Thursday, February 17, 2011

Who's Afraid of the dark? Not Christian Marclay.

Richard Serra, Hand Catching Lead (196?); The installation of Christian Marclay, 24 Hour Clock (2010)

Christian Marclay's 24 hour video, Clock is the most perfect gallery installation of video I've ever seen. In the same way that I am not a cat person, but I love particular cats, I am guardedly pessimistic when it comes to video installations. I have not been to a show, of any kind, that is this good in years. So far I have spent 6 hours watching (easily five hours more than I have ever spent with any other single video installation) and am looking forward to catching as much as I can before the show comes down this weekend. (I am fantasizing about having Clock installed in my house.) This is not just because I enjoy the video itself (although I very much do); it is because this video is installed the way all video art should be installed: three rows of four overstuffed light grey sofas, that not only allow you to lean back and watch; because they aren't black, one can easily move about and find a seat. Genius - or at least relative genius, because every other video installation I have ever been in has been so willfully stupid. It is telling that it took a 24 hour video to force a gallery to install video in a way in which it can be watched for more than just a few minutes.

My experience has been that the installation of art video is dominated by a need to make audiences uncomfortable; consciously or not, they are designed to be difficult to enter, uncomfortable to occupy, and awkward to leave. This is the source of my guarded pessimism. I have come to resent the status quo and always brace myself for the worst as I open the black velvet curtains or snake my through the doglegs of hallways painted matt black. Video is a durational art. Unlike sculpture and painting it cannot be taken in with a glance - and often requires enormous amounts of time to judge a work, yet most installations seem designed to make the experience as miserable as possible. Imagine being asked what you thought of Empire Strikes if you had had to watch it standing in the middle of a dark gallery? You would have entered cautiously to find a nay-saying green puppet brow beating a sweaty guy, stood there for a bit and left. For a time I complained so much about the absurdity of having to navigate pitch black video galleries with little or no seating at worst, and totally shitty seating at best, that my friends teased that perhaps the real problem was that I am afraid of the dark.
A blind Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs (1991); Amar Kanwar, The Lightning Testimonies (2000)

I am not afraid of the dark, I just hate barking my shins on benches that have been painted black. (Would a white bench really detract that much from the experience?) I hate fucking bean bag chairs. Where do galleries even find bean bags anymore? I haven't seen a bean bag chair in anyone's house or on sale in a furniture store since I was in grade school, but I still trip over them regularly in galleries and museums. Most art video installations provide no seating at all. You are expected to stand, pop a squat or sit on the floor for 15 or 45 minutes. If any seating at all is provided it never has a back - benches, ottomans, and fucking bean bags are the rule.

Given that usually the projection rooms are painted black, darkened to the point of blindness and usually occupied when you arrive, that means entering them requires shuffling forward inch by inch, hands waving, hoping against hope that if you do trip over something its a black bench, an ottoman, a bean bag or boney undergrad and not an exhausted 70 year old matron of the arts who has has decided to go with the flow and lower herself in to a nest of mink and Channel tweed. I dread the day I land on some poor Upper East Side dowager and break her hip.
Buggles, Video Killed the Radio Star (1979); Andy Warhol, Haircut (1963)

What I resent most is not the inconvenience or the danger - lots of great things are inconvenient, uncomfortable, difficult, and even boring (very few involve the danger of hurting old ladies). What I resented is that there almost never any reason for any of it. If you want people to watch a video for more than 1 or 2 minutes it is important to provide them something to sit on with a fucking back on it (bean bags are all seat - just a step up from lying on the floor). No one but a six year old could watch TV for any length of time sitting on a bean bag (they can do it because they are like sharks and have no real bones yet). Even in recent years with increasingly ambitious video projections massive futons and other such sculptural lounging flats have been tried (I'm talking to you Pipilotti Rist), but that is bogus.

