Essay published in 'Diverse Practices:
A Critical Reader on British Video Art', ed. Julia Knight, pub.
Arts Council of England and John Libbey,1996.
EARLY VIDEO ART: A LOOK AT
A CONTROVERSIAL HISTORY
By David Hall
"Artists working in the [video]
medium are exploring the perceptual and conceptual implications
of the process in a manner that is specifically directed both
towards the breaking down of the specialised and categorical
nature of art experience and to the creation of a holistic view
of art activity as a generalised case of human communication."(1).
This quote from David Ross in 1973 appropriately encapsulates
the drive by Britain's first video artists. At that time modernist
'specialised and categorical' tendencies in fine art - nurtured
in a well-established nineteenth century Salon-based enclosure
- quite clearly exerted considerable pressure on the new thinking.
But it has been a mistake by some writers
to suggest that the earliest video practitioners willfully subscribed
to that ideology; rather they were, from the beginning, intent
on cautiously constructing alternative frameworks and procedures
out of the prevailing climate. However, the documentation of
work at the time was both limited and sporadic, and was written
mostly out of necessity by the artists themselves. It was not
until later that 'histories' of the first decade began to emerge
and, whilst occasionally referring to the few previous reports,
many showed signs of devising alternative readings of that past.
Together with attempts to set original intentions against later
theoretical debate - probably in an effort to accommodate current
concerns - this proceeded to oversimplify, distort and ultimately
misrepresent aspects of the early practice. Consequently, over
the years, the process particularly affected the most distant
work causing it to become virtually unrecognisable. In this short
essay I shall, from the vantage point of one of its first practitioners,
offer some observations on this curious phenomenon where the
development of the historiography often bears little relation
to the situation and objectives as they were at the time.
Throughout the seventies video (or television)
art did not attract the attention it probably deserved, and that
was to be expected in Britain. But contrary to suggestions in
some accounts there was no overt desire by most of its few artists
to aspire to the commercial art gallery scene. More importantly
they sought a wider audience - a place in the broader cultural
context. Occasional uncompromised interventions into broadcast
TVgave some substance to the endeavour together with exposure
in whatever venue could be found. With minimal support from broadcasters
and overly cautious funding bodies it was not easy, no-one expected
it to be. But after the turn of the eighties - faced with the
pressures of an ascending Thatcherite regime; opportunities that
came to be offered by independent commercial enterprise; and
the lure of the new and promising Channel 4 - some of the growing
number of practitioners became embroiled in attempts to justify
political and institutional viability. At the same time a significant
new wave of semiotic, psychoanalytic and gender theory was evolving
and was adopted with great enthusiasm often demanding a specific
narrative coherence and becoming an undoubted influence on a
number of later works. Here then, claims to both a 'new-found'
pluralist freedom and a 'return' to representation were born.
Meanwhile, over that period, unprecedented accounts of the earlier
radical work began to appear, some charging it with the failings
of a modernist elite.
However, difficulties arose when attempts
were made to construct a rationale for an alternative, even 'anti-modern',
phase in video. While the popular new postmodernist debate addressed
to other art activities remained within an understanding of the
broad parameters of those activities, video art had by then been
all but lost in the confusion of a climate where arguments were
made for its inclusion in a nebulous so-called video (or moving
image) culture. Here problems occurred in attempting to critically
identify new parameters for activities still evidently insisting
on (though sometimes not admitting) a video art label, which,
by their inclusion yet by definition, begged the question as
to whether this was possible. The paradox attracted a curious
strategy - an attempt to construct a sectioned-out preceding
phase, often conveniently but mistakenly packaged as 'formalist',
presumably in the belief that perhaps a displacement of the 'old'
would somehow give credibility to an alternative 'new'. However,
gigantic flaws appeared in adopting this tactic. First, there
was no single and sustained coherent orthodoxy among the earliest
artists as this might suggest, though climatic influences inevitably
caused loose alliances as they always have. Secondly, the few
examples cited as being typical of this early phase did not neatly
conform to the role attributed to them (which, oddly, has been
admitted in some reports). And finally, and most importantly,
a great deal of work produced then, and often avoided in the
argument, did not adhere to definitive criteria understood as
belonging to formalist practice elsewhere.
