New York

the Whitney Biennial 1995: Film and Video

Whitney Museum of American Art

Founded in 1970, some 40 years after the Whitney Biennial itself, the film-and-video section could easily be called an afterthought or, as another critic recently put it, a “sideshow.” It doesn’t take long to grasp the distinguishing dimensions of the Biennial’s main exhibition as compared to its film-and-video section: one flows, if not overflows, through the entire space of the museum; the other has time on its side, changing its look every other day until June 18. Technically one cannot even visit the film-and-video section: you either flirt with it, checking out whatever program is currently showing, or you court it, continually returning until both spectator and spectacle are exhausted. Not unlike those that have preceded it, this Biennial’s selection of film and video enjoys the contradictions of its own terms: confined to a single room, it is freed up from the scrutiny of both public and critical purview.

The selection of films and videos in the current Biennial reflects this seemingly separate status, both in terms of the programming’s relationship to previous Biennials—and in particular to ’70s vanguard filmmaking, which has remained a primary coordinate in the Biennial film-and-video program—and in its relationship to what is going down in the larger worlds of film and video. As works that, according to John C. Hanhardt, the Whitney’s film-and-video curator, are “cutting edge” and “test through their content traditional formal structures,” the materials selected aim to recycle and reinvent the avant-garde. Yet they remain oddly nostalgic for a time when independent film and video were new, contained, and clearly part of an artworld community. In the current climate of film and video, with the ever-changing structures of film financing and distribution, the advent of multimedia work and public access, and the merging of video and computer technologies, many of the Biennial’s choices are willfully anachronistic.

In Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s Dance Number 22, 1993 (which rechoreographs a scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera by stuttered editing), and Willie Varela’s Bad Girl, 1994 (which camps up William Castle’s already trashy Homicidal), the once subversive strategy of appropriation appears as little more than a formal exercise, albeit a clever one. What is most remarkable about Cheryl Donegan’s whimsical Craft, 1994, in which Donegan literalizes the culture of consumption by orally transforming a cheese sandwich into art objects, is how uncrafted it is—as if it were a throwback to earlier, simpler video performances. If such pieces emphasize the film-and-video section’s prejudice for works that rely rather too much for validation on their “vanguard” credentials, the inclusion of Lewis Klahr’s collaged The Pharaoh’s Belt, 1994, and Emily Breer’s animated Superhero, 1994, gives space to smart, quirky pieces that are artful by surprisingly expanding the traditions of their particular, labor-intensive media.

Plenty of other films in the lineup require no special art-world dispensation. Ecological themes account for much of what is most urgent in this Biennial’s program. Indeed, if this year’s selections, as curator Klaus Kertess has insisted, are driven by the metaphoric, ecology would be the figure that runs most consistently through the film-and-video selections. The films included point to the fact that ecological themes seem to have overwhelmed the body as the figure most central to contemporary critical and esthetic debates. In this year’s one feature-length film, Shu Lea Cheang’s Fresh Kill, 1994, the issue IS much less the body politics of a biracial lesbian couple than the impending ecodisaster that taints the sushi they eat and looms above them in the blood-red sky. In Harry Gamboa, Jr.’s Latino soap-opera L.A. Familia, 1993, the gray air filling up the industrial landscapes and freeways speaks much more eloquently about the nature of homelessness than the characters’ stilted dialogue. The human body is completely evacuated from the landscape Roddy Bogawa edited together from the jungle footage of Hollywood Vietnam films in The Imagined, the Longed-for, the Conquered, and the Sublime, 1994.

I suspect the pervasive emphasis on ecology forecasts not only an interest in the environment per se but also a way to position identity politics within an environmental framework. Consider, for example, how the frantic collision of blood cells in Tom Kalin’s 1991 Biennial entry about AIDS, They are lost to vision altogether, has now been replaced by a blurred super-8 hurricane in his frenzied music video Nomads, 1993. The occurrence of meteorology in other works—whether the storm of Margie Strasser and Peggy Ahwesh’s Strange Weather, 1993, a saga of crack addicts in Florida during the worst hurricane on record, stunningly filmed in claustrophobic pixelvision; the tornadoes in Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell: The First Cycle, 1984–94; the luminous landscapes of Andrew Noren’s Imaginary Light, 1994; or the Brazilian blue sky of Karim Aïnouz’s Paixão Nacional, 1994, with its voice-over narration about a man freezing to death—should be read as evoking a world openly hostile to human existence. Elizabeth LeCompte/The Wooster Group’s Rhyme ’Em to Death, 1994 (which replaces Falconetti, star of Carl Dreyer’s Jeanne D’Arc, with a goat), suggests, however comically, that such hostility is the consequence of our outright prosecution (and persecution) of nature itself.

What is most poignant about these works is their desire to see the world as a complex network of relationships, not just as a series of representations. In Lawrence Andrew’s fragmented study of the politics of false arrest, and they came riding in to town on Black & Silver Horses, 1993, race is the definitional consequence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While Jeanne C. Finley and Gretchen Stoeltje’s A. R. M. around Moscow, 1993, is a rather straightforward documentary about an American marriage-broker in Moscow offering European brides to American men at discount prices, its characters-from the chubby postal worker whom no woman wants to the translator who gets big tips for conveying sexual advances-embody, rather than simply represent, gender politics in a post-cold war era. In one of the most powerful films, Todd Haynes’ Dottie Gets Spanked, 1993, an obsessed boy’s visit to his favorite television star’s studio becomes a complex meditation on—as well as a parody of—the way television remains a fixture in our homes, our families, and our unconscious. By contrast, Scott Rankin’s The Pure, 1993, which might have served as a video primer on cultural politics and representation, is oddly flat and dogmatic, lacking any sincerity or personal investment.

A large portion of the works are by lesbians and gay men, many of whom investigate personal politics by exploring national ones. In Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s Brincando el Charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican, 1994, the director moves beyond photographic portraits of queer Puerto Ricans to find the historic landscape of her homeland. The mix of the personal and the political is most stunning in Gregg Bordowitz’s Fast Trip, Long Drop, 1993, in which Bordowitz’s reflections on the progression of his HIV fuel a darkly optimistic allegory about the velocities of history, disease, ethnicity, and family through visual metaphors of freeways and automobile traffic.

Like Bordowitz’s valiant extension of his earlier activist work into a more subjective territory, this Biennial, at its best, reveals film and video’s power both to transport and to transgress, carrying the film-and-video section forward and continuing a legacy that, in Hanhardt’s words, “break[sJ convention to empower and give voice to represent the world around us.” Some of the best works (by Bordowitz, Haynes, Negrón-Muntaner, Finley and Stoeltje, among others) push generic and national boundaries-but taken as a whole, the film-and-video section does not do so nearly enough. By ignoring new interactive and multimedia technology and refusing to acknowledge that much of what is most decisive in “independent” filmmaking today requires complex financing to be produced, this part of the Biennial fails to address work and the questions it raises, that cannot be pushed, as the screening of film and video in the museum so often is, to the side.

Peter Bowen is associate editor of Filmmaker magazine.