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Familiar Format 

by Marty Demarest


For years now, photographs and paintings have moved. Of course, we call the results cartoons, films and videos, but what we are perceiving when we see those things is a painting or photograph that contains some element of motion. And with that motion comes two factors: time and transformation. When something moves, or appears to move, it takes time, and the result is a transformation from the old image to the new.


It's a wonderful and unique phenomenon, and it has captivated artists for centuries. Sculptors would create a series of figures, in different poses, situations and ages, so that a viewer would see the figures move and transform as they looked from one to another. Painters could use the same technique, or depict a single figure at several different stages of life in a single painting. However, none of these works gave the artists control of the way that the art would change over time. A viewer moving rapidly from image to image could walk away with a completely different experience from someone who meditated on the pieces. Film and video, however, were ways for artists to control what they were presenting to the audience. Time became, in effect, another color in the artist's palette.


"If you look at some of the early pieces of video art," EWU Art Professor Lanny DeVuono says, "some of them were ghastly. Now, however, with all of the technology -- computers and digital cameras -- it has become much more sophisticated. And because of that quality, and how accessible it is to use, you see artists who are, for example, sculptors using video. So video has become just another tool. You see artists moving in and out of it, using it as just another means to express themselves."


It's because of this increasing role that the partnership between EWU, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture and Spokane Falls Community College decided to devote this year's Visiting Artist Lecture series to moving images. "Time-based media is so important in contemporary art," says DeVuono.


The series has already featured the work of Dana Plays, a filmmaker whose work continues the tradition of early experimental filmmakers. The next lecturer, who will be speaking on Tuesday and Wednesday, is video artist Stan Douglas of Vancouver, British Columbia.


Douglas' work has received international attention, not only for the craftsmanship he brings to the medium but also for the materials he chooses to use. Rather than create videos that depict unfamiliar or abstract images, Douglas often features simple, everyday images and styles of presentation in his work. Formats like nightly news programs and old silent movies put viewers at ease -- who, after all, is unfamiliar with television shows or Hollywood dramas? The everyday nature of Douglas' materials allows people to approach his work without intimidation and easily approach the underlying ideas he is attempting to present.


"Someone like Stan Douglas is in directly in dialogue with our media today," DeVuono says. "And we wanted someone who was directly dealing with the role that television, movies and the Internet play in our lives. He's in dialogue with something that we mindlessly participate in, day in and day out."


That point of connection can result in a powerful moment of realization. In Douglas' Evening, several video monitors depict newscasts from 1969 and 1970, pointing out the social changes that swept through America then. Once that point is made, however, viewers notice that the joking, entertaining style of the later newscasts relegate important social and political news to the margins. It becomes a comment on the inability of mass media and audiences to deal with increasingly complicated issues. The fact that Douglas staged some of the newscast sections is almost unnoticeable. It's the message that he is conveying that is more important than the medium.


DeVuono recalls one of her encounters with Douglas' work. "There were two men, sitting in a room relating," she says of the video. "Then an argument would ensue, then they'd make up, and it would repeat. And what grabbed me was that it was reminiscent stylistically of things I had seen elsewhere -- on television or in movies -- but it was distorted somehow. So I kept watching it, and as I looked at it, it became an anatomy of roommates or a relationship.


"In this little loop that was very fast, I felt that he was describing a part of human psychology that couldn't be expressed without time-based media. It seemed to have an inherent truth about relationships to me. So I think there are things that time-based media do that static art can't do, and when it's done well it's really powerful."





Publication date: 02/20/03

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