Video Junk Is On Its Way to the Whitney Biennial

Two months hence, we shall be treated to yet another of the Whitney Museum’s 2000 Biennial exhibitions of contemporary American art–the first, by the way, to be mounted during Maxwell Anderson’s tenure as the Whitney’s director. What can we expect this time around from a show that, in some art circles, has become the most despised event on the contemporary scene–or was, anyway, prior to the Sensation horrors at the Brooklyn Museum of Art? Thanks to a friendly correspondent in the Boston area, I have been vouchsafed a modest preview of what is likely to be another chapter in the ongoing saga of radical chic at the Whitney, and I want to share this advance notice with readers of this column.

The information comes from a campus publication called Tech Talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The quotations I cite here are all taken from the Dec. 15 issue of this publication. It appears that two distinguished professors who teach in the Visual Arts Program of M.I.T.’s department of architecture–Dennis Adams and Krzysztof Wodiczko–are to be featured artists in this year’s Biennial. Both enjoyed the enthusiastic support of their colleague Jane Farver, the director of the List Visual Arts Center at M.I.T., who also happens to be one of the six curators of the Whitney’s 2000 Biennial, which is broadening its focus this time around into the areas of “architecture, Web-related and digital art, and public art installations” around the city, according to a description provided by the museum.

According to Ms. Farver, “One of the [Biennial’s] criteria for artists who are already rather well known was whether they have done something new and noteworthy in the past two years. Both Dennis and Krzysztof continue to be inventive and creative in their work, and both have recently employed technology in new ways that, to our knowledge, are not being used by other artists.”

What, then, is the nature of the nouveaux frissons that have won these distinguished professors a prominent role in the Whitney’s Biennial? According to Mary Haller, a representative of the Office of the Arts at M.I.T., who wrote the article in Tech Talk from which I am quoting, “Professor Adams, director of the Visual Arts Program [at M.I.T.], is known internationally for his public interventions and museum installations that address the processes of collective amnesia and social exclusions in the formation and use of architecture and public space. His published writings, interviews and statements have contributed to the discourse about the relationship of art to the urban context.”

As for what Professor Adams has specifically created for the 2000 Biennial at the Whitney, Ms. Haller writes: “Professor Adams’ project for the Biennial, Outtake , is a video of a performance done on the streets of Berlin in 1998. The performance involved the distribution to passersby of stills from a 1970 film about adolescent girls in a state orphanage.” Ms. Haller then gives us Professor Adams’ description of the work. “‘The project deals with collective memory and the redistribution of something that was censored in another way,’ said Professor Adams, who describes the video as ‘a film created in a new time base.'”

Believe me, dear reader, I am not making this up. It gets better–which is to say, worse–when Ms. Haller turns to Professor Wodiczko’s project. “Professor Wodiczko,” she writes, “is internationally renowned for his large-scale slide and video projections on architectural facades and monuments. Since the late 1980’s, he has developed a series of nomadic instruments for both homeless and immigrant operators that function as implements of survival, communication, empowerment and healing. In 1998, he was awarded the Hiroshima Prize for his contribution as an artist to world peace.” You may also be pleased to learn that, as Ms. Haller writes, Professor Wodiczko is head of something called the Interrogative Design Group in the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T.

Unfortunately, Ms. Haller fails to tell us exactly where it was in this troubled world that Professor Wodiczko made his momentous contribution to peace “as an artist.” From the description she provides of his contribution to the 2000 Whitney Biennial, I somehow doubt we shall learn anything significant in that quarter about who benefited–besides Professor Wodiczko, that is–from the peacemaking endeavors that brought him the Hiroshima Prize. “Professor Wodiczko describes his project for the Biennial,” she writes, “as a wearable ‘media instrument’ that allows the user to ‘speak with two additional faces and voices,’ addressing the ‘multiplicity of personalities [and] the impossibility of finding stability of identity.'” We are also told that Professor Wodiczko uses “lots of hardware and software.” Well, who would doubt it?

It may be worth noting that in the course of Ms. Haller’s not very long article in Tech Talk , Professor Wodiczko has been elevated from the somewhat ambiguous position of an “already rather well-known” artist to the more exalted status of “internationally renowned” artist. Is it any wonder, then, that his project for the Whitney is an inquiry into “the impossibility of finding stability of identity” when his own artistic identity remains so volatile? Or, as Gu- stave Flaubert might have said if he had been in Professor Wodiczko’s predicament: “The impossibility of finding stability of identity– c’est moi !”

Although it is tempting to dismiss such rhetorical flights of fancy as the detritus of 1990’s psychobabble recycled for intellectual innocents in 21st-century cyberspace, that is a temptation we would be wise to resist. For so-called art projects of this kind, though they may deploy the latest developments in computer technology, aren’t really about the hardware or the software they utilize. This is art–to the extent, anyway, that it can be experienced as art–in the service of politics. More precisely, it is propaganda art in the service of identity politics, which is now sweeping large areas of the contemporary art scene like a plague that shows no sign of abatement.

Identity politics takes a variety of forms in contemporary art, but the bulk of it is concentrated in the photographic and video and otherwise photo-based media. Its principal content tends to be similarly restricted to sexual, racial and ethnic issues. Identity-politics art is basically a species of visual journalism, and like a great deal of the new print journalism, it is fundamentally narcissistic in character. It may seem to be “about” social problems, but its preferred take on every social issue is the celebration of an aspiring ego–the artist’s or journalist’s–demanding to be noticed, admired and embraced. Whatever medium is currently in use, narcissism in cyberspace thus looks to be the model of its future development–the complaints of the self writ large on the World Wide Web.

My guess is that we shall be seeing quite a lot of this identity-politics art (or journalism) in the forthcoming Whitney Biennial, and elsewhere, too–in the Greater New York exhibition, for example, coming in February to P.S. 1 in its first collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art. Identity politics is where the appetite for radical chic, which is now a permanent feature of cultural life, has lately taken its stand in the art world, and as the high-profile activities of collectors like Charles Saatchi and Peter Norton have lately reminded us, there is a ton of money supporting projects of this persuasion. It is almost enough to make the bad old days of Stalinist-inspired Social Realism look like a pastoral idyll. But then, there is no iron law of history that guarantees that art will improve or that we shall profit from the mistakes of the past.