See your world on a small screen at the 11th Annual Dallas Video Festival

For 11 years now, the Dallas Video Festival has been better appreciated across the country and around the world than it has in the city whose name it bears.

You could offer this as evidence that Dallas has earned its reputation: that of a Southwestern money mecca whose residents would rather be seen at culture than see culture. Our public officials, leading philanthropists, and arts board members strive to impress international artists with shiny new performance centers and multi-million-dollar sculpture gardens rather than spend money on creative locals who could--or, in the case of the Dallas Video Festival, already do--rival the likes of New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle in the areas of performing, visual, and techno arts.

Clearly, Dallas doesn't appreciate what it has in the world-class Dallas Video Festival; if it did, the Festival would still be showcased in the echoing halls of the Dallas Museum of Art, which hosted the event during its first decade. Festival artistic director, guiding spirit, and workhorse-in-residence Bart Weiss was forced to pull up stakes and look for a new home for this year's Festival when the DMA began to increase financial and "curatorial" demands on an international showcase that desperately needs a long-term local venue commitment, not programming guidance. The DMA, whose expenses on everything from guards to facility maintenance are paid for by you, the city taxpayer, would much rather hold another Impressionist exhibit (Monet comes lurching in at the end of the month). This loss by an institution that's been choking on the Kimbell Art Museum's dust ever since Rick Brettell resigned under pressure is the gain of the Dallas Theater Center, whose Kalita Humphreys theater will host the 1998 show.

But the Dallas Video Festival faces another obstacle that has nothing to do with the myopia of Dallas' arts leaders. All over the country, there's a stigma attached to the word "video" that doesn't burden film and live theater. The latter two can be considered culture, or are, at the very least, media you must leave home to witness in their natural habitats. But video is the medium that any Joe Sixpack can enjoy in his underwear if he has a hundred bucks for a VCR and a Blockbuster membership card. Moreover, Mr. Sixpack has been able to make videos himself ever since 1966, when the first video camera was introduced on the home market. We're all familiar with his work; he forces it on us at holidays and other gatherings of loved ones.

Indeed, the affordability--the pure democracy--of video technology has been its bane and boon. Both amateurs and professionals, experimental artists and infomercial hucksters, have flooded our collective senses with images slick and ragged and sick, via satellite, cassette, and modem. Although formal experimenters like Naim June Pak and William Wegman have explored the technical borders of video much like other artists have explored film and painting, documentary is the form that has ingratiated itself most completely with us. But documentary--and, by extension, video technology--has changed us more than we've changed it.

Consider all the political and social upheavals that "real life" video images have caused in the last decade--from the torrent of questions about what constitutes sexual harassment following the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings; to a beaten Rodney King, whose flailing body sparked a Los Angeles race riot; to O.J. Simpson during his highway escape and trial, spectacles that got all of us bickering about legal justice and racial perception--and suddenly, video doesn't seem so pedestrian.

This bastard baby brother of the moving image has gradually earned respect in artistic fields as well. The Academy Awards' annual Best Documentary nominee roster now features most of its subjects shot on video. And in the claustrophobic world of visual arts, New York's Whitney recently opened a retrospective of old and new video artists that earned an "Arts & Leisure" feature rave from The New York Times.

But don't concern yourself with approval from Los Angeles and New York. Be your own judge of the documentaries, dramas, music, experimental, and interactive videos that have poured in from all over the world for this year's festival, which runs March 5-8. Writer-director Terry Gilliam takes a break from editing his current film project, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to be honored for his animation work with the British TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus. The other highlight is America's preeminent video anarchist Robert Smigel, the Saturday Night Live veteran who's responsible for animated naughty bits like "Fun With Real Audio" and "The Ambiguously Gay Duo"; you may also know him as the man who got Dana Carvey canceled. And acknowledging the roots of its new home with the Dallas Theater Center, the Festival features live multimedia events by two internationally lauded performance artists--Deke Weaver and Dallas' own Fred Curchack.

If you get bored, move on: Four programs are running simultaneously at any given moment. The advantage of the Dallas Video Festival is that one pass gets you into everything; unlike the USA Film Festival, they expect you to browse. But just remember two things: Yes, most of this stuff will be shown on large TV screens in the Kalita Humphreys, but no, you'll never get another chance to see most of it on your home TV--not on PBS, not on cable, not even on cassette from the coolest video store in your neighborhood.

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