Is it TV, Or is it Art?: Video in the Artist's Hands

As new digital technologies emerge, artists are finding even more creative, exciting applications for video. In this article, we explore what some of them are doing with their camcorders -- maybe you'll be inspired to try your hand at video art.

For over 30 years, artists have experimented with ways in which video images and technologies can expand and enhance their work both as a medium and as a tool. Although controversial at first, the collaboration has changed the arts, producing new art forms, new visual languages, new ways of relating images and sounds to performance, and new means of making and distributing art. And as new digital technologies emerge, artists are finding even more creative, exciting applications.

A Whole New Way of Seeing
In 1965, Nam June Paik, a musician and conceptual artist, purchased the very first Sony Portapak video system delivered to New York City. By today's standards, it was a monstrous contraption with a separate black and white camera and portable VCR. Within days, he began producing videotapes that pushed the accepted boundaries of television and art. At the time, video images and technologies were rarely seen outside the nation's living rooms and TV stations. But the new, affordable half-inch-tape portable video cameras and special effects generators (SEGs) offered artists an opportunity to use the tools of television to expand their work and explore ideas about culture and communication, aesthetics and technology.

Early video art, as Paik, Bruce Naumann, Woody Vasulka and others call it, ranged from single-channel, non-narrative videotapes screened on a gallery monitor to multi-monitor, multi-image video installations. Challenging traditional ideas of art and television, these artists used video images and technologies as moving canvases and sculptures for often surreal, sometimes self-indulgent, usually powerful art works. They expanded the visual vocabulary and forced viewers to think about the relationship between art and media in a new way. Understandably, critics and art-lovers were confused: is it television, or is it art? Where does it belong?

Despite sometimes harsh criticism, video artists and exhibition spaces proliferated throughout the seventies and eighties, and today video art is well established. No longer relegated to small avant-garde galleries, world-renowned artists like Bill Viola project stunningly beautiful, feature-length art videos in major museums and international retrospectives. Others, like Andy Mann, are commissioned by municipalities to build mammoth "video trees" in city parks. Videotapes by experimental video artists Marlon Riggs, Sadie Benning, Skip Blumberg and others have appeared on PBS and MTV. Experimental video is a regular feature of most major film and video festivals around the globe.

Highly manipulated images and personal statements, once the sole domain of video artists, now show up in commercials, music videos and Hollywood films. The debate about whether video is art or television has virtually disappeared. Now, after three decades of experimentation, video art is evidently a unique form in and of itself, and that video technology is also an important component of any artist's toolbox.

The Artist's Tool Box
While video artists were busy creating a whole new art form, more traditional artists experimented with video and found unique ways to incorporate video imagery and technology into their work. Ray Nicoud, who makes photographic prints from manipulated video feedback images, is one of many fine artists and photographers who use the video image as a starting point. Painters, collage makers and other visual artists sometimes incorporate video stills and reproductions into their canvases and graphic artists include video frame grabs in illustrations for books, magazines and newspapers.

Sculptors have also started to use the video image and technology as an important element. Mary Lucier, a sculptor/photographer turned multi-media artist, creates eerie architectural spaces in which video images are the landscapes other objects inhabit. Nam June Paik, considered the "dean" of video art, now constructs multi-media sculptures that combine TV monitors, neon and parts of cameras and VCRs into giant gods and goddesses of technology.

Video has also found its niche in the traditional performing arts, as video imagery and technologies appear on stages from high school auditoriums to Broadway. Choreographers like Cathy Weis create award-winning dance pieces with "dancing" video monitors, and others, like Bill T. Jones, choreograph dances specifically for video. Many theater companies, like The Wooster Group, regularly employ video as an integral part of their productions and often write plays in which video monitors become characters on the stage. Rock concerts, opera companies and even conservative symphony orchestras utilize video, projecting video montages, subtitle translations and simultaneous large screen images of performances for viewers in the "cheap" seats.

Artists also have begun to employ video behind the scenes as a tool in the creative process. Many performers routinely videotape rehearsals to critique their progress, and video notation has become the most accepted and accessible form of recording dance and performance for future re-creations, archives and grant applications. Even more exceptional, architects have begun using fiber optic video cameras to explore the interiors of architectural models before constructing a building. Sculptors and woodworkers also use video cameras to guide precision tools in the creation of their work.

