Medium Rare

John Haber
in New York City


For one summer at least, the Guggenheim Soho has truly grand aspirations. The museum has set out to survey three decades of video art and its direction today. Anyone will have to be impressed. In fact, it is so impressive that only passing moments ring true. My own moment came as I went looking for a men's room.

Did the sign before me really say, "Photography not permitted"? Really? Amid perhaps two dozen video cameras?

Bruce Nauman's Raw Material: Brrr (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1990)Some demented oil painter, I decided, was taking revenge. Like me in my search, surely someone was crying out for "real life." Surely life presents more than a mind-numbing succession of bodiless images. So much for a world that Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, equates with "simulations."

Well, maybe—and maybe not. The show raises the same unsettling questions in its attempt to define a genre. It asks what all of multimedia art can possibly have in common, and it hits on an unsettling conclusion: the TV monitor. That conclusion may be obvious, however, just because it is wrong. To the detriment of some interesting artists and puzzling artistic trends, this show is about technology.

Back to the future

A video retrospective was long overdue, even with art after social media still on the horizon. And the Guggenheim's downtown branch makes a game effort. The usual suspects are all here, as in a proper institutional survey. Goodness, how proper!

Nam June Paik, an acknowledged pioneer, commands the lobby, like an official greeter for the apocalypse. Inside, of course, one finds Bill Viola, Bill Seaman, Bruce Nauman, and Jenny Holzer. The museum can (barely) be forgiven for omitting Gary Hill. After all, he had a show to himself there only last summer.

Not every name is familiar to Americans like me. Yet that too is safely explained: the rest come from overseas, in deference to the show's other organizer, the ZKM/Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, German. (Imagine what a history of video in Tribeca what have been like instead.)

The sensible selection is the first sign that something is wrong. In a look at a supposedly new medium, exactly one artist is under 40. Even Europe and California can do better—with, for example, the poetic feminist reflections of Erzstbet Baerveldt and Christina McPhee. There are no big gambles because, as I say, so much pretends to be obvious.

The works themselves make a bigger mistake: the curators stress what the computer can do, but not what makes it new. Toshio Iwai allows visitors to create long cascades of notes, both sounds and black points of unconventional notation, by rolling a trackball. Steina and Woody Vasulka allow wave patterns, electronic and watery, to cascade freely on ordinary monitors. Bill Seaman offers an interactive "poem" generator. Random words and the artist's prefabricated choices respond to the visitor's impulses.

Randomness and stock responses are the key here, and both are basically pat avoidance of life's complexity. They hold out hope that something soothing will emerge from the thinking machine, the digital experience, and electronic noise. They thus all hide the choices that the artist has had to make first. Avant-garde sentimentality is as good a label as any for this use of the computer and the television, even if in turn Modernism influenced TV. Where are Bill Gates and I Love Lucy when you really need them?

Two side rooms increase one's sense that technology can carry one anywhere but toward meaning. They further identify the artworks with their technical means. Although not officially in the show, they are very much part of the installation. In them a computer company, ENEL for short, displays its product on virtual reality. For example, one can take a simulated stroll around St. Peter's Basilica. Video tries to recover the aura of churches as a child's game.

Maybe stroll just now did not sound aimless enough. In practice, visitors tend to wait on line for a while, then give up. Survivors run into virtual walls long before getting the hang of even desultory circles about the Vatican courtyard. The least a good computer could provide is a built-in Michelin guide. The least an artist could do is to tear that guide to pieces.

The ENEL rooms are reasonably fun, but they make one wonder again about the limits of multimedia art. They do not quite turn Soho into the Epcot Center. It is way too late for that. But they cast the art around them in a suspicious light. They suggest that new media will always blur the relationship between museum and commerce, between video games and video art.

They badly serve artists who do not settle for a blur, artists who explore that relationship with a critical eye. Try as this noble exhibition will, it does video art the same disservice.

Bill Viola's images, for example, juxtapose Renaissance alters with peaceful towns and with buildings burning out of control. I wanted so much to be held by the disconcerting mixture—of religion and human purposes, heaven and hell, chaos and order, art and the machine, or the ghosts in the machine of kinetic art. The context does not serve him well, however, because it makes his choices add up to so little. They become purely personal and weightless.

Ingo Günther's images from the Cold War add up to even less for me. So do Marie-Jo Lafontaine's comparison of opera to weightlifting. Jeffrey Shaw's fantastic cities, forged from letters of the alphabet, merely return one to ENEL's notion of virtual reality.

