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Exploding, Plastic and Inevitable: the Rise of Video Art

 

Jeremy Welsh

 

Since the advent, growth and mass acceptance of photography and film, video is the first representational medium to have radically altered our modes of perception and to have decisively and permanently changed our expectations of visual art. From its beginnings as a low resolution, monochrome, real time relay system, an offspring of broadcast television and military surveillance, to its incorporation in a broad range of contemporary technologies, video has become the meta medium of our age. The child has swallowed its parent; video has exceeded television and has merged with computer technologies and digital information systems to become the de facto standard for the display of all types of imagery and information. The video screen is our window onto the virtual world of digital environments, is the electronic mirror that reflects us in our myriad shifting guises, is the interface to an overwhelming mass of data from which we extract the information we need in order to navigate the contemporary world.

This essay is intended to provide a condensed, and necessarily partial, overview of video art’s historical development through the examination of a number of genres, styles, tendencies and strategies that have characterised its growth since the late 1960’s. A bibliography and a list of URL addresses point to further sources of reading.

1 - Video art; for and against television

The earliest reported use of video screens in an art piece (these being television sets of course) was in 1963, when Nam June Paik exhibited modified tv sets at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal and Wolf Vostell showed 6 Tv Decollages at Smolin Gallery in New York. Both artists were at the time associated with the Fluxus group and shared many of its concerns, wanting to blur the boundaries between art and everyday life, adopting dadaesque confrontational strategies and responding to the theories of American composer John Cage regarding the uses of chance, randomness and indeterminacy in the process of making art. Typical for many artists at the time was a critical view of broadcast television, a communication channel still in its infancy, but already regarded as a monolithic tool of marketing and official propaganda. An early example of an art piece that dealt directly with the power structures of tv was Richard Serra’s Telervision Delivers People (1973) Paik is famed for having said “Television has been attacking us all our lives, now we can attack it back”. (Here Paik may have been deliberately paraphrasing John Cage’s statement “ The Europeans have been sending opera over here (America) for centuries and now we are sending it back” )

Paik’s statement should not be interpreted only on one level: he was not proposing that video art would destroy, replace or simply be an alternative to television. As became apparent with later projects such as Good Morning Mr. Orwell in 1984, Paik and many other artists were also deeply interested in occupying the broadcast space of television as an expanded arena for art.

One of the earliest examples of an art made specifically for television is to be found in the work of Gerry Schum, a German tv producer who in 1968 elaborated the idea of the Television Gallery, a project that was intended to bring the works of contemporary artists into the homes of a broad public. Schum made two series for German TV, Land Art which was transmitted in 1969, and Identifications, broadcast in 1970. In addition, Schum produced Dutch artist Jan Dibbet’s work TV as a fireplace (1969), one of the earliest examples of a conceptual video art work that simultaneously occupied and deconstructed the space of television. In 1971 Schum established Videogalerie Schum as an exhibition space for video art, and was involved in the setting up of a video department at Museum Folkwang in Essen, probably the first art museum to take such a step. Whilst the first series, Land Art, functioned primarily as a means of presenting contemporary works by artists such as Robert Smithson, Dennis Oppenheim and Richard Long within the context of a tv broadcast, the second series, Identifications, marks a radical moment, when artists occupy the space of the tv image to make works for it and in it. Among contributors to the second series were Joseph Beuys, John Baldessari, Klaus Rinke and Gilbert & George. Schum was also producer of Gilbert & George’s near-myhtological early video works Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk and A Portrait of The Artists as Young Men, both made in 1972.

Around the same time in Britain, David Hall, an experimental film maker who founded the first department for video art in the UK at Maidstone College of Art, made a series for the BBC entitled 7 TV Pieces. This series consisted of short black and white films, each of which playfully deconstructed the illusory space of the tv image whilst subverting the expectations of the television viewer. Some years later, Hall produced another work for the BBC, entitled This is a Television Receiver, in which the BBC’s most famous news anchor of the day read a technical description of what a television is and how it works. This short reading was repeatedly retaped by shooting the screen image, until both image and sound degraded to a point of almost total abstraction. Again in the late eighties, Hall was commissioned to make a work for television and on this occasion he “reconstructed” the first experimental tv transmission of the pioneer engineer John Logie Baird. Baird’s version of television was never commercially developed, and Hall’s work thus functions both as an archeological account of the early years of the medium and as critique of the linear history of technological development.