Hi-Tech Versatility
Although collaborations between traditional video technology and the traditional arts have proven fruitful, new technologies combining sophisticated computers with video offer artists exciting new ways to expand and improve their work. Artists Grahame Weinbren and Sue Johnson use computers and video to create interactive video installations in which participants alter the sequence of projected images as they move through a sensor-triggered area. Designed with an intricate series of projectors and computer programs, these installations take video art to a higher level and make an essentially passive audience art form into an active one.

CD-ROMs and the Internet provide artists with even greater flexibility as well as unique ways to distribute their work. Laurie Anderson is one of many artists and musicians who have used video to create multi-media, interactive CD-ROMs. Other musicians, performers and visual artists are using video and computers to create Web sites which help make their work accessible to a broader audience. Many videographers now contribute their work to corporate Web sites and CD-ROMs. As the market for video in these areas increases, more video artists will be taking advantage of the new opportunities this technology offers.

The Next Wave
There is no telling how emerging technologies will continue to influence artists or how artists will inspire new technological advances. Perhaps new art forms, as yet unimagined, will be created or new video tools will become available to artists of all kinds. Artists who are already using video cameras and computers look forward to digital technology with great anticipation, claiming that it offers them greater versatility at lower cost. Others are anxious to see a more prevalent use of CD-ROMs and dream of Internet sites where audiences can go on-line to see live performances in a kind of "virtual performance gallery."

One thing, however, is certain. Recent, more advanced, cheaper consumer cameras and computer hardware and software enable anyone to use their home equipment right now to make art. Whether making a videotape to be shown on a monitor or on cable access, an installation, a CD-ROM, a Web site or a performance, the artist's tools are already at your fingertips.

"You don't need to invest thousands of dollars to make art with your camcorder," says video-inspired artist Ray Nicoud, who also produced a videotape on how to make video art effects with consumer equipment. "Just play around with the special effects your camera has, plug it into your computer, add your imagination and you'll be amazed by what you can produce. Experiment and have fun--that's what making art is all about."

Lauryn Axelrod is a documentary videographer and has taught video production since 1987.

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Video Artist Tony Carruthers
Tony Carruthers has been making video art for over 20 years. Trained as a painter, architect and set designer, Carruthers turned to video in the late 70's after having become dissatisfied with the limitations of each singular art form. Viewing video as an adaptable medium, he began to investigate the ways in which he could use video as a canvas, a sculpture, a performance and a structural space.

Using a Sony Hi8 camera, a computer-based Abner editing system, a Panasonic WJ-MX12 mixer and a variety of specially constructed monitors and projectors, Carruthers creates video installations in galleries and public spaces. He has also worked in collaboration with performers to create pieces that use video images and technologies in new ways on stage (Cathy Weis' "Dub"). He also produces single-channel video art works ("The Art Show") for a local cable access station. Recently, he has started to use the Panasonic Video Printer to produce gorgeous, painterly images from video frame grabs.

More than anything else, Carruthers appreciates the accessibility, low cost and graphic nature of video and considers it the most versatile tool for making art. "Video can be used in performance, as an installation, projected, printed, or put onto CD-ROMs and the Internet," he says. "The multitude of uses, the relative low cost of materials, and the ways in which it can be manipulated give me so much flexibility--it's the ideal way for me to work."

--L.A.

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Where to Find Video Art
Most art museums exhibit video-inspired art, but there are several museums, galleries, artists' collectives and videotape distributors that specialize in it. Below are a few that are worth checking out.

Museums

Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, California

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City

The Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas

Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York

Museum of Modern Art, New York City

San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco

The New Museum, New York City

ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art), Boston

The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

New Orleans Museum of Contemporary Art, New Orleans

Galleries/Performance Spaces

Creative Time, New York City

The Kitchen, New York City

Artists' Space, New York City

No Exit, New York City

Art in General, New York City

Nexus, Atlanta

P.S. 122, New York City

The Performing Garage, New York City

Distributors

Video Data Bank (312) 345-3550
Distributes works by new video artists.

Electronic Arts Intermix (212) 966-4605
Provides the definitive catalogue of video art from the 1960's to the present.

Artists' Television Access (415) 824-3890

Paper Tiger Television (212) 420-9045
Produces and distributes social commentary video art.

California Newsreel (415) 621-6196
Distributes the work of the late Marlon Riggs and other controversial media artists.

Museum of Modern Art Circulating Film and Video Library (212) 709-9530
Catalogues videos that span the history of video art and its influences.

--L.A.

Issue: 

Lauryn
Axelrod
Sat, 11/01/1997 - 12:00am