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Regional Art Stories Reimagining screen culture via email

Founded, curated and edited by Lauren Carroll Harris, Prototype is a three month digital experiment producing and delivering new content at the nexus of video and experimental cinema via email each week.

Particularly relevant for those of us living outside of city centres and unable to easily access the cultural institutions that normally house this kind of work, Prototype takes video art and experimental film out of the galleries and niche cinemas, and places them in our inboxes. Marked by a timely, accessible and urgent curatorial tone this intimate viewing experience is hard to turn away from.

Regional Arts Australia’s Communications Coordinator Alana Hunt asks a few questions of Prototype Founder, curator and editor Lauren Carrol Harris:

Alana Hunt: How did you come to view "emails" as a means of commissioning and distributing video art?

Lauren Carroll Harris: I work in media for my day job, and as both a reader and a journalist I noticed this huge trend in the past few years of newsletter distribution – by both outlets and independent journos reaching out to audiences through their inboxes. It was working so well for newspapers, and I realised that nobody had really tested the field for email – as a form of distribution and a form of artmaking – in contemporary art. I began to wonder what it would look like if a video art gallery or a film festival lived in my inbox.

AH: How has Prototype forced you to think about an audience and publics in new ways?

LCH: The art world has a real problem with exclusivity. It can feel alienating stepping into a silent white-cube gallery and not knowing how to engage with the works. I don't think you should need a postgrad education to be able to feel you have the tools to engage with smart, interesting art. But to be honest – I don't really know who the Prototype audience is! I don't know how big or how niche the audience for experimental video art and short film is – so Prototype is a distribution solution to test how far you can reach out beyond the existing gallery-going minority. It sure is nice, though, when people reply to the email newsletters and social media posts.

AH: How does it feel to be distributing art with the click of a button? Is it liberating? Are there drawbacks?

LCH: The inexpensiveness of internet publishing tools – domain name purchase, hosting, subscriptions to Mailchimp and Vimeo – make it really liberating to show work online, especially given the wild expense of renting commercial gallery spaces. It also means I can provide pretty good fees to the artists, rather than spending money on maintaining a real-world gallery. I just think that art doesn't have to live in a pristine white cube – it can be anywhere, and it's nice to think about art and everyday life coming together more and more. The drawback has been marketing costs – marketing is the missing link for anyone, any arts organisation, any publication, making work online, because the cheapness and ubiquity of internet advertising has given the social media networks – which are really news media titans – a hold on how you reach your audience. You just can't reach people without paying for social media advertising. And art can't have an effect if nobody sees it.

And yes -- email newsletters use intimacy and immediacy to overcome distance and isolation. That is really a huge question for anyone working in the arts today – how to bridge that divide with mainstream, normcore and non-urban Australia – how to grow the audience for contemporary art. And with video, how to penetrate video culture – which is everywhere, and accessed by Australians through a multitude of platforms and devices everyday – so that there's more art and not so much dire empty content.

AH: How did you select the artists you are working with? And did the online format influence in anyway how they produced their work?

LCH: I chose the artists first, and developed works with them second. I wanted artists who had a sense of vitality and conviction in the work, who make work from the world rather than from theory, and who have interesting ways of communicating those interesting ideas. I only gave them the structural limitation – short videos to be watched online on small screens – rather than an overarching theme. I wanted a mix of video artists who work with documentary techniques, narrative filmmakers who make avantgarde works, and artists who have a musical and dance sensibility. And I fundamentally just really love these artists, which was the real criteria – I wanted Prototype's curatorial voice to be strong and independent and idiosyncratic. Prototype follows my tastes, because it's not a big art institution – it's a new vision coming from the digital margins to the mainstream. That means that the works come with my recommendation, to you, with individuality and sincerity.

One artist shot his work on his iPhone, another mixed the sound for iPhone headphones, and everyone tested their works on small screens before delivering them to me – so it's interesting to see how handheld, online exhibition contexts shift how people make work.

AH: What do you hope this first "episode" (if I can call it that) of Prototype conveys as a collection?

LCH: This first program provides a lot of real big open space for reflection – around gender and sexuality (with the first four videos), around the violence and melancholy of migration (with the three videos by James Nguyen, Talia Smith and Jason Phu), around what's missing from official accounts of history and around what we intentionally forget as societies. A lot of the works have a strong storytelling sensibility – they're not conventional narratives, there are no three-act-structures – but you have these young artists, connecting their own family histories and personal stories with something larger than themselves.

AH: What next?

LCH: I want Prototype to be a space for thinking on the internet that doesn't end. At the moment, I'm beginning to put together the second season with two ideas in mind – that it should venture further away from the east coast and engage more deeply with artists making work beyond the cities, and that it should venture beyond Australia, and beyond any idea of Australianness, by engaging with local artists who now live overseas. I'd like an outward-looking, internationalist program that speaks to some aspect of what it means to be a person in this crazy world we've inherited today – because the nature of Prototype is that it can be accessed anywhere, 24 hours a day, around the world.

Image: Gabriella Hirst, Zone Rouge (The Garden and the Storm)