MoMA’s Biggest Video Art Survey in Years Is a Winner

Let’s start with a sad fact: the last time New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged a sizable survey of video art was in 1995, nearly three decades ago. Better late than never to remedy that, however, and right now, the museum’s spacious sixth floor is filled with moving images in that medium—roughly 35 hours’ worth, to be exact. That’s not even counting works whose durations are not listed on the show’s checklist.

The exhibition, titled “Signals: How Video Transformed the World,” offers more footage than anyone could ever absorb in a single visit. Individual pieces in the show only seem to reinforce the idea that this is indeed the point.

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There’s Dara Birnbaum’s Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission (1990), an installation featuring four armatures hung from the ceiling, each with a screen attached that plays videotaped images of Chinese students protesting governmental oppression. A surveillance switcher cycles out their feeds on a fifth screen in the center, making it so that a partial view of all this footage is the only possible experience here.

Not far away, there’s Ming Wong’s Windows on the World (Part 2), a 2014 installation composed of 24 screens’ worth of material dealing with the history of science fiction in China. Some monitors display footage of fictional Chinese astronauts boarding rockets; others offer news broadcasts about space travel; still others contain text about recent forays into the genre by Cixin Liu, Jia Zhangke, and more. Arranged in a style that recalls displays once used to sell TVs before the era of flatscreens, these monitors demand darting eyes and probing brains, but they never allow viewers to take it all in at once.

An armature with a small screen wired to it. The screen shows a partly distressed image of protestors inset in another picture that is too abstract to make out.
Dara Birnbaum, Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission, 1990.

No one is expected to watch every single second in “Signals,” a show that rewards fast-paced sampling rather than prolonged, contemplative viewing, and if anything, this is to the show’s credit. Curators Stuart Comer and Michelle Kuo have organized a thrilling experience, one that gets to the heart of what video art is all about: the sense that we need no longer be passive viewers who are force-fed a one-way stream of information.

“Signals” can’t really be called a history of video art. The show, Comer and Kuo write in its catalogue, is “not a survey but a lens, reframing and revealing a history of massive shifts in society up to the present day.” That frees them from having to contend with some classics of the medium and to lure in some unexpected artists.

Notably absent from the show are a number of video art pioneers who appeared in Barbara London’s 1983 survey at MoMA, such as Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Joan Jonas, and Vito Acconci. It would be all too easy to quibble with those omissions, as well as ones of other giants that rose in the intervening years, from Stan Douglas to Hito Steyerl. But doing so would be pointless, since the lineage presented in “Signals” is deliberately idiosyncratic and, in some ways, even more exciting than a traditional canon. (The purview is also limited by what’s in MoMA’s collection—almost everything in the show comes from its holdings.)

A gallery hung with rows of monitors and filled with projections.
Installation view of “Signals: How Video Transformed the World,” 2023, at Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The curators seem most interested in video as tool for protest, one that could achieve just as much as a leaflet or a soapbox. Indeed, throughout this show, artists turn their cameras on upheaval, partly in an effort to document political actions and partly to transmit calls for change through screens around the world.

One section is devoted to collectives who welcomed video technology as a means of consciousness-raising. Not Channel Zero, a group of African American artists, toted around their camera at protests held across the US, offering a less polished and more nuanced view of matters than you’d find on the nightly news. Not Channel Zero Goes to War (1992) tackles leftist anger over the Gulf War. At one point, with a camera pushed close to her face, a Black woman attending a demonstration says, “There’s a lot of things we can do peacefully instead of fighting over one white man’s ego!” Producing video art, it would seem, is but one of those activities.

The low-budget look of Not Channel Zero’s work is a feature, not a bug—it differentiates this video from what’s beamed through the airwaves. Many other artists in the show have utilized that look too, with Artur Zmijewski bringing his camera to Israeli uprisings decrying intervention in the Gaza Strip and Tiffany Sia wielding an iPhone to document recent protests in Hong Kong. There’s an immediacy to it all that can’t be found in a CNN report.

A video still shot from a balcony in a large space filled with protestors, some of whom have unfurled banners. The still is surrounded by black.
Tiffany Sia, Never Rest / Unrest (still), 2020.

