After Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick screened his film The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal at Sundance Film Festival, galleries and museums began asking to show it—including such prestigious venues as the Museum of Modern Art and the Serpentine Gallery in London. The film would play on a loop in some corner, looking for all the world like a clever piece of video art. More than once, he says, a collector approached him to inquire about buying the work. He'd say yes, but instead of naming a four-figure price, he'd direct the collector to www.peripheralproduce.com, the website of his own small distribution company. The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal retails at $24.95, and it comes with nine other short films.
The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal is a brilliant send-up of Clement Greenberg's view of 20th-century art history as series of ever-severer refinements on the previous generation's work. The film's deadpan premise (set forth in a voiceover by then-Portlander Miranda July) is that the patches of paint that city workers use to cover up graffiti tags are themselves works of art—the direct descendents of paintings by Rothko and Malevich. These "paintings" are said to owe something to surrealist automatism, too, as though to further torment the formalist ghost of Greenberg. It's extremely funny.
No wonder a collector would assume The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal was a work of art for sale. It's an art in-joke, after all, being shown in the context of a gallery. But when money enters the picture, it doesn't act like a work of art. One imagines the collector trying to toss an improvised aura over the cheap DVD, sort of like a would-be museum thief throws a blanket over a painting. In both cases, there's an attempt to remove the object from the public sphere, always keeping the potential for appreciation and resale in mind.
In terms of aesthetics, subject matter, format, length, and the presence or absence of rudimentary narrative, experimental film and video art are basically the same. Most anything goes. One of McCormick's best early films, for example, is a nostalgic ode to a beauty queen perched atop a block of ice, delivered in the computerized voice of a man in a polar bear suit (Sincerely, Joe P. Bear). Another is a comedic shot-on-location documentary about huge rodents invading Louisiana (American Nutria). More recently, McCormick has taken a subtler approach, using vérité understatement to hype the humble tugboat (Towlines).
But there are differences between experimental film and video art, and most have to do with the way the pieces are displayed and marketed. Video art is seen in galleries and museums; it plays in a loop rather than over a discrete stretch of time. The videos are produced in very small editions, like prints, and if you want to own one, you have to shell out. Experimental films, meanwhile, are screened in theaters or on DVD, and an inexpensive copy can often be found for every prospective buyer.
It's hard to say whether there are any real justifications for this distinction. Perhaps the act of putting the video on a gallery wall does the trick. (The would-be collectors of The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal might beg to differ.) Remember, though, that the artist's act of selection from his or her environment—that slightly musty justification for Duchamp's readymades or the impulse behind Yoko Ono's Sky TV, an early precursor of video art—occurs whenever a documentary filmmaker aims a camera. Moreover, a great deal of experimental film includes found components. You can see this influence in filmmakers active in the '90s, especially—McCormick scored his own trove of 16 mm film as a Portland-area ABC affiliate emptied its film archive and transitioned to video.
The question of the artificial or willed aura hangs over every piece of video art. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It's a blast of outside air into the rarefied atmosphere of the gallery, if nothing else. McCormick, for his part, doesn't seem inclined to settle the matter. The footage in the installation opening at the Lee Center for the Arts, Future So Bright, has been seen before in Seattle in April, where it was screened as a live event in a crumbling building with McCormick accompanying the projection loudly on guitar.
I don't doubt that the prolonged, meditative shots of sun-stripped houses and gutted businesses, the detritus of civilization that dots the Western landscape like optimism drying on a vast timeline in Future So Bright, will take on a different tone when they're seen on a loop in a gallery. Perhaps they will be lulling, or perhaps they will be uncanny, but the difference will be felt.
McCormick's newest film, It Was a Crushing Defeat, is another telling example of the disciplinary flexibility of his output. It's listed in his website both as a work-in-progress "film/video installation" and as a "film." The project was ultimately funded by Northwest Film Forum's Signature Shorts program, which makes luxurious 35 mm prints and ships them off to be shown before features in theaters across Western Washington, so you may run across it there. Seen on film, It Was a Crushing Defeat is a stubborn little thing, dim and hard to interpret. But who's to say its night-vision horse and glowing orb might reveal something new if watched over and over on a loop? I wouldn't know. I saw it only once in a theater.