On View / Squeaky Wheel @ BPAC

BY BRUCE ADAMS

Each screen shows videos from a certain type of Squeaky programming (activism, youth media, resident artists, founding artists, and more).

Each screen shows videos from a certain type of Squeaky programming (activism, youth media, resident artists, founding artists, and more).

INSTALLATION PHOTO COURTESY OF SHASTI O’LEARY SOUDANT / SOS CREATIVE LLC; VIDEO STILLS COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS, VIDEO DATA BANK (ZANDO), AND MIGRATING MEDIA (MCELLIGOTT/VAMOS)

 

Back in the 1980s, I joined the board of Hallwalls at the urging of a staff member who was concerned that the media curator had designs on the visual art curator’s turf. My mission, as this person saw it, was to protect visual art against media encroachment. The reasoning was this: painting, sculpture, photography, and the like take up a lot of wall and floor space, and remains static for the duration of an exhibition, while new media like film, video, and audio is nimble on its feet. Fresh work can be presented daily, bringing in additional audiences. And besides, everyone knew that painting was dead. But new media was relegated to a small viewing room and shared-use of the theater, while visual art took up most of the prime real estate. The scene was set for a coup. 

While reports of painting’s death were greatly exaggerated (and the curators of yore have long since moved on), the story illustrates the interdisciplinary tension that sometimes occurred as Buffalo emerged as a hotbed of media activity that assertively challenged all conventions. In 1985, the art community’s access to film and video equipment and experimental media art took a serious blow with the sudden closing of the public facility, Media Study/Buffalo. But from those ashes an artist collective was born with the goal of providing media, in all its rapidly expanding permutations, with a new home. These were artist activists, provocative, even militant, and the name they chose for the new organization reflected their determination not to be ignored: Squeaky Wheel.

Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center, as it’s now formally known, was conceived to provide opportunities for artists and the general public to produce, exhibit, and view work that employs a wide range of new technologies. Many of the founding artists came out of UB’s Center for Media Study (now the Department of Media Study), and a major focus of their work was examining the nature of media itself. The Squeaky Wheel mission has expanded over the years to include a broad range of services. Through arts education programming, they share technical knowledge, build confidence, and promote media literacy. A big part of the mission has always been to democratize media, putting its power in the hands of the public. The center makes professional equipment and facilities accessible to the community and provides affordable services. An ambitious exhibition schedule showcases the work of regional and national artists.

To mark three decades of service, the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) is presenting a retrospective exhibition, Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Arts Center 30th Anniversary (on view through Sunday, January 24, 2016.) Visitors might initially wonder why such a momentous celebration is consigned to the smaller project room while Art in Craft Media occupies the majority of available gallery space (shades of Hallwalls past). Don’t be misled. By all means, spend an hour or two enjoying the extraordinary and beautifully displayed craft media show—one of the best ever. But when you enter the Squeaky Wheel exhibition, prepare to spend a few days, maybe more if you intend to see it all. The clever folks at the BPAC and Squeaky Wheel have packed a really big show into a relatively small space—without overcrowding. If you are unfamiliar with contemporary film, video, and digital art, this is a great opportunity to catch up on a cross-section of what’s been done in Western New York over thirty years.

In the center of the darkened project room, a spotlighted table displays a variety of outdated equipment, a reflection of how far technology has progressed since Squeaky was founded. For instance, there is a video camera the size of a large briefcase that wouldn’t approach the picture resolution your phone delivers today. Regrettably, the items are neither identified nor their functions explained, so aside from their novelty as curios, their significance may remain unclear to many viewers.

Fourteen covers from the Squeaky Wheel’s publication, The Squealer, are mounted on one wall. The Squealerwas never light reading. It contained artwork produced for the magazine by media artists and was often political and obscure in nature. You can check out the entire digitized anthology in the BPAC Collection Study Gallery elsewhere in the museum. At one end of the exhibition, a wall-sized digital projection of video and film from Squeaky Wheel’s thirty-year history runs continuously.

The real innovation, though, is the way the exhibition invites guests to select works to view on smaller wall-mounted screens while listening through headphones. They even provide cushy benches to sit on while watching, a welcome concession to comfort. In a nod to Squeaky Wheel’s penchant for self-empowerment, the public must figure out how this all works for itself by exploring wall-mounted control tablets. There are no instructions, so visitors with a hands-off mindset might leave without trying. But the adventurous will quickly figure out that each tablet operates two monitors displaying a different artist collection representing a discrete facet of the organization. One caveat: experimental technology being, um, experimental, each of the three times I visited, something was not working properly. Hopefully these glitches are resolved by the time you read this.

SQUEALER COVERS AND STILLS (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP, RIGHT) FROM VIDEOS BY ARTISTS CAROLINE KOEBEL, MATT MCELLIGOT AND IGOR VAMOS, JULIE ZANDO, AND DANIEL HENDERSON.

Resident Artists Reel (monitor collections are called “reels,” a throwback to film projection) contains work made by visiting artists.

Youth Media Initiatives Reel features work from the organization’s educational outreach programs. These include courses specifically targeting young girls, Native Americans, impoverished youth, and the LGBT community, among others.

Founders Reel includes work by Tony Conrad, Armin Heuich, Kathy High, Chris Hill, Cheryl Jackson, Eric Jensen, Jody Lafond, Barbara Lattanzi, Brian Springer, and Julie Zando—familiar names to anyone paying attention to the art scene when Squeaky Wheel was established. Former and Current Staff Reel highlights more recent notables.

Axelgrease to Artgrease Reel presents programming from Squeaky Wheel’s public access cable show (later cocurated with Hallwalls). A personal favorite is “Snap Judgments,” in which Richard Wicka and Ron Ehmke review movies they have not seen. As a whole, these programs seem less subversive than they once did. They are more likely to invoke a sense of nostalgia for a time when innovative media art was achieved through ingenuity or skilled handling of complex hardware, rather than by clicking a mouse. Today, public access TV is overshadowed by the internet, which is more likely to be consumed on a smart-phone display than a theater screen, TV, or desktop computer. One of the goals of Squeaky Wheel was to empower the individual to communicate through mass media, and public access provided a revolutionary potential to reach the masses. Considering recent innovations such as YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and others, that battle is now over in most countries.

Activist Collectives, Coalitions & Programs Reel focuses on the work by such groups as the 8mm News Collective, Buffalo Artists Against Repression and Censorship, and the Media Coalition for Reproductive Rights, along with several individual artists. The objective of these groups and artists was to counter the mainstream media with alternative viewpoints. There is no pretence of unbiased journalism here; these were activists energized by righteous indignation and armed with cameras. (Full disclosure; I was surprised to see two collaborative video projects to which I contributed in this category.) It’s probable that one person with an iPhone can have much greater impact—for better or worse—than dozens of artists like these working collaboratively pre-Internet. Nonetheless, the works serve as a record of events, issues, and less-aired viewpoints of their day.

The exhibition was organized by a committee headed by Anna Scime with Dorothea Braemer, Ruth Goldman, Andrea Mancuso, Brian Milbrand, and Annette Daniels Taylor. Many others contributed. It’s definitely worth a look. To find it, just listen for the persistent squeak at the rear of the museum.

Artist and educator Bruce Adams is an award-winning contributor to Spree.