By the mid 1980’s the exponential growth of broadcast television in Western societies and the rapid development of video technology had produced a demand for variety and new forms of content on tv. Thus a relatively large number of artists in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia were able to gain access to tv production facilities and a mass audience for their work. Already in the 1970’s, WNET 13, a public broadcasting station in New York City had established The Television Laboratory as a space for experimental programme making and operated an artist residency scheme that supported, among others, early works of Bill Viola. In the mid eighties the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston was home to CAT Fund (Contemporary Art Television) under the direction of curator Kathy Rae Huffman. By combining tv patronage with public funding, CAT enabled the production of several high-profile made for tv art projects by artists including Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Bill Seaman and others. In Europe, Germany’s ZDF, Britain’s Channel Four, France’s La Sept and Belgium’s BRT among many others were making regular forays into the realms of video art and experimental film to find new aesthetic forms with wehich to expand the language of television. A particularly interesting example from the mid eighties is the case of Yugoslavia, then the most liberal of the socialist states. Regional tv stations in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Beograd and Skopje provided access to artists and produced a number of memorable works by artists such as Dalibor Martinis, Sanja Ivekovic, Breda Beban & Hrvoje Horvatic as well as a number of international artists who participated in the many video festivals and workshops that took place in Yugoslavia between 1983 – 89.

2 – independent media, from video activists to culture jammers

Video art is also part of the history of technological development and the history of forms of resistance that aim to subvert the dominant modes of use that technology’s producers intend for their products. One is constantly reminded that domestic or “civil” technology is always a bi product of the military and aerospace industries, and that the ideologies of global corporations and government agencies are somehow embedded in these technologies, there to be exposed and deconstructed by artists and independent media users.

Nam June Paik appears again in this history of appropriation, as purportedly the first artist to acquire and use a video portapak as a tool of artistic expression. The portapak was developed by Sony as a lightweight portable recording device for use in air-to-ground surveillance during the Vietnam war. It was only as the war drew to a close that the electronics industry realised that they had a product to sell on the open market. Since the launch of that crude, low resolution black and white recording system as the world’s first home video format in 1969, the video camera has become one of the most widespread consumer tools since Kodak launched the amateur camera.

The history of video art, particularly from the early seventies until the mid nineties, is also the history of workshops, co-operatives, pressure groups and activist organisations whose aim was to provide access to the means of electronic communication and to propose an alternative to the dominant forms of communication and culture practised by broadcasting corporations and mainstream art institutions. During this period in North America and most European countries, artists, media activists and community-based political groups organised themselves around idealistic, collectively run and usually open-access workshops or labs where the expensive tools of media production could be made available at reasonable prices to individuals and groups lacking the budgets required for commercial production. The legacy of this “movement” can still be seen today in the many medialabs that have now very often shifted their focus to the internet and digital communications.

A consequence of this ideology of autonomy (albeit state-funded autonomy in most cases) was that there was often a fruitful convergence of political activism, underground culture and cutting edge art in the productions that emerged from the independent media field. A significant international network evolved, comprising festivals, specialist exhibition and screening venues, archives, distribution centres, production workshops and dedicated publications. From within the conventional artworld, a number of curators and critics emerged, who strove to gain acceptance and recognition for video within the institutions they represented. Among those who adopted video art relatively early were The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Centre George Pompidou in Paris, Museum Folkwang in Essen and Kölnischer Kunstverein. At the same time, large numbers of small, artist-run galleries around the world provided a space in which video art could grow and mature, often entirely overlooked by the major institutions and the commercial galleries that feed them.

By the late 90’s however, the world had changed considerably and the environment was no longer quite so hospitable for media art workshops and their associated network of exhibition and distribution systems. On the one hand, video art had gained major artworld acceptance, breaking out of the “ghetto” of independent practice, and on the other, digital technology had put the tools of production into the hands of ordinary individuals at a reasonable price. As more artists were able to become self sufficient by investing in computers and digital video cameras, their need for specialist production workshops diminished. The issue of distribution and in particular the question of archiving and preserving a large body of unstable video material remains a major problem, and one that national agencies have begun to address.

