EXPERIMENTAL VIDEO

Experimental video, video art, electronic art, alternative TV, community video, guerrilla television, computer art: these are a few of the labels that have been applied to a body of work that began to emerge in the United States in the l960s. Arguably, the most important of these labels is "experimental." The dominant goal of this video movement over the past 30 years has been change, achieved through the strategy of experimentation. The consistent target for this change has been television--commercially supported, network broadcast, mainstream television--whose success with mass audiences was the result of the repetition of proven formulas rather than aesthetic, ideological or industrial innovation or experimentation. It is perhaps commercial television's ability to interpret the uncertain world within the context of familiar conventions that makes it an essential part of everyday life in America. And it is this body of familiar interpretations that became the challenge of experimental video artists.

In his book Expanded Cinema (l970), media visionary, Gene Youngblood states "commercial entertainment works against art (experimentation), exploits the alienation and boredom of the public, by perpetuating a system of conditioned response to formulas." Youngblood's manifesto goes on to argue that any community requires experimentation in order to survive. He concludes, "the artist is always an anarchist, a revolutionary, a creator of new worlds imperceptibly gaining on reality."

One of the earliest of the video revolutionaries was Korean-born artist, Nam June Paik. When he landed in the United States in l964 Paik was already anxious to lead the experimental video revolution. One of his earliest works, TV Magnet (l965) challenged the viewing public to reexamine "television". Paik took a piece of furniture, the TV set, and changed its meaning by presenting it as sculpture. He demystified television by altering the magnetic polarity of the cathode-ray tube, demonstrating that the lines of light on the screen were clearly controlled by the large magnet sitting on top of the set rather than by some magical connection to the "real world". Most significantly, he changed the viewers' role as passive consumers to active creators by allowing them to interact with the piece by moving the magnet, thereby participating in the creation of the light patterns on the screen.

Paik is also credited with purchasing the first Sony Portapak, the first truly portable videotape recorder, in l965. Usually, the Sony Portapak and not the altered TV set has been identified with the beginning of experimental video. For the first time the low cost of the Portapak and its portability gave the experimental artists access to the means of producing television. Legend has it that Paik met a cargo boat in New York harbor, grabbed a Portapak, rode through the city in a cab shooting video and that night showed his street scenes, including the visit of Pope Paul VI, in Cafe `a Go Go.

But Paik was not operating alone. In l964, the same year Paik moved to the United States, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media. His declaration that "the medium is the message" became key passwords for Paik and a generation of experimental video makers who would hoped to design and build a "Global Village" through alternative uses of telecommunications.

Many of these video artists followed the tradition of avant-garde filmmakers, seeking to define the unique properties of their medium. By the early 1970s, experimental video makers were trying to find ways to isolate the unique properties of video's electronic image. A profusion of technical devices began to appear, most notably among them, a variety of color synthesizers. Paik developed one synthesizer in collaboration with Shuya Abe. Concurrently, Stephen Beck, Peter Campus, Bill and Louise Etra, Stan VanderBeek, and Walter Wright built their own versions. These synthesizers allowed artists to work directly with the materials of the TV machine. They brought into the foreground TV's glowing surface composed of tiny points called pixels. By controlling voltages and frequencies artists could change the color and intensity of the phosphorous pixels. In the process, they pushed the viewer away from the representational properties of TV and toward its powers of abstraction, to forms and patterns akin to those of modern painting.

None of the experimenters was more systematic in their pursuit of the unique properties and language of video than Steina and Woody Vasulka. The Vasulkas founded a studio-exhibition hall-meeting place, The Kitchen, in New York City as a locus of experimentation in video, dance and music. As a teacher at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Woody Vasulka's established a video class that included the mathematics of television. Working first with the analog signal and then learning to digitize the electronic signal, Vasulka and his colleagues created a dialogue between the artist's imagination and the inner logic of the TV machine. Slowly an electronic vocabulary and grammar began to emerge and to shape to works such as The Commission (l983), in which electronic imaging codes are used to render the virtuosity of violinist Niccolo Paganini into visual narrative elements.

