February 27, 2010

Criticisms of video art: Sensory deprivation

Part one of two.

I usually skip video art in museums, particularly the so called “single-channel” format, screened or projected films that contain the entirety of the piece. Here’s an example by Josephine Meckseper from this year’s Whitney Biennial, which started on Thursday (and I dearly wish I could attend):

It’s kind of cool, kind of dramatic, but is it really art? Sure, it’s art. But I don’t appreciate it like I would other types, and it’s not because I’m a curmudgeonly hater of the newfangled, mostly because video art isn’t new. At all.

We are so inundated with digital imagery that it makes pieces like the video above commonplace, no big deal. But let me make this clear: It’s not because of the content, it’s because of the inherent lack of faceted interaction in the work.

The creation of a film is an intensive process. Establishing your set, your performance artists, your shots, the scope, etc. Dozens, hundreds of hours of film is recorded. It’s edited, pieced together. The desired effect is refined. They watch it over and over, changing little details here and there. It takes months to create one six minute reel for assholes like me to say “No thanks, that‘s crap.”

It’s filtered, second-hand. Take the video above as an example. Think about the stairwell and that blistering light above, how it washes out the stairs and the people walking up and down, how it penetrates and obscures the camera lens. Imagine how much more interesting it would be if that light was penetrating your eyes, washing out parts of a real stairwell that you were truly climbing. Perhaps you wouldn’t even need an actual light to get that feeling across. The stairwell could be built to simulate that light, creating stairs that are physically deconstructed. It’s really there, I’m touching it with my hands and feet or imagining that I am. I can walk all the way around it. It is a physical reality filtered by my own perception with no trace of a heavy hand.

When I go to an art museum I want to have an experience. I want to see objects and images that challenge my perceptions; part of that challenge is using unique and interesting materials, not the fodder of my everyday digital life. I sit and watch screens enough during my day. I want to lean in and see brush strokes, imagine the feel of rough stone or smooth veneer and have a real experience with something that truly exists in the space I’m occupying. Single-channel art is sensory deprivation, in a sense.

I’m being very specific with my terminology. That’s because I’ve seen some really excellent installations that use video as an element to varying degrees. In some, the video is dominant, but the artist was careful enough to include items that rounded out the experience, that incorporate those necessary grounding elements of touch and smell and presence. It’s all care and attention. Skill is apparent in the aesthetic choices made, and that does not exclude the choice of medium.

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