Washington Project for the Arts’ Experiment-y Movie Series
Last night, the Washington Project for the Arts presented its Experimental Media Series at the Hirshhorn to a large crowd, and just like years past, it was like watching a kid play with a lighter and an aerosol can.
Sure, the kid is experimenting, but there are only a few predictable outcomes: a blaze of glory, something that sputters, or something that blows up in everybody's face.
This isn't to say that we've reached the horizon of the moving image, but far too many of the selected artists this year—and in past years—tread ground sojourned years earlier by Stan Brakhage, Peter Campus, and Nam June Paik. The WPA should have dropped the word "experimental" from the series' title long ago.
So what's a better adjective? Juror Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, had some choice candidates. In opening remarks, he commented on the indie nature of the submissions received, and championed the low-tech approach that squeezed value out of limited resources. In all cases that analysis was spot-on, especially since the word value is not qualified. In a few cases that value was limited, which makes me question the quality of the 300 submissions that didn't made the cut. Among the worst: the (undeserving) Kraft recipient "Isle of Lox: The Face," by Leyla Rodriguez and Cristian Straub, which at best was a quasi aping of Matthew Barney, except incessant climbing and Vaseline were replaced by people crawling around in bunny costumes on panel-mirrored floors inside a Baroque chapel; whatever the narrative hoped to convey, it was was lost in translation. Far more interesting (and low-tech) was Peter Lee's "Defection," which examined the pop-cultural stereotypes of white males vs. black males vs. Asian males, channeling Peter Campus along the way.
The limitation of the Experimental Media Series is in its presentation. For over an hour audience members sat in the Circle Theater watching the screen, just like last year. Immediately, the audience associates the experience with a movie. But several of the videos presented couldn't survive the context of big-screen projection in a black box. A work like Paul O Donoghue's "Chasing Waves," which was striking and beautiful, probably would work better as a "painting" in a lit room, where the work can pulse and vibrate without potentially causing the viewer to have a seizure. Virginia Colwell's "The Men My Father Arrested" would probably play better as a two-channel video on old cathode ray tubes.
The cinema setting did play well for two pieces. Lemeh 42's "Inner Klange" was a bizarre and fanciful animation with divergent loops that returned to a focal point. Andreas Templin's "as if to nothing" also merited the big screen, if only perhaps for its need for space: a list of ever increasing and decreasing statistics that charted (among other things) population rise, hectares of clear-cut land, and cases of leprosy. The piece was astoundingly cognitive and challenging.
What remains disconcerting is that the series precludes the possibility of other media-based explorations and presentations; media art is not limited to the grammar of cinema or sound. The series, as presented now, leaves no room for performance, projection, lasers, L.E.D.s, or interactive approaches. It disregards the variety of presentation displays. It leaves no room for the experimental combination of objects and things. It's also a series that would only get stronger with a dedicated space—one that does not hold an audience hostage to unfocused, slap-dash jump cuts of audio-visual frenzy.