Los Angeles, CA
A blank legal pad fills the screen of John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971), the very first piece in California Video, the Getty’s survey of forty years of video art in the golden state. The artist’s hand fills the paper with the titular phrase in the rote manner of a grade-school penalty. Although the tape tops out at near thirty minutes, the endless playback loop might cause one to imagine Baldessari trapped in a recursive closed circuit of punishment and promise, for he reneges on his pledge at the very moment of its making. But even with artist’s tongue firmly planted in cheek, I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art does not succeed at being boring: not only does its absurd humor increase with each ironic repetition, it also offers an implicit critique of its parent medium. Baldessari undermines the conven- tional pleasures of television by creating a self- consciously boring program. Curator glenn Phillips juxtaposes I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art with a pair of Diana Thater’s works, Surface Effect (1997) and Continuous Only (2006). If Baldessari’s piece introduces the visitor to early video art’s humorous challenges to the medium, Thater’s work points to themes more endemic to contemporary work. Surface Effect’s two channels appear on monitors stacked base-to-base, bottom image mirroring the top. Each screen shows the big sky of a psychedelic sunset over a low mountain range. But as the clouds slowly shift, it becomes apparent that the spectacular colors are not from nature’s palette, but from the television itself. The vibrating hues are purely the effect of the scrolling electronic surface of the screen. The technology is front and center, dazzling when it calls attention to itself. Continuous Only achieves the opposite effect. Its nine flat-panel screens show a fragmented yet synchronized view of dense tropical foliage, as if one is looking at the ground through a perforated screen. The erratic movement of the camera causes the viewer to automatically fill in the gaps between the monitors, making the image whole and comprehensible. In this unconscious act of erasing negative space, one also erases the technology—the expensive screens roped together by big loose loops of cable disappear and become transparent.
Paired together, Thater’s and Baldessari’s works map both what is seductive and dangerous about video art. on the one hand, it often seems to run the risk of investing too heavily in the wizardry of effects and fetishizing the technology. Or, conversely, it makes the physical, technological, and institutional supports of the object disappear in favor of a fantasy of unmediated connection to the image on the screen. If it does manage to avoid the traps of fetishism and transparency, it may not hold its audience long enough to get the joke, since, if one is conditioned to expect anything from television it is the relentless forward motion of entertainment. Thater’s and Baldessari’s works, along with many others in California Video, engage in a struggle with television: though seduced by its formal potentials, its pervasiveness, and its powers, at the same time they are desperate to overturn its oligarchy, pluralize its producers, and undermine the very pleasures it delivers.
Phillips stages an engrossing exhibition of some of the greatest—and some of the least recognized—pioneers of the medium. The show compels many returns to the gallery, not only due to the sheer volume of the work (to even estimate the collective running time of all the tapes is dizzying), but also for the conceptual heft of the works it contains and the continued relevance of the critiques of the medium and the media that they offer.
The heavy front-loading of California Video reflects the Getty’s burgeoning interest in the medium’s early years. fifty-one of the exhibition’s seventy-three works date from before 1988, and nearly forty of those are from video’s first decade. Twenty or so of the videos on display are from the museum’s video collection. The collection—one of the largest in the world—includes the Long Beach Museum of Art’s unparalleled archive of early California video, which the Getty acquired in 2005. Beginning in 1974, the Long Beach Museum was an early supporter of the new medium; the institution collected and archived tapes and established editing and broadcast facilities for artists. The LBMA’s deteriorating tapes from video’s salad days now share a home with the Getty’s far more ancient treasures. while the mass-reproducible cassettes make strange bedfellows for the rarefied, singular works that make up the bulk of the Getty’s holdings, they are equally delicate and in as dire need of attention from both conservators and scholars.