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Looking Back, Looking Forward: Carolyn Sortor

by Alan Melson 12 Sep 2012 3:46 PM

Dallas VideoFest turns 25 this year. To celebrate, Art&Seek partnered with VideoFest to get folks close to the festival to reminisce about their favorite moments, and to look at how film and video have changed in the last quarter century. The first entry in this series comes from artist and former VideoFest chair Carolyn Sortor.


Carolyn Sortor kicks off our series; VideoFest artistic director Bart Weiss introduced the series earlier today.

I’d like to thank Bart for the invitation to write the first post in this series; I’m deeply honored.  He asked me to write about both works shown in VideoFests past and new works that I like, as well as a VideoFest memory.

It’s extremely difficult to choose favorites videos, old or new; so I’m taking some cues from some recent, semi-random encounters.  I recently got back from New York City, where I saw lots of great videos, including pieces by three artists whose videos I first saw through the VideoFest.  One is Cindy Sherman; there was a stunning retrospective of her work at MoMA (and Metro Pictures also had an exhibition of wonderful, recent work).

Sherman’s known for her photographs, in which she’s donned countless guises that seem lovingly crafted yet eerily flawed, re-creating our most ambitious creations – ourselves – and transforming herself into half of humanity while simultaneously calling into question every means by which we prop up our sense of reality as well as our own identities.

But in one of MoMA’s rooms, though it was filled with magnificent photographs, I found viewers clustered around a video I first saw years ago at the VideoFest, Doll Clothes (1975); unsurprisingly, since the piece is a gem and occupies an early yet peculiarly central position in the artist’s oeuvre.*  It’s the only stop-action animation Sherman ever made, a charming and ingeniously-executed work in which a young woman – Sherman, of course – made from cut-out photographs and cast as a paper doll chooses a paper outfit from a selection variously categorized as “Play,” “Casual,” “School,” “Outdoor,” and “Dress,” and then is swooped up by a live woman’s hand and stuck back in her cutout book.

Excerpt from Doll Clothes (1975), courtesy of Cindy Sherman and the Museum of Modern Art.

Watching Doll Clothes, the contrast between the flat, photographic doll and the large, live hand moving her around reminds us of how willingly we’re deceived by photos into reading them as 3-D, as having depth and substance.  Yet the surface of the video we’re looking at is, of course, equally flat.

Still from Flat is Beautiful (1998), courtesy of Sadie Benning and Video Data Bank.

Another video I loved that I first saw through the VideoFest was Sadie Benning’s Flat is Beautiful (1998). Benning made this visually compelling, poignantly funny pixelvision work at an early age; you may also know her as the co-founder of the rock band, Le Tigre. Throughout this video about growing up lesbian, she and the other characters wear flat, hand-drawn paper masks; the effect is mysterious yet peculiarly expressive.

Both Sherman’s work and Flat is Beautiful are also evocative of what it’s like to be born female and of the efforts involved of conjuring an “authentic” identity in the face of others’ expectations.

Another artist whose work I sought out while in NYC is Martha Rosler, whose Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) I also first saw through the VideoFest. In this video, Rosler performs a parodic cooking demonstration, speaking a deceptively simple abecedarium of common kitchen utensils. Her delivery is measured yet rather emphatic; more deadpan than not, yet conveying both absurdity and eerie menace, and completely subverting conventional ideals of housewifery. The work was a brilliant piece of deconstructive theater, among other things, and rightly holds an honored place in the histories of both video art and feminism.

Still from Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), courtesy of Martha Rosler and Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery.

Semiotics has been re-created many times by other artists (including me), and in 2011 she made her own re-creation, which I was able to see while in New York at Electronic Arts Intermix.  Her new piece, Semiotics of the Kitchen: An Audition (2011), documents a redux in which she held an open call for a live restaging of the original script.  It was fascinating to see how she directed and in some respects refrained from directing the slew of willing young performers, and then to see how a new generation of women performed the piece – including how different the effect was with each performer, despite the seeming simplicity of the script.  The performances seemed to me to lack the kind of fraught density that growing up in the 50’s may have afforded Rosler, but were enjoyable and interesting in different ways.

While still, flat visual art works are basically 2-D and sculptures are basically 3-D, a video reveals itself in the fourth dimension of time (which photos can’t really be said to do, at least not in quite the same way); this accommodates the motion within the video picture and makes the illusion of depth and substance even more convincing.  To the extent there’s a narrative thread in video, that narrative (like the 1’s and 0’s in which information is digitally encoded) seems essentially linear and not dependent on time; i.e., it’s one-dimensional in that while it could exist outside of time, it’s sequential; the order in which it’s embodied is crucial to its character, but, although we can experience it only in time, any “duration” is not an aspect of its embodiment but is itself encoded within that embodiment (i.e., even the length of the pauses are digitally encoded). Ultimately, of course, our experience of the work exists as a mere imaginative interlude in our minds, which could be said to occupy only the dimension of time and the dimension I’m coming to think of as the fifth, that of information, of data and imagination.

