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TV, or not TV: David Frankel on Alex Bag.

What is the point of like making work for people that are so smart that
they don't even watch TV?
--Alex Bag, Fall'95


Alex Bag is the queen of pout: Forehead forward, brows raised, chin in, lips pursed, she can deliver a look you'd get out of the way of. In a brief sequence from her video Untitled (Project for the Andy Warhol Museum), 1996, she fights with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend: "You are a selfish, arrogant pig Zach Tyler!" she cries. "Well, it takes one to know one," he answers, and here it comes--the pout--the assessing, leveling gaze--but instead of the devastating riposte we might expect (particularly if we already know Bag's scathing satires), we get its opposite: "Can't you see? We belong together! You have to give me another chance Zach!" And so the quarrel ratchets on, an exercise in humiliation, until Zach's final "We're history." Which elicits an abject appeal: "But history repeats itself!"

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You'd pity the poor girl but Bag's just striking poses, jumping from hauteur to humility within one character, no facade more than skin-deep. The whole work is set up as a play of types, a series of short takes each separated by a static buzz signifying channel surfing: We're hopping from program to program, watching none for over a minute or two, catching Bag's versions of ads, self-help shows, soap operas, news fragments (raging flood--solemn voice-over--"Disaster struck today--"--bzzt--next channel), starlet interviews ("Actually acting and modeling are really similar, because it's, like, a lot of sitting around ..."), the usual TV dross. Bag's video art in general is formally inspired by television: by the Saturday Night Live-type skit sequence, the infotainment show, the ad. "I'm not embarrassed by having TV style and pacing; I'm not ashamed of being inspired by that whole world," she says, distinguishing herself from the many video artists she sees as inspired less by TV than by movies, or rather Cinema. In embracing her mass-media source, Bag is the classic Pop artist apres la lettre.

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"There are so many good things about Pop art," says Bag, "but other things I think are awful. The Pop artists accepted their place and time and allowed themselves to reference the world around them, look at it, be inspired by it, examine it, not be so isolated from it, not be in an ivory tower. But at the same time they limited themselves by being so much about surface gloss. They repeat popular imagery without saying anything, really; it's devoid of politics." The politics of Pop can stand up to more inquiry than that, but Bag's work makes her meaning clear. Complicity or critique, love-in or lament--Pop's attitude to mass culture takes infinite deciphering; Bag's targets, on the other hand, know they've been hit. In Coven Services/Demo Reel, 2004, a glassy-eyed young man, played by Ethan Kramer, tells us about himself:
 I'm embarrassed when I think about what my life was like before AOL
 Time Warner was in it. I was such a loser. I used to waste my spare
 time doing pointless things: horseback riding with my ex-girlfriend,
 hiking with a bunch of technophobic hippie losers, volunteering at
 the No Suicide No Crisis hotline, painting these stupid little
 paintings.... I was a total loser. I didn't pay any attention to the
 world of media that was all around me. But everything changed when
 AOL Time Warner changed me. Their television networks, magazines, and
 Internet services rush a steady stream of warm, sticky infojaculate
 right into my eyes.... And porn. I can't forget the porn.


"Television is the most awful thing," says Bag. "But I can't stop watching it. It's so expected that that's what your leisure time is supposed to be--that the accepted way to spend your free time is just to be an absorber, a zombie. I feel compelled to talk back--to respond in some way as a human being." Coven Services/Demo Reel pushes the zombie notion by periodically excerpting the notorious Paris Hilton sex tape, which, for those who haven't downloaded it, was shot with a night-vision video technology that colors people's bodies green and gives their pupils an irradiated glow. Turning the same camera on her glassy-eyed young man and sprinkling the piece with references to witchcraft and ghosts, Bag ties porn, television, and the living dead into one merrily morbid package.

Television today is part of everyone's knowledge base, but Bag's familiarity is personal: She comes from a TV lineage, her father an adman, her mother the host of a successful '70s children's program, The Carol Corbett Show, later renamed The Patchwork Family. Bag appeared on the show as a four-year-old, interviewing a monkey. She also remembers visiting some of her father's sets, "seeing large-scale commercial production when I was young. That always seemed like something just as exciting and important as traditional kinds of fine art." In the terrific early piece Fall'95, 1995, Bag tracks the progress of a student at New York's School of Visual Arts who, though trying to learn to paint, is at home enough with TV to keep a video diary. Initially "psyched" to be "learning so much, like, about texture and surface and light and materials even.... I feel like I've made big improvements in like my shading and foreshortening and figure/ground stuff," she eventually becomes a young artist whose doubts about what she's been taught lead her straight into a meditation on the mass media and the artist's role today. "Stop selling my culture back to me," she pleads, not a little desperately--and though Bag might claim to be sketching a character rather than speaking for herself, the heart-on-sleeve content of her dilemma, its naked difficulty, distinguishes Fall'95 from Pop even as the work poaches Pop's strategy of looking to a mass-media model for its form.

