The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Jean-Isidore Isou (1925-2007): Venom and Eternity

It is sometimes hard to remember that there was a time when Bosley Crowther routinely used to attack any novel or daring new film release, such as Cassavetes’ Shadows, or that Hilton Kramer had the final say about what passed as art in the New York Times. So it takes a certain cultural adjustment now that the New York Times has progressive art critics such as Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter, while Manohla Dargis covers film. In a review of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth – one of the truly strange recent films out there – Dargis writes: “Beautifully photographed this elliptical, sometimes confounding, often mysterious and wholly beguiling mixture of fiction and nonfiction looks and sounds as if it were made on another planet. And, in some respects, it was.” Later on in the review she comments of the current state of affairs regarding movies: “Ambiguity is rarely valued in movies anymore, at least for those in commercial release. The recent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni have been, among other things, a painful reminder of how few genuinely novel, aesthetically and intellectually challenging films reach American movie houses. Our theaters are filled with junk, our heads too. Newspapers and blogs crunch box-office numbers far more than they engage in discussions about the art.”

Following the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni on the same day early last week, the notion that famous deaths always come in “threes” caused a number of bloggers to speculate about whom might be the third. Luckily, it wasn’t Godard, and, no, it wasn’t Jeremy Blake – that’s too ridiculous even to address. But Jim Kreul (citing Pip Chodorov’s Frameworks post) later reported the news on the “filmies” listserv that the Lettrist poet Jean-Isidore Isou had passed away in Paris at age 82. This actually occurred on July 28, two days before Bergman and Antonioni, thus completing the trilogy, even though I failed to see it mentioned elsewhere. The timing of Isou’s passing is ironic, given the fact that his infamous film Traité de bave et d’éternité or Venom and Eternity (1951) has just been released on DVD by Kino International. If ever a film seemed to be made on another planet, it’s Venom and Eternity. As a college student, I first saw the film in the late 1960s as part of a “History of Film” lecture by avant-garde critic Ken Kelman in New York City. The film struck me at the time as one of the craziest films I had ever seen in my life.

The same day I heard the news of Isou’s death, the DVD arrived in the mail from Amazon. I found the time to re-watch it this weekend. For those who know nothing about the filmmaker, Jean-Isidore Isou or Isidore Isou (Isidore Goldstein) was born in Romania in 1925. He founded Lettrism (Letterism) as a one-person movement in France in the mid-1940s. Lettrism privileged the new and original in art above all else, and attacked anything perceived to be the least bit conventional with a vengeance. Lettrism soon attracted a number of followers but eventually splintered into different factions, one caused by the protest by some of the members against Charlie Chaplin – an action which Isou denounced publicly. Other well-known members included Maurice Lemaître and Guy Debord. The latter eventually split with Lettrism to form the Situationist International, which helped to ferment the May 1968 revolt in France.

Made when Isou was only twenty-six-years-old, Venom and Eternity was supposed to have caused a ruckus when it first screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Raymond Rohauer introduced Isou’s work to American audiences, but edited the film down from 120 minutes to 77 minutes. According to Chodorov, his own French DVD company Re-Voir is working on a restoration of the film in conjunction with the French national film archive and Pompidou Centre, which made me apprehensive about the version I was getting from Kino on Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954. The two-disc set contains works by Gregory Markopoulos, James Broughton, Stan Brakhage, Sidney Peterson, Marie Menken, and so forth (and also contains notes about each film), but I’ll restrict my comments here to Venom and Eternity, which includes 34 minutes of film never seen in this country. The quality of the DVD, which comes from a print from Rohauer’s extensive private film collection, is pretty decent, though, partially due to Isou’s habit of putting some of the images upside down, not all of the subtitles are entirely readable.

Venom and Eternity begins with a five-minute sound poem of complete jibberish over black leader. It is dedicated to Griffth, Gance, Chaplin, Clair, Eisenstein, von Stroheim, Flaherty, Buñuel, and to others “who have contributed something NEW or left their hallmark upon the Art of Cinema.” Chapter 1 is entitled: “The Principle.” The film is intended above all else to be a manifesto of cinema. Whereas Alexander Astruc’s concept of “camera stylo” wanted the camera to become as flexible for filmmakers as the pen was for writers, Isou advocates for a cinema literally based on the pen. For him, cinema should be rooted in language rather than images. He wants to sever the relationship between the two. The narrator boldly proclaims: “The break between speech and image shall form Discrepant Cinema. I am launching the manifesto of the Discrepant Cinema.” Isou seems to want to transpose the novel directly into cinema. In denouncing the position that the basis of cinema is the photographic image, Isou as narrator comments: “Whoever claimed that cinema is the art of photography?” Take photography away and Cinema becomes radio . . . It’s like reading in a chair. . . Why shouldn’t Cinema, in turn, become a species of radio?”

Isou’s notion of cinema has no regard for industrial production. He characterizes craftsmen as “those to whom cinema has never been a creative art, but an industry organized in defense of current production.” The originality of the artist – not high production values – is the only thing that matters to him. Isou intones: “It is said that the public is stupid. That is why those who hold it in contempt never dare to offer it something original. The public is reduced to the smallest common denominator. . . . You can see ordinary motion pictures any day of the week in any neighborhood movie theater. I hope you will quietly watch the screening of this film which at least has the virtue of being different.”

As the narrator of Venom and Eternity, Isou also argues against conventional continuity, positing instead “a willful accumulation of errors.” Because Isou’s intention is to destroy the image, he insists on the primacy of written scenario – “a novel recited by a reader to friends” – as the basis of cinema. The narrator explains: “On the other hand, we have been able, for the first time in the annals of the Cinema, to complete a scenario independent in itself, without being forced to intercut it with ‘visual elements.’ Therefore, an attentive spectator will be able to hear the most beautiful scenario in the history of Cinema.” Throughout Venom and Eternity, Isou addresses the viewer directly, much like the San Francisco beat poet Christopher Maclaine would do two years later in his apocalyptic film about atomic destruction, The End (1953). Like Maclaine, Isou also includes the viewer’s imagined objections and reactions as part of the film. Isou claims that everything he has ever loved has been “hissed or booed at first.” He continues: “Bunuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or created a riot when it was shown. The audience broke the theater seats.” Isou humorously asks how such behavior possibly could affect him for the simple reason that “The seats do not belong to me.”

The narrator is given to hyperbole at times, with bombastic statements such as “I want to make a film that hurts your eyes” or “I would rather give you a migraine than nothing at all.” Venom and Eternity never really comes close to that level of intensity, but it does use a number of interesting formal strategies for disrupting narrative conventions. Squiggly white lines or black scribbles appear at times over the image. Images routinely appear upside down. Titles intrude in the middle of the film like in Warhol, as well as throughout the entire film. Images don’t follow conventional rules of continuity. Heads of people are bleached out. The film emulsion is scratched. A hand-drawn arrow – first black and then white – appears over an image of motorcyclists driving through water and a parade of people; a plus sign appears over an upside down shot of legs; the Star of David appears over one image. Isou includes stock footage, such as shots of Asian laborers, which have nothing to do with the narrative. Long passages of written text and black leader punctuate the film. Isou’s voiceover narration is intense and passionate, even if it’s free-associational at times.