The independent media movement had a major international impact on the growth of video and subsequent forms of electronic art. At the aesthetic level, the most profound tendency to emerge from this field was represented by Scratch Video, a form with close links to sampling in music and with its historical roots in political photomontage and avant garde film. As a form, scratch had a wide appeal, and was taken up variously by visual artists, political activists, music video producers, advertisers and film directors. Paik again is to be mentioned in this context – the constant re-use and re-cutting of both original and found imagery in rapid-fire electronic montages of sound and image is characteristic for his work. Drawing on the history of avant garde film – particularly the abstract film language of artists such as Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger, or the cut-up films of Bruce Connor, Paik elaborates a visual language of video that links him to Warhol in terms of both his impact on contemporary art and his attitude to the use of imagery from mass media. A key point in the development of scratch or appropriated video is in the late 1970’s when American artist Dara Birnbaum made her series of short works Pop Pop Video, the most memorable of these being Technological Transformation: Wonder Woman. This brief – and for the time – rapidly edited montage of images from the popular tv series Wonder Woman welded the irreverent aesthetics of punk to a formal avant garde tradition and the so called “drastic classicism” of New York’s post-minimalist new music milieu, typified by the noise barrage of composers like Rhys Chatham and Glen Branca. Birnbaum worked directly with musicians from that milieu, along with other emerging video artists like John Sanborn, Kit Fitzgerald and Mary Perillo, who had close ties with The Kitchen Centre for Video, Dance and New Music. (See URL in bibliography)

Birnbaum’s works were widely shown in Europe and the USA during the late seventies and early eighties , including at the many art schools that by now had established departments for video and new media. It would be reasonable to assume that the work of Birnbaum and her contemporaries had a direct effect on young artists who were emerging from these art schools at that time. Thus in the early eighties Scratch Video quickly became a widespread form that broke with earlier, durational, performative and minimalistic forms of video art. In London at the Brixton night club The Fridge, a group of young artists including George Barber, The Duvet Brothers, Sandra Goldbacher and Kim Flitcroft arranged weekly screenings, showing their re-cut versions of tv commercials and hollywood films on a heap of old tv sets bound together with heavy steel chains. The images would often be accompanied by music that existed at the point of transition between post-punk new wave, American hip hop, techno and Jamaican dub. At the same time in New York clubs like Manmhattan’s Danceteria were home to a milieu of young video artists who wanted to develop and expose their work in a social context outside of the mainstream gallery world. As a style, Scratch spread rapidly across Europe, North America and in Japan, and in many of these places it acquired a sharp political edge when it became a tool in the hands of media activists who instinctively understood that its deconstructive techniques could be applied to political campaigning. In Britain, groups like Gorilla Tapes and The Duvet Brothers achieved wide exposure, including extensive tv broadcasting. The visual language they used quickly passed over into the vocabulary of television, particularly in the case of youth programming, music video and advertising. Other artists including George Barber, the German Ingo Günther, and former experimental film makers such as David Larcher, contributed to the development of a complex language of electronic images which directly impacted upon the emerging disciplines of communication design and video graphics. At a point in the mid eighties, London was the undisputed world centre for video graphics, and many video artists found themselves working in high technology studios for high budget clients. In the USA, the heritage of Scratch as a political tool for activism and cultural terrorism was reconfigured in the late eighties and nineties by artists such as Paul Garrin, a former assistant of Nam June Paik, and the group Emergency Broadcast Network who developed an early form of “culture jamming”. Subsequently, groups like Negativland, The Barbie Liberation Front, RtMark and numerous others have taken the project further both in electronic media and real-world actions or interventions. A great deal of internet-based activist art today can be directly traced to the activities of scratch artists and guerilla media groups from that period. A number of individual artists’ works based upon the use of found or appropriated materials have achieved a prominent status in the art world. Perhaps the most interesting of these within the framework of recent global history is Dial History by Johan Grimonperez – a chilling portrayal of our psychological landscape, our fascination with catastrophe and the ambivalent relationship between terrorism and the mass media.

3 – video sculpture / video installation

Video art’s history began with the use of television sets in sculptural installations, and it was through the development of video sculpture and video installation that video art made significant inroads into the mainstream of art museums and galleries. As mentioned above, a few major museums began to mount video installations from the late seventies onwards, (The Whitney Biennale’s film and video programme should be mentioned here) but it was in the second half of the eighties that a significant breakthrough occurred. One of the first major museum shows in Europe was Video Skulptur: Historische und Aktuelt, curated by Wolf Herzogenrath and Edith Decker at Kølnischer Kunstverein in 1987. The previous year Documenta 8 had for the first time given prominence to large scale video installations including works by Klaus Vom Bruch , Ingo Gunther, Fabrizio Plessi, Ulrike Rosenbach., Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota, Jochen Gerz and others. Video installation also came to achieve a steadily greater prominence at important international events like the Vennice Biennale throughout the 1990’s. It was also during the late 1980’s and into the 90’s that a number of prominent video artists (almost all of them male and American) began to be given large one-person museum exhibitions. Nam June Paik, Bill Viola, Gary Hill, Bruce Nauman, Tony Ousler and others were thus elevated into the elite realm of international superstar artist. As the nineties progressed, several younger artists emerged and were quickly adopted as players in this “big league” of major artists, among them Douglas Gordon, Stan Douglas , Doug Aitken and Shirin Neshat. More recently Tacita Dean, Jane & Louise Wilson, Roderick Buchanan and Abigail Lane have added to the number of British artists to be internationally acclaimed for their recent film and video work.

