Thursday September 20, 2012

Optic Nerve 14 at MoCA

Joshua Hagler, The Evangelists

Music videos have given us thirty years of experimental short-form visual imagery. Films have given us a century of innovative narrarative approaches, with non-linear plotlines, surreal imagery, and a host of other effects. And television has spent almost as long feeding us easily digestible morsels of instant visual gratification. Video art has got it tough — it occupies the same screens as these other media, but it must set itself apart, must elevate itself from all of them. And it must do it while occupying the same screens, and in almost all cases with a fraction of the budget. More recently video art has had to contend with YouTube, which allows literally any jerk with a laptop to experiment with time-based visual imagery. Every piece of video art must answer the question before the discussion of its quality even begins: Why is this not a feature film? Why is this not a music video? Why is this not a television program? Why is this not YouTube piffle?

It’s a wonder how often it succeeds. The genre has produced a stream of works that re-imagine what a moving image can mean, and how it can interact with physical space. There is cross pollination between video art and the traditional video forms, but semantically video art has managed to maintain the same distinction between itself and “everything else” that is essential to all contemporary art.

Optic Nerve 14 contained, among much else: Cara Despain’s Timbre, a surreal stop-motion piece set inside a cardboard box and involving the clay heads of two creatures; Bill Fontana’s Acoustical Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge, a three-minute still-cam shot of the underside of the bridge, with car and boat horn sounds; an excerpt from Joshua Hagler’s stunning The Evangelists, in which four computer-enhanced disembodied heads discuss a mysterious religious event (arson on their apartment building, as it turns out); Yuliya Lanina’s Dodo Valse, a beautifully painted, folkloric-themed animation; Liz Rodda’s Cut, in which CG women’s muscles grow as far as the software slider will allow them to grow; Juan Carlos Saldivar’s Shift, a mini-movie with live-actors covered with paper-mache masks; Carmen Tiffany’s The Accident, a grotesque jumble of homemeade pupets in absurdist conversation and other video rift-raft; Dodrigo Valenzuela’s Diamond Box, black and white interviews of, perhaps, Mexican immigrants, each filmed so that you hear their voice as you see their unmoving face; Doug Garth Williams’ Back and Forth, a bit of clever green-screen trickery; and two YouTube style supercuts: one of all the bits of a Bill Cosby where he’s not talking, one of “The End” title cards from the end of movies.

This is the sort of variety that every edition of Optic Nerve brings. And yet the event feels remarkably consistent from year to year. The overall quality of the 15 or so videos, culled from hundreds of submissions, is always remarkable. Each is 5 minutes or less, so the viewer doesn’t get bogged down. And screening video art this way, rather than encountered on a small monitor in a gallery, makes for a compelling experience. MoCA’s no-thrills auditorium is the wrong shape for video screenings, and the production values are not exactly top notch. (This year: audio problems, and a visible computer pointer hitting the play and pause buttons and adjusting volume during the screening.) But the experience is enough like a movie theater to force the viewer’s attention the way a cinematic film does, despite the disparity of the work.

Bonnie Clearwater was shrewd to include the warped perspective of Carlos Rigau on the selection panel for this year. The man is absurdly smart about video art, and I pictured him fighting for inclusion of pieces like The Evangelists and Cut.

For years, Optic Nerve was a fleeting and elusive event: one screening, with an interested audience far beyond its capacity. But it’s improved: the program will be screened again at the De La Cruz space on October 13th. (It will also travel to the Big Screen Plaza in New York City.) Maybe next year MoCA will do a week-long run, which would allow for reviews like this to reach audiences and give them time to react, and would allow people to see it at their leisure, at the expense of some of the special-occasion-ness. We can also hope that MoCA will see fit to add text from the program to the event’s web page for archival purposes.

But mostly we should be grateful that Optic Nerve exists. Since it’s open to submission by anyone, it casts a wide net. It’s exposed several artists who have gone on to great things. And it’s helped raise awareness of video as art, and make the argument for its ongoing vitality (not as foregone conclusion as we might like to think: video was largely diminished in presence at last year’s Art Basel).

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