Some time after Tom Rubnitz (1956–92) died of an AIDS-related illness, the Chicago-born artist’s family brought the Video Data Bank (112 S Michigan Ave) a box of his tapes. Rubnitz had moved to New York, where he became a pioneer of video art, casting the likes of RuPaul and the B-52s in cooking and drag shows that he made for public-access television.
Rubnitz’s family didn’t know if their box contained “anything useful,” VDB director Abina Manning recalls, but “we found some really great work.” Made an impressive four years before Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Rubnitz’s hilarious Plastic Rap with Frieda (1983) stars a singing doll whose catty lyrics mock her toy rivals. The VDB presents the low-budget music video as part of Identity Enchantments and Encasements, a screening of video art at the Noble Square gallery Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center (1034 N Milwaukee Ave) Sunday 24.
Founded in 1976 at SAIC—which had the first video-art department in the U.S.—the VDB has participated in Roots & Culture’s screening series for five years. The nonprofit always previews new acquisitions that it intends to show at Germany’s prestigious Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. Sunday’s lineup, which the VDB brings to Oberhausen in May, also includes videos by local artists Scott Wolniak, Frédéric Moffet, and collaborators Jessie Mott and Steve Reinke; as well as Basma Alsharif (who earned her M.F.A. at UIC), Oded Hirsch, Dana Levy, Laura Parnes and John Smith.
For artist Alexander Stewart, the DePaul animation professor who curates the (almost) monthly Roots & Culture screenings, partnering with the VDB is a no-brainer. While Stewart knew about the nonprofit as an SAIC graduate student, he considers it “inappropriately overlooked in Chicago,” given that it’s “such a respected institution. It clicked when I realized how many times I mentioned to my students, ‘You should go to the Video Data Bank. You can just make an appointment.’ ”
From Monday through Friday, 9am–5pm, visitors to the VDB “can come and watch anything” for free, Manning confirms—that is, any of the 3,000 experimental videos the VDB has “in distribution,” which span the late 1960s through the present. (Another 2,000 need to be preserved.) The VDB collection encompasses both classics by icons such as Vito Acconci and Joan Jonas and new pieces by younger artists including Paul Nudd and Jesse McLean.
Manning hopes the Roots & Culture screening expands the VDB’s audience. The program’s short videos tackle surprisingly accessible subjects, as Smith, for example, intervenes in a stranger’s sale of his work on eBay, and Levy appears to resurrect the butterflies in a natural-history museum.
Despite video art’s increasing popularity, the VDB director tells me, “The question still comes up: How do you sell video?” Stewart agrees, “Artist-made films and videos have a difficult path, in terms of recognition and institutional support.” He started Roots & Culture’s screenings six years ago to bring artists making moving-image work for galleries in contact with their peers who were focused on experimental-film festivals. “Those worlds are parallel, but don’t always cross over,” he explains.
The VDB also collaborates with the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Conversations at the Edge series, UIC’s Gallery 400, Chicago Filmmakers and the Chicago Underground Film Festival, among other institutions. “It’s kind of like a weird little world,” Stewart says of this tight-knit community. “People are really supportive of each other.”
Identity Enchantments and Encasements screens at Roots & Culture Sunday 24.