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Tuning in to video as an art medium

VIDEO continues to mature as an art form, showing a flexibility that suits many styles, from fine-arts to cinematic, as well as subjects. Lately, one particular approach to video has attracted some of the medium's most talented artists. Although it doesn't have a familiar label yet, it can be described as a hybrid of documentary and self-expression, with a strong sociological twist.

Examples of this and other video-art varieties are on view through July 2 in the Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art here. The videotapes will then have an international tour (along with a selection of independent films) sponsored by the American Federation of Arts, starting next month at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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A vivid illustration of video's most exciting current style is a work called ``I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like,'' by Bill Viola, a longtime leader of the video scene.

The title, borrowed from an Indian religious text, begins the work on a personal and self-questioning tone. Much of it consists of long, meditative nature shots that focus primarily on animals, often moving in for close-ups of their eyes. Later, humanity enters the picture, represented by religious celebrants in India, performing painful rites of fire-walking and self-mutilation. The work ends with a long sequence (in time-lapse photography) showing the decomposition of a fish on a forest floor.

It would be difficult, and probably foolish, to pin down this complex videotape with a single interpretation. Mr. Viola seems to be looking for his own place in the order of living things, questioning the temporality of that order, and hoping to find some clue to its meaning and destiny.

His tool is the video camera, a technological eye that gazes lovingly into the eyes of animals - and the radical behaviors of human beings - in an act of sustained contemplation that takes on a transfixing visual rhythm. At times Viola turns the camera on himself, as well, underscoring the deeply personal yet ultimately universal nature of his quest. ``I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like'' is a probing and powerful work.

Just as personal, although a lot more whimsical, is a videotape by Skip Sweeney called ``My Mother Married Wilbur Stump.''

And sure enough, she did. After a time of widowhood, Mr. Sweeney's mother was for 10 years the wife of Wilbur Stump, known as the ``dean'' of barroom piano players in their community. Armed with his camera and an endless supply of questions, Sweeney pokes headlong into his family's affairs, putting together an amusing and touching portrait of mom's experiences with the late Mr. S. - who turns out to have been very musical, not very confident, and perhaps not very talented.

Wilbur never really felt himself a part of the family, we learn. But after watching this half-hour videotape, we do.

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The themes of religion and music come together in ``Rock My Religion,'' an aggressive work by Dan Graham with a score by composer Glenn Branca and the Sonic Youth rock group. Rock music, in Mr. Graham's view, represents an attempt by today's youth to reach an ecstatic state not unlike that sought by the Shakers and other demonstrative religious groups in the past. This argument is provocative, if not altogether persuasive. More impressive is the hard-hitting style of the video itself, which surges across the screen with the scruffy power of a postpunk rock-and-roll explosion.

A more decorous videotape with a musical theme is ``J.S. Bach,'' by Juan Downey, who ingeniously turns a half-hour biography of the baroque composer into an essay on art's ability to transcend the frailties of human experience.

Dedicated to Mr. Downey's mother, who died while the work was in production, this remarkable work combines historical fact with deeply felt echoes of private joy and sorrow. Thus it joins the other videotapes I've cited in dealing with personal concerns through a factually based documentary format.

Other works in the Whitney show are less imposing. One near-miss is ``Joan Does Dynasty,'' by Joan Braderman, who offers 31 minutes of belligerent comments on TV soap opera. She treats semiological analysis as a contact sport - and I'm not sure her stand-up diatribe contains any thoughts worth remembering. It's often brutally amusing, though.

Commercial television is also dissected in tapes by Hans Breder and Martha Rosler. More ambitious but less pithy is ``The Amazing Voyage of Gustave Flaubert and Raymond Roussel,'' by Steve Fagin, a sort of cultural acrostic that seems more tricky than insightful. ``Ura Aru (The Backside Exists),'' by Gary Hill, is a pretentious exercise in video grammar.

Other selections, of varying quality, come from Peer Bode, Bruce and Norman Yonomoto, Sherry Millner, Matthew Schlanger, and Shalom Gorewitz.

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