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Moving the Image: Visual Culture and the New Millennium

Gina Cavallo Collins
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, Arizona

The Future of Video Art in the Digital Age

Keywords: video art, digital media, long-term preservation, originality, image manipulation

It is rare for an entire art medium to become obsolete. Most forms have been used for centuries: painting, bronze sculpture, drawing, printmaking, even fresco is still employed occasionally. Video art may be the first to fall victim to what critic and science fiction author Bruce Sterling refers to as "dead media."1 A product of technology, video is being consumed by new technologies based on computers that promise more flexibility, better preservation and higher quality. The shift began in the 1990s and the new millennium will undoubtedly be the critical juncture where video art's future is decided. The purpose of this paper is to explore this juncture by defining the issues surrounding the shift and weighing the possibilities for the future. The paper is not meant as a definitive survey of the subject – there is much written on both video and digital art – but, rather, a contemplation of the most notable topics related to the future of video art.

Video has been a part of the art world since the 1960s when the Portapak was introduced, allowing artists such as Vito Acconci and William Wegman to bring performance art to a new level. Early on, Nam June Paik placed television monitors in the position of Marcel Duchamp's urinal – raising an everyday object to the level of high art. Paik emphasized the machine itself, commenting on television and its place in American society. Later, in the 1980s, Bill Viola moved the medium into the realm of experiential art by slowly breaking away from the television set. For over 20 years, Viola has tried to focus the viewer's attention on his imagery and the experience rather than the output device. His works attempted to bring the viewer into some type of contact with the people on the video, rather than distancing them through the inhuman qualities of the television box. Gary Hill similarly explored new ways of going beyond the television on a pedestal. His television boxes became sculptural objects, placed on the floor and harkening to the viewer to question his/her interaction with the medium.

Most of the artists placed in this category have fought to disassociate themselves from the stigma of television or even film. The acceptance of video as a high art form has primarily been through museum exhibitions rather than galleries and private collectors (which is true of other contemporary art forms such as performance and installation art).

The first video exhibition, TV as a Creative Medium, was held in 1969 and featured the work of Nam June Paik, Frank Gillette, Ira Schneider, and others. The artists' approaches to video varied widely. Some saw video as a way of integrating art and social life through a critique of television as a dominant cultural force or as a social documentary tool – an idea that was further explored in the 1970s in performance and video pieces such as Media Burn, 1974 by the Ant Farm Collective. Others saw video as a new artists' tool for formal conceptual projects or for synthesizing and transforming images with electronic devices such as the computer. 2 This early exhibition was the first step toward the development of a new art form. It was only a step, however, and widespread acceptance of the use of video in art was not readily apparent for another decade.

The early 1970s brought more exploration of the medium accompanied by mostly negative reaction. Lynn Hershman, whose work Constructing Roberta Breitmore, 1975, allowed the visitor to design a woman and then study her psychology, recalls that "in 1972, the University Art Museum in Berkeley, closed an exhibition of mine because I used audio tape and sound in a sculpture entitled Self Portrait as Another Person. The museum curators claimed that electronic media was not art and most certainly did not belong in a museum."3 Open Circuits: The Future of Television, a conference organized in 1974, further developed the discussion of what was seen as the beginning of a new period of art.4 The presentations focused on the idea that artists must carry video into the future and continually explore current social issues.

By the end of the decade, numerous museums, including the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, had added video to their curatorial departments. The acceptance by museums was critical to the survival of the medium. It seemed an unlikely prospect considering the well-established conventions of museum curation. The length of time it took to accept photography as a valid art form was the most recent example to look to for comparison. Video's rapid success was based on two major factors: the interest in the medium by several established artists and the growing field of conceptual art. Conceptual art opened up contemporary art to an explosion of radically new approaches to the art making process. It questioned the very idea of "art as object," and provided the path for performance, installation and Fluxus art. It also presented a whole new realm of preservation concerns for museums.

With regard to preservation, an issue at the heart of the acceptance of video as art, is the question of what is the original? Does there have to be an original? Finally, how does this affect the historical, aesthetic, and, ultimately, monetary value of the work? The work has no value unless it is placed into a machine. The control power of the original "masters" is usually held by the artist himself. These must remain clean and untouched to give validity to the copies. This issue is accentuated by the digital age, an issue to be discussed later in this paper.

If museums had difficulty accepting video as an art form, the press and public seemed wholly out of touch. Frequently, newspaper articles about video art oscillated between art, film and television reviews.5 No one seemed to know where to put it. The numerous festivals and conferences that have been held since the 1970s have, however, developed a support system for video art culled primarily from other visual and performing artists and enthusiasts, as well as electronics and technology experts.

