Electronic and photographic media professor Van McElwee is well-known far beyond the limits of Webster University for his experimental video art. He has produced a vast body of work featuring video installations exhibited in museums worldwide, and he received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2010. McElwee has been balancing teaching at Webster and creating video art for over 30 years. Eloquent and softspoken, McElwee offers his insight into the field of media art and his experience with it to anyone who asks.
written by Heather Bartel
Q: How would you describe your body of work?
A: It’s experimental work that uses the medium [of video] as a metaphor for many different things. Video is really useful as a philosophical tool for exploring aspects of reality and experience. I was a painting major in college, and I started working with sound, and then later I realized that in filmmaking and video, I could combine those two directions – that I could create a form in which sound and image would be two aspects of the same idea.
Q: You’ve received travel grants from Webster and have many works that vary by location. How does traveling and place influence your works?
A: I just received a faculty research grant that will take me to Peru and Mexico to shoot a piece that deals with the global web of physical and virtual connections between people and places. And I recently finished a piece entitled “Travel Dream and Dream Travel” that uses footage that I shot mostly in the nineties, and used a dream format for combining image and sound in surprising ways. Media artists can now have the whole world as their studio because the medium is so portable and we are too.
Q: In many of your videos, there seems to be a lot of use of mazes and the idea of infinity is very present. Is this intentional?
A: Oh, it is very much intentional. And I’m interested in the labyrinth not so much as a place to sort of be trapped in or lost in, but more as a model of networks and choice space. I’m very much interested in exploring time and space and dimensionality.
Q: What does the future hold, for both media art and yourself?
A: The field of media art is so vast now, with the evolution of technology and the corresponding changes in culture that it’s really hard for anybody to grasp. There are so many billions of videos that are being watched and uploaded daily. As far as the future goes, I see all media moving toward immersion. And I see more and more the real and the virtual trading places. In addition to the pieces I was describing that I’m traveling for, I’ve got many ideas that are in a holding pattern, and I’ve just got to carve out some time to realize those ideas. For the distant future, I’m really interested in creating virtual architectural environments – places for people to meet in, sort of like Second Life, but maybe a more sophisticated platform.
Q: What advice would you give to students interested in working with media art, or any art?
A: I would say to try to connect what you do to everything you’re interested in and everything you love. Part of doing what you love is loving what you do, so take a look at this amazing new world of media and culture and celebrate your place in it and think about how you can make it better.