From Hi-8 to High Culture

Article excerpt

The 1999 New York Video Festival

Walter Reade Theatre (The Film Society of Lincoln Center)

New York, New York

July 16-22, 1999

This year's New York Video Festival described itself in its program literature as presenting an art form that has become "classical." And with the classical comes high ideals. "We must always remember that the raison d'etre is the art, not the technology," states the festival's flyer, an idea that is refreshing (although not original) given the proclivity of electronic artists for distraction by new media hype. Consequently, a number of festival offerings were inspiring due to their "make-do" constructions. Christopher Wilcha's The Target Shoots First (1999), a Hi-8 document of his sojourn as Columbia House Record Club's resident grunge expert is the kind of work that reinvigorates video art by virtue of its simplicity, as did Sadie Benning's work some years back. Miranda July's combinations of slide technology and "cheesy" video effects in the performance piece Love Diamond (1999) make her suburban surrealism and black comedy vignettes seem more like puppet theater than multi-media art. Backed by an intricat e ambient score by Zac Love, the lovable and slightly dippy tone of her multiple voices--at times cloying, at times sexy, at times spooky--is all the more remarkable since it is unenhanced by technological gimmickry. Kelly Reichardt's 50-minute traditional narrative, Ode (1999), a lyrical rewrite of the Billy Joe McAllister legend that comes off like a utopian after-school special, was shot in Kodachrome and without a crew. This inclusion of film, as well as performance art, to the festival's offerings is the reductio ad absurdum of the claim that the festival is about the art, not the technology. Perhaps it is also a sign that video's classical period will be marked by various technological convergences and expanded notions of the medium.

In addition to the low-tech work, including the sincere, hand-held camera explorations of family, sex and death that never go out of style, there were high-tech experiments, all of which are closer to what is called digital art than video art. Many utilized the look of the interface--that liminal area between computer data and its user, the aesthetics of which have become an important issue for digital commerce. In video, the interface aesthetic highlights the similarities between television and computers as tools for reinventing, repackaging or refraining information. The interfaces of Chris Petit's experimental documentaries are masterful. In Negative Space (1998), these windows dramatize the theories of camera framing that fascinate his subject, film critic and artist Manny Farber. In The Falconer (1998) the interface has alchemical powers, creating a visual equivalent of the alembic in which we witness the shape-shifting substance of the filmmaker Peter Whitehead. Whitehead's life, we discover, is fantas tical and shocking enough to require the multiple filters, hieroglyphs and other symbolic arcana of Petit's interface lest the subject utterly explode the nonfiction restraints of the documentary genre. Petit is video artist as alchemist and disembodied cicerone; he approaches curiosities of film history within the frames of video technology but through a cathode ray tube darkly, following unconventional axes with his own eloquence and history.

At times the art of the convergence between computer and video was not as fully worked out. Marcello Mercado's The Warm Place (1998) is a potential equal of Woody Vasulka's The Art of Memory (1987), though Mercado overkills his piece with computer graphics. Intentionally or not, the unmanipulated slaughterhouse ballet of his video's last moments allows the viewer to reflect on the potential simple beauty of uncomputerized video while watching an equally simple method for slaughter. The artist collective panOptic's Wonder Spider (1998)--a collection of fake interfaces intentionally created to induce the displeasure of seizure and mind control through strobe effects--is, paradoxically, a visually and sonically elegant exploration of the intelligence of the machine that is reminiscent of the works of Paul Bush, The Bureau of Inverse Technology (B. …