Lux: Book review by Kyle Harris
Through the Pleasure Dome: On Lux:
A Decade of Artists' Film and Video Edited by Steve Reinke
and Tom Taylor
Lux documents a wide range of experiences of 90s media art by creating an outlet for dozens of people to express their interconnected cultural analyses. The anthology is an excellent filmography and biographic reference for late twentieth-century media. The volume introduces readers to genres of media that are difficult to access but nonetheless vital in understanding 90s art, and useful in larger theoretical and pedagogical contexts.
Synthesizing the primary concerns of the anthology, in 'Ten Years of Dreams About Art', Laura Marks connects her dreams and memories of the Pleasure Dome, semiotic theory, observations regarding the struggle between intellectual and pleasurable aesthetics, the role of identity politics, arts funding, the revitalization of structuralism, performance, the rawness of video, the materiality of film, the nature of the shift from visual culture to information culture, and the hope for cinematic originality. Bridging theoretical territories and merging them with her dreams, she successfully demonstrates how ideas, imagination, and experience interrelate and how individuality collapses into a network of community, discourse, and imagination.
Gary Kibbins's 'Flaming Creatures: New Tendencies
in Canadian Video Art' describes pragmatic experimentation and sexual
multiplicity in contemporary video practice. The essay argues that the
experimental, propagandistic elements of contemporary art practice occur
in the relationships between various works rather than in any individual
piece's singularity. 'The propagandistic dimension of the work lies not
in the 'text' of the work itself, but in its relations to other works,
its affiliations or alliances, which make it an element in a larger, amorphous,
politicized montage.' (51) Kibbins asserts that through pastiche, montage,
and multiplicity, video replaces orthodox ideological propaganda with
experimental praxis, multiplying its utopian visions beyond ideological
According to Andrew James Paterson's 'Performative Impulses', 90s video art creates a space for spectators to become active participants. By avoiding decorative mise-en-scene and participating in self-referential production, video artists encourage viewers to perform as active participants rather than passive spectators. Patterson's argument demonstrates ways in which video-makers have created non-coercive modes of relation with audiences accustomed to the authoritarian conventions of catharsis.
Catherine Russell's contribution theorizes the term *autoethnography*, the means by which the postcolonial 'other' responds to European representations through self-representation. Autoethnographic films deconstruct identity; they confront the totalizing narrative assumptions of conventional documentary, and they consciously stage subjectivity. She describes a variety of trends in contemporary autobiographical film, including filmmakers performing encounters with their relatives and using the camera as a confessional tool. Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, George Kuchar, and Kidlat Tahimik are the focus of her exploration of artists whose work explores 'the contradictions and tendencies of the diary film' (93). The author points out ways artists use video to explore and challenge the potentiality of transgression, socialization, and the intersection of the personal and political through the overlapping lenses of consumer culture and avant-garde artistic production. Ultimately Russell observes the fluidity, intertextuality, and fictional nature of contemporary autoethnographic practice.
Immediately following Russell's essay are six, hand-scrawled tape descriptions by the loveable, humble, postmodern diary filmmaker George Kuchar. His texts, like his tapes, integrate the less appealing aspects of the body with detailed descriptions of landscapes, appetites, and quotidian memories. Interrupting Russell's scholastic observations, Kuchar's notes demonstrate his own performed subjectivity.
Nelson Henricks's 'American Psycho[Drama]: Sigmund Freud vs. Henry Ford' describes a selection of video works investigating intersections between consumer culture and psychological meltdown. Containing descriptions of the anxiety produced by living in a society of mass-production, the essay emphasizes video's use of madness as a form of anti-capitalist resistance. Henricks agrees with Rosalind Krauss's assertion that the primary characteristic of video is its ability to explore psychology. Taking issue with her assumption that narcissism is the only form of madness to be explored, he emphasizes recent video's transcendental use of anxiety, paranoia, sadism, masochism, and other means of disrupting capitalist alienation.
'Women, Nature, and Chemistry: Hand Processed Films from the Film Farm' by Janine Marchessault describes women experimental filmmakers associated with The Film Farm, a handprocessing film workshop. She investigates how they interact with 'the boundaries between identity, film, chemistry, and nature' (135). The author describes the resurgence of avant-garde image processing techniques and the emphasis on process, craft, and the personal. She argues that these creative tactics resist the cultural dominance of patriarchal, big-budget narratives.
Mike Hoolboom's 'Passing Through: The Film Cycle of Philip Hoffman' and Barbara Sternberg's 'And' both testify to the importance of honoring daily life. Hoolboom's essay describes seven films by Hoffman and demonstrates how he used tourism, technological innovation, renovation, and the diary form to piece together forgotten memories and suture a multiplicity of temporalities. Sternberg describes principles of repetition, fragmentation, and metaphysical separation creating analogies between the quotidian and the cinematic process. Her essay concludes with a series of quotes from authors and filmmakers, such as Sre Sre Ravi Shankar, Virginia Woolf, Stan Brakhage, and Joyce Wieland, emphasizing the relationship between banal life, cinematic representation, and the struggle between realism and illusionism.
