New York

João Onofre

I-20 Gallery

Now that video art has evolved (or degenerated) to the point that it simulates the slickness of television or film, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that video started out as an “alternative” medium—a means of creating art that would employ mass-media technology while standing apart from its machinations. Many early video projects were performance based, featuring artists whose appearance and delivery were strictly unprofessional: deadpan, stiff, unactorly (think of Martha Rosler’s feminist kitchen tutorials. loan Jonas’s body-centered videos, or Bruce Nauman’s water stunts). Although early video art has often been criticized for being “boring,” its strong links to other practices like performance often kept it grounded, focused on visual ideas that can’t get lost on the cutting-room floor.

In many ways, the work of Portuguese artist Joio Onofre recalls the dawn of video. Like his precursors, Onofre isn’t obsessed with the slickness of his product. His videos are in color, but they have a grainy roughness reminiscent of footage from an early-’70s Sony Portapak. They are also performance based. But rather than focus on the actions of an individual, as most early practitioners did (generally performing themselves), Onofre explores the subtleties and dynamics of group behavior.

In both works here, a number of people set about a singular task. For Casting, 2000, Onofre assembled a group of young Lisbon models and asked them to step before the camera one at a time and recite a line from the 1949 Roberto Rossellini film Stromboli (“Che io abbia la forza, la convinzione, e il coraggio” [that I would have the strength, the conviction, the courage]), spoken by Ingrid Bergman’s character as she walks across a live volcano. Lined up in three rows, the teens and young adults watch each other perform the short text, shifting and tittering in the background until it is their turn to come forward and speak the line, whose gravity contrasts sharply with their lackadaisical demeanor.

Instrumental Version, 2001, featured a more formal group, the Chamber Choir of Lisbon, performing an a cappella version of “The Robots,” an old electronic favorite from Kraftwerk’s 1978 album Man Machine that, though influential and catchy, has always been kind of ridiculous. Even more than in the teens’ repeating a famous cinematic line, there is an element of absurdity in the choir’s activity (although the concept and execution are pretty fabulous). The black-clad choristers approach their task with the intensity and respect they ordinarily give to “high art” religious scores; the Casting kids, meanwhile, are stumped into giggling embarrassment by the nobility of the heroic humanism in Bergman’s monologue.

Onofre’s pairings of subject and text explore the intersections of individual and group, video and performance. His work offers a charming earnestness, a subtle humor, and a rare interest in humanity that builds from the individual up, from distinct contributions to our collective identity.

Martha Schwendener