By Jud Yalkut
Video is so pervasive in late twentieth-century life that
many of its effects are taken for granted and rendered almost
invisible. This paradox of invisibility is the height of irony
as television was intended as a means of transmitting vision
in its immediacy over potentially great distances. Television,
with its propaganda and advertising, its prepackaged program
segments, and its louder-than-real-commercials, becomes most
vital when it fulfills its potential for real-time reportage
and on-the-spotness. The Kennedy assassinations, the moon landing
and Apollos beyond, the Watergate hearings, and the Iran-Contra
investigations galvanized a population anesthetized by touchdowns,
homeruns and excessive beer. But even Space Shuttle missions
become narrated as though sporting events until we are stunned
to momentary inaction by tragedy. The sense of immediacy in television
is so inherent that we must be reminded when something "has
been recorded previously especially for broadcast at this time."
The ubiquitous assimilation of video into contemporary life
has become vastly accelerated by technological advances. As display
screens increase in size, resolution and expense, recorder and
camera ensembles have diminished dimensions and effectively merged
into one as camcorders. Print media is still far from obsolescence,
but for many the new home library is electronically impressed.
Nam June Paik, in West Germany in 1963, and again in New York
in 1965 at the New School for Social Research and the Bonino
Gallery, exhibited rewired and magnetically altered television
sets effectively turned into electronic light machines. The Bonino
gallery show ushered in simultaneously the new era of video art
and its offspring - video installation art. Paik's conception
of "Participation TV", was shown later in 1969 at the
Howard Wise Gallery's seminal show, "Television as a Creative
"Color-separated ghost shadows mirror and re-echo one's
gestures, one's dancing with light, with visual toys, with silence."
- On "Participation TV from a review of "Television
as a Creative Medium" in "Arts Magazine", 1969.
Also exhibited at the Howard Wise exhibition was a nine screen
TV mural by former filmmaker Ira Schneider and former painter
Frank Gillette, entitled "Wipe Cycle", in which camera-generated
images of spectators were video switched, in both immediate and
delayed playback, with broadcast and pre-programmed video in
overlapping cycles based on four second increments. "You
can watch yourself live watching yourself eight seconds ago,
watching yourself sixteen seconds ago, eventually feeling free
enough to interact with this matrix, realizing one's own potential
as an actor," commented Schneider in 1969, in an interview
with this author. Between the closed-circuit input of the viewer
and the environment, and the architectural incorporation of the
video display in the space, the parameters of video installation
were thus initially broached by Paik, Schneider and Gillette.
Contemporaneous to these video manifestations, Les Levine
turned from Pop-ish disposable and plastic art to video with
two closed-circuit video sculptures "Iris" (1968) and
"Contact: A Cybernetic Sculpture" (1969). In these
"Teledynamic Environments", a term coined by Gene Youngblood
in his 1970 book "Expanded Cinema", Levine employed
multiple video viewpoints with lenses of differing focal lengths
focused on the viewer and the environment. The re-wiping patterning
of these images, and their re-imprinting throughout the information
system was the conceptual glue that bound together Levine's vision.
A fair history of the evolution of video installation conceptions
would fill several volumes. Examples of a few major early trends
follow: Douglas Davis' "Images from the Present Tense I"
(1971) where a TV with a phosphorous glow and white noise soundtrack
from between broadcast stations was turned face to the wall;
Peter Campus' use of low-light infrared video cameras and black-and-white
video projectors conveying inverted, slanted and magnified images
of the viewer/participant in three 1975 pieces, "sev",
"cir" and "bys"; Woody and Steina Vasulka's
horizontally drifting abstractions across aligned monitor displays
at Max's Kansas City in New York in 1971; Shigeko Kubota's 1975-76
video sculpture of wooden steps enclosing four monitors displaying
her video-processed version of Duchamp's "Nude Descending
a Staircase"; Taka Iimura's identity interactive video installations,
"Register Yourself: Unless You Register you are No Person"
(1972) and "I-You-He/She" (1974); and Susan Milano's
"Video Swing" (1974) where you rush swinging towards
yourself on three laterally mounted monitors.
"You will have a console in your room, and anywhere from
nine to twenty screens, and with this console you would receive
and program yourself via telephone or Xerox or whatever, a catalog
of what's available in each computer bank, a constantly updated
catalog. And you would dial into the computer bank to get anyone
on your screen, and any number in conjunction. And that's how
you would experience television." - Frank Gillette, in 1973,
published in "Radical Software".
