In contrast to its neighbors, Brian Bress’s Under cover (2007) does resurrect the excitement about the transformative potentials of new technologies so present in the work of the early 1970s. Bress plays a cast of characters that seems to be pulled from both the art world and Saturday morning cartoons. on an ingenious set of trompe l’oeil backdrops and with the help of simple yet mystifying “special” effects, Bress tells a dreamlike narrative of negotiations between collector, critic, and artist, all equally clueless about what any artwork means. In between these satirical vignettes, another set of characters emerges from the painted backgrounds—otherworldly, mythical creatures that appear and disappear, multiply and disperse, and reproduce themselves endlessly. It doesn’t really matter if the critics and collectors can’t make up their minds; the art is out on its own, running rampant. Rather than being confined to gallery displays or limited edition tapes, Bress has posted his videos on YouTube, enabling him to reach audiences much larger than any museum show curator could hope for.

In the new forms of distribution enabled by streaming media sites and file sharing one can find the clearest connection to the radical practices of the 1970s. Artists’ television and public access may not have taken down the big networks or done much to change traditional broadcasting, and maybe the web won’t either. But it has, little by little, changed the way video art circulates. Bress, as well as his East Coast contemporary Ryan Trecartin, choose to distribute their work on-line. for this generation, it may not be reproduction in the mass media that verifies an object as art, as Krauss lamented in 1976, but it may be what keeps art relevant.

Brian Bress. Under cover, 2007.

To write the history of a distributed form of art such as video or television as a specifically regional one is unnaturally restrictive and obscures why so many artists were excited about tape and broadcast to begin with—it travels and disperses. It’s not clear what this designation does for the Getty beside state the obvious—California, since at least the mid-1960s, has been birthplace of many great works of art (if not the birthplace of the “Californian” artists themselves.) And indeed, great institutions like the Long Beach Museum of Art have been integral in supporting and shaping this history. The Getty’s new interest in video art is in part because the medium has matured and become—like the museum’s other objects—“serious, scholarly, and classic,” in the words of Getty director Michael Brand.5 So much so that the Getty has written a new “bible” of video art, a bulky—yet surprisingly patchy and partial—tome. But it is also because early video is in dire need of preservation and restoration. Many of the tapes in the collection have not screened as much as they deserve and, without the Getty’s intervention, they would be doomed to obsolescence. one can only hope that the Getty follows Bress’s lead when they finish digitizing their enormous new collection of classic video and help to inspire a new generation of critical and politically engaged artists. Art made for the monitor and airwaves shouldn’t languish on shelves. The best way to preserve is to distribute.

Kris Paulsen is a doctoral candidate in the Rhetoric Department and the Center for New Media at UC Berkeley.

Footnotes

  1. Quotation from Michael Brand’s introductory comments at the press preview, March 14, 2008.
Further Reading