There’s a problem inherent in the basic premise of a video-art fair. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see artwork in different media than painting, works on paper, and the occasional sculpture, which are the usual standbys at fairs because they’re easier for a quick sell. On the other hand, the format doesn’t really suit video art, because fairs are not designed for extended looking. While it feels like an increasingly glaring omission these days to not see more multimedia work at fairs, there’s also reason why that’s the case.
Moving Image — billed as a contemporary video art fair, although it’s actually devoted to all kinds of moving images — doesn’t really solve this problem, per se; it just sort of ignores it. And that sort of works. Just leave yourself lots of time when you visit, and don’t expect to be able to see everything. Also, don’t go on opening night, unless it’s for the drinks and the schmoozing.
I did go on opening night, and consequently, my impressions of the artwork at the fair were a bit crowded by, well, crowds. (This year’s edition, the third in New York, had record opening-night attendance — which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong!) Overall, I was both happy (because they’re great) and slightly disappointed (because I wanted to discover new work) to find that some of my favorite pieces were ones I had already seen.
Among them was Eva and Franco Mattes’s “Emily’s Video” (2012), a supercut of reactions to an original video that was apparently gross and horrifying, presented by Postmasters gallery. (Marina Galperina describes it thus: “Piece it together from the worst real raw footage you can’t admit you watched [say, from Russia], juxtapose it with the disgusting and sprinkle it with dread.”) Viewers’ reactions range from extreme hand motions to hanging their heads to quietly crying, and the resulting compilation is mystifying and amazing. It prompted one nearby woman last night to ask, “Is someone eating a baby or something? What could it possibly be?” The most ingenious part of the project, however, is that the original “Emily’s Video,” the crude one everyone watched, no longer exists; it lives only in the reactions of other people, which seems to both epitomize web culture (the reactions are bigger than the original, plus everything is fleeting) and negate it (it seems next to impossible to actually, permanently remove anything from the internet).
The Complaints Choir of Chicago
Another favorite that I had previously encountered was the Complaints Choir, an ongoing project started by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kallleinen in 2005. The choirs — and there are many of them by now — are exactly what they sound like: choral groups that sing people’s complaints. At Moving Image, Helsinki’s media-art center AV-arkki presented two videos of choirs in Chicago and Japan. The hilarity of watching groups of grown men and women harmonize on such lines as “I was going to break up with my boyfriend but he broke up with me first” and “Everyone cares but only enough to buy a sticker” cannot be underestimated. If you’re ever feeling grumpy and in need of a good laugh, watch one of these.
The complaints choirs satirize everyday life, but gently, and in that they resonate with the work of Edin Vélez, who was spotlighted at the fair in collaboration with El Museo del Barrio. Vélez is an underrecognized video-art pioneer, but rather than relying on old work, he debuted a new piece at the fair, titled “ReAction Part 1.” The video pans, in incredibly slow motion, across a crowd at Coney Island, although it’s actually comprised of hundreds of still photographs. The effect is mesmerizing and funny, and also makes you a bit self-conscious, as you notice yourself watching other watchers, perhaps even taking a picture of them as they take pictures.
In general, none of the cultural commentary on display was particularly biting; the standout works with a political edge were also quite visually striking. One of them, on view courtesy Toomer Labzda, was Anne Spalter‘s “Sky of Dubai” (2013), a beautiful video that the artist created by taking aerial shots of Dubai from a helicopter and then digitally manipulating them into geometric patterns. The work seems to be a subtle comment on the excessive wealth and outlandish architecture of the city, but mostly it hypnotizes you. Another, exhibited by ShanghArt, was Tang Maohong’s “Silent Film on Assembly, Procession, and Demonstration Methods” (2009). The piece shows people holding up signs with Chinese characters on them that spell out the state’s law on assemblies, procession, and demonstration; in the process, of course, they are assembling. But the work, which looks like stop motion or a composite of stills, has a steady rhythm and a pleasing palette that blunt the political protest with aesthetics.
One of the best contributions to the fair comes from a partnership between Moving Image and Spain Culture NY to show the work of artist Greta Alfaro. Alfaro, who, it was just announced, has won the fair’s inaugural $1,000 James Prize for her work, has two videos on view that involve the same basic scenario: she sets out human food in a landscape for wild animals, and then films the scene (with camera completely still) as they come and feast. In “In Ictu Oculi,” it’s vultures at a well-set dinner table; in “In Praise of the Beast,” wild boars tear into a birthday cake. In both pieces, the animals waver back and forth between seeming human and wild, the shifts occurring frequently and building a sense of unease.
Greta Alfaro, “In Ictu Oculi” (2009)
Just a few steps away from Alfaro’s screen, right at the entrance to the fair, is the Shortest Video Art Ever Sold (#SVAES), a contribution of Vines curated by Animal art editor Marina Galperina and my co-editor here, Kyle Chayka. I was skeptical about the possibilities for Vine, a new social media tool that lets you create six seconds of video with sound. But Chayka, Galperina, and the artists they chose changed my mind.
I adored Kim Westfall’s “Whitney Preserved in Honey,” which shows a phone playing a clip of Whitney Houston placed in a jar and overlaid with honey; Anthony Antonellis’s “Tap to Click” and Lullatone’s “Buffering” were clever comments on technology; and I chuckled/nodded knowingly at William Powhida’s illustration of Gagosian gallery growing bigger and bigger. As it turned out, this was some of the most interesting work at Moving Image, perhaps because it felt completely new. It’s rare when a fair gives you that, so when it does, take note.
Moving Image is on view at the Waterfront Tunnel (269 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 10.