On John Smith…

Posted by | George William Price | Posted on | October 15, 2014

It seems apt this week that Chicago is experiencing such a torrent of rather British-like weather, as we prepare to welcome the legendary John Smith to Conversations at the Edge (CATE). This week is a very special event due to the fact Smith was the first artist to present at CATE in 2001. We are delighted to welcome him back to the Gene Siskel Film Center and Chicago. I would like to take this opportunity to thank one of our cosponsors Video Data Bank (VDB) for their continued support in bringing world class moving-image practitioners to Chicago. VDB has distributed much of Smith’s work for many years and I’m delighted to publish the following essay written by Lindsay Bosch, VDB’s Development & Marketing Manager (and avid John Smith fan.)

Still from Dad's Stick (John Smith, 2012). Courtesy of the artist.

Still from Dad’s Stick (John Smith, 2012). Courtesy of the artist.

I sometimes have the privilege of talking to classes and student groups about the history of the Video Data Bank.  The compilation I regularly show includes John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum.  The work shows up in the lecture somewhere between the invention of the Portapak and the rise of installation art. I can always rest assured that no matter who has dozed off or is checking their phone, I will get a laugh and reel the group back in with this classic work.  A few years ago, I showed  The Girl Chewing Gum, along with John Smith’s Slow Glass and Associations to my parents at Christmas.  They had asked me to give them a better explanation of “What it is I do.” which leads inevitably to the question: “What is video art?”  (They loved the works, and have since stopped telling people that I am a librarian.)

Why do we turn to Smith in these introductory situations? I’m continually drawn to Smith’s film and video work because it offers a certain core accessibility.  Smith’s pieces are a video art gateway drug—translating the world of artists’ moving image to the uninitiated.  One need not be among an art school in-crowd to “get it,” to feel like Smith’s work is addressing you.  Smith’s videos posit the existence of the massive audience that I want for video art; an audience encompassing young students, fans of popular cinema, my parents (and yours too!). Much of Smith’s work offers a certain viewing pleasure, dare I say it, even entertainment—that is often deliberately withheld in video art. This is not to say Smith’s work is ever simplistic.  Instead, he savvily speaks of complexity in readily available languages: those of humor, of quick Brit wit, of direct and personal voice-over, and recognizable cinematic tropes.

As a viewer I’m also drawn to Smith’s use of his immediate surroundings to point fully outward.  The artist’s meditations on the objects (unusual Red cardigan, Dad’s Stick), or places around him (Flag Mountain, Worst Case Scenario, Hotel Diaries) fascinatingly connect the mundane and personal with their more universal and politicized reverberations. “Nothing in any of my films is researched; I come across things,” Smith modestly told Sight and Sound in 2010.  Smith’s close consideration of those elements he “comes across” allows us, as his audience, to do the same.  We read Smith’s images thoughtfully, accepting small and specific observations as a bridge through which to engage the wider world.  Throughout the Hotel Diaries series, Smith relates the microcosm of his lodgings to the ongoing strife in the Middle East.  In these and other works, Smith achieves a unique position, balancing between the opposing artistic poles of personal diary (it’s all about me) and impartial documentary (it’s all about the subject). I find this is a relatably human and truthful point-of-view.  As subjects, we are neither standing fully outside the larger movements of history and politics, nor are we at their epicenter. We are always poised somewhere in-between, attending to both our own small world and the world at large. I’m so grateful that John Smith has allowed us to stand, sure-footed, in this place and to “come across things” with him; and I’m thrilled that he is joining us for Conversations at the Edge.

Founded at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1976 at the inception of the media arts movement, the Video Data Bank (VDB) is a leading resource in the United States for video by and about contemporary artists. The VDB Collection includes the work of more than 550 artists and 5,500 video art titles, 2,500+ in active distribution.

The VDB makes its Collection available to museums, galleries, educational institutions, libraries, cultural institutions and other exhibitors through a national and international distribution service. VDB works to foster a deeper understanding of video art, and to broaden access and exposure to media art histories, through its programs and activities. These include preservation of historically important works of video art, the perpetuation of analog and digital archives, publishing of curated programs and artists’ monographs, the commissioning of essays and texts that contextualize artists’ work, and an extensive range of public programs.

Operating under SAIC’s not-for-profit status, the VDB is supported in part by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Art Works.

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