I’m not yet sure where this leads – maybe dimensionality is as important metaphorically as literally? – but I and I think other artists are exploring questions relating to dimensionality more actively than ever now that, thanks to the internet, humanity as a whole is increasingly making itself at home in that fifth dimension, or virtual space, and doing so in a way that’s more instantaneously collaborative and collective, more shared in real-time, than ever before.  We’re facing huge, far-reaching changes; and I believe artists are as usual serving as humanity’s scouts, trying to helpfully explore the new territory before the rest of the party arrives.

Of course, the videos described above address many other concerns as well.  One of my favorite “new” video artists is Mary Reid Kelley, whose work explores some of the same issues, yet is brilliantly original.  Her You Make Me Iliad (2010) is set in a brothel in German-occupied Belgium toward the end of World War I, and in it she plays both a Belgian prostitute and the German soldier who both exploits and longs for love from her; you can see a clip from this piece at the website for Site Santa Fe’s 2010 biennial, the dissolve.  In her other piece that I’ve had the chance to see, The Syphilis of Sisyphus (2011), she plays a pregnant, 19th-century French bohemian.  (Unbeknownst to me when I was writing this post, PBS’s excellent art 21 was about to air a segment on Kelley’s work, which shows her during the filming of Sisyphus; you can see that episode here.

All of Kelley’s videos are in black and white and use highly stylized, starkly graphic make-up, costumes, props, and sets.  They’ve been said to evince her interest in German Expressionism, but they also resemble comics; they’re not so much illusionist as illusionistic, simulating not depth but flatness.  While I wouldn’t presume that any one of her characters speaks directly for her, at one point in Iliad, her male protagonist actually says,

I’ve lost perspective, and war’s lost tumescence;

A sad deflation of my three dimensions.

But I’ll trade three for two, ’cause paper’s better,

Its only graphic things are lines and letters;

A clear, enlightened script whose words are beacons,

Because they’re typeset in the Font of reason.

And her drawings or collages relating to Sisyphus translate the video’s flatness back into the on-paper kind, where it looks just as surreal.

The characters’ clever doggerel sounds like post- (or post-post-?) modern, right-brained epic poetry, packed with odd puns and other word-play; and when I saw each of her videos, viewers were provided with a nicely-printed brochure containing the complete text of Kelley’s poem/script.  Kelley also sometimes uses visuals of printed or animated words or letters as well; the videos are extremely wordy, though still semi-cryptic.

Still from The Syphilis of Sisyphus (2011), courtesy of Mary Reid Kelley and Fredericks & Freiser Gallery.

The foregoing just skims the surface of Kelley’s work; the videos also explore issues of gender-based objectification and victimization, identity and desire, artifice and authenticity, and social and political dynamics and historicization.  In their rich complexity, Kelley’s videos are comparable to some of my other favorites brought to you by the Video Association (a.k.a. “VAD”), including John Bock’s Palms (2007), Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004), and works by Matthew Barney.

When I first stumbled across Barney’s Cremaster 5 in Frankfurt, expecting to see something else, I like most viewers thought, “WTF?” But I suspected this artist was exploiting video’s potential in a way I wanted to see more of, so I was excited when VAD brought his work to Dallas for the first time, giving me the chance to see Cremaster 2.

Barney didn’t disappoint.  He used the medium to conduct the kind of exploration of complex philosophical, psychological, and social systems that I enjoy and believe video can well accommodate, embodied in a wealth of unforgettably bizarre yet gorgeous visuals (whether you like his work or not, you’ll never forget some of those images), and with some terrific music by Jonathan Bepler.

I managed to see each of the Cremaster movies twice, studied the catalogue from his blockbuster show at the Guggenheim, and ultimately created my own parody/homage, Creamistress 6: “The Centered Polenta”.  Later, I co-curated into VAD’s first The Program Barney’s Drawing Restraint 13 (2006), which, like Mary Reid Kelley’s works, operates in part through reference to a particular, well-researched historical context, in this case that of post-WWII Japan (and some of the meanings of which I tried to unpack here).  As theorist Nicolas Bourriaud has suggested, now that every inch of our planet’s surface has been mapped by Google, many artists are exploring history as a new continent.

Photograph of performance, Blink (2011), courtesy of William Pope.L and Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery.

