Athens Fine Art School

On a certain level, the Athens Fine Art School was the most appropriate possible setting for Emily Tsingou’s group exhibition of recent video installations and projections by nineteen artists entitled “PUSH-UPS.” Essentially a DIY project put together over a period of years by the students and teachers who took over this broken shell of a building, the school is an immense and beautiful open space reclaimed from the ruins of an abandoned industrial zone. In the same way, as the title implies, “PUSH-UPS” presented a wide range of contemporary video practice within a larger framework of DIY reclamation of various kinds. Whether manifested on the theoretical level, in pieces like Miltos Manetas’ Soft Driller, 1996, and Vanessa Beecroft’s Untitled, 1996, or in a more physical way, in Julia Scher’s Fibroid Reliquary Table, 1996, or Alex Bag’s Video Art is Really Hot (I’m burning), 1996, (both Scher and Bag situated their video pieces within constructed physical environments) the question of how to retake and remake the various ruins of our collective culture was paramount.

In Manetas’ piece, two men sit in a cafe, staring blankly into the distance, but after a short while it becomes apparent there’s a murmur of aggression running through the scene: the men are talking in low, flat monotones, saying “I’ll kill you. I’ll fuck you up.” Still, they continue to do what comes naturally in a cafe setting—nothing much. For all the threats of violence, nothing in the scene changes; no one raises his voice, let alone his fists. The scene reads like a Beckett play about undeclared border wars, about the state of waiting endlessly for the first blow. The result is paralysis, but whether this is caused by social constraints, or simple fear, or even ennui, is never clear. After a while, one feels that any movement would be a relief.

Elsewhere, Julia Scher meditated on other constricted states and spaces. There’s a mockup of a security guard’s desk, cluttered and slightly run-down, creating a generalized air of shabbiness offset by the various high-tech accouterments of control and surveillance: a 9 mm pistol, posters for Ikegami surveillance cameras, a welter of cables. So while Scher’s installation shows us the ways in which our lives are already constricted by authority’s gaze, at the same time she suggests exactly how flimsy that mechanism really is: even the most perfect system is run by guys drinking coffee out of Styrofoam cups, the grounds patrolled by college students who’d rather be getting stoned. There are cracks in any system; the secret lies in sliding inside of them, making them your own.

Which is exactly where the work in “PUSH-UPS” has inserted itself: after years as a marginal art form, video has finally widened the cracks enough to create some room for itself. One of the show’s theses is that video is no longer an afterthought, or a one-off for otherwise established artists, but, rather, a potent means of dealing with a myriad of contemporary issues. And with this beautifully installed show, Tsingou succeeded in showing some of the power that this medium can wield—succeeded in showing what can grow up in places that appear to be nothing but empty.

Mark Van de Walle