Nikos Daskalothanassis

Video Art

 

 

 

I. Theory

According to Koumanoudis’ Latin – Greek Dictionary, the verb video means to see with the eyes; to perceive by other senses; to notice, observe with the mind. Since the 1960s the same verb – this time as a noun – means, in most European languages, a type of magnetic tape on which can be recorded both moving visual images and sound, the contents of this tape, its copies, a “machine” used for playing those tapes, a “tool” (with the appropriate suffix), and of course, a procedure (and a space as well) of recording and projection. In this vast range of meanings, which certainly isn’t exhausted here, is added a vast range of uses: feature films on video; video clips; videogames; music videos; promotional videos; amateur videos; home videos; closed circuit video surveillance; video used as legal evidence; documentary video, and so forth. In this farrago of meanings and uses, it could be hard to define Video Art. Just because any attempt at defining it inevitably comes up against the absence of a general, systematic, fully-fledged theory of Video Art (as a consequence of its complex, hybrid structure and its short history). If to this absence is added the crisis of the status of the work of art faced by contemporary artistic production, then it is no wonder that video is “still rather poorly defined halfway between TV and the museum[1]”. Nevertheless, a corpus of disparate, and yet relevant texts has already been gathered[2]. Are there any common parameters that fix the boundaries of this “problem” space, at least from a theoretical point of view? In our attempt to find an answer to such a question we will specify some of these parameters, as “unfinished projects”; thus, our prime objective is to set down some ways of addressing several key issues concerning video, which has become by now an established means of expression that concerns, in Greece as well, a growing group of artists:

 

                The “constructional”, fragmentary procedure of montage, being a key characteristic of the cinema, takes on a different meaning in video: its “language” seems to be characterized by a structural continuum.

                Video lies outside the scope of image recording by photochemical methods of processing, which started with the photographic plate and ended with the cinematographic film.

                Video, in contrast with cinema, can be produced immediately and on the spot. Not only its recording, but also its broadcasting and reproduction are in a “synchronic” state with the sense of perceptible time, namely the time of the observer. Video has the possibility of forming an immediate, experiential relationship with the viewer who, at the same time, could be both the object and the subject of viewing. And this particular characteristic poses the question of reality and representation. Furthermore, the fact that video is arrived at “empirically” and not “conceptually”, increases its interactive possibilities.

                Indeed, if the sense of “corporality” is one of the essential attributes of sculpture[3], then, at this point and despite its manifest “visual” character, the video is more related to sculpture than painting. The dependence of the video from its broadcasting medium (theoretically, video “emerges” from the ad hoc installed monitor and unlike the cinema it isn’t projected to a pre-installed screen of fixed dimensions), relates it directly to the problems of the three-dimensional space and installations.

                Video raises some new issues relating to the context of the image. Since Renaissance, paintings opened a “window to nature” that its explicit limits were identified with the frame of the painting. Photography relativized those limits by cultivating the immediate relationship between reality and representation. In turn, cinema pushed to the extremes this procedure, since the fluidity of cinematic frames (the counterpart of the painting’s frame) was organically connected with the perpetual movement of the actual world. Video transferred this problematic within representation itself. The technique of the “image within an image”, as a structural element of a new structural language, is the most commonplace instance of this phenomenon. The systematic undermining of the traditional “norms” of representation is now generalized, since the “democratic” use of video enables everyone to leave their personal mark on the image through a series of simple operations.

                For the most part, video is a non-narrative form of expression. Its anti-narrative characteristics are not only related with the content and the production techniques of the image – or with a work that is counted as installation art – but they are also connected with its reception. The viewer can restructure, at will, the parts that make up the whole, choose the time of viewing, and adopt a desired point of view that is consistent with his own criteria. The response to the narrative rationale of the maker, the keeping of a pre-selected time of viewing and the “immobile” viewing of the work from a specific viewpoint are characteristics of the cinema rather than the video.

                From an institutional point of view, the space within which functions video raises new questions. If traditional art is in step with the adventure of the museum, if photography used as its medium the printed form at the “era of the masses”, and if the cinematic film is at home in a widely accessible cinema, the video has a more private character: it can be watched simultaneously by small groups of viewers, it can be reproduced in a small space that is often “dematerialized”, or transformed when the walls are converted into screens or even replaced by them[4].

                And finally, a specific problem concerning the definition of video itself: i.e., whether “videoed” artistic procedure, which is re-projected to a museum site, really belongs to the category of Video Art, or whether only the works that set up a primary form of expression could be considered as such?

 

“I am not sure that I have at my disposal an adequate concept for what today goes by the name video and especially video art. It seems to me … that we will have to choose from among three rigorously incompatible ‘specificities’ … let us say that these are (1) the specificity of video in general; (2) that of video art; (3) that of such works, or the putting-to-work of a general technique that is called ‘video’.[5]” No doubt, one could endorse the philosopher’s skepticism by adding a small parenthetical phrase: “at this very moment”. In this sense, everything suggested in this off-hand note should be considered as a sufficient rather than a necessary condition for the definition of Video Art, aiming thus not so much at a “impermeable” delimitation (since these conditions potentially apply to video in general) in the context of a, somehow or other, problematic theoretical category[6], but rather the stressing of some general characteristics sufficient to be cultivated by a particular type of artistic expression that, we will say it again, concerns an increasing number of artists, in Greece as well. Evidence of these concerns is the event Five Days of Video Art, organized by the Athens School of Fine Arts.