In a 1984 essay, artist, writer and curator Jürgen Claus boldly stated, "I expect the presently expanding interest in technological art to reach a summit and then decline."6 Claus did not identify when he expected the summit to occur or clarify how to identify it, nor did he venture to speculate on the approximate timing of the decline. It is clear, though, that thirty years after the first exhibition, video art has matured and found a place for itself in the mainstream art world. It has even begun to influence other art forms. A dialogue amongst scholars does continue, however, as to its role, its merit, and even its definition. Some, including theorist and historian of electronic media arts Gene Youngblood, question the very idea of the term video art, emphasizing that art is always independent of the medium through which it is practiced.7 The demise of video art, due not to technological change, but to a social shift was determined to have already occurred in 1996 when Michael Nash wrote that, "we have witnessed the death of video art in the United States..."blue-chip" video artists – Gary Hill, Nam June Paik, Bill Viola - have been absorbed by the traditional arts establishment." 8

A major issue facing all art based on technology is preservation. The rapid advances of technology over the last fifty years have left museums, libraries and archives in a constant state of updating. Keeping technology-based artworks functioning requires continuous maintenance and collections are often confronted with the need to replace obsolete parts. Billy Kluver, an engineer who was one of Robert Rauschenberg's original collaborators in the 1960s and 1970s, strongly advocates such updating and criticizes the conservatorial tendency to preserve original technology as an historic artifact.9 The curatorial acceptance of conceptual art that does not emphasize "art as object," is the antithesis of the archivist's and conservator's training and belief systems. It is necessary to determine the level of artist's intent in each part of each of these works to prioritize their individual significance.

The typical response of both museums and archives to this dilemma is to obtain as many extra parts for these works as possible to be stored for future use. Curator Elizabeth Armstrong of The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, for instance, buys a number of identical backup components – 5 to 10 if possible – whenever acquiring a piece that includes elements like TV tubes, monitors or computers.10 John W. Carlin, archivist of the United States, has directed The National Archives to keep a kind of "museum" of equipment and also copies voluminous collections of archival material not just once but again and again in order to keep up with the changes in technology. Such changes, for example, have already rendered obsolete White House dictaphone records from the 1950s and the machine used to record the infamous Nixon White House tapes.11 Carlin has noted that long-term preservation will require that we convert audio-visual records to modern formats to make them publicly accessible.

Artists have also become more aware of the problems raised by the technological aspects of their works. Janelle Reiring of Metro Pictures describes a close working relationship with the suppliers of the video components that Tony Oursler uses in his video sculptures; the artist also maintains an archive of videotape masters that can be used to make updated copies as needed.12 Artist Bill Viola is clearly ahead on this topic and recognized the need to consider preservation of this fragile medium while he prepared his 1998 retrospective for the Whitney Museum. After digging through all his old videos, he realized he literally could not play several of his 1970s works in their original format. He has since expanded and improved the documentation he provides with his works now and regularly copies all of his work onto digital media. He has also contemplated the future of the earliest video work – Magnet TV, 1965 by Nam June Paik. Televisions without cathode ray tubes will not create the abstract patterning caused by the magnet. Viola imagines, perhaps with only minor exaggeration, future museum workers relearning the art of blowing glass and circuit wiring to re-create CRTs from scratch so the late-twentieth-century Nam June Paik piece in the collection can be presented as originally seen. 13

The definitive answers to the dilemma of impermanence are not currently known. Perhaps future conservators, engineers, artists and archivists will develop a standard format for the preservation of works on electronic media. Until then, volumes of information and images will have to continually be updated to new technology platforms in the hopes of retaining the history of late-twentieth and early twenty-first century multi-media art.

Digital technology is redefining the ubiquitously titled area of video art. Computers provide an opportunity to move into a new level of visual experience. They add a twist that even many museums are only recently absorbing. Laptops, live-feed monitors and digital imagery in the galleries promise a new reality for the visitor and alluring benefits for contemporary artists. The latest Whitney Museum Biennial includes the piece Every Icon, 1996 by John F. Simon, Jr., for instance.14 Simon has designed his own software and programmed the computer to continually transform a 32 by 32 square grid on a desktop computer that processes 100 changes per second. The piece is accessible within the museum and on the artist's website where viewers can order an edition of the work.

