in Frieze | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

Straight to Video

Moving pictures

in Frieze | 10 OCT 01

Typically, they would start at one cinema, sit through 20 minutes or so of the programme, move to another screening, watch a bit more, leave, take in another film elsewhere, and so on. They claimed the composite narratives they created for themselves gave them far more pleasure than any single movie. Perhaps Breton and Vaché were the unwitting heralds of the contemporary gallery experience - creators of the first avant-garde gesture borne of sheer boredom.

Surely even the most conscientious art lovers would admit that watching video art can be a depressing business; slouching from one black box to another, trying to avoid treading on the hands of those sitting on the floor braving the threat of piles and numb limbs. Ten minutes spent in one room, five in another - there should be a statistic demonstrating the optimum polite amount of time someone will spend watching an artist's video before they feel able to move on. Chairs rarely appear (perhaps they imply immobility or passivity). As a free thinking adult I can leave whenever I want, but if I'm expected to spend two hours watching a shaky DVD of artistic navel examination then I'd at least like the opportunity to rest my feet.

When I first saw The Blair Witch Project (1999) I was struck by just how inappropriate a busy cinema was for such a claustrophobic piece of work. Surely it would have been far better watched alone, its home video fictions stumbled upon during late night channel hopping. I seldom think that of a cinema visit, but it's surprising how often art does itself a disservice by making the same mistake. Video is just another tool for the artist about town, and much of the resultant product is, to borrow Manny Farber's phrase, just an 'idea-suggestion'. Not necessarily a bad thing, but when projected on a grand scale, artists' film and video can look like doodles placed in large, ornate gilt frames. It can project an almost unutterable pomposity, similar to the self-aggrandising excesses of scale that were once the province of the Abstract Expressionists or macho 1980s painting. It could be called the Bill Viola Effect: a form of religiosity masquerading as spirituality in which pure spectacle is regarded as austere, profound and Sublime merely because it's big, slow and full of hammy New Age symbolism.

It was even remarked in Richard Serra's 1974 video Prisoner's Dilemma that two hours spent locked in the basement of the Castelli Gallery was 'twice as long as the average boring videotape'. Critic David Antin wrote 'it may not be hip to say so without qualification, but it is a commonplace to describe artists' videotapes as "boring" or "long", even when one feels that this in no way invalidates or dishonours the tape in question.' (He was writing in 1975, a time when early artists' videos were limited by the ultra-basic editing possible with the expensive technology of the day.)

Griping about video and film merely because there's no popcorn or seats is to sweep away, in one weary gesture, the complex knotted histories of cinema, and its collisions and collusions with art. Yet art communities are by and large groups of people who, one would assume, possess a reasonably sophisticated level of visual and cultural literacy. Artists and writers in particular love to talk books, records and films, so it seems odd that, when compared with works made by young filmmakers for a 'film' context rather than an 'art' context, 'time-based media', as it likes to be called, seems frankly second rate. Pulses quicken and cheque-books fly out when an artist produces a video that uses music or editing or even (gasp) actors too! Chop one David Lynch film into ten segments and you'd have enough to keep the museums and galleries going for years. Check out a short film festival or film society and amongst the dross, you may find a dozen works that may look run-of-the-mill to your average cinéaste, but would whip art world types into a frenzy of excitement if shown in a gallery.

The filmmaker Les Levine remarked in 1974 that 'work is boring if you demand that it be something else. If you demand that it be itself then it is not boring.' True enough, but that is where the problem lies. A certain breed of work has begun to appear that clearly aspires to a cinematic condition an art that demands we read it as 'something else'. Take for example, Annika Larsson, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Matthew Barney, or Lisa May Post, and one can find work characterised by slow lingering shots, actors performing rituals of unspoken significance, dislocated dialogue fractured by Pinteresque pauses, heavy reliance on music to convey meaning, or a kind of magical realism distilled from European art house cinema. Elsewhere, the documentary genre seems to be enjoying artistic attentions think of T. J. Wilcox, Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, Sarah Tripp or Mark Leckey for example. These are works of intelligence and imagination, but where art converges with 'art cinema', the circuit of short film festivals or low-budget film societies often seems to throw out work that seems more pertinent to art than the work produced by the art world itself.

