Video art — no longer relying on the kindness of strangers

For too long, straining under the weight of other art forms, video has now gone beyond mere low resolution homage of big sister film and sculpture documentation, and through analysis of the viewer's space - both physical and metaphorical - has managed to not only revive its audience's aesthetic libido but define itself in the much broader terms of interaction rather than reproduction.

Video art has long struggled for a distinctive identity. For unlike other art forms video suffers from a superficial resemblance to other media. As argued by Julia Knight in her essay, In Search of an Identity: Distribution, Exhibition and the Process of British Video Art, as video is an audio-visual time based medium, it has inevitably invited comparison with film, or worst regarded as a poor cousin.

"Similarly given that video art is often displayed on a monitor, it also bears a resemblance to two other small screen media, television and computing. Although both these media have been readily embraced by most video artists, they have nevertheless functioned to blur the identity of video art," she stated (1).

Furthermore, for many people TV, computers and video are more readily categorised as communications technologies than they are as art forms.

Another problem is that is not readily site specific, it has no clearly association with a single viewing space. And to compound the hurt, those who practise in the field have come from such a range of backgrounds in sculpture, performance, conceptual art, sculpture, photography, and the artists are seen as simply extending on from a more established fine art tradition.

The very artists who pioneered video as an art form, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, Nancy Holt, Peter Campus Juan Downey, Frank Gillette, Ira Schneider, among others came to the medium from other fields such as music, performance, dance, and sculpture.

"And more recently the use of video technology has become the central production tool for younger generation of artists, many of whom have had no background in traditional academic disciplines of art, but come directly out of film, advertising or TV studies." (2)

With all this in mind, it is little wonder that rather than attempting to narrow in definition or seek an outright identity for video art, there is a real case for expanding the term.

Video art started in the early sixties, with the use of television monitors and their broadcast image by both Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik. Paik's early experiments involved placing magnets against the monitor to distort the broadcast image, essentially "foregrounding the mechanics of reproduction" in an attempt to reclaim or atleast throw stones at television. (3)

Since then video art has been defined as everything "from reel-to-reel pieces to manipulation of video's electrical signal in a TV studio, through narrative based work using U-Matic, Betacam or SVHS formats to the edit based format of Scratch, digital imaging and special effects technology. It also extends to describe both single screen work and all the possible permutations of multi-screen, video sculpture and installation work."(4)

From early on video art was linked to other mediums, particularly television and sculpture. Paik's prepared televisions were also his first video sculptures. They "displayed the residues of use and were readily transformed into sculptural objects." (5)

This obvious construction-link to sculpture is also shown in Paik's later installation TV Buddha (1974), in which a video camera captures a sculpture of the Buddha and transmits the live image to a monitor.

Also in Corridor Installation (1970) where Bruce Nauman lined up six long corridors, as if offering a traveller a choice of realms to explore. Or Dan Graham's Present Continuous Pasts (1974).

Despite these efforts video art’s relationship with television was ever present until the eighties, when movements such as Scratch video and the early work of artists such as Dara Birnbaum showed video art questioning the need to define video art in terms of TV at all.

It has long been a dilemma of video art - of a need to be defined by more established art practises - and one which video has suffered under the burden.

To date it’s most successful solution has been its promise of interaction, one which the other disciplines find hard to counter. It was certainly an avenue encouraged by its pioneers to distinguish it from television - of shifting the public into action, or as Michael North said by closing the gap between art and audience "by bringing the audience into the art, by making spatial experience the very subject of the art." (6)

This type of "participation TV", as coined by Paik, tries to create a space of activity for the viewer, to dismantle the "one-way, passive delivery system for electronic media".

That notion has been extended to one of intimacy for more recent artists such as Vito Acconci, who described television as "science turned into a pet" and whose work such as Bad Dream House 2 (1988), Face of the Earth (1984) and Garden of Columns (1987) are void of monitors. (7)

His work Red Tapes also allowed the artist to maintain an "intimate one-to-one electronic communication with a viewer which borders on live performance or stream of consciousness, using the camera as a pen". (8)

Acconci believes video art as sculpture has a very traditional if sinister base - that of the relationship between television and furniture.

He argues the introduction of television into the family home was done in such a manner to have a "sameness of furniture, the sameness of clothing and fashion, a sign of comfort and equality". It took the "position of specialised furniture, the position of sculpture" and had all the "uselessness one associates with art". (9)

Acconci says this relationship spills over into the context of the gallery, when video art is exhibit into the museum gallery space.

"Video is brought into the museum and display as an artefact of the twentieth century - the way period furniture, is displayed elsewhere in the museum.

"This type of sensibility, in a time before video would have turned, probably, toward sculpture; its sensibility needs a space to be in, needs something tangible to grab on to."(10)

He adds to preserve that sensibility, the work might have to resort to the paradoxical terms of "video installation" where installation conjures up notion of site specificity and video is by its nature "placeless". (11)

This difficulty in disassociating video installation from the home TV set was also picked up my Margaret Morse in her essay Video Installation Art: "the physical arrangement of TV monitors into sculptural objects continues to be significant in installation video, though when an artist wishes to suppress the immediate reference to the primordial American video installation - the home TV set - that TV and even video monitors inevitably bring to mind, then how to distract the visitor ... become a problem. Then various housings and sculptural enclosures for monitors are part of a strategy for allowing other apparatuses to emerge". (12)

She added that developing the parameter of video installation beyond the monitor image/object itself, video sculpture can present an act of inverting what is inside to the outside. She cites the Shigeko Kubota's video sculpture Three Mountain (1976-79), where it is as if the TV image of mountain were emptied out, its content taking geometrical shape in the pyramids surrounding the monitor. "These pyramids are no longer imitation of mountains, but processed through our image culture and offered as image ghosts in three dimensions." (13)

The galleries have often had the same difficulty in separating the two. Paik, whose work dates back to the mid sixties, was one of the first to use to use the TV set as sculpture element, Magnet TV (1965). This and his Vy-ramid (1983), one of Paik's large scale works fashioned out of television, are part of the Whitney Museum's Permanent Collection in Painting and Sculpture.

