“While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital?” Claire Bishop asked last year in Artforum. “How many thematize this or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence?” Quite a few. But to produce the answer she needs to launch her polemic, Bishop limits herself to a small portion of the mainstream art world, cordoning off new media and Internet-based work as separate spheres. The question stands, however, in the marginal arena of avant-garde film and video, whose festivals are still mostly overrun with mournful elegies to celluloid and attempts to reproduce the old signifiers of the photographic sublime with the new digital tools.
One major exception is the Iowa-based media artist Jesse McLean. In the impressive body of videos she has assembled over the last five years, she sizes up the dimensions of a world shaped by digital media and networked communication. McLean doesn’t directly engage the new forms that characterize this life, but rather approaches them sideways. Like Michael Robinson, another hyper-contemporary moving image artist born on the cusp between Generation X and the Millennials, she works primarily with footage culled from the mass media of previous decades, using the tools of new media to cannibalize the old ones and find out how their once stable significations fare in the face of an audience that can talk back. This is not “found footage.” These young artists know that in the age of the Internet, we no longer find footage. It finds us.
In the “Bearing Witness Trilogy,” which comprises The Eternal Quarter Inch (2008), Somewhere only we know (2009), and The Burning Blue (2009), McLean turns a compassionate gaze to some of the more despised cast members of the American mediascape: Christian rock concertgoers, reality TV rejects, and anyone who has ever missed out on an experience presumed to be universal. All three videos invite us to participate in vulgar media spectacles, even if—especially if—we know better. Peeling away multiple layers of cynicism, McLean asks us not only to share in these figures’ desires, but to set aside for the moment our knee-jerk reservations about televisual manipulation and actually empathize with the faces and bodies of the real people onscreen.
Magic for Beginners (2010) is a more expansive, indeterminate exploration of similar themes. Lining up three personal narratives of obsessive fandom, it follows these stories from their ecstatic origins to typically desultory consummations. The thrill of overidentification and the disappointment to which it leads are equally important here. Intercut with images of actors summoning tears and concluding with a supercut of “My Heart Will Go On” karaoke videos, the video affirms the power of mediated fantasy without promising a false transcendence.
All four of these works engage the kind of mass entertainment that characterized an earlier generation with an ambivalence that is unmistakably shaped by the conditions of the present. The nichification of media, instantaneous access to digital reproductions, and the ease of peer-to-peer communication have changed the cultural stakes, making the old snares of broadcast media seem almost quaint. These videos delight in the unifying potential of mass media without worrying too much about the effects of political conditioning or the sterility of monoculture. An imperfect, imagined community is a community nevertheless.
More recently McLean’s work has gotten darker. Having explored the ways in which media can bring us together, she seems to have turned her attention to the ways in which it leaves us atomized and alone. Drifting through desolate, mostly unpeopled worlds that still buzz with the crackling sounds of information transmission, they discover the underbelly of the mediated communities that the previous videos tentatively celebrate. “Before media, there used to be a physical limit to the amount of space people could take up,” reads a subtitle in Magic For Beginners, borrowed, like the rest of the film’s text, from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. In The Invisible World (2012), McLean now asks (via Arnold Toynbee): “Are we going to submit to being kept perpetually on the run at an ever faster speed and to being demoted from being ‘persons’ who are at least partly the master of their own fate into becoming ‘things’ that are ‘pushed about’ like parts of a machine by implacable inhuman forces?”