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.
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.
"6 Easy Pieces," by Jon Jost, represents video's most poetic possibilities. A longtime independent filmmaker, Jost has recently turned to digital-media work. Shot largely in Portugal, this 68-minute tone poem uses stop-motion recording (a technique that creates a series of momentary freeze-frames) to capture the magic of sights as different as an ancient church, a highway at night, and water shimmering in a swimming pool. There's no story, no suspense, no characters to know and understand. In their place is a ravishing sense of the beauty that pervades our world if we make the effort to see and comprehend it.
"Secrets of the Shadow World," by George Kuchar, illustrates video's ability to blend drama, documentary, and personal observation. Kuchar is a major "underground" filmmaker whose satires of Hollywood genre pictures have been a mainstay on the midnight circuit for decades; and video is a natural outlet for a storyteller who regards minuscule budgets and low-end production values as virtues rather than liabilities. Possibly the most ambitious work of his career, this 135-minute epic combines UFO theorizing worthy of "The X-Files" with Kuchar's own quest to make a science-fiction movie starring his friends and neighbors. The result is at once a fantasy, an uproarious spoof of ordinary filmmaking, and an affectionate home movie.
"The Beaver Trilogy," by Trent Harris, reveals video's ability to zoom past all known boundaries of genre and format. The first portion of the 84-minute work was shot 20 years ago in a Utah town called Beaver, where Harris met a young man eager to have his hobby - doing impressions of Olivia Newton-John, a hugely popular singer at the time - recorded for posterity on videotape. The following year Harris restaged this event with then-unknown Sean Penn impersonating the impersonator. Four years later, Trent shot yet another version of the episode, casting Crispin Glover in the leading role.
Viewed together, the three segments are poignant variations on interwoven themes of hope, isolation, personal identity, and the American romance with celebrity.
These works suggest the varied directions videomakers are moving in today.
Also important is the world of music video, which Lincoln Center's festival spotlights in a series programmed annually by Armond White, a film critic and pop-culture authority. He seeks out works that give "a personal inflection to social messages about relationships between genders, between races, between haves and have-nots."
Music video is an area where video art may be facing an uphill battle against commercial pressures. In deciding which works to show, White says, his purpose is "to demonstrate how some artists are able to express themselves more directly and personally in music video than in the Hollywood feature-making system." But he is finding fewer worthwhile items to choose from today than in the middle '90s. "The stranglehold of corporate conformity" is worse now than seven years ago, he says, making it harder to assemble a program that speaks straight from the hearts of creative young talents.
It remains to be seen whether such pressures will stretch their tentacles into other areas of video art -and whether music video will find ways to dodge the corporate influences that currently limit its possibilities for personal expression.
*The New York Video Festival 2000 continues through July 27 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater; information is available at www.filmlinc.com. Selected video art is available from some home-video outlets, including Facets Multimedia in Chicago (www.facets.org).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society