Video has made it impossible to separate what’s happening at home from what’s taking place abroad, these artists suggest. That much is made literal in Emily Jacir’s Ramallah/New York (2004–05), in which quotidian-seeming images filmed in the West Bank and Manhattan—bland offices, buzzy bars—are placed side by side. In a tiny gesture of video-based magic, more than 5,000 miles of space is collapsed by way of two monitors set inches apart.

Since video can circulate live images in a way film cannot, artists have enlisted it to bring together people distanced by geography. In a touching proto-Zoom gesture, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz used video to link a department store in Los Angeles with Lincoln Center in New York. The results, recorded in the 1980 video Hole in Space, show smiling people jumping for joy at the realization that they can now wave at strangers across the country.

Some artists have eyed the ease of enacting gestures like Galloway and Rabinowitz’s with suspicion. Julia Scher’s Information America (1995), featuring several cameras that film viewers and play back their images on a group of mounted screens, aims to underscore how surveillance can’t exist without video technology. It succeeds in making its point, albeit ham-fistedly. More successful is Song Dong’s lo-fi Broken Mirror (1999), in which a camera is pointed at pieces of glass that capture confused passersby on the street. Those mirrors are then smashed with a hammer, revealing structures you’d never imagine behind them.

If “Signals” has one pratfall, it’s a problem that plagues almost every video show ever curated: sound bleed. You can hear the shards shattering in Broken Mirror all the way across the room as you stare at a Martine Syms installation. In the next gallery over, a Philip Glass score ends up accompanying more than just a Nam June Paik video, even managing to infiltrate the walls of a domed Stan VanderBeek installation whose ceiling is covered in overlapping projections.

To mitigate the aural crowding, MoMA is supplying headsets that play the videos’ soundtracks when held up to a QR code. These do little to help when there are few partitions and lots of noise. The few works cordoned off in black-box spaces—like a can’t-miss Chto Delat video installation called The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger (2014), in which the Russian collective’s members huff and puff and wax poetics about resistance while moving around balletically—fare somewhat better, but only marginally so.

Then again, some videos in the show explicitly comment on this barrage of sound and image, and even embrace it. Nil Yalter’s striking Tower of Babel (Immigrants), 1974–77/2016, features at its core a ring of outward-facing monitors displaying interviews with Turkish immigrants in France. The mélange of Turkish and French being spoken, only some of which is subtitled, is meant to simulate a community whose individuals cannot be pulled apart from each other. Consider that a metaphor for how the videos in this show ought to function.

A video installation featuring 24 screens, some of which show images of astronauts and others featuring text.
Ming Wong, Windows on the World (Part 2), 2014.

The last couple galleries of “Signals” are the most interesting ones, since they present relatively new additions to video history that argue against some of the medium’s long-established core tenets. If Not Channel Zero used video to advocate for visibility, Sandra Mujinga, a young artist born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now based in Berlin and Oslo, relies upon the medium to move her performers toward states that cannot be perceived. The performer in her hypnotic 2021 video Pervasive Light, Mariama Ndure, appears to disappear, thanks to an array of digital effects that cloak her image in darkness while a thumping score by NaEE RoBErts plays.

A gallery with a large screen in one corner showing a person in a white cube space. Their body has been scrubbed out by digital effects, leaving only their hair.
Recent works by Sondra Perry (seen here) and others in “Signals” react to some of the core tenets of video art.

New Red Order’s Culture Capture: Crimes Against Reality (2020) provides what may be considered the show’s big finale. Projected at a scale typically reserved for blockbusters played in multiplexes, the work focuses on two sculptures featuring representations of Native Americans—one is the monument to Theodore Roosevelt that once stood outside the American Natural History Museum in New York—that become jelly-like flesh via CGI. As one of the melted-down statues expands and contracts in a glass case, you are reminded of just how far video has come since the days when live-streaming across the country seemed revolutionary.

Exiting the show, visitors encounter a group of banks where a looping playlist of videos is on view. There is simply too much to see here, and it’s difficult to know exactly when a desired tape is going to play. The good news is that MoMA has uploaded most of these works to a dedicated channel on its website, where they will be reabsorbed into the flow of moving imagery uploaded to the internet daily. That’s as fitting a temporary home for these works as I can imagine.


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