Growing up during the early ’90s and being one of the unfortunate kids whose parents didn’t have cable, I was only peripherally aware of the impact music videos were having on my peers. But that all began to change on a crisp March morning in 1992 when “Blob” (the bane of my junior high existence) cashed in his beloved and seldom-washed Guns ’N Roses T-shirt for a pristine black cotton/poly blend emblazoned with the word “Nirvana.” Something was afoot.
A few days later, the halls of Dodge Middle School were abuzz with chatter about the video for a new song called “Come As You Are.” Convinced that I was missing out on something important, I packed away the Bell Biv Devoe tapes and walked over to my friend Steve’s house. Steve’s mom had cable, and there I could get a firsthand look at what all the excitement was about. I had butterflies in my stomach.
When I first caught wind of Spectacle: The Music Video, opening Saturday at the Contemporary Arts Center downtown, I felt like I was heading over to Steve’s all over again. The new exhibition, guest curated by Jonathan and Meg Wells of the international creative community Flux, explores the music video’s past and present while considering its future through a series of artifacts, photos, immersive environments and literally hundreds of music videos.
Ever since the video for A-ha’s “Take on Me” employed eye-popping rotoscoping technology to achieve its shifts between filmed and animated sequences, the music video has been a playground for creative firsts and artistic experimentation. As a result, according to Jonathan Wells, Spectacle positions the music video as “an art form as powerful as any painting, photograph, video art, sculptural installation or performance.”
Wells thinks the time is right for a museum-scale survey of the medium.
“Though the genre has been around a long time, there are at least three decades we can really study since it became a popular fixture in our collective consciousness,” he says.
“The MTV generation, the teenagers of the 1980s, have grown up and music videos are indelibly linked to their coming of age. Meanwhile, for today’s ‘YouTube generation,’ experimental short videos are second nature. The music video is an incredibly popular form of communication.”
Though there is no definitive “first”
music video, the format has had numerous historical antecedents
stretching as far back as 1929. So Wells and Co. eschewed a
chronological display in favor of presenting works thematically. Videos
directed by luminaries such as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and David
Fincher can be found in one of eight categories, including “Smoke and
Mirrors,” which explores the role of special effects, “Body Language,”
which scrutinizes dance and movement, and “Epic,” which looks at grand
In addition to the hours of video and film on display, Spectacle presents an astounding array of props, clothing, concept sketches and ephemera by artists such as Bjork and Radiohead. Among other items visitors to the CAC can expect to behold is a 6-foot-tall effigy of “Milky,” the intrepid hero of Blur’s “Coffee and T.V.” video, the paint spattered costumes from OK Go’s Rube Goldberg-inspired video “This Too Shall Pass” and the original animation frames from “Take on Me,” which have never before been displayed. Director Michel Gondry has also personally lent Spectacle the yarn props from his great video for Steriogram’s “Walkie Talkie Man.”
Wells is proud of what Flux and the CAC have accomplished.
“The challenge of gathering the videos, the artifacts, techniques and process has been fulfilling on so many levels,” he says. “Many of the artists featured in the exhibition never thought their work would be showcased in a museum.”
The sheer quantity of variables involved even required that exhibition designer Alexei Tylevich construct a photo-realistic 3D computer model of the Zaha Hadid-designed CAC building, allowing the curators to “build virtual walls, paint and place artwork.” The hard work has paid off.
“This exhibition showcases the music video in a way that will surprise, refresh, stimulate and engage guests,” Wells says.
The curators are quick to point out that Spectacle isn’t limited to the CAC’s galleries. According to Wells, “There are a wide array of special events and public programs planned for the six months of the exhibition. The CAC will host live performances, special film screenings and talks with top music video directors. The exhibit is meant to be experienced with the intention of discovery every time you encounter it.” (Acclaimed Indie/Electronic musician Dan Deacon performs at Saturday’s free, 8 p.m. opening night party.)
“We hope Spectacle brings people together and ignites a dialogue related to what they will see,” Wells continues. “More importantly, we hope it forms a community that continues the music video dialogue even after the exhibit ends.”
I watched the video for “Come As You Are” a few days ago to try and relive the magic. In retrospect, it wasn’t very good. But at that moment in 1992, Steve and I felt like we were on the cusp of a great cultural sea change. Almost overnight I remember styles, attitudes and language changing. The impact that music videos had on me and my generation was nothing less than profound. Whether featuring images of Kurt Cobain, The Beastie Boys or Dr. Dre, videos from that era are a cultural glue binding together millions of thirtysomethings around the globe. Spectacle: The Music Video, takes the viewer behind the scenes to see how — and why — that happened.
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