»Not only do we want to make video art a great art, we also want to make it the greatest art form ever created by mankind.« (Nam June Paik)
From its beginnings as an art form in the early 1960s in Germany and America, video art advanced, in the meantime, to become one of the twentieth century´s most influential genres of art.
In 1963, Nam June Paik (*1932), a Korean artist living in Germany, presented his installation entitled Exposition of Music – Electronic Television at a gallery in Wuppertal. The work comprised twelve television sets with disrupted reception combined with sound objects and four specially prepared pianos. Although Paik had not begun to use video technology (which had been developed for professional use in television productions only a few years before), Exposition of Music – Electronic Television is regarded today as the very first work of video art. In both form and content, the installation pointed the way for a medium that now looks back upon forty years of history.
Thus even before the first portable video cameras were introduced to the American market in 1965, a form of media art that took a critical look at television had already begun to develop. The focal point of criticism was the one-sided relationship between sender and receiver, a relationship that was not dictated by the technology itself but by state-owned monopolies. One radical exponent of this critical approach to the medium was the German artist Wolf Vostell (1932–1998), who shocked audiences at performances during the 1960s by throwing pies at television sets, covering them with concrete, burying them, and even shooting at them. The first »true« videotape was produced by Nam June Paik, who bought one of the earliest home video cameras during his stay in New York in 1965 and showed his recordings at a café shortly thereafter.
Television sets and monitors were central formal elements in many performances and installations presented during the 1960s and 1970s. Many artists sought to liberate viewers from their passive role by giving them an opportunity to influence what was shown on the monitor screens. Video sculpture is a typical product of this early phase of video art and remains a commonly used form today. Often, artists use a large number of sets or monitors whose screen images are linked. A well-known, fairly recent example is Fabrizio Plessi´s »water-wheel« at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. The video sculpture Tempo Liquido (1993) calls to mind a water-wheel consisting of twenty-one monitors showing video recordings of rushing water. The wheel is five meters high and turns in a canal filled with real water, prompting viewers to think about the relationship between illusion and reality.
Artists and viewers alike were fascinated by the simultaneity of recording and playback. The first closed-circuit installations featuring images recorded by a video camera shown on a television screen caused a degree of astonishment we can hardly imagine today. The American artist Bruce Nauman (*1941) installed two monitors at the end of a narrow corridor. The upper monitor showed only the empty space, while the lower screen presented live images of visitors walking up and down the hallway (Live Taped Video Corridor, 1969/70). Not only did Nauman experiment with the technical possibilities of the medium in this work, he also segued into one of the truly important themes of video art: the complexity of our perception of space and time.
»Video is like a pencil.« (John Baldessari)
By the late 1970s, video art was so firmly established that museums began devoting exhibitions to video artists. Presented under the title »Art and Media,« documenta 6 (1977) included an extensive video section. The opening program was put together by Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, and Douglas Davis. It was broadcast worldwide via satellite, and twenty-eight videotapes were shown on German television during the following weeks. Yet although some television stations still broadcast video art and the two media continue to exert a marked influence on one another, artists´ hopes that video art would establish a strong presence in television have remained largely unfulfilled.
Several pioneers of video art joined the faculties of art schools beginning in the late 1970s (among them Nam June Paik, who began teaching in Düsseldorf in 1979). The 1980s witnessed the emergence of a generation of artists who launched their careers in the field of video art. Video art grew increasingly popular during the late 1980s and was greeted by an enthusiastic public at the documenta 8 (1987) and IX (1992) shows.
The aesthetics of video art were influenced to an increasing extent by technological advances during this phase. The video piece by the New York artists Steina (*1940) and Woody Vasulka (*1937) entitled Artifacts (1980) was the first example of an intervention into the electronic structure of the visual image. Such technical manipulations became an integral part of the efforts of many video artists to develop a specific aesthetic and visual language from the medium itself. Technological progress now made it possible to record in color and edit much more precisely, to combine visual imagery and sound in different ways, and to employ blending and trick effects. The spectrum was soon expanded considerably through computer technology. The advent of digital image processing removed the last remaining obstacles to unlimited manipulation of existing images and generation of new ones.