Venom and Eternity is not only a polemic about cinema, but a political tract, a love story, and a personal confession. Isou often shifts between and among these various elements. Some images get completely obliterated, which seems to increase as the film continues. The discrepancy between words and images becomes manifest in various juxtapositions. Daniel and Eve’s dancing, for instance, is intercut with a moving part on a ship in a shot that is eventually revealed to be upside down. There are cameos by famous people such as the poet Blaise Cendrars and Jean Cocteau, the latter with whom Daniel has coffee in a café. Much of Venom and Eternity contains images of shots of buildings of St. Germain des Prés in Paris, mixed in with shots of the handsome Daniel, who is also played by Isou himself. As Daniel walks around, the camera often returns to him standing nervously and staring directly at us like a prize fighter before an important bout. The impression is deliberate.

In Part 2, entitled “The Development,” Isou shifts from theory to practice. Venom and Eternity contains not one, but two love stories. The first involves a woman named Eve. The dialogue is not sync sound, but recited as voiceovers. In describing the attractive blond Norwegian woman, Daniel remarks that Eve aped “the haughtiness of movie stars.” While discussing Eve, the film cuts to shots of fisherman on a boat from above, the feet of a skiers going down an incline shot from behind, and the shelf of a bookstore. Later he cuts to the fishermen again, as well as a shot of water flowing from a shower. The images appear to be arbitrary. Daniel includes provocative statements throughout the film. At one point, he laments the passing of slavery, “Man will never get used to not having other men do his bidding.” Daniel wants to experience the sexual pleasures of women without having to go through the formalities. He abruptly mixes in personal revelation and political statement. Daniel tells Eve that “Any man, innocent or guilty, Communist or anti-Communist who does not expect violent death is a fool. Today no one is master of his destiny.” He admits the sadness he felt at being expelled from the Communist party, which causes him to remember his breakup with another woman named Denise.

It turns out that Eve doesn’t like people whose ideas differ from hers. While the two of them dance, we get shots of a fishing boat upside down, an athlete, and a public statue. Daniel suddenly decides that she bores him. Eve asks him whether he wants to love her. The irrationality of love and desire becomes apparent when we learn that by morning, Daniel had taken a deep hold in Eve’s heart, which is visually juxtaposed a shot of a ship’s flag waving in the breeze. Daniel’s total sexism and misogyny rises to the surface, however, as Daniel brags that he was the complete master of her body. He indicates she would spend the rest of her life with him. Eve says: “My life would mean nothing. Only yours has a meaning.” We see a shot of men upside down and walking backwards. But as soon as she adapts herself to Daniel, his thoughts switch to his old girlfriend Denise, whom he had picked up on New Year’s Eve after having sex with yet another woman.

Obviously influenced by the Marquis de Sade, Daniel admits that he wants to pleasure Denise, but also break her heart. As the screen goes black, Daniel says: “He melted into her body. He cried tears of love, he, the cynic.” He gets her to repeat “I love you, Daniel.” Denise comments, “One feels as if every work opens up and crushes our soul.” She delivers a poetic rhapsody about words and love and death. She concludes (still over blackness): “And when two beings meet amid the words and the people who incarnate these words, when two beings discover each other and come together, they who since their birth and the birth of the world were divorced, the shock of their contact is cosmic.” Images reappear, as Daniel seems to vacillate in his feelings once again. He says. “And love itself has but the value of a lollipop.” Denise wants him to stop being a skirt chaser and hopes that he will grow up and become more mature. But Daniel responds over shots of boats in the harbor: “You don’t understand, Denise. There can be no solution between us. Let’s say I stay with you, as in a movie with a kiss finale.” We see shots of a couple with a young child – the most overt conjunction between image and sound in the film.

Daniel elaborates his misgivings about love. Referring to the conventional movie ending, he responds: “It says ‘The End.’ In reality, the drama has only begun. The decrepitude of getting old together: the kitchen, children, habits, wrinkles. Everything wears out in this hell. The very thought of our love will make people want to throw up.” He discusses seeing very old couples, whom he finds disgusting. He comments, “Each has been a witness to the other’s downfall.” He goes on to say, “But I hate love as much as I crave pleasure because the former commits my soul which I want free.” Daniel wonders whether he should drop Denise. She more or less removes his agony by announcing that it was merely a pleasant affair. Daniel’s friend, Pierre, suggests that a new girlfriend will no doubt make him forget the old one. But Daniel decides he wants to make up with Denise and can hardly wait until the morning to tell her the news. His conflicted desire ends up making him change his mind once again. He calls her two days later. Daniel describes his sexual desire as being so strong he leaves teeth marks on her body, “And she bore black and blue marks, like his rubber stamp of jealous ownership.” He admits to using her and wants to know whether she loves him above herself. The narrator continues his Sadean tirade: “And he broke her, he tore her, to feel himself within her. He ravaged her to make himself unforgettable. He installed herself within her.”

Daniel then has dinner with Denise and a businessman, whom he insults by saying: “Your face is like a pig’s. I don’t like it.” This is followed by shots of people on the street walking upside down and backwards. Daniel decides to leave but then changes his mind. More and more of the images are presented upside down as Daniel delights in his sadistic behavior. He calls Denise again, but she hangs up. He yells “merde” numerous times as the screen turns black, followed by images of countdown leader on the screen, and then more blackness. In a title we read: “The author of this chapter, Jean-Isidore Isou wrote this chapter during a spell of poisonous tenderness resembling that of the girls who emerge from his room with an ‘I love you’ meant for no one and bursting with desire like a fruit into which no one will ever bite . . . so monstrous does it seem at a distance. But upon reading these lines over, on a day of love-super-saturation he found this entire chapter insipid.” Isou criticizes conventional movies for serving up “a dose of tenderness,” and argues that “Only systems where form goes beyond story are of interest to him.” Daniel mentions that he and Eve managed to get together again at a Lettrist recital, which sets up the third and final chapter.

Chapter 3 is entitled “The Proof,” and a title indicates that it contains a number of Lettrist sound poems that “have no meaning whatsoever.” Isou rails against imbeciles who criticize such works. He comments that when confronted by something new in art, “one must either love or keep quiet.” Isou claims that Lettrist poetry is more popular than Surrealist poetry and he presents two examples by François Dufresne: “March” and “I Question and I Inveigh.” Both Lettrist sound poems are set to abstract images created directly on the film stock, including countdown leader, fingerprints, and occasional words that pass too quickly to read. Isou argues that since Schönberg atonal music aspires towards Lettrist poetry. He claims that Lettrism will one day be more important than jazz, and criticizes jazz as “phony primitivism.” He goes on to argue that African-American jazz artists use “civilized and complicated” mechanical instruments. He then makes the dubious claim that “Jazz is white-collar primitivism.” The real primitivism is based on the human body – “the barbarity of the throat” – namely, Lettrism. After another lettrist poem, Daniel and Eve leave the recital.

