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Third In A Series Examining The Los Angeles Video Art Scene.

October 20, 1987|DON SNOWDEN

Video artists are accustomed to long, drawn-out projects, but Barbara McCullough isfeeling the strain of her stalled, five-year visual profile of local pianist/composer Horace Tapscott.

"Emotionally, I feel like I've been taken across the rack trying to be at peace with myself about this project," said McCullough. "It's really a horrible feeling to have something in your head for so long and only (get to) touch it, go away and touch it again.

"I'm frustrated to the point that sometimes I don't know if I can be considered a video artist/film-maker person. The proof of your art is doing it and if you're dormant, how can you say you are that?"

Like many video artists with a film background, McCullough, 41, works in both mediums. The Tapscott project is being shot on film but it's been derailed by bugaboos familiar to video artists: lack of funds and access to equipment. McCullough hopes to rectify those problems by applying for grants to complete the project.

The financial burden is one reason only a few minority artists are actively working in the video art field. Compounding the situation for McCullough is the responsibility of being a single mother with three children.

"My work has been held back because of existing financially, but I've been able to do a lot with what I had," she said. "Maybe I'm not being fair to myself but I don't want to pick up anything else until I finish Horace.

"I get an idea and it winds up eating me alive. It becomes this all-consuming, almost unbearable thing because I want to find out information that I don't have. Everything has started from a perspective of 'there's something that I don't know.' "

Despite the financial roadblocks that have often frustrated her, McCullough remains committed to the cultural thrust of her work.

"My work deals with black culture because I'm black and it's important to me for there to be some outlets for what black people think," she said. "You see so much stuff that is supposed to be what you think, feel and are but that has nothing to do with the reality of any of those things.

"February is Black History Month and that's the only time it's feasible to be exposed in the larger society, which winds up being an insult and a joke to me. All this (artistic) activity has always been going on but you're dragged up because it's Black History Month.

"Are you supposed to be thankful for that? You exist for 12 months, 365 days out of the year."

McCullough, who was born in New Orleans, came to Los Angeles in 1957 with her family when she was 12. Inspired by author Zora Neale Hurston, her original ambition was to be a writer before her focus shifted to photojournalism. A UCLA class in the early '70s kindled McCullough's interest in film. Video was the logical next step.

McCullough continued her film and video studies at UCLA after graduating in 1976, and earned her master of fine arts degree three years ago. The process was drawn out because she had to combine her studies and support herself with full-time work doing visual special effects.

McCullough completed most of her creative work in video during the early '80s, while her studies at UCLA provided her with access to equipment. She regards the mobility provided by new advances in video technology with rueful envy.

"My car has been wrecked by carrying equipment trunks for the lighting and camera," said McCullough. "If I had had access in 1972 to the equipment we have now, I think I could have been a video version of Zora Neale Hurston."

McCullough is a member of Mosaic Films, a collective of ex-UCLA film makers who distribute their works about ethnic themes--or on "traditional peoples," as McCullough put it--to schools and galleries.

Her early works were personal explorations that often delved into spiritual matters. "Water Ritual" was an attempt, through video, to come to grips with the nervous breakdown of a friend that McCullough had witnessed. The woman was, said McCullough, "way back in the primordial past in the things she was involved with.

"It was a really curious situation because, on one level, I'm dealing with something that's ancient in terms of practices, concepts and spiritual things. At the same time, I'm involved with video, which is the antithesis of that in terms of technology. These two things should meet but I could see why they never would."

McCullough continued exploring the relationship between ritual and art in her "Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes" piece. The hourlong piece featured interviews with visual artists, musicians and poets in the black community. Initially, it stirred up McCullough's "love-hate relationship" with video.

"I had planned this huge shoot at a gallery with (artist) Bettye Saar," she said. "She said everything I needed to know but the sound didn't work. My old superstition came out--'You're trying to do something you really shouldn't do and this is the payback.'

"I wound up talking to several other people and I went back to interview Bettye again after a year. It was really interesting and I said, 'Maybe this was the way it was supposed to go all along anyway.' "

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