The Independent on Sunday - 19 March 2000

- Visual Arts -
The Biennial of the Moving Image

VideoPositive - Liverpool

At the heart of Liverpool's biennial festival of video and electronic arts are just nine works, seven of which are on show at the Bluecoat and the Tate. Steve Bode, the show's curator, notes in the catalogue that almost all the work favours an 'intimacy and economy of execution..... of a central compelling idea'.

At the Bluecoat, two of the works are the community projects. Various women got together with Sonia Boyce to unearth the history of black British singers. On paper this reads like a celebration so how come the end result in the gallery is so dismal? It's boring visually and sounds as if the sampled material has been digitised to death. The second group project is an on-line environment installation, the idea being to get the residents of a Liverpool tower block involved with a community web site called 'Superchannel'. Of course, a project like this can be art, but it can also be patronising to both its subjects and visitors to the gallery, a thought that came to mind as the computer screen I was accessing showed a highly pixilated tea party in a tower-block flat.

The other two works at the Bluecoat are sound-dominated. Ugo Rondinone's piece consists of two artificial trees separated by an internal wall and hung with mini-speakers from which the voices of two men emanate: ' I've got a broken heart man' comes from one tree; " Bullshit" from the other. The acoustics are good, and the piped music that fills the space adds to the melancholy atmosphere. A Beckett stage set is evoked: but the schmaltzy male exchange isn't quite that. The second sound ' piece' is a set of four web-based audio works which have been sub-curated by Micz Flor. There were technical problems with two of the works during my visit which Flor was going to put right from his computer in Berlin. In the meantime the two facilitators in the gallery struggled gamely to explain what was available to visitors and what wasn't, what people could and couldn't do with the resources. With patience and tolerance you could learn a lot about the sound possibilities of the internet from this work, but it's miles away from the 'simplicity, immediacy, arid clarity' that Steve Bode wanted for the show as a whole - the space was like a nursery class.

There is much greater visual component to the three works at the Tate which are all video projections from DVD: there's also much greater harmony within each work and between the three. Monica Oechsler's video of a poker game is the most complicated and spectacular, though it's the other works that have an emotional impact. Dryden Goodwin's installation WAIT has a row of five small suspended screens on each of which a person is staring intently at something waiting for an event to take place. Anticipation, realisation and aftermath, all in slow motion. Not much is happening, you think, but when the face of a young woman waiting for a loved one at an airport suddenly radiates joy, it's more than enough.

Also moving is A K Dolven's LOOKING BACK, in which projections show the same view of a Norwegian landscape dominated by an extinct volcano. In slow motion, glancing behind them, single life-sized elderly women walk backwards in front of the mountain. The passions of their lives recollected in tranquillity? As I watched the mobile phone of a young woman sitting nearby suddenly started playing a silly tune, and - in embarrassment - she instantly left the old ladies for dead.

This show is curiously unbalanced in terms of quality between its two main venues, only occasionally succeeding in its laudable aim of using new media to express strong ideas succinctly.