The institutional acceptance of digital art seems to have taken place at warp speed – even faster than the acceptance of video. One factor in this may very well be financial. There is a lot more money available for anything to do with computers than there is for standard preservation projects or single-artist support – certainly a sign of societal preoccupation with high technology. Many museums acquire works which incorporate computers as part of their photography, video and sculpture collections – integrating rather than isolating the computer aspect of the art. Additionally, many museum curators are open to the idea of this new art medium. A former video art curator, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Director David Ross finds that one appealing aspect of net art is that the artist is not in control or even pretending to control.15 Contemporary art museums have to face the fact that digital art is here, it is hot and publicly appealing.

Facing many of the same questions of originality that video art faced, digital art carries the question of illusion forward from photography's history: what is the true image when a digital photo can be altered down to its pixels? Is there a loss of authenticity by its own nature – ease of manipulation? Work done purely in a digital format is consistently questioned – is it graphic illustration or high art? The Internet and digital graphics provide artists with access to numerous works by other artists that can fairly easily now (probably even easier in the future) be incorporated into their work. Even works created "uniquely" return to the question of where is the original? Digital, more than video, is a true simulation; mathematically modeling the real rather than imitating it through a copying process.

Many artists are asking the same questions. They also contemplate how the use of interactive media will affect their usual control over a discrete work. How much control will the viewer have in directing the flow of the piece? How much can be altered or changed in the work? Will its intentions become diluted? With the jittery acceptance that is crystallizing in the art world, artists are forging ahead into a transitional phase that takes in the advantages of digital technology to the benefit (at least for now) of other electronic arts.

There are several artists who have unequivocal ties to the digital age. Many have incorporated digital methods into their work, but each has a different purpose for using the technology. Their work serves as the transitional phase in this history of video art. Older, established artists such as Bill Viola and Gary Hill are only loosely tied to the new technology, primarily through the need for preservation mentioned previously. Another well-established artist, Lynn Hershman comes closer to the younger generation's enthusiasm for everything digital. Since 1980, her work has explored interactivity and made use of the most up-to-date technologies of the time. Her art has become progressively more complex as well. She divides her career into B.C. (Before Computers) and A.D. (After Digital).

Younger, emerging artists are on the cusp of the transitional phase. Examples include Alan Rath, whose works are wholly digital. Peter Sarkisian uses digital technology for its ease of production rather than focusing on the technology itself. In 1996, the Ars Electronica festival included Ken Goldberg's Telegarden which allowed users to tend a real, physical garden remotely using a website robot (this site is still active).16 The German group Granular Synthesis combines sound recording, video and software they design to create large gallery installations.17 They digitally reconfigure the sound recordings to transform the voices into pure electronic tones and rhythms. Perhaps most complicated of all, the Art+Com group's TerraVision allows the viewer to zoom from the entire globe down to a city street in one smooth swoop, zoom into the Art+Com office, and look through a video camera pointing out the window and see real time video action.18

Technologically speaking, digital allows artists much more control in the production of "video," or moving image artwork. Advances such as high-definition television promise strikingly clear picture and sound and the development of interactive TV programming may allow artists to finally find a place in the broadcast television world. Popular acceptance of the medium has brought down prices to a point that many artists can finally afford to make the leap into high-tech art. Many continue to use analog video and other media to create installations that sometimes have little to do with the technology, and other times are focusing on the output devices themselves.

In 1984, theorist and historian of electronic media arts Gene Youngblood forecasted that, "(t)ruly revolutionary developments loom large on the horizon of video's future...By far the most important development...is the imminent merging of video with computer technology."19 It appears that we have now fulfilled this prophecy and are looking to how technology will play a role in twenty-first century art – and vice versa.

In defining the very moment we are in, the edge of the technology cliff we are currently standing on, many scholars and artists are attempting to predict the future of media arts. Simon Penny, associate professor of art and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University sees teleconferencing art (such as Paul Sermon's Telematic Dreaming) and the World Wide Web as the future of multimedia art. 20 Penny foresees an open road to new prospects for artists interested in technology. Reversing this paradigm, artist Margot Lovejoy sees artists playing integral roles in the development of specific software that has the potential to fulfill their specific needs.21 Bruce Sterling has summed it up well by stating that, "there is no real way to tell what will work, or for how long; what will be touched with gold by the invisible Midas hand of the market, and what will swiftly become as quaint as Pong or the magic lantern. Depending on your philosophical position in the cyberspace camps, this fact is either unfortunate – or very lucky indeed."22

Many people in the art world see that technological advances will deliver new ways of compressing and representing complex information and provide the procedural tools needed to navigate through elaborate, interactive experiences. The larger societal effects have yet to be determined. It seems clear that, at least for the foreseeable future, the analog TV will enjoy a transitional window.

