video spaces by matthew ritchie

Video Spaces: Eight Installations MoMA

Institutions, by their very nature, have a proprietary interest in constructing models of the past. So when MoMA stages an exhibition like “Video Spaces: Eight Installations,” it is a signal. It may mean that the current boom in video art has reached its apogee. It certainly means that “historical” world-views of video are being formulated and crystallized. And, according to MoMA, at least, that world is a pretty gloomy place.

The premise of this show seemed to be that video artists have found their principal voice as displaced social critics. The selections intimated that through some cruel symbiosis these artists are doomed to use the very mechanism of the despised mass media as a memorial to the betrayals of contemporary life. Sex is bereft of eroticism, captured in the grainy half light of self-gratification. Politics is a sham, we are (of course) trapped in an Orwellian state where information is only disinformation and every smile conceals another atrocity. Burdened with agendas and grim observations about the dulicity of the mass media, the video artists are cast as “refusniks”; exiled to cold, shadowy Cyberia. The impression of a “movement” is thereby generated and as quickly buried. An institutional pall of mourning is draped over the shoulders of the diverse artists, immuring them forever in the subscription twilight of the museum basement.

In a climate as cold as this, the substantial differences between the gleeful irony of Tony Oursler and the dry rhetoric of Stan Douglas, between the exquisitely delayed gratifications of Gary Hill and Bill Viola and tiresome verbal and physical calisthenics of Tie Furuhashi and Marcel Odenbach, were eradicated. It was an opportunity missed: not from a lack of good intentions but rather from a surfeit. Suggestions that video art can be exciting, can be sexy, can be perversely funny, were dutifully eliminated as the history of the medium’s growing technical sophistication was read into the record. The distinct voices of the artists were muffled, silenced and lost as MoMA smothered them with respectability, in the rush to legitimate a hitherto marginalized constituency.

But the notion of a “movement” is surely the least appropriate response to an art form that has long been the abode of cranky iconoclasts. It is the particular virtue of video that doing it well can as easily be done with a crummy little puppet and a Super 8 as with a huge, over-determined ensemble of projectors, sound systems and assorted gizmos. It hovers along the bottom edge of the mass media, not as a critic, nor bound in some Faustian technological pact but because that’s where the action is right now. It’s not durable but it is immediate. It pushes buttons in our queasy media-saturated bellies and scratches that itch that we all have now, all the time. To keep looking, as though we might somehow see ourselves one day, caught in the unblinking eye of the monitor.

Matthew Ritchie

New York, New York

1995