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.
Consumerism's influence on the culture it cannibalizes is less opaquely explored in Thom Andersen's twin elegies for Los Angeles, also screening in the Biennial: the Chris Marker-esque architectural moving image museum Los Angeles Plays Itself and its brilliantly billboard-minded epilogue, Get Out of the Car. In the former, Andersen narrates an alternate history of the Southern California city atop scenes from films that index both iconic and anonymous buildings and neighborhoods, some of which have since disappeared. The latter study is by contrast less funereal but in some ways more urgent, observing a present disintegrating into past through a wordless collage of signs, posters, graffiti, and other public visual detritus that depict the flux of popular and minority taste. Andersen will discuss these films with critic J. Hoberman on April 8th, and is additionally bringing along a program of shorts from LA's bygone eras.
Yet another loosely interrelated group of screenings positions the artist not only as curator of municipal or cultural histories but of their own achievements, and the impact of those on their personal lives. WILDNESS, which screens on May 13th with director Wu Tsang, confuses documentary with lyrical apotheosis to illuminate the development of an LGBT artspace/support group/bar in Los Angeles to which the filmmaker contributed. Photographer Moyra Davey, conversing with writer Lynne Tillman on April 15th, is decidedly more hermetic in Les Goddesses, a video scrapbook of her early material (which we see her leafing through unceremoniously) with oral ruminations on Mary Wollstonecraft, Goethe, Freud, and to what extent an artwork is the product of an individual or a familial station. As much of the soundtrack is a recitation of an essay on literature Davey previously published, the film represents a unique and often uncomfortable grafting of rhetorical and sensual pasts onto their ultimately biological heritage.
In addition to rifling through old snapshots, Davey also wanders around her New York studio through most of Les Goddesses, organizing the kitchen, searching through files, and hypnotizing us by reflecting the light from a small lamp off of snow falling outside her window. There's little about the mechanics of her media methodology—to say nothing of its inspiration—that isn't transparent, which underscores the Biennial's respect for and perhaps adulation of the tedious process of jettisoning creative impulses.
But the artist, once un-petaled, is not without his or her smirking dignity. Saluting the shockingly structuralist side of George Kuchar, the Whitney will screen a sample of the late underground filmmaker's in-camera tour-de-force Weather Diaries, as well as the distantly western-like AVID transition handbook Chigger Country. The former, wherein Kuchar trembles before an onslaught of tornado warnings and monsoons from within the compromised comfort of an Oklahoma motel, is at times noirishly self-tortured—he's haunted throughout, and irrelevantly, by recollections of an older, buxom, dark-haired woman—and mind-ticklingly fractured. Kuchar represents weather patterns the way plaid textiles do primary colors; he often punctuates footage of cataclysmic storms with clear-skied punch-ins from hours later. This gloriously low-res homage to the firmament's desultoriness encapsulates not only the manner in which Oklahoma residents are at the mercy of their meteorologists, but the Whitney Biennial's tendentious eating of its own curatorial borders.