Summary of Video Art
Video became an excitingly immediate medium for artists after its introduction in the early 1960s. The expensive technology, which had been available prior only within the corporate broadcasting arena, experienced an advent when Sony first created an economical consumer piece of equipment that allowed everyday people access to vast new possibilities in documentation. Understandably, this produced huge interest for the more experimental artists of the time, especially those involved with concurrent movements in Conceptual art, Performance and experimental film. It provided a cheap way of recording and representation through a dynamic new avenue, shattering an art world where forms such as painting, photography, and sculpture had been the long-held norm. This expanded the potential of individual creative voice and challenged artists to stretch toward new plateaus in their careers. It has also birthed an unmistakable population of artists who may never have entered the fine art field if stifled by the constraints of utilizing traditional mediums. With warp speed over the last half century, video has become accessible by the populous, spawning a continual evolution of its use; we live in an age where even your everyday smartphone has the ability to create high caliber works of art through the use of an ever increasing assortment of applications.
We now consider Video art to be a valid means of artistic creation with its own set of conventions and history. Taking a variety of forms - from gallery installations and sculptures that incorporate television sets, projectors, or computer peripherals to recordings of performance art to works created specifically to be encountered via distribution on tape, DVD or digital file - video is now considered in rank equal to other mediums. It is considered a genre rather than a movement in the traditional sense and is not to be confused with theatrical cinema, or artists' (or experimental) film. Although the mediums may sometimes appear interchangeable, their different origins cause art historians to consider them distinct from each other. So popular a medium, many art schools now offer video as a specialized art major.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- With the introduction of the television set in the second half of the 20th century, people gained a new all-consuming pastime. Many artists of the era used video to make works that highlighted what they saw as TV's encroaching and progressively insidious power by producing parodies of advertising and television programs. They pointed provocative fingers at the way society had become (passively) entranced with television or had succumbed to its seductive illusions. By co-opting the technologies of this medium, artists brought their own perspectives to the table, rounding out the brave new world of broadcasting ability to include creative, idiosyncratic, and individualized contributions.
- Some artists have used video to make us think more critically about, and oftentimes look to dissect, Hollywood film conventions. By eschewing the typical templates of formulaic narration, or by presenting intensely personal and taboo subjects on screen as works of art, or by jostling our ideas about how a film should look and feel, these artists use the canvas borrowed from the cinema to eradicate preconceived ideas of what is suitable, palatable, or focus-group-friendly.
- Looking beyond video's recording capabilities, many artists use it as a medium for its intrinsic properties with work that mimics more traditional forms of art like painting, sculpture, collage, or abstraction. This might emerge as a series of blurred, spliced scenes composed as a visual image. It may take the shape of a recording of performance meant as a reflection on movement or the perception of space. It may consist of actual video equipment and its output as objects in a work. Finally, it may be a work that could not exist without the video component such as art pieces that utilize video signals, distortion and dissonance, or other audiovisual manipulations.
- Because Video art was radically new for its time, some artists who were trying to push limits in contemporary society felt video an ideal format for their own work. This can be seen in the Feminist art movement in which many women, who hoped to distance and distinguish themselves from their male artist forebears, chose the medium for its newness, its sense of progression, and its opportunities that had not been widely tapped or established yet. We saw this politically, too, as many artists with a cause began using video as a means to spread their message. It appeared socially as well, as many people working to expose or spread important, underexposed information, felt the medium was conducive to both grass roots affordability and yet very broad distribution capabilities.
Overview of Video Art
Although artists have been creating moving images in some form since the early-20th century, the first works to be widely labeled as 'Video art' are from the 1960s. The first nationalities to pick up on the Portapak as an artistic tool - and therefore those who made the earliest pieces of Video art - were, unsurprisingly, from those countries where it first became commercially available (the US and the UK were the early practitioners).
