UP ALL NIGHT curatorial essay for LUMP, 2017
Up All Night describes the point at which video art and music video intersect. Born close to the same time and out of a single technology, these disparate forms evolved in divergent economies, whose ideals seem to be at odds, yet inextricable.
a brief history of timecode:
It’s possible to imagine a void where MTV originally existed, if it were not for Glen O’Brian’s TV Party, which first appeared on New York City public access television in 1978. It was a raucous blend of art and music that made a point of being “no budget,” technically naive and deeply cynical. It reflected the bankruptcy and disrepair of New York that had spawned a generation long, creative surge. But it aspired to deliver what was both fashionable and avant-garde, and its regulars like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Debbie Harry, were soon to be superstars.
MTV launched from the same city, in 1981. In contrast to TV Party, it boasted cozy sets and clean cut “video jockeys” who spun ebullience, feigned expertise, and promised the newest, sexiest of pop and rock’s bad boys and girls. MTV was an instant hit, and it would alter the creative impulses of generations to come, by way of sheer image volume that would accelerate, exponentially, a diminishing attention span.
TV Party’s cadence ran counter to MTV’s fervor. It meandered to the rhythm of a low brow talk show. Images dissolved randomly, and it seemed that someone was always futzing with the title generator. It portrayed a cirrhotic type of cool that was laced with real anxieties and its own brand of excess. Disorder was modus operandi, and episodes seemed to have no beginning or end.
On adjacent air waves, MTV perpetuated a narrative that distilled its language into neon tinged intros, followed by quick clips and videos that averaged 4 minutes. Their saturated colors implied catchy escapism. Edit points were concise. The pace quickened.
Then Night Flight, which first aired in 1981 on the USA Network, surfaced in the shadow of TV Party and MTV. It represented a convergence of the two formats in that it was the first of its kind to manage a comfortable blend of art and music. At face value, it was all 80’s flash, with a chromium title graphic that swept across a cool blue cityscape. But it shared air time with phone sex ads, and its content was tinged with the seediness of bizarre offerings - art videos and cult movies. The show paved the way for USA Up All Night, which highlighted exploitation films as de rigueur at the end of a decade in which entertainment culture was characterized by a sticky bond between glamour and camp. This attitude of unapologetic display is where LUMP’s version of Up All Night finds its footing.
tracing the lemniscate:
This show represents video at its most elemental self. Each piece aspires no further than its original calling, but rises above its own form by stretching the limits of conceptual weirdness or unabashed commercialism. Music video’s job is to enhance a band’s sex appeal, show off its talents, and sell records. An art video sets out to challenge that very commoditization and to strain the utility of the medium itself. In aiming for their respective goals, both forms hit antithetical targets. The music videos in this show assert creative integrity by pushing spectacle, beauty and humor for the sake of sales. The art videos burrow into, and sometimes transcend, the MTV aesthetic by exploiting the unpredictability of studio practice, paired with their “spare every expense” ingenuity.
It’ s difficult to define any of these videos as specifically “good” or “bad,” given that they were all made on the cheap, and to vastly different ends. The standard assumption holds that a “good” work of art instills hope for the medium and suggests that not everything is corrupt in the world from which it was born. Conversely, “bad” art implies toxicity, based on the prejudicial assumption that anything unrefined is bad for the soul. But in this show, up tends to be down, refinement; cheap, and raunch feels more like eloquence. Up All Night traffics in a language by which a video’s bad qualities should not be taken literally, and its good qualities should not be taken seriously. With this inversion in mind, we can begin to see how neatly these separate forms, conceptual and commercial, twist into and out of each other.
And if we strip away our own cynicism about the hijinks of video art or the hollow culture that MTV revealed (and perhaps spawned), music is what remains. Music holds firm at the core of each art video, even when it can’t be heard outright. It takes the form a hand striking glass, a crisp, paternal voice and a skeletal drum beat. By the same measure, the art in these music videos is revealed in imagery that pays unwavering service to its song. It comes in the rhythm of a slapstick narrative, in a dizzying shot that echo’s the whine of a keyboard, or perhaps most stunningly, in the awe of seeing a burning man run in extraordinary, slow motion. Running for what? To catch a bus, just as we hear the last screeching note of the song.
(exhibited work - FRONT TO BACK)
1 #YOKOHOMO, 2017, Juan Pablo Echeverri
2 Theme Song, 1973 Vito Acconci
3 I Ran, 1982, Flock of Seagulls, dir: Tony van den Ende
4 Golden Shower: Sex Hex, 2017, Rebecca Goyette
5 Fantasy, 2017, Prince Rama, dir: Matthew Hoffman and Taraka Larson
6 I Wanna Rock, 1984, Twisted Sister, dir: Marty Callner
1 Video Killed the Radio Star, 1980, The Buggles, dir: Russell Mulcahey
2 California, 1995, Wax, dir: Spike Jonze
3 LRLL RLRR, 2012, Harrison Haynes
4 Whip It, 1980, Devo, dir: Gerald Casale
1 Me and Billy Bob, 2005, Jillian MacDonald
2 NEE NEE, 2017, Chris Watts
3 Site Recite, 1989, Gary Hill
4 Kung Fu, 2007, Hugh Walton
5 Sugar Water, 1996, Cibo Mato, dir: Michele Gondry