What attracted many of these artists to video in the first place was its central property, its ability to see in real time what the camera is recording. As artist Steina Vasulka said: "as soon as I had a video camera in my hand - as soon as I had the majestic flow of time in my control - I knew I had my medium". (14)

Artists have used this attribute to manipulate point of view with a structure or space and for Bill Viola, June Paik, and Peter Campus such manipulation became an "aesthetic strategy in project informed by the process and conceptual art of the 1970's".(15)

A conspicuous example of video art as sculpture in terms of real time manipulation and how it can build space is Douglas Gordon's 24 hour Psycho (1993) in which the speed of Hitchcock's film is slowed down to take 24 hours to run its course and is projected onto a huge 15ft screen, suspended so that it appears to float within the gallery space.

"By slowing down the film, he forces a refusal of narrative progression in the eyes of the view and in a film about voyeurism, we are thrown headlong into the detail of the gaze and how this constructs space," Andrew Wilson argues. (16)

"The mechanics of the gaze are objectified not just through the works sheer size but through the conjunction of its size with the stilling down o the screen's gaze in the face of the viewer's response: a point of view which in itself reverses the controlling spectacular space of cinema". (17)

This voyeuristic invitation to the piece turns to entrapment in works such as Peter Campus's installation , Mem, where the viewer is captured by a camera and projected up the wall. When in a position to see the projection, the viewer is out of range of the camera. When in range, the viewer is unable to see their image project.

Ingrid Wiegand says the "overall effect of Campus's work is to force the viewer to participate in a very physical way in a different kind of space than that which his kinaesthetic sense informs him he is occupying." (18)

So with success such as these, why does video art need to sustain these relationships.

Most agree that it is the lack of exposure through broadcast that forces video into museums and exhibition spaces, often dressed up as sculpture.

Chris Boicos said as a result "artists such as Paik, Bill Viola and Gary Hill are the biggest names in video art with their exposure being ensured by their installation work". (19)

Success away from installation work is limited for video artists, although some such as Chris Marker, have aired their considerations about time and memory by using video technology as a "camera-pen".

"Marker's futurist enigmatic work - his films, travel book, imaginary film scripts, videos, installation - constitute a highly subjective voyage across the world and its Borgesian labyrinthine features of faces, landscapes, objects and animals in memory, time and space," John Conomos says. (20)

Conomos paints him as a flaneur wandering the world recording his impressions on video forcing a sculpture of linguistics.

This is an area not lost on Gary Hill whose work in the nineties has "developed in relation to the role of and meaning of language (linguistics, semiotics, and discourse formations) as it inflect within text and contexts". (21) His reality of sculptural space has been created with language and image (particularly the human body) such as I Believe It is an Image in Light of the Other (1991-92).

While there is obvious architectural elements to work such as DIG (1987-92), the former sculptor, who dealt in steel, moved into video because it allowed him to "the possibility to think out loud". (22)

Such a possibility may be the thing that keeps video art alive, rather than its capacity for simultaneous recording and reproduction, feedback of image and sound, duration and delay of experience. In the end video art has surpassed mere documentation and much of its subjects as well, to provide a stage not found in other disciplines, a stage for interaction. In the end this and the possibility to think out loud may be the only alternative to television.



1,2. Knight, Julia (ed) In Search of an Identity: Distribution, Exhibition and the Process of British Video Art, University of Luton Press, Luton, 1996, 221, 221

3. Cubitt, Sean, Videography: Video Media as Art and Culture, MacMillan Education Ltd., London, 1993. p32.

4. Knight, Julia (ed), Diverse Practices: A Critical Reader on British Video Art, University of Luton Press, Luton, 1996, 7

5, 15. Hanhardt, John, Expanded Forms, Notes Toward a History, Art and Design, v8, n7/8, July/August, 1993, 437, 437.

6. Michael North’s The Public as Sculpture: From Heavenly City to Mass Ornament

7,9, 10,11. (Ed) Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, Vito Acconci, Illuminating video, An Essential Guide to Video Art, Aperture in Association with the Bay Area video Coalition, 1990, 129, 131, 131, 132

8. Mona Da Vinci Video: The art of the Observable Dreams, New Artists Video, p18.

12,13. (Ed) Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, Margaret Morse, Illuminating video, An Essential Guide to Video Art, Aperture in Association with the Bay Area video Coalition, 1990, 162,162

14. Vasulka, Steina, My Love Affair with Art: Video and Installation Work, Leonardo, v28, 1, 15.

16,17. Wilson, Andrew, Spatialised Time, Unchecked Duration, Film and Video Work by Contemporary British Artists, Art and Design, v11, July, August, 1996, 86, 86

18. Wiegand, Ingrid, Varieties of the Video Installation, New Artists Video, 184.

19. Boicos, Chris, Where Can Video Art Go Now?, Art International, Winter 90, 31.

20. Conomos, John The Movement of Shadows, Video as Electric Writing, Art and Design, v10, p39, Nov/Dec, 1995.

21,22. Gary Hill, Interviewed Interview, pg 65, Art and Design, v8, n7/8, July/August, 1993, 65, 65.