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Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Dirges And Sturgeons: Artists Vs. Technology

By Kevin John

Curator Astria Suparak has come to my hometown, Milwaukee, once already — with Sexuality Malfunctioned, an itchy, extremely disturbing program of films and videos whose images seemed to scab over our entrenched self-regard. Now she's back on tour with Dirges and Sturgeons (check out astriasuparak.com for dates) and the results are much more user-friendly, although itchiness is certainly on the plate.

The organizing principle this time is YACHT: Young Artists Challenge High Technology. I'm not sure I'd be able to thread every film in the program through this acronym, nor if it's even necessary. But certainly Seth Price's "Industrial Synth" (2001) has a lot invested in low technology. Most of this 15-minute video is taken up by an ancient computer adventure game where the player examines the dot-matrix environment and tries to elude death (and Death). For Price, discarded or outmoded technology offers an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the personal in history, a perpetual accessing of memories in an effort to stave off mortality. And so the player's final examination never goes through, and the effect is devastating.

For itchiness, we have Lawrence Elbert's "Whitney: Mama's Little Baby" (2000). Whitney Houston, played here by a drag queen, mounts a drugged, terrifying monologue in her parked car. With the camera shooting from the wide-angle distorted perspective of Houston's child in the back seat, the audience receives all the abuse, paranoia and cracked-out affection. The cinema chair becomes a restraining child seat as we become helpless witness to La Whitney telling us we're ugly and spitting up rotten Lunchables. There's not much compassion for the diva at the wheel, which only adds another level of discomfort for us to sort through. A genuinely unpleasant experience, and all the better for it.

A few videos from "media cannibals" Animal Charm will be shown. My favorite is "Lightfoot Fever," which mixes together footage from what looks like a scopitone (early music video form) for a cover of "Fever" and a nature film for children starring the lovable fawn Lightfoot. The nature images attack the scopitone via flying boxes, and the song itself is re-edited for a stuttering effect that reminded me of Martin Arnold's deconstruction of Andy Hardy films.

Bjorn Melhus stars in his own video "Das Zauberglas" ("The Magic Glass," 1991) as a man shaving his hair off and also a woman he communicates with via a television screen. Their dialogue is lifted from the German-dubbed version of the 1950 James Stewart Western vehicle "Broken Arrow." The mirror in the original has now become the television screen as the increasingly mediated sense of identity gets lost forever in the static.

Also on the bill:

Pierre Yves Clouin's "The Little Big," which transforms shoulder blades into butt cheeks.

Jacqueline Goss' meditation on genetic engineering, "The 100th Undone" — silent so our own stomach growls and rumblings won't go unnoticed.

Miranda July's "Getting Stronger Every Day," starring Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein (!) and the idea of film as mythical hovercraft.

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