Video Killed the Portrait Artist

Knoxville's Transhift08 will host video pieces by a surprisingly international roster of artists

If you've been to the latest Whitney Biennial in New York, or scanned its numerous reviews, you might have noticed the prevalence of video art in this year's show. In a booming art market, video's high-profile resurgence in American art's most prestigious group show is a telling sign of a cultural shift away from the more collectible and highly-sought genres, such as painting. Also noteworthy is the inclusion of Kevin Everson's video "Emergency Needs"—the acclaimed filmmaker is a former professor of new media at the University of Tennessee's school of art.

Call it coincidence or a timely paradigm, but video art is resurfacing here in Knoxville as well. This weekend, video and sound take center stage for First Friday's gallery crawl in a time-based art festival called Transhift08, happening at several downtown spaces within walking distance. The event promises a wide array of styles and themes, from narrative-based documentaries to more esoteric digital and 3-D animation.

Transhift08 curator and new-media artist Cindy Latham posted calls for entry on various art-oriented websites, but was surprised to receive packages from across the globe. Witty, imaginative, and eager to tell their stories, these artists share very little common ground in subject matter or technique. Israel's Yael Gesser records a neighborhood's urban sprawl, while London's Lizzie Hughes creates a photo montage from found images. Nebraska's Jen-Kuang Chang's lilting computer-generated images are ethereal, while Germany's Ebert Brothers' disturbing animation of a mutating human head is frightful.

Highlights include David Yun's riveting and surprisingly heartfelt work, "A Taste of Home," which combines cinematic landscape shots of his Michigan home town with a highly personal narrative. The video's desolate imagery of empty shopping mall parking lots and battered neon signs provides a stark backdrop for his emotionally charged story. As Yun wearily recounts the struggle of growing up gay and his challenge to reconnect as a caregiver to his ailing mother, the homogeneous scenes of a vapid suburbia supply another layer of pathos. All of this adds up to a chilling work in which familial and cultural misunderstandings result from failed communication.

Artist Michael Fortune's "Terminal Communication" also explores the mishaps resulting from ambiguous messages, but in a lighter tone. The hilarious fixed-frame video captures confused drivers trying to navigate through a poorly signed junction leading into Rosslare Europort in County Wexford, Ireland. Fortune's "Bingo" is equally funny and revealing. He films a parking lot outside of a local bingo hall that recently banned smoking, spurring some comic ingenuity to keep the game alive.

Transhift08 features two works by another Irish artist, Aileen Lambert. At 26 seconds long, "Mmmmmnn" is a simple look at how humans affect their environments, but barely makes an impact of its own with its gentle humming and natural setting. But Lambert's "And So On" is a much more profound work. In the video, a thin wall of ice obscures the artist from the camera, resulting in an impressionistic, painterly frame. As she slowly moves toward the camera, her breath causes the ice to condense and melt. It's a straightforward gesture, no arty pretense, yet it results in a captivating video that highlights the artist's futile efforts to leave her mark on the world.

New York artist Andrew Filippone Jr. provides some fancy editing skills and a wicked sense of humor in "Charlie Rose by Samuel Beckett." Sure to be a crowd favorite, the satirical video uses real footage from Rose's popular talk show to create a fumbling, confounded version of Rose interviewing himself on new-media powerhouses. Rose's normally powerful gaze and speedy dialogue are edited into nonsensical sound bites. Especially poignant in the current election frenzy, Filippone's work resembles the cynical playfulness of Francesco Vezzoli's video works.

If you enjoyed the Knoxville Museum of Art's current video show and want to see more international artists without leaving town, then Transhift 08 is not to be ignored. The festival also incorporates some sound art and live performance. Knoxville musician Damion Huntoon will present an interactive found-sound spectacle at A1 LabArts, and new media artist Curt Cloninger is slated to bring his twisted musical discourse to Pilot Light on Friday night. Transhift 08 promises to be a Knoxville anomaly, so catch this unusual and inspired show while you can.