SRC 90th Anniversary

You are the Prototype

“Genre-busting, high IQ” art delivered to your inbox, with love.

Gabriella Hirst

Prototype, the brainchild of cultural critic Lauren Carroll Harris, launched in July. It is original, avant-garde short films and video art delivered to your inbox every Tuesday for 12 instalments.

The newsletter came across my Instagram feed and enticed by the idea, I added my email. I was at work when the first video arrived in my inbox the following Tuesday. A cross-generational queer romance and a discussion of faith, Sarah Hadley’s “Last Night” plants you in what initially looks like a Jarmusch-ian “Night On Earth”. For five minutes you are absorbed in an art piece you otherwise might not have had access to. Prototype provides the ability to engage with original art, commissioned and delivered to you by a diverse group of established artists. Lauren refers to this as a “digital utopia,” existing beyond the consumerist algorithm of a social media feed or restricted to a fixed physical location; it’s a platform unto itself.

With the elimination of the Experimental Film Fund and the Women’s Film Fund, Lauren devised to create a platform where audiences are presented with experimental and challenging video art.

This weekly artistic interlude is delivered to your inbox for free, with videos curated specifically for a small screen. You can watch it on your phone, or from the comfort of your ass at a non-standing desk. I spoke with Lauren about the project as it heads into its final few weeks.

AB: What is the need for Prototype? Why did you feel like there was a cultural gap?

LCH: I noticed that with all the cheapness and ubiquity of advertisements and videos on the internet, there was all this content but no art – which I thought was a bit weird. As a consumer, I know how much video comes through our social media feeds so why can’t a little bit of that be creative and not consumerist.

We’re also submerged in this streaming culture: could streaming and packaging and recommendation be humane and personal and artistic and creative, rather than algorithmic and robotic, and again, really fucking consumerist?

[Artists and filmmakers] want to work and collaborate…but after you leave art school or film school, there’s often not a lot of institutional support. Particularly, for experimental and avant-garde image-making. There’s a real gap in cultural policy.

I’ve designed Prototype as a way to find a new way to commission and produce works that’s non-institutional, that’s just me picking artists who I think are vital and interesting, and then creating a distribution platform that delivers their work to audiences using an inexpensive, intimate medium – which is email newsletters. And hopefully developing the audiences for experimental cinema and video art in the meantime.

AB: How does it function as a newsletter? Why did you choose that format as opposed to, say, a YouTube channel?

LCH: Working in media, I was noticing that the email newsletter format works really well in publishing and journalism…but I noticed that that format hadn’t been explored in contemporary art or video.

I had a hunch Prototype would work. For me, a lot of my favourite art projects are the ideas that combine idealism with pragmatism. Like Renew Newcastle. Before Renew Newcastle, everyone probably thought that just installing artists in empty storefronts was a bit ‘utopian’. Now it’s like “Oh that’s brilliant, it’s so obvious” and that’s where a lot of innovation is. [Innovation is] not accepting the status quo that you can’t change culture.

I also came across research from Australia Council that said that digital and video art was the least frequented art form in Australia. Only 7% of attendees are engaging with video art, which is so stupid because the distribution point is right [on your phone]. So I think we just have to go to audiences and then see if they’re interested in it.

AB: You called Prototype a “digital utopia”. What is the definition of “utopia’ within the landscape Prototype?

LCH: It’s something that’s actually possible! People have all these egalitarian dreams of what the internet would be, like blogging would open up a space for the democratisation of voices in journalism. And yet, we’ve seen that the internet can be as corporatised and corrupt as any parliament or any boardroom. One idea of Prototype was to bring back a little bit of that early energy of trying to open things up and free things up, and marshall the low-cost nature of digital publishing to open up the space for thinking and reflection.

It’s interesting to me what even qualifies as utopian in the current moment. It’s like people’s expectations of cultural change and social change is so low that they really do see something like Prototype, which is trying to make the internet into a new public resource for film and art by giving money to artists to make new work, shepherding them…creating infrastructure to deliver that work and develop an audience, opening up original, diverse voices through free access to the internet.

AB: Is your definition of ‘utopia’ within Prototype then the low bar “utopia” or is it what you think the public defines as a utopian resource?

LCH: I think it’s kind of straightforward, to be honest. I’ve never thought that we just have to accept the world we’ve inherited and the technological systems we’ve inherited and the cultural policy framework we’ve inherited.

AB: Who do you think the audience is for Prototype – is it for the millennial generation?

LCH: I’ve definitely noticed that older audiences don’t like giving out their email. They’re extremely suspicious of signing up to anything; which is a shame because Prototype is designed to challenge the very idea that your inbox has to be full of spam. Why can’t you have beautifully, thoughtfully created art coming into your inbox?

The audience is a mystery because Prototype is very much about the audience, that’s why the URL is “youaretheprototype.art”. But I don’t know how many people are truly interested in ‘out there’, dangerous ideas delivered through contemporary art.

AB: What are the ideas and did you provide them?

LCH: I didn’t provide any thematic imperatives. I just said, “there’s a structural restriction which is it’s a single screen video of short duration to be delivered and watched on a small screen.” But I didn’t want to limit the ideas they were actually exploring.

Every work is a link in the chain and each work [has been] curated so that they are in conversation with each other, particularly with the work that precedes it. But I didn’t want to limit. I think the only way to do this is to curate the artists and the work second.

AB: How does each work flow into the next? Essentially, what do you want the audience to receive?

LCH: I wanted to set up a structure so that they can connect the dots themselves. So I opened with a classic Prototype project which was Sarah Hadley’s “Last Night” which really was that melting post of experimental video and avant-garde narrative short film. And the narrative was really open-ended. And I’m really glad I didn’t give people a thematic imperative because it meant that they brought their own ideas that I wouldn’t think of to the project. So Sarah’s project is very much about reconciling sexuality and spirituality…Then the next link in the chain was by Cloudy Rhodes and their film (“New Masc”) was about genderlessness in portraiture…And then the next link in the chain was Tiyan Baker’s “Hard as You Can” which was really like a backlash of masculinity..looking at how men, really sad [and] disenfranchised men, are responding to feminism today in quite a reactionary way. So yeah, there’s always a link.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You can sign up to the Prototype newsletter at youaretheprototype.art