The proliferation of video installations in recent years suggests
that museums and galleries demand a physicality to video presentations
that single screen videotape alone cannot fulfill. The installation
gallery becomes a shrine or a game room rather than a viewing
situation. However, while galleries have sold editions of artists'
videos, installations are rarely sold and tend to be either site
specific or modularly packaged for touring exhibitions.
An example of the package approach to video installations
is Mary Lucia's "Wilderness", produced in 1986 for
the Rose Art Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts. It toured and
appeared twice in Ohio, at the Columbus Museum of Art in 1988,
and as part of the Dayton Art Institute's "A Certain Slant
of Light" in 1989. Three professionally edited videotapes
in color with original sound by composer Earl Howard were displayed
on seven monitors. The images were drawn from the American landscape,
as filtered through the 19th-century vision of the Hudson School
of painters, with salt marshes, majestic icebergs, and unspoiled
nature poised in the tenuousness of man's works in the natural
balance. The poignancy of "Wilderness" was mitigated
by the use of "classical" pedestal monitor stands of
Doric, Ionic and Corinthian column design. Also referential to
the art world are those taped moments when natural vistas freeze
within the images of gilded frames.
Multi-monitor installation is demanded for the presentation
of simultaneous tightly-edited multi-channel presentations, as
in the burgeoning videowall phenomenon. On the other hand, the
site-specific use of live closed-circuit video with multiple
viewpoint cameras and monitor placements can truly bring a space
alive. Building monitors into walls or sculptural shapes can
help destroy the usually overbearing presence of the monitor
as a piece of furniture. Isolating the screen, on whatever scale,
heightens the sense of a new reality called "videospace".
Israeli artist Buky Schwartz exhibited the installation "Form
of Detachment" at Cleveland's SPACES gallery in the spring
of 1989. In this piece, Schwartz used closed-circuit placements
to displace the viewer's perception of the phenomenology of space
and one's relation to it. A triangle painted on the gallery walls
protruded into the video monitor space and was completed by the
apex of a pyramidal form recorded by a horizontal camera. This
camera also captured the viewer's entry into the gallery on this
apparently horizontal axis.
Also at SPACES was the interactive touch-sensitive screen
piece, "The Erl King" by Grahame Weinbren and Roberta
Friedman. (This piece had been included in the 1987 Whitney Biennial.)
Based upon interlocking fragments, centered around a Schubert
lied setting of Goethe's narrative poem, "The Erl King"
was programmed into three videodisc players controlled by a computer.
The system operated on a "continuous response system...
where a viewer can interrupt the flow at any moment." However,
every touch does not produce change, or the same change at the
same place, and thus redundancy appears to assume an aleatoric
The advent of portable video equipment in the late 1960s tied
in closely with the need for alternative information systems.
Forbidden subject matter and the raw reality of self-satirizing
pomposity became the soul of what was called radical software,
and was exhibited in storefronts and other alternative viewing
spaces. This biting political sensibility lives in the installation
work of Spanish-born, New York artist Francesc Torres whose work
has been exhibited nationally as well as in Ohio and Indiana.
Pointedly, his piece for the 1989 Whitney Biennial, "Oikonomos"
(Greek for economics) showed a black bronze reproduction of Zeus
holding a video screen portraying poor Blacks washing car windows
at New York intersections, and the statue with one outstretched
hand and a raised baseball hat in the other. Smaller monitors
hung from the god's loins and depicted images of Wall Street
and expensive racing cars. The Zeus figure was borrowed from
the Metropolitan Museum of Art which tried to close down the
piece due to their outrage at the "trappings that have nothing
to do with original!" ("New York Times, 18 May 1989)
A replica of the Met's Zeus was flown to substitute from forth
Worth, Texas on loan from a local businessman.
Torres' touring installation "Belchite/South Bronx"
was exhibited at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center in the
spring and summer of 1989. Torres featured six channels of pre-recorded
tape on twelve monitors interspersed throughout elaborate constructions,
reworking allusions to the ruins of a fascist-bombed village
in the Spanish Civil War and the burnt-out tenements of the South
Bronx, complete with the shell of an automobile, basketballs
and an ominously incinerated upright armchair. Torres has sought
a "coinage of a synchronic, ahistorical, trans-cultural
and paradigmatic urban landscape that exists in the elusive domain
of human behavior and culture." He hopes for the day "when
happiness can be pursued without constantly looking over one's
shoulder." (From the catalog for "Belchite/South Bronx")
Then, he says the piece and his statement can be destroyed.
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© Davidson Gigliotti, 2000CE
Published in 1989 in "Dialogue: a Regional Magazine of the
Arts", Columbus, Ohio.
Copyright, 1989, Jud Yalkut.