The Power Plant

Toronto video artist Steve Reinke has recently achieved his goal of completing, as he states with customary wit, “one-hundred videos before the year 2000 and my thirty-sixth birthday. These will constitute my work as a young artist.” This solo exhibition also contains one installation piece.

Reinke’s approach to video falls broadly under the influence of late-twentieth century French thought, whose lineage touches Sade, Nietzsche, Bataille, et al. While a few authors are named directly, notably Lacan, others remain implicit, fundamental to the underlying conception of the work, like Barthes, Baudrillard and Foucault.

The video project itself (1990-97) comprises precisely one-hundred video works, each ranging in length from fifteen seconds to nearly seven minutes, and altogether running over six hours in duration.

At the heart of Reinke’s video work – his video persona I call “Steve” – lies a challenge to authenticity or sincerity in the confessional video and to truth in the factual film for the sake of telling quite another story. To varying degrees, Reinke subverts the conventional source image meanings in order to explore several aspects of narrative, juxtaposing moving and still images, nondiegetic sound, text, and voice in sometimes highly sophisticated ways. Reinke borrows images freely from popular television, documentary and instructional film, and gay porn video; while he writes and often reads his own voice-over but never appears in the videos himself. Thematically, the videos touch upon issues concerning gay sexuality and eroticism, popular culture, epistemology and death.

As provocateur, Reinke, with Excuse of the Real (#1), boldly sites blind spots in the process of making a (naive) documentary on AIDS. Narrator Steve admits, “I wanted a white anglophone homosexual male and, for added empathy, he should be under thirty,” this with looped images from a home movie of a child’s birthday party. The metadiscourse on videomaking dissolves in the end into fiction, which appears here to be an inescapable aporia. While in Pioneer (#41) Steve contrasts his grandparents’ traditional sexual identities to his own libertine openness, he libidinizes the public sphere in Seventeen Descriptions (#86) by winding hypothetical carnal exploits over apparently candid images of men walking.

On the cult of celebrity Reinke contributes a few tapes. The hitherto unseen Steve in I Love You, Too (#32) reveals himself in a blurred polaroid portrait to his curious fans. In Lonely Boy (#31), Reinke intercuts shots from the famous NFB documentary of the same name with those from a gay porn video of a lone youth masturbating, while Steve speaks of once being a fat child with show-biz aspirations. Taboo, shock and transgression.

In Speculative Anthropology (#7), Steve ironically wishes for simpler times, when anthropologists could be more subjective; while Experiment (#38) is an elliptically reedited science film, which renders the scientific purpose of the film completely enigmatic. Video #70, Dr. Asselbergs, is as weird as it is a real taped interview with the retired scientist responsible for developing the dried potato flake for the mass market. Here the real is exposed and imaginatively milked for its inexhaustible strangeness.

However, only a few of these pieces could be viewed on the curated loop of videos, culled from the one hundred, available in the main room. The upper corner of this room is graced with a sign in large black letters: “Perhaps the best thing that can be said about men is that we masturbate continually.” Evidently, the voice is male and probably Steve’s. Perhaps part of the claim is true; but to assert that it may be the “best thing” seems a baffling overstatement. “Best” in what sense? If we take masturbation as a taboo, Reinke is then pointing it out as a transgression, likely after Bataille, by attempting to provoke his audience. However, the irony is that nothing on the nearby curated loop of videos refers to any explicit sexual act; instead the loop is intended for the “gentler public.” The complete opus may be viewed only upon special request in a sequestered side room.

The untitled installation piece forms a metaphor for video itself. In the above room lies another, at the external end of which one sees a looped projection of a possible landscape, i.e., the screen of the monitor. Upon entry into the room, however, an elaborate fictive maquette microreality is revealed. Like the video Treehouse (#78), on which it appears to be based, the installation exposes the artificiality of the work, its constructedness. The percipient is left to draw her or his own inferences, akin to the complicated process of video-making itself.

Reinke’s Hundred constitutes a radically fragmentary, challenging body of work, much of which worth viewing. Definitely not for the soppy, these tapes bite.

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