Nam June Paik
Electronic Opera No. 1
Nam June Paik
Electronic Opera No. 1
Electronic Light Ballet
Marina Grzinic and Aina Smid
Troubles with Sex, History and Theory
Marina Grzinic and Anna Smid
Troubles with Sex, History and Theory
The third biannual Videonale-Intermezzo, organized by the nonprofit Videonale Bonn at the Kunstmuseum Bonn last fall, was called "CrossVideo: The Moving Image in the Electronic Arts" -- the idea being that in today's world of electronics we can mix and match the sights and sounds of virtually anything with the click of a mouse or the touch of a button. The Intermezzo itself is a kind of deep breath -- a chance to reflect -- taken between the biannual Videonale festivals that feature a whirlwind of electronic art exhibitions and special events.
The three-day event, Oct. 10-12, 1997, was launched with a keynote address by artist Klaus vom Bruch, who showed video clips and talked about working across disciplinary lines in the arts. Vom Bruch mixes genres in his video projections and installations, using theater, opera and vintage film, for instance, to distort the real world by turning the imaginary world of moving images on its head. Under vom Bruch's influence, Fred and Ginger dance and revolve upside-down, or a fraction of the body is taken and mirrored using computer technology to make a perfect being emerge from a line cutting down the middle of the screen. This seraph folds and unfolds itself, breathing to the rhythms of Wagnerian opera.
After the general festivities of the Videonale-Intermezzo opening night, we got down to individual aspects of "CrossVideo." Christiane Fricke provided a historical review of what happens when video art is crossed with television, beginning with the late '60s, when television was first handed over to visual artists -- at least for a few hours. In 1969, artists produced works for WGBH TV in Boston, and in 1971 Stephen Beck brought his art to NCET in San Francisco.
What was cutting edge back then seemed heart-warmingly nostalgic at the festival. We watched Allan Kaprow and all his friends wave and smile to each other in his video Hello, which featured a then-novel live relay from four different points in Boston. Productions by Nam June Paik, James Seawright or Stephen Beck, among others, beautifully distorted television and made colorful, sometimes kaleidoscopic abstractions. They wanted to reach the public in their homes, using TV's power in artistic, positive ways.
Art & the CD-ROM
Today artists are making their way into people's homes through the CD-ROM. The music industry pioneered this area, thanks to its capital and high-tech expertise. One such example came from the long-time alternative music group The Resident's, whose intricate CD-ROM The Residents Freak Show was presented by Catrin Backhaus. The CD-ROM features a virtual expedition through a run-down freak show with the opportunity to meet all the show's characters, and also contains clips from The Residents' music videos.
In a turn toward "high" art, the brand new CD-ROM by the two Sarajevo video artists Marina Grzinic and Aina Smid was popped into the drive. Titled Troubles with Sex, History and Theory, the work mixes theater and dance with a heavy dose of media theory in a kind of an electronic collage, to be waded through by mouse click.
An intimate one-on-one with your home computer is provided by Luc Courchesne's CD-ROM Portrait One, which allows the computer-user to carry on a pseudo-personal conversation with a flirtatious cybercreature named Marie. This imaginary southern-European beauty makes small talk on subjects ranging from the time of day to tastes in art. Her increasingly personal questions and answers explore that so-close-and-yet-so-far aspect of electronic media.
On the Internet
Art on the Internet was presented by Petra Unnuetzer via a selection of Web sites. In a visualization of hypertext, the literary form that is unique to the Internet, Olla Lialiana's My Boyfriend Came Back from the War lets you click on a choice of different images to reveal bits of dialogue and vicariously live a love story created by a narrative through association.
But Internet art also has more traditional links to the electronic image. As Unnuetzer stated, "this new art form has developed a profile that, in the context of the history of video art, is less surprising than one might think." Just as video artists like Paik have made the actual equipment part of the artwork, there is also art in the Internet that directly addresses technology-based esthetics. One such example is John Heemskerk and Kirk Paesman's Jodi.org Web site, where the user can steer the cursor through patterns of gracefully rising and falling computer symbols.
