For someone like me, who would always favor Sixties counterculture over Eighties extravagance or Nineties languor, video is a relevant art form. But you can't ignore the fact that video has a bad rap. After more than 30 years, the general public still doesn't get it, although this trend may change (I've heard Miami artists and a noted gallerist say video is a lesser form of film). What's the problem?
These are some of the usual complaints: Video art lacks a structured narrative; it's either too short or too long; it seems incoherent, abstract and/or repetitive; in other words, it carries the avant-garde drive without the groove. More often than not, people say video has a poor quality of image and sound.
It may help to see how video art was born. The late Sixties was a period of change in the West -- America was undergoing a civil-rights transformation while fighting a war thousands of miles away; Europe was torn by ideological turmoil. Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Minimalism had taken New York by storm.
In the midst of this commotion, two groups seemed to converge. One was a bunch of young artists concerned with the growing ideological power of the media (they came from influences such as vaudeville, Dada, Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Marshall McLuhan, and Herbert Marcuse). In order to confront television, film, and other forms of advertising, they leaned toward conceptual art.
A second group of artists found they could use their bodies as artistic vehicles to express themselves. They borrowed from Jackson Pollock's heroic gestures, feminism, neo-Dada happenings, and avant-garde theater such as Antonin Artaud's theater of cruelty. Their aim was to bring the human body to the center of political, social, and artistic debates.
For both these groups video became the ideal medium. Why? The "new image flow," as Susan Sontag labeled video, was a perfect hybrid of TV, film, theater, dance, and happening. Because of its do-it-yourself novelty and its real-time viscosity, video art could present the human body (naked, disfigured, manipulated) with everyday objects in a way that twentieth-century art had not yet explored.
It's a mistake to assume that video as art is a lesser form of film. In fact it was never meant to be that. Artists such as Nam June Paik, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, Sophie Calle, and Valie Export, among others, took video as a literal extension of their art practices. Shigeko Kubota called it "a color continuum" while Frank Gillette described it as "communication technology." For Mel Bochner, video meant the "dematerialization" of reality. Martha Rosler referred to it as "an alternative space" to energize the human body.
Most of these early videos depicted single actions. They were direct, short, taken from a single point of view, devoid of theatricality, with almost no editing and few special effects. As the form evolved, artists in the Eighties and Nineties produced video installations with more symbolic relationships. There was a self-aware irony backed up with a technological awareness, and as they involved more production, videos became longer. Some of their images unabashedly displayed capitalist consumption.
I was present at MAC when curator Rugoff led a gallery walk. He prepped the small audience by establishing a distinction between today's videos (some of which mimic the conventions of Hollywood movies) and the spirit of those early experiments. But I think regardless of the time period, good art is independent of its formal boundaries. Formal concerns may help explain why an artwork is successful, but not the other way around.
There is a difference between Essential Current Affairs by Dan Acostioaei and Ann Wodisnki, and Will Rogan's Sweeter as the Years Roll. In the first piece we see a man and woman wearing black ski masks. Context is important here: In a time of heightened fear, having the specter of terrorism overlap with two lovers making out becomes suddenly odd and funny. On the other hand, Rogan's video shows a hand pressing a white marker on the moving surface of an escalator's banister. The hand withdraws when the escalator has rotated through an entire cycle. A waste of time.
I preferred David Zink Yi's Añejo Blanco, a two-frame video of musicians playing a famous Cuban tune, to his Ahumm, in which he shows himself simultaneously writing and intoning endless variations of the expression "ahumm" on a piece of paper. Añejo's music had a raw quality; it made me think of the difference between the performance of a song and a rehearsal of the same song. In the rehearsal I'm not supposed to behave the same way I do when I sit and listen.
Returning a Sound by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla is over-the-top. We follow a young man riding a motorcycle on the beautiful island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, which until 2003 was a U.S. Navy bombing range. What's unusual is that this bike's muffler is a trumpet; the motor's sound becoming (as the catalogue rightly describes it) a "gurgling call to action."
In A Homeless Woman (Cairo) by Korean artist Kimsooja, we perceive a woman wearing a thick blue dress (the artist herself) lying on the ground in downtown Cairo, surrounded by a bunch of bemused passersby. They are very responsive to the camera: Some laugh, some talk to themselves, others approach and then walk by the camera, looking annoyed at the whole situation. Then I realized that all the passersby were males -- men and boys. Immediately the contrast of this single woman encircled by all of these men became a very strong image.
Compared to Kimsooja's piece, Anri Sala's Mixed Behavior looks unconvincing. A DJ plays music on a rooftop New Year's Eve against the cityscape of Albania's capital, Tirana, which is lit up by fireworks. And so?
In contrast, Douglas Gordon's Blue is a little difficult to watch, but it makes you think. The artist uses his hands as central characters playing a kind of bizarre sexual game. At one point the game turns rough, as Gordon fingers his cupped right hand repeatedly, obsessively. The product is concise, repulsive, and effective.
Even Phat Free by David Hammons was fresh, and it merely chronicles the trivial melting of a block of ice being kicked by a man all over the barrios of New York. It made me think of how many things you could do if you had all the time in the world.
In the catalogue for "Irreducible," Rugoff comments about how these straight-to-the-point single-action videos elicit "multiple and ambiguous meanings." But you could say that of just about anything. Some images are simply more powerful than others. If they can convey something -- whatever it may be -- that image will get you excited. A weak image will remain that, no matter how much you try to justify it.
Critics in the Nineties predicted the demise of video. They were wrong. Video art is alive and kicking. Curator David A. Ross recently boasted, "A whole new generation of artists now uses video like a pencil, as [conceptual artist] John Baldessari predicted." Check for yourself on sites such as www.post-videoart.com, which features dozens of festival links.