This documentary about queer and alternative video performance is an interesting and insightful look at the history of this medium from the Warhol videos made on Portapaks in the late 60s, to contemporary multimedia performances and DIY Youtube video performances from the likes of Nao Bustamante, Scottee and Dickie Beau.
What this documentary makes clear from the beginning is the immediacy and power of video to powerfully convey political messages and connect with the mass public, in a way that traditional art doesn’t have the means to do, and in a way that is egalitarian and affordable.
This film shows how Andy Warhol, a pioneer in this medium, recognised the value and impact of this immediately and how his experimental and cheaply made works paved the way for queer and alternative filmmakers like Dara Birnbaum.
It is interesting to hear how Birnbaum, a shy waitress, was able to make provocative video art like Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978-9) so cheaply and get away with ripping images off the TV show. It is also gratifying to know that this experimental work which would normally be seen only by the cultured few was able to be shown on a TV in a local electronics store. As she relates it she was able to get the female store manager on her side by relating how the work examined repressive popular images of femininity. And looking at this work now it really does remain a striking political statement, jarring the viewer with its repetition and getting you to re-examine and criticise the images of femininity being presented to you.
From here we get more interesting stories of filmmakers like Glenn O’Brien who started his own influential and radical public access cable TV show TV Party. We see how a show designed for his friends to watch broke all the rules by including deliberate mistakes, looking amateurish and including bits designed to deliberately provoke such as prolonged silences and cuts to things like people’s feet. And it is fun to see clips from the show including segments such as bewildered accidental viewers phoning up and asking what the show was about. We also see how this format inspired countless zoo TV shows in the 80s and 90s.
We also meet filmmakers like Vaginal Davis a US drag pioneer who created a queer punk subculture just by envisioning it in his home-made videos. He is also a very witty and charismatic interviewee who tells anecdotes of being constantly rejected by queer film festivals and how this fuelled him to carry on, as he knew that his work was having an impact even if it was a negative one. The clips we get of his video magazine show where he interviewed trans prostitutes on their fashion also shows just how daring and ahead of his time he was.
David Hoyle is another artist featured who broke new ground by presenting an avant garde show on Channel 4 in the 90s as Divine David, back when “channel 4 was really channel 4”. This featured out there works by artists who would’ve not otherwise been shown, and was a show that really made being a ‘freak’ something to celebrate and in so doing making all the ‘freaks’ out there feel less alone. And it definitely makes you wish that more shows were made like this nowadays, when so much gay culture has been sanitised by mainstream TV, as another performer Holestar points out.
The interview and clips from contemporary video performance artist Dickie Beau were also a definite highlight and showed how the medium has become sophisticated. Beau by combing live performance and video art really shows how effective these two things could be together, creating a heightened atmosphere and enveloping experience. His performances also stand as effective portrayals of the power of juxtaposing sound and image, and an examination of things like the fascination of iconic film star’s dysfunctions, whilst the beauty of the clips really made me want to see him live.
The only critique I have of the film is that at 119 minutes it was definitely a bit too long and sometimes too repetitive. Segments such as the one on performer Alp Haydar in my opinion could’ve been cut, as similar points he was making about the medium were made elsewhere better and his performances were to my mind rather uninteresting (but that’s just my view). But overall it is a film that makes you feel glad that there are artists doing something right out there, and who are really trying to make a difference in the world, change opinions, educate people on alternative/queer culture and show just how easy it can be to do. It really is possible to start a revolution from your bed.