Escape from the Precious Object


Video art has been on the verge of hitting the cultural big time for forty years now, but it still isn’t there yet. Video as an art form faces a lot of challenges. For one, its technology is constantly threatened with obsolescence. Already expensive archiving projects are underway to make sure someone has a VHS machine to play those hours of 1970s video art. Video is a tough sell to collectors, so it’s generally stuck in museums and galleries. And video art is often boring, which is puzzling, considering the form’s closest relations, television and film, fear boredom most of all. Video artists seem irresistibly drawn to boredom. Douglas Gordon has made a career out of appropriating movies for video art, infusing them with exquisite kind of boredom. His 24 Hour Psycho (1993) is an frame-by-frame reproduction of Hitchcock’s film drawn out to 24 hours.

The New York Times‘ Holland Cotter has found some recent videos that aren’t boring. The most remarkable of these videos is Ryan Trecartin’s I-Be Area, which asks its viewers to watch for an hour and forty-eight minutes, much longer than most people are generally willing to endure a video artwork. Cotter says Trecartin’s video rewards extended viewing

because "I-Be Area" is so giddy, so different. But it’s also just plain strange, which is part of the larger appeal of today’s video art. It represents a possible way out of something, out of the renewed tyranny of the precious object, out from under a boutique art market that has amassed grotesque wealth and power while making art itself seem small and utterly dispensable.

If Cotter is right and Trecartin and the other video artists Cotter discusses–Kalup Linzy, Sadie Benning, and Nathalie Djurberg–the escape from the precious object may lead to another kind of cultural object: the feature-length narrative film.

If video art can be said to have a master form, it would be textuality. In contrast to the auratic artwork, video art draws from, then disappears into, the vast system of books, movies, TV shows, commercials produced by the culture industry–all of which seem to be related to each other, somehow. Video art’s thematic of boredom can be seen as a reproduction of the flow of all that pop culture stuff that whizzes through our minds every day. I-Be Area is a text rather than a work; we’ve seen it all before, just not in such an audaciously weird form. What distinguishes Trecartin’s work is that it has a narrative–a more or less cinematic one. So should we view it as we would a movie?

There’s long been a debate about whether or not video art has the suturing effect of cinema. Is video art supposed to engage us as viewers with the same set of identificatory mechanisms as classical cinema? Or is video art a refutation of all the ruses of the classical film style? For all its antic editing, claustrophobic mise-en-scene and visual non sequiturs, I-Be Area wants us to enter its strange world and stay a while, just as we would in a film. Everyone in I-Be Area is clamoring to be noticed. Forget the passive "ready to be seen" pose of the film character, Trecartin’s characters constantly play with their appearances to distract us from the reality that they’re characters in a video. There’s a touching earnestness to the strangeness in the video. (Much the same can be said for Linzy’s All My Churen.)

I-Be Area and the other videos Cotter discusses have a made-for-YouTube visual aesthetic, which would seem to disqualify them as films. And yet, filmmakers could learn a few things from video artists. Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a terrific film, but every frame has a lush quality that seems airless at times, which is perhaps why Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is so stagy. Anderson’s film, like many other Oscar-ready films this year, is a precious object. It would be refreshing to see a film that’s willing to pull out all the stops to show us something new. Film directors could use the fearlessness of video artists.

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