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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
for these artists, the narrator in Helen DeMichiel's Consider
Anything, Only Don't Cry (l988), lays out their strategy.
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.
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
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".
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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Doug, and Sally Jo Fifer, editors. Illuminating Video: An Essential
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John, editor. Video Culture: A Critical Investigation. New
York: Visual Studies Workshop, 1986.
Marvin, Lisa Phillips, and John G. Hanhardt. i. New York: Whitney
Museum of American Art, 1989.
Kathy Rae. Video: A Retrospective. California: Long Beach
Museum of Art, 1984.
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.
William D. American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove.
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