A dream within a screen

One year of Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age

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Artist Alysse Stepa­nian once dreamed of a clean­ing lady whose broom be­came a ma­chine gun, and this fan­tas­tic im­age, in­spired by Stepa­nian’s mem­o­ries of the 1979 Ira­nian revo­lu­tion, was wo­ven into one of her short films. Since early 2009, Stepa­nian has brought Santa Fe monthly in­stall­ments of cut­ting-edge video art in an on­go­ing pro­gram called Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age. On Fri­day, March 12, For Action’s Sake — a four-hour-plus pro­gram of mu­sic, live per­for­mance, and mov­ing pic­tures by artists from 10 dif­fer­ent coun­tries — cel­e­brates one year of Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age in Santa Fe. On our cover is an im­age from the Bal­let­tikka In­ter­net­tikka project of Igor Stro­ma­jer and Brane Zor­man.

I trust I am not alone in my re­ac­tion to the phrase “video art.” Should I be caught in a gallery whose lights start to darken as a film screen lights up, I start scurrying for the exit. The fault, I think, lies not with the artists but with their medium’s de­mands on our at­ten­tion spans. A lack­lus­ter paint­ing or an atro­cious sculp­ture can be eas­ily glanced over as the eye roves in search of more pleas­ing art. Ex­per­i­men­tal video seems to place the same de­mands on our at­ten­tion as a friend call­ing in a fa­vor to dog-sit. But that mind-set could lead us to over­look some re­ally great video art be­ing pro­duced in Santa Fe.

Santa Fe video artist Alysse Stepa­nian knows that it takes time to cul­ti­vate an au­di­ence for her work. For a year now, Stepa­nian and Wil­fried Agri­cola de Cologne have been cu­rat­ing Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age, a monthly ex­per­i­men­tal video art se­ries at Santa Fe Com­plex. On Fri­day, March 12, the se­ries cel­e­brates its one-year an­niver­sary with For Action’s Sake, a show in­ter­spers­ing con­certs by Santa Fe mu­si­cians, on­line per­for­mances by Ger­man and Swedish video au­teurs, and video reels from artists the world over.

A meet­ing place for sci­en­tists and artists, Santa Fe Com­plex’s raw space on Agua Fría Street is the per­fect place to soak up the work of video artists whose very medium is tech­nol­ogy. For this show, Stepa­nian, an Ira­nian-born Ar­me­nian, brings to­gether 15 video artists from 10 dif­fer­ent coun­tries in­clud­ing Greece, Swe­den, Nor­way, Aus­tria, Spain, and Bel­gium. The artists were in­vited by Stepa­nian and Agri­cola de Cologne, who had viewed the work on­line or in per­son. “I don’t like to put out calls for work. I don’t like the idea of send­ing re­jec­tion let­ters,” Stepa­nian said. “I like the grace of invit­ing peo­ple.” She also hopes the mix of food, mu­sic, live per­for­mance, and video art will al­low audiences who may be skep­ti­cal of video art to sam­ple a vis­ual art that re­mains a mi­nor­ity taste.

Un­like paint­ing, sculp­ture or even per­for­mance art, many audiences are un­fa­mil­iar with the medium of video art, think­ing it akin to the sur­re­al­ist films of Maya Deren, Sal­vador Dalí, or even David Lynch, film­mak­ers who muck with im­agery and gum up story lines to evoke the nether­world of the un­con­scious. Yet much of video art, in­clud­ing that on dis­play at Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age, aban­dons any sense of nar­ra­tive al­to­gether and works in a man­ner sim­i­lar to ab­stract paint­ing. It does not “look like” any­thing in par­tic­u­lar or tell a story of any sort but in­stead uses color, im­age, and sound to evoke a mood or wryly com­ment on po­lit­i­cal or so­cial con­di­tions.

For in­stance, up­state New York artist John Criscitello, who is on hand at Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age to talk and an­swer ques­tions about his work, uses rock mu­sic and video to cre­ate haunt­ing im­ages of death lurk­ing be­hind scenes of seem­ing joy. In Altamont Res­cue, he loops Gimme Shel­ter doc­u­men­tary footage of a con­cert­goer be­ing sav­agely beaten at the in­fa­mous De­cem­ber 1969 Rolling Stones per­for­mance as Mick Jag­ger pleads, “Just be cool down in the front there, don’t push around.” In the strangely hyp­notic

Damo­cles, the artist’s young son dons a skull mask with a move­able jaw, smil­ing and twist­ing around like a giddy grade-school Grim Reaper while Lou Reed sings “Sword of Damo­cles,” his eerie hymn to mor­tal­ity.

In one of the show’s few nar­ra­tive of­fer­ings, Greek artist Ioan­nis Roume­li­o­tis uses two sep­a­rate screens to ex­plore a vi­o­lent, fetishis­tic killing in Pick­ing Cher­ries, a video that dis­plays his con­sid­er­able for­mal train­ing in photography and in­te­rior de­sign. De­spite be­ing filmed largely on a rooftop and in­side a Berlin air­port re­stroom, the cin­e­matog­ra­phy is lushly ren­dered, de­vot­ing as much at­ten­tion to the sheen on bath­room tiles as to the gri­mace on the mur­derer’s face.

