Susan Giles

at Vedanta, through December 7

Traditionally, film editors arrange imagery in time by juxtaposing scenes in sequences to unspool on a single screen. Once in a while you see a split-screen effect to show parallel action, like Doris Day and Rock Hudson conversing on the phone in Pillow Talk (1959); as early as 1914 Russian director Evgenii Bauer used the technique for chatting characters in Silent Witnesses. And in 1917, French director Abel Gance split the screen three ways in King of the Forest to interpose a wiretapper between a pair of lovers on the line. In Time Code (2000), Mike Figgis placed four different but synchronized streams of action into quadrants of the screen, and last year the televison series 24 used split-screen effects for short passages.

Still, a split screen is rare in the cinema and on TV. Not so in the gallery: video installation artists regularly juxtapose screens in space, creating an experience for spectators that’s more complex than sitting in front of a single screen. Of course, the artist who multiplies screens also risks dividing attention and diluting signals. It’s a tactic that can decenter the viewer or deepen the content: the frame is foregrounded.

In Evening at the Renaissance Society in 1995, Stan Douglas simulated newscasts at three fictional Chicago stations on January 1, 1969, and January 1, 1970, in order to re-create the arrival of the happy talk format. Five years later at the Art Institute Douglas exhibited Le Detroit, suspending two screens 6 feet tall and 16 feet wide back-to-back and using synchronized 35-millimeter projectors to display a six-minute black-and-white film loop on either side, creating a shimmering effect. Amy Jenkins in Without, installed last year at Julia Friedman Gallery, projected her 12-minute loop of figurines underwater on a ceiling screen and invited spectators to lie on the floor to watch it.

Five-screen, four-screen, three-screen, two-screen, and one-screen installations appear in three current shows. Susan Giles uses multiple screens to suggest equivalences between tourists at antipodes; Gillian Wearing transposes the faces and voices of a mother and her two sons; and Wafaa Bilal parallels U.S. imperialism with bin Laden’s jihad. The results range from uncanny to confused.

Giles exhibits three recent video installations at Vedanta Gallery, two of which address the vagaries of speech: the 45-minute four-monitor Language Barrier and the 3-minute two-monitor Lisa, Lisa. But the most intriguing of the bunch is Here and There, two silent four-minute video loops projected side by side on a wall. One loop includes about a dozen shots of young tourists, including Giles, walking and climbing around a volcano in Bali while the other shows similarly outfitted tourists, including Giles, exploring Chicago.

Side by side we see vistas, gestures, and camera moves occurring simultaneously near and far. Single file, the tourists climb a rocky incline in Bali on the left-hand screen, and on the right they climb the spiral stairs from the Chicago River to Pioneer Square, beside the Tribune Tower. As a black pumice mountain in Bali looms in the distance on one screen, the other shows the white terra-cotta facade of the Wrigley Building. A young woman in a T-shirt with a long-sleeved shirt tied around her waist holds her water bottle in similar poses in both locales. The unsteady camcorder zooms for a close-up of a round, rose-colored crater–a shot echoed in a close-up of the clock face on the Wrigley Building. Mixing footloose whimsy and rootless detachment, Giles creates a twin-postcard effect in which she and her traveling companions never seem at home. They are two places at once yet nowhere at all.

Gillian Wearing

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through January 19

Doubling of a different sort occurs in Wearing’s 2 Into 1 (1997), a four-and-a-half-minute single-screen video made for broadcast on BBC Two’s “Expanding Pictures” series. Wearing’s simple cutting–she alternates scenes of a mother, Hilary, facing the camera with scenes of her two sons, Alex and Lawrence, doing the same–hardly expands the vocabulary of editing. What’s original is that Wearing directed Hilary to lip-synch previously recorded descriptions of herself by Alex and Lawrence, and asked Hilary’s sons to do the same with her descriptions of them. Thus we see a middle-aged woman seemingly describing herself in the third person in a boy’s voice: “She thinks a bit too much of herself.” In another scene, Alex seems to describe himself in the third person in a woman’s voice: “Alex is a very, very loving boy and very bright and very caring, really.” Then Lawrence channels his mother’s view of him: “He’s got a terrible temper and can be a real bugger at times.”