Outside of the big museum circuit, numerous artists continued to develop the form of video installation, whilst exploring new areas of content to be expressed through the electronic medium. A process of hybridising brought about new technological configurations in which computer technologies played an increasingly significant role, allowing for real-time interaction or viewer-responsive behaviour in video installations. The massive increase of availability in video projection systems through the nineties also had a major impact, not least in enabling a real dialogue to be developed between video art and cinema (see below) and allowing artists to work with space in a way that had been difficult using monitors and television sets. Finally, the arrival of low cost dvd authoring systems at the end of the 90’s eradicated a problem video artists had suffered throughout the medium’s brief history: how to create a work that allowed uninterrupted playback ? Laser disk technology had previously been an answer, but it was expensive, inaccessible and unreliable. Furthermore, dvd technology shares many characteristics with cd-rom, allowing for the creation of complex, multilayered narratives, branching structures and for communication between the dvd program and other media or technologies. The first decade of the third millenium will be a period when more and more artists test the limits of dvd as an expanded form of the video medium. Interactive video is of course nothing new, and the history of electronic art is rich in examples of pioneers who have pushed the boundaries of the technically possible and have themselves contributed to the development of new technologies. Paik again, in his collaborations with electronic engineers, was instrumental in the development of early video synthesisers; Steina and Woody Vasulka, founders of The Kitchen in New York, have throughout their career been at the cutting edge of electronic image technology, often visualising and developing systems that come into the mainstream many years later. Gary Hill has often worked around the limitations of available technology to deveop his own systems, whilst artists like Jeffrey Shaw and Lynn Hershman harnessed interactivity, the physical intervention of the spectator and the use of new visualisation technologies to create installations that are radically different from the analogue image stream of “classical” video installation.


4 – Video poetics, the grammar of images and new narratives

During the 1980’s the aesthetic boundaries of the video medium were rapidly pushed back as the technology developed to allow a much greater degree of control over the appearance of the image and the ability to edit precisely. It was a period when many artists were motivated by a desire to go beyond the simple point and shoot aesthetics of early video art and a time when the growth of post modern thinking encouraged intertextuality and hybridisation. An ambivalent relationship with television, cinema, advertising and pop culture allowed artists to both critique and indulge a free flow of associative images that were becoming the dominant visual language of the era. Women artists schooled in feminist theory were searching for an aesthetic language that could bind the political to the personal, often using narrative and a sensual pictorialism to make works that were radically different from the video art of the preceding decade. Dara Birnbaum, who had come to prominence as a precursor of scratch video (see above) began to make lyrical, literary works of great visual elegance and apparent simplicity. Judith Barry created more complex statements that captured the explosive growth of electronic culture, combining a strong sense of the visual to an informed reading of media theory. In Britain artists such as Catherine Elwes, Kate Meynell, Judith Goddard and Mona Hatoum all experimented with combinations of body-focussed performance, highly charged symbolic imagery, first person narrative and gender deconstruction. Hatoum later gained wide recognition for her installations and sculptures and was one of the first artists in the west to draw attention to the oppression of the Palestinian people.

Throughout the history of video art, a number of artists have devoted their work to the exploration and development of an aesthetic language that is built upon the specifics of the electronic medium, often avoiding forms of narrative or journalistic conventions that impose a specific linguistic reading upon the image. Steina and Woody Vasulka have, since the 1960’s worked with a form of electronic visualisation that owes more to the processes of musical composition than it does to the conventions of narrative film making. Kjell Bjørgeengen, one of the first Norwegian artists to work with video, has developed his work clearly within a tradition established in the late sixties by artists like The Vasulkas and Paik, and has often produced his works through The Experimental TV Workshop in Owega, New York, a centre with close links to Paik in its early days. The French artist, Robert Cahen, who came to film and video after studying music with Musique Concrete innovater Piere Schaerffer, developed a form of video art that merges a sumptuous visual aesthetic with a narrative sense that is always based on a voyage. Cahen’s work has close links with so-called “Psychogeographic” films by artist/directors such as Chris Marker – especially in films such as Marker’s Sans Soleil – whilst making historical references to early film. The Lumiere Brothers’ Train arriving at a station from 1910? is a key reference in Cahen’s work, whilst his use of sound often situates his work in relation to the practices of contemporary composers and sound artists.

