Not so long ago, artist Nam June Paik caused a stir by turning televisions into provocative art installations. Then, one day in October 1965, Paik purchased the first US commercially available portable video recorder, the Sony Portapak. Paik was working in New York City and Pope Paul VI just so happened to be in town. With Portapak in hand, Paik became stuck in a traffic jam caused by the Pope’s motorcade. What does an artist sitting in limbo with a new toy do? He hits “record” and captures footage of the Pope’s parade through New York. That same night, Paik screened the video at Café a Go-Go in Greenwich Village. Video art, its been said, was born.
Naturally the development of video art—or, that is, the use of video as an instrument to make art—is a bit more complicated than one October night in 1965. Besides, the whole story might be bogus because the first US Portapak didn’t even run on batteries. No one seems to know the truth. The tape is lost. In any case, like many historians, professor-author Yvonne Spielmann debunks the simple one-artist Paik myth in Video: The Reflexive Medium. What’s more important than myths, Spielmann explains, is how an “explosive growth of fascination with the medium” took hold when the first video tape recorder hit the streets. What would follow is a rich and controversial period in art history when artists experimented with new technologies and agitated the art world. Video, with no formal aesthetics, let a new generation of artists expand and challenge traditional notions of art. As Spielmann notes, these new video artists fended off a reputation as not working with as serious or high-minded a medium as film. Over time, the disapproving reputation stuck.
Indeed, forty years later, it feels like we’re still trying to wrap our heads around video art. Opinions range from a baffling blend of scrolling texts and fuzzy pictures to brilliant. As an aid, Spielmann’s Video presents a dense step-by-step study on video as both an “electronic medium” and a powerful tool of what she terms “transformative imagery.” Dependent on technology, video has proved problematic for many art arguments. Her thesis examines video as electronic technology built on an intricate system of signal processing and digital imaging. The complicated argument serves a twofold purpose: it establishes video as unique from digital and justifies the continued work in video. It’s a bit of a dated discussion when, in this postmodern age, all media are equal. And the idea of a medium being “unique” ties back to similar 1970s formalist ideas that argued painting was unique and modern art was an exploration of that uniqueness. Spielmann’s argument seems to be based in fear that digital art is going to replace video art and make it obsolete, like new media replaced painting. To prove video’s distinct worthiness, Spielmann discusses the development of video and showcases the medium’s history by surveying a number of artists from video’s experimental beginnings such as Paik, David Hall, Peter Campus, Dara Birnbaum and Joan Jonas.
Spielmann is Chair of New Media in the School of Media, Language, and Music at the University of Paisley, Scotland. Back in 2006, Art Journal published her essay “Video: From Technology to Medium.” The essay offered an advanced peek at Spielmann’s thoughts on video for English readers. Originally written in German, this 2008 MIT Press edition marks the book’s first English translation.
Poor translation might explain one reason why this book felt impenetrable. That is, while Spielmann’s take on the technical merits of video is an exciting effort, the book was a labor to read. Overall, Video is written in an intellectually rigorous style that I found full of unnecessary critical complexities and intellectual bloat. Unless you’re in the charmed circle of academia, I’m not sure how many people will make it through its endless jargon. Consider:
Shifting localizable, material levels of presentation in the media (as in photography and film) and the writing of signals in transformative processes (as in video) across to translocal—that is, simulated, calculated forms of expression in time and space and on the level of hybridization—has repercussions on dealings with electronic sound-image combinations.
You get the picture. Clearly Video is written for MFA students and the author’s professor peers. If you’re a video newbie, you might want to start with Michael Rush’s Video Art or Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art edited by Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer.
Spielmann is more accessible when she features artists’ works such as Dennis Oppenheim and how his videos interplay with body and performance art. Still, a glaring omission and disappointment is Bill Viola. Given Viola’s early pioneering work and giant impact on video, it’s curious why he wasn’t included in this survey. Spielmann takes more of a dated inquiry and discusses works by Lynn Hershman, Klaus vom Bruch, Michael Langoth, Gary Hill and Bill Seamen. These choices make sense because this generation of early video artists dedicated themselves to video and collectively explored the technical properties of video and, in the process, distinguished video from film, painting and sculpture. They also created a new media language by merging media forms and incorporating conceptual art, installation and performance.
In a way, the author’s technical focus explains the exclusion of Viola, whose work is more content driven. Spielmann instead focuses on video artists exploring the potential of the medium. She distinguishes between the content of video art and video technology, privileging technology over content. But this is not surprising if she wants to argue for the uniqueness of video art because it is the technology that makes it unique.
Still, her argument feels like a tired one. Yeah, video is unique. Who is arguing against that? The real question is whether or not video will be viewed as irrelevant, like painting was perceived in the 1970s. But people kept painting, and people will keep making video art.