Image Is Everything

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The New York Sun

Fifteen years ago, it was called video art. Today, most people call it digital media, but they’d be hard pressed to describe the difference. Whatever you want to call it, the lines that separate film, video, and those files on your hard drive have been erased, and a new era of filmmaking has begun. Or maybe it’s just a new way of talking about it.

Since it was conceived in 1992 to bring the fringe of independent filmmaking to New York audiences, Scanners: The New York Video Festival has endeavored to examine those lines and emerge with the best of what the margins of film have to offer. The program has always attracted talent, featuring works by such renowned filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Aleksandr Sokurov, Lars von Trier, and Tsai Ming-liang. But for curator Marian Masone, the excitement has always been in scouting video artists on the verge. She proudly counts Miranda July and Matthew Barney among the festival’s discoveries.

“Miranda July did multimedia performance work with us, and we had her in all her glory,” Ms. Masone said. “We found Matthew Barney in the galleries and premiered ‘Cremaster 1.'”

The 2007 edition of Scanners, which arrives this weekend at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is also the festival’s last after a few re-branding attempts and 16 years of riding in the sidecar alongside the New York Film Festival and the Lincoln Center Festival. But if you think the festival is shutting its doors for a lack of relevance, think again: From this point forward, Scanners will instead present a regular bi-monthly showcase of experimental video work. It seems, in the era of YouTube and home production studios, that filmmaking democracy has exploded into a buyer’s market.

“The line between video and film has been blurred,” Ms. Masone said. “We want to take this kind of work and put it back in the mainstream instead of having a separate festival.”

This year’s installment offers two features and nearly 50 shorts in various genres. Festivalgoers can also enjoy a live music/video jam with drummer Bobby Previte, video jockey Benton-C, trumpeter Ben Neill, artist Bill Jones, thereminist Dorit Chrysler, and media artist c.h.i.a.k.i. (Chiaki Watanabe).

Scanners, which receives funding from the Experimental Television Center’s Presentation Funds program, also boats a proud tradition of nurturing talent and watching as it develops year after year. One festival regular, Edin Vélez, who has presented many of his short films through the years, will return with his first feature-length film, “A Certain Foolish Consistency.” His work has an unmistakable layered quality that seems to characterize video art. But Mr. Vélez considers himself a “moving-image artist” rather than a filmmaker or video artist.

“Basically, I was doing digital work 25 years before the technology arrived,” he said. “My work is close to a moving painting. It allows the viewers to scan the frame and add another editing to the editing that I made.”

Filmmakers Emiko Omori and Wendy Slick spent seven years on their festival entry, “Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm,” applying for grants, mortgaging their homes, and juggling various jobs. Both are film veterans who can shoot and edit on conventional equipment, but in the 21st century, having digital cameras and computer editing software helps, too.

“We live about 10 miles from each other, and we have identical edit systems,” Ms. Slick said. “We would do timelines and go back and forth. We kept going for years like this. We upgraded the systems and got new versions. Cameras got better.”

But while the filmmaking process has gotten easier, getting the work to the public has become more difficult. Ms. Omori, Ms. Slick, and Mr. Vélez have all had their work featured on PBS through the years, but it’s unlikely that their new films — a documentary on the history of vibrators and a video piece that includes nudity and sex scenes, respectively — will appear on public broadcast. (At the same time, Ms. Omori believes her documentary isn’t risqué enough for pay cable channels like HBO.)

“When we say that we are premiering in a venue like Lincoln Center, it puts our movie in a different arena and makes people see it as mainstream,” Ms. Slick said. “For independents who put their houses on the line, it’s really important that we could be recognized by a festival that sees what independent work is..”

For his part, Mr. Vélez said the Film Society of Lincoln Center is one of the few prominent venues in New York that still embraces experimental video work.

“They’ve always been supportive, even when there’s little support elsewhere,” he said. “Overall, the support for this kind of work has really dwindled for various reasons. In the ’80s, we had a lot of support, especially when Reagan was trying to abolish all these arts programs. There was always momentum that we could make this work. Then the cutbacks really started to hurt. A lot of venues have closed because they can’t survive in the current climate.”

But as venues have closed, new avenues for exposure have gradually opened. Following in the footsteps of many seasoned artists and rank amateurs, Ms. Omori, Ms. Slick, and Mr. Vélez have turned to YouTube to help publicize their latest films. Clips from “Passion and Power” and “A Certain Foolish Consistency” are available on the popular video-sharing Web site.

“After the Gutenberg printing press became available, it was no longer just the monks who could copy books,” Mr. Vélez said. “And we saw it happen with music. In the ’60s a few bands could make it, and now every garage band can put out a CD.”

Of course, that sort of technological development isn’t necessarily a good thing if quality is what you’re looking for.

“People are putting out a lot of crap on YouTube,” Mr. Vélez said. “My work is sort of more personal. I have a different way of approaching the medium compared to You-Tube, which favors something short and simple. But I guarantee you that will change. Early video works were long and had few cuts because at first it was difficult to edit. But as equipment became more sophisticated, the work became more sophisticated. I have no problem at all with some guys putting Mentos in soda cans being side by side with something that took me three years that I poured my heart and soul into. I don’t want to live in an ivory tower.”

Through Sunday (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, Broadway at West 65th Street, 212-875-5601).

The New York Sun

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