Why I Hate Steve Reinke

Why I Hate Steve Reinke
[Pleasure Dome catalogue essay for
Why I Like Ugly Boys: recent videos by Steve Reinke
Dec. 14 2002 Toronto]

Please imagine as you read these words that they are not written, that you are not reading them, but rather that you are hearing them as the voiceover of a video whose imagery is cobbled from easily-obtained and un-artificed snatches of reality. Whether the speaker has recorded these images himself or grabbed them from the whirl of extant moving pictures is irrelevant – and if his voice doesn’t say so outright, it certainly implies it. This voice has a cadence so haltingly soothing, and deploys its vocabularic arsenal with such a deceptive sense of ease, that it persuades you that listening is enough. Yes, keep your eyes open, but only because it doesn’t matter what you see; all objects belong to the same world, and here they are.

Every artwork has its ideal medium, and not all of them choose the proper one. This world is full of films that should have been essays, essays that should have been pop songs, pop songs that should have been paintings. Steve Reinke’s videos implicitly apologize for not being prose, for living on videotape only to fill an art-production quota in advancement of their maker’s chosen career. Each of them is unassailable, protected by self-deprecating admission of its own technical modesty and ulterior motives. Thus do I hate Steve Reinke: as I hate a lover who persuades me, with superhuman eloquence, to overlook her shortcomings again and again — who makes of these very shortcomings a virtue, an extended pleasure-based apology.

But how effortless it must be! I can hardly wait to turn on the camera and emit some vacuum-sealed cleverness which would better reside on the printed page but which I choose to render VO because video’s where it’s at. I hate Steve Reinke like I hate George Lucas — not because I dislike Star Wars but because of all the pale imitators it spawned (21st-century Lucas included). It’s more complex, however, in Reinke’s case, because I can feel him making me one of those same pale imitators, fooling me time and time again into thinking Yes, It Is Just That Easy.

Please imagine, as you watch Afternoon (March 22, 1999), that you are viewing it as I did. You are alone at home, watching Reinke videos on a TV at 3 PM, feeling the days shorten outside your window, immobilized by a petty depression and bounded by the feeling that immediate productive activity is both imperative and impossible. The video mirrors this state, physically and mentally, in a way which you persuade yourself to believe to be spiritually strengthening. It allows you to almost stave off the thought that soon you’ll have to eject the tape and be once more faced with the physical world and the prospect of doing something with it. Afternoon, like much of Reinke’s work, is a diagnosis of cinema as a terminal case, a tired glut of exhausted possibility that doesn’t yet know it’s dead. I fear that this afternoon will end very soon; I fear more that it will last forever.

Like all of us, Reinke is waiting for the rebirth of art, but he’s decided to roll camera while he waits. As I watch and wait with him, I can’t help but feel that the histories of cinema and of video art are being summarized for me — I have no need to educate myself further because it all led to this point anyway. So I hate Steve Reinke like I hate Cole’s Notes, people who try to convince me that it’s okay to use Cole’s Notes, and myself for using Cole’s Notes.

But of course all of my professed hatred is so much surface decoy based on purposeful fallacy, like Reinke’s apologetic tone. He pretends to be a chronic disappointment, but his pretense delivers satisfaction. He sermonizes on the impossibility of innovation, but his homilies refuse to practise what they preach. Reinke’s videos may ride on the charm of their apparent slapdash nature, but they embody the tension between a vocalized romp through the infinite playground of thought and a visible tether to things exactly as they are. This tension could go by another name, which is “yearning”, and I believe it to be intrinsic to good and essential art.

This little essay yearns to be a little video, but it doesn’t know what images to use; it yearns to express its yearning as well as Reinke keeps doing (second-generation yearning at best). I yearn (let’s come clean, now) to be Steve, and if I do hate him for anything, it’s a dismissible, untoothed cousin of hate, better classified as amicable envy. We all yearn to be a million people and places at once, a million other than this one right here. Reinke’s videos echo and intensify this yearning even as they tighten the noose of specificity around our collective neck — and so they perform a curious marriage between ethereality and fact. The consummation of this marriage dances unceasingly away into the imaginary future, but Reinke is content (or at least contentedly discontent) to keep looking for it, as are we to keep watching him look.

Daniel Cockburn
December 2002