The rate of technological change has without doubt increased exponentially over the last fifty years. There are few areas of life in the United States, and many other countries, that have not been affected by the rapid changeover to computers. Often lagging behind corporate culture due primarily to the inequality of funding, the art world has, nevertheless, jumped into the new millennium with both feet wired. Although there are still many questions as to the validity of and place for digital art in museums, the amount of acceptance so far won is noteworthy considering how short a period artists have been working in digital formats. It seems likely that, based on video art's success over the last twenty years, that the public, collectors, critics, museums and artists are open to the idea of a high tech art. Video served many purposes and expanded many expectations of what art can be. Its convergence with digital is inevitable now that the equipment has become more affordable, smaller, easier to use, and able to provide better quality and more control. The argument against a lack of an original appears trite when countered by the as-yet limitless possibilities for digitised imagery. That question more correctly belongs to a discussion on two-dimensional media such as painting and printmaking, rather than one on video which has managed to overcome similar obstacles already.

Video will probably disappear at some point in this century, to be replaced by digital or, perhaps, another yet-to-be-discovered technology. With this in mind, there should be serious consideration by art schools to include all of the expanding media arts (many are now) and by museums to explore new roles in this changing area. A Virtual Museum already exists, which brings museums themselves to a whole new level. The future is not so far away.

September 2000


1. Obrist, H. U. (1997), do it, p. 67. New York: Independent Curators Incorporated. {back to paper}

2. Lovejoy, M. (1997), Postmodern Currents, p. 103. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. {back to paper}

3. Restany, P. (1999), "San Francisco and the Grand Dame of digital art", Domus, June 1999, p. 114. {back to paper}

4. Lovejoy, M. (1997), Postmodern Currents, p. 105. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. {back to paper}

5. Cubitt, S. (1991), Timeshift: On Video Culture, p. 110. New York: Routledge. {back to paper}

6. From Claus, J. (1984), "Expansion of Media Art: What Will Remain of the Electronic Age?", p. 181, in: Druckrey, T. (1999), Ars Electronica: Facing the Future. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. {back to paper}

7. From Youngblood, G. (1984), "A Medium Matures: Video and Cinematic Enterprise", p. 43, in: Druckrey, T. (1999), Ars Electronica: Facing the Future. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. {back to paper}

8. From Nash, M. (1996), "Vision After Television: Technocultural Convergence, Hypermedia, and the New Media Arts Field", p. 382, in: Renov, M. & Suderburg, E. (Eds.), Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. {back to paper}

9. Buskirk, M. (2000), "Planning for Impermanence", Art in America. April 2000, p. 167. {back to paper}

10. Buskirk, M. (2000), "Planning for Impermanence", Art in America. April 2000, p. 119. {back to paper}

11. Carlin, J. W. (1999), "Your Past is Disappearing: What Museums Should Know about the 20th-Century Archives Crisis", Museum News, January/February 1999, p. 47. {back to paper}

12. Buskirk, M. (2000), "Planning for Impermanence", Art in America. April 2000, p. 119. {back to paper}

13. Buskirk, M. (2000), "Planning for Impermanence", Art in America. April 2000, p. 167. {back to paper}

14. Pollack, B. (2000), "On the Edge," ARTNews, April 2000, p. 142. {back to paper}

15. Jana, R. (1999), "David Ross: Director, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art," Flash Art, January/February 1999, p. 34. {back to paper}

16. Bolter, J. D. & Grusin, R. (1999), Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, p. 144. {back to paper}

17. Phillips, Ch. (1999), "Machine Dreams," Art in America, November 1999, p. 112. {back to paper}

18. Penny, S. "From A to D and back again: The emerging aesthetics of Interactive Art," from Penny's website at www.cia.cmu.edu/Penny/texts/AtoD.html: 5. {back to paper}

19. From Youngblood, G. (1984), "A Medium Matures: Video and Cinematic Enterprise", p. 44f, in: Druckrey, T. (1999), Ars Electronica: Facing the Future. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. {back to paper}

20. Penny, S. "From A to D and back again: The emerging aesthetics of Interactive Art," from Penny's website at www.cia.cmu.edu/Penny/texts/AtoD.html: 5. {back to paper}

21. Lovejoy, M. (1997), Postmodern Currents, p. 121. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. {back to paper}

22. From Sterling, B. (1990), "The Future of Cyberspace", p. 115, in: Druckrey, T. (1999), Ars Electronica: Facing the Future. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. {back to paper}