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The Video Data Bank Turns 30

Thirty years may be infancy in terms of art history, but in the history of video art, it’s ripe old age. This November, the Video Data Bank (VDB) celebrated its 30th anniversary with several days of screenings and speakers.

Video Data Bank According to Abina Manning, the VDB’s associate director, media theorist Gene Youngblood was chosen as part of the three-day celebration because “he would speak to the ever-changing utopian spirit of the media democracy movement, and encompass some aspects of the history of that movement of which the VDB is undoubtedly a part.” Although Anne McGuire, a video artist who also participated in the events, is less well known, Manning invited her to be a part of the anniversary due to her substantial body of performance work. “She’s dealing with some of the major themes of contemporary video,” Manning said, “[such as] parody of early video, television, the body.” But the star of the show (and, arguably, of the video art world itself) was George Kuchar.

Kuchar has been making videos for over 50 years, or about ten years longer than video has even been considered an art form. “George Kuchar’s work is both widely known and not known at all,” Manning said. The VDB has over 200 of his bizarrely titled pictures, from “Evangelust” to “Mecca of the Frigid” to “The Deafening Goo.” The anniversary events featured a screening of Kuchar’s new work, “Queen Conga,” a product of the class he teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute (he calls the class “AC/DC Psychotronic Teleplays,” ostensibly to lure students). Like the rest of Kuchar’s work, “Queen Conga” featured a low budget and what the VDB website calls “cheap thrills.”

Check It Out In the VDB’s new catalog, Feedback: The Video Data Bank Catalog of Video Art and Artist Interviews, released for the anniversary, VDB Executive Director Katherine Horsfield writes, “Video art maintains an outsider perspective.” Kuchar exemplifies this perspective in his work, his words, even his person. During a conversation between him and McGuire, held November 1 in the Columbus Drive auditorium, Kuchar spoke in a nasal New York accent, his thick handlebar moustache lifting to reveal a row of, as he frequently admits, not-so-good teeth. He reminisced about enraging highbrow audiences with “turd shots,” gave advice (“Just keep shooting,” he said, “even though you think what you’re doing is horrible”) and when asked if there is still an underground video scene, Kuchar replied: “Yeah, there is. Strange pictures are being made. If you’re making movies, you’ll find an audience.”

Websites like YouTube seem to have no problem finding an audience, and Manning sees that website as both good and bad for the VDB. “Some of our artists have had their work downloaded to YouTube and are concerned about it,” she said. “Others of our artists are excited about it.” (A search for Kuchar on YouTube yields only five results.) The technology it provides, however, may be a boon for the VDB; Manning said they are considering a video streaming model.

But the VDB has little actual competition, having cornered the market on what Horsfield calls “the best contemporary video made by both emerging and established makers across a broad landscape of uses.” In addition to video art, the collection includes interviews with artists from various disciplines, called “On Art and Artists.”

Despite its name, the VDB largely distributes work on DVD. “It’s become a little redundant to talk about ‘video,’” Manning says, “we collect work by filmmakers who edit on video (i.e, Jem Cohen) and artists whose work never even sees a camera (computer animation).”

Due to what Horsfield calls an “open door acquisition program,” the VDB’s collection is constantly growing. Horsfield lists two criteria a submission must have to make the cut: visual and structural innovation and “a significant contribution to contemporary art or cultural discourse.” VDB staffers also acquire work from screenings, festivals, panels and juries and colleagues, and their client list includes major museums and, as Manning claims, “every major art school in the US.”

Thirty years ago, as a graduate student, Horsfield and Lyn Blumenthal, a fellow grad student, began the VDB by interviewing some artists. Since then, the VDB has built up a prodigious collection of significant, innovative work: it now maintains over 1,600 titles. “Making a movie is hard labor,” Kuchar said, once again sounding like a personification of the VDB itself, said. “You get obsessed.”

For more information and to browse the VDB collections, go to www.vdb.org or visit them on the third floor of the McClean Center, 112 S. Michigan.

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