The Early Video Project


Les Levine Interview

by Davidson Gigliotti

Recorded: December 9, 1999

It's much easier to produce an idea in the medium where you can see the product very quickly, than to have to produce an idea in a medium which requires a lot of manual dexterity. So it seemed to me that, at the time, anyway, that the instantaneousness of the medium and it capability to use time in a certain kind of way was some kind of issue.

I never saw video tape in an aesthetic way. The way certain people like Paik, and that genre of people. They thought the whole point of video was to make it like abstract art, to make it dance, to make it wiggle, to make feed back, this that and the other thing. I was never interested in changing the way the image looked.

I was much more interested in the way your could use a certain amount of time, the way you could express certain kinds of ideas and have them taken more seriously. Because there is something about video, if an idea is expressed in video, it often appears to analyze in a more "live" space.

It seemed to me that one of the things that video could do for me was to produce a kind of work that analyzed that "live" and living, as opposed to something that was in so-called historical or theatrical space. In other words, instead of thinking about painting or sculpture, something where you arrive on the scene after the body has been worked over so to speak, and after the so-called autopsy has occurred, you are now given evidence of that. It seemed to me that with things like video you had at least the illusion that you are operating in real or same time, so it's not historical time, even though to some degree it is historical because, you know, it never quite happened at the time that people saw it. But its quite different, in terms of feeling, than making a painting, or a sculpture, or something like that.

The sense that something could appear to be live, operating in live time, as opposed to operating some other kind of time, and another aspect of it is the concept of how time and space equate with the concept of intellect and thinking. It seems to me that the way that video uses time can somewhat be equated with the way the mind thinks about things. You don't think instantaneously, you think over a period of time. It may be only seconds or minutes, but it's still something that happens in space, it doesn't know. In a certain kind of way, the idea of being able to get an idea out instantaneously -think about it, produce it - and not have to have it be involved with the concept of aestheticism. You know, "Is this a beautiful red, next to a beautiful green?" or that kind of thing.

I think that is sort of like a major move in terms of the way you think about things. I mean if your saying that I'm really not interested in making the world prettier, I want the world to think differently. The other thing about video art at that time - and of course video art keeps on being a new medium....

What do you mean by that?

Well, it was a new medium in the early sixties. I mean I produced my first tapes in '64. And then it became a new medium again in 72, and then it became a new medium again in 81, and it became a new medium again in 92. There's people always rediscovering video as the "new" medium.

Can you give me examples of that?

Well, I would say that people like, maybe you, and myself and Frank Gillette and Paik and Juan Downey, and people like that were the '60s people. OK? who were doing video and maybe Ed Emshwiller.

There weren't that many in the sixties, when we're talking sixties it boils down to a smallish group.

It was a smallish group in the sixties, but what I'm saying is that, like, the video people of a few years ago would be people like Gary Hill,

Gary Hill started doing video in the 70s, for sure. I remember that.

There's other people like that, there's been all these different levels of people, they seem to be new people, of course they are not new people, I'm just saying, there's always been an extraordinary hostility from the art world, per se, towards video. In other words people would say "Well, I didn't come to an art gallery to see a television set" or "This stuff should be on cable," they have all kinds of excuses, you know, or complaints or whatever you want to call them. But in reality, the fact of the matter is that its been a very persistent growing medium. People find new things to do with it all the time. Which is sort of extraordinary. You know if you were to listen to what people were saying about it in the late sixties, you would think that is was over as a medium, it just was one of these momentary avant garde things that would die quickly, but of course it didn't.

Part of the reason I'm involved in this is because I am trying to make that connection between then and now. Between what people were thinking then, what they thought they were doing, what they wanted to do, what their aspirations for video were, back before 1972. And how it evolved to the present and how that past and those aspirations relate to what evolved, which is the internet, all these things.

That's a little hard, most of the time when people are involved with these kinds of issues, they're involved with them a very illusionistic utopian manner. They don't have any connection with reality.

The internet is largely, you know... who are the big internet people,

A lot of people use it in other ways. I mean it does create about five degrees more of interconnectedness than was there before.

