The world doesn’t need any more films. The world doesn’t need any more video art. So if you’re going to bring an image into the world, you have to think it through. –Kodwo Eshun
After 50 years of production, distinct periods are appearing in the history of video art. Not distinct ism’s or manifesto driven bubbles, but separate works that seem palpably similar. As the technology used to make movies evolves past the time limits of tape, emerging digital technologies have given artists the ability to create works that seem unlimited in size, length, or production schedule. In 1993, Douglas Gordon laid down the gauntlet by slowing Hitchcock’s Psycho to 2 frames a minute, stretching it into a 24 hour composition. Since then, there have been numerous videos that have tested the stamina of the creators through decade long production schedules or the audience by being unwatchable in one sitting. Boston and Cambridge recently hosted three examples of these monumental works: The Cremaster Cycle, the Otolith Trilogy, and The Clock. Together, these movies point to a new, epic sized production practice and away from traditional art school skills (do any art schools teach bull riding?).
The Cremaster Cycle (Brattle Theatre, October 1-4) is a five movie series filmed between 1994 and 2003. It forms a self-referential system that both functions as a movie and an “Aesthetic System” for Barney’s prints, sculptures, and other ephemera. The entire program hangs on a series of analogies to bodily functions (the title is named after the muscle that raises and lowers the testes) that consider the creative act through a biological motif.
The Otolith Group Trilogy (MIT List Art Center, September 6- 22) was filmed between 2003 and 2009. It is the shortest series considered here, all three movies total under 2 hours, but the production involved a multinational filming schedule, help from more than 8 art groups across multiple continents, and do not include the numerous spin off productions. The Otolith Trilogy is a collage of found film segments and original images. Named for a portion of the inner ear, the otolith structure help us keep our balance and handle the effects of gravity. All three movies are obliquely about the effects of time and how we keep our stability in a changing world. Otolith I (2003), assembled in response to the invasion of Iraq, documents a new species of humans who can only live in low gravity. Otolith II (2007) is primarily a visual comparison between Mumbai’s Dharavi and Le Corbusier’s planned city, Chandigarh. Otolith III (2009) is a prequel to the unrealized film The Alien from Indian director Satyajit Ray.
While The Clock (The MFA, Boston, September 16- December 31) is the most hyped, it’s also the least deliberated of today’s “it” art works. It’s a 24 hour, continuous blanket of samples from movies and TV where the film mentions or shows a clock on screen indicating the time. These segments are cleverly mixed together to reflect the current time as you are watching.
Each of these video works have supplements that define their character. The Cremaster has numerous sculptures used in filming that have been exhibited with the movies. Seeing it in a movie theater, without the supporting material really drives home that even if you owned copies of the movies, somehow, that extra stuff does make the work feel more ambitious. The Otolith group’s sizable body of work overlaps and functions in a recursive way. Trying to outline the edges of their political activism and their art is a unproductive pursuit. Last, The Clock has made visiting the work an experience; waiting in the line to see it or trying to sketch a database of movies as time progresses. The viewer links the features of the work with the hour that they drop by. The size turns the work into something that you can’t completely experience in the aggregate but also doesn’t prevent the moment from having a distinct sense.
All of these movies were created by groups that have head artists, like a design firms. This doesn’t change how each movie should be received, but does point to collaborative practices as being a successful operational strategy today. Though they were all created in a collaborative environments, the aesthetic framework for each is wildly different.
The Cremaster Cycle is five distinct movies. There are connections between the films, but each stands alone and to decode them you need nothing more than a basic understanding of anatomy (and Masonic rituals for the third movie). Philosophically speaking, the movies are a closed system, that functions independently. Created by traditional filming, the movies have a beginning that flows to an end. Certain portions have stood the test of time, but formally, it feels dated. Their state of the art graphics are passé. The film quality is uneven, the third film (the last filmed) looks best. The myth is just as momentous, but I can’t imagine that this type of work would be possible in today’s economic environment. We should value it for that reason alone: the Cremaster is a time capsule from a time when a gallerist would fund a motivated, but relatively unproven young artist’s five movie cycle and make his career go from promising to prominent.
The Otolith Trilogy is not quite a closed system nor is it a completely unsettled and open ended. Made from a mix of new and historical photos and video, texts spoken over them, and an ambient soundtrack, the result resemble Chris Marker‘s works (Sans Soleil for example). In effect, the trilogy is a collage of real and imaginary events, where “the future feeds forward into the past” creating a confederated present.
The work is a lively montage, but a distinct post-colonial politics shaped these works, so it would be easy to disregard their proficiency as a pedantic heuristic. The non-political elements of each film amplify with repeated viewing, though. Each film is stratified with techniques and themes that are exacting for the viewer. Otolith I is a made up of real events transformed into a visual and textual poem. It asks, but does not answer, if it’s possible to find the courage needed in the face of change. Otolith II concerns itself with the effects of architecture on people. This “reconstruction of gravic space” changes resident’s attitudes and their aspirations. Otolith III questions the capacity to question via artworks. It examines the consequences of our creativity and who owns the lives that are created in narrative.
The Clock, feels larger than you on more than one level. You can’t see the whole thing very easily. Even if you live near one of the institutions that has purchased a copy (MFA Boston/National Gallery of Canada, MoMA, and LACMA), access to the whole 24 hours is hard to come by. It’s a wall of motion and activity from every part of the world and film history. It’s unwilling to reveal the why or what of its aspirations. Why this monster was created, if it a celebration of film’s moments or an allegory, isn’t answered and we are left to unravel what ties the individual moments together, other than obvious sonic and visual associations.
The Clock is a rich tapestry of subjectless players and sounds, with no objective goal. Christian Marclay‘s work depends on emotions and characters that made it through a double editing process, as each movie is edited before he can sample it. Marclay arranges film’s past into the present tense. Breaking the rules at times, implicit watches that don’t explicitly mention the time show that the feeling of these moments are more important than the exact time.
His creative mode is that of a dj rather than a singer/songwriter. Instead of crooning a tightly scheduled album about his/our love life, he selects segments of songs that work together, mixing them in the same witty way a dj cuts and remixes songs live. It’s is one of the best mixtapes I’ve ever looked at. It’s impressive for being able to deliver palpable atmosphere. You go to funerals at 10 AM and not at 10 PM. 6, 7, and 8 PM are different types of after-work experience (commuting, getting drinks, and movie/concert time, respectively). This may be the result of Hollywood’s reductive inclinations. Movies need to be believable and methodical for story telling. Movies distill each moment into consensus, presenting moments that pass our cynical minimum for believability. Despite that, a bad dj can ruin the mood. Marclay does not.