Yugoslav artists Dalibor Martinis and Sanja Ivekovic, working in Zagreb during the 1980’s made a number of collaborative and individual works during the eighties that fused a strong sense of video’s aesthetic possibilities with a literary ability to quote and reference a variety of narrative traditions and forms. Their collaborative works Chanoyu and Black and White from the mid eighties represented a new narrative tradition that was growing in European art at the time. Informed by post modern theory, a pan global reading of culture, and a deep awareness of the twentieth century avant garde tradition, these works combined simplicity and elegance with a multi layered textual structure. Both in their own right have continued to make significant work and have in recent times represented Croatia at major international biennales.

Also emerging from the film and contemporary art scene in Zagreb in the 80’s (Zagreb was and still is one of the most important centres in Europe for experimental film) Breda Beban and Hrvoje Horvatic produced a compelling body of work that married the performance, body art and conceptual traditions of middle European 70’s art to the rich iconography of the Byzantine. Their earliest collaborative works echo the unique masterpiece of Georgian film director Sergei Paradjanov, The Colour of Pomegranates, whilst paying hommage to a generation of artists, such as Marina Abramovic, who immediately preceded them. Beban was educated as a painter and Horvatic a film director, and in this sense they arrived at video art from two quite different directions, something that gave their works a very special quality. Relocating to London in the early 90’s, they continued to make work together until Horvatic’s untimely death in 1996. Breda Beban has more recently emerged as a solo artist working with both video and photography.

Bill Viola has become best known for his ambitious, large scale video installations, often quoting the visual language of Renaissance or Baroque painting, and addressing grand themes in a way that few other video artists have attempted. Viola’s earlier works in single-screen video are however, perhaps more significant in their indirect influence upon video’s subsequent development. With a thorough grounding in the technical aspects of the medium, having been technical director of a video lab as a young artist, Viola consequently investigated the visual qualities of the medium in his earliest works. Later, his interest in oriental cultures, philosophies and religious beliefs led him to create works that explored extreme states of physical being or of perceptual distraction. For the purposes of this text, only one work of Viola will be specifically discussed, the video tape “Anthem” from 1983. Viola is often considered to be an artist whose work exists primarily in the realm of metaphysics, but it is often the very viscerality of his vision that is striking. Perhaps we approach the metaphysical through the body, and the body in much of Viola is, to borrow Arthur Kroker’s term an ‘event scene’ in which technology invades and re configures the body. Anthem remains a work of enduring power and importance within which are laid out all of the elements of Viola’s future work. It is also a coherent vision of the media-(ted) landscape: not a synthetic world of technological transformations but a precise mapping of the contemporary landscape in which both nature and the city are elements that are absorbed by and re configured within the televisual. This is the virtual scanscape - nothing escapes the scrutiny of the camera or the scanning device, we have the whole field covered, and barring the Uncertainty Principle, which still allows for a degree of elusiveness as the sub atomic level, we can say with some precision just where everything is. The media-(ted) landscape is a universe in which, to use Foucault’s phrase, the Order of Things has been established, and in Anthem, the continuity of the natural order into the synthetic order is an unbroken slide. Anthem is also a work possessed of a rigorous formal structure and a clarity that communicates, as in most of Viola’s work, beyond the apparent use of language. It’s only overt linguistic reference is in the title itself – Anthem, national song – and the work is quite literally that, both in its depiction of contemporary American identity, and in its internal structure, built around a song-like manipulation of modified tones. (For further discussion of the issues raised in this section, see “The Media-(ted) Landscape: Image Becoming Context” by Jeremy Welsh in Screens catalogue, 1997 / http://homepage.mac.com/jezwel/Texts/medland1.html)

5 – Back to basics ? video/performance in the 90’s and beyond….

