It’s estimated that the average American spends about ten hours looking at screens—on phones, laptops, desktops, tablets, televisions, and so on—every day. Screens are more than a little ubiquitous at this point, and I realized, perhaps not so surprisingly, that many of my favorite exhibitions from this year involved the use of screens. In tribute, I compiled lists of my favorite screen-based work that I saw in galleries, museums, and theaters, and a few more that I viewed by other means.
But before I get to the lists below, I want to highlight one work that didn’t involve a screen—or did it? Louise Lawler’s absurdly good Museum of Modern Art survey included screenings of A Movie Will Be Shown Without a Picture. Perhaps “screening” is the wrong word, since the work involves taking a ready-made film and playing just the soundtrack, with the screen left blank. It makes for an excruciating experience, and one that many can’t stand—several people gave up midway through when I went. It seems apt to quote my favorite line from Chris Marker’s 1983 film Sans Soleil (which, coincidentally, also shows up in two excellent shows by Kahlil Joseph and Sable Elyse Smith currently at the New Museum and the Queens Museum, respectively): “If they don’t see the happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.”
SCREENS IN GALLERIES
1. Haroon Mirza at Lisson Gallery: One of the best works I saw this year could not have been more timely: Mirza’s four-channel video installation ããã – Fear of the Unknown remix, which tied together the rise of nationalism in Europe, the election of Donald Trump, new digital technology, and Mirza’s own experience with ayahuasca in Brazil. This was the year’s best statement about how politics have become a trip; as everything has begun to feel positively unreal, his video, with its hypnotic editing and strange effects added in post-production, hit home.
2. Trevor Paglen at Metro Pictures: Paglen was named a MacArthur “genius” fellow this year, and for good reason. His latest Metro Pictures show featured one of the most creative uses of photography in recent memory, with artificial-intelligence-generated images based on porn, photos of vampires, and portraits of Hito Steyerl and Frantz Fanon. The results were horrifying, and they suggested that there are still new ways of seeing.
3. Lynn Hershman Leeson at Bridget Donahue: Do we need more proof that Hershman Leeson, whom I profiled for ARTnews’s Spring 2017 issue, ought to have a greater following in America? Probably not, but her second Bridget Donahue show offered some more evidence anyway. The focus here was her moving-image pieces, many of which deal with cyborgs, voyeurism, and feminism—topics that Hershman Leeson has been wrestling with for 50 years. It’s time she had a New York retrospective.
4. Lena Youkhana at Queer Thoughts: Youkhana’s unforgettable and disturbing New York debut was curated by the elusive artist Puppies Puppies and featured three lo-fi videos, each of which was unnerving in a different way. In two, an unseen cameraperson moves through empty apartments; in another, a man can be seen raping a donkey via infrared photography. These are upsetting to begin with, and they only become stranger because of their source—Youkhana appropriated all her footage from the internet.
5. Kevin Jerome Everson at Andrew Kreps: Something about Kevin Jerome Everson’s films suggests they might be from a different era—maybe it’s the way they call attention to how somber and slow they are, or maybe it’s the fact that feel like structuralist works from the 1970s. They should probably be boring, but they aren’t. His latest show brought together footage of cars being crushed and the moon waxing and waning, all of which served as poetic statements about life and death.
SCREENS IN MUSEUMS
1. Whitney Biennial: The approaches that artists took with works involving screens in this year’s Whitney Biennial were diverse. The show included some of my favorite works of the year, among them Anicka Yi’s 3-D video The Flavor Genome, a semi-fictional look at genetic modification. Tuan Andrew Nguyen offered an essayistic film about the apocalypse and the refugee crisis, and Irena Haiduk created a women-only wifi network that viewers could access via their phones. A few of the year’s most innovative works came courtesy of Porpentine Charity Heartscape, whose text-only video games (they tell their choose-your-own-adventure–style stories without any images or sounds, save for a low-frequency hum) poignantly explore abuse and trauma. And, in the film section, Leilah Weinraub debuted Shakedown, an excellent documentary about Los Angeles’s black lesbian club culture. If I may, one complaint: Let’s just stop talking about Jordan Wolfson’s VR work Real Violence, which almost literally beats you over the head with . . . something?
2. Martine Syms at Museum of Modern Art: The centerpiece of Syms’s MoMA “Projects” show was a terrific three-channel film, Incense Sweaters & Ice, that followed a woman as she travels around Los Angeles over the course of a day, all while another woman wearing only purple prepares to belt an aria in what appears to a soundstage. The work, as well as various photo-collages around it, are about the way that history haunts black Americans. (The legacy of the Great Migration was the focus of the piece.) Syms’s attention to surveillance and the way identity gets performed—all of her characters seem to be acting in front of cameras, which are sometimes seen and other times not—is sharp as ever.
