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Mixed Signals

All night long: The young man gets jiggy on Los Angeles' desolate streets in Aitken's "Electric Earth."

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.

Less involving but no less pleasurable is Houston-based Mann's "Untitled (Sparkle Box)." The work consists of a wooden base that flares into a five-sided opening at the top. The five sides are lined with mirrors, and at the bottom is a small monitor that displays an onslaught of colorful designs. The mirror-lined sides reflect the feed in such a manner that when you look into it, you get the impression that you're looking at a ball covered with the constantly changing, kaleidoscopic imagery. It may seem like little more than video trompe l'oeil, but don't be surprised if you find yourself sticking your head inside Mann's sparkle box more than once.

That desire to partake repeatedly of a piece's pleasures is not uniformly shared by the entire show. London-based Fairhurst's comical "Broken/Unbroken" recalls some of his wittier still work, but its charms wear thin too quickly. In this continuous loop animation, Fairhurst's figure is a set of men's lower bodies joined at the waist, such that, if moving from top to bottom, you see feet, legs, genitals, torso, genitals, feet, legs. Against a corn-yellow background, this figure sits--well, the bottom legs do--as the legs on top bend over and touch toes to the other legs and go back up. Parts of the figure--a leg, a toe, a foot, a thigh and so forth--flash a different color in a seemingly random strobe effect.

More engaging is New York-based Connor's video-and-makeup mirror "Fire and Ice," which offers a wry feminist slant on vanity. A small, round monitor attached to the mirror displays lipstick being applied to a pair of lips, such that whoever looks at oneself in it also sees lipstick being applied to his or her face. Better still is Henderson's three-channel video installation "Panorama," which continues the University of Texas at Dallas lecturer's exploration of the intersections of dream and waking life imagery. And veteran South African artist Kentridge's "Shadow Procession" is a tour de force of his patience and skill. It's an animation of a long line of silhouettes formed by what appear to be paper cutouts, which Kentridge turns into a phantasmagoric, funereal parade of figures.

But the real draw here is Aitken's "Electric Earth." Aitken has honed his fondness for empty, neon-and-fluorescent-lit urban spaces and has become a visual poet of desolation. His work is often compared to the urban isolation found in the paintings of Edward Hopper. But what's most palpable about Aitken's work is his lust for contemporary life. For "Electric Earth," Aitken follows one young African-American man from his home into the empty city streets at night and sets it to a pulsating collage of beats. The man dances as he moves, at various film speeds. His face wears the expressive equivalent of a monotone voice. As the man rocks down to these electric avenues, there's no one there to take it higher with him, so he begins to interact with the machines and empty spaces around him. In the process, the usually dismissed detritus of contemporary life--empty parking lots, laundromats, soft-drink machines, shopping carts--become animated, often literally. It makes you think that people aren't alone in these seemingly empty spaces, and the effect is both creepy and euphoric. In fact, you could argue that Aitken feels that machines are as bored with contemporary life as the people who made them. And it's this sense of a vital now, of capturing, representing and discussing a present as it changes before our eyes, that the video medium is immensely well-suited.


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