New York

Jean-Luc Godard

Protean filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s career as an avant-garde innovator has lasted more than forty years. Any video store or art-house series worth its salt will offer classics of the French New Wave such as Breathless (1960) or Alphaville (1965). But Godard repudiated many of these earlier achievements, adding rigorous Marxist politics to his pathbreaking aesthetic of simultaneity, verbal complexity, and discontinuous narrative. Restlessly experimenting with stylistic means toward theoretical ends, he explored the possibilities of marrying television’s mass distribution and video’s accessible low-tech to the political and aesthetic concerns of avant-garde cinema. The resulting body of work is rarely screened and can be hard to find.

I said I love. That is the promise. The tvideo politics of Jean-Luc Godard,” curated by Gareth James and Annette Schindler and installed in collaboration with Florian Zeyfang, presented twenty-three of these lesser-known works, dating from 1968 to 1997. All were shown as videos, regardless of their original format. Godard has often edited from video to film stock and back again, so the curators were working within their rights in displaying the work in this medium. James, Schindler, and Zeyfang chose, however, to treat Godard’s productions more as objects than as cinema per se. The idea was not so much to provide seamless viewing experiences for a sacrosanct oeuvre, but to toy with conventions while respecting theoretical principles—just as Godard has always done.

The installation itself was bland: Thirteen randomly situated monitors, each playing tapes in continuous loop, were positioned on plastic folding chairs arranged in sculptural piles (with other chairs scattered around for viewers). The setup offered little in terms of addressing the problematics of video display. But, fortunately, this didn’t seem to be the point. The curators succeeded by turning Godard’s rich catalogue of film in on itself, simultaneously referencing the viewer’s expectations regarding large-screen projection, VCR home-viewing, and art video in the gallery.

The audio to two pieces, JLG/JLGautoportrait de décembre (1994) and Le Gai Savoir (1968), filled the space with an ambient muttering and underlined the difference between a film series and an art piece. The other viewing stations were outfitted with headphones and a remote control, which left gallery-goers free to pause, rewind, fast-forward, or wander away in the middle. Video installation is chronically subject to the last of these responses, but the hands-on involvement encouraged by the remote is unusual in “art” video contexts, where display is more often continuous and interaction consists in staying to watch, or not.

Godard’s Brechtian willingness to risk boring, offending, or exhausting his audience is, of course, famous, and especially in films from his so-called radical period—heavily represented here—he insists on a kind of anti-spectacle that demands critical participation by his audience. The ubiquitous monitors with their degraded pictures extended Godard’s mandate in provocative directions, underscoring the directness with which such films as Numéro Deux (1975) deploy sound and image to (sometimes strident) political ends, while adding a poignant smallness to diaristic endeavors like JLG/JLG. Fragmentary juxtapositions and jump cuts within each film were echoed as one looked across the room, as scraps of advertisements and explicit sex scenes, interview segments, and title sequences of game shows cascaded from the multiple screens. The curators risked cacophony, just as Godard has done. But this risk opened a space in which the films became their own interlocutors, generating moments in which the delicately orchestrated visual essays for which Godard is revered could coalesce on a metalevel, as if one were seeing large swaths of his career played out in synchrony—something no movie-theater setting could accomplish.

Frances Richard