3. Ian Cheng at MoMA PS1: Few others are making work like Cheng’s right now, and no one is doing it as well. At long last, after memorable appearances around Europe, Cheng’s live simulations, which he says are like “video games that play themselves,” made their big New York debut, at MoMA PS1. The show brought together the two pre-existing parts of Cheng’s “Emissary” trilogy, which parallels human cognitive evolution with new updates for technology, and added a final new work. It did not disappoint, and given these works’ format (they are constantly evolving), repeat viewings proved rewarding.
4. Howardena Pindell’s Free White and 21 and Betye Saar’s Colored Spade at Brooklyn Museum: Both of these works appeared in the remarkable show “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” where they were valuable statements about how identity gets constructed. I’d already seen Pindell’s video Free White and 21—in which the artist plays a racist white woman and herself simultaneously and puts the two in dialogue—but never has it seemed so prescient. (For more on Pindell, see a profile of her I wrote for the current issue of ARTnews.) Similarly, Saar’s rarely screened film Colored Spade looks at how past racist images continue to inform current ones. It’s fiery stuff, and exactly the kind of art that’s needed right now.
5. Barbara Hammer at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art: For years, Hammer’s work has been talked about in experimental-film circles, but she has finally crossed over into the art world, which this year gave her the retrospective she has long deserved. Her films explore how seeing can be erotic, and in the process advocate for queer women, sometimes with colorful effects that recall Stan Brakhage’s work. The only way this show could have been better is if it had been bigger.
SCREENS IN THEATERS
1. Call Me By Your Name: Few films in recent years have left me feeling as emotionally gutted as this one, which comes complete with sensuous, sensual direction courtesy of Luca Guadagnino and a soundtrack that includes John Adams and the Psychedelic Furs. It’s the same doomed-love weepie we’ve seen many times over (its queerness tweaks the formula a little), but rarely ever do melodramas—or movies, period, for that matter—feel as naturalistic as this. It also has one of the great final shots: a minutes-long close-up of a boy looking into a glowing fire, crying, and thinking about love.
2. A Ghost Story: David Lowery’s meditation on the passage of time is the best kind of horror movie, one in which what’s usually scary is rendered poetic—and Rooney Mara scarfs down a pie and is followed around by a sheet ghost (who, in a past life, was her husband). It’s about what haunts us, in both a metaphorical and literal sense.
3. Get Out: One of the great directorial debuts, Jordan Peele’s incisive horror-comedy about racism in America slides between being really funny and really tense, and is often times a mix of the two. Subtle it is not, but Get Out is vital filmmaking—a quality that can be applied to little else that was released on the silver screen this year.
4. Phantom Thread: Emotional sadism and masochism, frilly organza and flowing crêpe de chine—Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is a lavish tale of a power play between a Charles James–like designer and his muse, and is in every way a departure from everything that the director has made before. It’s also one of his best works to date, and one of his most stylish—particularly appropriate, given that this Vertigo-esque story is partly a reflection on style itself.
5. Faces Places: Never did I think I’d put a film co-directed by JR on any best-of list, but here we are—mainly, I suspect, thanks to Agnès Varda’s sense of empathy. It’s an impressive weaving-together of photo history, French New Wave nostalgia, and genuine compassion, the last of which is a rarity these days in documentary filmmaking.
ON MY LAPTOP
1. Twin Peaks: The Return and The Leftovers: These shows produced two of my all-time favorite seasons of television, which is saying a lot, given that we were also gifted this year with great seasons of BoJack Horseman, Master of None, Dear White People, The Americans, Better Things, GLOW, and Girls, among many others. (And yes, David Lynch’s TV creation is a series, even if the film publications Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight & Sound disagree with me.) Twin Peaks and The Leftovers go together, in my mind: they both focus on ways that grief reverberates throughout the universe, often with doses of absurdism and humor, and they both led me into deep philosophical wormholes. I’ve spent hours dissecting the ambiguous endings of both series; I’m not done yet, either.
2. Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology: Though it was launched at the end of 2016, Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology continued making bold additions to art history this year. From terrific criticism about an underrated Pope.L project to a newly restored version of Eva and Franco Mattes’s Life Sharing, the Net Art Anthology is nothing short of essential at this point.
3. Weird Twitter: America’s Commander-in-Chief is nothing short of a weird tweeter himself, so I want to end this list by giving the general know-it-when-you-see-it realm of “Weird Twitter” a proper shout-out, since it now appears, by some perverse logic, to have been ahead of the curve. I’m particularly a fan of Seinfeld Current Day, which transposes current events onto the Seinfeld universe, and da share z0ne, which posts memes that, for some reason, often involve skeletons getting high. It’s art if I say it is—and da share z0ne is art.