PRINT January 1996


I WAS GOING to start this piece on Alex Bag by talking about Linda Manz in Out of the Blue, but sadly not many people remember Manz— her punk androgyny, her conviction, her ability to display tenderness while all around, and even within, there is destruction. This is part of the reason I wanted to begin with Manz: to show how Bag’s work questions who decides what will make up culture and so be remembered—how she broadcasts something very funny, fucked up, and in flux by using stuff frequently thought meaningless or stupid (the ’70s becoming the ’80s, Matt Dillon, models, etc.).

Bag freebases TV, ridding it not of impurities or idiocies, since they’re interesting, but reducing to pure affect its mix of music and home videos, talk shows, fashion clips, news, and advertising. Watching Bag TV is not like watching TV—it’s slower, it doesn’t morph—everything is there (music, ads, talk, thought, emptiness) but not where it’s supposed to be. Presented in her second New York solo show at the 303 Gallery, her video Fall ’95 alternates between a nameless SVA student’s confessions about her undergraduate career and weird, intelligent spots that both critique and revel in now. She chats about her life and then a blonde sexpot says “Call me—mmm. Quit your job! No? Why don’t you kill yourself and blame it on the corporation? Ooooh, yeah!” The SVA student returns and digresses and then something like a public-service announcement occurs in which little plastic monsters try to convince anyone watching that cute toy bunnies are really “machines of destruction.” Each semester the SVA student records what she’s trying to figure out (what art is); to watch her is to figure out the same thing. Regarding “art,” condescension will get you nowhere: the questions and digressions to have are those the SVA student allows herself. She refers not to art but to “thing,” “stuff,” “work,” “it”: “I’m learning, and I’m learning about stuff that I have ideas about and opinions about and stuff, and it’s going to, like, really help me I think cause it’ll make my stuff better cause there’s a lot more going into it I think.” Her dazzling inarticulateness is philosophy, or as Andy Warhol said about art, “You don’t know what it is.”

Bag uses the video camera as confessor but her confessions are loops of the thinking-life of people she’s copied: the SVA student; bored British “sales associates” who moonlight in a band; a wearied and wearyingly pretentious feminist video artist; two disarmingly sweet boy geeks; Hello Kitty; you; me. Her persona emerges as a mix of Johnny Rotten, Kristen McMenamy, and Patti Smith—as something mediated. So running concurrently with Fall ’95 were selections from Bag’s video library: Courtney Love, Helmut Lang, PiL on American Bandstand (“one of the best things that ever happened on TV I think”), The Patchwork Family featuring Carol Corbett (Bag’s mother) and Rags, Mary Quant ads, Susan Lucci losing it at the Emmys, a brief history of Stephen Sprouse. In one segment, from a Björk music video, the singer blows up an art museum to the tune of her song “Army of Me.” Bag’s different characters are easily also an “army of me,” exploding many received and weary ideas about the dichotomies of high/low without caring to favor one or the other. There is an unbelievably hysterical bit in Fall ’95 with Björk explaining the technology of television. Pointing to various transistors, she instructs, “This looks like a sit-teay, like a little model of sit-teay”; Bag, done up as a Björk clone in front of her own disemboweled television, stares at Björk in stupid awe, which quickly becomes disbelief. The stupefied fixity of that stare mimics Bag’s own in the face of so much current dogma—art-school pedagogy, feminism, any sort of self-censoring correctness.

At a conference on video, television, and art in the mid ’70s, John Baldessari asserted that “TV is like a pencil.” For Bag, video is a sketchbook, mirror, and eyebrow pencil: she co-opts television’s ability to program her by using video to fashion different programs of herself. Her productions remain, thank God, far from monotonous artiness, because Bag retains television’s awkwardness, banality, static, and endearing ineptitudes, its jaw-clenching my-spinal-cord-is-a-chalkboard-and-fingernails-are-running-down-it uncanniness—necessary impurities until now only seen on the unslick channels of cable-access talk shows, certain ads, and bits of MTV. Bag questions what anyone means by art as opposed to something on television, something previously recorded—from life, TV (fashion, stardom, fame), or a radio station of her own creation, WLEX, whose music (The Slits, STP, Yoko Ono, Sonic Youth, Yo Yo, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X) is the soundtrack of her thinking, blaring from a boom box in a white shag–carpeted corner of the gallery. Understanding that esthetics have as much to do with perfume or jean commercials as with painting, Bag moves on, knowing it is impossible to breathe much less imagine in the absence of now.

What does it mean to copy things on cassette, on video, to loop TV in order to mainline it? The student Bag duplicates says, “It’s like, what is the point of making work for people that are so smart that they don’t even watch TV? It’s just useless and depressing.” In the Bow Wow Wow song “C30, C60, C90, Go,” which partly gave Bag’s most recent show its title, Anabella Lwin sings, “My cassette’s just like a bazooka.” Bag transmits detonation, shattering art (and tired notions of what constitutes it), her cassettes and videotapes already recording something to replace it. This is her new art school, the B-side of everything.

Bruce Hainley is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. He contributes regularly to Artforum, VLS, Spin, and Frieze.