'Video Art' - A Definition

story © Michael Betancourt, June 19, 2011 all rights reserved.


The definition of “video art” as a distinct medium, apart from both ‘experimental film’ and television was a central topic of theoretical and critical concern during the early years of video art’s existence; of greatest importance to these first writers on video was the ways it differed from television—much more than the relationship it had with the avant-garde film community, many of whom had shifted from film to video as lower cost cameras and video tape recorders became readily available.

This development happened within the avant-garde Fluxus movement, an art group that began as an international avant-garde music festival which embraced both radically new types of “musical” performance and engaged with experimentation with media—film, video, and even early computer works. Shigeko Kubota (1937 – ), a Japanese film maker who was part of this movement, along with Nam June Paik (1932 – 2006), her husband, (whose pioneering work is regarded as the beginning of video art), recognized the innate relationships between film images and video images. In her chronology of video screenings and exhibitions at the Anthology Film Archives in 1974 and 1975, she notes that the differences between the two are a matter of technology more than aesthetics:

Film and video are not mutually competing media, but mutually complementing ones. Film is superior in projection, shooting and editing; video is more versatile in transmission, post-production image mixing, and sound-sync matching. Harmonious interfacing of these two media would therefore be very beneficial for the future development of video and film art. (p. 150)

The fusion of video and film that Kubota hypothetically considers in the 1970s, becomes a reality in later decades as video technology improves and combines with the powerful computer technology that was beign developed simultaneously; by the end of the twentieth century, even theatrical Hollywood feature films would be produced as digital video and exhibited on film. The differences between video and film she identified—projection, shooting, editing vs. exhibition (“transmission”), post-production image mixing, and sound-sync matching—are relevant to the history of motion graphics precisely because the initial problems posed by film’s production limitations were readily resolved with video’s ease of combination, and then entirely eliminated through computer graphics. The evolution towards the greater precision offered by digital technology thus depends on both the developments of abstract film makers and the technical innovations of video art.

Within this trajectory, the art world’s need to differentiate video art from television has features that closely link the emergence of video to the earlier developments within television—not of entertainment programming, but through the aesthetics of TV commercials. David Antin (1932 – ), an avant-garde poet and critic, discussed the problematic relationship pose by television for video art because of the common technological basis they shared. His catalog essay, “Video: Distinctive Features of the Medium,” for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia’s exhibit Video Art (1975) that blends criticism with history is more concerned with a lengthy explanation of how broadcast television developed than with what the essentials of video are; however, he acknowledges the connection between TV commercials and video art:

It would be so much more convenient to develop the refined discussion of the possible differences between film and video if we could forget the Other Thing—television. Yet television haunts all exhibitions of video art, though when actually present it is only minimally represented, with perhaps a few commercials or “the golden performances” of Ernie Kovacs (a television “artist”); otherwise its presence is manifest mainly in quotes, allusion, parody and protest. (p. 174)

Television, because of its powerful, dominant position as a mass medium lies in the background to all early art videos. The need to distinguish it from film that Antin mentions, takes a secondary position to the more important distinction—its separation from the everyday, common medium of television. Antin identified two ways that the understanding of video as a distinct art medium emerged from television in the then-new critical discourse surrounding video art: (1) a non-academic blending of critical media theory based in Marshall McLuhan and more general information/communication theory; (2) a concern with the formal, technical capabilities of video art as an electronic technology. The distinctions between video and film lie along this second dimension; its overlaps with film that Kubota considers more important lie within the first, analytic discourse.

Both quotes are from Video Art: An Anthology, edited by Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976)

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  June 19, 2011  all rights reserved.

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