Media Show Strikes at Culture Bias

Whitney Museum's exhibit treats cinema as idea laboratory

WHEN we think of movies, most of us think first of Hollywood films or their various offspring, from TV shows to imitative "art films" from abroad.

But this is a limited view, overlooking a great range of moving images with quite different priorities. The conventional idea that a movie must tell a story and move in a straight line - beginning, middle, end - sets up a definition of cinema that "stands in sharp contrast to the real mutability of our world," as media expert John G. Hanhardt puts it. Films made by this definition "contribute to the dominance of an established mode of thought," writes Mr. Hanhardt, favoring the demands of consumerism ove r the needs of growth, diversification, and understanding.

One solution to this problem, says Hanhardt, who is curator of film and video at the Whitney Museum of American Art here, is for today's museums to become "postmodern," transforming their resources into "laboratories of ideas" that break down arbitrary divisions among cultures and disciplines. In such circumstances, Hanhardt states in notes to the Whitney's latest media exhibition, an artist isn't just a star or personality, but a sort of creative go-between who serves as a "conduit of many different cul tural and social stimuli."

Putting his ideas into practice, Hanhardt has organized an ambitious show called "Re-Mapping Culture(s)" in conjunction with Janet Sternburg, the Rockfeller Foundation's senior program advisor in media.

Works on view range from narrative films and classic documentaries to avant-garde collages and critiques of conventional media practices. What connects them is their effort to reveal what Ms. Sternburg calls "a world of inter: a set of relationships between past and present, between film and video, between gender and national or ethnic identities...."

One of the exhibition's most impressive aspects is its combining of what appear to be dissimilar works, so they can shed light on one another in back-to-back screenings. A splendid example is the pairing of "The Man With the Movie Camera," the 1929 classic that established Dziga Vertov as the reigning monarch of Soviet avant-garde documentary, and "Friendly Witness," made 60 years later by American filmmaker Warren Sonbert, who uses strategies of editing and photography that extend some of Vertov's conce rns into brilliant modern-day terms. Also on this program is "A Movie," a 1958 collage-film, by Bruce Conner.

Also valuable is the show's even-handed recognition of veteran artists such as Luis Bunuel and Jean-Luc Godard; comparative newcomers, such as Marlon T. Riggs and Leslie Thornton; and major talents whose full value has yet to be recognized by American audiences, such as Ousmane Sembene and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Most important, however, is the show's focus on media art as a process of discovery rather than a system of mere entertainment.

Many of the selections are mighty entertaining, to be sure, such as "To Sleep With Anger," a superb comedy-drama about African-American life, by Charles Burnett, and Jean Rouch's classic "Jaguar," which brought a new dimension to ethnographic film some 25 years ago. But the exhibition stresses the adventure of creation over the safety of the finished product. Script readings and work-in-progress presentations are included; and even some finished works are presented in excerpted form, highlighting their most relevant features.

Representing the efforts of 19 artists, "Re-Mapping Culture(s)" is above all an exercise in multiculturalism of the best kind, celebrating works that grapple forthrightly with the complications of today's world.

There's a vast amount of difference between the Native American video of Victor Masayesva Jr. and the mock-macho comedy of Martin Scorsese's early work; between the gay-inflected historical inquiry of "Looking for Langston," by British filmmaker Isaac Julien, and the anthropological nuances of "Reassemblage," by Vietnamese-born filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha.

Still, these and other selections are charged not only with the individual visions of their makers but also with the social, political, and historical weight of the cultures from which they and their makers have sprung. As Sternburg notes, "the pressure of new investigation into previously uncharted territory has ... brought forth new voices and new perspectives." To recognize these voices and explore these perspectives is the admirable project of this important exhibition.

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