF FORMATTING, AND WHETHER IT IS ULTIMATELY LIMITING. HOW DO YOU EXPECT THESE VIDEOS TO FARE ON THE FRONTLINES, BETWEEN COMMERCIAL MISCELLANY? COULD IT BE SAID INDIFFERENCE AMONGST SOME VIEWERS IS WITHIN CONCEPT?

CT: The conditions of the program were known from the beginning by each artist, and the advantage of commissioning a new piece vs. screening an existing work meant that these conditions are entwined in the conceptual framework of each piece. Twenty-three seconds is incredibly quick in the context of artist video, but for the many this short moment meant a focused clarity in the image or narrative. I wouldn’t say that indifference of the audience is assumed by anyone, but all of the artists considered that moment of pause that Art Breaks has on one’s experience with the channel. All of the works are very aware of that shift in context, whether approaching it as a visual respite or disruption, providing an alternative to your otherwise assumed experience.

 

D: MTV IS NO STRANGER TO CONTROVERSY, THOUGH ITS INFLUENCE IS UNQUESTIONABLE. GIVEN YOUR REACH, DO YOU FEEL AS THOUGH YOU HAVE CERTAIN CULTURAL RESPONSIBILITIES?

MTV: MTV has been a mainstay in the cultural conversation for 30 years now, and this means that we’re always pushing the boundaries of creative expression. As a channel, we feel responsibility toward our audience, not only to entertain them but to also engage them on the issues they care about. Part of the network’s DNA though is a commitment to socially responsible issues — our youth voter campaigns have inspired millions of young people to register and vote, we aired one of the first-ever safe sex PSAs in the ‘80s, and our ongoing issue oriented campaigns, such as “A THIN LINE,” help young people deal with the issues that are impacting their lives.

 

D: HOW DOES MTV SURVIVE?

MTV: MTV is a network that doesn’t grow up, or old, with its audience. We’re constantly shedding our skin and evolving with each generation of viewers. To do this, we have daily conversations with young people to understand what’s important to them, and what’s resonating. This process of continual reinvention keeps us young and connected to our audience.

 

 

D: CREATIVE TIME AND MOMA PS1, IF FOR A SECOND YOU’LL IMAGINE TWO PROM-NIGHT GIRLS WATCHING JERSEY SHORE AND SUDDENLY CONFRONTED WITH, SAY, THE JANI RUSCICA PIECE; IS ART BREAKS INTENDED TO ALIENATE?

CT, PS1: On the contrary, I would say that it is intended to draw you in, providing a quiet and thoughtful connection between the subject and viewer. In his piece Screen Test (for a living sculpture), Jani and his collaborator Sini Pelkki bring to focus in their piece this actor in a single, fleeting moment. It is meant to slow down the viewer, to bring into view the person behind the performance, and to utilize the short format of a 23 second video to have a prolonged and singular experience. In many ways, your question brings to light the frenetic nature of television we have all come to understand. Rather than be alienating, a pause in time can be a reprieve  — a quiet respite in the midst of the loud visual landscape by which we generally navigate.

 

D: HOW DOES ART BREAKS DIFFER, IN EFFECT, FROM SOME OF THE (HIGHLY CREATIVE!) SOUND CARDS AND SEQUENCES ALREADY EMPLOYED ACROSS MTV CHANNELS?

CT: The difference is that these are individual artworks that are meant to stand on their own and relate to the viewer in a discrete moment. As you mention, the marketing sequences for MTV are incredibly creative — and in many ways have had an impact on visual culture and artists who grew up watching them. However, they serve a very different branding function than a unique piece of art does. The artists in the program also always remain the authors of their work and owners of the copyright. In this case, MTV is acting as an exhibition space for a group exhibition, delineating Art Breaks from other visual information on the channel.

 

D: THE MUSIC VIDEO WAS REALLY REDISCOVERED ABOUT THREE YEARS AGO, WITH NEW RECORDING ARTISTS AGGRESSIVELY PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES OF THEIR AESTHETIC PRESENTATIONS. WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE TO BE BEHIND THE CURRENT EMPHASIS ON THIS DECADES-OLD FORMAT? IS IT A RESPONSE TO SOMETHING?

MTV: Barriers are lower for music videos now because technology makes it less expensive and the internet and social media provide easy access to fans. As a result, there’s been a music video revival and an explosion in creativity. Also, the relationship between fans and artists has changed. We find that our audience expects their favorite artists to be more transparent now and to share more of themselves.

 

 

D: BRINGING TO MIND THE DEMANDING ROLE OF “AUTHENTICITY” FOR AN ARTIST OR ENTERTAINER, WHY IS IT THAT SINGERS AREN’T NECESSARILY EXPECTED TO HAVE WRITTEN THEIR MUSIC WHILE ARTISTS ARE EXPECTED TO HAVE “WRITTEN” THEIR CONCEPTS?

