EAST LANSING, Mich. — As digital and web-based forms of dissemination have competed with video art, what is left to distinguish it as a standalone genre? Once, perhaps, embraced as a form of real-time recording that was both more instantaneous and more efficient than film, the video camera has lost widespread popularity. What defines video art, and what about it remains relevant? This question lies at the root of Moving Time: Video Art at 50 (1965–2015), an ambitious show at Michigan State University’s Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum.
Video art was obviously an area of particular interest for Michael Rush, even before his tenure as the Broad’s founding director, and the exhibition, though conceived by him, was mounted in his stead by Curator and Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs Caitlín Doherty, as Rush passed away in early 2015 following a battle with cancer. The two worked closely prior to Rush’s death, and Doherty’s sensitivity to his vision is acute, even though very little in the way of formal exhibition design was in place before she took the reins.
The shape of the show is more rhizomatic than linear, jumping off from an origin point that centers around Andy Warhol’s “Outer and Inner Space” (1965) and Nam June Paik’s “Button Happening” (1965), and sprawling into several different galleries, each of which embodies a different conceptual foundation for a group of video artists. There is the gallery highlighting the overlapping agendas and mechanisms of video art and first-wave feminism, where Joan Jonas endlessly disrupts the male gaze with “Vertical Roll” (1972); Martha Rosler’s hilariously deadpan, “Semiotics of the Kitchen” (1975) unfolds the frustration of the housewife in visual terms; and a recording of a performance by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, “AAA-AAA” (1978) is conveniently equipped with a cone-of-silence-like audio umbrella that channels the two former lovers screaming themselves hoarse in a fight for dominance while we sit on the least relaxing bench of all time.
In the east gallery, the exploration of video art-as-radicalized-documentary unfolds, featuring “Six fois deux/Sur et sous la communication” (1976), a six-channel analysis of French television by Jean-Luc Godard, which leads to a series of interviews recorded in a Sarajevo refugee camp, “Prime Time in the Camps” (1993) by Chris Marker, and an oddly cheerful compilation of archival footage of factory workers (real and fictionalized) by Harun Farocki, titled “Workers Leaving the Factory” (1995).
All of which is interesting, and pays much respect to the history of video art, and all of which pales in comparison to the south gallery, which hosts Julian Rosefeldt’s nine-channel installation, Asylum (2001–2002). Nine massive two-sided, high-definition monitors run the synchronized video loops, each of which portrays an elaborately staged scene featuring groups of ethnic minorities engaged in an act of meaningless, repetitive labor. Indian men stack newspapers in a windy corridor, long-haired Asian women polish the contents of a warehouse densely packed with statuaries, and older women in housecoats vacuum a cactus garden. Many of the subjects were recruited from refugee camps within Germany, hired by the artist to play out these mundane tasks, which metaphorically indicate the repetitious and precarious nature of their existence — a reality that remains as visceral for the thousands of Syrian refugees in Germany today, as it did over a decade ago when Rosefeldt created the piece. The physical layout of the screens forces visitors to chart a mazy course through the gallery — the scrolling panoramic tableaus create a sense of constantly shifting perspective, even when standing still. The chaos and mundaneness breaks suddenly as, by hidden cue, all videos sync in a moment of harmony and clear white light, a calm respite. Then back to work.
Rosefeldt’s more contemporary work suggests that there are strong possibilities for a continuing evolution of the medium, afforded by advancing technology and screening mechanisms. There is much to learn about the history of video within Moving Time, not to mention literal hours of footage available for dispassionate or engaged ingestion, but there is a specially sublime and transcendent quality to the experience of getting to pass through the screen and stand immersed in a world of video art. In this moment, intellectual arguments aside, nothing could feel more real or immediate.
Moving Time: Video Art at 50 (1965–2015) continues at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum (547 E Circle Dr, East Lansing, Michigan) through February 14.