When video art became hot in the 1990s, it was celebrated as a particularly progressive art form. It turned everything upside down. “White cubes” were transformed into “black cubes”. The radically new that so excited the art scene was a cinema in an exhibition space. The radically new was Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, in which Hitchcock’s thriller was played back in ultra-slow motion. Movies were entertaining, so video art often celebrated itself as something completely different, namely boring. In this respect, the 1990s were a letdown – rather like the time Hegel muttered: “By the little which can thus satisfy the needs of the human spirit we can measure the extent of its loss.” In the 1990s the very pinnacle of contemporary art could be a petty and twisted take on great art. This was no grand legend about artist who, dwarfs themselves, reached higher because they sat on the shoulders of giants. Rather, it was a story about works to which wordy footnotes had been added by archivists who thought that what is evident in itself is in need of further explanation.
Even though video art is still celebrated as a demanding, and thus noble, art form because it takes up much of the audience’s time and performs poorly in the marketplace, video art is no longer necessarily good art qua video art. The requirements are higher now, and perhaps that is why the same goes for the quality. Israeli-born Keren Cytter is one of the best artists in a generation which does not hail, in modernist fashion, video art as anything special in itself. Here we do not find the endless narrative about art versus culture industry; this is not like Pierre Huyghe’s video short Blanche Neige Lucie from 1997 about a young woman – a poor little creature – who records Snow White’s song in 1962 and is subsequently robbed of the rights to her “own voice” by the monstrous Disney empire.
No; while video art flourished in the 1990s on the cheap premise that it was different from static painting, Cytter has elected to dilute her video exhibition with painterly drawings lit by demonstratively clumsy theatre projectors in murky rooms. As she herself has explained, the drawings are not that important to her. Nor should they be to others. They are fine. Some of them are very large without being overwhelming. But more than anything else they serve to unshackle the ghettoising purism that ascribes video art a room of its own. In her films Cytter uses a range of different cameras, filters, and images in high and low resolution. She mixes her own footage with clips from TV and the Internet, uploading them all on vimeo. Which is fortunate, for Charlottenborg – devoid of “black cubes” – has not managed to properly control the light and sound in the rooms. Several of her films are better experienced online, where everything is already experienced on an equal footing – as is the case in Cytter’s production, which mixes a wealth of genres from horror to melodrama to romantic films.
Nevertheless, Keren Cytter does follow in the wake of 1990s art. Like an early Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Joachim Koester, etc. she has obviously trawled through the treasure troves of European post-war film. However, unlike many of her predecessors she is not satisfied with pointing admiringly to Pasolini, Godard, Truffaut, Polanski, and Fassbinder. She is less prone to using references as signs of distinction and good taste. At her best she inhabits the themes, aesthetics, and narratives of the great filmmakers and the lowest genres alike, building on them to develop and create her own. At her best, she – unlike her predecessors – does not stand outside the realm of cinema, reflecting on the art of film or simply importing cinema into the realm of art. Rather, she processes it from within as if video art were a variant of cinema rather than a revolution within the fine arts.
At her small retrospective at Charlottenborg the party starts and ends – at either end of the exhibition – with two films that process a poem by Pasoloni in real 1990s style. Here you find the kind of meta-video art that mirrors and doubles the meta-films of the 1960s, such as this dialogue between two guys: “I love her,” says one. “Since when?” asks the other. “Since the scene in the café,” he replies. It is elegant, funny, and so perfect that Cytter’s much-lauded mixture of fact and fiction here and elsewhere comes across as a banal exercise in style. It is alienation as we know it, or what one might call “reflexivity as a reflex.”
The same kind of lazy hyper-reflexivity appears in two wall texts, both of which contain the sentence: “This sentence is repeated in another wall text.” This is so utterly banal that Keren Cytter seems to be having fun exhibiting her reflexivity as nothing more than a silly reflex. Cytter not only draws on a tradition reaching back from Brecht to 1990s art, which indulges in self-reflection to the point of excess. She also parodies it. And in the incisive, self-ironic Video art manual from 2012 it naturally follows that she parodies herself, too. The 15-minute film explains how video art –such as her own – is created, to strangely disenchanting effect. Across a tripartite screen is a programmatic statement that she herself adheres to: “Split screen / reduces the viewer’s / emotional involvement / and / increases the viewer’s / enjoyment.”
