Like many post-9-11 events, the 2002 New York Video Festival saw outward-looking cultural documentaries as a major theme. This year’s edition achieves the opposite: Works culled from the contemporary gallery scene, combined with the usual roundup of schooly diaristic video essays, collectively generate an atmosphere of cramped introspection and well-worn experimental gesture, trapped somewhere between obsessive home-video and dissertation defense. The title of one group show, “Me and My Camera,” sums up the generally solipsistic parameters a bit too well.
Even if this year’s crop is not the strongest to date, the programmers once again showcase new works by established figures of the experimental video world (Steve Reinke, Tom Kalin, Shelly Silver, Chris Petit, Ximena Cuevas, George Kuchar), this time peppered with hot names lifted from the pages of art-world glossies. The most notable of the latter group is also the most disappointing: Vanessa Beecroft, heretofore known for live installations of mute female models who pose, near nude and glum, in identical Manolo Blahniks or similar haute-bourgeois consumer culture trappings. Commissioned by a German count and produced in his baroque castle, VB51 is her first fully documented performance, shot on film and transferred to video. While Beecroft’s previous events had a knowing sense of bad taste, VB51 collapses into unironic kitsch, arranging 25 female aristocrats of varying ages, members of Beecroft’s own family, and Fassbinder actresses Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann, all clad in angelic white gowns. Beecroft’s early works mirrored the art world’s tackiness; by chucking this cynicism, Beecroft merely indulges the ridiculousness she once parodied.
Not all the art stars let down, however. Two of the New York artists presented in the “Mirror Conspiracies” program are among the festival’s best. Shannon Plumb’s Super-8 mini-movies, featuring only herself as performer, each run the length of a three-minute roll. These witty self-portraits marry Cindy Sherman’s chameleonic powers to Charlie Chaplin’s pantomime prowess. Inside a cardboard taxi, Plumb channels a cartoon cabbie; as saucy stewardess, she demonstrates fanciful flotation devices. Manchild Anthony Goicolea extends the scenarios found in his digitally manipulated photographs into moving images. Casting himself as gangs of identically creepy little boys, Goicolea tumbles down staircases in triplicate, squirms proto-erotically in a classroom, and bites his nails, chipmunk-like, while captured on nature-show night-vision.
Closer to the cultural zeitgeist: “Game Engine,” a clip show on video-game culture, including neo-cinematic mutations like machinima: little fanboy movies made from the programming guts of Quake and Doom. A kind of machinima cheat is created by RedvsBlue, who craft Quicktime comedy serials by puppeteering the anonymous helmet-clad warriors from space battler Halo. From art-world borderlands come the works of dirtstyle digital “it” boy Cory Arcangel, who hacks Nintendo cartridges into works like “Super Mario Clouds”—an installation in which all but the blue sky and pixel-chunky clouds are removed from the ’80s game. Arcangel’s retro mods partake of the same neo-psychedelic Saturday-morning freakiness as collectives Paperrad and Forcefield; a true punk-smart evangelist, he’ll appear with a live lecture on how to do it yourself.
Despite the ascendancy of DV narratives, the Video Festival has historically avoided feature filmmaking. An exception this year is Julie Talen’s Pretend, an ambitious experiment in visual storytelling employing multiple image windows. A kidnapping caper told with fairy-tale surrealism, Pretend never quite succeeds as a film (the acting often devolves into shrieking hysterics), but remains a remarkable achievement in editing. Though similar attempts have been made before—Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler, Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book, Mike Figgis’s Time Code, and Ang Lee’s The Hulk, not to mention Abel Gance’s Napoléon—none of these examples push the possibilities as far. Talen edits a dizzying storm of screens within screens, creating a new graphic vocabulary of flashbacks, flash-forwards, fantasy sequences, and parallel actions. She showcases the best possibilities of experimenting with video: With a medium this malleable, the Video Festival needs more artists who think like hackers, and fewer hacks.