More MTV: Intro to Sunday Stew by Brand New School
BEYOND MY MTV The re-definition of advertising, while at the creative and financial core of the new firms, isn’t the whole game. They’re also taking music videos in new directions, melding graphics, animation, text and live-action imagery. These are notakin to most of what you’ll find on American MTV: Some of the videos may at times reflect the graphics-based cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, when artists as varied as Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger sought ways to embody music with moving images; sometimes they’re more akin to the psychedelic abstractions of filmmakers such as Jordan Belson and the Whitney brothers from the 1950s and ’60s. The Silver Lake company Tomorrow’s Brightest Minds, for example, recently made a music video for Chromeo’s “Needy Girl” that, in addition to its all-white set and costumes, features a glittering dance sequence that pays tribute to the Busby Berkeley spectacles of the 1930s. The corps of dancers multiplies, and the screen splinters into a kaleidoscope of gold and white. All ’80s glam, the giddy video is emblematic of a neo-baroque style that revels in visual excess, or what cultural critic Scott Bukatman has referred to poetically as a “topsyturvydom,” an energized sense of somatic freedom enabled by digital imagery. If abstraction and kaleidoscopic imagery are two music-video trends, the blending of “real” and “fake” spaces is a third, which can be traced back to a now-ancient, 3-year-old video from the Venice design firm Logan, founded by Alexie Tylevich and Ben Conrad. Titled “Information Contraband” for a track by Money Mark, the video follows a hapless taxi driver as he moves seamlessly between the “real” city and the mayhem depicted in a series of Thai action-movie posters. The garish, bombastic graphics intersect with reality, and the flat world of the poster magically becomes 3-D in a stunning fusion. Radical when it was made, the video’s blending of disparate worlds is now de rigueur. More recently, Logan’s video for the Felix Da Housecat track “Rocket Ride” shows another trend, namely narratives that explode into visual mayhem. In this piece, there’s a hint of a story — about a woman, a fish, some dwarfs, and a subway train careening out of control — but everything quickly ramps up to an exuberant explosion with cheerful references to Dorothy’s trippy adventures in TheWizardofOz.The visual techniques seen in many of these more experimental videos grow out of new tools — various software effects, for example — but the cutting-edge firms go beyond the easy options offered by filters and presets, adapting the technology to make it keep up with their creative demands. VIDEO FOR VIDEO’S SAKE Without logos and bands, some of the abstract moving-image artwork feels right at home in museums and galleries. Indeed, MOCA’s new show “Visual Music” (see second feature) is based, in part, on this work’s historical precursors. And video installation and projection pieces are more prominent now than they have been in a long time. Los Angeles artist Jeremy Blake, for example, makes what he calls “moving paintings,” which are large-scale projections of animated washes of color, collaged iconography and abstract images. For his current show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Blake is premiering his newly completed three-part piece TheWinchesterTrilogy,based on the story of gun heiress Sarah Winchester, who used her fortune to build an elaborate “mystery house” designed to shelter the lost souls of those killed by Winchester rifles and to stymie the evil spirits who might be out to get her. “There are hallways that are miles long, stairways that lead nowhere and doors that open out into nothing,” says Blake, sitting in his humble and decidedly low-tech studio in Santa Monica. “There are also parts that were damaged by the 1906 earthquake that she left alone because she thought she was being punished by the spirits. So she built around them. For me that was a great example of how we deal with trauma; there’s evidence of trauma, and then it’s built around or hidden.” Blake’s trilogy of projections offers an elliptical — and visually stunning — tour through themes of cowboys, guns, violence, Victorian spiritualism, psychedelia, and the portrait of a woman’s psyche as it was made physical in her elaborate house. While the themes are intriguing, the piece is all about losing yourself in the luscious waves of sound and color, with intermittent snatches of graphics, photography and live-action footage. “I like to go in and re-create these abstractions that come and go like mirages,” says Blake. “They’re ideologically fluid instead of being ideologically fixed. And I think that’s a big difference between my generation and the previous generation in terms of approach. But it’s also about a migration of painting away from the canvas.” Like many of the artists mentioned here, Blake easily moves from the art world to other realms; he created animated sequences