Prototype: A utopian experiment for short films and video art

Critic and curator Lauren Carroll Harris is creating a new space for art on Australian screens.
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Image: Responding to real life Fight Club, Tiyan Baker’s Hard as You Can is one of the Prototype films. Image supplied.

We talk these days about the ‘Australian screen industry’, not just because it’s a handy phrase to encompass film, TV and all the other kinds of screens, but because the logic of industry is so dominant that it seems quaintly utopian to speak too seriously of ‘screen culture’ or even to speak of cinema as an art form. But critic and curator Lauren Carroll Harris is unapologetically utopian, insisting that if there isn’t a space for art in the Australian screen landscape, then we need to create it and nurture the audiences who watch it.

‘There’s no women’s film fund, no experimental film fund anymore, and I see this as a huge problem for this country’s film culture,’ she told Screenhub on the phone. ‘That space between art and cinema isn’t being addressed, even though everyone’s talking about how we need to make more bite-sized work like web series. I want to push the idea that you can still contribute to cinematic language by embracing experimental art cinema in short films and video art, but you can take it directly to where screen culture lives now, which is people’s phones and laptops.’

A three-month experiment in email distribution

Earlier this month Carroll Harris launched Prototype, a three-month experimental project delivering a weekly infusion of video art ‘direct to your inbox, with love’ as the website sweetly promises. Each Tuesday morning at 8am (or sometimes on Mondays!) email subscribers – around a thousand of them so far – receive a new short piece by one of 12 Australian creators. These films, most of them between two and five minutes in length, are embedded in some short but poetic curator’s notes that Carroll Harris writes herself, a process that she’s greatly enjoyed and sees as ‘trying to create a new language for critical writing that is accessible for a broad audience and makes the art work pop.’

She always imagined her audience watching the films on their morning commute to work, ‘with someone looking over their shoulder’, and ‘if they loved it, forwarding it on to a friend.’ The artists she commissioned were instructed to keep this in mind, and create works to be viewed accordingly. Subscription is free, and once the videos have been included in an email campaign, they live on a website in an online gallery

So far, two pieces have been released. By any definition they’re ‘arty’, experimental and non narrative. The first piece, Last Night, was created by stage and screen director Sarah Hadley. It’s a cross generational queer romance starring iconic Australian actress Heather Mitchell in an expressive but wordless performance across from a younger woman (Ella Prince) who seems at first to be her daughter. Carroll Harris says the choice of this piece, starring an actress well known to audiences (from everything from Muriel’s Wedding to A Place to Call Home) was an important one. ‘Heather Mitchell bridges all those TV and film worlds, but she’s really open to young vital energetic artists, and that’s the right feel and what I want people to think of when they think of Prototype.’

The second piece, Cloudy Rhodes’ New Masc invited a collection of the artist’s queer friends to perform what masculinity means to them in a Sydney men’s bathroom. Next Tuesday will see the release of Sydney artist Tiyan Baker’s Hard as You Can, a disturbing documentary about real life obsession with David Fincher’s 1999 cult classic Fight Club. Perhaps the filmmaker most familiar to many is Alena Lodkina (Strange Colours) whose short film Mercury (12 August) promises to be a melding of Greek myth and millennial frustration in Melbourne’s art world.

All of the twelve works are new and were commissioned especially for Prototype. Carroll Harris said she didn’t give any kind of thematic brief to the artists. ‘I never wanted to be that curator who is asking people to make work about their cultural identity. I just picked artists who I thought had curiosity and something interesting to say about the society we live in,’ she said. ‘I also thought these were artists who would be able to crossover into a broader audience appeal if they were given the chance.’

Lauren Carroll Harris is bring art back to screen culture. Image supplied.

Many will be familiar with Lauren Carroll Harris from her work as a young film academic (her PhD thesis on the crisis in Australian film distribution formed the basis of a platform paper by Currency House in 2013) and as a freelance TV critic for The Guardian. Her piece in 2016, ‘Why do we fund Australian films but not the cinemas to screen them in?‘ signalled her longtime preoccupation with the problems of distribution and exhibition. This year she’s started a new part-time role as TV critic on Radio National’s The Screen Show, working with anchor host Jason Di Rosso. She’s clearly as comfortable discussing pop culture as well as art cinema, but pop culture needs no curators or advocates to help us make it or find it.

Pitching and Funding the project

Prototype is largely funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Carroll Harris put in a grant in October 2018 and found out that she was successful early this year, receiving $36,100 towards the project. That is the largest parcel of her funding, with smaller amounts coming from boutique film distribution and production company Arcadia Pictures, and from the City of Sydney council.

Part of her pitch to the Australia Council rested on ‘their own research that showed that digital and video art is the least frequented art form in Australia,’ she said. ‘I found that extraordinary given the fact we are in a visual culture and a video culture. What the hell? It’s actually wild to me that the internet hasn’t made video art and experimental short film famous. Why not?’

Arcadia Pictures’ EP Alexa Burke also came onboard to help with operations, administration and marketing, and with supporting Carroll Harris in the role as curator and editor. ‘I think Alexa is a really significant person in terms of Australian film culture and she was really into the idea of having a commissioning platform for experimental video art and short film that was then made available to the public by email newsletter. She’s really driven the marketing.’

I let her know that this was really a utopian project to reclaim a corner of the internet as a public resource for smart interesting creative new voices in film and art.

Sydney designer Elle Williams created the look and feel of the dreamy website, logo and email design. ‘The brief I gave her was that I wanted her to think about back when the internet was full of promise and we had all these ideas about the democratisation of the net in the 90s,’ Carroll Harris said, ‘about blogging and journalism opening up and the internet as a space for a diversity of voices. If anything, the opposite has happened. I let her know that this was really a utopian project to reclaim a corner of the internet as a public resource for smart interesting creative new voices in film and art.’

