Among avant-garde cinephiles, the Whitney Biennial’s film and video exhibitions hold an importance roughly analogous to Hollywood’s Academy Awards. New faces get career boosts, established names receive belated honors, elder figures show they’ve still got the knack, and everyone else gripes about the biased selection process. Like the Oscars, too, the Biennial provides a time-capsule sampling of recent cinema, set down in catalog form. Some works prosper, canonized, for years to come, while others remain notable as examples of their era’s stereotypical excesses.
An acutely contemporary aspect of 2002’s selection is the muddied boundaries between film and video, sound art, performance, Internet, and other arts. For example, videomakers Seth Price and Peggy Ahwesh create new pieces out of materials culled from the Internet and Tomb Raider, respectively, while various Web artists display jittering cartoons on laptops, desktops, and PDAs. Polymath Miranda July presents separate works in the video, sound art, and performance categories. In Trevor, video art pioneer Steina manipulates footage of a man singing into a virtuoso burst of digital scratching that easily challenges the skills of any trendy turntablist, while Stom Sogo’s Guided by Voices masterfully remixes video, Super 8, and laptopish music into a post-cinematic K hole. One videomaker loses the image altogether, verging on sound art: Keith Sanborn’s For the Birds plays nothing but an audio composition of birdsong warbles against an empty black video screen. Aping their more commercial counterparts, these disparate categories of music, film, video, and the Internet feel as if they’re melting into a single form called digital media.
Perhaps in reaction to the ingestion of cinema by its own digital offspring, other filmmakers revive the archaic modernist impulse to explore the specific properties of old celluloid, looking backward to craft a new après-garde. Unlike its forebears, this current crop of neo-materialists loses the ideological and cognitive ambitions of the past in favor of optical play and wry historical quotes. A key artist in this mode is Brian Frye (also a curator of the Lower East Side’s antique-y Robert Beck Memorial Cinema), who shoots silvery 16mm shorts that play like enigmatic, silent-era scraps rescued from a Hollywood junk shop.
Beyond Frye’s films, there’s a more baroque variant of Robert Beckism on view. A hallmark of Whitney film curator Chrissie Iles’s first Biennial is an ambitious slew of “projector performances,” providing a contemporary coda to her much lauded “Into the Light” exhibit of early expanded cinema installations last season. Largely composed of local filmmakers, including Glen Fogel, Zoe Beloff, Bruce McClure, Luis Recoder, and projector-manipulation pioneer Ken Jacobs, this group eschews narrative and, often, figurative representation, preferring on-screen collage, glowing abstractions, and rolling color fields. Sometimes adding voice-over, props, and life sound into the show, the performances combine elements of 19th-century sideshows, ’60s happenings, and ’70s conceptual art, transforming the cinematic apparatus into a motorized means of painting with light.
In true Biennial tradition, 2002 also brings its share of celluloid snoozers and digital duds. Case in point: Tony Cokes’s jargon-clogged video 2@, with its cringingly academic observations on popular music. Far worse is actor Dennis Hopper’s miserably tacky narrative short Homeless, a wordless DV portrait of an ex-stripper who pushes a shabby shopping cart full of broken dreams through the mean streets of Southern California, but still manages to wear full make-up and show off her pert, tanned breasts. Memo to Mr. Hopper: We love you on the big screen, baby, but please leave the experimental cinema to the professionals. In return, we promise that Ken Jacobs will never best you for an Oscar.