“5e Semaine Internationale De Video”

Saint-Gervais Genève

For its fifth biennial festival of video, Saint-Gervais Genève organized the week’s activities around the theme of video in context. These activities included, among other things, a competition for new video works, two installations by Bill Viola and one each by Dan Graham and Vito Acconci, retrospective surveys of the videos of Viola and French artist Robert Cahen and the films and videos of Acconci, as well as a series of lectures by Acconci, Viola, Jean-Christophe Ammann of the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, and Philippe Grandrieux of the French/German-coproduced arts television channel Arte.

The issue of context for video works was specifically defined as a concern with presentation—on a monitor, projected on a small-scale or cinematic screen, or as part of an installation—but it also referred to the relatively recent acceptance of video in museums and other large-scale art exhibitions. While this latter tendency is welcomed by many, it also can be seen as a dangerous co-optation of the radical potential of video in the rush to institutionalize and thus historicize it.

This situation was evident in the simultaneous retrospectives of Viola and Acconci. As one followed the evolution of Viola’s work presented here, from the early structural tape, Information, 1973, to the later, painterly landscape, Chott-el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat, 1979), and the existential study Anthem, 1983, it became clear why Viola has become the most visible case (especially in light of his larger museum exhibition now traveling through Europe) of the transformation of “video artist” into Artist. Viola’s mastery of the medium was there from the beginning, and such technical expertise in the service of a painterly vision fits nicely into the art-historical hierarchy.

In contrast, Acconci’s video work is more difficult to classify. In tracing its progression, the videos seem like a logical extension of his performance and photographic work: he shows a curiosity about the possibilities of the medium as a tool to investigate his interest in the body, and the relationship between artist and viewer (Claim Excerpts, 1971), and also between public and private experience (Recording Studio From Air Time, 1973). Technically unrefined and often confrontational, the videos (which Acconci distinguishes from his film work as being more one-on-one, “real,” and less like “a landscape”) are like fragments that record the directness of his performances: unresolved and continuing investigations rather than defining examples of body art.

As for the new videos, one would be hard pressed to make any generalizations about the current state of video production from the 46 (preselected from 600) works presented for competition, which fell roughly into the following categories: documentaries, fictional narratives, character studies, and experiments with video and computer technology. If the winner of the grand prize, Johan Grimonprez’s Kobarweng, 1992, is any indication of the direction that video documentaries are taking, there is much to look forward to. Juxtaposing contemporary and file footage with rolling text, Kobarweng is about the colonization of New Guinea as reflected through statements from the indigenous people, recorded soon after the arrival of the first airplane. Without sentimentality or heavy-handed didacticism, one has a glimpse of the tragic consequences of cultural violation.

Elizabeth Janus