A formal trend toward painstaking videotape montage and editing developed during the 1980s. Artists frequently used found material originally produced for other purposes: tapes from video surveillance cameras, recorded television broadcasts, Hollywood movies, fragments of private videotapes. Marcel Odenbach´s video installation Vogel friß oder stirb (Eat, Bird, or Die, 1989) approaches the subject of death in this way. While images of the city of Venice, documentary recordings of executions, and pictures of the dying actor Rock Hudson were shown on a monitor screen, close-up shots of pigeons on Saint Mark´s Square were presented on two opposing screens. The visual elements were accompanied by African songs of lamentation. The installation evoked depressing associations and alluded to something that might be concealed behind the images and words but was ultimately impossible to grasp and visualize.
Music videos established a strong foothold in television during the 1980s. The aesthetic effects of the interplay between commercial and artistic use of video technology are highly complex and virtually impossible to comprehend completely. The rapid sequences of cuts and the perfect staging with which music videos tell a story or create and atmosphere within a very few minutes brought about lasting changes in the way moving images are perceived.
Technical and personal input also grew more intense and complex in artists´ videos as well. Some artists used actors and sophisticated sets and props in staging their works. Such works as Matthew Barney´s Cremaster Cycle, a series completed in 2002, have become inseparable from cinematic art and are presented in both movie theaters and museums. Yet many video artists continue to cast a critical gaze at the power and seeming authenticity of readily consumable images. And in doing so, they play with the visual habits of a culture influenced by the omnipresent television screen. They paraphrase familiar genres—thrillers, documentary films, or soap operas—altering or mixing forms that are kept strictly apart in movies and television.
Combined with these narrative structures are the techniques of quotation and collage—most recently inspired by the popular musical process also known as »sampling«—the commercial most successful type of artist´s video. The Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist (*1962) became a star of the European video scene with such genre collages. Pop colors, the skilled use of music, and a humorous, disrespectful presentation made her video Pickelporno (1992) digestible for a broad public despite its provocative subjects and repulsive images. A master of »sampling« across the entire spectrum of achievements in the history of art and culture is the American artist Bill Viola (*1951). His works blend epistemological experimentation, literary narrative techniques, topoi from art history, mythological structures, and music into a perfect aesthetic synthesis.
A major video-art scene came into its own in the 1990s—with festivals, prizes, and a number of newly founded educational institutions specialized in media art. The Karlruher Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (Karlsruhe Center for Art and Media Technology, ZKM) was opened in 1997 as the first institution in the world devoted developing the bond between art and new media. The ZKM is home to an interactive media museum and one of the largest collection of media art in the world. Video art was the dominant medium at both the 2001 Venice Biennale and Documenta11 in Kassel (2002). It transformed the classical »white cubes« of exhibition rooms into a series of »black boxes«—more, in fact, than most visitors have time to take in in a single day. Formally speaking, today´s video art is highly diverse and extends from video sculpture to multimedia installations and environments. Distinctions between video art, cinema art, documentary film, short feature, and art films appear to have been almost totally eliminated in the current art scene. Many artists use large-screen projections covering one of more walls of these darkened rooms. In this way, they imbue their images with a powerful physical presence which, combined with room-filling sound, immerse viewers completely in the events around them. The artist Shirin Neshat (*1957), a native of Iran, works with ceiling-high double projections, compelling viewers to choose the one or the other perspective at any given time. The movements of people in her black-and-white recordings are artfully choreographed; the space between the projection surfaces appear filled with the flow and rhythm of these motion sequences, and viewers feel as if they are a part of the action.
Video art has established a firm foundation in the exhibition business at the dawn of the twenty-first century and gained a strong foothold in the art market as well. Yet the question remains whether video art can endure as an autonomous discipline in the long run or will instead be swallowed up within the larger context of media art. Contrary to expectations generated by the formal experiments of the 1980s, advanced in video technology have not brought about fundamental changes in the aesthetics of moving images. New impulses—among them an increasing emphasis on print as visual image—are now coming primarily from Internet and media art. Internet art appears predestined to deliver on some of the promises made by video art in its early years: interactivity, elimination of the boundaries between everyday culture and art, and, not least of all, total liberation from real space in the virtual realm of the World Wide Web.