New York

A. L. Steiner and robbinschilds

Taxter & Spengemann

The danger of characterizing a work as “fun” is that, in doing so, one also risks implying that it is inconsequential. This is an especially deadly charge when measuring art of a feminist provenance: It’s still rare enough that such art is considered worthy of serious discourse. (Though perhaps such misogyny will attenuate in the wake of two current surveys: “WACK!” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and “Global Feminisms” at the Brooklyn Museum.) With that in mind, A. L. Steiner’s latest project, C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience), Part 1, 2007, a ten-minute forty-eight-second video made in collaboration with dance duo robbinschilds, manages to be both serious and fun—and perhaps a little something more.

The video has a relatively simple structure. It charts the movements of dancers Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs as they variously hop, slide, crawl, climb, and thrash their way across a variety of largely unpopulated American landscapes. Beginning with the duo falling face-first into sand (then grass, then a pool of water) and rubbing their heads together, the film shows robbinschilds performing their strange series of languid but deliberately choreographed movements to a sound track comprising three energetic instrumentals by the Seattlebased psych-rock quartet Kinski. The dancers’ thrift-store outfits (which almost invariably incorporate at least one pair of pumps, a purse, and a string of pearls) always match in color, and as the video moves from one location to the next, the costumes (and colors) change. The video culminates in a stunning, stark clip (played in reverse) of the pair dancing at night in a suburban parking lot, eventually leading to the work’s denouement: a scene in which the dancers’ outfits are seen hanging from a massive, eviscerated tree trunk in a display of polychromatic abandon.

If it looks and sounds like a music video, is it a music video? And if it is indeed a music video (albeit a rough-hewn one), can it also be art? One might offer an apologia, shoring up the work’s subversive potential through an exposition of its critical distance from the genre, and discuss the way in which the work mines a popular style, in the process producing a hyperbolic mimesis that forces a reflection upon contemporary modes of spectacular consumption. But aside from the video’s appearance in a gallery (one of very few sites in which “subversion” is considered normative), there are no signals to suggest that such reflection is intended. Instead, C.L.U.E. exploits the genre’s spastic, infectious editing to achieve precisely the same ends accomplished by other such videos: to seduce the viewer to watch, enjoy, and perhaps even buy the product. Here Steiner is preceded by artists as diverse as Sadie Benning, Slater Bradley, Derek Jarman, and Michel Gondry (as well as, arguably, Steve Reich, Kenneth Anger, and the numerous avant-garde filmmakers who pioneered the field), who have each made artistically compelling “music videos” of their own.

The work, then, is more of a paean to than a critique of contemporary modes of viewing: C.L.U.E. would be as comfortable on television or YouTube as it is projected onto a gallery wall. But beyond its pop-culture-friendly amphibiousness, the video is most radical in its deployment of space. Considering the historical regulation of the “domestic sphere” as a tool for female oppression, can there be anything more cathartic than a hyperkinetic meditation on two women dancing about freely on the open road? (To be sure, there is an echo of Thelma & Louise, but—at least in “Part 1”—Steiner’s version seems more optimistic.) In contrast with the deconstructionist model of “play,” C.L.U.E. offers the insurrectionary force of “fun” as a potentially catalyzing framework for feminist art. The nominal addendum “Part 1,” of course, portends a “Part 2.” Perhaps the most generous version would leave the second segment to viewers to imagine—or produce—themselves.

David Velasco