 

 

II. History

The history[7] of Video Art is closely associated both with the technological progress of Western societies in late post-war era and the wider problematic of artistic tendencies at the same period. One of the key features of those tendencies is the multidimensional investigation of the conditions of existence of the work of art through the shifting of focus from the object to the, often “immaterial”, procedure of its formation as a specific conceptual category. In this sense, it is no accident that in the early 1960s, the first experimentations with video started with the “assault” on its very medium, namely the TV monitor. The uncanny incorporation of a television set into an assemblage by Wolf Vostell, in 1958, and the televisual distortion of images, with the use of electromagnets, by Nam June Paik, in 1959, both are considered as the decisive moments in the history of Video Art[8]. Nam June Paik, who is regarded as the pioneer of Video Art, purchased video recording equipment[9] in mid-1960s, when he moved to New York, and he started to experiment systematically – but, of course, he wasn’t the only one to experiment[10] – with the production of the “immaterial” image. The distinguishing characteristic in Paik’s work is that they do not attempt to constitute alternative versions of the cinema, but rather they attempt to form a different, autonomous expression with a different medium. It is also suggestive that Video art is said to have begun when Nam June Paik used his new Sony Portapak to shoot footage of Pope Paul VI's procession through New York City. Paik played the tapes at Café a Go Go, in Greenwich Village, at a Fluxus event[11]. Thus, the contents of the video, and the involvement of Paik and Vostell with Fluxus activities mark the social and subversive origins of Video Art.

Throughout the 1970s, Video Art seems to constantly gain new ground, particularly in the United States. By now, video has gone beyond its strictly commercial or investigatory use, and is widely accessible. One could attempt a distinction as to the direction followed by video, on the one hand, in the United States and, on the other hand, in Europe. In the first instance, prevails experimentation and the quest for an autonomous visual language, whereas in the second instance, the theoretical and documental investigation of the medium and its attempted social use through the pre-existing communications network, primarily the TV network. In both cases, the preponderance of conceptual tendencies and the swift “digitization” of Western societies played an important role.

As for the commencement of the institutional legitimization of Video Art, the video exhibition entitled TV as a Creative Medium (Howard Wise Gallery, New York, 1969) is considered as the seminal exhibition, whilst its European counterparts are the exhibitions Project 74 (Cologne, 1974) and The Video Show (Serpentine Gallery, London, 1975). Moreover, Documenta VI (Kassel, 1977) sanctioned on a global scale an already active artistic practice.

In the 1980s, the further development of the technical possibilities of the video, as well as the growing institutional integration of contemporary art, resulted in an increasingly complex image processing and, on the other hand, a departure from strictly self-referrential allusions.

The appropriation of elements that already exist in the physical and social environment (images, sounds, historical documents, political projects, et.c.) and the interactive relationship with the viewer are the parameters that would be further cultivated in the 1990s. The spread of the use of video would involve the artists in a constant debate with the Mass Media, the major and multifarious international cultural events, the growing demands of the times (post-colonial studies, minority discourse, political and social discriminations, et.c.). And this very fact increased the osmosis between video as an artistic medium and its broader diffusion as integral component of our extensive cultural environment.

Nowadays, it is even harder to define Video Art, and therefore to outline its history, since the use of computers and digital technology alter the “special” characteristics of a medium that its “hybrid” character was always evident. This complex environment, however, constitutes an historical challenge that contemporary video artists are called to meet.

 

 

 

[Translated by Eleanna Panagou]



[1] Frank Popper, Art of the Electronic Age, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997), p. 68.

[2] See, for example, David Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (eds.), Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, Aperture, (New York, 1991); Timothy Druckrey (ed.), Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, (New York: Aperture, 1996); Michael Rush, Video Art, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003) – where the related printed and electronic bibliography is summarized. For a summary of several views on the theory of video, see Scott McQuire, “Video Theory” at www.arts.monash.edu.au/visarts/globe/issue9/smtxt.html; furthermore, information on artists that use video as a means of expression can be found the website www.eai.org.

[3] See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modernist Sculpture” (1980) in the collection of essays by Buchloh, entitled Neo-avantgarde and culture industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, An October Book, 2000), pp. 1 – 39.

[4] For the institutional “identity” of the video, see Peter Wollen, “Regarder, raconter et au-delà. Un texte en trois parties”, (Paris: ex. cat., Passages de l’image, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, 1990), pp. 77 – 88.

[5] Jacques Derrida, “Videor”, translated by Peggy Kamuf, (Paris: ex. cat., Passages de l’image, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1990), pp. 158 – 161. Reprinted in Gary Hill, Robert C. Morgan (eds.), Gary Hill, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), pp. 20 – 26.

[6] For Sean Cubitt, the hybrid character of the video leads to its permanent deprivation of the possibility of being connected with any specific theory, see Sean Cubitt, Videography: Video Media as Art and Culture, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993).

[7] Here only a few names shall be quoted, since the present text is aimed at presenting an overview of some tendencies as a whole, rather than a condensed history of video, which would reasonably require entirely different selection criteria. E.g. for an introduction to the history of video with reference to numerous artists, see Michael Rush, New Media in Late 20th Century Art, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999), (particularly Chapter II and Chapter III).

[8] See, for example, Mick Hartney, “Video Art”, at Grove Art Online, www.groveart.com. Also, see Christine Van Assche, “Une histoire de vidéo”, (Paris: ex. cat., Vidéo et après, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1992), pp. 10 – 15.

[9] I.e. a Sony Portapack video recorder.

[10] For instance, we should point out here the contribution of Steina and Woody Vasulka to similar experimentations. However, Vasulka, in contrast to Paik, comes from experimental cinema. The “competitive” relationship between the cinema and the video continues to this day to be a field of discussion. However, the history of video is formed at the very moment of its definition as a means of expression different from the cinema.

[11] See Gill Perry and Paul Wood (eds.), Themes in Contemporary Art, (New Haven & London: Yale University Press in association with the Open University, 2004), p. 215.