In high school, music videos were more valuable to me than the mix tape. Finding and sharing a music video was an event, more prestigious and meaningful than even the most thoughtful mix tape (or more commonly by that stage, the MP3 CD-R). Though we were in the early age of the internet, there was no YouTube, no Vimeo, and no streaming services, so finding that exact music video meant trawling through hundreds of false leads on AltaVista or Limewire, only to spend hours downloading the multi-megabyte files over a 56k modem, tying up the phone line and irritating family members. To show a friend a music video represented the culmination of hours of online foraging. It meant something.
Historically, the music video has had a unique relationship with the everyday lives of Australians. Music videos took off locally before almost anywhere else in the world—before the USA had MTV in 1981, we had Molly Meldrum and Countdown from 1974. Waking up on Sunday morning and crawling to the couch to watch Countdown—and later, Rage and Video Hits—became a ritual. While the Australian cinema has struggled on and off to provide iconic national imagery, the Australian video clip has had no such difficulty, with everything from AC/DC’s journey down Swanston Street to Goyte’s painted face embedded in the national memory.
So Spectacle: The Music Video Exhibition, currently running at Melbourne’s ACMI, makes a lot of sense. Music videos mean something to Australians. But in the age of YouTube, how do you curate and display the music video to be more than it can be at home? The music video is no longer a rarity. No-one has to set their VCR for 2.37am to record just the right moment of Rage; no-one has to tie up the family landline for hours downloading a 40MB mpeg file. We live in an era of surplus when it comes to the moving image, and every music video you could conceivably want to watch is only a few clicks away. In fact, pretty much every music video at ACMI’s exhibition is also easily available online.
The answer is partly in curation, and partly—as the exhibition’s title would suggest—in spectacle. In an era of music video overabundance, our everyday experience of the music video is mundane. Spectacle recontextualises the music video, but it also removes it from the everyday and makes it extraordinary again. These music videos, the exhibition says, are the cream of the crop. They’re not routine, and they’re not banal. In this gallery, they are spectacular.
In fact, it’s the contemporary music videos—those that have always been ubiquitous, those that never saw the eras of Countdown, MTV, or Rage—rather than the classics that stand out most clearly. Made for the YouTube era, these clips gain a new lucidity when shown in a gallery context. In the ‘Epic’ section of the gallery, Kanye West’s 35-minute ‘Runaway’ short film is hypnotic on the floor-to-ceiling screen, while Björk’s stereoscopic 3D ‘Wanderlust’ clip, complete with 3D glasses, feels like it shouldn’t be shown any other way. West’s short ‘moving painting’ for POWER is perhaps the boldest achievement of the exhibition, displayed in a golden picture frame and looking to all the world like it should be at the NGV, surrounded by Rembrandts and Rubens instead of the Chemical Brothers and Radiohead.
Along with the music videos themselves, the other usual strategies of exhibitions like these are enacted—there’s a brief historical overview, and a reliance on props and ephemera, of which some work better than others. The knitted objects from Michel Gondry’s video for Steriogram’s ‘Walkie Talkie Man’ are charming, and the paint-splattered suits from OK Go’s ‘This Too Shall Pass’ (a group that’s always felt more like a YouTube marketing sensation than a band) attracts a lot of attention. Interactive sections are less successful—Arcade Fire’s ‘Neon Bible’ feels out of place in an exhibition, with its limited interactivity more suited to a private computer than a metre-tall public screen—and some music videos are glaring in their legally-enforced absence (Michael Jackson’s estate denied the exhibition access to even a single clip).
But it is the recontextualisation of the music video that is Spectacle’s greatest success. In an era where even the most ardent music video enthusiast now deals more in the database than the collection, an exhibition like Spectacle is able to snatch the music video out of ubiquity, and to make it valuable again. For Spectacle, the music video once again steps outside of everyday life.
Spectacle: The Music Video Exhibition runs at ACMI until February 23rd, 2014.
Dan Golding is a Killings columnist, freelance writer and academic interested in videogames, film, music, and most other cultural forms. Follow him on Twitter @dangolding