It is important to lean back. Sitting without support means sitting up at attention (or trying to support yourself on your elbows), like pitch black galleries this convention of installation is totally unnecessary. Most videos projections could be presented in well lit rooms with theater seating (or sofas or Barcaloungers for Christ's sake) without detracting from the art in any way shape or form. If the art is great (and a lot of it really is) it shouldn't mater that I am sitting comfortably. Why not just a chair in front of a TV? The answer is that video artists as well as the gallerists and curators showing their work seems to have an anxiety if I were to make myself comfortable in a familiar way I might somehow mistake the work for a movie or (God forbid) TV.
Ozzy and Harriet; Installation of Pipilotti Rist's BLANK at MoMA

Videos grow out of, but are very different from art films like Richard Serra's Hand Catching Lead and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty were primitive things made by shooting film. If any editing was done, it was done by splicing with tape and razor blades. These films were either documents of performances - like Hand Catching Lead, or, what Dave Hickey calls "film itself," experiments with projected light Hickey describes as "the same old apocalypse--kinetic action painting." Spiral Jetty has some of that. These early art films were originally projected in theaters like Film Forum, screened at art schools in auditoriums and halls filled with folding chairs. Batches of of them at a time. Audiences smoked, drank beer, shifting and leaning back in their chairs. In his book, Air Guitar, Hickey describes seeing Andy Warhol's film Haircut for the first time:
In this new flick the camera just sat there, trained on this guy who just sat there too, sideways to the camera in a chair, like Whistler's mother's gay nephew, getting a haircut. That was it. The barber was out of the framAll we saw were his hands, the scissors, and the comb, fluttering around this guy's head. Clip-clip! Clip-clip! We couldn't believe it. This was really boring. Mesmerizing too of course, but not mesmerizing enough to keep us from moaning, keening almost, and swaying in our chairs.
Hickey describes watching six minutes of this as "approximately the length of a Siberian winter." He and the others sitting through it with him began talking through it:
Imagine Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a hot Texas mise en scene; The clatter of the projector in the glimmering darkness. Smoke curling up through the silvered ambiance. Insects swooping. The ongoing murmur of impudent commentary from the audience. References to Althusser, Marcuse, group sex. Like that... then it happened. The guy getting the haircut reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and casually lit one up! Applause. Tumultuous joy and release! Chanting even. And the joy may have been ironic (it almost certainly was), but the release was genuine. 
It isn't impossible to watch art films this way. Brooklyn's Light Industries is the perfect place to comfortably lean back in a chair with a beer bottle jammed over a finger and get bored to the clatter of a projector (sans smoking). It can still happen in film settings, but until Clock, it seemed no gallery was going to allow its audience to get comfortable enough that they are able to forget themselves and get bored. You can't forget yourself sitting upright on an ottoman, balancing on your elbows and bicycle bones on a hard black bench or craning your neck up from a beanbag or mega futon. Thats why theaters have stadium seating, so we can lose ourselves in the spectacle; boredom is exactly the same, if not more so. Andy Warhol needs us to lose ourselves more than Michael Bay does. "His film [Warhol, not Bay] had totally recalibrated the perceptions of a roomful of sex-crazed adolescent revolutionaries into a field of tiny increments." Hickey explains, "We all knew, of course, that events in a work of art are only large or small relative to one another, but our bodies had forgotten. Our bodies had become inured to explosions. The delicate increments of individual response needed to be reinscribed, and Haircut did that." 
MoMA's installation of Andy Warhol's Screentests (2011); Michael Bay, Pearl Harbor (2001)

What kind of idiot would ask viewers watch an Andy Warhol movie standing up? There is no room for boredom, only wonder. Standing in MoMA's installation of the Screen Tests the work is reduced to little more than a sexy ad for HDTV plasma screens. To experience the possibility of an explosive shock like the one Hickey got from the Zippo in Haircut is impossible, because the possibility of boredom is gone. Things are getting better -  MoMA has a small theater with rear of the installation with chairs. As part of their Warhol exhibition they will screen his 8 hr film Empire there this Friday. I assume it will be done as a video projection. The clatter of the projector won't be there, and the cat calls and commentary will be made over twitter feeds - I'm sure they won't allow the audience to drink beer and smoke cigarettes, but because there are chairs the audience does have a opportunity to get comfortable and bored.

I have no complaint against digital projection. Projectors had been a thing of the past for some time (again a fading memory from grade school along with bean bags). Around 1995 a much greater technological sea change took place in the art world that I have been unlucky enough to have to stand, squat and awkwardly perch through. About the time I was seeing my first installations of art video, video became a primary medium for artists. Expensive film and developing no longer hampered artists interested in moving images. Editing suits that had cost tens of thousands of dollars to rent were now available for a few thousand dollars as programs on desktop computers. Digital video camera had shrunk and cheapened to the point that even art students could afford them. The first trickle of the what would turn out to be a flood of video had begun. 
Andy Warhol, Empire (196?); John Pilson, Dark Empire (2003)

I imagine it was a delayed trickle, the flood had hit the commercial video world over a decade before. Earlier drops in production costs were either responsible for the flood of experimental commercial music videos that me and my friends had grown up with in the 80s, or they were the product of that flood - it's hard to say which. Either way, the experimental film techniques of "film itself" had been leaking into the mainstream for more than a decade via MTV. That the first wave of art video I saw resembled music videos was confusing to me. The sort of visual devices I had grown up to accompanied by New Wave music was being heralded as avant-garde. I didn't get it. 