Someone objects that others have previously incorporated stock footage into their films. Isou answers that, while true, others have attempted to edit such footage more coherently through “logical montage.” Isou claims that he, on the contrary, gave himself up to the footage “just as Dostoyevsky abandoned himself to his downfall.” He invokes the surrealists: “The surrealist compared the eyes to flowers to make one forget the eyes and drown in the ooze leaking out of the comparison.” There’s an abrupt shift, as Eve gets to have her say about his movie. She points out that the images of the actors and the cutting in the film bear no relation to his scenario. Eve suggests that it’s almost as if Daniel became bored by knowing the story in advance, and that this lassitude contributed to the destruction of the cinema. The images don’t matter because he can manipulate them to say anthing he wants, making all images interchangeable. Or as Eve puts it: “All images are equally indifferent. . . I know that others before you have already destroyed the image. But you are the first to understand this destruction.” A friend and a stranger then discuss Daniel’s film with him, praising it as the most intelligent film in the history of cinema because previous film was so overly concerned with issues of cinematic style, whereas language is far more important to humans than images. Comparisons are made to Picasso and Alfred Jarry. Daniel claims “It took years of thought to reach the point of using film stock at random.” He concludes, “I know that my film is above all existing films today.”

Daniel’s thoughts return to Eve, and he now wishes to get rid of her. She responds, “You will croak, be hanged and be spat at by the very populace you hold in contempt. Like Mussolini.” She begs to sleep with him because she has become trapped in her romantic film role. Recognizing his disdain for her, she finally departs. According to Daniel, Eve soon went insane and was arrested and deported to Norway. Daniel decides on a name for his film. He quotes Nietzsche: “It takes a lot of chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” Isou talks about Venom and Eternity as pointing in the direction of his future films. We see images of Cocteau smoking a cigarette. Isou makes an overt comparison to Blood of the Poet. He says “My first film will be rather a kernel and a promise.” His thoughts abruptly switch to Eve. We see an image of Daniel with the name “Jean-Isidore Isou. He shouts: “Never, never shall I accept their love, their good and their evil because they offer me what exists, and what exists is bad, because it is mortal.” A title announces that the film was originally four and a half hours long. He continues, “The youths of my age laugh when they see tear-jerkers affect our elders.” He ends on a more defensive note: “Ask yourself on the way out whether or not this film possesses at least the value of a gangster film or a love story – or any ‘realistic’ film which critics consider acceptable.” The film was started on August 15, 1950 and completed on May 23, 1951.

Cocteau posed the question at the time whether “Venom represented a springboard or is it a void.” If pressed, I would have to answer that it has proven to be both. It seems to be a part of the zeitgeist embodied by Christopher Maclaine, as well as a strong influence on Stan Brakhage’s brilliant work directly on film stock, Godard, and other members of the French New Wave. In that sense it has proven to be a highly influential work. But for all of Isou’s rants about Venom and Eternity pointing to a direction for his own future films, unless I’m mistaken, this turned out to be Isou’s signature film. As a work of unbridled male narcissism, youthful hubris, and utter contempt for convention, it is unprecedented. It’s hard to judge whether the elements that appear sexist or racist or offensive today were intended to be deliberately provocative, or products of their time. Isou’s comments about slavery, for example, seem to run contrary to the anarchic current that runs throughout the film. While this new 111-minute version seems overly long on a first viewing, Venom and Eternity still strikes me as every bit as audacious, thought-provoking, and downright loony as it did when I first viewed it. Whatever its problems, there simply aren’t many films like it out there, never mind at the multiplexes.

Posted 7 August, 2007

A Skeptical View of YouTube

Last week a number of folks on the “filmies” listserv tried to goad me into uploading my early films on YouTube as a way of gaining additional visibility. Karina Longworth at SpoutBlog only yesterday wrote: “Right now, YouTube is the closest thing we have to a comprehensive online archive of 20th century culture.” Since virtually everyone seems to love YouTube these days, why would I not want my work to be part of such an important Web-based venture? 

Susan Buice and Arin Crumley were actually planning to put their feature Four Eyed Monsters (aka FEM) on YouTube for free before came up with the promotion that gives them a buck for each person who signs up on the Spout site. I just checked and so far FEM has racked up 779,894 views on YouTube, made $37,290, and sold 1133 DVD copies – not too shabby! But what about all those people who’ve had millions of plays on YouTube, and haven’t made a dime? It’s a lot like screening your film at 50 film festivals, and then having nothing to show for it after two years, except a ton of debt. FEM initially went the festival route and the filmmakers quickly realized that it was a dead end financially. As my The Guatemalan Handshake post indicates, Buice and Crumley felt like losers when FEM didn’t get into Sundance, and the two eventually shifted their energies to the Web.

The pair turned out to be brilliant marketers by exploiting the potential of virtually every social networking Web site (MySpace, Facebook,, etc.). On Chuck Tryon’s June 14 blog about FEM on The Chutry Experiment, I expressed concern that the two filmmakers have become so obsessed with promotion that it’s preventing them from continuing to do their art. Here’s what I said at the time:

“I also wrote a very positive response of Susan Buice and Arin Crumley’s Four Eyed Monsters on my blog, encouraging people to support the special promotional showing of the film on YouTube. Buice has been an articulate spokesperson for the marketing and distribution of indie films on the Web, suggesting that the consumption of indie films will be entirely different in five years. It’s really amazing to see how much time and energy these young artists have put into grass-roots marketing: the podcasts, interactive map, the DVD sales, the Thursday screenings, the ancillary products, sponsors, and so forth. Yet despite their real genius for promotion, the two filmmakers are still struggling to make this thing work financially. That, in and of itself, is a commentary on the current state of indie films. As my blog review indicates, I really like Four Eyed Monsters. I must confess, however, that the more time I spend on the Web site and the more podcasts I watch, the more I start to wonder whether it’s really worth all this effort. After awhile, the filmmakers begin to sound a bit like two carnies working a very large room. I can’t help but think maybe they would have been better off going the art-world route instead, which would have allowed them to make more money selling their art work through a gallery, but, more importantly, it would have enabled them to continue to make new work rather than spend so much of their creative energy on promotion. At some point you have to let it go, move on, and stay focused on doing your art work. That’s what some of their other mumblecore friends have done, which, in the end, means they’re being more creatively productive.”


