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Atelier 2008 pt.1: Playground

Atelier 2008

It seems the favorite suffix running around in my head this month is
-ennial. I’m certainly not the only one; between the upcoming 2009 Texas
Biennial deadline
, Atelier 2008 (the faculty triennial at the Blanton,
up right now) and the mighty Whitney one, there’s quite a few -ennials
to discuss. But I’ll start with the most local and most concrete:
Atelier 2008.

Billed as "the first faculty exhibition
being organized by a guest curator," in this case James Elaine, adjunct
curator at the Hammer Museum of Art in lovely Los Angeles, California, this sampling of recent
work made by the faculty at the Department of Art and Art History at UT
is very much worth the visit. There’s really good work here.
I’ll talk about a few of the other artists included in Atelier 2008 in
the next few entries, but first, the Capital A award for outstanding
work in a faculty triennial goes to… MICHAEL SMITH AND SETH PRICE!
Still from PLAYGROUND, Michael Smith and Seth Price, 2002, video, 11 minutes

came as no surprise to me that Smith’s collaboration with Price
(incidentally, both of them have work in the current Whitney Biennial),
Playground, starring
Smith in his "Baby Ikki" persona, is my favorite piece in the show.
I’ve been following Price’s work since I was a fresh-faced volunteer at
Cinematexas (fun fact: my very first published writing was a blurb for
one of his videos, Folk Music and Documentary), and I’ve been a fan of
Smith’s work since I first was exposed to it in an experimental film
class in college. Playground
is nothing if not perverse. In this single-channel video, Price and
Smith present Baby Ikki in various environments, "Home," "Office,"
"Playground" and others in a format recalling early interactive digital
mediums like CD-ROMs or perhaps early websites in an aesthetic that
could be
described as mall kiosk chic. In each set, Baby Ikki stumbles around,
makes a mess and does things babies should not be allowed to do, like
play dangerously close to circular saws or paw all over a chocolate
cake. The cliched counterpuntal graphics that flash onscreen every now
and then with pithy, bumper sticker-esque phrases like "BABY AT WORK!"
or apropos symbols like baby bottles suggests the cultural construction
of early childhood as a consumer group and strictly enforced
"identity." It’s both incredibly funny and very uncomfortable watching
Smith’s very
adult body infantilized in dress and behavior transgressing the
presentational rules of baby-dom.

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7 Responses

  1. Montgomery

    hook, line and sinker. Not only did Smith make a poopy; he also got you to clean it up in a naive little review.

  2. Ivan L

    Montgomery: What’s naive here is your understanding of the historical and aesthetic lineage of videos like Smith’s, as well as the formal concerns of video as an art form and the means of production for video. The technologies that included the presets that created a codified aesthetic, the cliche we recognize in this video, is long dead. It has been supplanted by quicker, slicker and even more depersonalized presets on current digital editing software and digital image recording mechanisms. The original means of production for this look are dead technologies and archaic shortcuts. That means something. In experimental and art video, the cult and fetishization of technology, of the image processors and recording devices, almost forms its own branch, or genre, beginning with early experiment with TV sets as architectural/sculptural elements, or the cult of the Sony Porta-Pak and Paik, or video synthesis with people like Gary Hill (and so many others). Smith and Price are not creating these “poopies” in a vacuum. They have contemporaries and forefathers and -mothers in people like George Kuchar (a pretty obvious reference point), Peggy Ahwesh, Leslie Thornton and many others. Of course, I’m assuming all these names are new to you.
    Furthermore, a review like the one I wrote also doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Throughout the history of experimental (and to be more precise in some decades, underground) video presentation, academic writing has been not the norm but the exception. Zines, newsletters and catalogs are the primary sources for anything even coming close to critical discussion. The style of these writings is never polished and often, aligning with the punky, DIY roots of most experimental video artists, consisted of strange and sometimes purposely intransigent musings that sought to confuse and create curiosity and a sense of in-group understanding (that there really isn’t anything to understand) more than a clear, concise critical write-up.
    So hopefully this proves that “naive” is certainly not an adjective that should be applied to my entry on Smith and Price’s work. Here’s a good link for a great resource, the Video Data Bank catalog, (http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/1669_reg.html) that includes some fantastic essays on the medium. Also, here’s another book so you can maybe get a better grasp on video: Illuminating Video (http://www.amazon.com/Illuminating-Video-Essential-Guide-Art/dp/0893813907). However, unlike older art practices like sculpture, painting, photography or anything that doesn’t have time as one of its dimensions, a true understanding of video will only be partial without actually having seen the seminal works (at the very least). Ubuweb is a great resource in that case, even if the compression that makes internet video possible ruins some of the formal elements of different video recording formats. UT’s Art Dept library has a pretty decent collection of early video art, but if you happen to live in New York or Chicago, please do visit Video Data Bank or Electronic Arts Intermix, where you can ask to have tapes screened for you, free of charge.

  3. Montgomery

    Dear Ivan,
    The breadth of your response provides the context absent from the original lollipop of a review you put in Baby Ikki’s mouth. The post is now more relevant and informative to your taste. It’s the earnest pedantry that still bothers or, rather, seems stubbornly oblivious.
    Playground is not immune from criticism because it exhibits nostalgia for a genre. If anything, this piece is about the author, a performer, and directly questions your responsibility as a viewer/reviewer to the character. Why do you coddle him just because he looks like a baby? Why do we go ga-ga over naive aesthetics with earnest, strident lectures? Don’t you think Baby Ikki is soiling himself again with the hilarity of the seriousness with which you will frame it and put it on the wall? We are playing along!

  4. Ivan L

    Good, I’m glad we’re playing along now. Thanks for participating.
    I think I understand what you are getting at, but I also think we probably fundamentally disagree on some things. I don’t think that the piece is “about” the author. I think it’s reductive to think about it that way. To me, Smith’s characters serve as framing devices or placeholders onto which we can project our own concerns with the themes he discusses. In this case, the coddling of things that look like babies opens up questions about the creation of other unquestioned “identities,” or “roles,” which is a weird way to put it, I’ll concede that, but an interesting argument. Just how natural are the age roles we ascribe to? Teenagers for example, are a recent development in human societies. Tweens are even newer. So these things are in flux. There are symbols, attitudes and expectations of all these age roles that coincide with physical age. However, these age roles are pretty fucking constructed. And as with many other identities that are for the most part invisible in our society, slight deviations create great anxiety. And this is what I think this piece is “about,” or at least that’s what it makes me think of. Similarly, Price’s very careful video allusions, editing, format and effects choices reinforce that beautifully by grabbing on to a style that at one point seemed pretty pervasive but as technology has become more and more powerful, now seems utterly ridiculous and a tacky. These things go together. The formal issues support the conceptual issues at play in Playground.

    I also fundamentally disagree with your characterization of Baby Ikki. Of all of Smith’s characters, Baby Ikki is the most perverse and dark, despite the “naive aesthetics.”

    And speaking of obliviousness, I would avoid beginning a request for non-oblique criticism with comments like “Smith [made] a poopy,” or with accusations of sycophantic behavior on my part.

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