Video Goes to the Movies

John Haber
in New York City

Jon Routson and Christian Jankowski

Video art has a resistance to storytelling. The form may dazzle with its sensory overload. It may strip the screen—and the viewer—bare of everything but the intellect and the senses. It may bore one to tears. No matter: surely art cannot settle for filmmaking.

At least it used to seem that way. With video now in the mainstream, that heady mix of virtue, art, and attitude was bound to change. Jon Routson and Christian Jankowski are obsessed with the movies. Routson creates his own multiplex. Jankowski revisits New Wave cinema and then lines up with the crowds outside the theater to judge it. Christian Jankowski's Rosa (Maccarone, 2001)

Video art has naturally had to rediscover the movies, just as Jankowski's gallery cum alternative space had finally to get a doorbell in time for his show. It makes sense to puncture myths of high versus low, artistic integrity versus the public's imagination. In the same way, video can puncture the opposite myths—of the imagination subservient to the circulation of money and an empire of signs. The opposites remain distinct and alive. They just need one another to survive.

These guys may not end up with Hollywood success or an artistic breakthrough. They may put film in quotes so large that no one could afford the flat panel to display them. Still, both manage to bring together the conventions of Hollywood, indie films, and video and then let them collide. They may even come up to the originals.

Dressed to kill

Jon Routson can sit through movies for hours, and so can his video camera. Probably only one of the two bought a ticket, and both may be breaking the law. One would never know it, though, on entering the dark rooms, the equally dark and off-center images, and mysterious murmurs. The first room recreates the most frightening moments of the nuclear age, where a dry voice is saying something about mass destruction, but what? Missiles pinpoint their targets. A hand reaches for what could be an old radio dial or an instrument of control.

Next door, a shadowy, bearded figure mutters something in a strange language. Is he a terrorist threat? In one last room, faces and hands caress long, Japanese swords. The subtitles seem to promise some message about human or inhuman responsibility, but they tilt upward, cut off by the edge of the screen. One can hardly stay long enough to puzzle it out anyway, for the voices in previous rooms keep pulling one back. The more I wanted to make sense of it all, the less chance I had.

One would never know it, but those rooms contain The Fog of War, The Passion, and Kill Bill, Part I. I mean not bootleg copies, but video of the films, shot from the audience and skewed by a theater's poor lighting and Routson's careless camera angle. A dim, grainy black-and-white disrupts exactly what makes each film so unsettling—Robert S. McNamara's cool apologies for suffering, Mel Gibson's righteous display of it, Quentin Tarantino's near indifference to it. Video sucks the air of virtue out of them all.

Routson prefers movies much like himself, at once caught up in convention and disdainful of it. He takes the documentary that has earned underground respect, the blockbuster revenge flick that claims to speak for God, the recycled Samurai epic by an icon of independent filmmaking. He never tires of them, and they play in real time—unless the camera batteries happen to give out. He turns the gallery into a multiplex, just as Terence Koh and Doug Aitken do to a museum, but with the hand-held look and outsider stance of art movies. He could give Mel Gibson his only favorable publicity to date.

Does the installation go down too easily, especially compared to the originals? Artistic license may even shield it from copyright infringement, although one would need a good lawyer rather than a postmodern critic to say for sure. At Routson's gallery, only a month before, Slater Bradley had an actor impersonate Kurt Cobain. Whether this amounts to a moving encounter with death or karaoke night in New Jersey is beyond me.

Too much creeping commercialism seems compatible with video's future. Even before the birth of video art, however, the line between high art and pop culture was dissolving, and the authenticity of each was increasingly in question. Cindy Sherman, for one, has made an artistic career of playing matinee idol. Routson gives urgency and pleasure to questions about art in the age of mechanical reproduction, long after the low-tech avant-garde had turned them into truisms. He stirs together actual movies, old dreams of independence, and new video, and one gets to watch the pot boil.

Film class

Christian Jankowski likes movie houses, too, but he does not have a dark bone in his body. When I first caught the German artist's work, the previous fall in London, I fell for the joke big time, but I was unable to describe much more than that. His latest installation, in the emerging downtown scene, has fewer laughs and, indeed, fewer satisfactions. It does, however, help me grasp him more as whole.

In London, I saw children acting out an art-world opening. They played it to perfection, and it was devastating. Now, though, I might stress more than the satire. When he lets the kids stumble one moment, fall charmingly into character the next, he keeps one from succumbing to the illusion or giving up on it. If he makes artists and dealers look childish, he lets them appear childlike as well. Art and film, one wants to say, begin with that first impulse to play grownup, and they persist thanks to their refusal to give up a sense of play.