Chuck Tryon responded: “I think you raise an interesting question about the promotion of FEM. In a sense, I see the video podcasts and the website as an extension of the film itself, as part of the story they are telling, but that could be due to the fact that I experienced the film on the web, not on DVD or at a festival screening. So I see the podcasts as feeding into their reflection on communications technologies in FEM.” I completely understand Chuck’s point about the podcasts and promotions being an essential part of an overall project having to do with new technologies. And if you’re interested in the whole project as an artistic activity – and the endless promotion via the Web is part of the story they are telling – that’s fine. But the filmmakers often seem to shift their positions. Sometimes it’s about this digital dream of using the Web to create a “theatrical jukebox,” while at other times it’s simply about trying to turn their actual feature film into an income-generating vehicle. I think everyone is interested in how FEM is testing the Web as a alternative distribution model. But isn’t FEM‘s larger story really every indie filmmaker’s soap opera?


Maybe I will try putting my films on the Web as an experiment, but I prefer something that offers some type of revenue stream like B-Side or Jaman rather than YouTube, where I struggle to see the obvious benefit other than self-promotion. For instance, I have a one-person show at Anthology Film Archives this winter. My personal bet would be that exposure on YouTube would substantially decrease rather than increase my audience. I also worry about the effect this would have on the two coops (Filmmakers’ Cooperative and Canyon Cinema), which are really struggling to survive these days. My point is simply that people are not going to attend screenings, rent films, or buy DVDs when the work is already available for free on YouTube. In fact, the actual sales of DVDs of FEM in contrast to the number of viewings would appear to bear this out.


By chance, Aaron Hillis wrote an article in the Village Voice last week that reiterates what I’ve tried to suggest. It’s entitled: “Internet Killed Video Star: Is YouTube Bad for Experimental Video Art?” His piece, which focuses on the career of Edin Veléz, suggests that YouTube has had a negative impact on more avant-garde works. In discussing the potential benefit of an expanded video program at Lincoln Center, Hillis writes: “It’s a frustrating unknown for Veléz, who has seen interest in work like his dwindle to a niche audience, as those who used to seek out experimental work are now content to just press play.” What Hillis says about FEM and YouTube as a viable option is pretty similar to my point about the tremendous amount of energy the filmmakers are forced to expend on marketing. Hillis, by the way, is no disinterested bystander in this discussion. Besides being a film critic and well-known film blogger, he’s also the Vice President of the newly formed Benten Films, which soon will be distributing the DVDs of many of the mumblecore films, such as Joe Swanberg’s LOL and Todd Rohal’s The Guatemalan Handshake.


The other day Arin Crumley did a very long podcast interview with Erik Davis of Cinematical Indie. Crumley says that showing the film on YouTube was the most profitable thing the two filmmakers have done to date. Crumley claims that they are $100,000 in debt from making FEM. The debt, by the way, is not from the material costs of production, but what it takes to support two people working full-time on such a project for three-and-a-half years. He admits that it really takes a full distribution company to handle the sheer amount of work, which is one of the drawbacks of the DIY approach. He looks forward to a time where you could create a work and then push a “done” button, which would place it on the Web in “one democratic playing field of videos.” The film could then be promoted through email, iChat, and instant messaging. He admits this sounds like some type of digital utopia. 


When asked what he would do if he had another film, Crumley somewhat surprisingly indicates that he would submit it to Sundance. If that didn’t work, he would then give it away for free, either through some type of sponsorship, such as the one FEM currently has with Spout, or by trying to entice people to purchase DVDs. He indicates he would target some regional festivals. They could look at it online and determine whether to show it in the festival. He admits that the concept of buying films directly from filmmakers’ Web sites is proving difficult. Well, one reason might stem from security issues for credit-card purchases due to people’s concerns about identity theft.


Crumley talks about YouTube being what he calls a “long tail” platform or environment in terms of the Web distribution of film and video. He describes this as “the concept that there is a lot of profitability in the collective proceeds of obscurity.” He says film and videomakers should be taking advantage of long-tail platforms, such as YouTube. But despite Crumley’s utopian belief in these platforms, not everyone is going to be equally as successful, especially without the same expenditure of energy or money on marketing. In fact, mixed in with his ideas about web distribution is the fact that Crumley and Buice are in the process of making deals to have FEM shown on TV in this country as well as pursuing various foreign-sales opportunities. He claims that the prospect of such business deals contributed to them not having the time to continue doing the podcasts. Since Crumley admits he would submit a new film to Sundance, does this suggest that commercial distribution still remains the ideal?


Although I do think web distribution for independent work represents an exciting new challenge, I’m still skeptical of the value of having work on YouTube without any sort of compensation. After all, Crumley and Buice supposedly got into this whole thing because of credit-card debt. If they simply put FEM on the YouTube without all the hoopla, some people no doubt would have found it. But without the Spout marketing promotion and non-stop social networking I doubt I’d be writing this blog. In fact, Crumley discusses how difficult it was even to find a sponsor in the first place – that alone apparently took up a tremendous amount of the filmmakers’ time and energy.


Although I concede that there are certain benefits to having work on YouTube (for instance, excerpts for people to sample), not everyone derives the same benefit, especially not the unsponsored or independent content producers, who still aren’t making any money from having their work shown there. As a matter of fact, in some cases, it’s depriving them of financial gain that they might receive otherwise.

Posted 1 August, 2007

Film and Video at the 52nd Venice Biennale

Jerry Saltz, the New York Magazine art critic, whose columns also appear on artnet, apparently boycotted the openings of Documenta and Venice this year. In his most recent column he suggests that these large international exhibitions are “outmoded,” arguing that biennial culture leads to “copycat behavior in a sphere that prides itself on independent thinking.” Saltz also rails against the fact that these big shows are put together “by one czarlike curator with absolute dictatorial power.” He continues, “These curators, however earnest, can simultaneously be annoying and sanctimonious while foisting their own pious, profligate or shaky taste on everyone else.” When Francesco Bonami attempted to do away with the “dictatorship of the curator” by letting a cadre of eleven artists and curators program the event four years ago, Saltz acknowledges that the Venice Biennale was generally regarded as a mess, but he somehow believes it altered the paradigm. While Saltz’s criticisms have some validity, I’m not sure where else one can see this sheer amount of work in a week, even if you happen to live in London or New York. At least these large-scale exhibitions provide a more serious atmosphere for taking in large amounts of art than the major commercial art fairs.

The 52nd Venice Biennale was curated by Robert Storr, formerly of the Museum of Modern Art and now Dean of the Art School at Yale, with the theme “Think with the Senses, Feel with the Mind.” The two shows put together by the veteran curator – one at the Italian Pavilion, the other at the massive Arsenale – are an eclectic mixture of political, conceptual, and more formal works. Many of the political works are clustered in the first section of the Arsenale: Gabriele Basilico’s photographs of burned-out buildings in Iraq, Emily Prince’s small detailed portrait drawings of American soldiers killed there, Tomoko Yoneda’s photographs of “borders” between areas of conflict, Adel Abdessemed’s circular wall pieces of barbed wire, Tomer Ganihar’s medical installation for treating war-trauma victims, Rosemary Laing’s photos of ominous-looking prison exteriors, Nedko Solakov’s impressive drawings of AK-47 assault rifles – the source of an intellectual property dispute between Bulgaria and Russia, and Neil Hamon’s photographs of soldiers from various conflicts. If you didn’t feel as if the whole world was on the verge of falling apart when you entered, you quickly lapse into that mindset under this grim bombardment of such images. At least Romanian artist Dan Perjovschi, whose work and sensibility reminds me an awful lot of David Shrigley’s, has a wall installation in the entrance-way of his funny doodles, which provides some much-needed comic relief.

