“The Science Of Fiction/The Fiction Of Science”

Video Data Bank

Just how spectacular spectacle can be was demonstrated in two nights of extremely sensitive programming of videotapes and television clips shown to audiences that numbered in the thousands and sat under the stars in the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park. Just how ironic this venue was (Grant Park was the site of riots during the 1968 Democratic convention) became abundantly clear when the predominantly youthful crowd booed at political advertisements for Ronald Reagan and cheered for John F. Kennedy: mass media replaces mass protest. The title of the event, “The Science of Fiction/The Fiction of Science,” underscored the intention of the producers, the Video Data Bank, to reveal the influences of the “fiction” of paid political announcements and vintage TV commercials on the acknowledged artistic fiction of experimental video. All the tapes were drawn from the collection of the Video Data Bank; some of the artists included were Michael Smith, Max Almy, Judith Barry, Branda Miller, and Tony Oursler.

Orchestrated to alternate art with television, the rhythm was one of oppositions: slow/fast, simple/complex, upbeat/downbeat. Drive-in movies were the model for the physical installation, so that the 18-by-24-foot screen was superimposed against the expanse of Chicago’s skyline. I recalled a similar unreal thrill in the bright, colossal image on a drive-in-theater screen glimpsed from the highway at night; here it was even more unexpected, since imagery was not just decontextualized but radically recontextualized by the backdrop. Steina Vasulka’s lips (Let it Be, 1973) shared equal scale with the Borg Warner Building, and Bill Wegman’s stomach (The Best of Wegman, 1970–78) jammed itself up against the glowing blue spire of the Santa Fe Building. There were hundreds of these juxtapositions—the adjacency with actual buildings of the details of vernacular architecture in Bob Snyder’s elegant Trim Subdivision, 1981, for example. The program had other merits: to see Betty Furness, larger than life and thin as a stiletto, chastising the less fortunate frumps whose Brand X machines could not remove the horrid oil and sand she’d thrown in on their wash provided a poignant reminder of more innocent, pre-feminist commercials in which the ideology of cleanliness was focused on laundry rather than feminine hygiene; and Bernie Schwartz’s ad for Lyndon Johnson, with its daisy-petal countdown and black and white nuclear explosion, transformed a familiar but frightening cliché into an augury of what it might actually look like enacted in Chicago. Without a doubt, however, it was the colossal magnification and astonishing juxtapositions that turned an evening of video entertainment into science fiction.

Arcade, a videotape by Lyn Blumenthal and Carole Ann Klonarides in collaboration with painter Ed Paschke, was screened outdoors, but premiered the night before at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in a performance/video event called Dos Egos. This was a collaboration between Paschke, who is called upon more and more to represent Chicago sensibility, and performance-artist Hudson. Arcade is an absolutely eponymous title for the tape, whose syntactic structure and lateral movement aptly match its fairground equivalent. The work includes a series of images recycled from television and film interspersed with location footage of Chicago’s El stations, and punctuated with gorgeous paintings by Paschke (created specially by the artist on a sophisticated computerized paint box). Flashing insights and lights, the ready-made imagery presents a sideshow of current concerns playing on the slippage between televised and real. With its disco beat, repeating scales, and bells, and after a series of intentional false starts, sci-fi sound effects, and deferments, A. Leroy’s music becomes pivotal in determining the skeleton on which the imagery depends.

Much of the videotape moves laterally, like the El trains it tracks: no narrative but recurring images. One is of white-breadfaced John Hinckley, sometimes wearing a Paschke mask; his mother’s phrase, “We’ve gotta go forward, we’ve gotta go on,” provides encouraging audio propulsion for the tape. Symmetrically balancing the mother, Hinckley’s father chimes in, “The times were very troubled.” Scenes of their son’s attack on Reagan are intercut with clips of Charles Bronson in Death Wish (1974), Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967), so that the cinematic references reinforce a message of Hinckley’s consumption by the media. Propelled by celluloid objects of desire, Hinckley becomes a television star in the representation of his assassination attempt. Intercut with this male shooting gallery is a bearded-women category of Arcade, with a wonderful clown-faced Catherine Deneuve (a Paschke image again), and a remarkable aerialist whose act is to be hoisted up and down by her long black braid. Paschke’s predilection for bizarre performers and hollow-eyed luminous individuals blitzed by media static are not mere illustrations but are well served by the tape’s prevailing staccato tone.

Emblematic of the whole piece is a nocturnal bird’s-eye view of an urban group watching television outdoors, buzzing slowly around the glowing replacement hearth like flies around honey. This segment has the look and feel of urban anthropology, as if ritual behavior were being captured on tape, and on its premier evening at the School it became a miniature presentiment of the spectacle in Grant Park. It struck me as pleasantly gritty, even mysterious, in a work that remains overdetermined and circumscribed by the very techniques and procedures from which it is drawn.

In response to and in striking contrast with the stylish videotape, Hudson’s live performance was raw and awkward. Using the music and assorted frames of Arcade as a backdrop, Hudson dealt with differences between simulation and stimulation. In a self-consciously arty and mannered dance number he enacted instant replay and slow motion. Poignantly and sometimes embarrassingly, he attempted Wonderwoman feats and performed a pathetically sincere rendition of “I Believe.” At one point Hudson distributed money to the audience while wearing signs that read “watch it” across his bare crotch and “live” across his chest; the contrast of real emotion, real live action, and nudity with the cynicism and irony of the media was obvious, but the performance was flawed. Too many ideas and vignettes were glued together only by the serial structure; they touched issues, but in a hit-and-run way. Hudson revealed too much in the beginning of his piece only to be overshadowed in the end by his own recognition that the stimulation of neither live nudity nor money can compete with that of simulation.

Judith Russi Kirshner