BY Chris Darke in Reviews | 01 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 26

Gang Warfare

BY Chris Darke in Reviews | 01 SEP 96

'Out here, we is stoned, immaculate...'

'Gang Warfare' comprised six viewing stations, each consisting of a wooden trestle table, a VCR and a monitor. Fading flowers on each table added a wilting touch of domesticity to the white cube of IAS. The 16 hours of video material in the exhibition was thus presented in a way hardly calculated to seduce prospective viewers. Curated by Michael Corris, each compilation tape represented, in its allotted space, one of the show's six 'possible worlds' - each a snapshot of current video-art practice. However, as Corris notes in his catalogue essay, 'video-art' - with its implications of artistic specificity - may itself be anomalous. As Corris sees it, video is ubiquitous: 'The social context of video - its field of struggle, if you like - is not only television and film, but all visual culture'. This is a bit like having your tape and eating it. For Corris' purposes, it is the element of what one might call 'private languages' at work within and across the tapes that intrigues him. Much is made of this in the idea of the show; the 'gang warfare' of the title being as much concerned with the semiotics of cliques and art gangs as with South Central LA-style face-offs.

What do these private languages speak of? Sex and singing, by and large. There's a significant emphasis in work, predominantly by young women artists, on porn clichés: three Heads (Cheryl Donegan, Jemima Brown, Jake and Dinos Chapman), one Suck - Karen McGarry - and a Sarah Lucas, sausage included. All these pieces insist on the real-time qualities of low-tech video camera and link the work to a founding tradition of video and performance personified in the 70s by luminaries such as Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic. Donegan's Head (1993) features Donegan as a polymorphously desirable sex-worker whose energetic exertions give the impression that this is not work for her at all. Head captures Donegan at her most overt but, as Collier Schorr has pointed out, the work is above all about 'the simulation of total abandon': the image of someone faking it for real, a send-up of pornography's libidinal free-for-all that is enhanced by the tape's concision and control. Head works as an exemplary piece of post-MTV neo-porn because of the tight temporal frame that is both asserted and enhanced through its appeal to 'the tradition' (in the static camera's unblinking observation of process) and the contemporary (in the pop-promo's built-in tension-and-release logic of climax). Of the porn parodies it's by far the best. Although Jake and Dinos Chapman's Bring me the Head of... (1995) is featured in the catalogue as part of the show, it is not available for viewing. Interestingly, the thin line separating playing with the codes of pornography from actual pornography seems to have been overstepped in this work.

If these pieces are about extreme performances that become banal through their generic repetition, then the 'singing' tapes are a part of a more homely kind of subjectivity. Here, the video camera is equivalent to the bedroom mirror in which the artists perform defiantly unstarry takes on musical numbers. Max Wigram's Hey Girl (1995) is like a bad dream of Brian Ferry, the lounge lizard laid bare. Yan Duyvendak's Songs 94-95 (1995) becomes cumulatively bizarre though its performer's strenuous mugging: without a music track, one studies the face for clues to the emotional atmosphere of a song. Sandra Hastenteufel and Michael Hafner's Erbfeind (Traditional Enemy) (1993) takes this loving pop-deconstruction further in a fascinating off-the-cuff analysis of Je t'aime. Moi, non plus.

Two tapes stand out. Nicholas Bolton's Singing (1994) uses the same low-tech strategies as others but achieves the most acutely-charged atmosphere. The image is like that of a surveillance camera set in the ceiling, cruelly and anonymously objectifying its subject while the mumbling and cracked singing is uncomfortably personal. If Stanley Kubrick was a video artist he'd make tapes likes Bolton's. Less of a performance piece, Das Audere Universum des Klaus Beyer (1994) is a documentary study of provincial German Beatles-obsessive and experimental filmmaker Klaus Beyer. It starts out looking like a voyeuristic TV-anthropology but becomes an utterly fascinating examination of the amateur in his own habitat.

Judd Ferrer's Non Existent Hero (1995) and Franz Staffenberg and Christopher Roth's Happy Days (1993) are representative of 'found footage' pieces that suffer from the symptoms of media overload they clearly wish to critique. Working from the angle of analytic montage, they ignore the dialectic possibilities available in paying equal attention to the soundtrack (such as one finds in video-montage by Godard, Chris Marker or Haroun Farocki), and almost fall into TV seductiveness through their look. In fact, TV formats make a strong showing in 'Gang Warfare' through the inclusion of four ZAPP magazine compilations and Tony Kaye's advertising work. The Kaye material, the present ne plus ultra of the advertising image's sheer surface, is proof that advertising imagery in the hand of a director like Kaye is simply the most public of private languages.

At the other end of the spectrum though, is Sarah Mallock's A Return to Warwick Avenue (1995), an excellent - if overlong - example of abstract video. The camera trails though the London underground at chest height; the image is tremendously decelerated and colours bleed into one another while the motion lags as though underwater. Mallock does for metropolitan depths what Bill Viola did for downtown Tokyo in Hatsu-Yume. One of the most unwittingly astute comments on the almost gnomic quality of some of these private languages is contained in Max Wigram's Joint Roll (1995), a real-time lingering on spliff construction. Wigram is clearly onto one of the best ways to allow these languages to make sense. 'Out here we is stoned, inarticulate...'