I’m running out of space, but I want to mention at least briefly a few more faves:

  •, based at the New Museum in NYC.  If you join, you get access to periodic downloads of new media art.  The organization does a lot of great work, and I’ve loved the pieces I’ve downloaded so far.
  • William Pope.L’s work, e.g. Blink (2011), a project created for Prospect.2, New Orleans; see also The Black Factory.
  • Jon Kessler‘s work.  You can get an idea of what he’s doing here – amazing installations with video.
  • Jon Cates‘ piece in in the Glitch show at CentralTrak in 2011 was brilliant, and I hope to catch up on more recent work soon, some of which can be seen on his vimeo channel.
  • Laleh Khorramian’s Water Panics in the Sea (2010), seen at Site Santa Fe’s the dissolve; you can see a couple of her other works on Salon 94’s vimeo channel, e.g. here.
  • Hiraki Sawa’s Airliner (2003); more at James Cohan Gallery.
  • Deville Cohen is another artist doing ingenious things with paper; and I loved his Grayscale (a Video in Three Acts) (2009/2010).
  • I’m hoping this year’s submissions from Video Data Bank will include new work by Dani Leventhal.  The clips on their site give only the merest hint why.
  • I’ve seen only clips of Martha Colburn’s work, but hope to see more; you can find clips on her site, here.
  • Finally, I hope to include a few more of my favorite new works in an exhibition at CentralTrak this November that I’m co-curating with Mike Morris in connection with an art project that Martha Rosler (I think it’s really her???) “liked” on Facebook, giving me my biggest thrill so far this year.

When I discovered the VideoFest in 1990, I realized that video, as an aesthetic medium comprising twenty-four or more frames per second plus language as well as music and other sound, might have the greatest capacity to convey meaning of any (affordable) aesthetic technology yet invented.

In those days and for years afterward, much of the “fine” art world scoffed at video art.  But since 1986, VAD’s been bringing to Dallas works by artists who were then or later became internationally known: Kenneth Anger, Ant Farm, the Art Guys, Michel Auder, Peggy Ahwesh, Matthew Barney, Michael Bell-Smith, Guy Ben-Ner, Sadie Benning, John Bock, Stan Brakhage, Jem Cohen, Tony Cokes, Cecilia Condit, Julie Dash, Nathalie Djurberg, Jesse Drew, eteam, Harun Farocki, JODI, Cao Fei, Jeanne Finley, Harrell Fletcher, Andrea Fraser, Yang Fudong, Graffiti Research Lab, Brent Green, Miranda July, Lewis Klahr, Meiro Koizumi, George Kuchar, Steve Lambert, Liz Magic Laser, Kalup Linzy, Robert Longo, Paul McCarthy, Tracey Moffatt, Linda Montano, Shana Moulton, Laurel Nakadate, Yves Netzhammer, Nam June Paik, John Pilson, Tony Oursler, ®Tmark, Steve Reinke, Laurie Jo Reynolds, Pipilotti Rist, Martha Rosler, Aïda Ruilova, Cindy Sherman, Mike Smith, Ryan Trecartin, Yu-Chin Tseng, Bill Viola, Clemens Von Wedemeyer, and many more.

I think maybe Bart sees me as someone whose life ended up being shaped in important ways by my involvement with VAD; and if so, he’s right.  It gave me the opportunity to learn a great deal about video art and how to make it, thanks to the programs I saw through VAD and with the help of the wonderful people it brought into my life – Suzanne Weaver, Sue Graze, Laura Neitzel, Steve Franko, Mark Birnbaum, Susan Teegardin, Susan Magilow, Greg Metz, A.C. Abbott, Charlotte Del Rose, Lisa Taylor, Steve Alford, Jeff Leuschel, and, of course, Bart – not to mention the guy who became my husband, Ben Britt! – and so many others.

These people and experiences helped me to become, ever-so-gradually, an artist.

Joseph Beuys said everyone can be one.  I believe we’d be better off if we all were, at least part-time.

I can’t resist closing with one of my favorite quotations, which I also discovered through VAD, from Lyn Blumenthal’s Women with a Past (1987; see the Video Data Bank), in which she interviewed four pioneering women artists, Martha Rosler, Yvonne Rainer, Nancy Spero, and Christine Choy.  Rainer made a remark that, though not eloquently expressed, seemed worth transcribing:

I used to be concerned about this mass audience thing . . . not anymore. There are overlapping circles of activity and . . .  It doesn’t matter what the volume is . . . These circles are not sealed off from each other, they affect each other.”

Congratulations to everyone involved, directly and indirectly, past, present, and future, on the 25th VideoFest!