Prototype demonstrates digital appetite for experimental film and video art

Alena Lodkina’s ‘Mercury’. 

Those who have enjoyed getting video art and experimental short films delivered weekly to their inbox via Lauren Carroll Harris’ e-newsletter Prototype will be pleased to know the critic and curator plans a second iteration.

The pilot season, launched back in July with the support of Arcadia Films, The Australia Council and City of Sydney, saw Carroll Harris – a writer and regular critic for ABC RN’s The Screen Show – commission works from 12 different artists and filmmakers.

Her brief to the creatives had no thematic limitations, rather she simply funded them to create something short and designed to be viewed on a small screen.

The motivations behind the idea were twofold. One, Carroll Harris wanted to support creatives whose work she found interesting. Two, she was keen to shake up how experimental screen art was commissioned and distributed. That is, to take it outside of traditional spaces like galleries and film festivals, and put it where most of us view content: on our phones.

“Like most people, I consume video content on a range of different [social media] platforms every single day. And yet very little of that is art or experimental film. I started thinking, why has there been this upswing in video culture and yet so little of it is artistic and creative? It’s mainly dire content,” she tells IF.

“At the same time I was receiving and subscribing to a lot of really interesting newsletters from independent journalists, from outlets that were curating their their own content like the New York Times’ Gender Letter. I realised that there was space to use the newsletter format as a commissioning platform to deliver art itself, because it was being used really effectively in journalism and publishing but not in that cross space between art and film.”

Each Tuesday, a new work goes out to Prototype subscribers in time for the morning commute. Artists to feature so far include Sarah Hadley, Cloudy Rhodes, Tiyan Baker, Conor Bateman, Jason Phu, Talia Smith, James Nguyen, Gabriella Hurst and Tina Havelock Stevens. All their work can also be viewed on Prototype’s accompanying website.

Premiering via the platform today was Alena Lodkina’s Mercury, a playful modern take on the Greek myth of Medea, exploring “heightened romance and its comical underside”. The Russian-born filmmaker based in Melbourne recently made her feature debut with Strange Colours, produced as part of the Venice Biennale College program.

Mercury is a work Lodkina says she would have never made without Carroll Harris’ approach. While she admits she’s an “old school” filmmaker who typically dreams of people watching her films in the cinema, being commissioned to create a short for Prototype was a freeing artistic experience.

“What I’m used to with short films is that you make something and then you wait for one, two or however many years to show it, because you’re hoping that it will screen at a festival. That takes a really long time; sometimes you enter festivals and you get rejected, then somebody accepts you. But you can’t screen it anywhere, because you’re trying to play this festival game,” Lodkina tells IF.

“But what was so nice about Prototype is that you don’t think about this festival stuff and prestige. You just make something, and then you show it to people right away. That’s really nice.”

Ultimately, Carroll Harris believes Prototype has resulted in “quite specifically digital works”.

Lauren Carroll Harris.

“For example, Jason Phu entirely shot his work on an iPhone. It’s really very much designed to be seen in that intimate, handheld way because that’s how he made it,” she says.

“To be honest, I don’t really think video content often works in the gallery. And I don’t think that art needs to be only seen in film festivals and museums; it has so much more potential to be integrated with way that we live our lives.”

As a distribution method, the newsletter is intimate, inexpensive and offers detailed audience data.

With so many of Prototype’s artists and filmmakers women, Carroll Harris has been happily surprised to see that 55 per cent of the audience is male; “I really hope that we are developing a broader audience for works by women”. Most viewers sit in the 18-30 age demographic. And while a majority are based in Sydney and Melbourne, there is a subset outside of capital cities, particularly in the NSW towns of Bathurst, Parkes and Condobolin.

That regional response is heartening, as from the outset, it’s been an aim for Carroll Harris to try and run Prototype screening events in regional locations. That’s in part based on her own experiences and difficulties engaging with art when living in the Blue Mountains and Central Coast.

For Prototype’s second iteration, for which she has Arcadia Films’ ongoing support, the curator also hopes to actively support regionally-based artists.

“I’m looking at connecting the voices of regional artists, who don’t have the benefit of industry connections in the city, with Australian artists who are working overseas. I think by connecting those two sets of voices, I’ll be able to come up with a really outward-looking, internationalist program, that can actually push out the potential for Prototype to become a truly global platform.”

More broadly, Carroll Harris feels experimental film is under-served by Australia’s screen agencies. She hopes Prototype can encourage further attention to the genre, given the newsletter demonstrates not only an appetite from creatives to make non-commercial works, but also an audience for them.

“Prototype manifests my previous experience in academic research in cultural policy and in industry distribution analysis. I knew from doing research for years that there are extreme and deep black holes in cultural policy and institutional support for experimental screen work, regardless of whether it’s film or art. There used to be a women’s film unit for example, there used to be an experimental film fund. Those absences are what make Prototype possible.”

The pilot season of Prototype will wrap up next week with a work from Hannah Brontë. View all the works and subscribe here: