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Art in motion

The relatively new world of video art isn't all highfalutin. New York Video Festival 2000 shows it can be down-to-earth and fun.

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 21, 2000


Say "videotape," and the world knows what you mean. Say "video art," and you might get some blank stares. Most people think of video as just a handy tool for taping TV shows, recording family events, and catching up with movies you missed at the multiplex. But for a growing number of others, it's the foundation for a full-fledged art form that's attracting notice everywhere, from renowned museums to MTV.

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Although it's only about 35 years old, the field is so varied that even a broad label like "video art" seems too narrow to define it. "I tend to avoid that term," says Marian Masone, an organizer of Lincoln Center's sweeping New York Video Festival, which opens its 2000 edition today. "It's useful to call it video art, since that distinguishes the sort of works we show from 'The World's Funniest Home Videos' and that kind of stuff. But a plain term like 'electronic media' would be better. I'd like to take away the sense that it's artsy, since a lot of it is just exciting, experimental, and fun."

The works on view at Lincoln Center span an enormously wide range of methods and moods, from challenging aesthetic exercises to rough-and-tumble comedies. Some could pass for traditional movies, others are electronic abstractions, and still others use digital technologies that blur the boundaries between video and film. What they share with other works displayed in museums, galleries, and TV outlets is an eagerness to test the limits of what moving images can tell us about our world.

Although it's impossible to pin down an exact birthday for video art, it had its first major flowering in the mid-1960s. New developments in lightweight TV equipment enabled artists to leave the studio and record stimulating imagery wherever it might be - then return to the studio for rounds of editing, processing, and enhancing with devices that grew more sophisticated by the year.

Since the gizmos they used were extensions of TV technology, these artists tended to use commercial television as a reference point for their work - imitating it, criticizing it, satirizing it, or circling warily around it. Asian-American videomaker Nam June Paik became the most celebrated of these pioneers with his radical, sometimes hilarious attacks on what he saw as TV's dehumanizing effects. Some of his works beat TV at its own game, filling screens with cascades of eye-popping imagery. Others attack the medium head-on, as when Paik eliminates the picture tube altogether, replacing it with a candle flickering in an empty TV console.

The next video wave emerged in the '70s and '80s, when artists trained in painting and sculpture began investigating electronic media. Bill Viola found video's flexibility ideal for his exploration of spiritual ideas derived from Eastern religious texts, producing classic pieces like "I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like," an introspective video-poem, and "The Theater of Memory," a larger-than-life work combining a static-filled video picture with a real tree holding dozens of gently burning lanterns. Gary Hill saw video as a way of studying language and communication in works like "Site Recite," about links between verbal and visual experience, and "Why Do Things Get in a Muddle (Come On Petunia)," which uses video to reverse time, speech, and gesture.

The video techniques carved out by these innovators are still flourishing, along with rising interest in "installation" works that blend video images with sculptural and painterly elements in room-sized environments. Lincoln Center's current festival includes a number of installations, and Ms. Masone points to this as a probable growth area in future years.

It's hard to summarize the prevailing state of a field as diverse and mercurial as video art, which is expanding steadily as more young artists take up its challenge. Three works from the Lincoln Center exhibition provide lively examples at the turn of the century.