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No Pop artist could have made Le Cruel et Curieux Vie du la Salmonellapod, 2000, a highly unnatural nature documentary on the life of an odd little creature, part bird (it has feathers), part squid (it has tentacles), part who-knows-what, supposedly inhabiting the wilds of upstate New York. A collaboration with Kramer, the tape is engagingly unstable in tone: The salmonellapod puppet's airborne attack on an utterly indifferent terrier will make you laugh, but on the other hand the artists seem to have made their patchedtogether organism out of spare parts acquired at the fishmonger's, and the flies buzzing around it, plus the peculiar scenes of sex and reproduction (a jab at Matthew Barney?), shift the tone from gross-out to strange. "It's not all abstract and pretty," says Bag. "I wanted it to have this ephemeral, weird, poetic mood," and it does. A word Bag often returns to when talking about artmaking is "joy," as in, "When I was in school there was this PC militia; the process of artmaking wasn't supposed to give you joy," or, a favorite artist's "heart is so in the right place about allowing for joy." She will also say, "I want so hard to believe in something, to feel like there's a purpose." Pop was hipper and cooler than that, more poker-faced. Bag herself is wary of sincerity: "Using humor is a way of getting out of that problem, preventing myself from going too far in that extreme," she allows, and along with her fabulous performance skills, her vocabulary of gesture and expression, humor is certainly her fallback, a gift she's too rich in to ignore. But her work has other virtues--watched carefully, the gradual coming-to-consciousness of the art student in Fall'95 is sneakily moving--and at heart she's an old-fashioned moralist.

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Bag also departs from Pop in her methodology, which is decidedly funky. When Elvis first sang, a lot of people thought him bad and dangerous to know (Warhol's gunfightin'-Elvis image plays cunningly on that perception); fifty years later, postpunk, postmetal, post-Britney, Elvis's Sun band can sound like a chamber quartet--elegant, concise, the energy contained and articulated, the musicians' interplay warmly appreciative and human. And so it is with Pop, which, in the post-AbEx context, struck many as a sellout to commerce. In the light of the art that's come since, though, Roy Lichtenstein can look like a classy formalist, Claes Oldenburg like a monumental sculptor a tad transposed, and Warhol like one of the most important of the last century's conceptualists, an artist who rethought art from the ground up. Bag is among those who make Pop look soigne. She turns limited means into a virtue--in fact she believes in them: Fundamentally accepting the Situationist idea of the spectacle (cliched though she feels it to be), she relishes punk, that spectacle-rupturing music of world-devouring drive without its dutiful counterparts of skill and talent. "Pop music is banal, easy on the ears, simple, catchy, contentless ... and punk, what is that? That idea is really about communication, politics, 'you can do this too,' and possibly finding people, this imaginary audience. It would be nice to work with a big budget someday, but if your point is about doing the best you can with nothing, this thing that I want happens with the audience. It's the classic punk-rock thing that I like: Making art is demystified."

When I visited Bag's studio this summer, she played me a couple of her videos and then, as evening became night, sat on the floor and talked by the light of the TV screen, which, tuned to an empty VCR, glowed that flat, steady, featureless blue. I know nothing about Bag's life when she isn't facing an unfamiliar interviewer, but this conversation in almost total bluish darkness is now a permanent part of my picture of her. There is a worry in her wit, an anxiety about where we're going that sets her videos apart from the TV comedies they can resemble. There's also an embedded idealism. Ask Bag about Pop and she'll jump first to what she calls the Pop art of the '80s: Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, artists who, like their predecessors two decades earlier, were influenced by movies and media but who "definitely pushed it, found the politics, found the content. I tend to be romantic about the responsibility of the artist," says Bag. "I expect a lot out of art."

David Frankel is managing editor in the Department of Publications of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and a contributing editor of Artforum.
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Article Details
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Author:Frankel, David
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Words:1747
Previous Article:Rob Pruitt.
Next Article:Subject to revision.
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