After a period during which the technological sophistication, ambition of vision, and not least the production budgets of much video art had grown to a point where the medium was no longer cheap, dirty and accessible, an inevitable reaction came when a new generation of artists emerging in the 1990’s turned their backs on the high profile pretentions of late eighties video and looked back to the simplicity and directness of video’s early pioneers. Thus a renewed interest was generated for early video works by artists like William Wegman, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Martha Rosler, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. All of these artists had of course continued their own artistic development, and many of them finally achieved real international prominence during the 90’s.

The small format hi8, vhs, or later dv video camera, although infinitely more sophisticated than the crude portapak systems of video’s early years, triggered a “new primitivism” among young artists in the nineties, when a point and shoot aesthetic, based on the rapid generation and production of conceptual works, unleashed a new wave of short format video. In some cases a very specific technology enabled a particular genre of work, a case in point being the works made in New York using the Fischer Price Pixelvision camera in the early 90’s. Essentially a child’s toy, the Pixelvision recorded low resolution black and white images onto an ordinary audio cassette. A group of young artist/film makers, most prominent among them Sadie Benning and Michael Almereyda, began to make no-budget D.I.Y. movies in their apartments, using friends as actors, and welding a gritty post-punk urban sensibility to a remarkable facility for storytelling. The prominence of Pixelvision was short-lived; the cameras were quickly withdrawn from sale and those that were in circulation did not survive for long, but the brief flowering of this cinematic sub culture left its mark on the further development of video’s aesthetic forms.

Whilst the Pixelvision artists used the medium to create a new form of low budget cinema, other artists in New York and elsewhere took up video as a means of reconnecting to the traditions of conceptualism and performance art from the 70’s, whilst elaborating an expression that was entirely of its time. Significantly, a large number of the artists who emerged during this period were women, and throughout the 90’s the visibility of female artists grew consistently. The New York art scene produced (among many others) Cheryl Donegan, Alex Bagg and Alix Pearlstein, whilst Great Britain saw the arrival of a large number of young, high profile female artists, many of whom worked in video. Whilst Cheryl Donegan and Alex Bagg in particular made works that commented upon and operated within the discourse of the New York art world, (although never exclusively concerned with that subject) British artists like Georgina Starr, Sam Taylor Wood, Stephanie Smith & Edward Stuart and Jane & Louise Wilson drew there subject matter from diverse sources, often with a social or documentarist aspect. Of the many 90’s video artists from Britain who gained international prominence, the twin sisters Jane and Louise Wilson have so far produced some of the most convincing work. Many of their video installations are explorations of lost, forgotten, overlooked, hidden or secret spaces, which they uncover through probing camera work and skillful combination of images. Perhaps their most fully realised work to date is Star City (2000), a large scale video projection installation shot at the Russian space centre near Moscow. The imagery in this work is both spectacular and melancholic, looking quite literally back to the future, a lament for the lost optimism of the first space age, a meditation on technology’s inevitable obsolescence and the hubris of the scientific project.

Among 90’s artists in Britain who extended the project of video/body art, inherited from artists like Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci, Stephanie Smith and Edward Stuart have been and continue to be among the most interesting and challenging. Basing many of their works on the dynamics of a male/female partnership whilst exploring issues of physical endurance that echo the works of Ulay and Abramovic, Smith & Stuart have produced a series of compelling short video pieces and installations. In “Mouth to Mouth” we see the prone figure of Edward Stuart, under water. Every so often he exhales, and Stephanie Smith ducks her head into the water to breathe air into his mouth. In an earlier projection work, Stuart spits saliva into the open mouth of Smith – the projectile of white fluid traversing the two screens of the installation and setting up a process of deconstruction that calls into question the representational space/time of the image and our own occupancy of space and time in relation to the work. Video art has, over the years, produced many notable double acts, and the British duo of John Wood and Paul Harrison continue this tradition, making works that absurdly challenge our expectations with regard to the spatial representations of the video image. Drawing upon a vaudeville tradition that simultaneously plays deconstructively with the mechanics of representation in the televisual image, their works relate to a longer tradition in both tv and video art. William Wegman, Kevin Atherton, David Hall, Servaas and Michel Jaffrenou, to name but a few, can be related to that tradition, as can tv comedians Ernie Kovaks in the USA and Wim T. Schippers in The Netherlands. (See Ernie Kovaks, Video Artist by Robert Rosen in Transmission: Theory and Practice for a New Television Aesthetics, and Waar Hed Dat Nou Voor Nodig by Emile Falaux in Revision, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1987)

