Steve Reinke’s Anthology of American Folk Song

Steve Reinke says he came to video art as a writer, and this would seem true on the basis of many of his The Hundred Videos, in which the seemingly cobbled-together images take a back seat to the unceasing (and generally entertaining) voiceover.  But other videos in that same project bear no resemblance to anything writerly—no literal resemblance, anyhow; archival footage rubs shoulders with itself in a sonic void, expressing and inflicting a deep and purposeful acquaintance with the durational (or, as some call it, the boring).

But now we are in the 21st century, and tape-to-tape editing has fallen by the wayside.  Videos and segments thereof are clips to be retained, revisited, reused. Anthology of American Folk Song is the biggest step yet in Reinke’s current direction of making modular videos, series of miniature enterprises placed adjacently just so in the timeline to create a single project. Then rearranged, with subtractions and additions, just so but differently, and lo, another single project. An obvious benefit of this method is that any given piece of footage can be made to say several different things; the authorial voice dissipates with the reuse of vocabulary just as the authorial identity reasserts itself in its exhibited interest in that vocabulary. Another benefit is that the literary and the nonverbal can coexist in one tape, in what is perhaps an attempt to condense the breadth of the Hundred into the accessibility of the One.

For those familiar with Reinke’s video work, some of Anthology of American Folk Song will look familiar and some of it will not. What does look familiar will be different somehow, a prodigal clip returning home after a long absence. Whether it’s learned anything from its travels is uncertain, but it has stories to tell and not much time to tell them before it leaves again. This particular gathering of clips wants to talk about many things, and their conversation is about guardian angels, digital surveillance data, the current state of the American ego, folk song, and more penises than you can shake one more penis at. To compress a half-hour conversation into a single sentence is a dubious idea, but if one were to say that this video is about a host of ubiquitous sentient cameras waiting to inflict divine intervention on the world through two secret weapons: heart-tugging, toe-tapping music, and contemporary American phallocentrism… well, one would actually not be missing the mark too widely.

You receive a box from IKEA. You didn’t order anything, but it’s got your name on it, so you open it up and start to put it together according to the instructions. When you’re finished, there are—miracle of miracles! —no pieces left over, but you can’t for the life of you figure out what you’ve built. Nevertheless, you can’t stop staring at it. But don’t worry.  In moments there will be a knock on the door and another package will arrive for you to unpack and assemble. This piece of alien furniture will self-destruct in 28 minutes. Watch closely.

Daniel Cockburn
October 2004