No question about that. And so did video do that.

That was one of its aspirations, actually.

But one of its aspirations was, apart from all the other things, was to make a commercialess art, and art that was based on some kind of communitarian idea that anybody could become involved.

Right, like other forms of conceptual art also. I mean it had that same... that defiance of the commercial.

The defiance of the commercial, but nevertheless I think that what always happens in any medium, even conceptual art, is that people who do it learn how to do it, if you know what I mean and, because they learn how to do it, they sort of refine it to a degree that it actually takes a step up as an art. Much of what's happening today in video art is because people learned more about it, and they learned how to deal with it and they finally understood, at a certain point, something different than the original people. The original people were thinking it should still be about painting.

Really? You weren't. You weren't thinking that. I don't think Frank Gillette was thinking that. I'm sure that Juan Downey wasn't thinking that.

No, not Juan. Juan Downey wasn't.

I don't think Ira Schneider or Frank were thinking that. Wipe Cycle had nothing to do with painting.


This is just my opinion, but from what I know....

I don't mean to say painting exactly per se. It would be more accurate to say the kind of aesthetic that is related to unusual objects. Or, lets say, unique or individual objects.

Although probably Gillette and Schneider would have said that what they were really interested in connectivity.

They may have. Yeah, connectivity has always been some kind of an issue. I would say reaching a larger audience has always been some kind of an issue. People used to say to me, "Oh, that just looks like TV." I used to say to them, "Well, that's just great. Because people understand TV."

Yeah, I see what you mean.

Its terrific, because people understand TV.

Would you mind telling me a little bit about your life before video.

I was born in Dublin, and I lived in Canada for seven years before I came to New York. That was Pop Art, you know, Pop Art was sort of like in its hot moment, it was just sort of a erasing Abstract Expressionism. And people like Warhol and Robert Indiana and all those kinds of people were showing. And it just seemed to me that when I saw video for the first time I just realized that the thing that I had done which was a pronouncedly signature aspect of my work before video was something called disposable art, in which I was vacuum-forming these simple pieces out of Styrofoam plastic and I was showing them in galleries by the thousands and they were selling for like five dollars or something.

Oh, beautiful!

I was already into the concept of, you know,... it should be at that level, and should be distributed widely and.

Super cheap!

Yeah, cheap, but the thing that I felt, even when there were people who came after me like Mass Art and people like that, who were saying to me "why didn't you get involved with this?" I said because it was always crucial to me to remain a fine artist, I'm not interested in being anything other than a fine artist. You know, I wanted whatever contribution I could make to anything or any comment I could make on anything to be in that field.

I came out of the design field. I mean that from the time I left school I worked in design. And I left design, you know, because I felt it was an unexpressive medium.

You worked in design in Canada? Were you in Toronto?

I was in Toronto, and I was working for the Mar-vel Jewelry Company. I was what's known as a process designer, that's a person who designs the tools to make the objects that the so-called aesthetic designers come up with. In other words, somebody shows me a design, and then I say, "OK, we would have to make these various kinds of molds or machines to make these things. It's a little bit like industrial design, it's in between aesthetic design and industrial design. Process design. It was a new field at that time, and very, you know I could have gone on doing that for years if I wanted to. As a matter of fact I did a videotape in 1977 about stopping doing it called "Diamond Mind." in which I talk about the whole idea of working in that world and how vacuous it was, and how it didn't lead to any kind of discovery of one's self at any level. But anyway, so I was familiar with all that sort of stuff, I showed the disposables at the Fischbach Gallery, which I think is still in existence, and I think the next thing I did after the disposables was video. The criteria I had for the disposables was that if art was supposed to be a medium that could raise consciousness, if one aspect of its purpose was to give people insight or raise their consciousness, then why would you assume that it would stop at the object. To some degree - I can't remember where I read it - but I remember reading that Duchamp had said somewhere that the life span of a work of art is about five to ten years. After that it's no longer art.

It becomes an icon. I think that was the term he used.

