Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Tip of the Iceberg. Video Art at UMOCA.

        Not since the construction of City Creek Center has there been such a racket on West Temple. Eight videos in UMOCA’s summer exhibition Cantastoria are creating quite a ruckus in the usually hushed galleries, as a cacophony of chanting, giggling and clicking converges in the subterranean galleries. For those accustomed to more traditional media, video can be bewildering, if not outright alienating. This, I suspect, has something to do with the old adage “familiarity breeds contempt.” As the preeminent mode of communication for most folks, the video stream looms so large in the American psyche, that anything other than the status quo is often unwelcome. Luckily, the works in Cantastoria tread gently. They don’t project agitprop onto building facades (see Krzysztof Wodiczko), or onto tormented little effigies (Tony Oursler). We are not required to deconstruct the baroque gesticulations of Bill Viola, or the primal chants of Bruce Nauman. No, the works on view at UMOCA are enough to get our feet wet, but not crack our brains. In fact, most works employ a static, documentary-style shot that projects an ‘invisible window’ onto the world, much like TV. Unlike TV, there is no staging, and editing is kept to a minimum.

Indeed, most of the videos in Cantastoria are married to the performance they document, rather than the specificities of the medium. “Exercise” by Lucia Nimcova (2007) showcases senior citizens in Slovakia who re-enact daily exercise routines that were introduced as a national health program by the State. As such, the works present a concept of the body that is inscribed by political ideology, while offering a window into communist life. No attempt is made to idealize the protagonists’ bodies, their shapes contrast those of American sport icons. Nor do they exercise in high-tech studios or gyms, but in modest homes, offices and churches. A train conductor does arm lifts from a baggage rail, a woman does sit-ups on her couch, housewives in headscarves and smocks touch their toes. Clearly the act of revisiting these movements triggers happy memories. As they giggle and chuckle, their pleasure is contagious (to the viewer) and forms an instant connection which transcends our demonized view of communism. This stands in sharp contrast to the highly regimented nature of our own form of exercise, and presents new connections between the body and freedom, health and happiness.

“The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow, 2009documents a series of vignettes performed by the “man of 10000 sound effects,” Michael Winslow. Armed with only a microphone, headphones and his superhuman mouth, we watch as Winslow stretches and contorts his mandible to mimic the sounds of typewriter machines built between 1895 and 1983. The result is comparable to the a capella acrobatics of Bobby McFerrin. Yet Winslow essentially automates himself, transforming himself into a robot of sorts. This reading is tempered by the artist’s own foibles, as he spits, sputters and gasps through the performance.

While Winslow works his way through the typewriter models, the sentence he ‘types’ remains unchanged : “The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow, 2009. Because the sentence doesn’t change, the audience is able to decipher unique sounds that distinguish each model. The results range from the choppy slam of keys on a rubber roller, to the sleeker muffles of ‘noiseless’ electronic machines. As such, the work is not only a paean to the more mechanistic side of twentieth century business life (predating the sleek screens of today), but pays tribute to a buried dimension of the office that must have characterized modern working life. The work’s circuitousness presents a conundrum; the object under consideration is conspicuously absent, yet is beautifully resurrected in the intersection of text and sound.

A solo-exhibition of Christian Jankowski’s “Casting Jesus” (2011) documents a real-life casting call hosted by papal officiates in the Roman Vatican. Not since the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) have a group of men gathered to discuss the image of Christ with such ... devotion.  Critiquing various actors who’ve answered ‘the call’ to portray Him, we witness the reenactment of iconic New Testament moments in the story of Christ. Barefoot and bearded, the contenders feign piety and pathos not from any inherent religiosity, but to appease the selection committee and land a job. Such a transparent window into the machinations of the Vatican leaves even this Jew wondering : is nothing sacred?  The results are definitely camp. (Or, in Utah parlance, ‘inappropriate.’) Unfortunately, we all know the outcome. For, despite the candidates’ efforts, Christianity is like a game show : there can be only one that rises to the top.

As the reaction of committee members shifts from applause to disapproval, the subjective nature of their comments becomes evident; they are no more experts in the life of Christ than we are. In this way, another reality starts to dawn. Jesus is no more the embodiment of the Truth than a cultural construction carefully gerrymandered by religious leaders. For devotees of the moral majority, to say nothing of the Holy See and Pontificate, this conclusion is nothing short of scandalous. As such, UMOCA should be congratulated for bringing us such potentially contentious work. And yes, cracking our brains just a little.

Unlike the above works, which document performances by artists or the public, Omer Fast’s CNN Concatenated (2002) intervenes with the video stream to form a collage of sorts. Specifically, second-long frames from a CNN broadcast, each the length of a single word, are isolated and then reassembled to form whole, lengthy sentences. Initially appearing incoherent, the words stutter along while the journalist, background and NYSE ticker leap from frame to frame. While these elements remain in flux, various phrases in the dialogue start to surface and repeat themselves until we eventually see the forest through the trees, and whole sentences emerge. Harking back to conspiracy theories claiming a hidden, subliminal message, this secret dialogue is at times confessional and soul-searching. Like the Truisms of Jenny Holzer, it asks pejorative questions, yet is infused with Freudian psychobabble, as if the speaker and viewer might be in couple’s counseling. “How did we get to this point? Where did we go wrong?” and “You’re so cynical. Is it your anxiety making you do this? That’s so typical of your generation.” However self-critical the statements are, the speaker’s search for answers is undermined by the segmented editing. And is incongruous for a national broadcast. Such tactics undermine the authority of the CNN broadcast that, as an arbiter of world events, has become a kind of Big Brother. No surprise that the artist is from Israel, a place heavily inscribed by media narratives.

The works on view until Sept.22 at UMOCA offer an excellent introduction to the wonderful world of video art. But it is just the tip of the iceberg. Looking further afield, half a century of production has yielded a voluminous body of work that plays a vital role in the life of art, worldwide. Since Salt Lake City offers no independent, artist-run production studio, and the subject is sidelined as ‘new media’ in most Utah art departments, UMOCA has an educational imperative to raise the bar : Cantastoria is a step in the right direction.