BY Kari Rittenbach in News | 09 MAR 10

Trembling Time

A programme of recent Israeli video at Tate Modern

BY Kari Rittenbach in News | 09 MAR 10

For Martha Rosler, avant-garde video reached a Utopian climax in 1970s New York, when a (mostly male) generation of artists experimented with the formalism of mass media by way of the television set – and perhaps best exemplified by Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham’s work from this era. While the Internet’s ascendancy has since worn away at broadcasting networks’ strong-arming of the spectator, all sorts of ‘video art’ forms have continued to proliferate. Do these recent works merely reproduce yesterday’s heterotopias? What are the social implications for video-making now?

%7Bfiledir_9%7Drrosen.jpgRoee Rosen, Hilarious (2010)

Last weekend’s film presentation at Tate Modern provided yet another argument for video art’s institutional canonization, otherwise indicative of a depletion of its radicality and the medium’s transformation into ‘ART-art’. That video production encompasses a standard suite of technical specifications certainly unifies ‘video artists’ under a common rubric. But other attempts to define a uniform purpose are less rewarding: authorship by the individual with ‘definable styles and intentions’ relative to other modern histories, is consequently the task of every contemporary artist. ‘Trembling Time: Recent Video from Israel’ not only specified a genre of creative production – without, however, explicitly calling it video art – but a certain geopolitical position as well. Globalization’s ethnocentrism notwithstanding, this was an event in microcosm – exposing the state of video in dimensions social, visual and political. It allowed a rare opportunity to challenge David Joselit’s theory of the ‘video public sphere’ as a bilateral embrace of the personal and the political, by questioning whether video from Israel is ever anything but political.

The comprehensive three-day programme was assembled by Sergio Edelsztein, director of CCA Tel Aviv, and it featured segments devoted exclusively to works by Guy Ben-Ner, Yael Bartana and Roee Rosen, each in excess of an hour. Twenty-two other artists filled out a roster of single-screen projection short films, including those earliest to pioneer and subsequently establish the genre (in Israel) along with Ben-Ner: Doron Solomons and Boaz Arad. Edelsztein traced the history of Israeli video from the first Intifada, through the inauguration of Israel’s first commercial television channel (in 1993), to today. ‘Trembling Time’ shifted from raw footage of the Israel–Palestine question – captured in montage by Solomons and forming the subject for Dana Levy (Hells Angels, 2002), Avi Mograbi (Detail, 2004) and Amir Yatziv (Compressed Ceramic Powder, 2007) – to the more or less allegorical and highly personal framing of continued conflict in later works.

%7Bfiledir_9%7Dybart.jpgYael Bartana, Summer Camp (2007)

While editing quality fluctuated, eight of the films were scripted, four entailed some sort of Q&A, at least two used CGI and 13 contained appearances by the artists themselves: as protagonist, protagonist-in-absentia, interviewer or alluded-to off-screen presence. Because most video today takes the form of a perpetually repeating closed-circuit loop (ideal for the white-box museum or gallery in which installation inscribes the viewing space), Tate’s concentrated screening was in some ways as disorienting as it was revelatory of aesthetic diversity – and, lacking intermissions, not for the faint of heart.

The overall disunity of political and creative intentions carried over into the work of headlining artists Ben-Ner, Bartana and Rosen, whose oeuvres were granted greater scope. Ben-Ner’s obsession with rhyme and picaresque narratives to fictionalize his personal life culminated in the tragicomic Drop the Monkey (2009), in which the artist cum anti-hero spends his entire production budget on flights between Tel Aviv and Berlin to visit a recent love interest who coincidentally dumps him before the project concludes. In many ways more aligned with performance art practices, it is unsurprising that Ben-Ner’s unrealized project is to make a film without a camera.

Bartana’s emphasis on post-production is evident in her careful editing, and the serious tenor of her Zionist critique (‘Can we live as a community, or must we live as a state?’), in the beautifully shot Kings of the Hill (2003) and A Declaration (2006), turns cinematic in her longer, most recent films. Set in Warsaw, Mary Koszmary (Nightmares, 2007) and Wall and Tower (2009) explore the consequences of a Jewish renaissance in Poland, maintaining historical distance by positing re-colonization via the kibbutz. Currently at work on what will be the final film in the trilogy, Bartana’s now-established affiliation has garnered her a nomination for 2010 Polish Woman of the Year.

Rosen, whose practice involves the assumption of iconic female identities to stand for his own, premiered Hilarious (2010) during the final session. Paired with the complex Confessions of Roee Rosen (2008), both films played with the tropes of late-night television. But whereas the acknowledged exploitation (of non-Hebrew-speaking immigrants) in The Confessions… cultivates a truly uncomfortable comedy, the crude 9/11 joke that caps Hilarious seems to contain a satirical homage to Sarah Silverman, while failing to address the unstable figure of the comedienne – as stand-up comedy’s sexism remains unresolved. A presumably standard monologue turned macabre, Rosen’s Hilarious joke – invoking the final reality of death itself – almost isn’t grotesque enough.

If video doesn’t always sit well with itself, then what of the viewer? How might such inconsistent output be reconciled by an audience? (As if to soften this difficult proposition, someone eventually presented Tate film curator Stuart Comer with a bouquet of flowers for having the ‘balls’ to stage ‘Trembling Time’ in the first place.) Made from various vantage points in the greater scheme of national identity, the personal politics implicated by Edelsztein’s programme might in fact be cultural. Because, after all, ‘Israel’ tends to serve as a marker of difference eclipsing other nationalisms, as the Middle Eastern state in which the West currently has the greatest vested interests. Reflecting this political reality are Guy Ben-Ner’s familiarity with the Western literary canon, Shajar Marcus’ gourmand Jackson Pollock allusion set to Yoko Ono’s ‘The Paths’ (Sabich, 2006), Keren Cytter’s riffing on the choreographed language of fantastical reality TV drama (Dreamtalk, 2005), Yossi Atia and Itamar Rose’s identification of the United States as a potent common enemy (The State of Judeo-Arabia, 2007), Karen Russo’s scatological metaphor (Economy of Excess, 2005) and Miri Segal’s exploration of the cyborg-self in Second Life (BRB, 2007).

That the concerns of recent Israeli video are compatible with art-world interests might be an extension of Rosler’s earlier take on the medium. Is it possible that video’s now art-historicized history might constitute a social history, as well?

Kari Rittenbach is a critic and independent curator in New York City.