For many other video experimenters, however, the essence of the video revolution did not lie inside the machine, in its technical or formal qualities. These "video anarchists" responded instead to the Marxist call for the appropriation of the means of production. Their interpretation of McLuhan's famous phrase was that control of the medium determined the meaning of the message and so long as corporate American controlled the commercial TV the message would be the same--"consume". The Sony Portapak gave these video makers a chance to produce. It did not matter that the Portapak produced low resolution black and white images, that the tape was almost impossible to edit, or that the equipment was sold by a large corporation. It was cheap, portable enough for one person to operate, and reproduced images instantly. It was finally a technology that gave the constitutional guarantee of "freedom of speech" a place on TV. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) boosted the vision of a media democracy by requiring cable television companies to provide free public access channels in order to obtain franchises, and these access channels often provided the distribution and exhibition sites for experimental video makers.

Charismatic leaders such as George Stoney, who had worked in Canada's Challenge for Change program, rallied young video activists to the cause of media democracy. Throughout the 1970s public access centers, media centers and video collectives sprung up across the country. Their names suggest their utopian intentions: Top Value TV (TVTV), People's Video Theater, the Alternate Media Center, Videofreex, Global Village, Video Free America, Portable Channel, Videopolis, and Paper Tiger. These groups and many others nurtured the movement. Global Village started a festival, The Kitchen hosted the First Women's Video Festival, and Paper Tiger organized a cable network of 400 sites linked via satellite. Deep Dish Television, as the network is called, still continues, airing controversial programs on such issues as censorship of the arts, The Gulf War, and AIDS.

As the United States moved into a more conservative social climate in the 1980s and 1990s, the idea of giving access to the means of production to the people has lost much of its influence on public policy. The FCC eliminated the public access requirements and the Telecommunications Act of l995 leaves the notion of public access greatly weakened.

Nevertheless, neither the movement to explore the TV machine nor the movement to create more democratic media went unnoticed by the more mainstream forms of television. In fact, the United States system of public television, the Public Broadcasting Service, takes as part of its mission the provision of a site for alternate voices, innovation, and the airing of controversy. These directives, it would seem, made PBS a natural forum for experimental video. Experience has proven otherwise.

In the early 1970s, WGBH producer, Fred Barzyk, created the New Television Workshop in Boston. Barzyk offered artists the use of non-broadcast quality half-inch video (the Portapak did not meet FCC blanking requirements) and then showed their work on Artists' Showcase. Other PBS venues followed such as WNET's TV Laboratory in New York, KQED's Center for Experiments in Television in San Francisco, KTCA's Alive From Off Center in Minneapolis, and the syndicated series, P.O.V. These programs flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s, yet most are now shut down because PBS station programmers across the country were always ambivalent about experimental media. They felt that their public trust required them to respond to ratings as did their counterparts in the commercial arena, and ratings for the experimental showcases were never large.

The commercial networks have made their own forays into the experimental movement. CBS, for example, explored the possibility of producing a show called Subject to Change with Videofreex. In the end, executives decided the show as "ahead of its time." NBC's Today show did hire Jon Alpert, co-director of the Downtown Community Television Center in New York City. Alpert's hand held, personal, verite style made him one of the few experimental artists who could move back and forth between the mainstream and alternate TV forums. He received both praise and criticism for doing so, as did others such as John Sanborn who made music videos for MTV and William Wegman who presented his famous dogs on David Letterman's programs. Michael Shamberg and the Raindance Corporation in their publication, Guerrilla Television (l97l), had admonished "anyone who thinks that broadcast-TV is capable of reform just doesn't understand the media. A standard of success that demands 30 to 50 million people can only tend toward homogenization." The question for many experimenters, then, was whether Wegmen's dogs who had seemed so unique in half-inch black and white had been turned into "stupid pet tricks" by David Letterman.

As this example indicates, throughout the last three decades, the dilemma for experimental video artists has been to work with the substance of mass media without being swallowed by it. For many of them, working inside the networks has proven less satisfying than "making television strange" by placing it in new contexts such as museums, alternate spaces, and shopping malls.