PS1: It’s not a matter of authenticity so much as it is the difference in modes of production for pop stars and visual artists. While artists do collaborate with their creative peers, the unique vision of the singular artist often still takes priority in shaping the final artwork.

 

D: MANY, MOST VISIBLY MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ, HAVE SUGGESTED AN INFLUX OF PERFORMATIVE AND CONCEPTUAL ART METHODOLOGIES IN POPULAR MUSIC AND CULTURE. WOULD YOU SAY POP MUSIC AND CULTURE HAS ACCORDINGLY INFLUENCED PERFORMATIVE AND CONCEPTUAL ART?

CT, PS1: Absolutely, they both inform each other and have for generations. In looking at MTV specifically, visual artists have been collaborating with musicians since its inception in the ‘80s. From artist-directed videos on MTV, to those in the music community appearing in artists’ work in the gallery, there has always been an exchange between the two. In some examples, one could suggest that they couldn’t exist without the other.

In the past 25 years, there has definitely been a shift in artist film and video in terms of timing, editing, and the layering of images that has been directly influenced by artists growing up with the popular visual language refined by MTV. Artists exist in the world, so of course their work will be heavily defined by their visual experiences we all encounter in our society, this also includes fashion, Hollywood, the music industry in its many forms, as well as the world of print media. Each generation of artists is defined by its larger relationship to the popular culture of the time, and popular culture — from the time of Picasso to Abramović — is contextualized historically by its relationship to the arts.

 

 

D: WHY IS IT THAT MOST CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS DON’T HAVE THE VISIBILITY OF MOST POP STARS, OR EVEN ARTISTS OF PREVIOUS TIMES?

CT: First and foremost, the ways in which contemporary art and pop music are structured as fields and address their audiences are totally different. A pop star is not just a single individual but is often also brand created in part by record companies, agents, publicists, etc. Although the contemporary art world has its commercial side, and in some cases its marketing teams, it is in no way has the publicity infrastructure or money-making power that the music industry does. Audiences also approach visual art in a very different way — museums, galleries, publications — rather than concert halls or record sales. The two worlds are just built on totally different economic and social structures.

In terms of contemporary artists being less visible than their visual art predecessors, I would not say this is true.  In fact, one could say the art world has more visibility now than it ever has even if that is relatively limited compared to other fields like music and filmmaking. Artists lecture widely and have websites, documentaries are regularly produced on their work, and more people pursue graduate degrees in art than ever before. A student in Kansas can see a new work by an artist from Istanbul simply by typing in a URL. Until fairly recently, being able to see art on a regular basis was reserved for those who lived near major museums or could afford to travel to see it. Although visual artists will almost certainly never have the mass visibility of their musical colleagues, they are woven into the systems of popular culture more than ever.

 

 

D: CRITICS AND PARENTS BE DAMNED, EACH DECADE HAS UNVEILED NEW PROOF OF MTV’S DEEP INVOLVEMENT WITH THE CONCERNS OF YOUNG SOCIETY. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MODERN STRUGGLES EXPLORED BY MTV?

MTV: Whether it’s making informed sexual health decisions and helping to put an end to HIV/AIDS or addressing cyberbullying and challenging stigma surrounding mental health — MTV acts as a megaphone for our audience on the issues they care about. This is part of our DNA.  And, to do this, we team up with best-in-class partners who are experts in these fields. Currently, our audience tells us their biggest concerns are jobs and the economy. Forty-five million 18-29 year olds will be eligible to vote in this election, representing the single largest potential voting bloc in the country. Our “Power of 12” campaign is designed to empower young people to register and vote, and to make their voices heard to ensure that the candidates are addressing these concerns.

 

D: MOMA AND CREATIVE TIME HAVE ADDRESSED RELEVANT TOPICS DIRECTLY AFFECTING CONTEMPORARY YOUTH — CREATIVE TIME’S INFAMOUS 1989 “KISSING DOESN’T KILL” AIDS CAMPAIGN TO MOMA’S RECENT “TALK TO ME” EXHIBITION ON INTERACTION TODAY. WHAT ARE THEIR MODERN STRUGGLES?

CT: Where do we start? The current generation watching MTV is coming of age at a time of a global economic crisis. Social revolutions are happening in both grand and discrete ways in the U.S. and across the globe. From the ongoing struggle for civil rights and the freedom for all to marry, an ever-growing class divide, human rights abuses in the name of war and profit, to the dire environmental realities we face due to global warming, this is defining moment in history for all of us. This generation is also actively shaping new ways to participate in the issues of their world through social media, grassroots activism, and alternative economies. As contemporary art organizations whose programming responds to and participates in the political conditions of our time, there has never been a more important moment for artists to have a direct voice in societal discourse and civic action.

