Museum of Contemporary Art

Technology is the issue for a series of digital videos being screened this weekend as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Version>02,” a program of videos, performances, panel discussions, and workshops. Some of the videos critique the new wired order, others cheer the subversive artists who attack it. “Creative Technology as Weaponry” is the topic of one panel. The video makers use the latest technology–three-chip camcorders, nonlinear editing software–in urging people to resist the powers that be, but when it comes to shaping their content they fall back on old genres and packaging cliches. Far from being radical acts, some of these videos undo their agendas because of the way they’re designed–they’re licking the envelope rather than pushing it.

“Version>02” is more ideological than Resfest, the annual touring showcase of digital cinema the MCA hosted in 1999 and 2000. The new series proclaims a fondness for low-tech in one of its unofficial posters, which conveys a build-a-better-mousetrap ethic with a drawing of a mousetrap.

Several videos by members of the Guerrilla News Network echo the antiestablishment politics of the late-60s counterculture video pioneers. GNN’s cofounders, Stephen Marshall and Josh Shore, who met while working for MTV, state their aesthetic on their Web site: “Guerrilla News Videos are music videos for people who think.” Their minidocumentaries “aim to rock as hard as they inform, shock and inspire.” Talking heads in various GNN works offer sound bites such as “Information is the ultimate weapon” and “Wars are not won in the battlefield; they’re won in the minds of people.” Some expert argues, “The success of business propaganda in persuading us for so long that we are free from propaganda is one of the most significant propaganda achievements of the 20th century.” Another expert cautions, “Important information [is] drowned out by the noise of spectacle.”

Nonetheless, GNN uses the slick, manipulative style of MTV to make its points, generating more beat-driven static, not the “insightful deconstructions” it promises. Its news videos have a cheesy framing device, a white TV console that’s supposed to underline the authority of the talking heads we see inside. The effect recalls the old TV tag lines that traded on consumers’ faith that if it was on TV it was real. The GNN logo appears just under this screen-within-a-screen; underneath that is another narrow screen displaying an oscilloscope wave pattern graphing the talking head’s voice. It’s sci-fi froufrou intended to reassure viewers that truth is being told.

GNN also borrows a trick from Swinging the Lambeth Walk (Nazi Style), Len Lye’s four-minute 1939 counterpropaganda film made to mock the Nazis by reversing and repeating newsreel shots of Adolf Hitler saluting and his troops goose-stepping–all edited in time with a popular dance tune of the day. In GNN’s S-11 Redux: (Channel) Surfing the Apocalypse, Marshall intercuts shots of President George W. Bush looking vacant and addressing Congress with clips of the banjo-plucking hick in the 1972 film Deliverance. Hand clapping and standing ovations also form a call-and-response pattern with a dueling-banjo duet from the same film. But there’s nothing original about this trick, and there’s nothing original about the loud, hyper MTV style.

There’s a similar slip between the message and the package in New Kids on the Black Block by the Spanish collective Las Agencias. “Playing live, being a New Kid, making people happy,” a band member tells the camera in a pirated, subtitled clip from a world-tour video. “It’s probably the best thing in the world.” The globe-trotting stars of the band are ambiguously compared to street-fighting protesters videotaped at the November 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle and later antiglobalism actions in Washington, D.C., Davos, Prague, Quebec, Goteborg, Barcelona, and Geneva. A New Kid kills time backstage by tossing baseballs, while protesters hurl tear-gas canisters back at police. A New Kid says, “I’m in heaven in every country I go to because I find a McDonald’s. It’s everywhere.” And then there’s a knee-jerk cut to a montage of protesters smashing McDonald’s windows. The inadvertent implication is that roving cells of black-masked chanters, drummers, flag twirlers, skateboarders, and street dancers are actually youthful entertainers seeking attention on an international stage–rather like their New Kid counterparts. But the New Kids’ saccharine message is a hit with screaming masses of pleased consumers, while the faceless, unquoted protesters are only unpaid extras in satellite newscasts.

A far more effective jab at the state is the straightforward Surveillance Report 02.03.02, made by a Chicagoan who goes by the name “4n6.” During the World Economic Forum meeting in New York City this past winter, Bill Brown, a member of a New York guerrilla-theater troupe that does pieces in front of surveillance cameras, takes us to a police video camera installed on a pole at the corner of 49th Street and Fifth Avenue, then delivers an articulate harangue about the Fourth Amendment, privacy, and the place of “lingerers” in capitalism. “This camera is violating every single concept in the law of the land,” he says. “The Berlin Wall gets taken down in one particular place and gets rebuilt all over the planet.” He concludes by turning to the police camera and saying, “Are you reading my lips as I say ‘Fuck you’?”

Also compelling is Principal’s Office, an anonymous video distributed by Cellmedia in which the authorities manage to retaliate, at least briefly, against the camcorder artist. This is the one tape in “Version>02” that succeeds in appearing undesigned. To its credit, this is the sort of populist subversion we don’t get on America’s Funniest Home Videos. We see tape apparently shot by a kid aiming at his high school friends between classes in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1992. The school disciplinarian confiscates the camcorder in the cafeteria and takes it–still running–and the student to the principal’s office. “This asshole was taking pictures in the cafeteria,” she reports to the principal. Then she turns her attention to the kid. “I don’t know who you think you are. I don’t know what you think you are.” I think he’s a hero of the video resistance, for as artless and accidental as his tape seems, it nonetheless accomplishes its critique with a clarity missing from the other videos being screened this weekend.

The videos in “Version>02” that make me wince and cringe the most are those that attempt to copy mainstream advertising techniques to send politically correct messages. Propaganda against propaganda takes imagination, not just digital technology. Jill Sharpe’s documentary Culture Jam: Hitchhiking Commercial Culture is one more very conventional work trying to say something about subverting convention. But it does have one great shot. A spokesman for the Billboard Liberation Front, his face covered by a bandana, tells her, “I refuse to be a sound bite.” No sooner does he utter this line than he clearly realizes he’s just lost spledidly.