San Francisco

Joe Rees

When Joe Rees was a sculptor, he created performance environments. That was over five years ago, before he founded Target Video, and long before he became the first video artist to receive the San Francisco Art Institute’s annual Adaline Kent Award. Rees created yet another environment for the award exhibition—projecting 20 hours of Target Video’s productions onto a screen 25 feet wide and 18 feet high.

Target Video (whose initials are, only incidentally, TV) has attempted a gargantuan task under Rees’ direction. By presenting themselves at most of the Bay Area’s New Wave music clubs with a barrage of video equipment, Rees and his production company have succeeded in documenting a significant portion of the recent punk music explosion, and in producing tightly edited videotapes that have subsequently been shown at other New Wave hot spots around the world. The relationship between Target Video and the San Francisco New Wave scene is thus cleverly symbiotic. The tapes have a magnetic appeal for those who are in the scene, and for others with strong stomachs. The strong stomach is required, for example, for a Ramones segment during which a predictable, though unpredictably graphic, operation accompanies their song “Lobotomies,” and for continued exposure to the many images of vomiting that appear throughout Target in New York. The significance of the vomiting is not immediately apparent—if it’s a symbol of frustration with life, it seems off the mark.

The most memorable part of the tape, which is identified simply as Target on the opening credits, happens to show a New York band, the Bush Tetras, singing their mind-gripping “Too Many Creeps.” The lyrics are presented in such an insinuating manner that no supplementary visuals are required. Rees wisely leaves the band to their own devices. The Dead Kennedys, the Mutants and Tuxedomoon, all Bay Area groups, are presented in a straightforward, documentary style, but a later segment of the group Bob doing “Take Me” is heard while a down-and-out wanderer is seen picking his way through the detritus of city streets. Not until the wanderer removes his disguise and is reunited with a microphone do we realize that he is a member of the band.

Another tape, Live at Target, February 24, 1980, reflects a change in Rees’ style. While the New York tape possesses the jumpy quality of a TV commercial, Live at Target is paced more slowly and includes images achieved by animation. The bands themselves seem message-oriented (Nervous Gender singing about a homosexual nymphomaniac), electronically cerebral (UNS), or loose to the point of coming unhinged (Flipper, a group to whom crowd interaction seems all important). The earlier New York tape seems light years apart from it in style, the former a paean to the desire for participatory experience that characterizes the Bay Area punk scene. Live at Target is subdued by comparison, and more suitable for one-to-one viewing than for a noisy club scene. The change in style must be a deliberate one, for Live at Target is being marketed for Betamax, with a sound track record available as well.

The proper inference is probably not that Target Video is selling out, but simply that a change in the anticipated viewing locations, from club or cabaret to private space, allows for a less frenetic production. Rees sees Target Video heading for more heavily scripted productions, more biographical material, more substantive points of view from the participants. If Rees comes across as more of a showman/entrepreneur than an environmental artist, it may be because he has found a way to remove video art from the realm of the boring, to flirt for a while with the mentality of the average television viewer, and to then return to productions that aspire to socio-political relevance. If the synthesis succeeds, Target Video will be making art for TV fans, rather than TV for art fans.

Mary Stofflet