However, Cytter’s best-known films, which are not just about film, address typical film themes such as love, jealousy, and revenge as they dissolve. Moving pictures are ephemeral, and so too are the emotions in her films. In the both comic and poetic Four Seasons from 2009 a woman finds a man in a bathtub on the top floor of her home. None of them seem startled by the encounter. They each move around in their own little bubble, each with their own needs. The man addresses the woman as Stella. The woman, who says her name is Lucy, does not notice him. She simply makes note of her own changing moods: “Now I’m hungry. Now I’m shocked.” The mood evoked and intensified by Cytter through her use of atmospheric music and smoke and mirrors is simultaneously deflated. At times a certain sense of human chilliness blows through her films, reminiscent of Fassbinder’s Angst essen Seele auf. Here, however, the chill is not just caused by class divides as in Fassbinder, but also by a sense of social division, an atomisation at the individual level, reminiscent of an absurd tragedy. However, Cytter rarely fails to amuse. Perhaps because freedom is still appreciated as a feat after the emancipation.
Cytter’s Video Art Manual features the following program: “Performers pretend they are not acting and make the viewers doubt what is true and false.” A similar conceit is used in the films by Cytter’s fellow artist and contemporary Ryan Trecartin, where the actors are not only often friends, colleagues and thus amateurs, but also act accordingly. And this is no coincidence. Even though Cytter is chilly, cool, and European and Trecartin is mannered and American, they may in fact be dealing with the same human being. In the films of both artists the characters often repeat their lines several times. Not just because the director demands it. But also because they inhabit our present-day world where everyone is the director and star of their own little films and lives. Hence, following the narrative becomes difficult. Not because there is no narrative, as was the case in much earlier video art. Rather because there are too many. Everyone, it seems, is a lead character. Everything takes place in the foreground. There is no depth in the space, and we lose our bearings.
Cytter’s and Trecartin’s worlds recall those of social media, in which you continually upload pictures of yourself – and that of the personalised Internet, in which you are constantly presented with images of yourself. Trecartin’s film are so compelling because they show you your present day in a manner reminiscent of the chaotic future you fear is right around the corner. Cytter’s films are so effortlessly laid-back because their image of our contemporary time is a direct continuation of the past. In the two films Force from the Past and In Search for Brothers, which bookend the exhibition, Cytter takes Pasoloni by the hand and steps into the present – with the gaze firmly directed on that which is no more: “I am a Force from the Past / My love lies in tradition. / … / And I, a foetus now grown, roam about / more modern that any modern man / in search of brothers no longer alive.”
The actors in her two films play themselves as inhabitants of the provincial city of Trento, where the films were shot. As a young woman says – again and again: “I want to get out of this shit-hole.” The guys suck. One of them asks her – again and again – if she wants to see his cock. Perhaps he reflects so much on himself that all he dares to hope for is a mobilisation of a little companionship in regards to his gaze upon himself.
One senses that Cytter, too, wants to pull herself out of her arse, out of the historic mire that swamps her down. And perhaps that is what makes her relevant now. She, too, wants to enter the fray, to arrive at and inhabit the present. The problem is not, as it is in Trecartin’s films, that our contemporary era seems uninhabitable. Rather, in the case of Cytter the problem is that it seems so insubstantial and inconsequential because the past on which the present rests is a pastiche of lost film art. The self-reflexivity that made the European new wave film so seductive seems as banal as a selfie today. The generation that preceded Cytter feared, to quote Marcel Duchamp, to be “as stupid as a painter.” Video art became their alternative. Cytter, however, belongs to a generation where stupidity is the exception from the rule. Everyone and everything – even mobile phones and refrigerators – are supposedly imbued with intelligence. Art can no longer separate itself out into a distinct sphere as meta-culture, for the so-called mass culture has already done that. Perhaps that is why Cytter’s continuation of our cultural heritage takes the form of an endless series of pertinent soap operas.