By contrast, Storr’s show at the Italian Pavilion is put together like a major museum exhibition. Unlike Documenta 12, it consists of mostly blue-chip Western artists. Whereas the Arsenale contains lots of film and video and installation, which I will get to shortly, this show has much greater emphasis on painting. Several weeks ago, the New York Times Sunday edition ran a spread on Sigmar Polke in which the paintings were described in troubling mystical terms. They are so much better in person, which is why reproductions often do not do justice to work of any subtlety, such as these paintings, whose brown resin surfaces are all about texture and shift with changes in light. There are other groups of large paintings by Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Susan Rothenberg. It was a real treat, however, to see the much more modest-scaled, abstract paintings of Raoul De Keyser and Thomas Nozkowski – two “painter’s painters” – more than hold their own in such company. A political note is interjected by Emily Jacir, who personalizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through an installation of letters and other personal memorabilia of Wael Zwaiter, the Palestinian translator who was gunned down by Israeli secret agents on October 16, 1972 on suspicions that he was connected to the infamous Black September attack at the Munich Olympics.

In the national pavilions in the Giardini and around Venice, Australian artist Callum Morton rebuilds his father’s destroyed modernist house in three-quarter scale. While the exterior looks like a virtual ruin, its marbled, corporate interior – with its low ceiling, rumbling sound, and elevators that don’t open – is appropriately sterile, cold, and downright eerie. The Swiss artists Urs Fischer and Ugo Rondinone turn a church into a white cube. Fischer prints images of debris on aluminum panels with accented drips of color, while Rondinone casts aluminum bare trees that are painted white. He also has created a small hole in which a stick of incense burns, causing a scorched image to form above it. With art stars – Isa Genzken, Tracey Emin, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres – in nearby national pavilions, it was gratifying to see two young sculptors, David Altmejd and Monika Sosnowska, rise to the occasion. David Altmejd represents Canada with a Modern Gothic hall of mirrors, while Monika Sosnowska takes an oversized modernist steel structure and reconfigures it to fit inside the Polish Pavilion. The effect is an elaborately intricate piece that collapses geometric line into an expressionistic maze.

Amidst the intense competitive energy of the Giardini, the utter simplicity and unpretentiousness of Ernesto Vila’s exquisite little mixed-media paper pieces, delicately hanging from a clothes line in Uruguayan Pavilion, makes its own subtle statement. I found it humorous that so many people would take a free huge Felix Gonzales-Torres print or poster from one of the stacks in the American Pavilion and then carry it around with them all day long. Four years ago, while I was viewing Fred Wilson’s installation, I watched a rather straight-looking young woman deliberately step into a pool of oil and then proceed to track it around the American Pavilion, causing it to be closed. I guess she thought the piece was intended to be interactive!

In comparison to Documenta, there is plenty of interesting video and film at Venice. In the Italian Pavilion, Sophie Calle has a video that documents her mother’s final hours. These are difficult times for Calle. Her installation, which includes an entire wall of video monitors and several scattered throughout the massive French Pavilion, obsessively fixates on an email she received from her lover, abruptly terminating their relationship. She turns her pain into art by subjecting the missive to 107 female professionals: a dancer, singer, sharpshooter, signer, and clown. The clown ridicules the lover’s rhetorical flourishes; the signer struggles to interpret the letter’s intricate nuances. Video plays a more minor role in Nedko Solakov’s AK-47 patent dispute. The Bulgarian official reluctantly offers a very brief “non-statement” on one monitor, while the Russian one never bothers to appear on the other one, so that we mostly view the outside of the embassy.

In the Belgian Pavilion, Eric Duykaerts uses video as part of his labyrinth of glass and mirror panels to parody intellectual conferences. Next door, Los Torreznos employ video to document their energetic, absurdist performances; Rubén Ramos Balsa somehow projects the image of a spider on a small light bulb; and José Luis Guerin incorporates an interesting experimental film from the 1930s into his room-size installation. In Belgian artist Sophie Whettnall’s Shadow Boxing, an unflinching woman stands while a boxer throws hard punches at her face. A few too many video works come across as anecdotal one-liners. Chinese conceptual artist Yang Zhenzhong has a ten-screen installation, consisting on various people saying the phrase “I will die.” Like a massive casting session, there is interest in how each participant interprets the line. Some people, especially younger folks, simply concentrate on being able to say it for the camera, while oblivious to its meaning. There is an especially poignant moment when an elderly woman visiting a graveside in a cemetery repeats the line, which lends a somber note to the work.

There are several animations in the show. One prominently displayed in the Italian Pavilion by Tabaimo involves a struggle between hands placing furniture into a dollhouse and an unruly sea monster, which seems to serve as a metaphor for the  superego and id. Much weirder is Joshua Mosley’s dread, in which digitally rendered, three-dimensional figures of Pascal and Rousseau engage in a philosophical debate in a forest. The Belgian artist Francis Alÿs creates a primitive animation from a series of drawings of a shoe being shined with a red cloth. Columbian artist Óscar Muñoz employs five synchronized monitors in Proyecto para un Memorial to make a political statement about his native country. We see human portraits being drawn with water on concrete, which then slowly distort and eventually evaporate from the heat of the sun. Kara Walker has a five-screen video installation in the Italian pavilion. It utilizes silhouette animation of cut-out stick puppets on strings, photos of historical figures (Abraham Lincoln), maps, and multi-layered superimpositions that create links between sexuality and slavery.

Steve McQueen’s Gravesend (2007) cinematically explores the associations between coltan mining in the Congo, its high-tech refinement in Nottingham, and an extended shot of Gravesend, the setting of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Coltan is one of the most sought after materials in the world because of its use in cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. It also has been the source of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has already resulted in the loss of nearly four million lives. McQueen has a poet’s sensibility, as well as an implicit trust in the power of images and sounds. Like Muñoz’s piece, McQueen’s film achieves the rare feat of being truly political without being didactic. Gravesend is one of the most haunting works at Venice.

