The video art exhibition "The Moving Image" is filling the Orange County Museum of Art with an array of sounds and bright lights, but on one recent Saturday, just a handful of visitors roamed the galleries.
Among them was a young mother trying to keep her two sandy-haired boys, ages 5 and 7, from playing with the equipment. "Hey, what's that?" one of them shouted as he turned a corner. "It's a spaceship!"
The vessel in question was the H Box, a screening pod that has been traveling the world since 2007 on a mission to present videos such as Kota Ezawa's colorful new 3-D "Diorama." Fittingly, the H Box is a small but popular part of a summer-long exhibition that has an ambitious, two-fold objective of its own: to underscore Southern California's role in the development of video art and to expand the public's appreciation of a medium that many consider to be a hard sell.
In attempting to reach that goal, "The Moving Image" presents the works of 30 artists, many of whom live in the L.A. area, and unfolds in loose chronological order from the 1970s to the present. Its six rooms include works by celebrated video pioneers such as Bill Viola, Nam June Paik and Chris Burden, as well as important international figures such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila and Isaac Julien.
"The idea was to really look at the history of media arts, as it evolved from basic black-and-white videotapes to some of the more elaborate practices of today," said Karen Moss, OCMA's curator of collections, who organized the exhibition.
The show starts with single-channel, low-resolution performance-oriented videos from the 1970s, which often focus on the body and language. From there it leads to a group of strident but humorous feminist works from the same era, and that in turn leads into an exploration of memory, history and socioeconomic themes, which were popular in the 1990s.
There are also a number of efforts from the last five years. Goody-B. Wiseman brings classic album covers to life in "Superlovestarpower 2," while Ahtila creates an elliptical narrative with "Lahja -- The Present," which plays out on five monitors placed in opposing positions.
In today's recession, it's not uncommon for museums to save money by displaying artworks from their own collections, and OCMA is no exception. Aside from the H Box, the museum owns every piece in the show and has exhibited many of them in the past. And yet the curators hope that by presenting such a large array of technology-based artworks all at once, it will bear out the museum's desire to experiment.
"Because of our history we have a predisposition for new art forms," said Dennis Szakacs, the museum's director, who has led a drive there to emphasize art created since 1950. (Incidentally, the post-'50s emphasis indirectly led to some controversy last month, when it was revealed that OCMA had quietly sold a trove of California Impressionist paintings from the early 1900s to a private collector; Szakacs said the works no longer fit the museum's focus.) "Video has always been an important part of the collection."
OCMA's Orange Lounge in South Coast Plaza is one of the few museum spaces on the West Coast devoted to video art. Locally, the museum's dedication to video has historically been second only to that of the Long Beach Museum, which transferred its vast holdings of video to the Getty Museum in 2005. OCMA owns about 70 single and multi-channel works, compared with 57 owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art and 37 owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Those numbers might be small, but as an artistic practice, video (or "time-based work," as it is often called) is growing faster than any other medium at the moment. And there's no question that Southern California has a strong film and video art scene -- for example, the Jack Skirball screening series at REDCAT in downtown L.A. and Los Angeles Filmforum programming have healthy followings.
With that in mind, the show should be a natural crowd-pleaser, except for one thing: It's well known within museum circles that video art generally pulls in fewer ticket sales than exhibits featuring other mediums, say, paintings by Van Gogh or the artifacts of an ancient Egyptian king.
For starters, video installations tend to be somewhat unwieldy and demanding; for "The Moving Image," it would take more than 10 hours to view every work from start to finish.
Moreover, although there are more video art exhibitions and an expanding collector base, the form still suffers from a relative lack of critical and popular appreciation. That's partly due to video's relationship to pop culture and consumer technologies such as laptops and iPods, and partly because audiences tend to equate the moving image with mass entertainment.
"Because [this medium] is so complex, few curators really take the time to understand it or really explore its history," said Chrissie Iles, curator of film and video at New York's Whitney Museum. "Consequently, most people don't know how to read or understand most artist-made films or videos. The subtleties and nuance are lost on them."
That may or may not be true for younger people who are comfortable with YouTube and with video cameras embedded in their cellphones.
But that does not discourage Moss: "I think it's even more important to present the history of video art to a generation of kids who were born into an age where digital content is ubiquitous. Because if you have that context, you'll be able to see the world in a new way."