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When the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami opened submissions to Optic Nerve, its annual short film festival, to include nationwide talent, South Florida artists might have found themselves feeling a bit territorial.
Winners of the homegrown experimental video program, which has become a staple of the local arts season, have gained wide exposure and have had their work purchased by MOCA to become part of its permanent collection. The event became a popular launch pad for not only the budding auteur but also artists working in diverse media itching to try their hand at filmmaking and grab the attention of wider audiences.
Even in the age of YouTube saturation, the edgy retinal stimuli making the cut during a vigorous selection process each year helped make Miami a hothouse laboratory for experimental video. But it should have come as no surprise that MOCA's vaunted showcase of films running under five minutes would one day end up muscling its way onto the national stage.
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Last Saturday night, nearly 400 people flocked to MOCA for screenings at Optic Nerve XIII, which is showcasing 18 films by 15 artists and two artist collectives from across the country. Represented are artists from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Gifford, New Hampshire. Four of the finalists are South Floridians.
The first, one of the crowd favorites, depicts a group of men and women of all ages and color clad in dark monochromes, appearing as if posing for a United Colors of Benetton ad. That is until the group, staring intently at the viewer, launches into a chorus, yapping rabidly not unlike a pack of starving mongrels deprived of a T-bone.
Hot Circuit combines elements of narrative and animation to weave the tale of a young woman contemplating which Ivy League school to attend until her life unexpectedly unravels. At various stages, the vapid protagonist, sporting a silver bob and a '60s-era diamond-patterned frock, gets knocked up in a convertible, suffers from morning sickness, pukes in a toilet, and squirts a baby out of her vagina in a bathroom. The highly polished film has a robotic, Stepford Wives creepiness.
Also notable is Remake by New Hampshire's L. Ashwyn Collins, who sourced 16 YouTube videos consisting of the original shower scene from Hitchcock's '60s classic Psycho and 15 amateur re-creations of that scene.
Clocking in at a rapid-fire 3:50 minutes and presented in a grid of contrasting scenes, it brings to mind Douglas Gordon's 24-hour opus that slowed down the original film to spool over an entire day's period. That film was shown at MOCA in November 2004 as part of the group show "Cut/Films as Found Object."
One of the strongest works is Marfa, by Oakland's D. Sadja and S. Martinez, AKA Perfect Lives. Shot during an 18-hour period in Marfa, Texas, the eerie 4:57-minute feature combines elements of narrative film, music video, and performance art in a story about a duet of unsuspecting cowpokes. The artists' grainy video is underscored by sinister overtones and evokes comparisons to Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers and Dennis Hopper's crazed nitrous-oxide-addled hit man in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.
Local artists also make a big impression.
Ruben Millares and Antonia Wright helm Job Creation in a Bad Economy, a 2:15-minute piece that finds the two artists violently hurtling themselves against towering walls of books. It's a stinging commentary on the severe government cutbacks in the arts and education.
Jillian Mayer's minute-long I Am Your Grandma is the artist's sensational autobiographical video diary created for her unborn grandchildren. The stunning piece, featuring the artist in a quick-change relay of discomfiting masks singing to her progeny, was featured earlier this year at the David Castillo Gallery and later at the Borscht Film Festival. It has garnered more than a million views on YouTube.
Another local artist, Karlo Andrei Ibarra, collected "Audience Favorite" honors with Crossover, in which random Puerto Rican citizens mangle "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a disjointed warble, amplifying the sociocultural distance between the tropical island and the United States.
Despite some locals suffering from a case of triskaidekaphobia, it turns out the 13th edition of Optic Nerve is a lucky development for MOCA.
This year the festival's jurors included Stephanie Dodes, curator of New York City's Big Screen Plaza; Shannon Stratton, cofounder and executive director of Chicago's Threewalls Artist Residency; MOCA curatorial staff members; Justin Long, an artist and founder of Miami's More Funner Projects; and Ibett Yanes of Miami's de la Cruz Collection.
This type of selection committee ensures that Optic Nerve participants will receive much broader visibility than in previous editions. In fact, this year's finalists' films will screen not only at MOCA through September but also at the de la Cruz space in the Design District during this month's art walk. Also, they have already been tapped for a Big Screen Plaza showing on a date soon to be determined.
The finalists are John Bonafede, Brian Bress, Jennifer Campbell, L. Ashwyn Collins, Christina Corfield, Kasia Houlihan, Eunjung Hwang, Karlo Andrei Ibarra, Richard Jochum, Jennifer Levonian, Jillian Mayer, Ruben Millares and Antonia Wright, Tara Nelson, Zachary Ordonez, Carlos Charlie Perez, Perfect Lives, and Sarada Rauch.
This year's winner — chosen by MOCA's executive director and chief curator, Bonnie Clearwater, to enter the museum's permanent collection — is Brian Bress's It's Been a Long Day, a 2:13-minute skull-staver depicting the L.A.-based artist with a bullet wound in his forehead.
Bress stares at the camera while blood oozes from his head, bringing to mind medieval altarpieces depicting the crucifixion, stigmata, or images of flayed church martyrs. While lamenting his suffering, Bress — wearing black pajamas and appearing a little like Gomez Addams — looks directly at the spectator and says he enjoys "painting every night before hitting" his pillows.
Then he begins to swab the blood from his suppurating wound and finger-paints his mug until it turns a rosy crimson that recalls a glowing cherub straight out of a Flemish master's work. In fact, Bress is speaking to the tradition of religious subject matter and the self-portrait with a droll wit and irony that elevate his work above the others.
It's Been a Long Day, which was weirdly looped twice during the screening, will make a great addition to the museum's collection even if observers last Saturday couldn't stomach the imagery.
Catch the collection of films at the de la Cruz Collection (237 NE 41st St., Miami) during the September 10 art walk and through October 8. Call 305-576-6112 or visit delacruzcollection.org. You can also see all 18 films at uvuvideo.org.