For three months out of every twenty-four, the Whitney Museum of American Art rotates through an expansive roster of interdisciplinary artist showcases in miniature, highlighting the new and the relatively unsung alongside projects redolent of the metropolitan cultural zeitgeist. These exhibitions—displayed under the pungently oblique banner "Biennial"—possess the rushed, celebratory tone of a festival, despite collectively inhabiting the Whitney for an entire season. For 2012's Biennial, the Whitney is dedicating an entire floor to fixed-time content, allowing for an even greater glut of material; there are media screenings, brief residencies, and performances scheduled, though none of those categories are mutually exclusive. (From April 11th-15th, in fact, Charles Atlas will be improvising a video exhibit in real-time, as well as showing Ocean, a riffing document of his final theatrical collaboration with Merce Cunningham.)
The effect of this comparatively liberated curatorial approach—there are so many artists participating that deciphering concise commonalities becomes a kind of frivolous sport—is a near-anarchic collapse, not only of the partitioning schemas from one expressive mode to the next but of the distinct spectator attitudes that define museum-going. Objects—paintings, digital installations, sculpture—appear unpinned from their wall-shrines, assuming the ephemerality of events, while fluid experiences—dances, videos—are reinforced as objects with peculiar sensitivities. And the film component of the Biennial is particularly inclusive in a manner that renders formal classification moot. It features a farrago of highly unlikely bedfellows (I can think of fewer "experimental" spirits as un-kindred as George Kuchar and Frederick Wiseman), stagnant, abstract pieces that reveal their strengths through repeated viewings, as well as digital and VHS compositions that are not, strictly speaking, films at all.
This resistance to facile categorization, however, provides its own taxonomy. Nearly all of the movies included are temporally playful—aroused by speed and slowness, or beset with chronological hiccups—although what becomes apparent through this discovery is that the same is true of all movies, in the sense that they cannot help but explore space with the tool of time. (Filmmaker Jerome Hiler, presenting his work with P. Adams Sitney on Match 18th, confronts this directly, often double- and triple-exposing his 16mm stock and projecting his original master prints until the deterioration of celluloid becomes a central theme.) More concretely, the most intrepid bookings also behave as micro-archives, a recursive reflection of the Biennial buffet's un-museumly pace and disinterest in "reclaiming" new careers or aesthetics. The Whitney's underwriting rather allows the works to curate their own selections of pre-existing material, though much of it is unfamiliar or purposefully distorted.
Werner Herzog, for example, in a brashly non-American discursion from the institution's core competency, pays homage to 16th century Dutch landscape artist Hercules Segers with his multi-screen installment debut. The shorts of Michael Robinson, meanwhile, are disorienting graveyards of mass media: Final Cut Pro-filtered clips from Full House, Little House on the Prairie, and Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time" music video fashion ferocious visual spaces while a soundtrack alternating between industrial noise and karaoke recordings of 80s hits signals a kitsch nightmare drawn from recent memories. Robinson, who'll be speaking after a screening with Peggy Ahwesh on March 11th, owes as much stylistically to the YouTube mash-up as to David Lynch's catalog of demonically epileptic gimmickry; his unleashing of clichéd digitization and instantly identifiable lowbrow entertainment snippets implies our complicity in the annals of trash.