Before there was YouTube, there were the Brett Commercials.
The year was 1998. Reality television was in its infancy. The spectacle of Johnny Knoxville's Jackass was a distant four years away, and the notion of viral video was but a gleam in the World Wide Web's eye. But there was Brett Williams, a young MFA candidate at the Art Institute of Chicago, drawing on his work as a performance artist to create a series of short, in-your-face videos he called the Brett Commercials.
"Everyone was talking about the democratization of video art, and that as soon as editing programs were cheap enough, everyone was going to be able to make their own TV shows," says Williams, whose site-specific video installation A Small Dark Place is on view through July 18 at the PSTL Window Gallery at Pace Framing. "That's what I was playing against: Here I am using a $30,000 editing machine, but I'm making these really low-tech, kind of junky-looking things."
Indeed. In one of his more elaborate Commercials, Williams pirated the mechanical copulations of an Italian porn film. Set to a strong drum-and-bass rhythm, the piece opens with a black-and-white montage of a silicone-breasted woman splayed out as her partner absentmindedly thrusts away. There's graphic cunnilingus, a few missionary shots and, finally, the pair is shown swimming in a pool.
Then the music stops. Cut to a pale and unkempt Williams, shown from the neck up and in full color, in front of a blue background. Williams sports a scraggly goatee. His hair is mussed, and a trio of zits has taken up residence on his stubbly left cheek. The word "BRETT" appears in green letters above him.
"I was just remembering back to the days when things were really easy — back when I moved to Europe, back in the '80s. I met up with an Italian porno star, and I sort of dabbled in the porn industry," Williams says, listlessly addressing the camera. "I was a lot younger then, and I was in better shape, and I had a tan, and I could just go nonstop. It seemed like we made a couple films and swam in her pool."
Then the music resumes. The porn stars return, and the piece closes with the same black-and-white sequence that introduced it.
Deliberately low-tech, these early Commercials anticipate the solipsism of their later YouTube rivals. Running anywhere from ten seconds to one minute, each piece features Williams, who often filmed himself by holding the camera in an outstretched hand.
But unlike the surfeit of navel-gazing clips that now clog the Internet, Williams' commercials never feature an actual person. Rather, they show the artist inhabiting different characters: In one a hirsute and chubby Williams bounces naked on a bed; in another the artist is seen eating peanut butter while sitting naked on a toilet; in a third he appears as a clogs-wearing shaman dressed in a matching paper cape and chef's toque.
"People started recognizing me around Chicago. They would say, 'Are you Brett? What is Brett?' They didn't know if Brett was a person, a lifestyle, an object," he says. "But after a while reality TV exploded. It was everywhere, and what I was doing was no longer new or original."
It's a critical issue for video artists: In a culture in which everyone has a digital camcorder, how do video artists distinguish themselves from the video-sharing throngs?
"It paralyzes me sometimes," admits Williams, who has continued intermittently working on the Brett Commercials. "Everybody has a blog. Everybody's a writer. Everybody's a pundit. Everybody has a fucking opinion, and half of it is crap, right? So you get lost. Things go viral that are really stupid. You're looking at them like: Why is this good? It got a million hits, and why am I watching it? And then you go to your thing [on YouTube], and no one's watched it — or somebody's said, you know: 'This sucks.'"
And that's not a video artist's only problem.
Although Williams has exhibited in several experimental venues, (he's slated for a solo show at MAPS Contemporary Art Space in July and a group show at Hoffman LaChance Contemporary gallery in September), many mainstream galleries shy away from video art. Collectors are uncertain about the genre, which makes it difficult to sell. Other than the inexpensive DVD, there's no real "art object" to possess, and then there's the sticky matter of how to display it: Do you need a dedicated monitor in your home? Or can you simply pop it into your DVD player as you would a Netflix rental of Gladiator?
"Not many people understand how they can live with video art," says Ellen Curlee, who after closing her eponymous gallery plans to incorporate a strong video component into her next art venture, Ellen Curlee Projects. "People see it on a monitor in a gallery, but they don't know how to live with it."
With sales of his art a rarity, Williams supports himself by working as a media producer at the Saint Louis Science Center. He lives with his longtime girlfriend, photographer Jamie Kreher, in a cramped south-city apartment, which the pair also uses as a studio.
And Williams perseveres. He continues to dabble with the Brett Commercials, but his work has evolved considerably in the years since he moved back to St. Louis. Whereas his earlier pieces featured human characters, his more recent efforts focus on animated organic forms that he translates through a series of digital editing programs. Set to original soundtracks that range from moody to jarring, these forms pulsate, replicate, spin and float against monochromatic backgrounds.
The newer videos showcase another new wrinkle, in the form of sculptural elements. For instance, Future Hole, a video installation he recently presented in the picture window at Boots Contemporary Art Space, could be seen only through a large cardboard tube. Williams used the tube to connect the video monitor to the gallery's front window, which, except for an opening the size of the tube, Williams had obscured with orange paint. The video could only be seen from the sidewalk, where Williams also played an original soundtrack in hopes of drawing in passers-by.
"If I'm going to do installation with video, it can't look like an afterthought," he says of his latest work. "The video can't look like I did a sculpture and then I put a video in it. It needs to all fit together."
For his current show, A Small Dark Place, Williams has created a cacophonous soundtrack replete with squealing bagpipes, slamming doors and crashing chains. He has also used plywood to transform tiny PSTL Window Gallery into a dark crawlspace. While visitors can hear the soundtrack from outside, they will have to get on their hands and knees and crawl into the gallery to watch the video.
Said video, which lasts all of fifteen seconds, features a squashed red sphere reminiscent of an onion. The orb spins on a wobbling axis before "crashing" to the sound of falling chains. Then the cycle repeats.
"If I can get them to stick their head in there for one rotation, then I'm a happy man," Williams says. "I mean, how long would you look at it?"
And that, ultimately, is the upside to Williams' work as an artist.
"Video doesn't sell in galleries unless you're in New York and are [famed video artist] Bill Viola, but that kind of frees me to do what I want, when I want to do it," he says. "Maybe you're going to like it, maybe you're going to hate it. In the end, I don't really care. All I want is for you to look at it."