Visual Art

The Video Art of the 1980s Was Just as Weird as Everything Else That Decade

Last Thursday night, while Madonna struggled to shake off the burdens of being fifty-freaking-four in some remote corner of Planet Earth, I sat in the Power Station listening to UTA art history professor Ben Lima inform a packed room that "Madonna has been the topic of hundreds of academic journal articles."

It was week two of Four Nights Four Decades, a celebration of four decades of video art leading up to Dallas VideoFest. This slick installment was dedicated to the lurid, pop decadent 1980s, my coming-of-age decade, currently being gilded by those born into it. So I entered the Power Station bewaring nostalgia. I hated the 80s. I remember a moment of disgusted reflection during freshman drill team on how very, very old Madonna was since she had just turned 26.

Lima's evening featured four artists -- Michael Smith, Dara Birnbaum, Joan Logue, Joan Braderman -- using television shows and MTV as raw material. I would estimate about half of us in attendance could remember the source material when it was new but, like me, had not seen it since.

For example, Birnbaum's short video Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman uses clips from the TV show (technically from the late 1970s) of Lynda Carter's alter ego transforming into Wonder Woman before our very eyes. But Birnbaum repeats just those few seconds over and over, making Wonder Woman dizzy and ridiculous. A few thoughts crossed my mind while watching this: 1) Lynda Carter was a terrible actress; 2) I did not grow up to look like Lynda Carter after all; and 3) I have seen video art in this town in the recent past that was heavily influenced by what I was watching.

Video artist Paul Slocum, formerly of Dallas and now in New York, did just that kind of thing with a clip from Full House. I found it on YouTube, or at least a version of it. I can't explain why these two videos -- Birnbaum's and Slocum's -- are so addictive. They are both crack, totally. One of the YouTube comments for Slocum's is "Jesus... how in the dick did I just spend almost a third of my first work break watching this?" I dare you not to watch. I am sorry I got you hooked. Ben Lima started it.

All four of our 80s artists are still alive and working. Mike Smith's work was modeled on cheesy TV commercials and those epic narrative videos on MTV that ultimately made no sense. Smith's stuff is hilarious, intentionally so, though only the bravest at the Power Station would dare laugh out loud and risk not being seen as taking their art very seriously. I could not find the clips from the 1980s on YouTube, but here is a later Smith short (with Doug Skinner) about a serious gallery evening, so it all comes full circle:

Joan Logue shot a series of 30 second spots with famous artists doing what they do or being who they be, beginning with John Cage telling a story about his childhood. I was so moved by Logue's work overall and the timing of seeing that opening the day after Cage's 100th birthday that I downloaded 4'33" on iTunes. Yep.

Joan Braderman narrated an episode of Dynasty with herself superimposed over the episode or with only her eyes and mouth superimposed, like a mask. Advances in technology were yet to come, but for its day, I'm sure it was awesome (kinda hard to watch today though). In "Joan Sees Stars" (1993), a stiff bra is Braderman's onscreen surrogate, narrating in the style of a fun drunk, ranting on Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor. She says something chilling and prophetic about fame: "You will be under this semi-surveillance til the day you die." Today, that goes for all of us engaged in cultivating our own images through any form of social media.

Next up: Jenny Vogel, Skyping in from New York City to introduce Four Nights Four Decades: The 1990s, this Thursday, September 13, at 7:30 p.m. The series was organized by Danielle Avram Morgan and concludes on Thursday, September 20, with "Contemporary Video Art from the Middle East" hosted by Nadav Assor.

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Betsy Lewis
Contact: Betsy Lewis