And so the disposables were sort of based on the idea that you can have the aesthetic consciousness, whatever you want to get from art, and then just go on to the next thing, or move on from it. It seemed to me that media, per se, or video in particular is sort of bodiless, and in the fact that it is bodiless it allows for a lot more interaction with the consciousness than something which has a body. Like a painting or sculpture or an object has a body.

But when you get into the realm of information and software, then body is not the issue. I think that things, in terms of ideas and concepts, start to move a lot quicker. It's not that much different than if you ever try to paint a portrait, when you start to see that you can really get more information into it, then you really have the desire to get more into it. If you see that you can really make a more accurate version of this then you think, "I should, I must, I will." And it seems to me that information sort of is like that, it escalates its own sense of desire. In other words, if you see that something that you do in some kind information system like video or something like that produces an aspect of perception that didn't exist for you before, then that is very, um, produces some kind of attraction toward that activity.

When did you first become aware of video?

I think in about 1963, or something like that.

What did you see that excited you?

I think - you have to go back to the old standard - I was fascinated by the equipment, I may have to go back to that.
What equipment did you see?

The huge portapak. You remember the portapaks?


No, I think they were Sony.

Sony Portapaks, the little portapaks, they don't seem big to me, they were like the little things that you carried over your shoulder, the CV Portapak.

Oh, yeah, they were huge in comparison to anything we know of today.

Yes, I know, I carried one. You're right, but I still don't think of them as being huge though. Ampex had stuff that was way big. So you saw these somewhere. Where did you see it?

Gee, I wish I could remember. I wish I could remember, apart from being a person, I mean you just said I had a Christmas party in 68, and I've been trying to rack my brains since you said that to try and remember one thing about it.

It was a Christmas party.

Yeah, but I can't remember, I would have to....

Nanine Bilski was there, Beryl was there, Ira was there, Frank was there.

Yeah, I'm sure a lot of people were. But I just don't have any recollection of it. There are certain things that are like that in my mind. I don't want to imply that I've gone senile, or anything.

No, no,no,no, I understand. You'll think about that after we finish talking and maybe something from that will come back to you. But let's get back to early stuff, and the first equipment that you saw. You don't remember where you saw it exactly, but...

I think it was, it was, a company named GBC.

Yeah GBC, they were on 5th Avenue near 14th Street.

They really specialized in equipment for security.

Sam Adwar worked for them.

I think that I may have seen it there initially. I don't know. But anyway, you know, I had been working a lot in super 8 films and things like that, making pieces that way. It just seemed so much easier. The biggest problem with working in films is that all your time is spent trying to raise money for the film. So you don't get much work done.
And so when I first saw video I was fascinated by it. I was fascinated by the fact that it's so quick. You take it and you can see it. But I never thought of it anything other than an information medium. I've done pieces for the internet and what have you, but I don't find it as interesting for that purpose as it is as an information medium. The fact the people get in touch with one another, so much information can be transmitted, all the rest of it, seems to be the main point.

I think that, invariably, the aesthetic of any these things is always missed until much much later.


Well, it's like, people think in terms of a previous aesthetic. Like you hear people saying, as example, not so much anymore, but you used to hear people saying, "I don't like TV, I don't like what's on TV." and then you would say, "Well, what should be on TV, what is it you don't like?"

They say, "Oh, well, there's no good plays, there's no opera, and there's no beautiful music," and all the rest of it, but you know, the whole point, what they are really saying is that this new medium should be transformed into the old medium. Because, you know, why would people want to watch operas on television, its terrible, it doesn't even reproduce sound well. They got better in the past few years, but in the time when they were saying these things.... But the point I'm making is that people can never figure out what the medium is until it's been around quite some time.

McLuhan said something like that, what people think about the new medium is that the new medium always starts out by doing the job of the old medium better.

But McLuhan was essentially wrong - extremely wrong - in certain aspects.

How so?

