October 26, 2010

I am sitting in Southend Central library, a minor classic of provincial Brutalist architecture by the southern English coast, watching a pop video from 1984 by Yello in a purpose-built screening room designed by the artist James Richards (who recently featured in the New Museum’s Younger Than Jesus exhibition).

The structure is housed in Focal Point Gallery, the space for contemporary art incongruously located on the library’s second floor (next to the philosophy section), and is part of the display of Infermental, a show curated by George Clark and Dan Kidner about the “first international magazine on videocassettes.” Initiated by Hungarian filmmaker Gábor Bódy in 1981, Infermental produced 11 ‘issues’ over the course of the following decade, each comprising six or more hours of artists’ films, trailers, and editorial links compiled onto Umatic videocassette; contributors included Tony Conrad, Joan Jonas, Jon Jost, Steina Vasulka, and Lawrence Wiener, as well as dozens of less familiar names.

Three issues were on looping display at Focal Point over the summer—almost an entire diurnal cycle of video salvage. The contributions are impossibly varied, by turns poppy, campy, structural. Many share that garish low-grade palette of early vision-mixing technology, which dates them in a much more interesting (and embarrassing) way than their soundtracks. At times, the compilation style itself mimics MTV with animated IDs and deadpan editorial (“during the last three years, filming water and waves were a favourite motif…”).

Beyond the bewildering heterogeneity of the individual works, though, Infermental’s claim on the present is its underlying ethos: the dream of a different sphere of circulation, of international exchange and exhibition, for artists working with video. This “video magazine” predated the Internet proper and also, largely, the existence of film and video in the gallery; for that reason, its curatorial conceits seem as alien, and as alluring, as the surface patina of its analogue technologies.

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