This is a CD and DVD of a 40-minute video art installation. How many video installations do you spend more than five minutes watching, let alone revisit?
There's something appealing about the CD / DVD package, beyond the mere fact of getting more for you money and scratching the bargain-spotter's itch. This may be the itch that label honchos seek to scratch with the "limited edition-double-set-with-five-music-videos-seen-thousands-of-times before". The CD / DVD package has become an industry standard, succeeding the traditional limited edition digipack, as packaging of CDs becomes almost obsolete in the popular downloading-age, and the sales pitch is to give you bonus video (which takes longer and is more troublesome to download). But the format is only really inviting when artists in specialist subgenres take the trend and use it to expand their projects and their creative output. Sometimes it's the prospect of putting out a live show more easily, as French trumpetist Erik Truffaz did on his recent triple Face a Face Blue Note set.
Jeff Mills upped the ante with Blue Potential, delivering a live performance with the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra where the DVD footage was both longer and more interesting than the CD. But the true standard is the musician-cum-filmmaker's freedom to put pictures to his sounds, something naturally beyond the reach or interest of the big label money-making machine, for the CD format at least. The stellar example here is The Troublemakers' 2004 Express Way project (again on Blue Note), where East directed a sumptuous noir ballet through urban France, with an exquisitely well-adapted soundtrack of dusty slow soul, Western-infused beats and the occasional Gainsbourg-esque "Bonnie & Clyde"-era guitar. This still stands as a unique release. Meanwhile, the CD/DVD experiment has found a more fertile home in the field of electronica, its sound collages reminiscent of art constructions and a close natural companion to video. Mark Nelson was one of the first to jump aboard with his former Pan American album Quiet city. And now the city theme resurfaces again with Israeli producer Ran Slavin's Insomniac City, release on Berlin's genre-cornerstone Mille Plateaux label.
Slavin's music is droning and cold, like a stare at nothing, shielding trance-state brain activity on autopilot, with no real thoughts or feeling. It pushes through random shifts and bursts but has no hooks or pegs to drive it forward. It does not provide much on its own. So either you make it your own soundtrack and imbue it with your own feelings or put the onus on the film portion of this set to give it context and substance. The only problem is that this is video art, the third chapter in a series that has also been on exhibit, and the film has very little coherence itself -- which unfortunately is also its declared premise. Punctuated by pseudo-rhetorical questions, the video is a flicker of images at varying speed through a subterranean parking lot, underwater and across Tel Aviv's concrete centre, sprawling tan residences and a blur of its beaches. "Did I die?" "Did I kill?" leaves only the listener to ask "why should I care?" The films suave-suited protagonist is supposed to suffer from insomnia, but it is rather an uneasy blend of amnesia and an artist's navelgazing, obsessive self-importance. "I can't remember who I am supposed to be", he says, and the CD booklet rationalises the nonsense by labeling them "phantasmagoric images" and saying it "accelerates transversal movements and arousals". The initial superficiality of it all is the trademark personality trait of an artists who is amazed by the mere existence of his work, as random and ludicrously unwatchable as it may be.
This is not to say that "Insomniac City" does not have its moments. Beyond the character, whose self-absorbed rantings require only seconds to make him annoying, Slavin creates an intriguing view of Tel Aviv through image manipulation. Buildings fold into each other, bend across the cityscape, divide into circular plate-shapes and separate. They duplicate and stretch into the sea. Circular spheres float in unexagerrated patterns, as the lifeless concrete moves with a relenting, trapped mood. Stretches of coastline detach and float to sea, before reconnecting with the mainland. In the best sync-up of music and images, Fennesz-style abrasiveness is the sound accompanying blurred beach scenes in the afternoon sun. Transparent shapes of people cross the street.
"The city like a machine", the video rants and this is part of what Slavin tries to portray, confusion, disconnect and loss with a city where everything seems automatic and cold, even in the sunshine. And while this may be an interesting concept, it is hardly watchable and is as devoid of soul as the music that accompanies it. So I guess in this sense, Slavin accomplishes what he wants. This is simply a CD and DVD of a 40-minute video art installation. As such it is not uninteresting and fans may like it. But how many video installations do you spend more than 5 minutes watching, let alone revisit?