Trent Harris's extraordinary film The Beaver Trilogy (2000) is one such example. Made in three parts over the course of 22 years, the first instalment (1979) documents a young man's real-life efforts to organize a high school talent show in his small home town of Beaver, Utah, and builds up to his impersonation in full drag of Olivia Newton John singing Please Don't Keep Me Waiting. The film follows the day of the talent show, from the TV-obsessed Beaver Kid's make-up session in the local mortuary (the only place a guy can get make-up done) to the aftermath of the event. It's a funny, but ultimately sad tale of frustration in a small town. Part two, The Beaver Kid #2 (1980), sees the whole event re-enacted on black and white video, and features a young, undiscovered Sean Penn as The Kid. The story is fleshed out with speculative scenes of his home life and inner anxieties. Five years later, part three was made, this time entitled The Orkly Kid shot on colour film and expanded upon even further. As each episode progresses the film becomes increasingly painful, poignant and upsetting to watch. Footage from previous episodes is reused or recycled, lines are repeated, (he justifies wearing drag because 'people understand if it's on television'), actors mimic actors mimicking The Kid's own impressions, and Olivia Newton John's ballad hits heights of pathos at extreme odds with its bland, manufactured pop origins.

The kind of moving images artists have produced over the last 90 or so years have developed along innumerable complex trajectories: abstract cinema; the vast US film avant-garde from the 1940s onwards; British Structuralist filmmaking in the 1970s; the 'artist's video' (as opposed to 'video artists'); 1980s scratch films; installation; digital technologies ; the list is endless, and the web of connections impossible to unravel. It has, by and large, interested itself in matters sufficiently different from cinema's 'art house' productions to excuse itself for occasional indulgences and failings. Yet there are many examples too indebted to cinematic history for comparisons to be unfair. T. J. Wilcox's beautiful documentary confabulations, such as Stephen Tennant Homage (1998), The Death and Burial of the First Emperor of China (1997) or The Little Elephant (2000) are heavily in the thrall of a distinctly literary, Romantic and experimental cinema tradition from Kenneth Anger to Derek Jarman. Equally, Payne and Relph's update of the 'state of the nation' treatise Driftwood (1999), House and Garage (2000) and Jungle (2001) are sophisticated and ambitious works, yet owe more than a little to works made for cinema rather than the gallery Peter Greenaway's Vertical Features Remake (1976), William Raban's Island Race (1995), Patrick Keillor's London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997). They seem basic by comparison with cinema, but savvy next to most gallery offerings. That the documentary ; which was British film's avant-garde of the 1930s is being revisited as art is certainly interesting while television continues to be the drug of the nation. Art can sustain a freedom to play and experiment perhaps better than the film world, but as Brian O'Doherty put it, 'art does not progress by remembering the past.' The Beaver Trilogy doesn't pretend to be anything but itself; when art wants to be cinema, it often just plunders the past.

Vito Rocco's series of no-budget seven second films pin down the manipulative excesses of film scores and our expectations of genre with a succinctness and humour that make most artists' filmic aspirations to narrative intensity seem unnecessarily laboured. Ciao Mamma (1995), Killer Instinct (1995) and Buona Fortuna (1995) look like the bastard offspring of John Waters and Chris Marker. They use precisely the same devices as, say, Salla Tykka's much fêted Lasso (2001) or Lisa May Post's recent film work: relationships are implied through static shots of static characters in space, and the metonymic use of classical music. Yet, somehow Rocco manages to convey more in the blink of an eye than a month of hour-long art videos. Rocco's work is shown at film festivals - an environment where you have only the quality of the product to rely upon rather than the safety net of it being 'art' and somehow therefore excused.

For art, where Structuralist filmmaking and performance video still cast long shadows, it seems as if something as simple as an edit the admission of a controlling producer behind the camera can once again seem like a radically exciting gesture, just as Warhol's static seven-hour Empire (1964) seemed at the time of its release. That said, if art wants to play cinema then it needs to take a trip to the pictures and do some catching up.