Another highlight is Aernout Mik’s multiple-screen installation in the Nethelands Pavilion, which consists of three separate works. I saw Mik’s multichannel Refraction at the MCA in Chicago nearly two years ago, but the two-screen Convergencies (2007) has more tension and better pacing, which takes his work to another level. In it, Mik incorporates staged and actual events of police actions against illegal immigrants or refugees, cleverly blurring the distinction between the two. These rivet the viewer for the same reason we’re voyeuristically attracted to accidents, public disturbances, and other crisis situations. We gawk because we’re naturally curious and want to figure out what’s going on. The video consists of various vignettes of such events, but Mik doesn’t provide any context for what’s occurring. We watch the police attempt to control a group of Middle-Eastern men in a field, training exercises of prisoners being escorted onto an airplane by officials in yellow jackets. We see prisoners of African descent being transported, people being frisked, mobile prisons, men caught hitching trains, crowds running in areas where there are massive electric power lines. We watch police in riot gear, reddish night shots of a train station, a train car being moved, scenes of immigrants detained in cafeterias, and a guy lying on the ground. It’s always the white people who are in a position of power and control, while it’s the people of color, who are being subjugated, hence the title of the installation.

There’s a disturbing image of a drowned body being dragged from the water as groups of men mill around on the shore. There are images of shantytowns where refugees live. The police confiscate toothbrushes, razors, and various plastic products. We see prisons holding Muslim women, a white woman with a bloody nose and another with blood on her forehead, followed by police herding a group of demonstrators. We watch police in riot gear with barking dogs and shields, bombings, accidents, fires, car accidents, and Hazmat control. We see the police escorting a ramshackle boat containing African refugees into shore. The boats alone present a striking contrast between those in power and those who are powerless. Mik’s video captures the dynamic tension between Western nations and the Third World and the seemingly unsolvable political issues that confront them, especially over borders. Mik’s video suggests a grim future, namely, that without some type of radical intervention, security issues and various perceived threats are moving Western nations ever closer towards becoming police states.

I saw the first two parts of Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest at the Carnegie International several years ago. I also programmed both of them this past spring at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the Spotlight Film and Video Series I guest-curated there. The five parts can be viewed in separate small black boxes that are interspersed throughout the long exhibition hall at the Arsenale. These makeshift venues are not particularly conducive to viewing Yang’s work. They were extremely hot and not air-conditioned for one thing, and the print quality and projection – at least for the first three sections – left a lot to be desired. Part One appeared to be several generations away from the original, and Part Three had numerous scratches, as if it had been copied from a workprint rather than the 35mm original. The final two parts (four and five) look much better. The running times also turned out to be much longer than indicated. Unless clock-time suddenly became elastic within the confines of the Arsenale, Yang Fudong’s epic ran much closer to five hours rather than four. Adrian Searle of The Guardian couldn’t fathom why anyone would bother to sit through such a long work at the Biennale, but I managed to view the film in its entirety. I haven’t seen much mention of it in reviews, which is surprising, because it’s the single best work I saw at the exhibition.

Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest (2003-2007) is based on a group of intellectuals – artists and poets – who retreated into the bamboo forest to escape the pressures of life during the ancient Wei and Jin Dynasty. Yang Fudong updates the tale to depict the young people of China today, who find themselves caught up in the almost overnight cultural transformation, as the country has shifted from being an agrarian society to a post-industrial one while skipping the intermediate industrial stage through which most Western countries have passed. The effect has been a kind of radical social dislocation, leaving young people caught precariously between tradition and modernity, and resulting in a kind of anomie that Yang links to the Taoist notion of “wu wei” or non-action. Without clear goals, the seven intellectuals wander from place to place like lost souls in search of some type of meaning or direction. The formal style of their outdated clothes sets them apart. They appear alienated and unable to fit in wherever they go.

Because Seven Intellectuals has a collective protagonist, the film seems more like an accumulation of individual vignettes rather than a causal narrative. There’s no real dramatic arc – no sense of progression or development – and very little happens in terms of action. Certain motifs are repeated, both within individual parts and the larger work. With the exception of the main characters – the guy who wears glasses and his two different female lovers – it’s not really even a character study because Yang continually disrupts their story by including other multiple strands of action. In addition, he situates the more prominent characters within the anonymous larger group of seven intellectuals, so that we lose our sense of identification with them. None of the characters even have names, and consequently remain oddly anonymous for the most part. Yang does, however, provide character motivation in Part Two, when the sad woman tells another female about being molested in middle school by an older man. He also employs an odd bit of characterization in Part Four by portraying the guy with the glasses as a fool in a previous life. Characters also change, namely the sad woman, who disappears after the first two parts. This is foreshadowed, however, in the very first part through her giving voice to her self-destructive feelings and her realization that her relationship with her lover is doomed. Too bound by traditional beliefs, she seems unable to adapt. She is replaced by the woman with short hair.

Seven Intellectuals moves from nature (the mountain) to an urban area, to a rural farm, to a deserted island, and finally to Shanghai, with much of it taking place in an art-deco restaurant or hotel. The first part employs voiceover; the second part has sync-sound dialogue, while the remaining three parts are silent. Parts Three and Four move back and forth in historical time; the setting of part five is unclear. It’s obviously present-day Shanghai, but it references Chinese films of the 1930s or 1940s, suggesting a previous era: pin-striped suits, antique cars, Venetian pools, rooftop baseball, and retro dances. In Part Five, Yang even seems to take liberties with the number of intellectuals – one of the women rarely appears, and more often than not there are only six (or sometimes more than seven). Yang switches from a more casual impressionistic style in the first two parts to one that is more deliberately mannered. The film also moves closer to spectacle, especially in its culminating scene of Part Five where a fight breaks out on the dance floor and hundreds of chefs emerge from the kitchen and clap in unison.

My notes on the film read like a series of non-sequiturs. In a sense, this is not so inaccurate because Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest seems to aspire to Jonas Mekas’s notion of a plotless narrative – a film that works primarily through visual rather than narrative connections. Yang is most of all a visual stylist. In Part One, Yang provides striking black-and-white images of Mount Huangshan shrouded in mist that recalls the look and texture of classical Chinese landscape painting. There isn’t a bad shot in the entire film. Some are spectacular, such as the woman walking by the water at night to the sound of croaking frogs in Part Three, or the underwater shot of the two intellectuals moving through fish-filled water in skin-diver outfits in Part Five. Despite Yang’s use of repetition – such as the fact that the intellectuals inevitably will appear naked in each section – the film is never predictable. Part Three begins with a prolepsis: the decapitation of a water buffalo, but it nevertheless comes as a total shock when the farmer suddenly bludgeons the animal to death towards the end of the film. In the last three parts, Yang employs abrupt temporal shifts, so that the same characters appear simultaneously in both the present and past, thus formally mirroring the subject matter of the film. Without resorting to a more conventional use of narrative, it’s hard to keep an audience interested for such a long stretch of time, but Seven Intellectual in Bamboo Forest manages to do it through the sheer strength of its images.

I admit that it’s extremely taxing to watch a nearly five-hour film within the context of an extended art exhibition such as the Venice Biennale. Yet I remain grateful for Robert Storr’s openness in premiering a long, complex, and challenging work, such as Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest. What’s a little mental overload when you’re already slightly jet-lagged?

