Experimental Film

John Haber
in New York City

Janet Biggs, Paul Sharits, and Sara Ludy

Janet Biggs will go a long way to find herself. Her four-channel video unfolds only a continent away, but do not be fooled: with Can't Find My Way Home, the real journey has still to begin.

As artist, she becomes both the experimenter and the subject of experiment. She delves deep into earth itself. She may even find her way home, but with a few shocks along the way. Decades earlier, too, Paul Sharits took video as the source of controlled shocks, this time for the viewer. Last, Sara Ludy makes video her "subsurface hell," but not in a mine shaft. Together, they give new meaning to experimental film. Janet Biggs's Can't Find My Way Home (Cristin Tierney gallery, 2015)

Shock treatments

For Janet Biggs the principal actor, dressed in a mask and bright orange hazards suit, disregards a warning in German, steps through a door, and begins her descent into a salt mine. The narrow passage has no obvious ending, and much else will happen before she is done. For one thing, the scene will switch to a laboratory, where a woman manipulates syringes and specimens that later take shape as brain scans. It will turn, too, to an older man examining rock samples, perhaps from the very crystal cave that is the focal point of the journey. The miner will hold a small sample herself in fear, puzzlement, or wonder at its beauty. The viewer may well have the same mixed feelings.

Biggs is out to find herself behind the mask, but she challenges the viewer to find her as well. One first sees the miner from behind, and one may not anticipate a woman's wide, dark eyes above the comic proportions of the mask's dual filters, like a clown's false nose. I cannot so easily read German, just as I could not know the mind behind the brain scan. Still, she leaves plenty of clues. The parallels between the video's segments underscore its persistent searching—with two young women, two scientists, two handling crystals, and two threatening environments. The very glow and translucency of the crystal cave has its parallel, too, in the artist's new media.

Does she attain her end? The video, which previously screened at the Blaffer Museum of the University of Houston, ends abruptly, and its title may seem to have the last lonely word, but again do not be too sure. As the scientists know, there is real beauty and real satisfaction to the search. The exhibition title, "within touching distance," has a point, too. The four large screens, angled almost to a semi-circle, invite one up close to share the experience. A cello kicks in as the white-haired man enters, with comforts of its own.

Are the scans even hers? Maybe not, but Biggs puts herself on the line in a second video, Written on Wax. The title points to another task of interpretation and other medium, this time an older means of recording. And the video opens with what look like vintage photographs of men on horseback, from an almost mythical American West. Next come color photos of a girl growing up with a love of horses, ending with her in the elegant dress of a formal competition. Yet the title also identifies representation with penetration, and the video obliges.

After the prelude, it shifts to Biggs in the present, in another neurological laboratory—this time as the subject of experiment. She helps strap herself into an apparatus that, thanks to the intense gaze of a close-up, one never quite sees. She also sets in place a mouthpiece to keep her from biting her lips, for she will receive electric shocks. As she does, more horses appear but with none of a jockey's refinement, starting with the leaden hoofbeats of cart horses almost out of a Budweiser commercial. The risks extend to a swimmer, a skater, and a woman standing on horseback, rising to a difficult balance. The nostalgic early memories are gone, from a video artist whose past work includes a meditation on predator and prey, and yet the standing rider ends the video with quite a feat.

The experimenters could be presenting Biggs with images while subjecting her to shocks, or the shocks may be stimulating long-lost memories. They may be training her to fear what she most loves—or to delve within to find herself at last. Again physical immediacy goes hand in hand with the puzzle of interpretation and resolution. I thought of a line from another "Can't Find My Way Home," the song by Blind Faith: "leave your body alone." Here one's feelings are always within touching distance.

Strip naked

For Paul Sharits, nothing is more visceral than the experience of a film strip—and nothing more difficult to preserve. He held its image in Plexiglas, like a biological specimen, for his Frozen Film Frames starting in the early 1970s. He projected it again and again on the wall. Watching Dream Displacement from 1976, on the occasion of its entering the Anthology Film Archive, one becomes conscious of every frame, every sprocket, and every corner of the room. One becomes aware, too, of the projectors, the speakers, his anxieties, and oneself. Sharits might be baring the medium naked, giving new meaning to the word strip.

The film's plot is simple enough. Colored rectangles pass steadily by, their black borders and sprocket holes intact. This was still a time of Minimalism, and these are geometric elements exposed to the light. Sharits had studied with Stan Brakhage in Denver and associated with others for whom the one subject of film was film, including Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton in Buffalo. He had made his first avant-garde film in 1962, before he turned twenty. He had filmed the Sears catalog, and now he was ready to catalog film itself.

And visceral it is. A reviewer, Kristin M. Jones, compared his Shutter Interface from the year before to "an endlessly prolonged execution of cinematic illusion by firing squad." There the rectangles stay put, blinking in a potentially endless loop, their pulse amplified in torturous quadraphonic sound. For Dream Displacement, the sound becomes the shattering of glass. It keeps time, like the sprocket holes, while removing narrative time. It approaches William Blake in his apocalypse—"the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry."

