Following Marshall McLuhan, early writing about video art proposed an aesthetics of narcissism; later, academics channel-surfed, read some Deleuze, and diagnosed the postmodern condition as schizophrenic. Judging from the broad selection of electronic experimentation at the New York Video Festival, critics rifling through DSM-IV for an appropriate contemporary metaphor might consider bipolar disorder. The emotional middle ground seems to have disappeared for media artists: Much of the work on view veers toward either neo-psychedelic, hyperactive eye candy, or claustrophobic, misery-munching solitude. At one extreme lies the escape of immersion; at the other, the paralysis of introspection.
On the hyper side are presentations about pop promos, computer games, Web shorts, and live video-mixing, showing that new virtuosos know damn well how to tweak brains raised at the pixel-tits of digital entertainment. Director Ben Stokes (who will appear in conversation with critic Armond White) skillfully lays videos over hip-hop tracks; for DJ Shadow’s “Walkie Talkie,” he flies through a hypnotic retro-Afro-futurist phantasmagoria. Web-based mini-shorts like HomestarRunner’s nerd toons or porn spoof Subservient Chicken bank on workplace boredom and meme spreadability (the “dude, check this out” factor). Game producers Kuma likewise bank on sickness, in both senses of the word. Their breaking-news shoot-’em-ups replay real battles from Iraq and Afghanistan (from a pro-U.S.A. perspective, naturally). All these tasty and addictive bits are created within the commercial realm, or could be easily emulated by it. Subservient Chicken, for example, was commissioned as an online ad for Burger King.
Experimental journeys into unpleasant emotional innerscapes are not so consumer-friendly—which is largely the point. Gina Kim’s gentle yet devastating South Korean feature Invisible Light developed out of earlier video diaries about eating disorders; Kim’s camera reveals fictionalized but nonetheless brutal moments of mise-en-shame, as when one of her despondent characters plops down in front of an open fridge, compulsively guzzling its contents. Peggy Ahwesh’s The Star Eaters lounges with addicted lady gamblers in sad Atlantic City casinos, her low-light camerawork turning their cheap dresses into wistful fairy chiffon. The deadbeat zombie of Halflifers’ Afterlifers: Walking and Talking and the militarized, transsexual art-mutants of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s Sod and Sodie Sock (Vienna Cut) perform rituals of worlds gone horribly wrong.
Larger events lurk behind the angst. Bobby Abate’s Soothsayer marries found kitsch and tortured CGI bodies to the long-past forecasts of apocalyptic tabloid psychics; the pre-war everyday Iraqis of Paul Chan’s Baghdad in No Particular Order and the Sovietized Uzbeks of Jacqueline Goss’s How to Fix the World serve as reminders of how empires try to engineer the future. Yutaka Tsuchiya’s docu-fiction Peep “TV” Show reveals a low-wattage demonlover set in Tokyo’s Victorian-goth underworld, where slack-faced otaku “peep at corpses” online during 9-11’s unreal aftershocks. The most powerful work on view, Harun Farocki’s War at a Distance investigates the history of electronic remote optics used for warfare and factories, pondering technological footage for clues to our contemporary predicament. “There must be a connection,” his narrator states dispassionately, “between production and destruction.” These robot-visions provide chilly counterpoints to the festival’s other offerings: Manic or depressive, at least those videos are human-made, if not in control.