New York

Wendy Clarke

Since 1977, Wendy Clarke has made over 800 videotapes (some in color, but most in black-and-white) of people talking about their feelings on love. An edited selection of these “Love Tapes,” each a three-minute monologue by a person sitting alone before a camera, was on view at MoMA.

In Clarke’s recordings, men and women from various age, ethnic, and societal groups display romanticism and cynicism, hope and despair; some tell of specific relationships, others discuss various kinds of love, and still others speak about love in social or even metaphysical terms. Several people present during my visit to a taping session had recorded for Clarke last year; their enthusiasm for the project and their affection for Clarke were evident, and were echoed in the general mood of the crowd.

Visitors were invited to participate in Clarke’s in-process artwork. Those who wanted to make their own tape were asked to watch some earlier “love tapes,” to choose background music (from a selection that included jazz, classical and ethnic music, disco, rock, and meditative songs), and to enter a screened-off chamber. Left alone for three minutes with a video monitor, the participant was to start speaking when the music began and to stop when it ended; the tape could then be reviewed privately, and each person could decide whether to erase it or to approve its release. If the participant approved the tape, it became part of the project, and was immediately shown to the audience.

Many of the participants were clearly moved and excited, and received supportive applause from the crowd. Watching them, I felt as if I were witnessing a revival of the Woodstock Nation—with one crucial difference: these contemporary flower children had agreed to forfeit personal contact and to communicate through the mediating channel of a video screen. Sitting alone, staring at their own images on the video monitor, facing electrical equipment and a merely implied audience, they had transformed a supposedly interactive process—love—into a solipsistic and narcissistic spectacle that became the sole basis for their communion with viewers of the tapes. Possibly they were hoping to transmute their personal confessions into an instant art form that could forge instant emotional connections; but I found the “Love Tapes” experience a testimony to the alienation that lies at the base of contemporary social interactions in America.

To say this is not to denigrate Clarke’s accomplishment and contribution; she clearly fulfills a need for people who want to communicate with one another in a positive way. These tapes, which touch a nerve that most artists avoid, appeal to many who rarely show an interest in art. Perhaps the last word on the tapes was spoken by an unshaven man I spoke to in the MoMA auditorium lobby. “I don’t like most of the stuff they have in this museum,” he said, “but I’m an addict for these tapes. I like them because they show human beings at their fraudulent best.”

Shelley Rice