Dear Video Art,
I hope things have been going well for you since the breakup. I’ve been doing my thing – a little oil painting, some yoga classes, you know. Trying to find myself and regain my center after all of that turmoil. And I just had to write, because there are some things I need to get off of my chest before I can get closure, and you know we were never good on the phone. I just feel like I spent all of this time trying to understand and appreciate you, what makes you unique and special, and it would be a mistake to throw that beautiful friendship away, you know?
I get nostalgic, sometimes. I went to see that one thing you did with Isaac Julien, “Fantôme creole,” at the Cinema Effect II exhibit at the Hirschhorn in DC last summer. And you know what? I liked it. I’ve just never seen you so, you know, cinematic. (Shh! You know you love it when I talk dirty to you.) Four screens. A cracked blue-white Antarctic wasteland, photographed lovingly, as if for a Discovery Channel special, filling one screen, then two, then three. Soon eclipsed by an outdoor movie theater in bone-dry Burkina Faso. Sand, rolling sand on the left screen. The crunch of boots on snow as a female Matthew Henson surveys the bluish far Southern terrain. Snap! and the African theater is full of prowling tricksters, jumping snapping chanting, snap!, all four screens are blue-white again, and desolate. So tantalizingly aloof, removed from traditional film narrative. Yet all of it seemed to be heading to some sort of terrible climactic confrontation…
“Through the position of the screens… I challenge the fixed position that single-screen work entails,” Isaac whispered seductively in my ear at the after-hours cocktail party that followed the opening. I glanced at one of the curators, who I could tell was hoping we’d be the first to frolic in the fountain, and maybe get some photos of their party finally posted to Last Night’s Shots. A PR coup! I ignored her. I had ears and eyes only for Isaac. “The division between the two settings foregrounds the state of double consciousness characteristic of a fear of creolization,” he crooned. Then he pinched my rear and suggested we take the party on up to his place.
I have to admit, I was tempted, but, darling, I hesitated. I told him I wasn’t ready, that I still wasn’t over you. “Oh Isaac,” I cried, “is the use of multiple screens the only thing that separates video art from ordinary cinema? How is that so different from the juxtaposition of images temporally through montage? Why not just make a movie about it?”
Isaac coughed uncomfortably and took another sip of vodka and cranberry. “The cinema’s relationship to my own art is something I do not want to fix by discussing it, because fixing its meaning is obviously something that artists sometimes want to resist.” He excused himself brusquely, and I haven’t heard from him since.
I trudged back through the exhibit, lonely and confused. I watched an animation of the verdict announcement at an OJ Simpson trial, twenty-minute recitations of mundane survey responses spoken by fantastically attractive actors, and finally, in a full-room installation of minutely changing street scenes that seemed to taunt me with their lack of any interest – I broke down in tears. I knew it was finally over. It seemed suddenly that all of the wonderful things we’d done when we were together could have easily been incorporated into a more entertaining and tightly edited film without losing much of its meaning. (There was something called “Mother + Father” by a woman named Candice Breitz, which used juxtaposed clips from romantic comedies on parallel screens with such masterly skill – the boundaries that were transgressed, the assumptions that were questioned, in that all too brief glance! – that it brought a brief glimmer of a smile to my face, but it was too late. The spell was already broken, and I turned quickly away.)
It’s over between us, I know. But I can’t help but get indignant when I see you treating yet another innocent person in the terrible way you treated me. You know Rosemarie Trockel? Yeah, that German artist who rolls with Gerhard Richter in Dusseldorf, and who made those cute textiles with the hammer and sickle back in the eighties? (That was so crafty, re-appropriating marginalized “women’s work” for fine art. No pun intended here.) She does good stuff. I was all excited when I heard they’re showing a cycle of her films here at Princeton, called “Spleen.” Each night of the series they show “Spleen” for an hour, then they put on one or two movies Rosemary has handpicked: Eraserhead, Love is Colder than Death, Midnight Cowboy, etc. (You can see the full schedule on the German department website.)
I thought: finally someone who wants to establish a real relationship between video art and film! It sounded like maybe Rosemarie would be able to give me what Isaac hadn’t been capable of giving. For days before the screening, I was lost in rapturous daydreams. I imagined over and over again what it would be like when she finally arrived on campus for a roundtable discussion on Monday, November 24 at 4:30 PM in the James Stewart Theater, when I would finally look into her eyes and… oh, delicious thoughts! So I was all in a tizzy on last Thursday night, when I slid on that pair of jeans that make my butt look really good and waltzed over to East Pyne.
It didn’t take long, though, to realize that you’d played this talented woman the way you’d played me. Naked couples grasping each other in an ambiguous space mumbled in German. A house exploded, sending wreckage spiraling into a cornfield. Rosemarie playing both interrogator and witness in a repetitive ten-minute argument about “who is the best artist.” Most of them seemed like clips from a larger work, with little stand-alone value. Almost the only spot of joy was several minutes of dancing fountains and water droplets set to original reggae, called Es war Nacht, es war kalt und wir hatten viel getrunken (“It was night, it was cold, and we had had a lot to drink”) (1999). Finally Trockel had dropped the heavy concepts that seemed to have been weighing her down and simply tried to do a good job filming something beautiful.
The most colorful piece in the bunch, though, was Yvonne (1997), a kind of fashion show featuring Rosemarie’s knit creations worn by various models. (They’re even flashed one by one onto the screen at the end, like a curtain call for inanimate objects.) I was a little surprised by this, since I’d heard that Rosemarie wasn’t into going back over her old works: “The minute something works, it ceases to be interesting. As soon as you have spelled something out, you should set it aside.” Why did she apply her new medium to her old if she didn’t secretly want to return to the latter?
This all brought me back to something my mother told me over Fall Break, when I threw my needles and fugly half-stitched scarf away in frustration and declared I would give up the domestic arts forever. (I do blame Rosemary and her ilk for making knitting trendy these days. Why couldn’t you have “reappropriated” something more awesome, like windsurfing?) “Oh, Nathalie,” Mom sighed beatifically, “You’re so goal-oriented. It’s not about finishing anything. It’s about listening to the nice clicking sounds the needles make. Don’t you get it? Knitting is about process, not results.” Then she returned to the kitchen to the smell of our dinner burning.
Which is when it hit me: Maybe Trockel continues to make video precisely because she hasn’t figured it out yet. She’s still learning the ropes, and maybe when she’s done, she’ll make something spectacular. Maybe she, or someone else like her, will finally be able to figure you out, to learn what makes you tick. Just because I failed doesn’t mean that no one will ever succeed.
It’s all about the journey, not the destination, Video Art. Keep in touch. I need you in my life. I mean it.