Post-Minimalism often involves tactile imagery, as for Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, and of course strip has a bodily sense as well. A side room has two of those Plexiglas slides, and the back room has body parts on paper and canvas, like German Expressionism as graphic novel. Sharits approached "degenerate art" in his life, too. His output had already tapered off when he was shot in the stomach in a bar, and he withdrew further before his death in 1993. The attacker, he insisted, must have mistaken him for someone else. Regardless, his works often translate felt experience into physical terms, with titles like Bad Burns, Razor Blades, and Epileptic Seizure Comparison.

Apparent Motion, from 1975, blows up the grain of film in black and white, like cells in a petri dish. 3rd Degree, from 1982, could pass for entire organisms. At the same time, Sharits enforces a certain distance—that dream displacement. As with Sigmund Freud, a dream takes shape only in the retelling. He reshot film as it played in a projector, both forward and backward, starting with his earlier SPECIMEN II. The results play out from four separate projectors, in each via a double mirror, the work's only actual glass.

Downstairs, in the gallery's space off in an alley, Trisha Baga takes her dreams literally indeed. She reproduces shoes, souvenirs, and junk food in lumpy ceramics, as if rescued from an attic and much the worse for wear. Meanwhile, she insists, Orlando has had to relocate to New York—not just the city, after climate change has flooded Florida, but also a peacock of that name. In 3D video, an actual peacock nibbles away at portraits of afternoon TV hosts, whose popularity has somehow survived decades and disaster. Other human beings are on hand in a second video more or less to explain it all. Like Sharits and Biggs, Baga sees the body in question as a product at once of technology and culture, fancies and fears.

The e-Ching

One need not enter "Subsurface Hell," video and still images by Sara Ludy, to feel its dangers, because the very first work is coming right at you. A partition separating the gallery from the street holds a bat-like image in white against gray, gleaming in its soft shadows, smooth surface, and reflected light. It could represent a UFO at warp speed or the life within it, and the title, Alien, accommodates both. Further inside, a more ghastly creature might be growing or folding inward, in pale green on a white table. As Cabbage Head (Energy Sponge), it should be as plain as still life but pulsing with life. Still, an energy sponge could, by the sound of it, be sucking the life from you.

Sara Ludy's Alien (Wall Mount) (Bitforms, 2015)The artist says that she is in search of digital feng shui—from (one can only presume) the e-Ching, or book of digital changes. The ancient Chinese pursuit, though, seeks to channel psychic energy by aligning buildings and people with the cosmos. Ludy has a fondness for symmetry, but also for unsettling alignments. Her Cloud Reliefs, tall paired videos like abstract painting in motion, drift like clouds but with colors in interpenetrating layers like a rock face. The earth itself might be shifting beneath one's feet. Elsewhere a human face is melting into a fright mask.

This subsurface hell dwells on surfaces, with no proof that anything lies beneath their beauty. It also dwells on the familiar. Ludy has been collecting found images for some time now, as ordinary and comforting as family and friends, but also as routine and threatening as natural disasters. Low Prim Room displays a couple of dozen in a recess modeled after traditional Japanese spaces for rest and contemplation. Quite a few represent interiors with furniture, perhaps studies or an artist's studio. As darkened rooms within a room, though, resistant to identification, they, too, convey displacement.

Still, everything glows, and the digital changes are more gradual than earth-shattering. They are even halfway funny. A winding cord extends from a fur-lined object on the floor to a monitor displaying another object in soft white. Is the first, in more ways than one, a mouse? Readers of John Milton often identify with Satan in Paradise Lost, for whom "I myself am hell." Visitors here should take pride in having a subsurface life within.

Her gallery has, to its credit, a clear and longstanding profile. Bitforms is interested in new media, but not so much documentation as for Coco Fusco and political artists, performance as for Andy Warhol, theater as for Bill Viola, philosophical narrative as for Gary Hill, drafting tools as for Alyson Shotz, mass culture as for Mike Kelley, or the object in itself as for Nam June Paik. It focuses more on design in motion, often in interaction with the viewer. The preceding show, of Manfred Mohr, begins with lines and algorithms, much like painting for Sol LeWitt. And then the lines begin to dance. It is only one vision among many, but with a dedication to the medium, to skill, and to surfaces.

Ludy, too, begins with them. Her Cloud Reliefs look strikingly like wide-screen animations halfway across the Lower East Side, by Jacco Olivier. Olivier also bases his colorful forms on nature, sometimes recognizably so. Still, the Dutch artist is mostly content to let them happily flow by. He does not so much question their origins or implications. Sometimes art can stand a little subsurface hell.

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Janet Biggs ran at Cristin Tierney through February 13, 2016, Sara Ludy at Bitforms through February 7, and Jacco Olivier at Boesky East through February 14. Paul Sharits and Trisha Baga ran at Greene Naftali through October 3, 2015, Manfred Mohr at Bitforms through December 27. Portions of the review of Janet Biggs first appeared in Artillery magazine. A related review catches up with Janet Biggs a year later.


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