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Watching, looking and performing


If video art is a young medium, it’s a young medium getting knocked around on a playground by older, tougher mediums. It’s usually an easy call to tell whether a work of is a painting or a sculpture (not always, but usually). It is often much harder to tell whether something is video art, filmmaking, or plain old video. If digital manipulation is used, it can be difficult to differentiate it from animation. Filmmaking and animation are established traditions with a rich repertoire of devices for holding a viewer’s attention over time. Most of these devices are narrative. Video art tends to forgo them, which is why they seem overly long. Some of them seem overly long at the two-minute mark.

While I think they’re legitimate pursuits and I want to see them succeed, video art and performance art have an identity problem that is going to be difficult to solve in the long term. Their overlap with film, theater, dance, and animation is so great that they will always be forced to rely on their devices to some extent. I suspect that they will only be useful as “forms” by hybridizing film, theater, dance, animation, sculpture, music, and the museum/gallery context to the point that no one is sure what else to call it, but that turns ‘performance art’ and ‘video art’ into default categories.

A lot of pressure would come off of video art if viewers could look at it like other art – walk up to it, check it out, form a response, and walk away. But since it’s on a TV, people go into a different mode – they try to watch it. This is where the boredom comes in. The prolonged looking, which may not have been the point of the work in the first place, is not sustained.

It’s telling that Matthew Barney, who comes out of the museum/gallery context, is now being characterized as a filmmaker, albeit a profoundly odd one. Ultimately, he will make what he makes and leave categorization to the historians, but if performance art, given a big budget and captured on film, becomes filmmaking, it says something negative about the robustness of performance art as a distinct form. It would also be tough to distinguish Barney’s films, categorically, from video art in general, excepting the production methods. Video artists and performance artists may have to live with the fact that their work will always exist in a gray area.

–Franklin Einspruch writes from Miami


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