It was also during the nineties that video art finally made a major impact on the Scandinavian art scene, although there had always been notable individuals who had worked with video in relative isolation before this time. Danish artists Peter Land and Gitte Villesen were among the first to achieve wider recognition, Land belonging clearly to the tradition described above, whilst the latter worked within a video art/documentary hybrid form that has come to be a well established style in contemporary video. From Sweden there were also many 90’s artists who, in tune with the spirit of the time, produced video works with similar themes and sharing many characteristics with works being made throughout the world. Lova Hamilton, Anne Sofie Siden and Annee Olofsson made works that in radically different ways examined and challenged constructions of female identity, whilst male artists including Mats Hjelm, Hans Kvam, Per Teljer and Tommy Olsson explored issues of masculinity, often by pøaraphrasing a cinematic language and its attendant cliches of representation. Norway too experienced a significant upsurge in numbers of young artists concentrating on video, and here too issues of gender representation and the politics of inter personal relations were often explored. Jannicke Låker, Lotte Konow Lund, Kristin Bjørseth, Lisa Lohne and Elisabeth Mathisen, to name merely a few, have made strong works with a background in this tradition. Norway also produced many artists whose work has been concerned with elaborating a vibrant visual language particular to the electronic medium. Starting with pioneers Marianne Heske and Kjell Bjørgeengen, both of whom began to work with video in the late 70’s, the aesthetic exploration of video has been a characteristic for works by Helene Selvåg, Anne Helen Robberstad, Tone Hansen, Kristin Bergaust, Åslaug Krokan Berg, Gisle Frøysland, Hans Christian Gilje, Ivar Smedstad, Ellen Røed and many others. The incorporation of documentary forms in video art has also been a significant factor for many Norwegian artists, including several of those named here. An engagement with the development of video’s technological possibilities beyond the linear progression of images has also been an important aspect of video’s development in Norway, especially in terms of interdisciplinary performance projects and interactive digital installations. Groups like Motherboard, Verdens Teater and Bakktruppen have expanded the possibilities of staged performance whilst investigating possibilities offered by online networked communications and the linking of live action to projected video environments. Exploring the more advanced possibilities of digital technology including virtual reality and robotics, artists such as Ståle Stenslie, Sven Påhlsson, and Thomas Kvam have advanced the aesthetic boundaries and the technical vocabulary of electronic art in Norway. At the present time a healthy cross-fertilisation of art forms mediated through the use of digital technology is creating challenging new hybrids and opening up a dynamic dialogue between technology-based art and the more traditional plastic arts.

6 – video looking at film / elaborating digital cinema

One of the most profound changes to take place in video since the seventies has been the gradual absorption of cinematic modes of representation and narrative into the vocabulary of video art. Early video, hampered by low grade image quality and the impracticality of editing, had no choice but to find its own forms of expression by exploring the particular qualities the medium offered, including instant playback and closed-circuit relay of live monitoring. As the technology became more sophisticated and as video artists themselves grew in confidence and breadth of vision, more and more aspects of film were appropriated and reconfigured by video artists. At the same time, film was borrowing heavily from video, adopting the radical cuts, repeat edits and deliberate “destruction” of images typical for scratch video. Also, a number of cinema’s more experimental practitioners had discovered that by creating a fusion of formats, including super 8, video and computer graphics with the conventional 16 and 35mm formats of film production, they could elaborate a filmatic language that was able to cross the divide between film and video art. Significant examples include Chris Marker, Wim Wenders, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, John Maybury, Isaac Julien, Chantal Ackerman and Stefan Decostere. Whilst these film makers successfully crossed over into the realm of contemporary art, a significant number of video artists began to move in the opposite direction, raiding the territories of film to gather material for video works that would increasingly bring the language of cinema into the museum and gallery. Douglas Gordon, in appropriating and manipulating Hollywood feature films, extends the project of Scratch video and its offshoots, whilst synthesising a new hybrid that exists at a point somewhere between cinema and the plastic arts. Stan Douglas, Doug Aitken, Eija Lisa Ahtila, Shirin Neshat and numerous others exploit a whole range of cinematic techniques that implement dramaturgy in a way that had previously not featured so strongly in video art. At the same time, these works contribute to the development of a new film-language, often referred to as digital cinema, and exemplified in recent experiments such as Mike Figgis’ Timecode and the works of American independent John Jost. Douglas, Aitken and Ahtila in particular demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of both the linguistic codes and the technical methods of cinema, working according to an “industrial” model that is alien to many visual artists. Ahtila, coming from Finland, represents a visual culture that has been rich, diverse and dynamic over the past two decades. Finland was the first of the Nordic countries to make a significant impact on the international video and electronic art milieu, through the work of pioneering artists like Marikki Hakola and Teemu Maki, theorists such as Erkki Huhtamo and curators including Minna Tarka, Perttu Rastas and Tapio Makela. The 1990’s saw a rapid growth in Finland’s production of video and digital art, and Eija Lisa Ahtila’s work spearheads a sector that includes many other significant artists.