Swedish artist Igor Stro­ma­jer con­trib­utes a live show to Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age, broad­cast over the In­ter­net from a site in Ham­burg. Stro­ma­jer is pri­mar­ily known for his Bal­let­tikka In­ter­net­tikka, a sort of lo-fi, high-art ver­sion of Bat­tleBots in which lap­top-con­trolled ro­bots are marched into the sea, stage fist­fights in pub­lic toi­lets, and bat­tle with fly­ing cow ro­bots for supremacy, or at least for con­trol of a toi­let stall. For much of the past decade, Stro­ma­jer has staged mu­tat­ing ver­sions of the per­for­mance, scored to an im­pro­vised min­i­mal-techno sound­track, in lo­cales from Hong Kong to Bel­grade to Tokyo.

Where Stro­ma­jer’s work is of­ten bizarre and whim­si­cal in the man­ner of Spike Jonze, the same can­not be said for other at­tempts at hu­mor in the show. Jonas Nils­son, also from Swe­den, films him­self danc­ing around in his un­der­wear in Self-Muser. In Me & My­self, he dis­torts his

face across two screens, in which the pair of nose­less vis­ages with com­i­cally close-set eyes re­cite the lyrics of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” The re­sult suf­fers from what I like to call “artist state­ment syn­drome,” in which video loops of mind­less non­sense are only par­tially re­deemed by state­ments such as Nils­son’s, which reads as tongue-in-cheek: “I’ve been far too used to an easy life. In­stead of hav­ing to earn it, I have just been given ev­ery­thing and it’s al­most par­a­lyz­ing.”

Should you find your­self sigh­ing or rolling your eyes at such recorded self-in­dul­gence, stick around— the videos are shown in short seg­ments bro­ken up by mu­si­cal per­for­mances. In one such in­ter­lude, Santa Fe Com­plex will be turned over to mu­sic by the hus­band-and­wife duo of Martin Back and April Mae Bas­sett. The pair per­forms 32/40 Drone, a new work with Bas­sett on cello and Back on gopic­hand, a stringed bam­boo res­onator in­stru­ment used by wan­der­ing Ben­gali min­strels.

Af­ter an­other video set, the Au­totelics take the stage. The Au­totelics is the name of a new col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Santa Fe mu­si­cians Philip Man­tione and Al Faaet. Al Faaet is a free-jazz and ex­per­i­men­tal per­cus­sion­ist whose mul­ti­me­dia per­for­mances have in­volved fire-eaters, dancers, and dis­torted slide pro­jec­tions. Man­tione is a com­poser for cham­ber en­sem­bles who has cre­ated soft­ware and custom elec­tron­ics to pro­duce sound­scapes for con­certs and mul­ti­me­dia per­for­mances.

He is also Stepa­nian’s hus­band and scored her lat­est video in­stal­la­tion, Roghieh, which is shown at the Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age an­niver­sary show. The video re­vis­its a dream jour­nal Stepa­nian kept as an ado­les­cent in Tehran dur­ing the ini­tials months of the 1979 Ira­nian revo­lu­tion. “Af­ter the revo­lu­tion there was a lot of so­cial role re­ver­sal,” said Stepa­nian. In the two-screen video, which seeks to re-cre­ate her dream, a teenage Stepa­nian awakes to her par­ents ad­mon­ish­ing, “Hurry up, the clean­ing lady is com­ing.” Her bed sits atop an open-air roof over­look­ing a park­ing lot. Trop­i­cal birds tweet in the fore­ground as the girl turns over in bed, her night­stand clut­tered with pho­tos of a de­stroyed Tehran. When the clean­ing lady en­ters, she is dressed in mil­i­tary fa­tigues, a bal­a­clava ob­scur­ing all but her eyes. She lifts her broom as if to sweep, then points it in the air, re­veal­ing it to be an as­sault ri­fle, at­tached like a bay­o­net to a broom. The clean­ing lady jumps off the roof and into the revo­lu­tion.

As Stepa­nian notes, it is far from “the typ­i­cal Hol­ly­wood movies that go very well with pop­corn.” In­stead, it is a nar­ra­tive without a res­o­lu­tion that speaks in the logic of a dream. To ap­pre­ci­ate what Ma­nip­u­lated Im­age has to of­fer, one must give up the pas­sive ap­proach a flick­er­ing screen so of­ten in­duces and pore over the work as if it were a paint­ing or a novel. “We are used to cer­tain sto­ries from cin­ema and TV,” said Stepa­nian. “With video art, the more you’re ex­posed to it, the eas­ier it is to un­der­stand.”

David Kareyan (Ar­me­nia): No Re­turn, 2005

Igor Stro­ma­jer and Brane Zor­man (Ger­many): Bal­let­tikka

In­ter­net­tikka, 2001-2010, still from the project

Alex Lora (Spain): So Much Love, 2007

Jonas Nils­son (Swe­den): Me & My­self, 2006

Ju­lia Zas­tava (Rus­sia): Son of King

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