 

D: DO YOU THINK KATY PERRY IS SEEN BY THE PUBLIC AS A CONTEMPORARY ARTIST?

CT, PS1: Is she a contemporary artist in the world of recording and pop music? — of course. Is she understood by the public as a contemporary artist in the same context of those artists in Art Breaks or in the visual art community? — no. Although there is plenty of crossover between popular music and visual art, and a program like Art Breaks furthers those crossover opportunities between audiences, they are still very different cultural platforms each with their own industry framework. However, Katy has collaborated with artists like Will Cotton, who art-directed her “California Gurls” video. Like others of her generation, she is clearly interested in how the visual construction of her videos, performances, and personal image relates to the construction and understanding of her body of work as whole.

MTV: Katy Perry is a talented contemporary pop artist who connects with our audience — last year alone she took home three Video Music Awards.

 

 

D: WHY IS IT THAT THE AUDIENCE OF MODERN ART IS MORE APT TO SPEAK ABOUT IT THAN THAT OF POPULAR CULTURE?

CT: You cannot cleanly separate contemporary art from popular culture as they both influence each other and have a direct dialog. However, in many cases art and artists have the freedom to deal with issues and modes of presentation that are a bit riskier than the standard vehicles in which we absorb pop culture. Although contemporary art is in no way separate from a commercial world, in general visual art has the ability to operate outside of industries that rely on profit or mass public appeal and push the discussion of challenging ideas. Some would say it has the responsibility to.

 

D: IS THERE STILL AN AESTHETIC CONVERSATION BETWEEN MUSIC VIDEOS AND CONTEMPORARY ART?

CT, PS1: Certainly. This is most directly apparent in videos where recording artists and visual artists collaborate directly — like Katy Perry and Will Cotton, or artists that have been directors of music videos in the past such as Doug Aitken. You can directly link visual imagery and approaches from their studio work into the identity of these music videos, and in turn in the identity of the song/performer. From the early days of music video would see the conceptual influences and voices of artists like Haring, Basquiat, and Warhol in the imagery, dress, and design of videos. Musicians like David Byrne, Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, Marilyn Manson, and many others also have thriving practices in the visual art world. In these cases, there is no separating the influence of music to contemporary art and vice versa.

There has always been a thread connecting art in public space, in the museum, and in galleries with music videos. When you look at artists who work in video today, even those with no direct relationship to the music industry — after 30 years of music videos there is no denying our visual literacy today is in part defined by the rise of the music video. Artists incorporate quick cut editing, animation, and, in many cases, the kind of short narrative themes that run through a 3-minute music video.

 

D: IS THERE A GREATER EXPERIMENT AT THE HEART OF ART BREAKS?

MTV: Our primary goal with Art Breaks is to spotlight the power of creative expression by exposing our audience to groundbreaking experimental video art that pushes creative boundaries and inspires thought.

 

D: IN WHAT DIRECTION DOES ART BREAKS TAKE MTV, AND IN WHAT DIRECTION DOES IT TAKE CONTEMPORARY ART?

MTV: In 1985, MTV exposed its audience to experimental video art by pioneers like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince, and Keith Haring, to name a few. Today’s Art Breaks continue that legacy — we’re proud to celebrate the brilliance and potency of these videos on our network.

CT, PS1: This incarnation of Art Breaks brings MTV back to its core roots as a place of visual and cultural experimentation, a place where one can tune in and see artists from all walks of life exploring issues, images, and ideas relevant to a generation of young viewers. It also brings contemporary art into the homes of millions of people, most of whom would never encounter these artists’ work otherwise, connecting new audiences to contemporary art practice outside the often isolated context of a museum or gallery. A program like this opens audiences up to new perspectives, challenging them to reexamine the world around them with the freedom only art can provide.

Artists are constantly experimenting with content and form. They do this in museums like MoMA PS1 or in the public sphere via organizations like Creative Time. Through Art Breaks, artists bring this experimentation into broadcast television and its related online channels.

 

 

D: LONG-TIME MTV JOURNALIST KURT LODER, SPEAKING ON THE “FRAGMENTATION OF CULTURE” IN 2008 AND ITS DIVISIVE EFFECTS ON SOCIETY, OPINED THAT, “THINGS WILL BE A LITTLE SPLINTERED UNTIL SOMETHING COMES AROUND THAT IS UNIFYING. WE’RE STILL WAITING FOR THAT DAY…” DO YOU BELIEVE IT HAS SINCE COME?

MTV: There’s no question culture is fragmented. Interestingly, we find our audience embraces fragmentation and cultural diversity and they don’t necessarily feel they need to choose one thing to rally around.

 

 

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