You can watch television until your eyes fall out at UC San Diego's Mandeville Art Gallery. That's where "New American Video Art: A Historical Survey 1967-1980" is simultaneously filling the screens of a regular 19-inch color TV and a large, wall-mounted projection unit. Here through Feb. 3, the traveling exhibition organized by New York's Whitney Museum, features 14 hours of programming and . . . this ain't no disco.
The popular notion is that "video art" begins and ends with Michael Jackson doing werewolf and West Side Story turns in heavy rotation on the music channel, MTV. Because that sense of video as an art form is so very "now," there's a neat irony to the fact that the Whitney's exhibition is "historical." Which means it charts the exploratory, enigmatic, elliptical, often crushingly boring course of vanguard video art as it has evolved from those dim, black-and-white days of the late 1960s, when it occurred to various artists that, in the words of one such work, "The Medium is the Medium."
The obvious problem is that, for so many of the artists represented, it was not their chosen, or best, medium. But they experimented with the form anyway, instinctively grasping such givens as the flatness of a video image and our conditioned sense of what sort of art or entertainment experience television typically delivers. Clearly, they relished fracturing our expectations, but watchability had to suffer.
For example, I dare you to sit through the videos of such art conceptualists as Bruce Nauman, whose 1969 "Lip Sync" is a static hour in which he appears in close-up, repeating the title words over and over, his voice going in and out of synch with his lips. Or John Baldessari, whose 1972 "Inventory" amounts to 30 minutes of the artist placing a succession of mundane objects in front of us, describing each one in tired tones. These are the video equivalents of Chinese water torture, and the antithesis of MTV's glitzy, low-attention-span kineticism. They would make a good definition of hell for a sinful sitcom addict.
Entertainment values, of course, are hardly the point here; but the best of the video artists represented make entertainment--if not quite drama, or narrative, or anything more than a certain video dynamism--a priority.
Nam June Paik, for one, has long been video art's patron saint. So it's fitting that Program One of this exhibition begins with his and Jud Yalkut's "Videotape Study No. 3," dated 1967-69. It's a five-minute manipulation in which the faces and platitude-ridden voices of politicians, most notably Lyndon Johnson, are fuzzily distorted, as if by a woefully worn-out television set. Fast and funny, it employs distortion as both medium and metaphor for political double talk. It's also definitively '60s in its anarchic anger.
Also from the '60s are the kaleidoscopic color video works that explore the emerging electronic tools for image manipulation. Inevitably, these seem dated and whimsical, especially when the sound track is Beatles' music. Even Stephen Beck's 1975 "Video Ecotopia" seems little more than an elegant bit of psychedelicism best enjoyed by potheads, and--on those terms --inferior to MTV at its trippiest.
Then again, there are special-effect explorations that resonate with formidable vision. Peter Campus' 1973 "Three Transitions" is a brief bit of video trickery in which the artist is seen from both sides of a paper wall at once--as he tears his way from one side to the other it's as if he's walking into and out of himself. The other two "transitions" depict him "wiping off" his face to reveal his same face underneath, and burning a sheet of "paper" containing his video self-portrait. Seriously and entertainingly, this five-minute work explores the obsessive nature of identity.
Other works pointedly explore new politics. Feminism, for example, is the point of Nancy Holt's 1974 "Underscan," depicting the monotonous routines of her Aunt Ethel's life. From that same year, sculpture and performance artist Lynda Benglis' "Female Sensibility" takes the objectification of the female body to task, while Martha Rosler's 1975 "Semiotics of the Kitchen" turns kitchen implements into violent feminist symbols.
Mainly, the works in this show break down into two categories--the ragged, rambling efforts of artists who are video amateurs with larger concerns, and those steeped in controlled, calculated technique. Either approach can be appealing or appalling. William Wegman's "Selected Works, Reel 4" from 1972 is hopelessly slapdash, but its moments of offbeat charm are many, particularly when Wegman engages his famous still-photography subject, Man Ray his dog.
In the end, though, it is those whose art is about video who score the most direct hits. Bill Viola's 1979 "Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat)" distorts a desert scene with a telephoto lens and the result is an otherworldly dreamscape blessedly free of sentimentality or romanticism--a video vision in the highest sense.
And Ant Farm's 1975's "Media Burn" is a brilliant howl. It documents the Fourth of July on which San Francisco's wily art collective --led by Chip Lord--staged a crazy media event involving a wall of burning television sets and a souped-up Cadillac that crashes the wall. The half-hour work intercuts local TV coverage of the event with Ant Farm's own footage, and amounts to a satiric compendium of newscast cliches, bone-headedness and the insane self-importance TV accords illusion as well as reality.
Watching "Media Burn," one must conclude that good video art is inevitably about nothing but video, about the willing captivity of our easy-chair relationship with the boob tube, about the insidious distortions of perception that only video can summon. Sitting in the cushy spectator seats provided by the Mandeville Gallery, stuck in the act of watching William Wegman's sleeping dog can be a self-revelation. Especially when you can't change the channel.