Mixed Signals

The group of artists assembled for Alternative Currents displays the highs and lows of video art

The confluence of pop, op, conceptualism, minimalism, et al in the 1960s and 1970s coughed up video art like a fur ball. The portable video camera provided artists with a tool that had till then been the providence of movie studios with bigger bankrolls and enabled its early experimenters to introduce elements of time and sound into their works. The best thing about the medium is that it's so young, so there are no rules. This very argument has been video's raison d'être for the better part of three decades. But what has it done for art lately?

Fortunately for the medium, Dallas Video Festival fountain-of-nonstop energy Bart Weiss is one of video's most energetic spokesmen, and he welcomes all. The festival's m.o. involves corralling every aspect of the medium into a smorgasbord of treats--from narrative to documentary, shorts and feature length, animations, advertising, television, et cetera. In recent years, the festival has also included freestanding pieces of video art. The latest roundup, Alternative Currents, now on view at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, echoes the festival's flair for a little bit of everything. And the 10 artists in the exhibition--Doug Aitken, Maureen Connor, Kaleta Doolin, Angus Fairhurst, Brian Fridge, Alan Govenar, Michael Henderson, William Kentridge, Bill Lundberg and Andy Mann--provide for a show that is as varied in quality as the video medium itself.

Dallas-based Govenar's "The Human Volcano" has more in common with a documentary than what you usually associate with video art. It consists of a monitor surrounded by still images of its subject, the lifelong circus sideshow man Capt. Don (at least, that's what the tattoo on his stomach reads). Over the course of the 10-minute loop's feed, Capt. Don extemporaneously narrates stories from his life as a fire breather, human pincushion, sword swallower, tattoo man, human blockhead and other acts. He's got some real anecdotal gems in there, and you absolutely must catch his song about the traveling circus show, but compared to some of Currents' more dynamic pieces, it's rather listless.

Dallas-based Doolin's "Backyard Ballet" is the most deceptively intelligent piece in the show. It consists of a one-minute, static camera shot of a bundle of leaves dangling at the end of a spider's web, swinging about randomly, until a dog comes into the frame to disrupt its motion. It plays on a continuous loop, but every time it restarts, a different piece of music comes on--15 various songs in all. One comes from an opera, another a waltz, another a blues tune, another a folk-country hoedown, each a different style. But with every change in music, the tone of the "dancing" leaves changes. As the opera music plays, you feel as though the leaves' dance is sad and woeful. As the blues number sounds, the dance becomes a bit bawdy. And as the fiddle flies during the country jam, you half expect the leaves to take a swig from a jug of moonshine. Like Russian montage experiments in the 1920s, Doolin elicits different emotional responses from an image--a rather silly image--simply by changing one element of the cinematic signal. It's as clever and potent a demonstration of the culturally created associations of music as any post-structural film theory tome--and it calls its dog "Zorro, the dance critic" to boot.

The imagery in Fort Worth native Fridge's "Vault Sequence no. 10" has been ruffling feathers and brows for the better part of a year now. His work was included in Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum's Out of the Ordinary: New Art From Texas exhibition last year and was also part of the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2000 Biennial, an event that still draws heavy sighs over free glasses of Merlot in galleries coast to coast. "Vault Sequence no. 10" is a black-and-white silent video of what appears to be a universe swirling around in space. Its shiny particles move around in clusters, sparkling like galaxies far, far away. Of course, Fridge achieves this mesmerizing footage by swirling around ice crystals and water vapor in his freezer, shining a flashlight on it and shooting it. There's a highly provocative and intellectual joke in that fact somewhere, but you may decide to move on before you start to feel like a punch line.

More entertaining is Austin-based Lundberg's "Madeline," a video projected onto a floor-installed screen. It features a pair of women's feet standing on a pastel blue shower stall with water hitting them. The soundtrack features the unmistakable swoosh of water jetting from a showerhead. The feet shuffle a bit, probably very much how your feet would move if you stared at them when you're in the shower. At one point, soap suds surround the feet, as if the woman's just finished lathering, rinsing and is about to repeat. Soon a conversation intrudes the shower's patter. A woman's voice asks, "Could you do me a favor? Could you bring me my slippers?" A man responds, "Where are they?" She replies, "They're by my side of the bed." Other just as quotidian exchanges occasionally pepper the soundtrack, and you start to feel as if you're intruding on the intimate moments of a couple's life, or more ominously, as though you've just walked into a Raymond Carver short story.

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