Art video: a young maverick that deserves more serious attention

As the ``art video'' scene continues to mature, nobody can say where its future lies. Its main goal is to explore new directions in image and sound, not to make money or capture huge audiences. This puts video artists at odds with commercial TV, where mass entertainment is the whole point.

Many video artists enjoy being mavericks who stand on the cutting edge, not in the comfortable middle. But all artists want to communicate, and it's frustrating to have one's work automatically shunted to the sidelines -- in terms of financial support as well as public attention.

The closest parallel to this predicament is in the movie world, where ``experimental'' filmmakers have gone through similar travails -- and are going through them still, despite decades of hard work and achievement.

Video art has an advantage over film, in theory, since television can pipe it into our living rooms. As cable and satellite TV stations multiply, some observers say, the need for ``product'' will bring more adventurous programming. And as we see more video art, we'll learn its vocabulary and get to like it.

There are few signs that this is happening, though. Cable channels with empty time still gravitate toward printed displays and meaningless logos to fill the screen. Some critics feel MTV's rock-music videos are paving the way for wide acceptance of video art; but these are mostly content with boggling the eyes and ears. They don't stretch the mind or the imagination -- a failure that sets them apart from worthwhile video art, despite the razzle-dazzle visual style they've purloined from their betters.

For now, therefore, the best video art is found largely in museums and other forums that don't depend on high ratings or big box office. And the closest thing to an official video ``salon'' is the Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which offers an every-other-year survey of the medium's best recent work.

As in the past, the 1985 selection was chosen by film and video curator John G. Hanhardt, and is now touring widely (with a companion film exhibition), courtesy of the American Federation of Arts (AFA). A look at all eight programs indicated to me that, as in other recent years, enough lively things are happening in art video to warrant a new look by the commercial TV moguls.

The standout of the show is Robert Ashley's long-awaited TV opera, ``Perfect Lives.'' A modernist composer/performer long interested in video, Mr. Ashley isn't shy about matching his music -- a mixture of rock and ``minimalist'' ideas -- with a flood of pulsing images tied to the American landscape.

``These are songs about the Corn Belt,'' says the narrator (and star) at the start of each segment, ``and some of the people in it and on it.'' The opera doesn't so much portray these folks as suggest and evoke them, via whimsical essays about homely places like ``The Supermarket'' and ``The Backyard.'' The relentless sound track features such new-music regulars as David van Tieghem and ``Blue'' Gene Tyranny; the director of the production was video veteran John Sanborn. Unfortunately, only two of the opera's seven portions are included in the AFA tour, because of its 31/2-hour length.

Another high point of the program also features an artist with stage credentials: actress and performance artist Joan Jonas, whose ``Double Lunar Dogs'' takes off from a science-fiction theme. The setting (borrowed from a clever Robert A. Heinlein story) is a spaceship that's been traveling so long its inhabitants have forgotten whence they came or where they're going. On video, the meditation is more concise (if less imposing) than in its mixed-media stage version; the offbeat cast still includes David

Warrilow and Spalding Gray as well as Jonas herself.

The third hit of the Whitney show, in my eyes, is ``The Pressures of the Text,'' a very funny parody of ``art/critspeak'' and other pomposities. Aiming their barbs at such large targets as language and communication, artists Peter Rose and Jessie Lewis generate laughs as well as ideas with speech, hand signs, ``ideographic subtitles,'' and other devices not usually thought hilarious. The result should be required viewing in the murkier groves of academe.

All these works are weighty enough to suit a museum setting, yet carry enough entertainment value to deserve full exposure -- which they probably won't get -- on the home screen, too. Other items that merit wide attention are ``Skin Matrix,'' a textural study by Ed Emshwiller; two culturally concerned ``Social Studies'' tapes by Lyn Blumenthal; ``The Double,'' by Ken Feingold, and ``Information Withheld,'' by Juan Downey, which probe the nature of their own imagery; the five-part ``Songs of the '8 0s,'' by Doug Hall; and ``Damnation of Faust: Evocation,'' by Dara Birnbaum, a rhythmic TV translation of her own multimedia sculpture on the theme of threatened innocence.

Other works, most of which made little lasting impression on me, include ``Parafango,'' by dance specialist Charles Atlas; ``Sabda,'' by Dan Reeves; the windy ``Why Do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia),'' by Gary Hill; and ``The Commission,'' by Woody Vasulka, a heavily shot ``visit'' with Paganini and Berlioz.

All these pieces will be seen in American and overseas venues during the AFA tour. Ironically, though, the best video work in the Biennial show isn't traveling, since it's an ``installation'' and doesn't fit the ``single channel'' format that's readily viewed on a TV set. A stunning sculpture by Bill Viola called ``The Theater of Memory,'' it fills a room with its two large elements: an uprooted tree hung with lanterns, and a screen lit by dim, flickering images. At once heroic, nostalgic, and sad, it e vokes a sense of loss that's not maudlin or sentimental, but oddly uplifting in its visual grandeur and conceptual clarity. It's too bad that Viola's contribution to the touring show, a blend of music video and primal scream called ``Anthem,'' isn't so memorable.

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