John McCullough's curt 'The Entwined Fates of Bruce LaBruce and the Pleasure Dome' describes the contradictions of avant-gardism in a market-driven economy, and questions the liberatory possibilities of transgression in contemporary culture. On the other hand, Scott Treleaven's 'Every Faggot Loves A Fascist' considers LaBruce's assault on 'white privileged, homoculture' (160) to be an apt critique of bourgeois liberalism. Cameron Bailey's 'Interview With Bruce LaBruce and G. B. Jones' escorts the reader through the contentions of the underground, in which skins, queers, and punks negotiate the politics of desire and control outside the dominant social system. LaBruce critiques the politics of coming out, misogyny in pornography, and the nostalgic effect of 90's gay video in Toronto.
Beyond focusing on LaBruce's underground narcissism, a subject that dominates the middle section of the anthology, readers are sobered by a series of essays incorporating feminism, historical memory, and political concerns. The responsibility to bare witness to the destruction of the homeless encampment in Thompkins Square Park leads filmmaker Abigail Child to question intersections between the political, personal, and aesthetic in 'Being a Witness: A Poetic Meditation on B/side', and in the process she describes her desire to avoid reductive melodramatic portraits of social struggle. Referencing the reflexive cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Yvonne Rainer, Child describes how she created a heteroglossic stylistic vocabulary in order to challenge the coercive one-point realism of Renaissance perspective. In Child's own words: 'The film exemplifies cinema's potential to render social issues complexly, even as it helps us imagine new potentials of community and agency in the midst of great economic imbalance.' (183) Her attempt at 'unnaturalizing homelessness' and multiplying perspectives acknowledges the constructed nature of cinematic subjectivity.
In 'Trashing Shulie: Remnants From Some Abandoned Feminist History', Elisabeth Subrin describes her remake of a '60s student film about Shulamith Firestone's life as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Subrin's film exemplifies David Clark's notion of the aesthetics of echo by reaching into the annals of obscure film history and replicating a work of *bad* cinema. The filmmaker's writing about Shulie questions the gains made in civil rights since the '60s, and the differences and similarities of symbols across generational lines. She tests the limits of historical progress and the assertion that only quality cinema deserves historical regard.
In Cameron Bailey's interview with Mike Hoolboom the filmmaker describes his tendency to remake work, the expansiveness of gender in his dreams, and the effect of AIDS on his artistic and personal life. In one of the most potent passages of the interview, he talks about how his body of work began to shrink yearly after he started re-editing his films. An artist like Hoolboom, who reinvents their work, raises questions regarding the original version of any given film. Which cut is the original? Which cut is the real? Resisting the market demand that a finished piece is in fact 'finished', Hoolboom reduced rather than expanded his oeuvre in order to increase its quality.
Hoolboom's essay about Kika Thorne, 'Kika Thorne: Bodies and Desire', describes Thorne's artistic evolution from making performative allegorical work, to working in community-based cable access television production, and eventually documenting a series of anti-gentrification actions by artists and architects in The October Group. Thorne's practice exemplifies a synthesis of theoretical, political, and artistic desires. In Hoolboom's descriptions of Thorne's work we see her shift from exploring identity to confronting the state. Hoolboom understands the artist's shifts, as she interfaces with the fringe, as reconnecting the 20th century bifurcation of the artist and the formalist.
Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak's 'She' is an intriguing romantic mystery about a woman who finds her crush's notebook at a Pleasure Dome screening. Through the man's automatic writings and the woman's readings of them, readers get a brief history of the Pleasure Dome. The writer of the notes turns out to be a crossword puzzle writer with Alzheimer's, and the entire story serves as a reminder of the complexity of conversations, screenings, and histories at an institution like the Pleasure Dome. Furthermore, it demonstrates the ways a public institution relates to the professional, personal, and psychological lives of participants.
Finally, four texts that explore control, landscape, technology, and corporate culture. Sally Berger's essay, 'Beyond the Absurd, Beyond Cruelty: Donigan Cumming's Staged Realities', offers analysis of Cumming's social realist documentaries about disenfranchised people barely getting by. Describing how Cumming's work relates to Antonin Artaud's theatre of cruelty, Berger demonstrates how his work investigates absurdity and horror. She argues that Cummings resides within an uncomfortable community of actors whose experiences and expressions are both in and outside their own control. In Barbara Goslawski's interview with James Benning, the filmmaker discusses his relationship with the landscape, Native American history, radical vision, and his choice to abandon political organizing in favor of structuralist filmmaking. For enthusiasts of Benning's work, the interview provides an historical and personal context for many of the challenging decisions the filmmaker has made. Kristen Lucas's article entitled 'Why Do I Keep Repeating Myself' is an excellent analysis of the achievements of postmodern technology: social control, consumerism, and the reformatting of the brain. Negotiating the wide variety of products and pathologies created in postmodern culture, Lucas asserts the importance of using these tools, generally associated with the military and capitalism, towards utopian ends. And in '4/14/99' Paula Levine and Jan Peacock share an email exchange about who new technologies in the classroom are serving. They raise questions about corporate co-optation of the classroom and the production of an information-based working class. Ultimately, they conclude that contemporary culture can flourish in the classroom despite contamination from corporate control because culture has never been purely virtuous.
One difficulty in documenting the intellectual
histories of moments in time and place is capturing tangential dreams,
drawings, notes, sketches, and other forms of playful banter. Frequently
left to novels and movies, critical histories dismiss these ephemeral
details as noise. Lux renders them indistinguishable from academic
texts and the movies they study, breaking down the barriers between first
and second sources, theory, art, cinema, and sketch. Reinke and Taylor
convert the dry form of the anthology into an autonomous work of art,
representing the intellectual and cultural trends in 90's film and video.