The filmmakers and video artists were each paid $2000 for their work, which Carroll Harris says is double the minimum amount advised by NAVA (the National Association of Visual Arts). ‘It’s really important to me that the artists are being paid fees that surpass the norm,’ she said. ‘For too long, people in the art world have said funding is in decline and we can only pay a few hundred dollars and that’s just not good enough. Even so I feel ashamed that it’s only this much. I’ve been working closely with them all and I know they put in far more than that in their own time and labour.’

Making a living in a broken system

Carroll Harris talks frequently about systems being broken – the art world funding system, academic employment, and journalism and the media – all systems she’s experienced firsthand. She studied at the College of Fine Arts at UNSW where she made video and conceptual art, before writing her PhD, and she’s worked for some years as a freelance journalist and critic, but making a living has always been a struggle. It’s only in the last year, with her ‘two day a week job at Radio National as an anchor, that I’ve really been able to float around and do my own projects,’ she said. ‘Working there, I’ve been trained on the job as a producer and broadcaster. Prototype would not have been possible without that one good part time job to sustain me. People need financial viability in their lives.’

Many would call the ABC another broken system, but examples like this prove how important such part time jobs are for the larger creative ecology. ‘When I say that the art funding landscape is broken I’m not being hyperbolic – it’s a major problem,’ she says. ‘And part of the reason I started Prototype is that I’m sick of the desolation and sick of people telling me this culture can’t change.’ 

As for whether audiences want art cinema in their email inboxes, Carroll Harris is humble but hopeful. ‘The whole project is experimental. How niche is this audience? How much can we develop this audience for really challenging highly intelligent material? I don’t know the answer to that question. I guess we’ll see at the end of the three months. I’d like to think there are people out there who can’t always get to galleries and museums, but who want to be challenged and see new work by artists who are probably going to be their new favourite artists, and so receiving an artwork like this could be a really nice part of their day.’

Idealistic for sure, but it’s also inspiring, and Carroll Harris really does know how to deliver an impassioned sermon. ‘I don’t have a lot of cultural power and I’m not an institution or a programmer at a major festival,’ she says. ‘But you can learn how to write grants, you can be resourceful, you can be scrappy. We all have to find new ways to make work together and actually find new organisational ways to structure our work.’

The future?

What happens at the end of the three month experiment? ‘I do have a second season in mind with another dream list of 12 artists and filmmakers,’ says Carroll Harris, ‘but we would need to work out the whole funding model again. I would really like to get different buy-ins from the film and art ecology. It would be wonderful for example if one film production company could sponsor costs for one work and share the weight around.’

Has she heard from any of the funding bodies? ‘I invited them, but I haven’t heard back,’ she says wistfully. ‘Screen Australia doesn’t prioritise cinema of any kind anymore. They literally say they prioritise TV and web series.’ She laughs, and then has a wicked idea. ‘Maybe we could call Prototype a kind of web series?’

Further information about Prototype can be found on the project’s Instagram  // e-newsletter signup // website

The full Prototype programming

  • July 2 – Last Night. Experimental theatre and filmmaker Sarah Hadley makes a cross-generational queer romance set on the last night on earth.
  • July 9 – New Masc. Fresh from Sydney Film Festival, Cloudy Rhodes invites a collection of queer friends to perform what masculinity means to them in a Sydney men’s bathroom, as a kind of 21st century, gender-fluid response to Agnes Varda’s 1975 short film, ‘Réponse de Femmes: Notre Corps, Notre Sexe.’
  • July 15 – Sydney artist Tiyan Baker (The Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship winner, 2019) crafts a desktop documentary based on her mission to infiltrate real-life men’s fight clubs by men obsessed with David Fincher’s 1999 classic Fight Club.
  • July 22 – Video maker and film critic Conor Bateman (Fandor, Senses of Cinema) presents a fun, clever, endless video loop on cinematic violence in US horror films.
  • July 29 – James Nguyen (The National, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2019) investigates the lost suburban history of the Nissen Huts, a strange form of 20th century, flat-packed military architecture in Australia that housed his father immediately after the trauma of immigrating from Vietnam.
  • August 5 – Sydney artist Jason Phu riffs on the viral cooking video format, as his parents tell stories and sing songs in six languages over flaming woks.
  • August 12 – Filmmaker Alena Lodkina (Strange Colours, 2017, Venice College Biennale) melds Greek myth with millenial frustration in her new short avant-garde film Mercury.
  • August 19 – NZ-born curator and artist Talia Smith brings together personal storytelling and video art, winding her way through her grandmother’s life and across the Tasman Sea.
  • August 26 – Dance-trained artist Angela Goh (PS122/Performance Space New York, Fusebox Festival) crafts a video that sees humans through the gaze of our devices, and images what happens if we looked back into our black mirrors. She questions how nature and technology conspire against  humans in a society increasingly in thrall and devotion to apps.
  • September 2 – Hannah Brontë (The National, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2019) brings her deeply musical sensibility to a collaborative portraiture project involving women artists performing in different landscapes, asking: how can you have time to dream when you are surviving?
  • September 9 – Berlin- and London-based Gabriella Hirst (Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2017) sends over a brand new video dispatch ahead of her major new work for ACMI’s Ian Potter Moving Image Commission (2020).
  • September 16 –  a small, magical work shot on Super 8 – re-edited and digitised just last year – out of Sydney artist Tina Havelock Stevens’ private archive and into digital distribution for the first time. The video portrait captures a street vigil for John Lennon, on what would have been his 66th birthday, in New York’s Central Park.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a journalist for Screenhub. She is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram