Visual Noise

Fine-art videos have been playing a larger role in the contemporary realm in recent years, but I have a hard time understanding why. And a significant group exhibit with the clever title What Sound Does a Color Make?, on view through the weekend at the Center for Visual Art, does nothing to explicate how something of such limited aesthetic and intellectual appeal has gotten such traction in the art world. In fact, it left me more befuddled than I was before. Although this traveling show, organized by Independent Curators International and assembled by Kathleen Forde, is ambitious, serious, important and even interesting, it more clearly showcases the medium’s shortcomings than it does its strengths.

First, unlike with other types of visual art — including painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, whatever — in order to see a video, you need equipment. If it’s a monitor, the typical and traditional accessory, the pieces are hemmed in by the box of the machine; if it’s a projection, a separate room must be cordoned off. Second, the audio that accompanies many pieces often overlaps, with the soundtrack from one work intruding while the viewer is taking in another. Third, there’s the whole attention-span angle: a video has duration, and viewers have to spend a period of time watching it rather than being able to simply look at it for a moment or two, as they do an art object. Have you ever stared at a painting for eighteen, twenty minutes, an hour? I haven’t — yet in video art, time is an inherent feature. And finally, in order to show the videos, the lights must be turned low, and some need total darkness. These necessities make the CVA seem cold and gloomy.

In my review of a dreadful, boring show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, I made a lot of people mad when I said I’d never seen a video that was 10 percent as good as Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory; some accused me of being a philistine or even a reactionary dope. The fact is, however, that in a comparative analysis, everything may be judged against other things that are similar, and there’s no reason that a video shouldn’t be expected to stand up to television — or to film (which is even worse for video). I’ve seen epic-length movies and followed TV programs for a full season without being bored, yet for me with video, boredom typically sets in within a few minutes. So from my point of view, the best videos are those that you don’t need to pay attention to as they play in the background, functioning something like animated wallpaper.

What Sound Does a Color Make? includes a historic section with pieces done in the ’60s and ’70s by the likes of the late Nam June Paik and Gary Hill. Oddly enough, these videos are conceptually indistinguishable from the newish works from the last year or two. That tells me that the medium is resistant to artistic development, despite the fact that major changes have transpired relevant to the medium itself, with video going from analog to digital. Do new paintings look different from old ones? How about TV shows? We all know they do — so why do the old videos look just like the new ones, save for the dates displayed on the label copy? Oh, and the prices. Though these video pioneers were partly trying to get away from the object-ness of art, their limited-edition DVDs now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A favorite topic for video artists is static and the buzzing noises produced by it, or conceived to accompany it. In Scott Arford’s installation in the entry space, “Static Room,” six monitors — three on each side — display screens of intermittent static. (These tube TVs look so old-fashioned in the age of flatscreens, which points up how technological advances make high-tech art look dated very quickly.) Though not technically static, the electronic trip down a tunnel of light in “Light Turned Down,” by Robin Rimbaud and D-Fuse, seems like Technicolor interference. Also using the more or less automatic features of video is “Monochrome Transporter,” by Thom Kubli, in which an LCD screen hung on the wall is lit up with a rich blue screen. This is one of the few genuinely beautiful works in the exhibit, but it does look exactly like my LCD TV when it’s warming up.

As I went through the show, a group of senior citizens from a nursing home was just finishing up a tour enthusiastically led by CVA director Jennifer Garner. Now, I’ve been interested in contemporary art all my life, and this cacophony of an exhibit didn’t mean much to me, so I had to wonder what it meant to those old-timers. As I said to Garner after they decamped to their bus, I hope that when I’m their age, some do-gooder won’t drag me off to see something as disconnected and irrelevant to my life as this exhibit.

Those retirees would probably find the three abstract-painting shows at + Gallery, where I wound up next, equally difficult. But this is where my lifetime interest in contemporary art served me well, because I thought these extremely compatible exhibits were absolutely marvelous. Director Ivar Zeile doesn’t always come up with combinations that work this well, often preferring to go for some kind of aesthetic reach.

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