An entirely different approach to the idea of digital film is to be found in the many short, graphical works that exist in a space somewhere between visual art, club culture, advertising, fashion and internet art. Often reaching significantly large audiences on the back of cutting edge electronic music, this represents a form of video art / digital film as popular culture – often made “in the bedroom” on a home pc or laptop computer, and far removed from the complexities of narrative film production. Merging with other new forms including Flash animation and streaming video, this represents a practice that once again wipes out existing boundaries and opens up a new, and perhaps only briefly, democratic space for creative intervention. Emerging tools such as “Keystroke”, a system for collaborative, live, online manipulation of audio visual materials, open up possibilities for playful experimentation and creative cooperation in the making of art. Powerful scripting languages such as MAX, originally developed for electronic musicians, and its derivatives including the video tool NATO, allow for the construction of dynamic, real time, responsive or interactive systems in which the role of artist becomes more like that of director, programmer or system administrator. The likelihood of a form of interactive cinema that is not simply a multiple choice menu onscreen is brought closer by these new technologies, but ultimately it will be the vision of artists and other creators that determines what the next evolutionary stage of video art will be.

7 - Here, there and everywhere (elsewhere)

As has been seen, video art since the seventies has penetrated every aspect of contemporary culture just as screen-based technologies have reconfigured our space, both private and public. Video creates new possibilities and contributes to the renewal of older traditions. An artist like Anne Katrine Dolven bridges the divide between video’s short history and the ancient traditions of painting in works that weld the immediacy and dynamism of one to the depth and register of the other. New creative disciplines such as Video Dance and Video Theatre have emerged and flourished. (These areas have been overlooked in this essay due to space considerations, but are forms worthy of close examination.) The electronic images at the heart of virtual technologies have opened up new spaces for imaginative intervention and spatial exploration, whilst the extension of art practices into areas like biotechnology and robotics represent challenges for artists, art institutions and the art public that will set the tone of a 21st. century avant garde.

Video is everywhere, for better or worse. Whilst the broad acceptance video art has gained over the past thirty years demonstrates art’s ability to renew and revive itself, the ubiquity of video as a system of monitoring and surveillance creates a climate of paranoia and a general unease in advanced technological societies. We become immune to images of pain, suffering, degradation and brutality that are pumped non stop through the information channels of contemporary society. We become bored and impatient with the ceaseless flow of trivia that assaults our senses. We find that our attention span gets progressively shorter, our appetite for novelty grows exponentially, our ability to make the investment required in order to gain knowledge and insight from slow and subtle processes is constantly being eroded by a flux of interfering signals. It has been said before that the space of art is a time machine – a device for slowing down time and creating a space of contemplation. For the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard this is the space of day dreaming, a place he describes as “elsewhere”. One function of video art – any art – can and should be to transport us to this place elsewhere. Our sanity demands it, our survival as a species could depend upon it.

 

This article was written for the exhibition "Video Works" at Kunstnernes Hus, Oslo, 2002.

 

Jeremy Welsh is a professor and MA Course Leader in Visual Arts at Bergen National Academy of the Arts, Department of Fine Art, Norway. He has been active as a visual artist since his graduation from Trent Polytechnic School of Art & Design in 1977 (where he received his BA in Fine Arts; his studies also include postgraduate studies in fine arts at Goldsmith College, London), working initially in performance and installation, and concentrating since 1980 on video and electronic media. Between 1982-1987 he was active at London Video Arts and as the director at Film & Video Umbrella, London, between 1988 - 90. In recent years has worked with digital video, digital photography and internet projects. His works have been shown widely at various venues such as The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, The Pompidou Centre, Paris and The Tate Gallery, London. He has also written extensively on art and electronic media in magazines, catalogues and books. Member of the Norwegian Cultural Council committee for Art and New Media (1998 - 2000) and Committee for Visual Arts (2001 - )

 

 

 

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