for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-DrunkLove,the cover for Beck’s SeaChangealbum as well as imagery used on tour by the musician and, working with collaborator Jayson Whitmore, a music video for the album’s track “Round the Bend.” While Blake situates his work within a history of painting — and, indeed, he was trained as a painter at CalArts — his work, and much of the other work mentioned as well, may also be linked to the history of graphics-based animation and visual music that reaches back to the origins of cinema (see accompanying review of “Visual Music”). The earliest visual-music experiments occurred in many countries, but the form has particular roots in Los Angeles. Oskar Fischinger arrived in L.A. from Germany in 1936, bringing with him his stunning abstract animations timed to music. And in the 1950s and 1960s, L.A. filmmakers the Whitney brothers (see sidebar to “Visual Music”) were inventing their own computers with the hope of crafting a form of visual music. John Whitney founded a company called Motion Graphics Incorporated, and IBM hired him as its first artist in residence. His goal? To investigate ways of melding computers, graphics, typography and music. Not long after the Whitney brothers made their films, then-L.A.-based scholar Gene Youngblood explored an era’s desire for emotional connection in his seminal book ExpandedCinema.He was an advocate of an immersive “synaesthetic cinema,” one that would in part use graphics to create a new kind of vision, which in turn would create a new kind of consciousness. Youngblood’s theories are some of the inspirations for the current work of artist Jennifer Steinkamp, who creates immersive environments composed of multiple projections of abstract animations (and whose work is also featured in “Visual Music”). Where Blake transforms the medium of painting with moving imagery, Steinkamp’s work rethinks architecture, dematerializing walls, floors and ceilings with moving projections. While few of the new breed of graphics companies would espouse Youngblood’s utopian desire, their projects, especially when exhibited on the large screen, are often entirely immersive and create experiences of boundarilessness and expansive fluidity that hark back to Youngblood’s ideas. The philosophical subtext of the new work, however, is tied to an entirely different culture. In short, there’s a lineage, especially in Los Angeles, that should be traced, a history noted, and comparisons made. But it’s a digital world now, and this work, in all its diversity, is first and foremost about a digital, image-based culture. ARE WE THERE YET? The work produced by these young designers and companies is cool, it’s new, and it’s pushing various artistic forms. But is it culturally significant, too? Sure: The branded content of the Nike and Bombay Sapphire films suggests the totally blurred boundary dividing art and commerce, while the quick pace of innovation and influence, of appropriation and recycling, points to a culture of DIYers, those who don’t merely accept what’s foisted on them but reuse it, fashioning something else altogether. Further, the kaleidoscopic imagery and incredible movements of bodies that appear in so much of the work mirror the unnerving sense of disorientation wrought by a world moving way too fast. And the synthesis of real and unreal worlds underscores our nascent anxieties about the increasingly mediated existences in which we spend a good amount of our lives online in a space that’s at once entirely real and yet completely ephemeral. Other worlds are mingled, too: The fluid, organic abstractions in many music videos and design shorts downplay a high-tech digital aesthetic and embody a desire for the real, the organic, for artwork touched by a human hand. As Blake notes, echoing many of his colleagues, “With my stuff there is my background in painting, which is very firm, and there is also my use of Super-8 film, which is very nostalgic, and a lot of hand-drawing and a lot of other things that are pretty much low-tech. But what comes out, I think, is a cool mix of the new and the old.” And where will it all go? Will its impact last, or will it fade, subsumed and domesticated by mainstream corporations and lesser talents? Or will it be undone by repetition and self-referentiality? For Brand New School’s Gehlhaar, it’s more a matter of specifics. “I wonder if in five years it will still be interesting to have whimsical illustrations or character animation,” he muses. “Will things be more dense? Will it become more Asian, with metaphors and abstract spatial relationships, or will things become more European, where it’s all about a cool little joke or weird little incident, so the style carries the theme but isn’t the focus?” Looking down, he struggles to answer his own question. “It’s hard to tell where it will go. An animator friend of mine told me recently that he thinks we are at the forefront of something that will change the entire industry.” Gehlhaar looks up. “I think it’s still totally undefined,” he says with a knowing smile. In other words: Whatever.