Again Nam June Paik and his conceptual artists group Fluxus had led the way in the 1960s with their "de-collage" method that started with the removal of the TV set from its familial context in the home. Probably the most famous image of the experimental movement, however, is Ant Farm's Media Burn (l975). In this piece a futuristic looking Cadillac drives headlong through a burning pyramid of TV sets. Even viewers who missed the actual performance and have seen only a photograph of Media Burn could not miss Ant Farm's satirical stab at the power and influence of commercial television.

During the early years of the experimental video movements the Everson Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, and the Walker Art Center initiated video exhibition programs. Many of these works, often known as "video installations," were multi-channel. Gary Hill's Inasmuch as It Is Always Already Taking Place (l990), was a sixteen-channel installation with sixteen modified monitors recessed in a wall. The multi-channel capability allowed the artist to create new environments and contexts for the viewer. In their Wraparound (l982), Kit Fitzgerald and John Sanborn wanted to give the viewer the "everyday task of assimilating simultaneous information and eliminating the unwanted." In a measure of how far the artist intended to go to shake viewers out of their TV habit, Bill Viola placed a small TV set next to a pitcher and glass of water in what was depicted as a Room for St. John of the Cross (l983). Viola's ambition was to rediscover--in the context of the age of television--the experience of "love, ecstasy, passage through the dark night, and flying over city walls and mountains" that the 16th Century mystic described in his poetry.

 

 

All of these works have taken the artists away from the low cost and low tech Portapak. Instead, they have embraced the advances, especially in 3/4 inch color video and computer editing and mixing. Moreover, the budgets required for many of the installation works had put the artists back in contact with mainstream corporate America. El Paso Gas Company and the Polaroid Corporation, for instance, had contributed to the creation of Viola's Room for St. John of the Cross. No project symbolized more the ambition and frustrations of the experimental video artists learning to work with the commercial world than Dara Birnbaum's video wall constructed for the Rio Shopping Complex in Atlanta. A brilliantly conceived design related to Birnbaum's background in architecture and video, the wall, made up of 25 monitors, was a giant electronic bulletin board in the middle of the Rio mall's town square. The content of the monitors was triggered by the motion of the shoppers in the square and contained images that included news coming out of Atlanta-based CNN as well as reflections on the natural landscape that existed before the construction of the mall. The record of the contract negotiations involved in the creation of this project gives an indication of the struggle between a real estate developer and an artist to find a common language for their project. Beginning with the concept that the "art was a work for hire," the negotiations eventually reversed the point and concluded that the artist should retain the rights to the art and license it to the developer. In the end, developer Charles Ackerman told Business Atlanta magazine "this center will just smack you in the face with the idea that it is different. When you look at, you will think there is no limit to the imagination. Things don't have to be the way they always are."

By the 1980s and l990s experimental video attracted a whole new generation of artists. Many of the best of these were women. Still others were Black, Hispanic, Asian or gay. Most of them brought to their work a social, political agenda. Specifically, they challenged the white male power structure that dominated myth, history, society, the economy, the arts, and television. They questioned the whole narrative framework with its white male heroes conquering dark antagonists who threatened helpless females. Starting with the camera lens--which they described as an extension of the male gaze directed at the commodified woman--they deconstructed the whole apparatus of image making and image consuming.

Speaking for these artists, the narrator in Helen DeMichiel's Consider Anything, Only Don't Cry (l988), lays out their strategy.

 

I rob the image bank compulsively. I cut up, rearrange, collage, montage, decompose, rearrange, subvert, recontextualize, deconstruct, reconstruct, debunk, rethink, recombine, sort out, untangle, and give back the pictures, the meanings, the sounds, the music, that are taken from us in every moment of our days and nights.

In DeMichiel's portrait of a woman trying to discover both her personal and culture identities, the intention was to produce a video quilt made up of images ranging from home movies to commercial ads. Indeed, the quilt, a favorite metaphor for the feminists' communal approach to art, produced in the viewer a perception of many pieces being stitched together rather than the perception of monolithic unity derived from conventional narrative. The video quilt invited the viewer into the making of the work by patching in their own associations stimulated by the personal and public images rather than asking them to uncover the message of the author.

