New York, New York
We all watch a lot of videos, like Shit College Freshman Say, The Bed Intruder Song, and Obama inadvertently singing Call Me Maybe. But what makes these videos different from what is formally called Video Art? In this edition of Art 101, Part 2 of a series on the subject (here's Part 1), we'll try to explain what.
More often than not, though, the assertion "Because I Say So" is the difference - in this respect, video artists are a lot like your mother. We readily admit that this characteristic of video art makes it an easy target for the “my three year old cousin could do that” school of art criticism (except your three year old cousin probably doesn’t know how to use video equipment, so really, don’t: save it for later). Video art stereotypically can be (boring) challenging to understand or appreciate, but it's also often highly versatile and it’s all about contesting artistic conventions and upending norms. Video art may inflame you. It may make you outraged. And, if it accomplishes these things, it’s probably doing its job.
(Before delving further, we’d like to suggest two options for venting any video-art related frustration. One option: channel your best screaming Jack Nicholson from the Shining and freak out - galleries that show video art are usually ready for such weirdness. Another option: suffer your angst passive-aggressively in indignant silence.) Ready? Now, let’s begin.
Video Art: The Basics
(TV Buddha by Nam June Paik)
Video art can take many forms. Early video artists, such as the genre’s godfather Nam June Paik (the subject of a controversial founding myth of video art), often had to cut and splice material from television programs. Today, though, video art can come from both pre-fabricated material and recordings that the artist makes specifically for a piece: artists can do whatever they want. Video art can be broadcast, viewed in galleries or other institutional venues, or distributed through digital platforms. Video art also can take the form of sculptural installations, which may incorporate multiple monitors and other media, and pieces of performance art in which video is included.
The way video art is read is different from the way any other artistic medium is. For example, when we read a painting, we look at a single image that tells the entire story: our eyes circle the scene, the imagination wanders. A piece of video art, on the other hand, presents multiple images that come together to tell the story. In reading video art, we are forced to consider this series of images both individually and as a totality. If this makes you feel frustrated or confused, zone in on it: that's generally where the video artist is contesting artistic conventions. Try to decipher if anything else is driving you crazy. Are there weird noises? Is there a lack of narrative? Is the piece just absurdly long? (A caveat: do these things unless the piece sucks. If the piece sucks, you will probably feel apathetic towards it and want to walk away. We encourage you to do so.) If you feel like being an arm-chair critic, that’s okay as well: video art is a highly self-reflective medium, so video artists like their work to be talked about critically.
(Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso)
We recommend searching for a reference. The reference is prevalent in all mediums: when Pablo Picasso painted his wonky cubist ladies, he was referencing and responding radically to centuries of painting dogma concerning the correct way to portray a woman. “With her nose coming out of a crazy part of her face," as in Weeping Woman was definitely, at the time, not the correct way. Yet Picasso was able to upend contemporary artistic conventions to create an entirely new style.
(still from Semiotics of the Kitchen by Martha Rosler)
These sort of limitations and points of reference Picasso was responding to did not exist at the inception of video art. In the 60's and 70's, artists like the aforementioned Nam June Paik, Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, and Bill Viola were paving the way for a totally new form. And so - from studios and collaborative spaces like the TV Lab at WNET/Thirteen - video artists responded to non-art videos. For example, Martha Rosler played a despondent cooking show host in a 1950's kitchen in Semiotics of the Kitchen to comment on feminism and the status of the American woman in 1975, when the piece was made.
(still from I'm Not the Girl Who Misses Much by Pipilotti Rist)
Though video artists did not have the wealth of references upon which to draw that those working in more traditional mediums did, they did use some of the same techniques. One such shared technique is drawing attention to the medium used. Perennial crowd pleasers from Claude Monet to Jackson Pollock have highlighted the materiality of paint so that their canvases documented how the work was made. Pipilotti Rist does the same in I'm Not the Girl Who Misses Much . Her blurry figure can be seen maniacally dancing with her breasts out while breathlessly singing the Beatles’ Happiness is a Warm Gun and tracking elements running continuously down the screen, highlighting that the performance is behind the lens of a camera.
(still from Shoot by Chris Burden)
In video art more so than in any other medium, the human body becomes a canvas. If the piece has performers, we advise you to look for transformations in their bodies. For easy pop culture context, we could say that David (After the Dentist) sacrifices his little body on the altar of Art to reveal how fearful and disorienting going to the dentist really is. And, of course, to make a larger commentary on the perils of Western Medicine. But that’s not real video art. Video art takes the body to the next level. Artists tend to go H.A.M., dancing til they drop (Freeing the Body by Marina Abramovic), getting their assistants to shoot them (Shoot by Chris Burden) or a dog (Shot Dog Film by Tom Otterness), engaging in naked hula-hooping with barbed wire (Barbed Hula by Sigalit Landau) or painting themselves - and everything else in sight - with polka dots (Kusama's Self Obliteration by Yayoi Kusama). (N.B. Most of these videos are NSFW and a bit disturbing: click at your own risk.)
What Can I Expect to See in the Future?
(Image of Between Page and Screen by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse)
Whatever changes you see in tech you can expect to see reflected in video art: developments in digital media engenders more sophisticated contemporary digital video art. Developments in the area of interaction design are leading to a greater dialogue between videos and their viewers. In Between Page and Screen , a new work of interactive video by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse, a sensor and a small book with a different digital QR code on each page create a unique video experience for each viewer. The sensor scans the code on each page, and the angle at which it is being held, and shoots words of prose-poetry onto the screen.
You can also expect to see video art being shown in new and exciting ways. Contemporary video artists may incorporate sculpture into their work, screening their videos on different objects and materials, or by having people view the work from new positions.
(a still of James Franco on General Hospital)
We’ll leave you with an easy-to-understand pop culture example of video art that we think epitomizes that frustration many feel with the genre, but also illustrates its versatility. What is the difference between aspiring polymath James Franco’s recent performance art gig on General Hospital as the serial killer/artist Robert "Franco" Frank and his cast mate Steve Burton’s 21-year performance on the same soap? Nothing, except that James Franco’s live work was performance art because he said so, and thus the recording of his performance is, in turn, video art. Raise your hand if you think this is annoying.
Burton's oeuvre, on the other hand: video art? No.
(Except, well - only if it's reveal that he has been subtly performance art trolling General Hospital the entire time. Which would be great.)