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Jeremy Shaw, 7 Minutes, Video, 1995/2005.

Locational Identity:
Thermostat: Video and the Pacific Northwest at Art Basel, Miami 

by Danielle Roney

As numerous international market segments attempted to identify themselves clearly in the sea of art fairs at Art Basel 2007 in Miami, Michael Darling, Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Seattle Art Museum, sought to provide his region with a distinctive identity through the survey exhibition Thermostat: Video and the Pacific Northwest, part of the official Video Lounge programming at the Convention Center.

As local identity structures in society struggle to adjust to the continued growth of a global perspective, contemporary art reflects upon the quandaries of balance between pluralistic, international experiences and local/regionalism in the United States. How can work that reflects a regional sensibility draw attention in the trendy shopping mall marketplace of international art brokers engulfed by the commodity wave?

Darling addressed this question by focusing on the strengths of the regional traditions of early super 8mm filmmaking, and its historically rich musical counterpart, with sensitivity and well-balanced sentimentality.

It is interesting to note how the landscape itself tied together the self-defined regional classification, Cascadia, after the Cascade mountain range, which includes continual interaction between many of these artists beyond their city limits and country borders from Vancouver and British Columbia through migrations into California.

Exemplifying borderless environmentalism, Portland artist Vanessa Renwick’s Portrait #2: Trojan, from the Portrait Series of Cascadia, documents the demolition of a looming, abandoned nuclear power plant tower juxtaposed with the serene, exquisite landscape of the northwest forests and lakes. Shot in beautifully oversaturated 35mm, the experience transcends while referencing regional history and storytelling through the bluegrass music accompaniment by Quasi’s Sam Coomes. An additional work directly entwining these aspects is Kevin Schmidt’s Long Beach Led Zep, a self-portrait of the artist playing “Stairway to Heaven” badly on the guitar on the Pacific coastline.

Kevin Schmidt, Long Beach Led Zep, Video, 2002.

As the program progresses into layers of urban interactions, examining intimacy and the masses, the public becomes the performer in several documentary manipulations. Accomplished filmmaker/performer Miranda July, whose additional “Sampler” program on Friday included Atlanta, an Olympic portrait from 1996, examined the personal, spatial and energy relationships between two families sitting at the airport in her piece, Haysha Royko. The locked-down camera view incorporated an animated color overlay for each person, positioning and repositioning the negative space of the empty seat between them. The entertaining dilemma of an overactive and overtly oblivious child breaks all the barriers in a refreshingly simple portrait of boundaries in common space.

Miranda July, Haysha Royko, Video, 2003.

Spatial and personal boundaries are also at issue in Vancouver artist Jeremy Shaw’s 7 Minutes, centered on an underground subculture and teen violence. This revisited footage from a 1995 party with Jeremy’s skater and rave friends, positions the viewer as voyeur in the hazy, slow motion account of a girl fight. Jeremy utilizes conventions of anticipation and reality TV to examine the derivatives of anarchy, adolescence, and the continual geographical tensions of Vancouver’s fault line earthquake threats. Coming from Los Angeles, I can attest to the deep pervasive impact of the threats surrounding the region.

In contrast to the intimacy of the interior experience in Shaw’s piece, Roy Arden takes reality TV on a different journey in Supernatural, a compilation of archival news footage surrounding a hockey riot in the streets of Vancouver. Resulting from his background in urban photography and the found object, the clips becomes objects of time separated by a breathing pattern of blackness, causing the viewer’s mind to extrapolate on each missing moment in their own imagination. Fragments of action defy the traditional timeline as the depiction escalates and subsides in waves of violence and frivolity. 

These inquiries provide an interesting reflection upon Joseph Beuys’s socialist perspective, as expressed in his 1973 essay “I Am Searching For Field Character”: “Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build A SOCIAL ORGANISM AS A WORK OF ART” and Jean-Luc Nancy’s later communistic approach to the individual as the atomic result of the “dissolution of the community” and an “abstract result of a decomposition” (The Inoperative Community, 1986). Within the context of the Information Age and an ongoing redistribution of wealth worldwide, we must question the physical and virtual relationships of the individual to the masses, and the struggle to redefine the social role of the artist and art itself. Can the whole and its parts be emphasized in a symbiotic view globally or artistically? Sensitivity to the complexity of this balance is critical to facilitate global cultural diplomacy.

Danielle Roney is a multimedia artist

based in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

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