Dallas — The Dallas Museum of Art has a major exhibition of video art, “Truth: 24 frames per second” (through Jan. 28) that is worth checking out. But before you go there are a few things you should think about. First, plan to spend more time than you ordinarily spend for a museum show.
For other shows—painting, sculpture, photography, etc.—you approach each work, look at it, think about it and move on. Depending on your interest, the work or your thinking, it could be an hour or more. With a show of video each piece has a run time. If you watched everything in total in this show it would take more than six hours. Usually when you think about going to a museum for a show, you aren't thinking about that time. So, you have a few options: you could go a few times and watch everything, or you could find the pieces that you respond to and watch all of them. But that way you have that nagging thought that you should have seen something else. So, manage you time.
Second, you need to manage your expectations. If you are not familiar with video art, it is not just like watching TV. Think of it as moving sculpture. When you walk up to a piece of sculpture you don’t expect it to have a three-act structure and Hollywood actors in it. If you remove your expectations from years of watching film and television and just look, think and feel, you will get what is happening and enjoy the work.
Lastly, you need to understand that you might not—no, probably will not—approach a work at the beginning. For some work that builds, this can be a problem; but others were constructed to be shown in gallery spaces so that is not a problem. You can either go for it, or watch another work and come back to catch the beginning.
The DMA has done a magnificent job staging this exhibit. Showing video installations is hard to accomplish, not just because of needing electricity (which once was a problem showing installations there, as we did for the early years of the VideoFest), but the real problem is sound.
For work that has sound you need to isolate it so you don’t hear multiple tracks at the same time. Since most gallery spaces are large and have bad acoustics, the museum had to build walls with acoustic panels to separate the sound, and control the light, so the experience of looking at each work is magnificent.
The show features work of both video art and experimental film, which is rare. They come from different communities and have different technical and aesthetic parameters. In this show, there are real 16mm projectors projecting 16mm film!
Being the first major exhibition of video work, and one with a historical look, there are clearly some curatorial holes. Any list of important video art should have work from Nam June Paik and Bill Viola, and many others, but this show is not just a look back—it’s a look back with purpose. There is no work from the abstraction or formal minimalism arm of video art in the experimental film universe.
The show is called “Truth: 24 frames per second.” Indeed, film runs at 24 frames per second but video runs at 29.97 frames per second, but it would be hard to have 29.97 works of video art. The title of the show come from the Goddard quote “cinema shows truth at the rate of 24 frames per second.” Cinema, whether documentary or narrative, is a construction. When placing a camera here and not there, and placing two shots next to each other, we are not creating reality, we are constructing different reality. A good example of this is “Western Flag,” an installation by John Gerrard, which looks like a real flag made from smoke but was created on a computer.
At its best, from good directing and storytelling, we can get to some deep truths about who we are. And it is these truths that the title of this show, I think, is referring to.
The show is broken into two sections of the museum. One part has most of the history of experimental video, the other is mostly contemporary video art. As you walk through the fist (the historical) part you can see the technology evolve.
The first two works come from each of the traditions, but both have ties to the Kennedy Assassination. “Report” by Bruce Conner is his response to the assassination. Conner started the assemblage in cinematic form, using found footage to create a poetic as well as a political sense of Einsteinian montage. It started a cinematic tradition than later bled into video art.
Ant Farm’s “Media Burn” (1975) is a media happening created for both a live audience and for the camera. The assassination tie-in is a JFK impersonator (not a very good one) who gives a speech. The happening is about a souped-up car driving into a wall of TVs. It was shot on one-half reel-to-reel video, which is 100 times grungier than your mobile device. The video still holds up today.
As you go through the historical selections there are a few highlights. Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia’s “The Couple in the Cage: A Guatinaui Odyssey” (1993)
comes from a performance piece in which Coco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña dressed as indigenous people in a cage to simulate what might have been in a world fair.
Shirin Neshat’s “Soliloquy” (1999) is a gorgeous two-screen installation that shows just how far imaging had come by the end of the 1990’s; and Dara Birnbaum’s “Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission” (1990) is a work on several small monitors that reminds us of how we learned of dramatic events in the world before social media.
Perhaps my favorite piece is Omer Fast’s “5000 Feet is the Best” (I found the whole video on YouTube, which is crazy). While many of the videos in this exhibition use picture montages to make a point, in this one it is the audio and video juxtaposition—that montage of picture and sound—that is powerful. There is an interview with a drone pilot who kills people from afar. While talking about what he does he tells stories; in one he talks about a family going on vacation being stopped by checkpoint and then getting blown up. The story is from a land far away but we see an American family getting ready for vacation and we see the drone’s eye view as they pass the checkpoint. Throughout this piece we can feel what is like to know that a drone can kill you at any time—something that Westerners don't have to deal with but other people, in our name, do every day. This is something video can do.
Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” is the last piece in the show. You enter though glass doors to see it. Jafa is a cinematographer who shot the Daughters of the Dust and Crooklyn for Spike Lee, but this video is a montage all the way. Like Bruce Conner, who intercut new footage with image from pop culture, Jafa powerfully intercuts images of black pain and suffering with news footage with music, dancing and sports. There is something magical as you see the extreme power of pain and pleasure come out of similar gestures and moves.
Indeed, at those points of editing, a certain unseen truth is revealed at 29.97 frames a second.
» Image on the cover: Ant Farm, "Media Burn," Dallas Museum of Art, Laura and Walter Elcock Contemporary Art Fund; courtesy of Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives
» Bart Weiss is an award-winning independent film and video producer, director, editor, and educator who has lived in Dallas since 1981. Mr. Weiss has taught film and video production at Texas A&M’s Visualization Lab, Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas at Austin and Arlington, Dallas Community College District and West Virginia State College. He currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, serves on the Board of Directors of the University Film and Video Association, is a past Vice President of the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals, founder and past president of the West Virginia Filmmakers’ Guild, and co-founder of VideoFest and the Video Association of Dallas. He has been a video columnist for The Dallas Morning News, The Dallas Times Herald, United Features Syndicate and KERA 90.1 FM Radio in Dallas. Mr. Weiss received an MFA in Film Directing from Columbia University in 1978 and a B.A. from Temple University in 1975. Bart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
» Film Notes with Bart Weiss runs on the first Monday of the month. (We moved it back a bit for this month, since Weiss was busy with VideoFest on the first weekend of November.)
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