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HISTORY OF VIDEO ART by Aaron Ross
Course journal
Spring 1991
In re: Television Delivers People by Richard Serra
Hold My Life by The Replacements
The distinction made between "video art" and "guerilla TV" is one that has its uses, but should not be considered definitive. There are few, if any, "avant-garde" videotapes that could truly fall within one of these categories. Rather, most video makers integrate both socio-political and aesthetic issues in their work. This should demonstrate that "art" and "activism" are not two opposing impulses, but simply words given to specific forms of creative expression within the medium. They refer to certain aspects of independent video productions, and serve to place these works within a generalized interpretive framework, but they are not antithetical nor mutually exclusive concepts.
This seems so obvious as to cause one to wonder how this false dichotomy arose. No doubt it was due to the political agendas of the individuals who first began working with the new medium. They specifically abdicated their status as "artists" -- at least in name. This was done to remove the work from the context of the "art world," with all of its ties to commerce and government. Thus, independent video makers could be liberated from the constraints of the Establishment, and so set about to dismantle it.
However, this was an exercise in self-deception. These people were artists, and they were engaging in creative activity, regardless of what they called it. The mere fact that this work was immediately absorbed into the art establishment illustrates its true nature. One can say "This is not art" until one is blue in the face, but if the work ends up being studied in a college art history class, the claim appears completely ludicrous.
Of course, the first people to make this mistake were the Dadas. They, however, can be forgiven, considering the novelty of the idea at the time of its initial exposition, and the overall historical context. Dada was a necessary phase in the development of modern art: the belated assassination of social conventions and academic restraints. It enabled artists to start afresh, to explore hitherto inaccessible realms of expression.
Unfortunately, the Fluxus movement, as well as those "guerilla" people (who claimed not to be artists at all) merely resurrected an art form which was no longer valid. This derivative approach was the first sign of the degeneration of the arts, later to be canonized as "postmodernism."
The art/activism polarization also disintegrates when one considers guerilla actions undertaken by "established" artists, who willingly operate within the systems of state and commerce. Surely among the most radical of acts was Richard Serra's broadcast of Television Delivers People. Here, a well-known sculptor has chosen to brazenly display anti-establishment sentiments within the context of corporate broadcast TV. (How did he get away with this???) There can be no doubt that Serra considers himself an artist. He has used that status to infiltrate the System to attempt to effect revolutionary change in mass consciousness. This is true activism, even though it was placed in an aesthetic context from the outset.
The lines get even more blurry when those activist messages are finally co-opted by the very industries they seek to criticize. For example, the music video for "Hold My Life" by The Replacements has a somewhat radical character in that it violates the conventions of "commercial art." However, one cannot consider it "fine art," because despite its superficial overtones of consumer alienation, it remains a product to be parlayed solely for customer gratification. (It seems paradoxical that alienation is now a commodity, but a quick review of the punk rock movement shows that rebellion is easily bought and sold by multinational corporations.) Nor is "Hold My Life" effective as a guerilla action, and for the same reasons. Ultimately, the video reinforces the status quo, and does not threaten the capitalistic structures which sustain it. It is infinitely significant to note that the only intelligible text in the piece other than the chorus line, "Hold my life," is the copyright message at the end. After three minutes of ersatz political rhetoric, the viewer is given a glimpse at the true underlying meaning of the piece ...
"(c) 1986 Sire Records, Inc."
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In re: The Rays by Raindance Corporation
"Tell us about the Rays, man."
These are the invisible projections of the unconscious upon external reality. They are the inevitable distortions of that reality due to the mere act of perception. The Rays are also the evil media transmissions designed to hypnotize and control the mass audience. And, the Rays are the mysterious forces which some believe connect all people and things in a vast, unknowable, metaphysical unity.
What in the universe do these "Rays" have to do with guerilla television? Next to nothing, and more than everything. These are the hallucinogenic ramblings of Michael Shamberg and his cronies on the beach in 1970. Yet from these LSD-induced revelations came an entirely new way of utilizing the medium of television, one that has shown great promise for the future of culture in the technological oligarchy we live in. While it's true that the vague notions of psycho-cybernetic revolution (á la Gene Youngblood's book Expanded Cinema) which developed in the 60's and 70's now appear somewhat naïve, this is no reason to give up the fight.
In fact, with the eventual (grudging) dissemination of technology throughout the culture, there will be no way to control the flow of information. Youngblood couldn't conceive of computer hacking and cyberpunk, but science fiction writer William Gibson did. This is the true cybernetic revolution, and despite the FBI's attempts to quash the mischievous precursors of the movement, it is unavoidable. What can the government do, recall all modems?
IBM has kept computer science a small, elite priesthood for 30 years. Unfortunately for the multinationals, people are beginning to turn the "Rays" against them. Workers of the world, relax!
In re: Janice Tanaka
Two statements Janice Tanaka made on the night she visited CalArts will stick in my brain until I die. Sad to say, my reaction to these words was not positive, because I genuinely like her early work, particularly Ontogenesis (what a great title!). First, while describing her first foray into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's "Video Area" (that's what they call it, don't ask me why), she mentioned that she saw a lot of people doing video feedback. As I recall, she said, "The feedback looked pretty good, but it felt kind of empty."
