Changing channels 

Push the button and, with a flash of light, the box is illuminated, enticing. Gaze wide-eyed into it and watch events unfold quick as lightning. For more than 30 years, television and video have saturated our lives, changing forever the way we think, feel and view the world.

Artists are not immune to this fantastically attractive phenomenon and have, since video technology became widely available in the late ’60s, explored and exploited it to the fullest. In a first-of-its-kind collaboration, 11 museums, galleries and arts organizations in the metro area have come together to present VideoCulture: Three Decades of Video Art, examining the medium (still in its infancy) and its impact on contemporary culture.

One of the great implications of video art is the vast diversity of its possibilities, from imagery to concepts. The current collaboration has gone to great lengths to expose these different applications and provide a variety of flavors at each site. The works run the gamut from single and multiple-channel pieces to projection installations, broadcast TV and public showcases in shop windows.

A good place to start is with Rewind: Seminal Works in Video at Center Galleries. The show covers the work of six artists — Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Joan Jonas, Nam June Paik and Woody and Steina Vasulka — who are integral to the early development of the art form.

Show curator and multimedia artist Bob Andersen chose pieces done in the early ’70s in order to put the other venues’ contemporary works into context. He says of these pioneers, “They were working in other media at the time and took to video as a tool. I think the work is really interesting because it’s not necessarily about the fact that it’s video — it’s really based on ideas. You can see the thread to the things they had been doing previously, such as Jonas’ performance work and Baldessari’s conceptual art. Video for these artists became another tool in order to convey meaning and message.”

“Theme Song” (1973) by Acconci plays with space, human boundaries and psychological manipulation while inviting the spectator into an intimate dialogue with him. Acconci has placed the camera inches away from his face, creating a very personal space with the viewer. He speaks in very sweet and loving tones, longingly asking the participant to “come in close.” Andersen has furnished a futon mattress for the floor of the gallery next to the TV playing Acconci’s video, which complements this interaction.

Long a supporter of perennial video artist Bill Viola’s work, the Detroit Institute of Arts proudly unveils his most recent piece, “Eternal Return,” along with two other installations. In “Eternal Return,” Viola utilizes the newest high-tech toy, the plasma screen, which offers the highest image resolution possible to date.

Always intense, theatrical and spiritual, Viola’s environments create tension-filled atmospheres through manipulated sounds and shocking episodic patterns. This is apparent in “Science of the Heart,” where a huge screen projects the image of a live human heart beating. The heart beats slowly at first and then increasingly faster, the sound pounding in your ears until your own heart beats faster, as you begin to feel the tension it has created. Viola pairs this with a brass bed in the center of the dark room, the two objects together representing the rhythms of everyday experience: birth, death, sleep, sex and dreaming.

Considered “democratized” since it’s so readily available, video has been used by many artists as a political device. For Agitated Histories: Video Art and the Documentary, Cranbrook Art Museum presents the work of Kutlug Ataman, Lutz Bacher, Johan Grimonprez and Mats Hjelm. Using video’s immediacy and supposed objectivity, these artists take advantage of a documentary style to render historical issues and events in a new way.

Involving two large-scale projections, Mats Hjelm’s “White Flight” combines video footage of the Detroit riots in 1967 shot by his father, Lars Hjelm, with his own present-day footage of the city. Within the montage of dilapidated buildings, fires, testimonies and sermons, Hjelm succeeds in what every good documentarian tries to do — he forces us to remember.

In Interventions at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, artists Vera Frenkel and Krzysztof Wodiczko offer up two more examples of powerful political storytelling capable of subverting the status quo. Frenkel delivers an extremely dense work, “Body Missing,” which attempts to explain circumstances surrounding the theft of European art in Germany after World War II. Six monitors circle the space and each six-minute segment on screen uncovers pieces of information in a nonlinear way. The account is fragmented — detailed lists supplied, dusty corridors filled with crates revealed — intercut with abstract elements of whistling, rain puddles and feet slowly walking on a mosaic floor. There’s a sense of dreadful loss, like a scar worn on the face of art history, yet you feel like you’ re involved in an important investigation which might someday be resolved, or at least be better understood.

Viewers may also experience this work on the web, where Frenkel and 11 other artists have put together a Web site dealing with the missing artwork. The labyrinthine site also exploits a nonlinear storytelling style, where different sections of the events can be explored in any order.

Wodiczko provides an account of his 1996 public art project in “City Hall Tower Projection, Kraków,” a monumental video installation which was projected onto a tower while hundreds of citizens observed. The video extends onto the gallery wall, simulating the projection upon the building. Slowly and methodically, we are told a series of horrible true-life stories of abuse, drug addiction and disease. As the participants speak, we only see their anonymous hands — gesturing, wringing, holding a candle, lighting a cigarette. These hands are disconnected from their bodies yet able to recount painful memories.

Recognizing the influential capacity of media and technology, Wodiczko feels that “we can do cultural work and provide access to the circulation of power for those who are least likely to have it.” This became apparent during the production of “Tower Projection.”

One female participant describes her relationship with her abusive husband. Her hands pull apart a delicate flower, petal by petal. She solemnly states, “He liked to watch me through the keyhole — he said I had to be kept under surveillance.”

Grabbing the last petal, she drops the flower. Freeze frame. Fade to black. Stop. Rewind. Liz DiDonna writes about art for the Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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