Posted 12 July, 2007

Film and Video at Documenta 12

The confluence of the Venice Biennale and Documenta – the two largest and most important international art exhibitions in the world – occurs only every ten years, making it possible to compare the two major simultaneously-held events. Having attended Francesco Bonami’s “Dreams and Conflicts” Venice Biennale four years ago and Documenta 11 five years ago, it seems to me that the two exhibitions have managed to become the inverse of each other this time around.

This year’s Documenta 12 was co-curated by the husband-and-wife team of Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack, who attempted to rethink the nature of the contemporary art exhibition by aspiring to make it “formless” by erasing the cultural context of the works, the nationality of the artists, and the usual conceptions of what constitutes contemporary art, so that the works could be apprehended solely on their own terms. Their curatorial emphasis stresses relationships across media and historical time. Included in the exhibition are rugs, bridal veils, a lacquerwork panel, folk art, Persian miniatures, and children’s drawings. Two years ago, then Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz warned that Documenta 12 could be “truly bad” following a brief exchange with Buergel over dinner at the last Venice Biennale. Saltz commented to Buergel: “After all, big exhibitions are about the art,” to which the curator countered, “No. Exhibitions are about ideas.” One could certainly argue with many of the intellectual premises behind Documenta 12, but it seems that Buergel and Noack’s exhibition is not solely concept-driven.

There were lots of works by women and lesser-known artists from the Third World, especially Africa, as well as a lack of big-name western artists. Nevertheless, the show does emphasize an odd assortment of individual artists through inclusion of substantial amounts of their work: Chicago’s Kerry James Marshall (the best painting in the show by far), Cosima von Bonin, Gerwald Rockenschaub, John McCracken, Lee Lozano, Peter Friedl, Zoe Leonard, Juan Davila, Charlotte Posenenske, and former Judson dancer Trisha Brown. The very first piece I saw at the exhibition turned out to be Brown’s buoyant dance piece staged in the entrance ways of one of the exhibition rooms in which young female dancers performed minimal hand gestures and their bodies swayed to the music of the Grateful Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.” The overall effect was intense nostalgia mixed with an exhilarating sense of the surreal. In many ways, it was the best introduction to the exhibition I could have imagined.

The results of the curatorial strategy of Buergel and Noack, however, seems to be hit or miss. It reaches its absolute zenith in the smaller space of the documenta-Halle through the bizarre juxtapositions that are created by a wall hanging of a monumental Persian carpet depicting an elaborately patterned garden (circa 1800), Cosima von Bonin’s large installation “Relax, it’s only a ghost,” (which featured, among a series of sculptural objects, gigantic stuffed animals), and Abdoulaye Konaté’s wall hangings: a textile work that represents various shades of blue, and four flag pieces that deal with Israel and Palestine. Underneath the flag pieces, and referencing both von Bonin and Konaté’s work, was Peter Friedl’s inclusion of an amateur piece of taxidermy of “Brownie” the giraffe, one of the zoo animals that panicked and committed suicide during the Israeli siege of the West Bank. The affectionate work by a West Bank veterinarian, with its associations to childhood, seems to be a profound statement about the horror of that conflict.

The room culminates in the installation by Chicago artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle that consists of two parts. “Phantom Truck” is a replica of the fictitious mobile biological weapons lab that was used as a pretext for the US invasion of Iraq. Presented in a dimly lit, shadowy corner of the building, the mysterious truck is barely visible at first. Manglano-Ovalle’s other half of the installation consists of a sculpture of a black radio sitting on the floor in a room where the outside light from the windows has been filtered by reddish-orange gels. The combined installation brilliantly deals with the act of perception. The two entrances to the Phantom Truck alter the perceptual experience. Somehow the reddish-orange light allows the human eye to adjust to the darkness, making the truck more visible. Manglano-Ovalle’s installation was my single favorite piece at Documenta 12.

The curatorial concepts reach an obsessive level in Schloss Wilhelmshöhe. Here a large ornamental photograph by Zofia Kulik is positioned among various Rembrandts, four Kerry James Marshall portraits are juxtaposed with black figures from early historical paintings, Martha Rosler’s photomontage of naked woman “Hothouse, or Harem” plays off similar content in an early Persian work, and Charlotte Posenenske’s three-dimensional white wall piece, made of sheet-metal, constrasts with the flat surface of the white shades covering the museum windows. Dias & Riedweg’s video installation of funk culture in Brazil reinterprets 16th-century Kassal writer Hans Staden’s adventures in Brazil. In some cases, it becomes a treasure hunt even to locate the Documenta art works within the museum. In a major show of this magnitude, it didn’t strike me as an especially efficient use of time, nor does the payoff always justify the intended point being made.

The biggest contradiction of Noack and Buergel’s artistic or curatorial strategy, however, becomes most evident in the area of film. Alexander Horwath, who actually curated the film section of Documenta writes: “The location of film at Documenta 12 is the movie theatre. This is a very simple answer to the recent debates on how to adequately present moving images in the context of art.” As a result, film wound up being largely segregated or ghettoized into evening screenings at the Gloria Kino in Kassel. The film program consists of 50 programs, containing works by 94 filmmakers, which are being screened twice over the course of 100 days of the overall exhibition. The program mixes classical Hollywood (John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright), art cinema (Claire Denis’s Beau Travail), avant-garde (works by Su Friedrich, Leslie Thornton, Ken Jacobs), Amerindie (Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine), and documentary (Frederick Wiseman’s High School).

Horwath elaborates: “The programme tries to represent the ‘normal case of cinema’ in the context of an art exhibition. ‘Normality’ means something entirely different here than ‘mainstream’ film or ‘everyday’ movie-going. Instead, it refers to what should be normal: the entirety of cinema; all types of genres – popular entertainment, avant-garde cinema, documentary, ‘arthouse’ filmmaking – united by a single frame of contemplation. The idea is to go beyond the distinctions made by the market and beyond the highly selective criteria used by the art world in defining the term ‘artists’ film.'”This is, of course, laudatory in theory, and I totally agree with the position espoused here. Yet, if the idea behind Documenta 12 was to mix various media and remove boundaries, why should film end up being isolated from the rest of the exhibition, except for the Irish artist James Coleman’s Retake with Evidence (2007)? Why was such an enormous film screening space at Neue Galerie given over to what Manny Farber would term “elephant art” – a filmed stage piece of Harvey Keitel lamenting the destruction and carnage around him – except for the fact that the artist shows at Marian Goodman Gallery? Why not show the whole film program there? Or, if you had to show only one work, why not something more akin to “termite art,” such as Ken Jacobs’s epic Star Spangled to Death?