The room nodded its approval. Inside, I was a raging torrent of emotion. Empty! It's the FULL emptiness, the PLEROMA, the SHUNYATA, the CLEAR LIGHT OF THE VOID!!! It is chaos in motion, the very dynamical recursive chaos that gave rise to life, consciousness, and the very fucking universe ITSELF!
(These are not the ravings of a madman. Do not attempt to adjust your television.)
Then, later, after I had forgotten this lapse of sanity on the part of all concerned, Michael Scroggins and I took Janice down to the Videographics Lab, home of numerous vintage analog video processing devices akin to the famed Sandin Image Processor. When we showed her the Pulfrich 3-D effect, she exclaimed, "Wow! Remember when video used to be fun?"
FUN!!??!!?? If it ever stops being fun, it's time to hang up your tweaker and head out for greener pastures. This is not a business, it is serious play. If that element of fun is missing, the artwork will suffer and eventually die. I don't want to hear any requiem for fun. Let's keep growing, exploring, finding new ways to channel our creativity. Otherwise, we may as well work at Burger King or Merrill Lynch.
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In re: Made in Hollywood by Bruce and Norman Yonemoto
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Do the Yonemotos really think they can have their cake and eat it, too? Sure, it'd be nice to inject some personal vision back into the stale formulas of Hollywood cinema, but to loudly proclaim that as sole purpose for artmaking smacks of superficiality. Maybe I have a bad attitude, but I have infinitely more respect for a truly talented "commercial" filmmaker like Scorcese or Kubrick than I do for someone whose greatest ambition is to play both sides of the fence.
This is not to say that Made in Hollywood is not entertaining to watch. There are some interesting games being played here, especially regarding cinematic conventions and clichés. But when all is said and done, do the Yonemotos make good on their promise to provide "a deliverance from the tyranny of the Hollywood myth"? I think not. No, that's just the sales pitch to the art community.
Incidentally, it'd be interesting to hear the pitch to the Hollywood company boys. It's probably not very different. After all, both Hollywood and the art world are equally self-serving.
In re: Granny's Is by David Larcher
Does technology make the man? For me, the answer is unequivocally "no." After all, look at the U.S. military. They've had the newest latest greatest whizbang stuff since World War II. And what do they do with it? You guessed it: genocide.
David Larcher is hardly shooting for global domination, but the attitude seems essentially the same: hit 'em with everything ya got. When I first heard about Granny's Is, I was told that the gratuitous use of digital effects in the piece was conscious and intentional, and served the purpose of parodying mass media TV graphic techniques. Unfortunately, I have to disagree. Granny's Is seems to me a pure case of technological fetishism and self-indulgence.
Not that there's anything particularly wrong with either of those two characteristics, but there is definitely a communication gap set up when such a piece runs overlong. The viewer eventually loses interest, and begins to wonder why he or she is bothering to decipher the meaning of the piece. This is the failure of Granny's Is. If the work had been half as long, it would have been effective. If it were cut to 15 minutes, it would have been simply amazing.
What a shame that the art world is so prone to fads and fashions, especially when it denies the existence of those tendencies. The only reason Granny's Is got produced is because re-integrates commercial techniques into "high art," much in the same way as Made in Hollywood. This is, of course, very hot, hip, and fashionable (in a postmodern kinda way). Woe be it to he who dares to think for himself!
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In re: No Rights Implied by Nell Lundy
[This piece documents the flag-on-the-floor crisis at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989.]
OK, here we go.
1. I was there, and this was an fairly accurate account of what happened.
2. Who cares?
3. There's a glut of documentary TV and video; do we really need to be told what to think? What about painting? Does anybody remember music? Hey, I just got a great idea! Let's make art while we're spending $12,000 a year at art school!!!
In re: Why Does Everything Get in A Muddle (Come On Petunia) by Gary Hill
This was an interesting piece, with a fairly good "gimmick." The only real problem was the lack of expression in the actor's faces; perhaps they could have had a little coaching. Then again, maybe it was intended to be deadpan.
Particularly effective were the moments when the backward continuity of the piece was violated. The segments of straightforward delivery were needed to provide a contrast with the relentless weirdness of the main body of the narrative. My favorite moment, however, came when the Daddy read aloud from his book while the camera rotated on its Z axis. Suddenly, the video player which had been running backward began to rock back and forth, forward and back, over the same few seconds of monologue. We got to hear the Daddy recite seeming nonsense which was, of course, his speech written out backward phonetically.
This was a Zen moment for me. A somewhat intellectual Zen moment, but a memorable one just the same.
I've been experimenting with backward audio tape techniques for years, and always wanted to try it with video. I never have had the technology at my disposal, and now I guess it's too late to really grab anybody's attention with it. Maybe I should make a piece called Gary Hill Stole My Thunder.
Or should that be Rednuht Ym Elots Llih Yrag?

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