Bumbershoot Video Arts: An Expedition in Need of a Map

New York artist Leslie Lyons' Expedition sounded like fun at Bumbershoot, until I actually saw it. Bumbergoers are asked to sit for short video portraits/testimonials/stories of about a minute in length. They take their cues from each prior subject, while also hewing to Lyons' chosen themes (birth, dreaming, kissing, friends, love, magic, and immortality). It's somehow derived from the old Surrealist game of "Exquisite Corpse," in which artists collaborate on a story (or painting or play or whatever), all within a predetermined template or pattern or grammatical sequence. Each participant gets to fill in the blanks, but the order of blanks has been set in advance. It's randomness within parameters, supposedly a window into the subconscious mind...

As a practical matter, that meant visitors to the Seattle Center Pavilion found a couple of flat-screen TVs playing the contributions of prior visitors. You'd stare at the video displays, shot against a black curtain in an enclosure nearby, and try to figure out what theme you were seeing--birth, kissing, or what? And this was an expedition toward where? No screen graphics identified the subjects or their topics; and during my few repeated visits to the shoe, it seemed like the same old faces blathering about the same old things. The whole edited project will end up on the artist's website, but the Bumbershoot experience was frustratingly incomplete.

For starters, no benches. Nobody likes to stand and watch a video of no set duration. Friendly Bumbershoot staffers tried to solicit new subjects to film behind the curtain, but the themes and topics were simply clipped to an easel. (At one point, a staffer hurried over to flip the "now filming" card that was an hour past the actual hour.) How many subjects were interviewed? How long was each sequence? How long did the whole damn thing run? Could we come back and watch from a set starting point? And only two monitors? Expedition made me want to march away.

In our age of YouTube, ChatRoulette, and America's Funniest Home Videos, Expedition is both technologically current and thematically stale, like some effort to recreate Warhol's screen tests, but with no possible payoff to the interviewees. Though shot in murky light against black cloth, these are the faces of people you want to know, something like online dating (or sitting next to random strangers on the bus). And the snippets of their stories can be funny ("Boogers are a problem in my profession, too, because I'm a preschool teacher) but most often banal ("Sometimes I feel like I don't want my dreams to end").

No matter how poorly Expedition presented at Bumbershoot, Lyons has the future advantage in being able to further hone and better present her project online. And it may someday end up as a video installation in a gallery. The willing Bumbergoers--by turns awkward, sincere, amusing, and weird--will be reduced to anonymous faces, story links in Lyons' project. Given all Lyons' dictates, they have little control in the project (unlike Bumber by Number in the tent next door). How many people actually signed release forms and participated in the project? I wouldn't say they were manipulated, exactly, but we Bumbershoot viewers were certainly cheated.

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