Kevin McGarry
Since 2004
Works in New York, New York United States of America

Medium Quality: The 2010 International Experimental Media Congress

From April 7 to 11, during the closing days of the 2010 Images Festival, Toronto hosted nearly three hundred scholars, artists, curators and students at the Ontario College of Art & Design for the second International Experimental Media Congress. This was not the second “annual” Congress—second coming would be more appropriate. The first was convened more than twenty years ago, in 1989 as the Toronto Experimental Film Congress. Many (I can’t count myself among them) remember how political and generational agendas met in a polarizing clash of mythic proportions around the 1989 gathering. A significant group of detractors put forward an anti-manifesto and some to this day remain turned-off to the original event, as well as to the difficult project of exhuming it.

While 2010 had its fair share of deficiencies, two that I’m told plagued 1989—a limited canon and lack of women—did not make waves this year. According to filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who presented a performance in Toronto in celebration of her newly released book chronicling her life and work, "I was at the last EMC and the big complaint was gender inequality. Corrected!” However there was at least one notable casualty: “we lost the raucous edge of complaint and challenge we had twenty years ago.” I would agree that this “congress” was missing the kind of audacity, theater and conflict found in most houses of representatives. Although it was ostensibly not an academic conference, generally it felt like one. Most panelists delivered tidy presentations and the overall experience was managed and mannered, with moments of noise and inspiration. On the plus side of this, the week was smooth and friendly, with an engaging film festival and relevant exhibitions providing content for the evenings. I came curious and left satisfied.

2010: A Small Odyssey

2010, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari’s Whitney Biennial, is essentially a Whitney Biennial calibrated for the times: small at 55 artists and altogether humble. This humility, and the fact that one needn’t contend with an overwrought curatorial concept, allows viewers a more cogent experience than past, sprawling, thesis-driven Biennials could offer. Several works, rooms and motifs make good impressions. Not many are impressive enough to make an indelible impact—but a few are. Judging by the past couple decades, the task of this biennial of American art seems insurmountable, and there is no urgency to fault this edition for hitting the target and missing the bulls-eye. While the levelness here is exciting as an indicator of a playing field for post-boom artistic production, the devil’s advocate wonders, perhaps unfairly, if there isn’t something ultimately more exciting about a splashy Biennial that fails stupendously.

In the absence of an overarching conceit, why not start with a premise that did precede itself a bit: the third floor as a dedicated space for film and video. Considering the continued expansion of film and video practices throughout the art world, the idea seemed gimmicky at best—easily the curators could fill a floor, but why ghettoize? Then, come February 25, visitors stepping off the elevator and onto floor three were greeted by a tapestry by Pae White, freezing a frame of interlaced wisps of smoke in a vast expanse of fabric. Mercifully this is not a plain LCD screen (as it turns out, the floor showcases a variety of mediums), but as a piece that meditates on materiality, medium and time, it serves as an excellent banner to welcome visitors to the area of the exhibition that is most concentrated on media. The projects therein attending to these matters soar.

Using, Using, Used

Within the pages of Digital Folklore Reader, Olia Lialina, one of the book’s editors, refers to a claim by the social media researcher Danah Boyd, that some American teenagers identify as Facebook and others as MySpace—preferring a conformist and clean interface persona, or a rebellious and visually pimped one, respectively.

This book, co-edited by Dragan Espenschied, is by all outward appearances a MySpace, brimming with exuberant design elements culled from all over the net and reaching deep into online history. The dust jacket repeats a background image of a unicorn perched on a boulder at sunset under a meteor shower. Its reverse is wallpapered in 32 by 32 pixel gif icons representing the gamut of popular user-generated online imagery: cartoon characters, porno ladies, geometric designs, quotidian objects, flags, logos, landscapes and text, from WTF to FREE TIBET. One layer deeper, the cover and back of the book are white, or, probably (in RGB concept), nothing. The spine is also nude, showing off the motley sequencing of pages inside, the first and last of which are a flat, vibrant #00FF00 green, allusive of web-safe color and maybe of a green screen, primed for content to be transposed onto it.

Subliminal Hypotheses

Omer Fast, Take a Deep Breath, 2008
(Image courtesy of Postmasters gallery)

Between two recent solo exhibitions in New York, at The Whitney Museum of American Art and Postmasters gallery, the popular Jerusalem-born, Berlin-based artist Omer Fast presented three film installations in continued pursuit of his driving preoccupations: the fact/fiction dialectic that underlies film, and the resulting description of any tangible identification of “truth” as abstract.

Fast is known for a practice of importing subjects into culturally fraught scenarios appropriated from the past (Nazi-occupied Poland, colonial America), the present (Iraq) and, perhaps (in the case of the vaguely post-apocalyptic Whitney project), the future. It may seem contradictory to regard setting a film in the present a form of historical borrowing—whose time is this time but ours?—however, if anything is certain about Fast’s otherwise deliberately ambiguous system of filmmaking, it is that casting the setting is always a performative gesture; setting is setting into place and into time. Fast sets human elements into artificial contexts, and any temporal dissonance lacking between where his subjects come from and where they are put is made up for in the unbreachable gap that exists between the experience of being and of being recorded.

Fast’s show at Postmasters, his third since 2002, includes two videos, De Grote Boodschap (2007, 27 min.)—translated literally from the Flemish as “the great message”—and Take a Deep Breath (2008, 27 min.). Neither employs ostensible documentary techniques, in fact their scripts are weighted by a density of plotty clues and keys smuggled in prosaic lines; lines nested in average characters; characters staged in ordinary scenes; scenes camouflaged in a purposefully nondescript aesthetic. The gestalt is a conspicuous banality. To capitalize on this configuration, Fast crafts a suspense that never sags nor hurries, and in ...