Video became part of the fine arts canon in the 1960s, when Greenwich Village artists began shooting footage on their Sony CV-2400 Video Rovers and other Portapak devices. At the time, even the most industrious among them were producing fairly crude forms — like the blinking dots featured in "Noisefields," a 1974 project by Steina and Woody Vasulka. Seen today, "Noisefields" shows video at its most elemental stage. A dot pulses and changes color while blue static zaps in the background. The pulsing accelerates. The sound effects resemble those of an overworked household appliance. In its totality, "Noisefields" comprises eleven minutes and sixteen seconds of mind-bending, headache-inducing, dot-flickering bliss. In 1974, it was epic.
"They were experimenting with video technology in a way that dealt with the inherent properties of the medium," said Nate Boyce, a 27-year-old Art Institute grad who cites the Vasulkas as predecessors. Boyce dredges up the old Vasulka clip on his laptop and plays a short snippet. He says the Vasulkas came from a line of artists who used synthesizers to combine sounds and images, usually in a coarse, flat, pixilated way. "This was pretty influential to me when I first started making video. I was interested in dealing with video on the level of its raw, basic materiality."
Boyce is anything but "raw" or "basic." He's a metalhead-turned-technoid who turned his computer into a small cottage industry. Boyce works a couple days a week at a produce market and spends the rest of his time making videos. He's a judicious social networker. Since moving to San Francisco from his hometown of Kansas City, Boyce has collaborated with a bevy of well-respected electronic musicians and visual artists — among them Matmos, Eats Tapes, and the Brooklyn-based producer Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never. Boyce is part of a new school of video makers with psychedelic imagery and lofty intellectual goals (namely, to subvert what Boyce calls "the politics of illusionism"). These artists resemble their forebears in some ways, but they're a lot hipper, and a lot more in tune with pop culture. At present, they're trying to take video art out of the rarefied museum world and bring it to the rest of us.
Such populist goals led a Portland artist named Peter Burr to form Cartune Xprez, a touring variety show that combines experimental video with live music — the next one, held this Saturday at LoBot Gallery in West Oakland, features one of Boyce's installations. Burr launched the project in 2006 with friends Christopher Doulgeris and Cassandra C. Jones, whom he knew from Carnegie Mellon University. The three decided to curate work from within their community of artist friends, which includes renowned animators like Martha Colburn and Paper Rad. Most of these artists are moored in a certain fine arts tradition, said Burr. Their films might look "vaguely narrative," but the narrative isn't supporting the architecture of the film (as it is in a movie like Avatar). Boyce's Russian Mind, which will screen at LoBot, is a series of polygonal forms interpenetrating each other (i.e., shape sex) over background music (composed by Oneohtric Point Never) that resembles that of an Eighties-era Toshiba commercial. "It's really different from exploring the narrative of a cube that's lost," said Burr. "It's working on a totally different level."
Yet, for all their certitude about the medium being the message, these new filmmakers don't have the same "high art" pretensions as their predecessors — and they don't behave in the traditional manner of counter-culturals. Instead of forming their own "marginal" scene, new-school artists like to poach, twist, sample, cannibalize, remix, and steal from the mainstream. Paper Rad applies new storylines to the template of Gumby. Boyce borrows 2D images from Frank Stella paintings, and sets them in a 3D landscape. Berkeley artist Parker Ito will contribute a flag made with all sixteen million shades in the RGB color gamut. He captured the whole gradient from Photoshop, turned it into a video, and called the piece "RGB Forever." Martha Colburn, who recently became fixated on reconstructing the whole mythology of US history, rips all of her source material from pop culture. "They're using techniques of collage, appropriation, reconstituting," Burr said. "They're retelling stories."
The first Cartune Xprez took place at the Drake Hotel in Toronto, and included films by Michael Bell-Smith (geometric shapes and architectural forms), Phillipe Blanchard (fast food and accelerated culture), Bobby Ciraldo and Frankie Martin (the aptly titled "One Minute Rave"), Colburn (sexuality in Mexican wrestling), James Duesing (a digital-age fantasy in which all the industrialists are put in reservations), Takeshi Murata (psychedelic Rorschach drawings), Paper Rad (adventures of "Little Dude" in a pixilated Neverland), and others. Burr and Doulgeris contributed a short piece under the auspice of "Hooliganship," their art duo that doubles as a party band. (It was just a little to the left of Mark Mothersbaugh.) Given the artists' sensibility, it made sense to display their work in what was, for all intents and purposes, an appropriated space (the hotel bar and lobby). In subsequent months Cartune Xprez moved around the country, presenting shows in basements, warehouse galleries, storefronts, and proper movie theaters. It toured Europe for three months. After descending on Oakland with this month's new iteration — subtitled "Future Television" — the curators will proceed to the silent movie theater in Los Angeles and wind up at Santa Barbara's Contemporary Arts Forum.
It's actually quite odd for videographers to band together and screen their work in a performing arts format, said Burr. After all, the art form is inherently static. It's born from machines, and these days it's entirely computer-generated. A modern video artist can run his entire operation on a laptop, disseminate all his work via YouTube, and never leave the temperate environs of his favorite cafe. To have an actual "rig" with gear and wiring is to fetishize ancient equipment. Boyce is one such fetishist. He pulls up a picture on his laptop, showing the desk of his home studio: It's a big tangle of wires, synthesizers, video processing devices and consumer-grade hardware. "I'm interested in things being recursively processed," said Boyce, characterizing himself as an analog guy in a digital world. Well, kind of.
Burr, who teaches yoga classes in Portland, subscribes to a more collectivist philosophy. He often describes things in terms of the "energy" they emit. He has a dicey relationship with new technologies. "The computer is this mode of production that creates accessibility," he said. "My laptop is my production company, but it doubles as my video jukebox, and it doubles as my shopping mall. YouTube is part of that — it's my home entertainment system." But it's also alienating. "There are themes that come up about solitude and isolation that are being dealt with in variety of ways," said Burr. "This project seems to be coming out of a certain dark energy that I've been feeling."
Transmitting that "energy" into something spontaneous and animate can be tricky, but Burr sees it as part of his artistic mission. He says that if you dug deep enough, you could probably find a bootleg of the show online somewhere. But it wouldn't be the same.