Music Videos At the Museum

Max Goldberg November 29, 2006

I suspect I’m not alone amongst the children of the ’80s in thinking of music videos in formative terms, those three-minute MTV blasts carving out styles and stars, enacting the kind of fantasy fulfillment formerly reserved for the silver screen. Some of the images — Slash soloing in front of a church in “November Rain,” Björk catapulting through the forest in “Human Behavior,” and, of course, Madonna in any number of daring poses — remain startlingly vivid. Regardless what one thinks of their merit as art, it’s clear that many of these clips did their job — namely, promoting the performer and the song — exceedingly well.

MTV’s boat has long since sailed, but while music videos no longer hold a privileged position on television, the form is as ubiquitous ever thanks to online networking hubs like YouTube and Myspace. There’s been much talk over the last few years about how digital technology might even the playing field as far as the production and distribution of feature films, but thus far, the applications have mostly been bite-sized — music video has always been an economical, digestible proposition, so it makes sense that they’re a good match for the digital-DIY set.

It’s in this context that the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts brings music video to the museum through March 4th in its downstairs gallery.

The move isn’t entirely unexpected, especially since music video form is frequently traced back to avant-garde cinema, with certain stock techniques (rapid editing, visual abstraction) drawing liberally from the innovations of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, and even Georges Méliès. The exhibition “Underplayed: A Mix-Tape of Music-Based Videos” will work as a companion to the “Sensacional! Mexican Street Graphics” collection, with several of the pieces coming from Mexico City’s explosive arts scene: Juan Luna-Avin’s “Odisea 2001,” Miguel Calderon’s “Miedo,” Josh Lazcano’s “Sometime Samurai,” and two collaborative works, “Mirando a las Muchachas” and “Revelee.” These works promise to be bright and boastful, entertaining many different visions of music video (as performance art, montage, sound sculpture, etc.).

Cross-pollination is the common denominator of all the works in “Underplayed,” no surprise given the music video’s mongrel format. Other featured works include a Martha Colburn/Deerhoof collaboration, an entirely atypical Daniel Johnston video (of “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” fame), a contribution from Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and painter Marco Fuscinato, and a little thing called “The Bohemian Rhapsody Project.” There is, of course, always the problem of exhibiting video in an interesting way, but the folks at Yerba Buena are doing their best to make “Underplayed” a dynamic experience with visitors able to choose between watching the work in a typical screening room or, “a futuristic capsule designed to hold eight people.” Not being one to pass up futuristic capsules, the decision seems clear enough to me.