It was stunning to discover that the arbiters of taste seemed willfully unaware of how familiar the visual devices used by new wave of video artists were to those of us used to MTV. And for sure the difference between the new wave and the stuff from the 1960s and 70s was that the stuff originally shot on film all seemed weirdly simple compared to what artists had begun to do with video. It was like comparing 60s era Sean Connery James Bond with 90s era Pierce Brosnan James Bond. The first third of the film done, Connery would have hardly had a chance to check in to the resort hotel and order a drink "shaken not stirred;" meanwhile, at the same point in his film, Brosnan would have already  driven a tank through a building in downtown Moscow, defused a bomb, seduced the girl and be preparing to bungee jump the Grand Coulee Dam or some such. The only time music videos were ever discussed however, were as exhibit "A" - evidence of the degradation of attention spans. My friends and I spent hours watching MTV, most of them were boring - my attention span didn't seem to be the problem. I could never understand how I was expected to have an attention span in the ridiculously uncomfortable circumstances galleries were providing. 
Pierce Brosnan, James Bond Golden Eye (1995); Matthew Barney Cremaster 4 (1995)

At least part of my impatience with the installation of video art was that I one of the first things I saw saw Matthew Barney's Cremaster 1 and 4. They were unlike anything I had seen anywhere. There were no goat boys greasing rows of puckered assholes on their scalps on MTV. No art house film I had ever seen had been brave enough to waste so much of my time with bizarre inconsequential (and non-sequential) detail, and to do so in a way I found as compelling as a music video. It was boring stuff, but unlike all the meaningless repetition and nonsensical imagery I had found standing or squatting in the darkened video galleries, Barney rocked me like Warhol had rocked Hickey. The importance, was he did it without a pitch black room and a bean bag. Barney had the courage to allow me to get comfortable, to forget my body and enjoy the drift of boredom.

Crucially, I saw those first two Creamasters at Film Forum - a cinema, and not as a gallery installation. My friends and I entered a well lit theater and settled into a row comfortable theater seats (not stadium seating, but still). We put our knees against the seats in front of us, ate popcorn, drank Coke, whispered jokes, and waited for the lights to go down - all exactly like I would have if I were settled in for  James Bond film. But once the lights did go down I forgot myself, but I never for a moment lost track that I was watching Art, and that it was great. Barney was so totally sure of himself and what he was doing that he made no effort to pretend he was doing something that didn't belong in a theater or on a TV. Barney cast a long shadow over everything I have seen since.
Amar Kanwar, A Season Outside (1997): Bill Viola, The Greeting (1995)

The problem I found with all most every art video I saw after Cremaster was that that so much unnecessary work was done to distance the work from the conventions of watching film or TV. Beyond projecting them in pitch black rooms videos were almost always split into multiple projections. A quick morphology of split screen goes something like this:
  • Simultaneous shots on the same wall - This one is used a lot in film, and to great effect, which may explain why it is relatively rare in art video installation.
  • Simultaneous shots project into the corner of a room - This is very common, I suppose because it is so jarringly (irony) unlike film and TV
  • Simultaneous shots on opposite walls - This is probably one of the most common perhaps because it makes watching a near impossibility - I hate these. I would like to stage a survey of this sort of installation in a mile long tunnel and call it "Watch your back."
  • Simultaneous shots project onto all four walls of a room - This is also very common, again because it is unlike film and TV.
  • Simultaneous shots on two sides of the same wall - This one means you have to keep circling the video as if it was an object - Bill Viola, bless his heart, loves this one.
The other devise that was very common, but thankfully seems to have passed from fashion was projecting on complex scrims. Translucent silk or some such would be stretched on constructivist-like structures and hung from ceilings to create lame labyrinths of a turn or two. Thankfully I haven't seen one of these for a very long time. The worst is, I think behind us (although surface mapping technology could easily spark a new round of disasters).
Tony Oursler, Swathe (2004); Guggenheim, Play (2010)

Happily Klaus Biesenbach seems to have some understanding of how art video needs to be seen - the theater in the Warhaol show is an example of this, and his survey of performance art video at PS1 was AWESOME (but needed chairs). The Pipilotti Rist installation in the MoMA atrium shows that his awareness is highly imperfect however - the big comfy ring provided to watch the wrap around ginger porn was not actually comfortable for viewing video. I have one word for you Klaus: BACKRESTS. They are the future.

