Mind the Gap

Moving images at the Whitney reflect the art world's slow embrace of experimental film

Although the Whitney Biennial is one of the few major art events committed to showcasing cinema, its film and video programming plays a curiously oblique role. Screenings have proved popular in recent editions, often packing viewers into the museum's Kaufman Astoria Studios Film & Video Gallery. Inclusion serves as a coveted cap-feather within experimental filmmaking—a field not widely recognized by art-world accolades. Despite this, cinematic works are rarely mentioned within the press explosion each biennial generates; film and video artists have come to expect that the career benefits gallery artists might enjoy from their Whitney sojourn don't necessarily extend to either avant-garde filmmakers or their cinematheque-based experimental-video soulmates.

But the 2004 Biennial explores how these long-calcified boundaries appear to be breaking down. Moving images of various media have entered the gallery spaces—not just as now-standard video walls, but also as real celluloid reels whizzing through clacketing projectors. Movies by Stan Brakhage, Deborah Stratman, Isaac Julien, James Fotopoulos, and Julie Murray show as loops in gallery spaces (as well as in the one-off screening series), while 16mm films by artists like Jack Goldstein and Sharon Lockhart serve as gallery-world parallels. This shift reflects how the ongoing contest of definition between the worlds of gallery art and experimental cinema has recently become complicated through increasing amounts of formal and social cross-pollination.

Still, the ability of art critics to assimilate experimental cinema made outside the gallery system remains to be seen. "I think the art press is not used to looking at experimental film," says Chrissie Iles, one of 2004's curatorial trio, which also includes Debra Singer and Shamim M. Momin. "Of course it's an art form in its own right, but a lot of art-world people still don't even really understand, on a technical level, how films are made, or things like the role of abstraction in these works." The museum's film and video curator, Iles has a track record for curating shows that bridge the gap between the art and film worlds—like 2001's much celebrated Into the Light, a resurrection of early multimedia installations—but this border crossing still poses challenges. "I mean, I can't tell you the number of people who said to me, 'Oh, Into the Light, great video show," Iles remembers. "But it was 90 percent film! Didn't they hear the film's loops? Didn't they see the projectors?"

Marina Abramovic's Count on Us
photo: Sean Kelly Gallery
Marina Abramovic's Count on Us

Echoes of Into the Light's '60s-to-'70s provenance resonate in the 2004 Biennial. The moment of early video art, heady structural cinema, and pioneering media performance, that time span serves as a historical high-water mark of film-world/art-world interplay. This year, TJ Wilcox's 16mm film garland 1, 2 and 3 is projected onto a freestanding home-movie screen, installed in a white-cube room like a strange artifact from the Nixonian epoch. Whereas Anthony McCall's 1973 light sculpture Line Describing a Cone drew a ghostly cone through fog with a projector beam, his new Doubling Back riffs on the complicated nature of memory and return by breaking the conical shape into irregularly intersecting planar curves. Cory Arcangel's Nintendo 64-generated video installation, Super Mario Clouds, slyly revives both video art's image-synthesizer roots and its early conceptualist underpinnings, here rewritten in the language of hacked machine code.

But the ambitious inclusion of numerous moving-image works poses practical issues of how to integrate contemplative cinematic spaces into the exhibit's foot-shuffling norm. The soundtracks to adjoining room-sized video installations by Marina Abramovic and Catherine Sullivan bleed into one another through the gallery walls, and the mini-black-box theater for Brakhage and Murray offers noticeable distractions through its curtainless door. Such quibbles aside, the project remains a perhaps utopian gesture of joining disparate aesthetic and social experiences. "Of course if the Whitney were five times the size, it would be lovely to have one little black box for every filmmaker," Iles muses. "I mean, that's my dream. Wouldn't it be fantastic?"


Related Article:
Jerry Saltz's review of the 2004 Whitney Biennial
 
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