WALTHAM -- Some people use video cameras for surveillance and spying; some use them to record performances by themselves and others. Michael Rush, director of the Rose Art Museum, thinks there is a meaningful relationship between those two uses, and he makes an ambitious attempt to explore it in his current exhibition "Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art."
Rush's ideas are certainly topical. Many of us recognize the need for increasingly effective surveillance because of such threats as identity theft and terrorism, while we also worry about intrusions on the privacy of the innocent. As for performance, the cult of celebrity and the phenomena of reality TV and amateur Internet video attest to an evidently widespread belief that the way to personal salvation now is to make a public spectacle of yourself.
But though many of the works Rush has selected are excellent and intriguingly suggestive on their own, the exhibition as a whole is so diverse and of such uneven quality that the surveillance-performance connection remains fuzzy.
The installation, though theatrically impressive, does not help. Most of the videos are projected into boxy, tentlike structures made of sheer-white fabric stretched over metal frames. These projection tents point every which way in the Rose's darkened, big-box gallery, creating an ambience like that of a trade fair. Soundtracks create a low-level auditory cacophony that becomes increasingly annoying the longer you stay.
Works on view range from classics of early video to contemporary efforts by emerging artists. Pieces from the '60s include Jonas Mekas's film of Andy Warhol and friends posing for a group portrait; Bruce Nauman on tape kneading and pinching his own naked thigh or walking in a slow, weirdly exaggerated manner through a narrow corridor; and Vito Acconci standing still and pointing his finger back at the camera.
Martha Rosler's fiercely didactic feminist masterpiece from 1977, "Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained," in which men resembling scientists measure every part of the artist's naked body, is a must for anyone who has not seen it. And one of the show's most entertaining and psychologically complex works is Sophie Calle's "Double Blind" from 1985. It documents an emotionally difficult road trip during which she and her boyfriend both used video cameras to record themselves, each other, and the places they went.
Assorted new works include Subodh Gupta's gimmicky tape of a man taking a shower reversed so that he appears to accumulate a thick coat of mud and Kiki Seror's bizarrely fragmented video of a woman applying makeup seen from the perspective of little cameras attached to the brushes and pencils she uses. An amusingly deadpan, mock documentary interview by Kristin Lucas is about a woman whose brain picks up all kinds of radio and electromagnetic waves from the environment.
Some works that are explicitly about surveillance are among the weakest. A murky, digitally animated video by Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar that projects a cartoonish overhead view of figures mysteriously coming and going at some kind of corporate complex is like a low-tech video game. And Jenny Marketou's installation of big, red hovering balloons equipped with cameras transmitting images of the museum floor to nearby video monitors is overproduced and obvious.
In some cases, what starts as a form of surveillance becomes something that poetically transcends either the surveillance or performance category. Tim Hyde's affecting images of passengers on city buses whom he secretly taped from outdoor locations feels closer to traditional portraiture. And Peter Campus's richly sensuous film featuring a distant view of an old man walking tiredly on a country road in Mexico seems more an elegiac essay on age and mortality.
Surprisingly few of the videos are overtly political, but some of the best are. Harun Farocki's montage of found films of robotic machines and smart missiles that can "see" what they are doing and where they are going is eerie and frightening. And the team of Muntadas and Marshall Reese offers an entertaining compilation of presidential campaign ads made for television from 1952 to 2004.
The only video that clearly brings together surveillance and performance is Jill Magid's "Lobby 7," in which a hidden camera records the artist in a busy public lobby moving a small camera under her loosely fitting clothes. Passers by pause to watch her and the glimpses of her naked body that appear on a video screen mounted on a nearby wall.
While conclusions about the surveillance-performance connection remain elusive, a broader fantasy underwriting the show is discernible. That is the idea that artists can appropriate technology and use it to inspire intellectual resistance to prevailing social norms. Videos that diverge from mainstream style and usage can arouse critical awareness about how electronic media conspire to keep people under control.
But when videos are presented in such a disorienting way as they are at the Rose, the result can be perilously close to the cumulatively enervating and distracting experience of the mainstream media. More amusingly clever than profound, "Lobby 7" could be a "Candid Camera" episode, except for the nudity. And if you saw the presidential campaign-ad video as part of a History Channel program, you would not realize it was a work of art. "Homefront," a work in progress by Jordan Crandall, looks like a selection of scenes for a stylish new futuristic television thriller and not much more than that.
A bigger problem is that for anyone who has been paying attention to current events such as government and corporate snooping into private telephone records, or the Foley instant - messaging scandal, this exhibition might seem not up to speed with the real -- and surreal -- complexities of life in an electronically mediated and crazily violent age that is constantly changing at bewildering rates.
Rush's proposition that surveillance and performance are intimately related makes tantalizing, intuitive sense, but you might get as good an idea of what he's talking about by logging on to YouTube for a few hours.
Ken Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.