Iraq is not Vietnam, as the Bush administration and other Republicans have generously taken pains to remind us over the last half decade, but good luck trying to convince today’s artists of that. Not the kind of artists typically touted at white-shoe galleries, of course, too busy creating precious objects for clueless investors: Far more potent demonstrations of protest and disgust emerge from the rag-tag networks of micro-budgeted experimental filmmakers. With little or no market for experimental filmmaking, the scene consists of only the most devoted individuals, with nothing to lose from saying whatever they wish. The art they create can thereby be rough or polished, face-slappingly blunt or poetically subtle, stridently collectivist or stewed in lonely isolation. For Life Against the War . . . Again, a recent omnibus produced in response to Iraq, includes all these extremes, but nevertheless coalesces into a potent time capsule of how today’s war has churned our inner lives.
For Life updates a concept first enacted in 1967, at the height of the previous debacle. Then, an event called The Week of Angry Art asked 60 filmmakers to make 16mm works of three minutes or less in response to the war in Vietnam; participants included a collection of now-canonical figures such as Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, and Shirley Clarke, as well as less well-remembered names. Last year, avant-garde film distributor The Film-Maker’s Co-op issued a similar open call for new works about today’s war, resulting in a program of 25 video shorts; both the 1967 and 2007 editions screen at Anthology this week.
A number of the newer videos look to past conflicts as a means of understanding the present: Jeffrey Skoller shoots two-and-a-half unedited minutes of a busy Hanoi street, juxtaposed to a prophetic poem by Ho Chi Minh; Bosko Blagojevic contemplates growing up in the U.S. during the Balkan wars; Lynne Sachs’s The Small Ones remembers her Hungarian cousin, a doctor tasked with reconstructing the bones of American soldiers killed in World War II. Other selections groove on expressive abstraction: Les LeVeque’s nervy STOP THE WAR strobes variations of those three words set to radically altered audio clips of protest chants, while Mark Street contributes a silent flutter of red flowers pressed against 35mm film. Martha Rosler skews patriotism by taping a creepy musical soldier doll blurting “God Bless America,” then revealing its prosthetic-style mechanical leg; M. M. Serra sics her cats on a dopey-faced George Bush toy. But sometimes the crudest are actually the most effective: Witness Jim Costanzo’s The Scream: 21st Century Edition, which blue-screens the artist yelling in pain over news footage of Bush speeches and Baghdad shock-and-awe. Three decades from now, when future media archivists try to understand what it was like for sane Americans to experience the war, Costanzo’s video will remain an effective and emotional artifact.