Known for its calculated departure from mainstream commercial formats, experimental film generally eschews such conventions as linear narrative and clear-cut imagery. Whether absurd or sublime, films conceived outside the Hollywood template often point up conditioned expectations. Two entries in the Pittsburgh Biennial '08's video program show how such work can succeed or fail.
Self-described "cognitive dissident" tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE makes a strong case for another of experimental film's values -- its ability to initiate mental gymnastics. His video "Subtitles, 16 mm<--brains' version" appears at the Biennial, curated by Laura Domencic and George Davis.
Tent's work is an excellent example of meta-film. Like meta-fiction, where a story overtly explores its own devices, in "16 mm" neural influence takes center stage. On the right side of the split screen is a 2005 interview with a neurologist, who tracks experimental film-viewers' brain scans. These reveal pronounced activity in the higher cognitive regions. On the left are the very images Tent references in the interview: subtitles, inexplicably fleeing crowds and formless visuals.
We, like the viewers studied, are flooded with fragmentary information, aural confusion, highly specialized data. Our brains work to keep pace with the interview, but also to make sense of the grainy images flickering past on the left. Here, Tent points to (and we achieve) the complex mental activity the neurologist describes.
Where Tent's work is fascinating and intellectually multivalent, Paper Rad's is disappointingly one-dimensional. The New York-Pittsburgh collective comprised of Ben Jones and Jacob and Jessica Ciocci is known for its masterful, trance-inducing video mash-ups of toy advertisements, found footage and homemade cartoons. The group's style bears the lo-fi simplicity of unmodulated color palettes and South Park-style animation.
Paper Rad's Biennial videos include a prefatory warning: The programs have not been tested by corporate interests and are "more like how we remember TV from our childhood." Paper Rad's three "Problem Solvers" episodes mingle imaginary characters and talking animals with folksy guitar tunes -- like so many children's shows produced in the 1970s and '80s.
Yet here, the similarity to actual children's programming ends, and a hollow take-off begins. With its rudimentary storylines and narrative non sequiturs, Paper Rad flattens the didactic features of kids' shows beyond recognition, making us unsure of whether the artists intend satire, nostalgia or something else entirely. While the title "Problem Solvers" seems to smirkingly point to kiddie-TV's edifying objectives, Paper Rad makes only feeble reference to the standard moral upshot, the instructive imitation of life, the modeling of interpersonal relations. What remains is a tedious, repetitive plot, awash in acid-drop logic. Perhaps this is the point, given Paper Rad's prefatory statement.
But what about that statement? It suggests both that corporate interests have ushered in a more cultivated kind of television and that said interests weren't involved in the shows Paper Rad members recall from childhood. Both points are highly arguable.
The creative freedom of experimental cinema can lead to the liberating or to the vague and futile. Where Tent deftly anchors his content to the form of experimental film, Paper Rad's work floats so far from its inspirational anchor that the rope unravels, leaving viewers adrift in a sea of uncertainty.
Pittsburgh Biennial '08 continues through Aug. 24. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Point Breeze. 412-363-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org