Art in America, November 2016
Antek Walczak’s pre-9/11 New York is gray: a flat, bored expanse of exploitation. He captures Paris in the same dull palette, but it’s New York, with its schizophrenic capitalism, that set the tone for Walczak’s “Films 1998–2000,” a two-and-a-half-hour looped screening at Real Fine Arts. In 1994, Walczak (b. 1968) cofounded the downtown New York art/fashion collective the Bernadette Corporation, whose theory-driven interest in the clothing industry—like that of its precursor, Art Club 2000 (1992–99)—anticipated the commercial concerns of groups like DIS and K-HOLE. Some images that Walczak shot for the Bernadette Corporation’s advertisement-like videos became the raw material from which his single-channel works at Real Fine Arts were knitted together.
The videos played on a small wall-mounted flat-screen TV with rows of cheap plastic seats for viewers. The informal presentation echoed the works’ fin-de-siècle malaise, a mood embodied in the spindly, heroin-chic figures of the featured model-actors. Run with Zeroes (1999) epitomizes the attitude, as it wends its way from footage of a Susan Cianciolo fashion show to a meditation on war and political powerlessness. Walczak’s nonlinear editing and Marxist-inflected overdubbing throughout his videos signal his devotion to cinéastes like Godard. While the works sometimes have a pretentious student quality, they also play with the 1990s fashion industry’s appropriation of the 1960s French New Wave aesthetic—which itself riffed on midcentury consumer culture. Indeed, these videos can be seen as a smart response to moody ’90s ads by the likes of Calvin Klein.
Beyond showing Walczak’s eye for arty fashion, the works harbor a critical sensibility and occasionally foreshadow global calamities. Dynasty (1998) spins a fractured narrative about the rivalry between Emily Baskin and Julia Robbins, one a Hollywood washout and the other a “supermodel of everything.” After an interlude consisting of flashing logos, faux advertisements, and a fictional gay porn vignette, the film segues into science fiction. “We are about to enter an age of prolonged depression,” a voice-over intones, describing an impending “intergalactic war with Bernadette Corporation” that sounds a lot like the War on Terror and an imminent financial crisis that prophesies the one that began in 2008.
Walczak moved to Paris in 2000 to make, as he wrote, “post-cinematic” films “in pursuit of nostalgic resistance.” His most accomplished film on view, however, was made in Paris and is hardly wistful, illustrating as it does a cynicism toward art cinema’s future. Risques du métier (Occupational Hazards, 2000), shot at the Centre Pompidou, presages the art world’s obsession with branding and technology. The film portrays a crisis at a fictional museum called the “Center for Today”: the institution is having trouble reconciling traditional museology with the need to appeal to a broad audience. The cinema department is replaced with “Images in Time,” and contemporary art with “Sounds in Space.” A willowy museum employee named Maud struggles to keep her work from becoming market research. She is dismissed from her job and ends up marrying Patrice, an internet start-up entrepreneur. The final scene takes place at the Center for Today’s restaurant, where the couple runs into Maud’s tired former boss, who is unable to get a table. The boss outlines a situation of precarity familiar to many art workers today, including massive staff reductions, while Maud and Patrice set their sights on a “digital revolution.”
For Walczak, the fruits of the digital revolution appear dubious. Concurrent with the Real Fine Arts presentation, a solo exhibition at Dominique Lévy featured a selection of his new paintings (all 2016), which comprise fields of algorithmically generated abstract patterns on metal panels. To make them, Walczak used a digital technique called procedural generation—which is commonly used to produce backgrounds in video games—intending the works to serve as a means of demystifying the type of technological process that defines everyday experience. In light of this work, his early films show that probing the anxieties about the relationship of art, commerce, and technology is sometimes more interesting than trying to alleviate them.