Video and the Dark

The Getty Center’s California Video is an amazing retrospective considered through the lens of a place intimately involved this medium, both artistically and in the mainstream. Walking through the galleries painted black and lined with primitive and contemporary televisions showing a collection of highly influential works by artists such as John Baldessari, Chris Burden, Nancy Buchanan, William Wegman, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, and so many others is the video art history lesson impossible to achieve in a classroom setting on the same level. When juxtaposed against one another, these carefully selected pieces achieve a startlingly complete look at the way themes such as humor, linguistics, authenticity, and technical experimentation interact within video art and continue to influence current video works.

Jennifer Stienkamp. Oculus Sinister (left eye). Image from the Ventura County Star

As I wandered between video stations (most videos were playing beside 4-ft. posts containing text , two sets of headphones, and two headphone inputs for viewers who brought their own sets), I was reminded of Western Bridge’s Multiplex (on view 1.31.08 – 3.29.08), described on the organization’s website as “…an anthology of projected work in projected video and video installation from the first half of this decade.” Overall, both exhibitions were successful in their respective impetuses. However, the one thing I missed in California Video that I distinctly remember as present in Multiplex was darkness.

“Darkness automatically reduces our contact with actuality, depriving us of many environmental data needed for adequate judgments and other mental activities” (Sigfried Kracauer in Theory of Film, 159)

“….what [appreciators of film] really crave is for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen.” (Kracauer 158-9)

Film and video art are not the same medium (and arguably, video installation and traditional videos also may not necessarily be considered identical either). However, Kracauer’s classical analysis of the role of darkness in projected media is still relevant. In the crowded galleries of California Video, I missed the dark isolation so overt in the way Multiplex’s individual pieces were installed in separate galleries, allowing for the simultaneous collective and independent experiences of each. While headphones and stations were likely the best solutions for showing so many videos in a single exhibition, the immersive, projected-identity aspect of a video piece seen individually in small, black room was lost in the reshuffling of visitors that occurred whenever a pair of headsets became available or another Getty tram arrived at the complex with a handful of visitors.

The External Flame. T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm, Image from Leap into the Void

The one exception was The External Flame by T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm, a full living room environment installation reminiscent of a 1970s room where one might have been watching the small screen when their “Artist President” was originally created. Despite its inherent relationship with the bizarre, The External Flame achieved what is often done by the black box: a forgetting of one’s self in exchange for a procession of images. Resting on a stiff, peach couch, I couldn’t help but fade into the background as T.R. Uthco and Ant Farm overtook my mind, just as they should.