Video Art - History and Concepts
Beginnings 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).
Nam June Paik - 'The Father Of Video Art'
In the same way that the 'father of conceptual art' Marcel Duchamp had declared an ordinary urinal to be a work of art when he created his first and most infamous readymade in 1917, the "father of Video Art" Nam June Paik first established video as a credible artistic medium in 1965, when he claimed his footage of the Pope's visit to New York to be a serious artwork. When Korean-American Fluxus artist Nam June Paik, glimpsed the pontiff by chance while sitting in traffic, he recorded it on his Portapak, and presented the grainy, barely edited result later that evening at a screening at the Cafe A Go Go in Greenwich Village (though some art historians have disputed Paik's claim that it was indeed the Portapak that he used, asserting that Sony did not release it until 1968.) What is not disputed is that this work, along with Paik's 1963 Fluxus exhibition at Galerie Parnass in Paris - where he showed his first reworked television sculptures - were some of the first pieces of art made using the newly accessible medium of video.
After his seminal 1965 screening, Paik wrote a short manifesto encouraging artists and activists to use video as a tool for empowerment to fight back against the establishment, especially what he called 'one-way' broadcast television companies - a utopian mission he would continue to pursue throughout his long career. He also predicted that 'as collage replaced oil paint, the cathode ray tube will replace the canvas' He would go on to pioneer the use of broadcast, video installation, live events, and artists' screenings, all of which are modes practiced by artists today.
Broader Adoption of Video
It was in the 1970s that many of the key figures in Video art started to make their most important works. Many of these early practitioners were, like Paik, eager to explore the impermanent and transient qualities of the medium. It was adopted notably early by American artists such as John Baldessari, Joan Jonas, and Bruce Nauman to further their conceptual agendas. In the UK, David Hall campaigned vigorously for video to be accepted as a valid art form and wrote widely about it as a medium, as well as producing important works of his own.
An interest in video as a tool for activism arose in the 1970s as well. It allowed for documentation, which to some activists offered an opportunity to prove the injustices they sought to change; or, it allowed for a presentation of their message in a boldly, undeniable way. A powerful example of this was Videofreex's Davidson's Jail Tape (1971). After getting arrested at the 1971 May Day events in Washington D.C., a Videofreex member films rarely seen raw footage of his ride on the bus to jail, his detainment in the cell, and an up close and personal look at the inmates.
Technology Dictating Art
As technologies such as color television, special effects, thermal imaging, consumer electronics, surveillance cameras and video projection were introduced and developed, their impact was seen in the work of video artists. The toolkit available in the 1980s became immeasurably larger than the prior decade and allowed artists to produce more spectacular works. Laurie Anderson often played with voice distortion, most memorably when she created The Clone, a digitally altered male version of herself. Bill Viola became known for his use of extreme slow motion. Gary Hill would go on to experiment widely with electronic sound and language, creating his own "electronic linguistics."
Additionally, some of the most prominent experimental filmmakers became intrigued with video and later developed highly regarded Video art practices that sat alongside and were informed by their cinema-based work. Chris Marker, for example, made a number of well-known pieces of Video art in the 1990s, including Zapping Zones (1992), featuring a mixture of his previous film and television works in an immersive gallery installation, and an interactive 'multimedia memoire' on CD-ROM called Immemory in 1998.
Video Art: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Video allowed artists from various movements to expand their existing toolkit and get their diverse ideas across in an unprecedentedly immediate way. Video's portability and ease of use allowed practitioners to record their actions or performances in a way previously unimaginable. These artists all used video to produce extraordinarily direct and personal artworks that hadn't been possible with any other medium. Thus, the innovation of the technology equaled an evolution in artistic possibility.
The Power of Television
The growing popularity of broadcast television had a strong influence on early Video art practitioners in particular. Artists such as Wolf Vostell and Martha Rosler sought to highlight what they saw as TV's progressively insidious power by producing parodies of advertising and television programs. Some feminists used video to showcase society's sexism via popular culture. Dara Birnbaum, for instance, often deconstructed popular television programs, like Wonder Woman, with key female characters, which she then compiled as moving visual images that questioned stereotype and objectification. Still others, like Nam June Paik and Brian Hoey, challenged viewers to think about their own passive role in television's domination by using live video feeds in their installations to reflect audience images back at themselves. Paik was also inspired by the question of how television and its relationship to modern technology vis-a-vis contemporary man might affect the profound and the spiritual vis-a-vis ancient man. His work Buddha Watching TV (1974-1997) became a twenty-three year meditation on this question; a stone head of a Buddha contemplating a television set reflective of Paik's sentiment. Many of these works represented a desire by artists to morph the television experience into a redefined impetus of focusing on the unique, the personal, the political and the non-commercial.
Defying Film Conventions
When Video art was in its birthing stages, film had already been widely established as a credible means of entertainment, a medium for telling stories, and a widespread, mainstream choice in encountering the multitude of human experience, once removed from self. But artists working with video were quick to give themselves permission to ignore Hollywood's conventions, even ignore rules of narration, and to experiment with presenting moving pictures and sound according to their own terms. This meant work that defied expected notions of plot or character establishment, but instead put forth pictures (sometimes with sound) that denoted an artist's emotion, statement, or snapshot). In some cases, Video offered no real explanation, but was intended merely for the viewer to experience a feeling, reflect on a theme, or get a glimpse into the artist's mind, as chaotic or calm that might be. With no tight weave from beginning to end, these works were impact-established and went against everything film was supposed to mean. In some way, this defiance can be said about almost all Video artists from the 1960s through now - in particular, Andy Warhol slashed cinema's ideas of presenting long stories in condensed spaces by producing videos such as Andy Warhol's Sleep, (1971) which is nothing more than an hours long glimpse at a sleeping man. And, in Joan Jonas' Vertical Roll (1972), we find a gradual unfolding of the self portrait of the artist through random images of her body interspersed with other objects and elements - a distinctly non-narrative collage, radical in its non-linearity or logical make-up.
