Talking About California Video
"California Video: Artists and Histories
" edited by Glenn Phillips, Getty Publications, 312 pages, ISBN 978-0-89236-922-5, $39.95(US), $44.95(CAN), 2008.
Inclined to regard their work as distant from the forms of both cinema and TV, video artists have gravitated to the anti-illusionist what-you-see-is what-you-get documentary mode linked to the expanded art world of sculptural installations and performance pieces.
In the view of Michael Brand, Director of the Getty Museum, the focus of the video artist's commitment to the image has involved a complementary correction: "As generations of filmmakers throughout the twentieth century developed the complex language of cinematic narrative, parallel generations of visual artists created dizzying works of abstraction and experimentation that challenged every convention of the medium."
Uninterested in the opportunities and frustrations of motion pictures and television, the video artist found a home in the Marcel Duchamp-Yves Klein gallery world where questions about what was or wasn't a work of art and what did or didn't belong in a gallery were hardly ever asked. Moreover, much video art seems, like the installation pieces, driven by a Benjamanian apprehension of the copy.
The work dates from the availability in 1967 of a new visual technology, the Sony DV-2400 Video Rover a.k.a. the portapak. A man or woman could now go out more or less on his or her own and record scenes and events.
A point made about contemporary art seems to apply to video art: "Time was, art was less diverse and its big prizes were awarded for displays of competence in widely accepted skills. Nowadays they reward risk-taking, and are received in what I'd call the 'Who, me?'mode."
The diversity of the video art scene is impressive. The book's website California Video
is at best only indicative.
Meg Cranston's "Volcano, Trash and Ice Cream" (2005) features a large projection of a pistachio ice-cream cone melting in real time; "It takes about an hour; I think of it as a giant clock."
Sam Green's "lot 63, grave c"(2006) identifies the location of the body of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year old African-American stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels at a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamount Speedway in 1969. Green describes the video, made up of archival images and found footage, as a witness to a forgotten memory.
A collaboration of T.R.Uthco and Ant Farm, "The Eternal Frame" (1975) takes us back in time to the 1963 JFK assassination and the seems-so-long-ago three network American TV world.
A project high on the video art agenda has been the liberation of the image from Aristotelian servitude.
About twenty minutes into Michael Snow's 45-minute WAVELENGTH(1967) a film student who was threatening to storm the projection booth was persuaded to desist by my solemn assurance that a dead body would soon materialize along with some related action. Bill Morrison's DECASIA (2001), "beautiful, haunting images from decaying film stock" focuses viewer attention in a way that rules out all but the most desperate narrative interest. In Jean Luc Godard's PASSION (1982) the frustrations involved in feature film production, the technical problems, the money hassles, the sexual friction, all seem generated by the subordination of the medium to story-telling. Why, someone asks, must there always be a story?
Video art does seem a determinedly non-narrative, even anti-narrative art.
Glenn Phillips: We know that artists were making conceptual art before the portapak. After the portapak came out they started thinking about video as an extension of sculpture. The earliest departments in art schools that started working with video were the departments of sculpture. Many artists started making these pieces that dealt with process. In New York, the artist Robert Morris made a sculpture called Box With the Sound of Its Own Making. It's just a wooden box and inside the box is a tape recorder playing the sounds of the box being built. It is the activity of the artist in the studio and whatever it is they are doing that's the art.
On the other hand, those early artists didn't have access to editing equipment, so it was very hard to do narrative work, it wasn't until the mid-seventies that any artists were able to get any access. Once they did get their hands on the equipment they started working with narrative a lot more, especially women artists who were introducing narrative.
Glenn Phillips: Fine art at that point in the mid-sixties was opposed to the idea of narrative. You were coming out of abstract expressionism, the huge canvases by Jackson Pollock have no figurative images in them, no narrative just this image that you see. All over the canvas at once. Or you can think about minimalist art, artists making these massive sculptures that are just very spare geometric forms. Hand in hand with the women's movement a lot of artists started trying by the early 1970s to re-introduce the idea of personal narrative, story-telling, this was a political tool that could represent a point of view. The women's movement really spearheaded that drive. Male artists then followed suit, and you start finding men who are doing the same thing. Martha Rosler, whose work is more directly related to narrative decided, she said, to incorporate narrativity into her work in relation to a politics that, as she put it, was situated in ordinary life. Her Semiotics of the Kitchentook on the gourmet television program to deal with the disparities between rich and poor countries. Performance and video were important to the women's movement. As she explains in the book, at a time when movies were the dominant art, video, like performance, evaded expectations of professionalism, which gave it a certain latitude.
Did this trend ever have a racial dimension? Video art seems to be a white art form, at any rate that is the impression one gets from the book.
Glenn Phillips: It depends on where you are. You do find some examples of artists in different communities using video although it really wasn't until you get to the 1980s that starts happening a lot more. A lot of that has to do with the fact video was very much located in art schools, in elite art schools, being made by the faculty who were working there and the students who were going there.
What is the status of video art today?
Glenn Phillips: Video art became an almost completely museum art form. Expensive installations the museums commission and own. There are now private collectors of video art. But if you look at the rhetoric around early video it is actually quite similar to the rhetoric surrounding YouTube today. Now that this new medium is available to us we can bypass the corporate controlled structures of distribution. Some people feel they no longer need to rely on galleries or museums or television stations or private collectors.
Will video art turn up on iPhones?
Glenn Phillips: It depends on the artist. Some want limited distribution, others the opposite. Then there is the question of protecting intellectual property, which digital formats make more difficult to accomplish. The future is going to be a legal future relating to the definition of intellectual property. The lawyers who are busy thinking about these things are the lawyers for the music and television and film corporations.
Peter Plagens, "Art Sweepstakes", Art in America,March 2008.
Lawrence Weschler, "Sublime Decay" The New York Times Magazine, 22 December 2002.
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