In a sense, there are now two separate and distinct traditions of moving image media: one shown in independent movie venues and the other that exists within a gallery and museum or “art world” context. For a variety of historical reasons, video rather than film has been a part of the gallery and museum context almost from its inception in the mid-1960s. Film, on the other hand, proved to be an uncomfortable fit within commercial galleries, largely because galleries did not know how to market films to collectors. Even the pop artist, Andy Warhol, who left painting for filmmaking for a five-year period from 1963-1968, failed to situate his films in the art world, where his film works were viewed more as a career aberration rather than as the radical gesture Warhol intended them to be. Warhol even made what is considered to be the first art video Outer and Inner Space (1965), which was ignored at the time, but now must be considered one of his most significant works.

At some point in the 1970s, Larry Jordan, the avant-garde filmmaker, proposed selling the originals of a film to collectors, but this idea never went anywhere. For one thing, they could not be adequately displayed. Unlike video, films never fit into people’s homes. They required a projector, a large screen, and some degree of darkness in order for the image to be viewable. Video did not have this problem because TV monitors already existed in virtually everyone’s home since the 1950s. In addition, viewing a film tended to be a temporary experience, limited by the act of projecting it, rather than a permanent object like a painting or sculpture. On the other hand, video could be looped and played continuously on a monitor, much like broadcast television. The medium lent itself better to the notion of installation. Video continued to be shown in art galleries, despite the fact that no one could figure out what to do with it and the image quality wasn’t very good.

Video, however, served another function. It often provided a form of documentation for the idea-based work of conceptual artists, such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden in the 1970s, when this type of work became very much in vogue. A conceptual piece may have been created as an implicit critique of art as commodity, but the documentation of an event or action somehow managed to authenticate it, and thus galleries began to sell video as documentation of conceptual art works. As a result, two separate traditions became established. Video was shown in art galleries and museums within the “white cube,” whereas most avant-garde films were screened in theatrical venues. They were also shown in theaters within museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center, the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Whitney Museum of American Art. They were screened at independent showcases such as Millennium, the Collective for Living Cinema, Film in the Cities, The San Francisco Cinematheque, Pacific Film Archives, Chicago Filmmakers, or Anthology Film Archives in New York City.

The advent of digital technology, which coincided with a major boom in the art world, altered the situation during the last ten years. In addition, art became so interdisciplinary that it became virtually impossible to maintain past distinctions regarding the notion of separate disciplines. Because of the prevalence of moving-image media within our culture, avant-garde film began to invade art galleries and museums as well. Artists belonging to the avant-garde film tradition such as Anthony McCall, Morgan Fisher, Pat O’Neill, and Jonas Mekas suddenly began showing in art galleries.

McCall provides an interesting illustration of this change. McCall, who made a series of sculptural “cone” films, stopped working in film in the 1970s as a result of his failure to find gallery representation. He now shows at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City, and his earlier work has been showcased once again, not only in a gallery context, but also in major museum shows, such as the Whitney Museum’s “Into the Light” exhibition by Chrissie Iles. Other film artists, such as Matthew Buckingham, Tacita Dean, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Yang Fudong, and Matthew Barney now work primarily within an art world context. Galleries have found novel ways to sell films and videos to collectors and museums through limited editions. In addition galleries, museums, and international biennials and arts festivals, such as the Carnegie International, the Liverpool Biennial, and the Venice Biennale commission media artists to create work.

In Documenta 12, the real issue has to do with the parallel worlds that continue to exist between artists represented by galleries and those who are not. It’s the most false distinction in terms of the medium of film, yet Documenta 12 upholds it through its exhibition practice. This is the one barrier that should have been torn down, but wasn’t. Despite utopian statements to the contrary, Documenta 12 ultimately proved itself to be completely conventional in the way it dealt with film. The extraordinarily rich and diverse film program that Horwath and his staff put together seems aimed only at local viewers rather than those attending the exhibition from outside the area. During the two nights I spent in Kassel, for instance, I could have seen Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee’s In the Street and Wiseman’s High School (both of which I’ve seen multiple times), along with two other shorts. On the second evening, Johann van der Keuken’s feature-length The Long Holiday was playing at the Gloria Kino, but I was already too fatigued from spending ten hours looking at art.

Most of the videos interspersed throughout the main exhibition halls at Documenta 12 create surprisingly little impact. More notable is Harun Farocki’s video installation Deep Play (2007) which analyzes a World Cup soccer match from multiple perspectives, suggesting the complex interreationships between the actual event, computer-generated statistical imagery, and police surveillance of the stadium. The Swedish artist Johanna Billing’s This is How We Walk on the Moon (2007) depicts a group of musicians (inexperienced sailors) from Edinburgh, as they nervously attempt to navigate a boat on the North Sea. Nedko Solakov’s Top Secret (1989) is perhaps the most engaging video piece. In it, Solakov, who also had work at Venice, discusses his previous life as a youthful communist informer in Bulgaria. He creates a secret file of objects, which allow him to reveal personal aspects of his controversial past.

If I were only interested in film and video, Documenta 12 certainly would have been a disappointment, but I’ve always been equally captivated by the other visual arts as well. Documenta 12 felt extremely erratic at times, to be sure, but I managed to see a lot of stimulating work I might not have seen otherwise. Especially noteworthy examples include: Sheela Gowda’s installation containing eight tables of ashes, sculptural forms of truck parts using plant and animal matter by Simryn Gill, Nasreen Mohamedi’s drawings (some of which which bear an uncanny resemblance to those of American outsider artist, Melvin Way), drawings by Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook, scroll drawings of buildings by Lu Hao, Nedko Solakov’s drawings of his personal phobias, an ambitious wall installation by Congolese artist Bill Kouélany, paintings by Lukas Duwenhögger, and the room of photgraphs by Zoe Leonard. In many ways, this show proved to be a complement to the one in Venice, which luckily turned out to be much more satisfying in terms of film and video.

Posted 4 July, 2007

Sundance 608 Surcharge

I just returned from spending eight days at the two major art exhibitions: the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Germany. While I was away, Isthmus, the alternative weekly paper, did an article about the surcharge at the recently opened Sundance 608 multiplex here in Madison, indicating that it continues to be a major problem with local moviegoers. The surcharge has generated a lot of negative publicity. Two letters to the editor and criticism of the policy in Doug Moe’s widely read column in the afternoon newspaper, The Capital Times, prompted Tom Laskin of Isthmus to contact the CEO of Sundance 608 regarding the rationale for the surcharge on tickets. I have written two blogs already regarding this issue, so I don’t have much to add. I’m heavily quoted in the article, but there’s one factual error. My point of comparison is actually the IFC Center in New York City. They provide quality projection and sound, comfortable seats, no commercials, and they have a restaurant that serves, lunch, dinner, and snacks. There’s also a full bar. Tickets are $11 for adults at all times of the day, and prices for seniors are $7.50. There are also membership packages available that reduce the price of a ticket. It costs an extra dollar to book a ticket online through I’ve provided a link to the Isthmus article.

Posted 4 July, 2007

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