By Tucker Neel
Originally published in ART LIES magazine No. 58, Summer 2008, p. 98-99.
When Sony released its first portable video camera in 1967 artists on both American coasts latched onto it as a tool providing immediate visual fidelity and freedom from the hassle of celluloid film. However, the new medium was not without complications. Editing required costly machinery and no one knew if video would meet archival standards. On the West Coast, the Long Beach Museum of Art recognized video art’s growing importance and in 1976 it created a video archive and editing facility allowing for hundreds of artists to make and preserve their groundbreaking works.
The Getty Research Institute acquired the archive in 2006, providing the sometimes bawdy, oftentimes political, and always experimental videos with an oddly conservative and incongruous home. The museum’s recent California Video exhibition celebrates this new acquisition with an expansive showcase of over fifty sprawling single channel monitors and fifteen installations of modest to spectacular scale by fifty-eight artists and collectives who made these works while residing in California. More than half of the works in the exhibition are from the Long Beach archive, the rest gleaned from other sources or made specifically for the Getty. An ambitious undertaking by Getty curator Phillips, the show is daunting, a little sloppy, but ultimately inspiring, providing an opportunity to chart video’s rather nascent history and explore what exactly makes California video intrinsically Californian.
As the first video one encounters in the exhibition, John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art from 1971 acts as a sounding board for the rest of the works in the show. Displayed on a chipped wood-paneled Sony TV, the video captures the artist writing “I will not make any more boring art” on a sheet of paper for an excruciating thirty-two minutes an twenty-one seconds. In exploiting the very essence of video, its ability to capture an action and play it back in real time, Baldessari uses self-reflexive humor and an innate understanding of the viewer’s role as spectator to make a poignant joke about art and entertainment. The most resonant works that follow incorporate this kind of sensibility, freely blurring the boundaries between art and entertainment, humor and critique, boredom and engagement.
From Baldessari’s intro, the exhibition continues along a relatively chronological path, with works loosely grouped according to formal and conceptual concerns. Late 1960’s black and white videos incorporating rudimentary psychedelic special effects by Skip Sweeney and Joanne Kyger are positioned near one another. These early experiments find their legacy in more colorful, almost formalist videos, from the 1970’s by Stephen Beck. His trippy chromophilic patterns line the same hallway as Erika Suderburg frenzied 2006 video abstractions, which are actually close ups of Linda Besemer’s paintings.
Elanor Antin’s ballet performance video, Susan Mongul’s ruminations on women’s clothes, and Martha Rosler’s layered exposé on anorexia nervosa, all groundbreaking works stemming from a commitment to feminist practices, are in close proximity to one another. While these works are well contextualized with explanatory texts, their conspicuous grouping borders on ghettoization.
And, in what can be taken as a dumb curatorial joke, some of the most interesting body art in the show is crammed together into one cramped room so that one has to literally crawl over other visitors to see amazing videos by Skip Arnold, Bruce Nauman, the Kipper Kids and Ulysses Jenkins, among others. Thankfully other larger installations throughout the show don’t suffer the same fate.
In The Eternal Frame from 1975-76, recreated specifically for the exhibition, San Francisco Bay area artists T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm situate their video in a 1960s American living room diorama adorned with knick-knacks memorializing the Kennedy presidency. Sitting on comfy couches, visitors watch the artists’ 22-minute color and black and white video on a vintage TV. The hilarious documentary follows the artists’ hyperbolic restaging of Zapruder’s famous JFK assassination film. In one scene, actors playing John and Jackie rehearse the assassination on a rickety set, Jackie winking to the camera as she rushes to hold her co-star’s head together. By using decoration, artifice and spectacle to create meaning both in and around the TV screen, the artists explore video’s ability to entertain while manipulating events and shaping national debate. This kind of preference for a simulated environment ripe with contradictions and righteous irreverence seems to be very Californian, a reflection of a culture actively in the business of turning media-fabricated dreams into reality.
Projected on a wall in another gallery, Stanya Kahn and Harry Dodge’s Whacker takes a more recent view of the Hollywood dream machine. Shot with the low-tech DIY aesthetic of a Youtube video, the piece has Dodge behind the camera following Kahn as she uses a buzzing weedwacker in a Sysiphisian attempt to clear dry, golden grass from a Los Angeles hillside lot on a sunny afternoon. Chewing gum while decked out in aviator sunglasses, a flower print halter-top and heels, Kahn looks more bored than exhausted with her repetitive work. When she stops to survey her progress and gaze out at the palm trees silhouetted in the hazy sky, she is the picture-perfect embodiment of disengaged LA nonchalance. The sun never sets as the seven-minute video loops and Kahn’s work continues indefinitely. This unremitting cycle makes her contrived disinterest more and more intoxicating and comic. The video seems to exclaim that, contrary to popular belief, Angelinos do work hard, they just don’t like to show it.
A show about contemporary video art wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Youtube and in keeping with the times the Getty hosts little snippets of work from the show on their website. These excerpts act as teasers designed to bring in patrons. Perhaps more telling though is videorevolutionaries.com, a site actively promoted in connection with the California Video exhibition. Here users can submit their own videos and vote on which submissions will screen at a special Getty event. As a rather transparent move to bring a young, hip audience to the museum, the site reflects this demographic with videos featuring predictably cool special-effects, club music, pretty faces, fondled breasts, blog-like confessionals and shameless self promotions. While these works may never show alongside a Nauman, the ambition behind their creation admirable, a testament to enduring experimentation and a willingness to put it all out in the open which, in the end, may be the most Californian trait of all.