With videos, high art meets high-tech
Aging formats and rights agreements ensnarl the growing video art genre.
Jefferson Godard starts his morning like anyone else. He turns on the radio. He turns on the coffeemaker. He turns on “Stealing Beauty,” a limited-edition video installation that continually loops images of a family shopping at Ikea.Skip to next paragraph
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“Having these saturated sounds and images surrounding you all the time, it never becomes dull,” he says. “It’s like I’m living in a machine. A machine of video art.”
The Chicago architect is among a growing segment of serious art collectors who are helping elevate the commercial value and cultural currency of video art. The medium arrived in the early 1970s with the advent of home recording and since then has evolved to become the vanguard art medium of the digital era.
But video art faces challenges that position it less with traditional art forms and more with advances in new media, which have greatly disrupted the recording and film industries and sent their traditional business models in a tailspin.
Unlike with painting or sculpture, video art has a far less tangible value. It’s sold on technology that can quickly become obsolete, and even masterpieces can be copied almost infinitely onto new video cassettes or DVDs.
Because of these quirks, exclusivity and copyright have become serious negotiating issues among video artists, galleries, and collectors. With new media constantly evolving and top works fetching up to $500,000, the stakes are high, which makes addressing these issues a continuing process.
“If you go to major art shows, there’s often more video art than painting,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews, a leading fine arts magazine. “Most of them are done in editions, so [the dilemma is] not necessarily about exclusivity for collectors. The issue is: What is going to happen when technology evolves so you can’t project video anymore?”
Although experimental film took root starting in the 1920s, the advent of video 50 years later allowed early pioneer artists like Bruce Nauman and Gary Hill to trap and manipulate images for developing themes that weren’t before possible in the world of abstract art.
“Nobody thought of it as a marketable product to start with,” says Donald Young, whose namesake gallery in Chicago became one of the first in the United States to show video art. “Early videos were all unlimited editions because no one thought they could sell.”
Easing collectors into it took rising art stars such as Mr. Nauman and Mr. Hill, who started playing with video after establishing their names in other media.
As technology became more sophisticated, creativity grew. Video artists played sound and installations began to incorporate multiple screens that, depending on how they were choreographed, turned into a powerful way to either distort perspectives or create cohesion.
Over the years, museums and foundations afforded the space and money to mount elaborate video installations, but bringing the art into the living room became more difficult for collectors.
“A lot of them realized they buy these things and never look at them,” say Mr. Young. That’s because “some of the best work is very installation specific,” demanding certain wall heights and monitor sizes. Today, collecting video art is the domain of a small but obsessive group of collectors who say living with video is an expression of their identity.
“Nobody should buy art as a an investment,” says Curt Alan Conklin, a software designer whose Chicago home is decorated with up to 15 pieces mounted on different size DVD and computer monitors. “I think it’s always a losing proposition. That’s not to say the stuff isn’t valuable.”