By Jason Foumberg
Some things are best enjoyed while sitting down. Reading a book, making a drawing, people watching and perhaps even giving a work of art a prolonged stare are activities that indolence rewards. The proliferation of video and filmic art in galleries and museums seems inversely proportional to the number of comfy places to sit. Video and other time-based media seeks a sedentary viewer, and to be in repose is to participate.
Chicago’s NAB Gallery is working to solve that dilemma, and director MM Robinson finds that the best place to immerse oneself in video art isn’t in the gallery, but in one’s home. Accordingly, NABLAB Volume One compiles the work of seven video artists from Chicago and New York on a DVD that includes interviews with the artists as well as clips from past work. Riding on the success of the extra features that accompany many commercial films when released on DVD, and in the style of the highly successful PBS documentary series Art21, this compilation lets the artists speak about their particular interests and processes, and imbues sometimes inaccessible art with a layer of understanding. For example, Zachary Fabri’s contribution is a document of his performance on a street corner in Iceland in which Fabri violently gurgles Coca-Cola and spits white flour. Viewers may be as confused as the passersby were in Iceland, but once Fabri gets on the screen, he explains his interest in fad diets—an absurd pursuit, he says—and tells that Iceland is the world’s biggest consumer of Coke.
Additionally, the DVD is a good way to get acquainted with video art in general, for the range and diversity of the medium is on display. Fabri’s performance documentation follows Diane Derr’s “Casting,” a sort of behind-the-scenes of a news anchor’s casting call. Here, the camera acts like a mirror, and it invites the actors to enact their lines, stumble, laugh at themselves and achieve the media ideal of perfection. Derr mentions her obsession with morning television shows, and the artful quality of the newscast becomes apparent, breaking down the assumption that reality is not scripted.
The various possibilities of video art are underscored by artists who grasp the particularities of the technology. Lee Arnold’s “In-Transit,” recently exhibited in Chicago at Around the Coyote’s Fall Festival, shows the landscape out the window of a moving train as it departs the city and enters the countryside. Arnold abstracts the imagery by inserting a subtle grid system that pinpoints the dominant color in the scene and washes the landscape in monochromes. Thus, technology dictates the form, but the content isn’t left in the shadow of a machine aesthetic. Rather, the ponderous activity of staring out the window of a moving train is heightened by colors that cue emotional passages, and Arnold’s instrumental digital music is a perfect complement.
Also particular to the medium is the spy-cam, familiar to anyone who likes reality TV. Both Lacie Garnes and Jillian McDonald use the spy-cam to great effect. Although Garnes’ featured video is a provocative abstraction of flowing sheets in a bed, a clip in her interview shows the view from a spy-cam inserted under her mini-skirt. On the El, we catch men glancing directly into the camera—that is, up her skirt. Although in her interview Garnes criticizes the male gaze, the video itself makes no complaint. Rather, it reveals a real interaction that we encounter daily in the city—the stranger’s eyes. Any judgment that we assign to looking can reveal our own biases (to a degree), and Garnes’ video best shows how desire provides eyes with the path of least resistance. Likewise, Jillian McDonald, who will have a residency at Three Walls next year, applies monster makeup on a crowded subway in New York City. Compact mirror in one hand and makeup in the other (with camera hidden across the aisle), McDonald gives herself scars, bloodies herself and shocks other riders. It’s to humorous effect, for makeup is usually used to beautify oneself for the public, not to court horrific glances.
MM Robinson, the curator of the compilation, says of the collection, “The one important thing [the seven artists] have in common is a self-awareness of how they operate culturally, which is basically what makes them art, as opposed to the film and video we are commonly in contact with outside of an art context.”
The art context—that dizzying hall of magic mirrors. Perhaps video can finally be situated in its rightful context—your home.
NABLAB Volume One shows at NAB Gallery, 1117 West Lake, (312)738-1620, through December 8. The DVD is available for purchase, $15.