Group show surveys the video medium's mercurial nature

Baltimore Vs. The World

Through Oct. 1 at the Current Gallery.

Not too long ago, a critic could argue that in the art world, geography is destiny. While there are have always been artists who worked in isolation, artists more commonly work in geographically affiliated schools or communities. Identifying artists by their location has proved to be a convenient shorthand for talking about aesthetics, giving critics a literal map for how the art world changes over time.

Baltimore vs. the World, the first exhibition at the Current Space’s new gallery on Howard Street, was conceived several years ago as a show that would explore whether there is something distinctive about Baltimore video. Curators Michael Benevento, Hans Petrich, and Monique Crabb spent hundreds of hours collecting and viewing contemporary videos—mostly experimental work, along with more traditional documentaries, animated pieces, and music videos. Eventually, they whittled the show down to 40 pieces that would take more than four hours to view if watched in sequence.

The show, however, ends up not trying to make a case for the geographical specificity of Baltimore video. Instead, The World serves as a guide to contemporary video, which appears torn between appealing to its roots in the specificity of the medium and its technologically enhanced capacity to be almost anything in the realm of moving images.

On one end of the spectrum, which could be called works that are indebted to video’s status as a distinct medium, are pieces such as Karin Hofko’s “Reception” (2005), in which a figure dressed in a bunny suit moves an antenna around a room. Like many early video pieces, the work is based on a joke—the antennae, of course, are rabbit ears, and the quality of the video changes as the bunny moves around the black-and-white, sparsely decorated living room—but the piece reads more as nostalgia for a lost art form than simple joke.

In a similar vein, Adrian Lohmüller uses the latest in video and sound technology to record the most unpleasant of experiences: a trip to the dentist. While “Pollen and Pearls” could not have been made 30 years ago, its obsession with the representation of the body is reminiscent of early video works by Nam June Paik. In a similarly uneasy piece, Matt Porterfield turns an interview with a prisoner into a video that probes his body instead, as if his tattooed skin could reveal the truth about why he’s serving a 35-year sentence.

Most of The World’s videos, though, lie at the other end of the spectrum, some of which seem so far removed from video’s historical origins that it might be better calling them something else entirely. For example, the video mash-up, a live action and animation hybrid that encourages artists to overdose on imagery, shows up repeatedly. Here, the ties between Baltimore and the world are more interesting, as local pieces—including Joel Fernando’s music video for Future Islands (“The Happiness of Being Twice”) and the web video/performance group Showbeast’s episode “Nose Raptor”—can be compared to works by New Orleans-based artist Dave Greber’s “Carnival Picaresque,” which uses similar techniques in a narrative film.

The most charming video in the collection is David Politzer’s “Rio Macho,” one of a series of videos starring Politzer and his alter ego, who appears on a television set. Politzer explores real and mediated landscapes with his television in hand, which keeps alive the connection between video and the larger, more uncertain world of digital media.

While about a dozen works are displayed on monitors, the rest are projected in a loop, so it’s easy for pieces to be overlooked. Ellen Lake’s short documentary “Trina’s Collections” is a portrait of an obsessive, idiosyncratic collector, but instead of exposing the body and personality of the collector, Lake chooses to focus on the objects themselves—vintage aprons, ceramic figurines, and tikis—with the collector providing the narration. While a video like this would have been left out of a more narrowly curated show, its inclusion here is welcome, as if to remind you that the versatility of video can be used to make traditional images as well as experimental ones.

By setting the show up as a contest between Baltimore and the world, the curators place an unnecessary burden on Baltimore video artists to measure up to the work produced elsewhere. It still works as a broad sampling of what artists are doing with video now, even as the medium loses itself in a digital sea. Place in this show is not so much about style as it is about the importance of connecting oneself to a geographic home, no matter how tenuous and unnecessary that place might be.

The Current Gallery holds a closing reception and release party for the exhibition’s accompanying DVD 7-10 p.m. Oct. 1 with screenings of Dustin Wong and Andrew Shenker’s “3 times” (trilogy: “Whole Confusion,” “Mise En Scene,” and “A Gentle Madness”) and Mel Chin’s animation “9-11/9-11.”

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