If you’ve never heard of Dr. Michael Betancourt, your ignorance might be by his own design.
“I’m very much on the margin,” he told me earlier this month as we sat at a window-side table at Foxy Loxy. Betancourt sipped thoughtfully on a glass bottle of Coca-Cola, choosing his stacatto-rhythmed words carefully before delivering them in his measured, pointed tone.
“What I do is not a big part of this art world history of video art or structural film or experimental film or whatever you like to call it. Nor is it a part of the industry. That puts me in this peculiar place. So it’s not really surprising that you hadn’t heard of me even though I’ve been here a while. I fall in-between.”
This self-prescribed identity as the man in the margins holds up when applied to his artwork, but Betancourt the person could hardly be described as anything other than a trailblazer. In case you aren’t aware, he’s been working on, with and around “new media” since the dawn of the internet.
Betancourt is a professor of motion media at SCAD with a PhD from the University of Miami, a critical theorist, an art historian, a curator, the writer of more books and articles than can be reasonably listed here (including the first in-depth history of motion graphics, The History of Motion Graphics: From Avant-Garde to Industry in the United States), an expert on visual music technologies, a glitch art pioneer, and the discoverer of the oldest hand-painted abstract films in existence today (by inventor and visual music pioneer Mary Hallock-Greenewalt).
Yeah, no big deal.
Over the last 20+ years, Betancourt has developed an incredibly dense oeuvre of theory which runs parallel to his artwork.
“Am I an artist who writes theory? Or am I a theorist who occasionally makes things?” he mused when I asked if he could condense that theory for those among us less intellectually able to digest it. (Me.)
“I don’t really see the distinction between the two. They work off of each other and they play off of each other. Much of what I do as a theorist is often indirectly related to the kinds of things I’m doing as a media maker.”
Though Betancourt concedes that it’s not necessary to be familiar with his extensive theory and criticism in order to appreciate his artwork, I think it’s important to at least understand that his approach is a thoroughly cerebral one. Where many of the artists SAI has spotlighted in the past have tended towards a more aesthetically intuitive style, Betancourt spends as much time thinking about the consequences of making things as he does unmaking things.
To me, there’s no better piece that breaks down the components of Betancourt’s art-making than “The Kodak Moment”. (It’s also one of the most beautiful pieces of glitch I’ve seen so, fine, I’m biased.)
Mae Murray (a silent film era star) poses and pouts during a film test, her famous red “bee-stung” lips pursed and alluring one moment, fractured into a mosaic of buzzing pixels the next. She twirls slowly, tilts her head at the perfect, practiced angle, and lifts her heavily-lidded eyes to look knowingly at the camera with a coy little smile. The black background envelopes her glitched form, lines of code appearing on her face as the file teeters on the edge of breaking.
“The Kodak Moment” contains some Betancourt signature moves: video pulled from the public domain (“You really can’t do anything with any part of culture produced after 1930; images are so tightly controlled, owned and regimented except under fairly specialized circumstances now.”), carefully composed glitches, and a juxtaposition of contemporary and modern technology. Oh, and the vintage Chopin recording playing in the background (blended with some white noise) was performed by none other than Mary Hallock-Greenewalt.
As the credits run on the short piece, a curious sentence appears onscreen: “Designed by Michael Betancourt.” In the sidebar on his Vimeo page, a similar sentence: “Movies designed by Michael Betancourt.” It struck me as an interesting choice of words. I’d already been warned by the person who tipped me off to Betancourt’s work not to refer to him as a “video artist” – but why not?
“I make movies,” he explained. “‘Video art’ brings in a whole kind of ideological baggage. Also, I’m not directing actors. My work is the work of a designer, re-assembling and moving things around rather than theatrical staging and melodrama. So calling it “design” is appropriate I think.”
As for his aversion to the title “video artist” – well, he has some strong opinions.
“I prefer the term ‘movies’ because I’m not really interested in the kind of media specificity that goes with video and video art. There’s this whole heritage and it’s kind of like baggage,” he told me, a slight grimace creeping over his face.
“I see this being erected around something like glitch today where it developed this particular idea of materiality – showing the materiality of our media by adhering to these supposedly innate features. There’s this very narrow, almost insular form that you must adhere to and in adhering to that you guarantee that your work is good, you guarantee that your work is aesthetically significant. And I think that’s so much bullshit.”
We’ve all been witness to it: glitch artists and dabblers in the new aesthetic presenting work and behaving as though they’re the gatekeepers to some new alchemical creation. (While turning a blind eye to the proliferation of their sacred art-form in corporate advertising and Hollywood filmmaking.) Betancourt has seen enough to call out the bullshit for what it is: old methods re-hashed via a new medium.
“It’s widely popular because it’s already familiar,” he says with a shrug. “You already know what it looks like, you’ve already seen it – or you think you have. [Cubism, for example.] And that deja vu quality is what’s necessary for the kind of widespread popularity that something like glitch or new aesthetic is having. In a way it excuses all the things that go wrong when we use our technology, but it also makes all those things that go wrong much more familiar rather than strange.”
While Betancourt’s theory and criticism can be difficult to untangle, one need only turn to one of his movies to see his deep adoration for the glitch art-form. Perhaps that’s why he seems so protective of it, so averse to glitch essentialism.
While his work seems to trend towards the democratization of media and ideas (in 1999, he created a project inviting artists to release their art using a precursor to Creative Commons public licenses), I’d never argue that his theory, his writing or his art is wholly accessible. It seems to want to be held at arms length. I can’t quiet the suspicion that Betancourt purposefully employs the obscurity of his language (visual and written) as part of a strategy to force more careful consideration out of his viewers/readers.
But there’s also a playfulness here. Glitch is, after all, made by unmaking a thing until it becomes something new. There’s something to be said for an academic–which Betancourt undoubtedly is–who creates via the artistic action of breaking things.
“It’s a courting of disaster,” he says, a broad smile spreading across his face. “We want to get as close to the abyss as we can without actually falling in.”
You can read Dr. Betancourt’s writing or see more of his artwork here: http://michaelbetancourt.com/