The Program

Conduit Gallery/Dallas Video Festival

July 26 - August 23, 2008
by Kate Watson

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      Cao Fei, i.Mirror (A Second Life Documentary Film by China Tracy a.k.a. Cao Fei), 2007
      single channel color video, with sound
      28 minutes
      Courtesy the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects

      View Gallery

      The Program at Conduit Gallery, which ran for five consecutive weekends and showed over forty video art works from across the globe, undertook a vast project: get as much big and new video art as possible to Texas. This series of screenings, one half of the Dallas Video Festival and an incredible feat of pure determination from curators Charles Dee Mitchell, Carolyn Sortor and Bart Weiss, crosses into some fascinating new territory for Dallas. The Program has provided a new opportunity for a conversation in Texas about the relationship between experimental film and video art; specifically, it offered a space to reflect on the disparate exhibition practices linked to these genres—film screenings versus visual art exhibitions.

      After twenty years of the Dallas Video Festival, The Video Association of Dallas is toying with a new structure—first, show a massive variety of video art as The Program and, then, screen the rest of the work (documentary, narrative, experimental, etc.) in October under the original moniker. This curatorial choice touches on many familiar questions in experimental film and video, among them, what are the differences between video art and experimental video? Why do they often attract two separate audiences? How is video art best exhibited?

      The Program, set temporally and physically apart from the Video Festival proper, is, at its core, an experiment and might very well be a one-time occurrence. The filmic influence of the Dallas Video Festival on this “side project” is palpable. The curators used both the “screening room” structure of a film festival and a gallery installation/monitor setup to present the work in question. A variety of videos were shown in a more “traditional” (read: gallery/museum) way in the front room of Conduit—on monitors with headphones—and interspersed with several installations supporting the video work. Over the course of the festival, the curators rotated works through this part of the gallery and viewers were invited to screen these videos as they pleased.

      But the best part of The Program was a screening room set up in the bowels of Conduit Gallery. It was a rare delight to sit through a structured back-to-back screening of so much work that would normally be shown in a gallery space. Admittedly, the majority of viewers might have a hard time watching so much at once. But the formal setting of a screening room invites the audience to truly pause and take time with each work from start to finish—an experience that is virtually impossible standing in front of a monitor in a gallery. (So often in a gallery environment, there is pressure to “share” the work with others—especially with an installation offering only one or two pairs of headphones, it feels almost rude to spend more than a few minutes with a video if others are waiting.)

      For me, the best example of the viewing experience afforded by the screening format was Cao Fei’s 28 minute i.Mirror (A Second Life Documentary Film by China Tracy a.k.a. Cao Fei). This gorgeous piece in three parts was shown at the last Venice Biennale and is epic in size—Fei gathered over 300 GB of footage and conversation with other “Second Lifers,” including a man who became her companion throughout her journey in that strange netherworld. This extremely meditative piece feels durational in its scope and to watch it on the “big screen” along with so many other groundbreaking works is an extraordinary, if at times challenging, treat. By watching the “documentary” from start to finish without interruption, viewers truly get a sense of the bizarre physical qualities of Second Life’s spatial environment. Cao Fei guides her audience slowly from encounter to encounter, along the way witnessing numerous abandoned spaces (all created by users), many with decaying advertisements already forgotten. At times, watching this entire video is exhausting and disturbing—the spaces and characters that Fei encounters are often saturated with pornography, destruction, and desperation. Without watching the entire piece, it would be easy to avoid or miss the utter (and at times beautiful) chaos that an entirely user-created virtual environment offers.

      Ultimately, the “two-pronged” exhibition approach of The Program is a fascinating experiment that works. Some video art simply cannot be watched from start to finish and isn’t designed to be viewed in this way; many videos, however, benefit from a full screening that would rarely be an option for video art enthusiasts. This experimental series does wonders for those passionate about the medium but leaves questions about the nature of the work itself. Why can’t experimental film and video art “get along”? I sincerely hope that the two audiences continue to engage in a dialogue, and, if the Dallas Video Festival perseveres in this vein, the project could open up a productive conversation. But perhaps logistically The Program fits better in a yearly gallery/museum program entirely separate from the film festival. If this does occur, hopefully the venue of choice won’t forget the wonderful risks that The Program offered an often-starved Texas video audience.

      Kate Watson is Coordinator of testsite, ...might be good's sister project, and an editorial contributor to ...might be good.

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