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Escaping to Video

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"Female Sensibility," a 14 minute film by Lynda Benglis.

"Female Sensibility," a 14 minute film by Lynda Benglis.

By Emily J Weitz

Long Island, and in particular the East End, has a history as a place of escape. Whether it was the Fitzgeralds summering on the North Shore or Jackson Pollock seeking solitude in the Springs in East Hampton, this spit of land has long carried people from the bustling city to the endless expanse of ocean and sound. This is the theme of the first-ever all video exhibition on Long Island, which will open at Guild Hall this weekend.

“We chose the theme of escape,” says Lauren Cornell, guest curator of this exhibition and Executive Director of Rhizome and Adjunct Curator at the New Museum, “because we thought it was a theme that relates to so much art. We use Long Island as a jumping-off point because people go there to vacation and get away.”

The “escape” is manifold. It’s about escaping to Long Island, about escaping into art, and about escape into technology, video, mindlessness. Among the ten artists whose work will be on display, the idea of escape manifests itself in markedly different ways.

“Jonathan Horowitz’s piece deals with addiction,” explains Cornell. “It’s a cigarette held up against a wall, perpendicularly mounted, slowly burning. It appears as if it’s getting sucked from the other end of the wall.”

Others seem like much healthier escapes, like the work of William Wegman.

“It’s about his relationship with his dog,” says Cornell, “and about how we take a break from being human through our pets.”

A work by Joan Jonas, a pioneer in the video art movement of the 70s as well as a loud and clear voice during the rise of feminism, depicts a group of artists performing different ritualized actions on the beach.

“Jonas played a significant role in the development of video art,” says Cornell, “and that’s why we included her.”

Another piece, by longtime Long Islander Keith Sonnier, is an installation piece with four different TVs all playing at once. It’s called “Channel Mix” and features two split projections with four input cables and antenna TV.

“It’s about how we escape by numbing our minds through TV,” says Cornell. “That was originally from 1972, and I think it anticipates how we interact with our medium now.”

Laurie Anderson is another major figure in the development of video art, and she worked directly with Cornell and co-curator Hanne Mugaas to prepare her work for exhibition.

“Anderson is an amazing artist,” says Cornell. “She’s pioneered many different mediums, and her work [is so relevant it] could be made today. The video is part of a larger piece… it’s not so much about technology in the medium, but about the artwork itself.”

Her piece, “At The Shrinks,” takes place in a therapist’s office and addresses the idea of a psychological retreat or escape. It’s a video with an audio loop projected onto clay figures, and was created originally in 1975.

While the pieces were selected around the idea of “escape,” it was also essential that the artists had some connection to Long Island.

“This led us back to the 70s and 80s,” says Cornell, “when there were more artists working on Long Island.”

Warhol, not only a pivotal figure in art history but also a devoted Montauk resident, has a piece in the exhibit.

“It was one of the only videos Warhol ever shot,” says Cornell. “It’s a long, durational shot of a water cooler, a commentary on an in-office escape.”

As she pulled together the works for this exhibit, Cornell found it to be an almost archival endeavor. Video art, which used to be so modern and cutting-edge, isn’t new anymore. Some of the technology has even become so outdated that it’s challenging to find a way to present it.

“VHS players are hard to find,” says Cornell. “Getting antennas into the gallery is challenging because everyone has digital cable now. In that way this is an archival exhibit.”

As she flipped through the history of video art and the relics of the 70s and 80s, Cornell found that Long Island had a prominent role in the movement.

“It’s been really interesting to research Long Island’s role in contemporary art,” she says. “Working with all these pioneering and important artists [who are tied to Long Island] has been really exciting.”