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What is video art? How is it any different from all the other moving pictures that are apparently not-art? Let's explore its history and present. // And we have new merch! Check out our limited edition Agnes Martin inspired sweatshirt: https://store.dftba.com/collections/the-art-assignment.

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Video art.  What is it even?  Moving pictures that someone somewhere decided to call art?  Distinct from all the other moving pictures that are apparently not art?  The explosion of technology that has reshaped our lives so dramatically in the past 50-odd years has also had a profound impact on the lives of artists.  Since the 1960s, artists have picked up video cameras for numerous reasons and involved moving images in their work in countless ways, but what of it?  Why does it need special designation and what sets apart these moving pictures from all the others?  This is the case for video art.

The first mechanisms for recording moving pictures were not terribly portable and even when they became more so, they weren't easy to buy or use.  Early cinema was experimental because well, there was no other way to do it.  No one had done this before.  They were making up what it was that should be done with this technology and figuring out how we'd watch it, whether it should be served to the public one by one or in a communal setting.  Cinema caught fire and took hold and as it evolved, artists made films, too.  

Italian futurists made films and dadaists made films as abstraction was explored in painting, so it was in moving pictures.  Marcel Duchamp experimented with the medium, as did abstract painter Fernand Leger, whose non-narrative "Ballet Mecanique" made expert use of found footage.  Cinema was used to great effect by the surrealists as well, bringing to startling life their trippy visions.  Art and film have always been intertwined without clear boundaries dividing them, but it wasn't until the Sony Portapack was introduced in the mid 1960s that video art was truly born. 

Battery powered and self contained, the camera and recorder system could be carried and operated by a single person, requiring neither studio nor crew.  Artists loved it, especially early adopters Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota.  Although Paik was no stranger to moving image.  His 1964 work "Zen for Film" is composed of an upright piano, a double bass, and a home movie screen, onto which is projected 30 minutes of clear, unprocessed, 16mm film.  It was about as minimal as film could be, nothing appearing on the screen except for the dust and scratches inevitable in the projection process.  No images to get lost in, just the mechanism itself to consider and behold.

Paik was captivated by the technologies that proliferated in modern life in the '60s and '70s and he was unafraid to use them as raw material, re-imagining and re-engineering them into hybrid works, bridging video, sculpture, experimental music, and performance.  He collaborated with Charlotte Moorman on his "TV Cello", which Moorman performed by running her bow across a stack of TVs that played prerecorded images of her doing the same.  

Television entered the lives and consciousness of many in the years following World War II and artists were eager to think through its implications.  Joan Jonas's 1972 "Vertical Roll" is titled after the technological glitch common to TV at the time.  She structured a performance in front of the camera that accounted for the video's rolling bar which fragments her body into disjointed frames.  Jonas and others used the medium to consider and critique how women were represented in film and on TV, taking control of the means of production and distribution.

With the advent of the Portapack, making moving pictures became cheap and easy.  Women and people of color and artists living around the world could pick up a camera and make a moving picture, and you didn't need the blessing of the narrow art world to do it.  Video art appeared at a time of a great intermingling of media, when artists unabashedly combined the traditional arts of painting, sculpture, and drawing with theater, dance, music, and film.  Experimentation came from all directions.  Filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek called it "expanded cinema" when films exited movie theaters, entered unusual spaces, and challenged the role of the passive spectator.

Carolee Schneemann's 1967 work "Snows" involved performers, films, slides, strobe lights,  and a revolving light sculpture.  The movement of audience members in certain seats would trip an electronic system that activated elements of the installation.  Art wasn't just sitting there anymore and you weren't supposed to either.  Video has allowed artists to document performances that are fleeting and seen by few, giving it form, allowing it to live on and be represented in museums, galleries, libraries, and archives. 

Some of these performances were public and others private, performed by the artists only for the audience of the camera.  Bruce Nauman made a number of films in the late '60s in his studio, just him and the camera, recording his actions as he performed self-directed tasks like bouncing in the corner or walking in an exaggerated manner around the perimeter of a square.  His rationale was, "If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art."  Here, the artist's body was the raw material and the process of making the work itself.

From the beginning, video art has excelled at analyzing itself and the technologies that create it.  Anthony McCall's 1973 "Line Describing a Cone" is just that: an animated film of a white dot on a black background that traces a circle and becomes a thin, arcing white line.  It's projected on to a wall in a room with mist from a smoke machine and the beam of light forms a three dimensional hollow cone.  Unlike traditional cinema consumed by a reclining spectator, these moving pictures are sculptural, filling the whole room and begging the viewer to walk around even through the projection, but video art doesn't just examine its own existence and it lives far outside galleries.

Since its inception, it's been able to exist in public spaces of many kinds, able to integrate into life in ways a single fragile oil painting simply cannot.  For Dara Birnbaum's work "Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman", she isolated and repeated the moment in the TV show when Linda Carter as Diana Prince transforms into a superhero.  The piece was first shown not in an art context, but broadcast on cable TV.  For the first time, new technologies made possible the remix culture that in time would become second nature.

Artists pulled from the ocean of existing media and freely adapted it for their own purposes.  This was not TV as a device for conformity and control, but as a means of expression and opposition.  Video can follow artists out in the world, documenting guerilla performances, and recording actions of all kinds.  It can share voices and images and stories of those far from the centers of the art world.  It has allowed artists to share personal accounts, like Howardena Pindell's 1980 recounting of the instances of racism she'd encountered in life.  

Like no other medium, video has been an enormously powerful and elastic tool for addressing and exploring identity and reconsidering histories.  As technology has progressed way beyond the Portapack, artists have pushed available technologies to do remarkable things and make possible images and experiences that far outstrip blurry little images on monitors, although those can be pretty cool, too.

The internet has allowed video art to not only be shared far and wide, but to also exist within and through online platforms.  The category has expanded to include experiences in virtual and augmented reality and the line between video art and not video art is blurrier than ever.  

Poppy: Celebrities are important.  Celebrities are important.

Sarah: But it's always been blurry.  That haziness is a reminder that art doesn't belong to galleries or museums and it isn't created by people who are fundamentally different than you.  Art is what we collectively decide it is and artists are people who make art, including you.  

Guy Ben Ner, Stealing Beauty: Honey, I'm home.

Sarah: So when you see a glow emerging from a darkened gallery or a pair of headphones danging seductively from a hook, take a leap into the unknown.  Revel in not knowing what will happen next.  Trust that it can widen your understanding of what can be done with new technologies beyond what's prescribed by our corporate overlords.  Let it help you get to know your world a little better, to understand what film is, what TV is, what digital moving images are, and begin to fathom the complexity of the layered, tabbed, archived digital atmosphere we're all breathing.

Pipilotti Rist has likened her video installations to handbags because, she says, "There's room in them for everything: painting, technology, language, music, lousy flowing pictures, poetry, commotion, premonitions of death, sex, and friendliness".  Video art doesn't really describe what this is very well, but neither do any of the other names, really.  Video is a catch-all term, describing a moving image captured on magnetic tape or in digital format, but video comes from Latin, meaning 'I see' and in the way it reflects how we now understand and process and see the world, it works well enough.

Video: I wanna love you.  Yes and you treat you right.  I wanna love you.  Yeah, everyday and every night night.  We sing together, yeah, yeah, with a roof that's over our heads, we share the shelter of my single bed.  We'll share the same roof, yeah, yeah.