On ViewThe Museum Of Modern Art
Virtual Views: Video Lives
July 1 – July 31, 2020
Chances are good that you’re reading this on your computer screen, just as we have read, watched, and obsessed over everything since New York went on pause in early March. The new omnipresence of the digital landscape has never been more apparent or invasive than in this moment. Our constant plugged-in-ness is isolating, but it also renders us shockingly vulnerable: technology collapses the boundaries between our most private, protected selves and the public personas we assume at work or with friends. This is the position taken by Stuart Comer and Marielle Ingram, the curators of MoMA’s newest online exhibition, Virtual Views: Video Lives. The selection of video art included here explores our digitally-driven moment by highlighting the fact that privacy and leisure are privileges not often extended to women, queer people, and people of color. Even though the exhibition is framed as an exploration of intimacy and technology, intimacy is not often afforded to these artists, whose emotional labor and identities are still contested within the domestic sphere.
Virtual Views: Video Lives includes a solid mix of established and up-and-coming contemporary video artists, all of whom explore both the limitations and the expansive possibilities of the filmic image. Joan Jonas’s Vertical Roll (1972) receives top billing, and although it may not be most representative of the exhibition’s theme and content, it does clearly illustrate how technology can be used to warp or manipulate identity and persona. The video, in which the artist dresses and undresses in a series of up-close shots, punctuates the passing of each frame of film with an unnervingly disjointed thudding sound. The use of this disjunctive device to construct an intimate time-space anticipates many of the digital interventions we encounter throughout the exhibition. For example, Petra Cortright’s VVebcam (2007) and Sadie Benning’s If Every Girl Had a Diary (1990), although created decades later, make similar use of filmic and technological manipulations to interrogate the way concepts like anonymity, vulnerability, and home relate to identity. While this technological emphasis lends the show a strong curatorial focus, there are moments where it fails. Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013) is similar to other works Comer and Ingram selected in its staging of technology, but the video’s grand exploration of life’s origins feels out of place thematically.
The two highlights of the exhibition are Mako Idemitsu’s Another Day of a Housewife (1977–78) and Martine Syms’s Lessons I-CLXXX (2014–18), both of which see the everyday and mundane as inherently political. Lessons I-CLXXX is an irreverent, lyrical collage of 180 30-second clips pulled from Syms’s life, including both recordings of her day-to-day exploits and the media she consumes along the way. In Lessons, Syms shows how the boundaries of private space are broken down by the demand that we constantly create content to be consumed in the public spaces of the internet. Here we are privy to the music Syms listens to, the parties she attends, the texts she sends, and the most intimate moments of her day. Although there is a lack of clear narrative structure in the presented clips, Lessons I-CLXXX functions as an impressionistic manifesto that resists the commodification of Black experience. Syms is seen joyfully participating in Black culture, both as an enthusiast and, through her own art, a creative contributor. She drives around listening to Vince Staples with friends, appropriates video clips, and showcases her body in self-care rituals. The creator’s agency is paramount, as Syms divulges personal memories and popular media featuring Black people with a level of care and ethical consideration not usually seen in art that explores the intersections of Black American culture and Black America itself. It is a more outward-looking piece than any other in this exhibition in its clear recognition of how media and technology aids in our careless consumption of others’ lives.
In Another Day of A Housewife, Idemitsu—a Japanese-American video artist whose feminist art practice explores gender roles and domestic spaces—acts out a day in the life of the video’s eponymous housewife. As viewers, we see her sleep, clean the house, make phone calls, and watch television. While the housewife goes about her day, a glowing screen with a blue-tinged eye is ever-present, sometimes even more of a presence in the video than Idemitsu’s housewife, whose image is always somewhat obscured and distant. What is presented as everyday activity is irrevocably altered by the audience’s awareness of their voyeurism. The artist shows us that the private lives of women have never been truly private, compromised either by surveillance, societal pressure, or the hyper-visibility imposed on us by technology. Idemitsu’s video also cleverly demonstrates the paradox at the center of Comer and Ingram’s exhibition: technology can be used as a medium to explore oppression, but it can also be a tool to further oppress, as symbolized by the competing agencies of the artist and the glowing eye on the screen.
In Virtual Views: Video Lives, privacy is a privilege and “home” is politicized. As demonstrated by the sheer variety of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the experience of quarantine, our identities shape our understanding of comfort and domesticity. With video’s immediacy and accessibility, artists are able to probe the joy, erotics, fears, and inequities of our private lives, showing the ways they intersect with larger questions of injustice in the public sphere. Virtual Views: Video Lives is a triumph—at-home art viewing is at its best when it addresses everyday intimacies on their own turf.