We are in yet another moment of Sea Change, Clock is the first Youtube masterpiece. Christian Marclay has, I hope, set a new standard, for how this eras video will be installed. It is important to nitpick, so I will say I wish the sofa backs had been a little higher so I could have rested my head and that the projection should have been 18" or so higher as well. Lining up the bottom of the projection with the low backs of the sofas means that you are forced to look at the back of everyone's heads - my best guess it is some weird nod to minimalism, but whatever, that is niggling. I spent 6 very comfortable hours (over two visits) largely unaware of how my butt and back felt, I stretched out my legs in front of me my mind wandered and I got really really bored.
Barcalounger; Clock from Hudsucker Proxy (1994)


  1. H BOX- a nomadic video art screening room

  2. Thanks Greg. I'm Curious to see what Omer Fast will do in there.

  3. you speak the truth, my friend. though i have to confess: i dug pipilotti's labial pillows.

    i do think that some of this stuff is kept intentionally uncomfortable for crowd control reasons... and sometimes i think its because art types like us to suffer when we watch their work.

  4. I loved the Pipilotti Rist piece - it was awesome. Backrests would have taken nothing away from its labial wonder.
    To be clear: I love every video I mention and allude to in this piece, and so many that I didn't have a way to include, but would have liked to.
    I very much agree that it is the art world's septic disdain for crowds that so often lessens and misshapes the installation of art, especially with art video, where it is so often expressed spatially.

  5. Firstly: this is wonderful.

    Secondly: the two installations that immediately come to mind as terrible are the current Pierre Huyghe show at Marian Goodman and parts of "The Cinema Effect II: Realisms" at the Hirshhorn in DC three years ago.

    Huyghe has solid-black, college classroom-style chairs in a room so dark (with a video so dark) that I actually managed to bump into an entire row of chairs. Like, I bumped into one, then managed to be surprised by each and every one of the six chairs between it and the aisle. I spent the next ten minutes trying to figure out if anyone else was in the room. I intend to see if this can be used for good (read: mating).

    At the Hirshhorn, the thing that stood out - and this comes to mind quite often, because it was just so terrible - was that Phil Collins's "the return of the real" was displayed in a fucking hallway. I want to figure out how to italicize things in this comment field because it was a fucking HALLWAY. This is a 3-hour video. There was no seating of any kind. To boot, I was there at about 4 and it was starting again, when the museum closes, IIRC, at 5. There was absolutely no expectation you would use the video as anything other than decoration on the gallery wall.

    Moreover, as you point out, there are works where it's really, really important that the viewer has some expectation of a cinematic experience, and that expectation is somehow frustrated - and I can only expect the cinema if I'm in a situation that's at least somewhat similar. "24-Hour Psycho" stands out in this regard - shown in something more akin to a theatre, it's brilliant. Projected on a gallery wall, it's completely worthless.

  6. Great piece, and I love the bean bag hate. They're so loud! They never, ever settle.

  7. Will - That is how I feel about the way the Screen Tests are being displayed. There is so much room in that gallery why not add some sofas? least one in front of Baby Jane.

    Liz - Was surprised to find out how much I hate bean bags on all levels. The noise is something I should have mentioned; If I had had more time I am sure this post would have been longer.

    Glad you all enjoyed the post.

  8. Excellent post.

    Interesting to note the assertion that "painting and sculpture can be taken in with a glance." Well...yes, that's technically true.

    This posting about the overall lack of seating in modern/contemporary art museums, seems to dovetail well with this:

  9. Forgive me if it seems cruel to point out that sculpture and painting can be taken in with a glance, and keep in mind I am a sculptor.

    There are very few paintings or sculptures that I have spent hours looking at over the years, but many of the objects I have taken in with a momentary glance have gone on to occupy my mind in a way no film or video ever has video has.

    Thanks for sharing the terrific post about the dearth of benches in the Modern by Elizabeth Guffey.