The playful side of 2 Into 1 is undercut by its dark ventriloquist tricks, as Wearing illuminates estrangement among intimates. Ironically the other, multiple-screen works on display, which were not confined by the format of a television broadcast, are less imaginative. In the clinical Drunk (1999), three screens fill one long wall and depict inebriated Londoners stumbling, quarreling, hugging, and dozing in an all-white studio, while the immersive and depressive Broad Street (2001) shows lonely nightlife and bar scenes on five screens spread over four walls. In these cases more is not more.

Wafaa Bilal: Al Qaeda R Us

at School of the Art Institute Gallery 2, through December 4

The arresting playfulness and subtly unsettling effects of Giles’s and Wearing’s work are missing from Bilal’s assaultive if ambiguous half-hour two-screen installation Al Qaeda R Us at Gallery 2. Though this didactic artist references the name of the toy corporation, there’s nothing cute about his images of wounded children, including iconic footage of nine-year-old Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc, skin peeling, after U.S. jets dropped napalm on her village. These appear on one screen among other scenes of political and military terrorism, while on the other we see a girl in a red dress standing under a large U.S. flag, apparently an emblem of privileged innocence–or imperialism. On the postcard announcement for Al Qaeda R Us, Bilal reiterates his show’s rhetoric by choosing a video capture of a running man in a white tunic, perhaps Palestinian or Afghan, cradling a toddler in his arms with “AL-Jazeera Exclusive” in one corner of the frame.

Bilal says his piece is interactive, which a gallery staff person said means a motion detector starts the videos when a viewer enters. But mostly the viewer just decides where to stand. In this long room, one can face one end to see the video chronicle of U.S. military interventions, including those in Bilal’s native Iraq, or face the opposite wall, showing the static image of the girl posed under the flag. Or one can sit on one of two narrow wooden benches along the side and look straight ahead at the black curtains through which other viewers enter and exit the space.

Bilal seems to borrow the format of Shirin Neshat’s Turbulent (1998) at the Museum of Contemporary Art: it dramatized divisions in Iranian society by placing two screens on opposite walls, situating the viewer in between singers on separate stages–one a woman singing to an empty house, the other a man performing for an audience of men. But Al Qaeda R Us offers only a clumsy dialectic. The girl on one screen stares at the other screen, filled with news footage and tape ranging from “AL-Jazeera exclusive” video of children’s corpses to black-and-white film of President Truman discoursing on “our mission of progress” and promising, or threatening, “We’ll extend it to all peoples of the world.” In between Bilal packs clips of several U.S. presidents, Chilean president Salvador Allende, Henry Kissinger, and generals William Westmoreland and Norman Schwarzkopf. From the Korean conflict to the World Trade Center attack, we see endless scenes of bombs, rubble, funerals, and orphans. The sound track contains sound bites from statesmen, the noise of explosions, and at times a single plaintive piano note repeated.

Bilal interrupts his chronology of overt and covert U.S. interventions after an ABC clip of the WTC collapsing. The screen goes black for a few seconds, and then we see a staged scene in a cornfield: a young man partly disrobes, buries his army fatigues, and walks over the horizon in his shorts and T-shirt. On the facing screen, the girl disappears and Bilal shows the famous black-and-white image of soldiers on Iwo Jima holding up the U.S. flag. One by one the men morph into moving figures and walk out of the frame; the flag remains and the little girl in red reappears beneath it.

Although Bilal apparently intended to compile an accusation, his torrent of uncredited and decontextualized news clips is an inadvertent act of nihilism that reduces sound bites to mere noise. By equating the U.S. with Al Qaeda in his title, he infantilizes and neutralizes the images of atrocity. Is Bush’s monoculture really equal to bin Laden’s monoculture? Bilal’s montage of terror, stocked with maimed non-American kids and juxtaposed with the sentimental image of an intact child under a World War II totem, seems intended to shame. Meanwhile it seems Bilal’s stand-in turns his back on the battlefield of images and walks offscreen.