Video as Medium
Video is an electronic signal that can be manipulated, distorted, amplified, and transformed. For many video artists, an interest in video for these inherent qualities was akin to an abstract painter's interest in oils, brushes, shapes, and structure. Some artists produced works that played with the medium itself and as technologies have improved, the opportunities in using video for its material qualities have also vastly evolved. A prominent example in this category is artist Peer Bode, who has been enacting this type of mechanical collaboration since the '70s. In his Flute with Shift, (1979) we see an image on screen of a man playing the flute, which shifts in brightness according to the controlled analog synthesizer parameter of the live flute sounds. Video Free America Founder Skip Sweeney was known for installations that played with video feedback, abstract image processing, and synthesis. Bill Viola has always regularly tweaked video to achieve multi-layered effects in ways that visually collude with his investigations into spirituality, humanity, the body's place within the context of space, experience and time, and other probes into our existence.
The early works of Paik and Vostell that presented televisions as sculptural elements laid the foundation for later 'video installation' works. Contemporary Video art shown in a gallery can be classified as either 'single-channel' (one screen) or 'installation' works (those that are designed specifically to be projected into an exhibition space, potentially with more than one image and including additional components such as props or sculpture.) Artists such as Gary Hill, Bill Viola, and Joan Jonas are considered pioneers of video installation as an art form, taking full advantage of the architectural features in a gallery, for example, to fully involve their work within the space. Again, the development of display technologies has had a huge impact on the kind of work being produced. US artist Peter Campus, for example, projected viewers' own images onto their shadows in his 1974 work Shadow Projection, while multimedia artist Tony Oursler started making his immersive environments featuring projections of faces onto sculptures in the early 1980s.
Video Recordings of Events and Performances
Video also became an invaluable tool for artists such as Paik, the Viennese Actionists, Robert Smithson, and Marina Abramovic to make a permanent record of their live art events. This type of Video art is more about preserving a piece for perpetuity than a work in its own right, though some pieces (such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970)) are often installed and shown in galleries as artworks rather than mere documentation. Four of Abramovic's performances at the Galerie Mike Steiner in Berlin from 1975-76 can be found online. Each of the events made history and are written about widely, yet their impact surely may have been diffused had they not continued to exist in video form for future generations to witness as an important historical part of the performance genre. Similarly, with Vito Acconci's Sounding Board (1970) performance in which he lay naked on a pair of speakers to virtually feel the music pulsate through his body while a collaborator massaged him in accordance with the beats. What makes these pieces of Video art so important is that they reach not only audiences in the years in which they were spawned, but they continue to be seen by future generations on such mass-accessible means as YouTube and social media, remaining important remnants of the overall art canon.
Later Developments - After Video Art
Nam June Paik's early prediction on the dominance of video has become, at least partially, true. Although Video art has by no means replaced the more traditional mediums in the contemporary art world, it has become an exhaustive field which certainly complements them.
Contemporary Video art practices continue to expand in both form and content, allowing artists to experiment with new ideas and new technologies. The growth of high definition digital video over the last decade, for example, has enabled artists to produce work of expanded clarity. The humorous mock-documentaries of American performance artist Alex Bag, complex animations of British Ed Atkins and French artist Laure Provoust's detailed projections are all made to an extremely high production value far removed from the grainy, scratchy videos made in the 1960s. This technology is now available through a wide proliferation of intuitive and DIY software programs easily adaptable across computers, tablets, cameras, smartphones and the Internet. This has opened the context of how and where art can be shown as well.
Today's video artists build upon inspiration from early Video art pioneers yet bring an enhanced knowledge of the constantly transforming technology to the table. Some examples are more true to video's origin much like the large, highly atmospheric projections of French artist Phillippe Parreno, or the ever more elaborate, architecturally-scaled video installations of Swiss Pipilotti Rist - both of whom use modern projectors and special effects to push the medium in ever more visually impressive and conceptually complex directions. One can find hints of Warhol's love of real time footage with doses of the video collagist in Christian Marclay's The Clock (2010), which ran for 24 hours and featured a mash up of images of clocks from iconic movie scenes. Additionally, Andrew Thomas Huang gained worldwide attention in 2007 with his video Doll Face; a critique on the influence television has on our self-image. Ryan Trecartin is noted for bringing a gay male angle to Video art by interjecting oftentimes garishly presented stereotypes into otherwise normative images and video clips.
Some video artists tote signs of the post-millennial age with cutting edge video works. Revolutionary post-Internet artist, Cory Archangel's most famous piece Super Mario Clouds (2002) featured hacked, pixelated images of the popular video game sailing across blue skies on a website, which can still be seen on YouTube. Although the original launch of the piece took place in a gallery on various screens of different heights and sizes to create a fully immersive experience, the online video is now all that remains. Incredibly smart British artist Hannah Black usually sources online imagery by typing in search terms to find pieces that will eventually inform her themed collage videos. In her piece My Bodies (2014), she Googled "CEO" and "executive" to compile images of white men upon which she overlaid audio tracks of black recording artists such as Rihanna. As more video artists look to the Internet as a platform, and the current methodology continues to morph toward the use of webcams, virtual reality, and interactive animation, the field that has consistently burgeoned like a self-feeding mushroom, will no doubt continue to expound upon itself at a rapid pace.