PRINT Summer 1985

Good Morning America

WITH MEDIA INFLUENCE RAMPANT throughout this year’s exhibition, the Whitney Biennial’s continuing commitment to including recent work in film and video seemed particularly prescient. Not that all the works shown refer to mass-market models; some seemed to be there simply to represent broad aspects of the current scenes—for example, a film animation segment offered the limp whimsies of Jane Aaron, a somewhat generic Robert Breer piece, and a short-short and multiscreen projection/performance by Sandy Moore, while the diary form was represented by Peter Hutton’s New York Portrait Part II, 1983, and Holly Fisher’s Rushlight, 1984, in film, and by Dan Reeves’ Sabda, 1984, in video. The real sense of critical discovery, though, was in the media-influenced works. Some restate mass-media style directly, whether to critique it or simply to borrow its familiarity and emotional force for different ends, while others incorporate elements of media style into new syntheses in which art, video, film, and the “entertainment values” of popular culture are mixed together. Lyn Blumenthal’s two-part Social Studies, for example, examines TV fiction and rhetoric—in a Cuban TV melodrama about the revolution, in the first part (Horizontes, 1983); and in Richard Attenborough’s smarmy acceptance speech for Gandhi at last year’s Oscars in the second part, Academy, 1983–84. In a similar way, Douglas Davis analyzes film conventions in (Psycho Mein Amour), 1983, by having actors lipsync scenes from Psycho, M, and Hiroshima Mon Amour, in front of projected stills from the original films. But when the narrator explains the joke—that the characters in the three movies are essentially the same man and woman—the whole thing becomes simply banal.

This kind of direct quotation of media forms is used for more directly political purposes as well. Sheila McLaughlin and Lynne Tillman’s Committed, 1984, for example, a hard-bitten retelling of the Frances Farmer story, recreates the physical and photographic look of film noir with a creepy, nostalgic exactness but without a comparable sense of dramatic narrative. Far more successful in its use of the forms of industrialized storytelling is Lizzie Borden’s ebullient Born in Flames, 1983, which uses traditional Hollywood narrative to present its joyous, angry tale of feminist revolution.

More often, media influence is expressed through the superslick, high-tech style adopted by many of the works. The most obvious components of this style are the electronic effects and computer-controlled editing found in (among many others) Robert Ashley’s electronic grand opera Perfect Lives, 1983, and Woody Vasulka’s The Commission, 1983. In Double Lunar Dogs, 1984, Joan Jonas combines CMX effects with familiar components of melodrama-eerie lighting, a villainous mad scientist (played by David Warrilow), and a soundtrack of spacey electronic music—to create a cosmic-comix discourse on science.

Such glossy style is also expressed in the insistently high-key lighting that makes so many of the tapes look like shiny new toys—a quality derived from TV’s no-shadows decor and lighting. The development of more sensitive video tubes has long since removed the technical justification for such lighting, but the look remains, and is used to evoke the relentless efficiency of the image-machine. Another expression of this corporate style can be found in the designer-color backgrounds of Parafango, 1984, Charles Atlas punkish tape of Karole Armitage’s choreography and dancing, as well as in the bright pink panels that mark the transitions in Ken Feingold’s collage of off-air TV and video bits, The Double, 1984. Nor is the look exclusive to video. Ericka Beckman’s film You the Better, 1983, incorporates many of the same elements, including simplified, graphic images, plastic colors, catchy slogans à la Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger (“Take a shot at the wheel—it’s no big deal!”), and a beat-driven synthorock soundtrack.

The media look that these works use (some with tongue only half in cheek) is a style that’s explicitly, self-consciously “attractive.” It alludes to the flawlessness of fashion photography, the perky zest of “happy news,” the posturing of MTV, the seamless manipulation of desire in advertising. It’s a style that insists that you like it, that uses its seductive gloss to bludgeon you into buying this product, watching that show.

Two of the videotapes in particular demonstrate the blend of bullying and seduction that characterizes this moment. Bruce and Norman Yonemoto’s Vault, 1984, is dedicated to Luis Buñuel, but a more appropriate reference would be to Hitchcock—it’s got the hilarious pop-psychological profundity of Spellbound. Without dialogue, but using a soundtrack of soppy string music, it tells of the romance between a woman cellist/pole vaulter and a man who’s both a cowboy and an Abstract Expressionist painter. Each of these archetypes (they’re both blond and beautiful) brings to the relationship childhood “traumas,” indicated by quick cuts back to black and white “memories”—of his mother’s funeral, for him; of her father’s concern during an operation she had, for her. By creating pseudo-Freudian narratives emptied of any real mystery, the Yonemotos emphasize how hollow their characters are—yet they’re as familiar and plausible as anybody on Dallas or Dynasty.

Doug Hall’s Songs of the 80’s, 1983, presents a series of brief audiovisual vignettes in high-concept, chicly styled stagings. But beneath their glossy look, the songs have a Kafkaesque tone of meanness and terror. Hall’s final song, “These Are the Rules,” reveals the anger behind the smiley button. A black-clad man in bronze makeup and wraparound shades stands in a shaft of light in the middle of a dark room. Fists clenched, neck veins bulging, he begins to shout the rules: “Stand tall and straight! Look on the bright side of things! Always give your best effort! Keep your nose clean!”—and so on. As he comes to the end of his litany of truisms a chorus chants reassuringly on the soundtrack: “These are the rules. These are the rules.” In this moralizing Muzak Hall catches the double message of the ’80s, and of media slickness, with terrifying accuracy.

Charles Hagen writes frequently for Artforum.