Well, he said there would be no books in the future. there are more books today than McLuhan could ever have imagined. As a matter of fact the medium of television and the medium of the internet has created a larger appetite for books than before. It didn't quell the appetite or get rid of it. He also said that the medium was the message. I couldn't imagine what a mistake that was, because it's so obvious in the latter part of the 20th century when you have all these talk shows and what have you, that the message is the message. The message is the crucial aspect of the medium.

In other words, there's no message inherent in the medium itself?

No, only if you're thinking from a structuralist point of view. If you're thinking from a structuralist point of view then of course the medium is the message, but saying that the medium is the message simply means, if you render it down into basic English, is we have to understand the structure. But in the long run saying that the medium is the message is a gross inaccuracy, because it's become so clear that it's the message which has extraordinarily influenced the way people think in America. And the way Americans are Americans, in a crucially different way than let's say Chinese are Chinese.

Do you think that Americans are very, very different today than they were 30 years ago?

Oh, yeah.

In what way?

Well, I think the steady dose of talk and violence and so called mindless pop culture, by that I mean Disney and that sort of stuff, has by and large made people more interested in art, but it's the kind of art that nobody should be interested in. They've sort of like reduced the common denominator of what intellectual values are down to what I call the McDonalds Culture. And so everything in America has become, if it's not Disney or McDonalds, or what have you, you see that Symphony or an Opera closes down but, you know, a Disney theme park opens up. So we have become a society that is illusionistically interested in expressing how individualistic we are while simultaneously making every effort we can to obliterate all individualism.

OK, let me ask you this, do you remember Vic Gioscia at all?

No, not really.

He was around in those days. He had a walk-in program over in the East Village, but he did a study of video groups sometime in the late sixties. He was a Ph.D from Fordham and he knew a lot of the people at Fordham; John Culkin, and all those guys. Actually McLuhan had a year at Fordham in 1969. And one of his particular interests with video was its relationship to time. He did his dissertation on time and philosophy - Plato's view of time, Hegal's view of time, various philosophers - how they view time specifically. And he felt that video truly was revolutionary in that it had an interesting effect on time.

An interesting mechanism, for sure.

He felt that that was its major impact, its major psychological impact, and they used it in therapy a lot in the mid sixties, mid to late sixties, and we are discussing this now. We are discussing the use of video therapy and what was the mechanism that made it work in this way. The question I'm asking you in this convoluted way is, uh, everybody today, most Americans today, and many Europeans and many people in Asia have more or less ready access to video and video equipment. People have camcorders, they use them all the time, and this has perhaps impacted their sense of time to some degree.

And their sense of image.

Their sense of time, their sense of image, and their sense of self-consciousness, because of course, you know, the first thing they do is record themselves, and they get to see themselves, also. It becomes...

What is always amazing - as an example - whenever I do any kind of stuff on the street in New York, where I go out and ask people a question or something, I'm always amazed at how well-equipped to answer people are.

Oh yeah, well they see it all the time on TV, they are brought up with this.

Yeah, but they just give you a plausible, credible answer. You may not agree with it...

But they are ready! They've got it. They've got their sound bites ready!

It's really quite presentable the way they do it. You actually could put it on television.

There's a wonderful scene in a Martin Amis book, it's about the end of the world, London Fires, is that right? In which this working class dart player is trying to get on television, darts being a big sport in England. And he's been practicing, and he's gotten to be a pretty good dart player, but he's got his television rap together. Which he works on all the time, he has these imaginary conversations with sportscasters, really funny. I'm sorry, I digress.

But maybe we could come to a stop here, because my phone battery is run down. Let me give you my fax number.

Give me your e-mail address is better.

I don't have an e-mail address. That's on purpose, I'm thinking I should get it, I've tried to resist it, I just cannot deal with any more stuff. But let me give you the fax number anyway. 388-0073. If you have anything on what you are doing maybe you could fax it to me.

I'll be back. Think about your relationships in the late sixties with all those people. Nam June, Howie Gutstadt, Ken Marsh, Frank Gillette, all of that. Think about all of the relationships that went on at that time. And I'll be back to you in a little while.

OK, good talking to you.

End of Part One.

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© Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE