In the Beginning ...

Some video artists -- Bill Viola and Gary Hill are prominent examples -- have. But scores of video artists today are still using equipment and techniques that are decidedly low-tech, performance-based and barely advanced above the technical level of the medium during its early heyday in the 1970s. For some, it may be a matter of budget limitations. But for others, it appears that low technology has a distinct value, allowing for certain kinds of expression that might be precluded by glossy, high-tech effects and illusions.

Take "Shore," for example, a six-minute color video made by Linda Post in 1996. Post placed a video camera on the beach, lens pointed at the water, and left it to record whatever might transpire. As the waves rush in, they crash over the camera, tossing it about violently. The camera for its part can do nothing but record one watery assault and wait for another. "Shore" is an extreme example of low-tech videomaking. Its images are simple and visceral, passing easily between literal and metaphorical levels of meaning.

"Shore" is one of the works included in Young & Restless, an excellent collection of 21 videos by 17 women artists that will be shown over two nights, May 21 and 22, as part of the Webster University Film Series. Young & Restless was curated in 1997 by Stephen Vitiello, Barbara London and Sally Berger of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the videos they have collected were all produced by young New York-based artists between 1993 and 1997. They represent a nice overview of recent developments in the field of performance-based video art.

Some of the best works in Young & Restless use the video equipment itself to comment on how technology shapes our selves and our perceptions of the world. Two works by Kristin Lucas describe technology's dehumanizing quality: In "Host," the artist pleads for guidance from an ATM-like machine, discussing her feelings in increasingly technologized terms ("Ever since that last power outage I've been feeling kind of outside of myself -- I thought our relationship needed an upgrade"); in "Watch Out for Invisible Ghosts," she lives a parallel life as a Power Ranger within a cheap video game.

Using technology to comment on the role of technology in our lives is not exactly a new or groundbreaking thing to do. Artists like Lucas know that. Her videos don't pretend to make an original observation; instead, their cheeky, knowing humor indicates her awareness of video's ubiquity, technology's power and the fact that other artists before her have covered the same territory.

Unfortunately, the same thing can't be said of every artist represented in Young & Restless. Some of the videos are depressingly unironic reprises of warmed-over '70s experimentalism. Tatiana Parcero's "Life Lines" has the artist tracing red lines over her nude body. It's excrutiatingly boring at six minutes; we'd be better off seeing a repeat of something by Hannah Wilke or Carolee Schneemann from decades ago. And a few works in the collection, like "I Wish I Knew How to Play Soccer (and Other Sports)" by Cara O'Connor, work far too hard to make "statements" about female identity that we've all heard before.

The works in Young & Restless are advertised as "explorations of female social and sexual identity," but that description doesn't quite do them justice. Thankfully, they do more than that. Some of the strongest among them admit a keen awareness of art history and video and performance art, and build on that history. Two great examples are "Head" and "Line" by Cheryl Donegan, which take a perversely humorous look at Abstract Expressionist painting (and one of its heroes, Barnett Newman) using filmic frameworks borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard and porno movies.

There is a certain restless energy running through these works that makes the show's title quite appropriate. Some of the videos maintain a nervous pulse that threatens to explode through their controlled veneer. The beige-clad, mute models in Vanessa Beecroft's silent "Piano Americano" are devoid of personality, but their nervous ticks and fidgeting speak volumes. "Sally," by Kristin Oppenheim, features three abstract photographs that fade in and out of view, accompanied by a mesmerizing soundtrack -- you'll find yourself breathing to its rhythm before long.

And just when things threaten to get a little too serious, up pops a work like "In the Present" by Phyllis Baldino, one of the funniest videos in the show. Baldino builds on the quasi-scientific observation that the "present" lasts only a few seconds before it is transformed into "memory." She strings together a collection of short, meaningless vignettes, or "presents," involving things like shower caddies, StairMasters and flagpole brackets. Isolated in this way, these most banal actions and objects take on a hilarious absurdity.

But the prize for the funniest work goes to Alex Bag for "Untitled Fall '95," the final and longest (57 minutes) work in the show. Bag assumes a series of personae, the most hilarious being the art student at New York's School of the Visual Arts (SVA). In eight testimonials, she sums up her personal transformation through eight semesters of school. Bag's chain-smoking, nose-pierced, ultra-cynical art student of the '90s is dead-on accurate. The character is a sendup, but she also has some pretty astute things to say about the current art scene. This piece is guaranteed to strike a chord with any art student, or anyone who teaches art students, or anyone who has ever met an art student anywhere.

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