If a tape of Burden’s TV Hijack did exist, one would expect to find it in the small side room of the exhibition that bears the warning that viewers may find some of the videos inside offensive. The twelve monitors crowded into the room mainly display images of men behaving badly. Paul McCarthy is up to his familiar abject antics in Stomach of the Squirrel (1973); Skip Arnold crashes about a white cube in an American flag motorcycle helmet until he knocks himself unconscious (Marks, 1986). The inclusion of several explicitly political works, such as Ulysses Jenkin’s Mass of Images (1976) is curious. It is hard to tell whether the disclaimer on the door is a joke, but through its lens, Bruce Nauman’s g-rated, fanny-wagging Walk with Contrapposto (1968) never looked so racy.
The large majority of works in this historical section of California Video appear on nondescript viewing monitors piled atop institutional-issue metal tables, separated by thick, Beuysian strips of felt hanging from the high ceiling. The hall contains the vast majority of tapes in the show and it is easy to miss a work in the crowded, media-lab setup. In their presentation the early videos appear short-changed, especially as compared to the contemporary portion of the exhibition, with its large-scale projections and elaborate installations. for example, two early works from Bay Area collective video free America give no hint of their original form. The Philo T. Farnsworth Video Obelisk (1970) was once a seven-monitor tower of switching channels. The experimental documentary The Continuing Story of Carel and Ferd (1970-75) follows porn actress and filmmaker Carel Rowe and her bridegroom, Ferd Eggan—a bisexual junky looking to get straight—through their relationship, from premarital negotiations to consummation to eventual unraveling when Ferd realizes he may not be as interested in women as he had thought. At the Getty, the work appears as an hour-long, single-channel video, but it was originally an eight-monitor display with live and recorded segments mixed on the fly for audiences. A few early videos retain their original trappings. Phillips reinstalls Eternal Frame (1975), by artist collectives Ant farm and T.R. Uthco, in all its former glory. This campy video painstakingly recreates the Zapruder home movie of the assassination of John f. Kennedy. As curious crowds form to watch and record the reenactment, they too are incorporated into the video. Eternal Frame plays on a television in a simulated period living room where each picture, memento and tchotchke in the room commemorates the thirty-fifth president’s death. The archetypal American living room becomes a shrine to both the first continuously covered media event and the technology that made it possible.
The exhibition bridges the distance between video’s historical origins and contemporary practice with a short hallway of abstract, formal works and a “video study room.” The study room, with high-tech touch screens, in part makes up for the over-crowded first hall. visitors can watch any of the exhibition’s pieces “on demand,” and see each of the in their entirety or skip around as desired. Among the abstract videos are Stephen Beck’s experimental synthesizer works from the mid-1970s. Video Weavings (1976), created without a camera using a synthesizer he invented while in residency at the National Center for Experimental Television, still captures the radical formal, technological, and aesthetic effects of its moment. originally broadcast on PBS television, Video Weavings breaks down the vertical and horizontal scans of the television screen into lattice-like color patterns, making the workings of the monitor simultaneously intelligible and mystical. More recent abstract works, however, are decidedly lo-fi. Lynne Marie Kirby’s impressionistic Golden Gate Bridge Exposure (2004), also made without a camera, is a video transfer of a reel of 16mm film exposed to sunlight and then developed. The erratic eruptions of color are momentarily stilled, creating a pulsing color field painting. In STRIP (2006), Erika Suderburg creates the look of software and digital processing by speedily panning across the edges of abstract paintings. The recent works make one wonder if the days of artist-as-technological-innovator are over.
The utopian impulses of the early videos in the first half of the show seem to dissipate in the final rooms. Against the densely packed rows of monitors in the first rooms, the contemporary work appears surprisingly thin, both in number and in their material supports. The images migrate from chunky television screens to wall-sized projections, implying that in the last fifteen years video has become less like television and more like film or painting. The latter part of the show falls prey to the trap Phillips sets up in the opening: many of the works in the contemporary wing are pure technological effect—such as Hilja Keading’s continually switching, six-monitor, three-screen video of a woman wrestling with a perforated garden hose (Backdrop, 2002), or the technology seems to disappear before our eyes, as in Paul Kos’s study of light in stained glass, Chartres Bleu (1983-86). The works entertain and dazzle, but fall short of critical engagement with the medium. And in one case in particular, video really does become boring—Volcano, Trash and Ice Cream (2005), Meg Cranston’s over-blown, wall-sized, hour long projection of a melting ice cream cone. The new works appear showy and overproduced compared to the straightforward (if not unceremonious) treatment of the great works of early video. The excitement about new technologies and distribution methods in the 1970s, so present in the earlier work, gives way to encounters with technology that are alternately numbing or nightmarish. only one short clip plays of Day is Done (2005-06), Mike Kelley’s bizarre recreation of high school yearbook photos taking the form of a 365-chapter work-in-progress. The chapter shown here features a crass, trash-talking devil and screens installed facing an elaborate throne. Bill viola’s mixed media installation, The Sleepers (1992), sinks video monitors of comatose nappers in the bottoms of water filled oil drums. Radar Balloon (2005) by Jeff Cain exposes the surveillance technology that currently keeps watch over us. Cain releases a fifty-foot-long weather balloon in the Mojave Desert and stands by to watch as the military sends out unmanned Predator Drones to chase down the Ufo. Black Out (2004), Cathy Begien’s funny, deadpan narrative of a wild night on the town, tells the story of a young person passively sitting on the periphery of her own life, watching it as if it were on television.