Joan Braderman in Joan Does Dynasty (l986), assumed the role of the viewer by skillfully layering a masked image of herself into scenes with Dynasty star, Joan Collins. Once "in" the scene, Braderman carried on her own commentary about Alexis's plot to wrest power from the Carrington patriarchy. Unlike Fluxus' appropriation of the TV set, Braderman did not want to leave the familiar grounds of popular television. She wanted in, but on her own terms--with her own lines, and her own images. In effect, she wanted to rearrange "television".

The challenge to the hegemony of white males spread rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. Rea Tajiri and Janice Tanaka produced tapes to reclaim their memory and history that lay forgotten in the internment of Asian-Americans during World War II. In Itam Hakin Hopit (l984) Victor Masayesva used cutting edge technology to celebrate the relevance of the Hopi's world view. Edin Velez in his Meta Mayan II (1981), used slow motion to enhance the effect on the American audience of the return gaze of a Mayan Indian woman. In 1991, Afro-American artist, Philip Mallory Jones, launched his First World Order Project, designed to take advantage of the global "telecommunity" that had been created by technologies such as the satellite and the Internet. Jones's project focused on the knowledge and wisdom that rises out of the differences that exist in "others".

By the summer of l989, the "differences" in "others" was too much for the establishment. Conservative political and cultural groups targeted the National Endowment for the Arts and its support of "morally reprehensible trash". The most famous examples were Robert Mapplethorpe's photos of brutal and extreme homosexual acts. The most infamous experimental film/video was Tongues Untied by Afro-American and gay artist, Marlon Riggs. Campaigns were mounted against this critically acclaimed work which was to air on the PBS series P.O.V. in the summer of 1991. In the end, l74 PBS stations refused to show the film. Marlon Riggs summed up the reaction of many in the experimental art field when he stated: "a society that shuts its eyes cannot grow or change or discover what's really decent in the world."

In Expanded Cinema Gene Youngblood had called for the "artist..(to be)..an anarchist, a revolutionary, a creator of new worlds imperceptibly gaining on reality." Experimental artists from Nam June Paik to Marlon Riggs responded. Scholars like Youngblood look upon the experimental movement as a protean force constantly taking new shapes and revealing additional facets of life and humanity. Critics view it as a many headed Hydra, each head of which when cut off is replaced by two others. Proteus or Hydra? The same might be asked of the technology itself.

In 1984, Paik titled his live satellite broadcast between Paris, New York, and San Francisco, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell. The technology of big brother had arrived. Of course, the playful Paik's ambition was to demonstrate to Orwell how ridiculous technology was and how easily it could be humanized. In his book Being Digital (l995), Nicholas Negroponte supports Paik's optimism about human beings actively appropriating technology to achieve change.

The effect of fax machines on Tiananmen Square is an ironic example, because newly popular and decentralized tools were invoked precisely when the government was trying to reassert its elite and centralized control. The Internet provides a worldwide channel of communication that flies in the face of any censorship and thrives especially in places like Singapore, where freedom of the press is marginal and networking ubiquitous.

This is finally the proper context in which to judge the American experimental video movement. It is the desire to be free that has driven the experiments of American video artists and it is the possibility of liberating the full potential of all human beings that will lead them into experimental collaborations in the future.

-Ed Hugetz

FURTHER READING

Frohnmayer, John. Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Hall, Doug, and Sally Jo Fifer, editors. Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art. New York: Aperture Foundation, Inc., 1990.

Hanhardt, John, editor. Video Culture: A Critical Investigation. New York: Visual Studies Workshop, 1986.

Heiferman, Marvin, Lisa Phillips, and John G. Hanhardt. i. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1989.

Huffman, Kathy Rae. Video: A Retrospective. California: Long Beach Museum of Art, 1984.

Huffman, Kathy Rae, and Dorine Mignot, editors. The Arts for Television. Los Angeles/Amsterdam: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1987.

Judson, William D. American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The Carnegie Museum of Art, 1988.

London, Barbara. Video Spaces: Eight Installations. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1995.

Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Penny, Simon, editor. Critical Issues in Electronic Media. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Popper, Frank. Art of the Electronic Age. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993.

Zippay, Lori, editor. Electronic Arts Intermix: Video. New York: Electronic Arts Intermix, 1991.

 

See also Paik, Nam June