Distributing White on White

“A country Road. A Tree. Evening. [wow.episode.01]” is the first installment of Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s new video project called White on White. It is six minutes long and is the fifth multiple published by Compound Editions in New York. White on White promises to be a protean experiment in the distribution of digital and video art.

Eve Sussman
Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, “A country Road. A Tree. Evening.” Original music by Lumendog.

If you have ever seen an exhibition of digital or video art, you may have asked yourself how the artist is able to make a living. Digital video is completely ubiquitous today. So when a video artist produces a video, which obviously costs a bit to put together, is full of rich references and would probably not fair very well in a regular movie theater due to its overall experimental look, how do they sell their work?

The answer more often than not is editions. If an art collector wants to buy a video piece, they usually buy an edition of it, complete with monitor, DVD player and a copy of the film, it is then accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by the artist and the gallery representing him or her. This mode of distribution has been used by artists since the mid-sixties when video artists were able to start regularly selling their work.

Eve Sussman’s new video project is a variation on this model for digital distribution. She is distributing her project as an installed video on the ARCHOS 5 Media Tablet. What makes this model unique is that in many ways it is embracing the ubiquitous nature of video by distributing it on a hand-held device. It is also turning the collector into a co-producer because once they have bought an edition of White on White, not only can they download the future installments as they are released, but they are building the pool from which the videos are funded.

The first installment was released as an edition of 100, the first 50 of which have already sold out. It looks as if Sussman and Compund Edition’s model has some wings. It is not that Sussman is the first artist to distribute her work on portable digital devices; other artists have put out similar editions. It is that she chose the ARCHOS 5 Media Tablet because of what it can do, and that there are more installments of White on White forthcoming that is noteworthy as a distribution model.

Sussman decided on using the ARCHOS 5 after quite a bit of looking. Of the many different distribution formats, very few have the high-fidelity audio/ video or Internet capability of the ARCHOS 5. At first glance her edition mimics the way albums are released as special edition iPods. What is different here is that Apple will market a product, the iPod in this instance, by using musicians and bands as an advertisement for the product. Sussman is using the media tablet because it can do what she wants it to do for her. It is simply the best distribution model for her project.

Eve Sussman stills
Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation, A selection of stills from “A country Road. A Tree. Evening.”

As a work of art, “A country Road. A Tree. Evening.” is a futurist fantasy, taking a serious note from the way old Soviet films visualized a utopian future. The video is set about six years in the future in a metropolis reminiscent of many generic fictional future cities. It is called A-City, and it provides a blank slate for Sussman to deliver a film noir storyline, incorporating styles from cinéma vérité and early horror movies, all with that unmistakable sense of video art appropriation.

The usage of things and ideas becomes one of the key elements in thinking about this work. The project is filled with referential material, and most of the imagery is familiar in that it is playing with tropes from other genres. For example, Sussman’s title, “A country Road. A Tree. Evening.” is the stage description from Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot.” Since about the last two years of the Bush administration, Beckett’s work has been seriously reconsidered in several different formats.

Another example is the title for the whole on-going project, White on White. Sussman and the Rufus Corporation are referencing the painting by Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: White on White, which was a painting of a white square on a white background. Malevich was making his Suprematist compositions during the same time period in the early Soviet days when movies like Aelita: Queen of Mars were being made, the 1910s and 1920s.

Perhaps it is the revitalization of words like ‘socialism’ or Marxism’ as pejoratives since the last presidential election in 2008 that has made more people use those terms again, or at the very least take another look at that revolutionary Russian culture from a century ago. These references all feed into an overwhelming sense of retro-futurism in much of our cultural thinking now. Old visions of the future seem to come across as predictions we missed out on, even though some of our technological advances far surpassed the imagination. Think of how much our society currently resembles Walt Disney’s original vision of Epcot.

Distributing a video edition on the ARCHOS 5 Media Tablet is one of the ways that Sussman is re-examining our usage of technology for artistic distribution. It has added an interactive component that is deviating from the definition of art all together. If you purchased her edition, there is nothing stopping you from using the media tablet as if you had bought it for personal use—it still plays other videos or music, it still connects online. It is simply a matter of aesthetic predilection where one draws the line as a work of art.

For more of Eve Sussman and the Rufus Corporation’s work, you can view a trailer here.

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