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With Video, It’s Not All Tedium in the Dark

Before we take a quick look at a few summer shows involving video, something needs to be said. A lot of bad artists are hiding behind this ripe medium. These artists—and the dealers and curators who love them—make going to certain exhibitions a drag.

Because video is the new lingua franca of the art world, there are bound to be that many more bad examples. The way video is bad is what makes it so annoying. Too often these days, we step out of the light and into darkened rooms to gape at projections that leave us cold. The experience of standing in these anonymous, would-be movie theaters has become as predictable as it is grim. You could be anywhere. There's no sense of space, place, pleasure, or who you're with. People come and go. Ennui reigns. Although many contemporary artists incorporate aspects of film, entertainment, and narrative into their work, and although we've all seen videos we love, experientially, one of video's strengths is that it's more like a static object than a movie.

Whatever else they might be, movies are always popular culture. A great one might even become art. And although Michael Wolff is right to say that "nobody takes movies seriously anymore," even bad ones tell you something about money, Hollywood, special effects, hairdos, or whatever. That's why we don't walk out of the movies in droves the way we duck out of videos. Video has a content all its own—certain material or nonmaterial properties—but few artists are addressing it. Instead, they've managed to turn one of the niftier inventions of the last century, and sexier experiences in life—being in the dark with other people—into something tedious.

After this summer's Venice Biennale was all but lamed by a bevy of bad videos, it's a relief to report there are a few snappy video shows up right now. At Gagosian, "Monitor: Volume I" (555 West 24th Street, through July 27) takes a lights-on, no-chairs, multi-monitor approach. Donning headphones to listen to each tape is a little like sampling CDs in a music store, but choices are diverse and original, and there are good pieces (most notably, Francis Alys's live feed of gallery workers in the office as seen through a goldfish-filled aquarium). In the adjoining gallery—though back in the dark—is Susan Hiller's super-neat Psi Girls, five large projections taken from films like Firestarter, The Fury, and Stalker(my fave bit here). In each, we see a young girl at the moment she discovers she has mysterious powers—in this case, telekinetic ones. More than a metaphor and reminiscent of through a looking glass, Douglas Gordon's 1999 Taxi Driver projection, Psi Girlsis like a good ghost story—rousing, if limited.

In mounting "Song Poems"—a show of homemade music videos with lyrics, sound, and visuals by writers, musicians, and artists working in collaboration—Cohan Leslie and Browne (138 Tenth Avenue, through August 10) goes with a dim room, one projection, and 42 tapes. Several samples are good (especially Dream Drawing, A New Life, and I'm Still in My Underwear, with lyrics by artists Jim Shaw, Georgina Starr, and Michael Smith respectively), but to see all the song poems, you'd have to stay in the gallery for three hours. Too long.

Roebling Hall's perfectly titled "Lite" (390 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn, through July 29) is the best of this lot. As the press release says, "No brain-heavy masterpieces, but kinky licks." The gallery is cast in dusky twilight and there are no chairs, but the atmosphere is funky and the images are all over the place. Monitors are on columns and pedestals; projections dot both walls and floors. As co-organized by artists Adriana Arenas and Christoph Draeger (both of whose pieces look good here), "Lite" is an exhilarating dip into video, as practiced by 14 artists, many relatively unknown in New York. Don't miss Christian Jankowski's clever clip of himself hunting food with a bow and arrow in a Hamburg supermarket; Emmanuelle Antille's sexy, funny party fantasy; and 2 on 1 by Guy Richards Smit, who, if given a chance, could liven up some of those international biennials a bit.

Finally, and despite the fact that it's projected in the dark, this summer's award for best new video goes to 30 Minutes Around the World by the collaborative team known as Prince Tongha (Hideyuki Tanaka and Pierre Taki). This frantic, single-channel, sound/image extravaganza is a little masterpiece of Pop frippery. Part of P.S.1's cool new "Buzz Club: News From Japan" (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, through September 9), this MTV-inspired work doesn't have the emotional depth of Ugo Rondinone's or Pipilotti Rist's best efforts, and you forget what you've seen in seconds, but it's an eye- and earful, nevertheless.

Prince Tongha lifts clips from TV and combines them with videotaped snippets of marching bands, explosions, seals flopping, people cutting meat, video games, camels braying, men pouring tea—you name it. Spliced together and digitally manipulated, the fragments form an audiovisual crazy quilt played out at amphetamine speed and give rise to a new genre of techno-minimalist music. Tanaka and Taki also evince an uncanny—and, to me, particularly Japanese—penchant for the pop ridiculous. A hula band is played off sumo wrestlers; bell-ringing priests are juxtaposed with delirious crowds and kickboxers; a dice player does a duet with men hammering. Batty, mesmerizing, and vivacious, 30 Minutes Around the World may be better suited to clubs than to galleries, but who cares? It's a lively end to an uneven season of video.

 
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