Jankowski, then, appreciates both the gallery and the movie theater, and his latest show makes that combination explicit. In the first gallery of his ambitious, four-story exhibition, a beggar limps painfully across old stones, into an Italian village square hardly changed from the Middle Ages—or at least since Federico Fellini. As people gather, he proclaims a new language for the future, and the crowd almost comes to blows over its truth. A young couple flees through dark arches to whisper something breathlessly. One hardly knows if one has stumbled onto history, Italian Neorealism, or film class.

The subtitled dialogue more or less fits the apparent scene. It sounds at first like matters of life and death, and another work, on film in black and white for P.S. 1's "Greater New York 2005," actually makes a skyscraper implode. Actually, however, it amounts to an improvised debate over Hollywood values. Jankowski first conducted man-on-the-street interviews about the movies, and the amateur actors are reciting their own earlier responses. Are they now in character or out of it? Whose illusions will get to determine human dreams, and why is the actual gallery audience smiling?

A funnier work has the same confusion between filmmaking and a class in the philosophy of art. A series of title screens raise the usual pompous questions, and the scenes in between have more or less plausible answers. On another level, they amount to the thoroughly ridiculous antics of an aspiring artist. She translates a longing for the impulses behind cave paintings into a romp through supermarket aisles, wielding a gigantic longbow. She does a splendid job of shooting up frozen food, trailed by an amateur film crew—not to mention the store security guards. On still another level, the scenes connect into a semi-coherent story, with her careerist boyfriend turning her art into an ad campaign.

Two other works put cinema on the spot more calmly, but they confuse one even more about just what Jankowski has scripted or left to chance. One plays back the interviews that gave rise to the pretend Italian movie, and those answers to the authenticity of commerce, film, and illusion suddenly sound lamer than before. A new work, still on a film reel, captures dozens of people in documentary close-up. They offer twenty-second reactions to a film or films that, tantalizingly, no one describes. For all I know, the subject may never even exist.

The closing credits

A video always told stories—good ones, in fact, in the plural. Video art has rarely, however, stuck to one story and gotten through it in a halfway reasonable amount of time. With roots in anything from Andy Warhol and his underground movies to Nam June Paik with his video sculpture as performance art, how could it? Recent surveys of early video art have portrayed it as conceptual art, brief, single-channel stunts, and exhausting installations. When new media has stuck too close the script, as with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller in sound, it can become downright confining.

Perhaps video has lost much of its challenge to the mainstream. Madonna has done hers. Matthew Barney drew the longest lines at the Guggenheim that I can remember, and more than half his five-part Cremaster Cycle resembles a 1920s production number remixed for MTV. The 2004 Whitney Biennial integrates its video rooms into the normal flow of traffic. Software art has the familiarity of video games and downloads. It even takes the art market as subject.

Perhaps, but the Biennial videos offer more soothing background music than plot lines. Artistic aspirations aside, one expects something outside of time. After all, one rarely enters at the opening or stays through the closing credits. Where artists do approach linear narrative, they often recall grand opera more than A Night at the Opera. Bill Viola slows things to a Wagnerian pace, and Barney sets one episode in La Scala. Shirin Neshat has worked with Phil Glass.

With Jankowski, I most admire the fully staged narratives, but I lingered over every work. I may even have stayed the longest with the film reel. I could not give up while the apparent subject refused to appear. Call it this critic's aversion to judgment rather than observation and understanding. Call it Waiting for Godot with Siskel and Ebert. Or call it the very moment when that huntress's vision of film and art is about to take flight.

Perhaps the interviews bring out how glib his instincts can run. The actors standing outside Italian movie theaters do get tiresome. Yet part of me identifies completely with that young woman letting her dreams and arrows soar and losing them both to commerce. I know Jankowski still does. Part of me, too, admires an artist who will do anything for a joke. I admire him all the more when that "anything" adds up to a confusion of Hollywood, life, art films, and emerging directions for video.

Routson and Jankowski make that confusion entertaining. When nostalgia runs into the latest trend, the outcome is bound to seem funny, chaotic, pathetic, or all at once. These exhibitions risk all that, but they have something wonderful in common. They truly have lost it at the movies. They do not just chart a new genealogy for video, and they do not just assimilate old media into new. They let the idea of a new medium itself sound old-fashioned.

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Jon Routson ran at Team through May 8, 2004, and Slater Bradley had that space through March 27. Christian Jankowski ran at Maccarone through May 2.


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