Marclay’s Marvelous Mashup

UnknownChristian Marclay’s 13-minute-long video montage, Video Quartet, (2001) is the sort of work that you can spend an entire day with.

This may not be true of the Swiss-American artist’s more recently created 24-hour, real-time synchronized video collage, The Clock, (2010) which the artist painstakingly built from thousands of film clips indicating the passage of time and is synchronized with local time so that minutes and hours depicted in The Clock also pass simultaneously in the viewer’s real time. When that work arrives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art later this April, I am guessing that the longest I will be able to watch it for is about five minutes.

Video Quartet was constructed in a similar way to The Clock. The artist sampled more than 700 Hollywood films, many of them iconic, to collect footage of people singing, playing instruments, tap dancing, knocking on doors and making other sounds. He then reassembled the film clips into a new narrative which makes you see and hear the clips as you have never experienced them before.

What’s fascinating and engrossing about Video Quartet (so called because it unfolds across four screens) is how beautifully the disparate clips fit together to create a modernist symphony of sight and sound. The artist cleverly juxtaposes film excerpts that naturally relate to each other not just visually but aurally. For example, at one point, two pianists on adjacent screens play music that’s loud and percussive but each has a different approach to playing in this way — one plays very close to the keys and the other lifts his hands way off the keyboard. The effect is extremely hypnotic.

Beyond the viscerality of the experience of sitting in a darkened room at The Cantor Center for the Arts at Stanford enjoying Marclay’s work, I came away thinking about how much music penetrates our visual culture and visa versa. Sometimes, especially in the classical music world, people forget that music is in many ways a visual medium. The same can be said of visual art in the traditional western sense of the word. We should think more deeply about the music in every painting.

On a final note, I was lucky to attend the installation with Christopher Musgrave, a Bay Area sound artist and rock musician who served as the technical director ton Marclay on Video Quartet. I asked Chris about the use of all those famous clips in the work from a copyright perspective. I can’t imagine it’s easy or cheap to get the rights to use scenes from Hollywood movies like Back to the Future or Sweet and Lowdown. Chris didn’t seem to think that this was an issue. “Marclay’s work reconfigures the film clips into something new and original” was one explanation he gave. He also said “I think an artwork like this flies under the radar.” I certainly don’t buy his second explanation. The first, I am not so sure. Perhaps the use of the clips in this way is covered under the slippery “fair usage laws.”

I would be intrigued to find out how Marclay managed to get away with his mashup. And most importantly, I’m glad he did.

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