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Rewind and play: 40 years of California video art

March 16, 2008|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

So, you think it's easy to organize a big show on the history of California video? Just round up a bunch of old tapes and let them roll?

Consider "Philo T. Farnsworth Video Obelisk," made in 1970 by Skip Sweeney. Part experimental theater, part political commentary, part tribute to a TV inventor, it's a funky period piece meant to be screened on a tower of seven video monitors stacked on shelves of a rolling cart.

And it's one of many troublesome pieces in "California Video," opening this weekend at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Devoted to a 40-year chapter of art history that evolved from navel gazing and goofing around to orchestrating dazzling environments, the sprawling survey offers about 50 single-channel videos and 15 installations made by 58 artists -- and much more in a study room.

There's lots of relatively simple, quirky stuff from the early days: Eleanor Antin reinventing herself as a clumsy ballerina, Cynthia Maughan turning a recipe for tamale pie into a murder mystery, William Wegman extolling the virtues of deodorant while spraying his armpit and developing a rash, Jay McCafferty shaving himself in an ongoing annual ritual.

But there's also more complicated material. Bruce Nauman's 1969-70 take on public surveillance requires a room of its own, two cameras and two monitors. Joe Rees' 1977-85 video documentation of the punk scene is accompanied by Getty remakes of period posters. Paul Kos' 1983-86 re-creation of a stained glass window at the Chartres cathedral is screened on 27 monitors built into a wall.

The latest piece, finished a few weeks ago, is "Oculus Sinister (left eye)" by Jennifer Steinkamp. Inspired by photographs of lava flows and a visit to the Pantheon in Rome when rain fell through the opening in the domed ceiling -- an experience that she likens to God crying -- the L.A. artist used a computer to generate images of flowing masses of color and projected them into the funnel-like oculus of the Getty's special exhibitions pavilion. "I think of it as the left eye of God crying volcanic stuff," she says.

Sweeney, whose youthful passion shifted from theater to video when he became fascinated with the new medium's ability to document reality, dreamed up "Philo" while fulfilling his public service obligation as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. As program director of Intersection, a church-organized art center in San Francisco, he grabbed the Thursday slot and produced a wildly imaginative weekly show with a group that changed its name from Electric Eye to Video Free America.

Conceived as a video magazine, the two-channel show was a melange of taped "articles" on current events -- including phony interviews with Richard Nixon that spliced an "interviewer's" rude questions about the president's personal life into his speeches -- and explosive patterns created by video feedback. Periodically, the "Top Ten Vibes of the Week" popped up with bits of documentary or humor and segments on Farnsworth, whose claim of inventing television challenged that of RCA scientist Vladimir Zworykin.

"The artists used footage of television commercials and people in a laboratory hooking themselves up to EEG machines, reading their alpha and beta waves, all this trippy stuff," says exhibition organizer Glenn Phillips, a senior projects specialist and consulting curator at the Getty Research Institute. "They filmed a civil rights speech by Dick Gregory and there's lots of silly stuff. They were doing every single thing they could think of to experiment with the camera. People would come in once a week and watch it like a theatrical event."

A must-have

Toward the end of each show, Sweeney and a couple of his pals, dressed in black, would sneak out from behind a curtain, remove three of the monitors, turn them on their sides and put them back in the "obelisk." Footage shot sideways would then appear on the rotated screens.

When Phillips heard about "Philo," he had to have it. Although Sweeney had lost track of the feedback tapes, he was willing to lend the others. But, like all vintage video, they are fragile. To be played over and over in an exhibition, the tapes had to be painstakingly cleaned, conserved and transferred to a digital format.

The Getty was up to the job. With a vast collection of videos, including about 3,000 tapes collected by the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Research Institute has set up a special conservation lab run by Jonathan Furmanski. After each tape is cleaned, he makes an analog copy that goes into cold storage with the original and a digital tape to create DVD "use" copies.

The Getty has quite a collection of obsolete equipment needed to play the vintage artworks. But Sweeney's video was made on a rare machine that "had gone the way of the dodo," Furmanski says. Fortunately, almost at zero hour, a working model appeared on EBay. He snagged it for just under $500 and got to work.

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