It was a sight for our times--an art museum exhibition without paintings, drawings or sculpture. Instead, there were television monitors with flickering images in the semi-darkness and projected films that dominated walls. Chairs sat the ready, waiting for watchers of the moving images to get comfortable and settle in.
Just as unusual as the scene was the place and the time. The museum was Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton. The "time" was video art that was made in the distant past--the seventies and eighties when video art first began capturing the imagination of artists.
"Escape: Video Art" was the first museum exhibition presented on Long Island devoted exclusively to video art, according to museum director and chief curator Christina Mossaides Strassfield. It was presented from June 30 to July 29, 2012 at Guild Hall.
"Escape: Video Art" brought together contemporary artists working with video in a variety of ways. Each artist also had a tie to the East End of Long Island (or, at least Long Island). After considering the artist works that met both criteria, the theme of "escape" seemed a natural for the seaside community, said separately co-curators Lauren Cornell and Hanne Mugaas.
"The exhibition plays off the idea of Long Island as a beachy getaway," stated Cornell in an exhibition release. "It explores the subject of escape from multiple angles: as leisure, as consumer frenzy, as a force of gentrification and as a source of transcendence and transformation."
While researching artists who would fit the bill, a surprising number of artists at the forefront of video art had ties to Long Island, said Mugaas in a phone interview.
Discovering that a number of them escaped to Long Island to explore this brand new medium was also a surprise, she said.
"What was interesting is some of them came to Long Island as an escape so they could work," she said. "They would come to their studios on Long Island during the week, when there weren't a lot of people here--this was the seventies--and then return to the city on the weekends."
Exhibiting art in the show were Laurie Anderson, Burt Barr, Lynda Benglis, Jonathan Horowitz, Joan Jonas, Tony Oursler with Constance DeJong, Keith Sonnier, Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and William Wegman.
Each artist has a career worth noting and used video in a different ways with a variety of intent. The exhibition included video, reel-to-reel, video projection with sound and without it and live feed projections.
Part of the challenge of curating the show was securing equipment to present the works are they were made, said Mugaas. Television monitors from the seventies-eighties era needed to be found. So did VCRs, outdated projectors and more.
Boxes needed to be constructed for the monitors to sit upon and pairs of headphones secured so two people could view the work at a time. (The sound for all the monitor-based works required listening through headphones. The projections and installations did not.)
"We wanted to present the works in the truest way and this meant showing them using the technology they were made with--the technology that was available at the time," said Mugaas.
Viewing video art can take more time than viewing static work but it doesn't have to, said Mugaas. For both mediums, the level of engagement can determine the time spent with each work and experience for the viewer, she said.
The goal for "Escape: Video Art" was to present a diverse range of work from pioneers of video artists with connections to the East End or Long Island. After viewing the show, there was no doubt "Escape" accomplished its goal and captured a mini-history of early video art.
Water by Andy Warhol felt abstract and concrete at the same time. The image didn't deviate much from the shakes and shivers of water contained in a water cooler. The 32-minute piece channeled the sensation of arriving in mid-conversation around an office water cooler as co-workers exchange safe banalities and gossip about shared acquaintances as chit-chat lynch pin.
Water is Warhol's only video, according to the exhibition information. It was made for a show organized by Yoko Ono who "requested that all artists submit a water container, which would then be filled to create a liquid sculpture," according to the artwork information.
Warhol gathered friends around a cooler at The Factory and shot one long take.
In contrast, Laurie Anderson's At the Shrink's required participation by the viewer through a long walk into a darken room. Tucked into one corner, was a tiny figure projected onto clay who confided a recent realization regarding her visits with a psychiatrist.
The story leads to a pinnacle moment when the woman realizes that she will never need to return because their respective viewpoints were so different that therapy wouldn't be effective.
It is the discovery of an unusual and intriguing detail (lip marks on a mirror) which leads to an investigation by the psychiatrist and an epiphany for the patient. The story is concise and is on a loop. This allows time to listen to the story again while noticing the setting and the part it plays in the installation.
Listening to the disimpassioned account delivered by a miniature figure started the contemplative wheels turning on the roles played in the therapeutic process and invisible bridges that don't always straddle gaps between people.
Another immersive installation was Channel Mix by Keith Sonnier, 1972. The piece was installed in the side gallery where four live television streams were projected onto two walls.
The effect is familiar--sensory overload is a hallmark of today's technology-fueled culture where multi-tasking is expected. The fact that the piece was made in 1972 gives pause. So does the experience of not being fully able to grasp any one thread.
The split screens on each wall are towering and the images aren't always fully clear. This is part of Sonnier's point of Channel Mix, according to the installation information. The artist envelops the viewer "...in the media environment where the boundaries between the many realities we watch and the one in we exist are blurred."
Compelling was Wind by Joan Jonas, 1968. An exception to the video medium, Wind was a silent black and white shot on 16 mm film and transferred to video.
The work featured coat-clad people dancing on a snow-covered and windy beach. At first, they appear to be caught in a spontaneous moment of fun as they battle the elements on a winter beach. After watching further, the 5:37 minute film reveals that movements are choreographed and the battle against the elements is more difficult than first realized.
Wind aims to portray this shift of perspective to examine the "...unwritten, but deeply felt, codes that structure behavior and communication--even our most private or free moments," according to the artwork information.
Works exhibited in "Escape: Video Art" included With Special Thanks by Burt Barr, Joyride by Tony Oursler and Constance DeJong, Reel 4 by William Wegman, Je T'aime and Maxell by Jonathan Horowitz and Female Sensibility by Lynda Benglis.
BASIC FACTS: "Escape: Video Art" was exhibited at Guild Hall Museum from June 30 to July 29, 2012. The show was co-curated by Lauren Cornell and Hanne Mugaas.
Cornell is the executive director of Rhizome and adjunct curator at the New Museum. She also organizes the New Silent Series in New York City. Other credits include working in the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art and a former executive director of Ocularis, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to avant-garde cinema, video and new media.
Mugaas is an independent curator and the director of Salon 94 Freeman in New York City. She has curated shows at MoMA, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Rhizome, Art in General, the Moving Image Archive of Contemporary Art and others.
© 2012 Pat Rogers and Hamptons Art Hub. All rights reserved.