1. Time-based art has one crucial characteristic: it is time-based.
Bare with me.
Whether it's Matthew Barney's latest motion picture or a Dan Graham's classic tableau of the spectator, in this universe, the appearance of something is defined by its appearing.
Well, as obvious as it might seem, this idea is often forgotten and disrespected by both artists and curators... A visit to the Museu do Chiado, where a temporary exhibition of the classics of Centro Pompidou is shown until January, makes it pretty clear. But what makes appearing a problem?
2. First, let’s clear some semantic issues.
What is this thing that is sometimes called “video art”, at other times, “video installation”?
For one, let’s distinguish "sculptural installations that include video" (and call them video installations) from "films shown as a work of visual art, either on a TV screen or a projection or the like" (and call them simply video art).
Also, video art can be closed-circuit (with a live - or near-live - image from a camera) or pre-recorded: this last case is basically a film, whether it’s abstract spots, the film of a tree growing or a narrative fiction (and whether it's single- or multi-channel).
It’s the film I’m interested here in.
3. When entering a room with video art, I have a much better chance of appearing at the middle of the film than at the beginning. But is there a beginning? And does it matter? After all, in most cases of showing a finished, pre-recorded video, and not a closed-circuit video where we are seeing live or nearly-live footage, the artist himself suggested or accepted the idea that his work would be shown in a loop. What does it matter that a time-based work starts anywhere?
A valid argument is that this approach can have substantial causes. The starting point can be irrelevant or of little importance (e.g., in the footage of Gordon Matta-Clark's Day's End), or in Douglas Gordon's Foot and Hand:
It can also be an essential element of the work. After all, the loop might just be the closest we can get to eternity.
Yet this is not always the case.
Not in regards to the works I've seen at the Museu do Chiado. Most of them not only acknowledge the existence of a chronological dynamic, but clearly use it in their very structure.
(The curious thing here is that many of the works at the Museu do Chiado focus on the concept of time. There is talk of empty spaces in time, of the slowing down of time, of the feel of time. And yet, the point (of time) when the spectator enters seems to matter little!) It shouldn’t be surprising that film may well have a dramaturgy that develops over time! We may need to see the work from the beginning to the end to feel it. The only problem is - by the time we've seen it all, we've probably seen the end already and it just doesn't feel the same - sort of like having seen a spoiler in a trailer. You can still enjoy the feature film afterwards, but you wish you didn't know so much.
The other argument is a pragmatic one: how are we to show a film from beginning to end to every single visitor? It seems impossible.
But only at first glance. If you look carefully, you see how technology has changed - and the audience, too. Today, we are out of the videotape era, and we can easily go beyond the loop. We can have a PLAY button on every TV set that shows a work, we can have DVD menus, and even (cheap!) infrared sensors that play the video when a new visitor enters.
And if anyone is worried about the overflow of spectators who make it impossible to keep starting at the beginning - unless you are at the Pompidou or at some other big-shot museum, it really isn't a problem. The museums and galleries still have a tendency to remain empty, there is more than enough time, and if there isn't, hardly anyone will mind waiting a minute longer to see the next work. It will only make her stop a few minutes longer by the previous one. Which wouldn’t be that worrying, now, would it?
4. Another issue comes to mind: What sort of aesthetic experience do we have while loopvision is still the spectators default universe? How do I, as a spectator, deal with seeing something “as if” I didn’t know the end/goal/development? It is not quite as if watching something I’ve seen (in its entirety) before. Could I say I am experiencing something, but acting as if I weren’t experiencing it just yet, fooling myself into a “genuine” experience? But is it not an ever more distant one, a bracketed one?
The brackets... of knowledge? The issue of a well-informed spectator. A too-well-informed spectator. Let’s not over-simplify it into the old discussion of an intelligent reading of a work vs. an emotional living of it. There is more to our experience of a work of art, and it seems a fertile ground for further discussion. There is a sense of an incredibly fertile ground in the multiple and complex layers of what is and could be lived through by the spectator. The on-looker. The in-looker.
PS: Here is a video I would love to see looped and looped and looped- Gilbert and George's Ten Commandments For Gilbert and George.
Notice the modesty in the title. The commandments are for them. They do not feel any need to preach them to the world, beyond proclaiming that this is what they choose for themselves.