Videotapes from New York


There has been considerable discussion recently in international journals about closed-circuit video, praising or deploring it as a new artistic medium, but it has generally been treated, rather misleadingly, as an isolated phenomenon similar to the introduction of acrylic paint or the use of plastic to replace more traditional materials. 

The National Gallery of Victoria has now added fourteen videotape cassettes from New York to the collection. They are inserted into a player and relayed on two monitors in the Modern European Gallery. Although this may suggest that they have been conceived as isolated works of art, the use of videotape today, especially in the United States, should be seen in a wider context. For the artists represented here, all of whom work in post-conceptual or performance modes involving the human body, objects, photography and language, the video camera and screen are considered simply as another useful aid in handling the anti-materialist body of ideas which can no longer be contained within the boundaries of the self-referential ‘art object’. 

Video equipment employed in the context of a work of art is nevertheless a relative newcomer to the scene. Andy Warhol, whose early films were undoubtedly a great influence, was commissioned in 1965 to make a sixty second advertisement for commercial television, showing a chocolate sundae subjected to various transformations by distorting the image on the screen. Nam June Paik and Les Levine, who made his first tape in 1966, and Bruce Nauman, whose Art Makeup – Black (1967) is the earliest piece in the group to be discussed, pioneered the current activity in this area. Looking back even further, precedents may be found for the introduction of film and other extraneous matter into the work of art, for example collage introduced by the Cubists, or photographs, film and objects employed by the exponents of Dada or Surrealism; but two different notions seem to have merged since 1970 to create the present climate of experiment. 

The first may be found in the proto-Pop happenings of the late ’fifties. Anti-theatrical in intent, these substituted for brush and canvas a physical dialogue between the human body and things and set up a segmented rather than linear time and space structure. The second innovation, inherent in minimal sculpture by artists like Don Judd and Sol LeWitt, dealt with the sculpture as object, reduced to a simple unit capable of activating the space around it. If more than one element was involved, it was of a serial or repetitive nature and therefore non-relational. The heavy literal presence of this kind of work sets up environmental currents which automatically involve the viewer, who begins to participate physically in the experience. The two attitudes may be recognised in one form or another in most of the tapes acquired for the Gallery. 

Just as the earth or land artists of the mid-sixties used film to document vast works which could be seen only by a few people and preferably from the window of an aeroplane, the video camera has – as in Vito Acconci’s Pull, a tape of a performance held at New York University In 1971 – sometimes been used simply to give permanence and a wider coverage to an event of a significant but ephemeral nature. However, most of the tapes have been created from the artists’ experience with the particular qualities of the T.V. medium in mind. John Baldessari’s The Italian Tape is based on the audio-visual technique of presenting a foreign language lesson and Les Levine’s Ritual, an account of his engagement and marriage set in Hawaii, employs an audio method which comes close to the popular tourist travelogue. T.V. In T.V. Out by Keith Sonnier is composed of a collage of sequences drawn from news programs, family comedies, discussion forums and old films, interspersed with parallel activities and comments from several home viewers. These pieces draw their content from commercial television, others like Welch from home movies, but some artists have exploited technical elements in their work. The title of Joan Jonas’s Vertical Roll refers to the roll of the image when the set is not properly adjusted and Peter Campus deliberately employs the phenomenon known as ‘snow’ to energise space. Campus sees the space within the screen, confirmed by the cubic shape of the monitor, as an extension of the room in which the viewer is placed. According to him this accounts for the intimate character of television compared with the more impersonal cinema. 

In the United States video monitors and cameras are often included in the equipment of a performance and as such take their place as objects. At the same time they are used as purveyors of energy or relay actions or gestures simultaneously from different angles, functioning ambiguously on different levels. The manipulation of different levels of reality is perhaps the most sustained concern apparent in the videotapes under discussion. Peter Campus, in Set of Coincidence, multiplies his own image on the screen and juggles with scale and distance to create an uncanny experience, where our accepted view of reality is neatly turned upside down. Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas lucidly develop the idea of the video screen as a mirror. Nauman seems to be studying himself in an invisible mirror situated just behind the right shoulder of the viewer, who is thus embraced by his space and forced to identify with the artist and his gestures as if with his own mirror image. Joan Jonas has stated that in the making of Vertical Roll she set up a dialogue with herself as an imagined sex object wearing a mask, which she called Organic Honey. Eleanor Antin juxtaposes mundane reality and romantic aspiration which seem to rival one another in banality. 

The most obvious difference between artists’ video film and commercial television as we know it lies in the structure, or what used to be called the ‘composition’ of these pieces. Here, a particular activity is usually presented in an open-ended situation where every part has approximately the same value. Time duration is usually treated as a compartmentalised or fragmented block, which is sometimes pulverised to the point of destruction as in Richard Serra’s Anxious Automation. The continually rolling image and the harsh, relentlessly repetitive sounds in Joan Jonas’ piece, as well as the use of flashing images in Les Levine’s Dakini Software, accumulate to produce emotional effects of an intense kind. In some ways the most successful tapes are what may be termed anthologies, consisting of a number of brief unrelated pieces which take into account the casual and intimate viewing so much a quality of video. William Wegman’s Selected Works – Reel 3 and Dennis Oppenheim’s Aspen 2 present each idea through a particular situation in a very tight way. 

Although aesthetic concerns are always present, they are subservient to the idea and to the supporting content which generated each piece. Apart from the climate of enquiry evident in most of the work represented, and the humour which is apparent at every turn in the work of Wegman, Antin, Sonnier and Levine, the underlying motives are always of a serious if not moral nature, involving a desire for both regeneration and change in patterns of thought which have become habitual, and therefore mechanical. 

Annette Dixon