Important Art and Artists of Video Art
For Sun In Your Head - Television Décollage, German artist Wolf Vostell distorted and played with various single frames that he'd sourced from film and television of the time (such as a smiling woman; words such as "Silence Please! Genius At Work!" or an embracing couple, for example). The resulting piece is a fast-paced, flickering mish-mash of televisual images that veer from flashing, abstracted shapes to recognizable forms. The work was shown as part of Vostell's nine-part 'happening' - 9 Decollagen - which took place in Wuppertal, Germany in 1963. As no video playback technology was available at the time, Vostell recorded the images from a television set using a film camera, allowing him to edit the piece and play it back on a projector.
With its highly experimental technique and subversive form, Sun In Your Head was one of the first works to examine the possibilities of television as a medium in its own right. It employs his innovative use of the decollage technique, first associated with the French Nouveau Realisme movement who used the term to describe their ripping, erasing, and reworking of Parisian posters to create new information. Vostell used it to refer to the re-mixing and layering of image and sound he employed to create a new artistic language in his Video art. A pioneer of the European branches of the Fluxus and Happening movements, Vostell is considered one of the most influential early Video artists - he was also the first to use a television as an object in an artwork in 1958.
In Sleep, Andy Warhol filmed his close friend and occasional lover John Giorno sleeping for five hours and twenty minutes. The piece's length means few people have watched it from beginning to end (two of the nine people who attended its premiere at The Gramercy Theater in New York left during its opening hour), and it is considered one of the first and most important works of durational art. Sleep looks at themes of intimacy, repetition, and duration, and is one of the first examples of what Warhol called his 'anti-films', in which he used hugely long, single takes to record his everyday experience and that of his friends. Although Sleep is a film rather than a video, Warhol's use of the camera, in which he just switched it on and walked away, make it stylistically much closer to art then film since he is clearly looking to bash Hollywood's conventions of narrative and the strategic manipulation of real time through editing.
The artist's use of such epic duration has been exceptionally influential, inspiring many contemporary film and video artists working today. Sam Taylor-Wood's hour-long film of David Beckham sleeping in 2004 directly referenced Warhol's piece. Christian Marclay's 24 hour-long epic Clock and Douglas Gordon's slowed version of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, 24 Hour Psycho, were also made in the same tradition.
Fluxus artist Nam June Pak was one of the first artists to break the barriers between art and technology. TV Cello is a seminal example, specifically created for use in performance by the avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman. The work consisted of three television sets piled on top of each other, all showing different moving images - a film of Moorman performing live, a collaged video of other cellists and an intercepted broadcast feed. Ingeniously, the whole sculpture was also a fully operational cello, designed to be played with a bow to create a series of raw, electronic notes that reverberated through the space.
By appropriating the domestic television set as an art object in this way, Paik became one of the first artists to establish video as a serious artistic medium. By taking the television out of its normal setting and using it in such subversive performances, he wanted to question its increasingly dominant role in shaping public opinion.
Useful Resources on Video Art
- Video Art: A Guided Tour (2005)Our PickBy Catherine Elwes / An index of Video Art artists and the history of that artmaking practice
- A History of Video Art: The Development of Form and Function (2006)By Chris Meigh-Andrews / Comprehensive history on Video Art practices
- Nam June Paik: Global Visionary (2013)Our PickImage-based collection of prominent Paik works
- Bill Viola (2015)Our PickCompilation of notable Bill Viola works accompanied by explanations of the works
- Paik's Virtual Archive: Time, Change, and Materiality in Media Art (2017)By Hanna B. Holling / An analytical view of Paik's influence on Video Art and its functionality
- Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman's Words: Writings and Interviews (2005)Collection of interviews and essays by the artist -- detailing his transformative art making practices
- Nam June Paik - Becoming Robot / Asia Society Museum NYOur PickVideo of the 2014 exhibition
- Charlotte Moorman performs with Paik's 'TV Cello'Video of performance / installation
- Nam June Paik - VenusExhibition view of installation/ sculpture with brief curatorial discussion
- Art21 - Bruce Nauman: "Poke in the Eye / Ear / Nose"Our PickBruce Nauman discussing one of his video works
- Art21 - Joan Jonas New York PerformancesVideo compilation of her New York Performances
- Bill Viola - AscensionOur Pick