For an exhibition dealing with one of the most quintessentially ephemeral of art-historical media, the Getty’s “California Video” is packing more than its share of baggage. The Getty Museum’s first historically significant contemporary-art survey (and a major push forward in the covert campaign to contemporize the institution’s mandated premodern stuffiness), the show is about as far from plundered-antiquities scandals as you can get. At the same time, it casts the Getty in its most convincing good-guy role, bringing its formidable resources and facilities for conservation and preservation to the rescue of one of the most important and neglected regional collections of 20th-century art — the Long Beach Museum of Art’s seminal archive of video art, begun by David Ross in 1974 and mothballed in 1997 for lack of funding.

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Hilja Keading, Backdrop (2002)

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Paul Kos, Chartres Bleu, 1983–1986.
Twenty-seven-channel video sculpture

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Jay McCafferty,Self-Portrait: Every Year (1972-ongoing)

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Erika Suderburg, STRIP (2006)

With that 6,000-some collection as a core, the Getty has set about making itself the go-to educational institution for the medium that was supposed to eliminate institutions once and for all. As usual for museological endeavors that depend on the fetishistic enshrinement of countercultural ephemera — from MOCA’s recent “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution”back at least to Alfred Barr’s 1936 MoMA exhibition, “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” — the clotted-irony elephant in the room makes it somewhat difficult to appreciate the art on its own terms. Not that that’s ever been particularly easy when it comes to video.

Video art has always begged the same questions: How is this different from regular art? How is this different from theater and movies? How is this different from TV? In the early days, the difference too often lay in poor craft and self-indulgence — the same any-asshole-with-a-camera effect you find wading through YouTube today — redeemed by the perennial art bonuses of fashionable technological novelty and nekkid people. Well, there’s no longer much of a tech gap left and the nekkid people are everywhere, so one approaches an historical video blockbuster with a certain dread.

But y’know, it ain’t all bad. Almost the first thing you see (after a couple of pretty clever recent pastorals by Diana Thater) is a totally dorky installation of a circa-1964 living room decorated with JFK memorabilia, acting as the setting for The Eternal Frame, probably the most complex meditation on mediation in the exhibit, if not the entire genre of video.

A 1975 collaboration between two artist collectives, Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco (with members of The Residents as alleged extras), “The Eternal Frame” follows this Bay Area prankster supergroup on an outrageous journey culminating in multiple ritual reenactments of JFK’s assassination at the very Dallas intersection where the original performance occurred. Outrageousness, humor, poignancy and pathos are layered like a self-reflexive phenomenological lasagna, one that is trying to wrench itself free from the confines of History by deconstructing the very televisual spectacle (and its absent heart — the then-unreleased Zapruder Super-8 film of the shooting) that imprinted our culture with the delusional cathode-ray-centric cosmology in which it still hibernates. Atsa one spicy meatball!Not all the vintage work retains its currency so well. Political positions become embarrassments (though Tech-Knowledge, Nancy Buchanan’s 24-year-old personal essay on agribusiness and information hierarchies, remains depressingly, engagingly relevant); gee-whiz F/X lose their edge (though Stephen Beck’s 1974 Video Weavings, with rippling mosaics of supersaturated geometric patterns, is among the best eye-candy on display); and lousy acting never dies. But whether due to regional idiosyncrasies, mutated tolerance levels or skillful curatorial practice, the bulk of old-school Westside tape is surprisingly fresh.

The high humor quotient is the key. Taking their cue from Bruce Nauman’s absurdist exercise videos (his 1968 Walk With Contrapposto, an hourlong art-historical sashay back and forth in a narrow plywood corridor, is among the earliest works in the show), California artists as diverse as Chris Burden, John Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, Eleanor Antin, The Kipper Kids and Tony Oursler permitted themselves to risk appearing foolish, embedding their often-profound philosophical observations in documentations of comedy-tinged performances.

This legacy continues today, with works like Martin Kersels’ genderific slapstick remake of Fred Astaire’s dancing-on-the-ceiling routine, Pink Constellation (2001) and Undercover, L.A. Weekly Annual Biennial alum Brian Bress’ heady 2007 conflation of painting, collage, performance and the vernaculars of cable access and infomercials. To my knowledge, Bress is the only artist in the show who shares his oeuvre via YouTube (as well as his own Web site,, which brings us back to our clotted-irony elephant, which has put on a couple of tons in the light of the digital frontier.

If the underlying point of video art was to create a more democratic, nonhierarchical, parallel model for the production and dissemination of information in the form of moving images, well, digital camcorders, Final Cut and the interweb done whupped video art’s ass. (Also conspicuous in its absence, especially considering the inclusion of such nonartsy material like the S.F. punk archives of Target Video, is the wealth of material generated over the past quarter century via the soon-to-be-shit-canned public-access cable stations. Where the hell is Francine Dancer?) We are right now in the midst of a radical renegotiation of the nature of authorship and the very concept of “intellectual property,” on which most professional artists stake their livelihood.

But you wouldn’t know it from this show — or from most contemporary video art, for that matter, whose bloated and grandiose carcass seeks sanctuary in the very institutional embrace it once struggled against. (Speaking of which, where the hell’s Doug Aitken?) One need only consider Baldessari’s latest video triumph — his fawning talking-head tribute to Eli Broad at the BCAM opening — to know which way the wind blows. The restored and rehabilitated collection of artifacts that sought to disrupt the order of things plays, in the pristine chambers of the Getty, like the spruced-up corpses of defeated insurgents put on display by the gloating emperor.

I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. As spectacular entertainers go, Caligula was right up there. In this case, Mr. Irony Elephant may have gotten so big that the room is inside him instead of vice versa, and the question of visibility is rendered moot. One question that remains is, “How do you make a museum show from video art?” I bumbled around “California Video” for six hours straight, and saw only a fraction of the available material. The ever-present problem of sound leakage has been handled through the creation of a carnival-like atmosphere of overlapping installation pieces, which, while not disagreeable on its own merits, operates to the detriment of the more contemplative works, such as Paul Kos’ mid-’80s 27-monitor re-creation of a Chartres stained-glass window, or Jim Campbell’s poetic low-res showstopper, Home Movies 920-1 (2006), which filters its titular found footage through an enormous artist-engineered LED projection grid.

While there are enough depth charges and sheer entertainment to warrant several visits, what “California Video” amounts to, finally, is a celebratory advertisement for an enormous and laudable project to establish and maintain a crucial educational resource for artists and scholars. How that will manifest itself in terms of availability once the advertisement collapses back into the Getty Research Institute’s limited exhibition facilities is the big question. But until that happens, we have a glimpse of what the Long Beach Museum of Art’s video archives might have looked like if they had cornered the Saudi oil markets instead of relying on the kindness of strangers.

CALIFORNIA VIDEO | Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr., Brentwood | Through June 8 | (310) 440-7300

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