Video Art and the Importance of Place

Hot damn, that’s a lot of video art.

We went to Hamburger Bahnhoff Museum on Tuesday and saw a simply vast collection of projected video art. Two works that struck me were “As the Hammer Strikes” by John Massey, a recreation of a conversation between the artist and a hitchhiker on 3 channels, which dealt with misunderstandings and miscommunications in a really interesting way; and “Destroy She Said” by Monica Bonvicini, which cut together clips of women from European films in states of psychological distress in front of walls, and projected them onto two rough screens in a room with sawdust on the floor and exposed cables to emphasize the construction of the feminine cinematic identity. It really helped me, as a media student, to see such a variety of work in one place. It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of video as an artistic medium and seeing them all together provided a really interesting context.

In a way, a lot of this trip has been about context. It’s very different to read and experience a work in its setting, in the story’s habitat. For example, I was having a fairly lousy time in London, but one thing that made me really excited was riding the tube and seeing the stop names that corresponded to Neverwhere, one of my favorite novels. I kept telling people about it (Holy crap! That sign says “Angel Islington!”), but no one else had read it. When a bunch of us went to Waterstones by the university, I bought myself a nice copy and it made the trip infinitely better.
Simply being in London made me read the book differently. It gave the work much more depth to have walked where the characters walked and seen what they saw. It was also very validating to have characters articulate what I had been feeling about the city. Like this: “Old Bailey remembered when people had actually lived here in the City, not just worked; when they had lived and lusted and laughed, built ramshackle houses one leaning against the next, each house filled with noisy people. Why, the noise and the mess and the stinks and the songs from the alley across the way (then known, at least colloquially, as Shitten Alley) had been legendary in their time, but no one lived in the city now. It was a cold and cheerless place of offices, of people who worked in the day and went home somewhere else at night. It was not a place for living anymore. He even missed the stinks.” We were staying in the business section of London and it was entirely cold and cheerless. The London we saw was the one Old Bailey lamented.

Also, I found Neil Gaiman’s blog which made me a very happy panda indeed. It feels almost intimate to be reading his personal journal, it’s like an extra look into his life; it practically makes us friends. Plus it’s a little extra Neil, which I’ll never turn down.

When I bought Neverwhere, I also bought “Berlin Stories” by Christopher Isherwood, the short stories on which the play “I am a Camera” is based, which inspired the musical Cabaret. Now I’ve been borderline obsessed with this musical since I read the script from the library freshmen year, but my efforts to see it or direct it have been consistently thwarted. Finally, my buddy Karen, who costars in my next video blog (Coming soon!) and is studying in Berlin right now, got the two of us tickets to go see it at Bar jeder Venuft and I was practically bouncing off the walls. Until we realized, after we silly Americans got our tickets, that it would be in German. Of which I speak only, uh, keine. None.

But, we went anyway, and I am immensely glad we did because it blew my mind. It was a small cast, about 12, with stellar choreography and costumes, and they used the space and the text in a way I really appreciated. They even used some of the same staging I imagined using. Because the actors were so physical and expressive and I have the play practically memorized, I followed the story just fine. It may have even been better, especially actually seeing it performed in Berlin. It really enriched the work.

I think that for me, part of the key to understanding a city and a space is to explore it through the stories of others. When we first came to Berlin, a bunch of us watched “Goodbye Lenin”, a film dealing with life in Berlin during and immediately after the wall fell. The film was fairly controversial when it was released because it showed people being nostalgic for the DDR. I have a really crappy sense of modern history (which I am completely ashamed of), and the film gave me a new look into a space and time I hadn’t experienced before. It was especially cool to have watched it before our bus tour and then walking around the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie (and Snackpoint Charlie, the convenience store across the way).

Long story short, I am having a fabulous time in Berlin, too much of a fabulous time to go out and be more consistent with my blogging (sorry!), but I’ll have some really cool catch up posts.


laura said…
!! I love Neil Gaiman and Neverwhere and am jealous, but I got to meet him this term so I guess we balance. :D
rrrandom_antic said…
Oh my Gosh Rachel! I'm so glad you had the same Neverwhere connections in London! I spent the first half of my program cracking up everytime I saw Blackfriar's or Islington or Cockfosters. The last one wasn't related to the book, but it was funny. It's also fabulous that you are having a good time in Berlin. Your videos make My Kidneys Feel Better.
Vienna Waits said…
Yeah, Cockfosters was most definitely my favorite tube stop. I think it should become a mild exclamation of suprise, as in, "You put the peanut butter INSIDE the chocolate cup? Cockfosters! That's Brilliant!"

Or we need to start a football team: Cockfosters United. I'll be the coach who's hit rock bottom and you can be the leader of the ragtag bunch of youths who inspire me to live again.
Anonymous said…
If you are interested in Berlin Stories check out Christopher and His Kind, which is his story of the real people behind the characters, and his return to Berlin in the 50s and tracking down his old landlady and lovers.

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