Parallel tactics applied to the other
arts may have had some ground, but arguments for a deflation
of the modernist 'heroic might' of objecthood, often conveniently
illustrated by restricting the attack to minimalist object art,
were problematic when addressed to the earliest video. The developing
'fringe' element of late sixties art from which this work emerged
was one which was already engaged in the essential 'dematerialisation'
of the object and moves away from dominant concerns largely rooted
in Greenbergian principles. This was appropriately taken up and
pressed forward by the advent of video, and while there was invariably
more than a vestige of a formalist 'look' to much of the new
work, to perceive this later as its ultimate purpose has been
a grave misreading of more progressive aims - notably its push
for 'acts of signification' beyond those specific to the 'object
In retrospect the earliest work can
therefore be seen to owe more to conceptualist rather than formalist
concerns. This important (though often confused) distinction
was what, as well as its production and display systems, separated
it not only from current obsessions in the mainstream plastic
arts but also from formalist avant-garde film of the time with
which it has often been identified. Conceptualism was intended
as a liberation from the shackles of the object and consequently
its filmic counterpart (preoccupation with materiality), encouraging
for some a potential for greater social engagement. But it failed
in this respect not so much because of its ideological intentions
but because the art market was allowed to quickly seduce, reshape,
package and consume it. Gallery work was therefore perhaps wrongly
identified as the final marker of high modernism rather than
the herald of a new and different opportunity. But a dearth of
commercial interest in early British video art ensured that (thankfully)
it would never fall into the same trap. Ironically it was some
later work which appeared to concede to retrogressive modes of
representation, claiming to be more 'populist' or 'accessible',
which would find itself wooing ideologically constricting support.
In the early work processes of deconstruction
were evident from the outset in an attempt, as I wrote in 1976,
to 'decipher the conditioned expectations of those narrow conventions
understood as television'(2) and contrary to later claims very
little engaged exclusively in statements of its 'own presence'
as I have already implied. For example, unique video reflexivity
was a component utilised as a significant part of the formal
construct but rarely the prime objective of the work. Many early
installations were not intended to 'address themselves' - where
they 'uncompromisingly referred the viewer back to the specificity
of the technology'(3) - but were primarily devised as a complex
analogical mirror where the viewer, interacting with his/her
image as collaborator rather than spectator, was 'simultaneously
the viewed in a process of self-referring consciousness'(4).
It is quite evident here that artists were intent on exploring
relationships of hitherto unapproachable psychological innovation
and response, where the formal, physical (and technological)
framework was essentially the site of the experience. Therefore,
whilst occasionally engaging formalist devices, concern only
for a foregrounding of the signifier was rare from the beginning
unlike much of the debate and work readily apparent in film.
Even so, artists initially sought to detach themselves from dominant
modes of expression, primarily in the use of the signifier and
its technology, necessitating investigation into not only the
medium's inherent properties but importantly, by evident implication
if not by direct engagement, the political structures employed
However, as Ross also said in 1973,
'many critics have confused video art with the liberal political
movement to decentralize the television industry' (5). This was
never an attempt to promote a kind of seditious 'anti-television'
as was the naive aspiration of some American groups and agit-prop
activists in Britain, nor was it a product of technological determinism
as witnessed in the output of early 'video-freaks' or indeed
their latter-day 'techno-artist' counterparts. It was neither
a move by serious artists to totally disengage from television
hoping to establish a 'counter-culture', nor was it a move to
project themselves unconditionally into the enclaves of the art
elite. This was an attempt to independently assert a claim to
some part of the medium for themselves, to make space for an
autonomous practice (here meaning a practice untethered from
prevailing ideologies, not the modernist autonomy of 'introversion'
complained of elsewhere).
Nevertheless, the inevitable and necessary
early 'oppositional' stand made in face of its monolithic forbear
was one which rarely fell into the reductive anti-illusionist
cul-de-sac. The phenomenology of viewing any video work is without
a doubt dominated by the (broadcast) television experience, and
astute artists were aware that the viewers' psychological strategies
in deriving 'meaning' from the works were, albeit subconsciously,
fundamentally sited in their televisual expectations (in my view
these can never be entirely removed, or 'purified', from the
reading of a tape or installation), and I and other artists specifically
confronted this as a central issue in a number of our works.
But it was the conceptually provocative approach to both form
and content which, whilst 'conventionally' inducing perceptual
engagement (rather than alienation), countered, by improbable
presentations, the seductive (manipulatory) expectations inevitably
present in the viewing process. On occasions some of these works
'objectified' the display system but this, again, was rarely
the sole intent. However, a conscious acknowledgement of the
system's specificity here identified it as the producer of illusion
which called to question dominant modes of representation. But
the best of the work did not rest with this denial, and there
was rarely denial of a coherent image or of signification beyond
the formal syntax. In this then, the earliest video art, 'messages'
were implicit; sometimes metaphoric; clearly transgressed the
boundaries of a formalist aesthetic; and stood as signs of a
political independence outside the confines of both orthodox
modernism and institutionalized TV.
1 David A. Ross, Introduction to Art
+ Cinema, Vol 1, No 2, 1973, p 5.
2 David Hall, 'British Video Art: Towards an Autonomous Practice',
Studio International, Vol 191, No 981, May/June, 1976, p 249.
3 Stuart Marshall, 'Video: from Art to Independence', Screen,
Vol 26, No 2, March/April, 1985, p 69.
4 David Hall, 'The Video Show', Art and Artists, Vol 10, No 2,
Issue No 110, May,1975, p 22.
5 David A. Ross, op. cit., p 5.
This article is based on 'Before the
Concrete Sets', published in And: Journal of Art, No 26, 1991,
and the London Video Access distribution catalogue, 1991.
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© Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE
© David Hall 1994