The German artist Dieter Kiessling, who works with Super-8 films, videos, installations, performances and CD-ROMs, is also inclined to reveal the electronic nuts and bolts to "create a feeling for the hidden aspects of reality." In his CD-ROM Continue, the user is presented with two simple choices: click on fields of black or white with the words "yes" and "no." The fields grow smaller with each successful click and are increasingly hard to tell apart. Only those with the best eyesight -- or luck -- reach the final level of minuscule black and white fields. Kiessling works with the essentials of the medium, the choice of a click, a yes or a no, to decode the system and get to the end of the game.
My own program dealt with performances made especially for the video camera. Video-specific performance dates to the beginning of video art, and Richard Serra's video Anxious Automation, made in 1971, exemplifies the organizational idea of the series, which was titled "Electrified Performance." In Serra's tape, simple motions by the dancer Joan Jonas -- she lies back and taps her hands on her head, and crosses them over her chest -- are transformed into machine-like actions. In making the half-inch video, Serra switched from two cameras left and right, and zoomed in and out of the performance to confuse the eye, while Philip Glass tapped off-beat on a microphone to provide the audio. In the end, Serra succeeded in disconcerting the senses, separating the eye from the ear and putting the viewer off balance. This kind of manipulation can also be found in Joan Jonas' own work. In 1972, Jonas created a video masterpiece, Vertical Roll, integrating the distortions normally found in a broken television with the movements of the video's different performance figures.
With the widespread availability of video editing equipment in art schools, young artists are renewing the use of video as an independent medium in a fashion not unlike what was happening in the early '70s. In Cheryl Donegan's Head we watch the artist slurp up and swallow milk spilling out of a container while a hard beat pushes the action on. By putting it on tape she turns us into voyeurs, watching an intimate experience on our own private monitors.
Alix Pearlstein uses video to unite theater, dance, painting and sculpture. She dresses up in vivid costumes to act out and subtly question different societal roles. Many of her characters are from television: the happy housewife, the vamp and the Energizer Bunny are only a few of the figures Pearlstein portrays to reveal television's stereotypes and our fascination with them. At the same time, Pearlstein also acts out personalities such as the contemplating artist or interior decorator, using objects, paintings and drawings in the skits as tools while she lampoons the role-playing that goes on in the art world. This has an added bite, when you know that the video was also part of a gallery installation.
Video as Sculpture
In addition, more traditional artists have discovered that video can be a valid expansion of their oeuvre. Harald Uhr discussed the way that some sculptors have recently translated their work into video terms. Simone Westerwinter's video Gute Plastik takes off on an esthetic maxim spouted by the artist Otto Baum, "A sculpture is good if it can roll down a hill and nothing breaks off." Westerwinter illustrates this by taping two women -- all dolled up in bridal gowns and make-up -- rolling down first a grassy hill and then a long, green ramp in a Stuttgart museum. The artist plays upon not only sculpture, but the body as sculpture.
Similarly, Asta Groeting often works with glass, polyester and silicon to recreate and understand the body's inner organs, showing how things that we do not see are also important, if not the most important things of all. In the video The Inner Voice she is able to reach both inside and outside the body to portray the human conscience. Groeting shows a ventriloquist talking with his dummy, a simple wide-eyed figure wearing a blue cape and hood. The artist is also able to enhance her sculpture, the dummy, with another dimension by giving it the human quality of the inner voice, and making this voice the motivation for an existentialist conversation between the dummy and the ventriloquist.
From the abstract notion of sculpture in video to the obvious technical means in which other electronic media use the image in respect to video, and to the areas in between, such as crossing performance and video, we were able to address many aspects of the integration of the media arts and moving images during a three day, brain-filling intermezzo.
ROSANNE ALTSTATT is a critic and curator working in Cologne.