In gallery after gallery, the juxtapositions make the choice of what to watch simple—or meaningless. It is easy to turn away without deciding. It is even easier, I fear, never to question the purposes behind those traditional oppositions.

Virtual nonsense

I emphasize traditional. Strangely, something old-fashioned lies within the slogan "the medium is the message," and the Guggenheim serves as a reminder. One promise of Modernism was to stop making sense. It was out to question sense, and there I mean both commonsense and immediate visual experience.

Perhaps Paik first showed how video can hold out Modernism's dream, but also daringly risk losing its edge. Thanks to him, it still has many traditions. Here his Megatron puts the mass back in mass culture. On an imposing wall built from one hundred and fifty TV sets, well-known performance artists and blaring Olympic sports fly by with equal abandon.

For me, only two artists managed to hold out against the show's valuable but troubling bias. Bruce Nauman shakes his head and mutters Brrr. Is he suffering, like a face trapped in the machine, or devolving into nonsense? Either way, a viewer cannot casually revel in nonmeaning.

Another of his installations takes up two rooms, one closed off and hidden from view. In each, a camera sweeps the room, feeding images to a monitor in the other room. The camera's scope naturally includes one of the monitors. The work could, as the curators suggest, stand for the threat of constant surveillance. As it cuts through the division between public and private, it could also make meaningful surveillance an impossible ideal.

Nauman has never been a favorite of mine. His brand of paranoia strikes me as forced. That is not an easy failure to pull off these days, when (as the song goes) paranoia strikes deep. Indeed, both installations here suffer from his characteristic overwork. For once, however, I was grateful for him.

My reward for attending, however, was Jenny Holzer. Her crawl screens surround one, lights flashing against their startling black shapes. The messages, before dissolving into the dot matrix of their letters, evoke both cyberspace and the physical discomfort it so often denies.

"Murder has its sexual side," a line reads. (Surrealism and Hollywood agree on that one.) The screens do not add up to sense, but can one afford not to make sense of them? The fear is too real, too urgent, and way too funny.

She gets a special payoff, too, from her use of art as text—several languages. In the Venice Biennale of 1990, where this installation first appeared, cosmopolitan nonsense had its own value. Here it could almost be a direct parody of the Guggenheim's international collaboration. Bring on that visual reality, it seems to shout, before I get too close.

Technology and visual culture

Did I leave the Guggenheim any clearer about the new medium? Not exactly, but the thrill of Holzer's work and the mess around her made me think about it. So did the museum's worthwhile aspirations. They all helped me understand the debates today about video art. They highlight the tough issues with which I began this review.

Look at the puzzle again. If one is to judge by most criticism, video art cobbles together two trends. Never mind that they may well contradict each other. In both theories, video artists face head-on the cultural risks of a new medium.

First, it is said, video art exploits new technology. If the owner of a TV readily becomes a passive consumer, now the set gets really assertive. Just when the living-room sofa started to feel comfortable, the TV all but leaps up on it like a ill-trained pet. The monitor and viewer become subjects in an ever-evolving, shared space. Quick, head for the rest room while it is safe.

Second, video art is about something called visual culture. Forget the thickness of paint or the cathode-ray tube. Ask instead what images can mean simply as images. Already, the real magic of film and the bogus aura of the museum had broken through old definitions of fine art. Now, in the video age, one can fully see what different media have in common—the power of images.

The first idea is surprisingly old-fashioned. It asserts that art must bring its medium to the fore, just as Clement Greenberg argued for modern painting. The medium, even Pollock's oil and aluminum, really is the message. It resembles Minimalism's site-specific installations. It is about physical presence.

The second idea argues that art's presence may not matter—and may well be impossible. This idea does not just threaten consumers with absence; it boasts of it, like art at the copy center. Photography definitely permitted. Should I be shocked that the dear, old Guggenheim has opted for the first?

Still, the two interpretations go together. Like this show, both detach technology from an individual's uses of it. They are like the flip sides of meaning—what gives meaning and what is meant. Remember structuralism? Saussure, its creator in linguistics, claimed that every sign has two components, the signifier and the signified.

The Guggenheim reminds me how awkwardly and precariously meaning hangs together. The finest video art shows just how awkwardly. Like Holzer's messages, it makes art and life seem very important and very difficult indeed.

Video art need not detach technology from an individual's uses of it. The best video, I think, transcends neither the medium nor the message. It neither retreats into cyberspace nor sits tidily as Minimalist sculpture.

And, hey, Saussure's famous example was the sign leading to the toilet. Can he have been with me at the Guggenheim after all?

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"Mediascape" ran through September 15, 1996, at The Guggenheim Museum Soho.


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