Monday, January 16, 2017

Changing histories, changing practices: An instance of confrontation between video art and television.

by , Marina Turco (

Introduction: the problem with video art
Was video the end of all arts? Was it a particular form of communication, therefore not at all an art form? Or was it television art? Does it fit into the film world? How does it relate to music, in video clips and discos?1
In 1991 Pauline Terreehorst described video art as something belonging to the past, a dead art form, and--what was worse--dead before it even had been properly identified. She thought that the uncertainty about the definition and context of video art contributed to its premature fall.
Video has been a problematic matter for art historians, especially since the late 1970s, when it ceased to be an instrument of the new avant-garde ideology. Like photography and film, video technology developed in both its commercial and artistic applications. But what were the functions and characteristics of video in the
art context? Why, from the mid-1970s until the 1990s, was the term ‘video art’ used to describe very different cultural products and a distinct production and distribution circuit within the art world?
Video art as a ‘movement’ within fine arts played an important role in the development of contemporary aesthetics. First, it provided artists with a conceptual frame and a space for ‘free experimentation’ in new technologies and their socio-cultural implications. Second, because video artists and the makers of TV programs were using the same technology (although the cultural identity of ‘video’ differs
from that of ‘television’, see appendix), video art generated a new discourse on the relationship between art and mass communication.
In fact these two aspects are closely connected: every exploration of a new technology, of its forms and contents, has to be interpreted in relation to the commercial and social applications of the same technology.
Conflicting opinions on the relationship art-mass communication generated two distinct approaches regarding video art: the ‘modernist approach’ claimed that artists were ‘more advanced’ than those working in TV in interpreting the ‘formal’ characteristics of the electronic medium and argued that they could warn the public against the political and psychological influence of mass media and pursue a very different
goal from those who made TV programs; the ‘postmodern approach’ states that all kinds of technological/commercial languages (from TV to video games, fashion design, etc.) can be used by artists or redefined as ‘art,’ even if produced in a commercial context.
This article aims to demonstrate that:

1- It is precisely this coexistence of two opposing aesthetic vantage points within the same movement--and consequently, the ‘uncertainty’ Terreehorst describes-- that gives value and meaning to this category, which does not refer to a particular form or function of analogue video technologies, but rather includes works which investigate some of those forms and functions inside or outside the art world.
2- Even if we adopt the ‘postmodern approach’ (TV ‘can be art’)--and I do--that does not entail the disappearance of art as an independent ‘field of cultural production’2. On the contrary, art

1 Pauline Terreehorst, “Opkomst en ondergang van videokunst in Nederland”, Kunst en Beleid in Nederland 5,
(Amsterdam:Boekmanstichting, 1991): 15-65, 16.

would still have the function of elaborating and affirming the aesthetic models and values
according to which we judge ‘aesthetic excellence’ in commercial and non-commercial
works. The ‘contradictory’ nature of video art emerged clearly in the late 1980s, when the first attempts were made to write a history of this movement (section 1). It turned out that different ‘histories’ of video art are possible. All of them tried to define the position of (video) art within the field of ‘mass communication,’ and
each arrived at a different conclusion. This ‘unresolved contradiction’, though, constituted the very reason for the existence of video art, as demonstrated by the practices in the field (section 2). The goal of video art was indeed to provide an
autonomous platform where all possible evolutions and uses of electronic visual technologies in modern societies could be conceived and discussed. The section on practices shows how video artists related to television3. Their ideas and ways of using the electronic medium were influenced not only by different aesthetic theories, but also by the different opportunities and communication models television was offering in the place and time they were working. Therefore, the history and theory of television has been an important part of my analysis (while in most studies on video art television is seen as a uniform, never changing medium).

I shall take examples from several countries, where both TV and video art followed different trajectories of development (in the Netherlands and in continental Europe, for instance, the relationship artists had with television was very different from that in U.S. and England).

1. Changing histories

1.1 Video as tool; video as ‘category’ generating aesthetic discourses
Unlike other movements in contemporary art, video art did not originate from formal, thematic or ethical principles internal to the language of fine arts (for instance Romanticism vs. Neoclassicism, Transavanguardia vs. avant-garde). For this reason its definition has been controversial and the category4 ‘video art’ has been considered by some art critics to be of no utility: it puts together works which have in common ‘only’ the ‘medium’5 used by artists. In fact video art is every work which utilizes the analogue audio-visual electronic technologies (video camera, VCR, televisual transmission devices, videotapes, video synthesizers, TV monitors, projection screens, etc.) recognized as art by the art world6. The art movement called ‘video art’ was established by a theoretical debate about the definition and content of the term and sustained by a number of art institutions for the production and distribution of video works from the mid-1970s through the 1980s.

2 The concept of field derives from Pierre Bourdieu’s model of analysis of social phenomena: a field is a structured social space with its own laws of functioning and its own relations of force. Each field is relatively autonomous but structurally homologous with the others. Its structure, at any given moment, is determined by the relations between the positions agents occupy in the field. Inside the field of cultural production, for instance, agents compete for symbolic power, and the conflict between the orthodoxy and the challenge of new modes of cultural practice manifests itself as ‘position-takings’, which may refer to both internal (e.g. stylistic) and external (e.g. political) positioning, in relation to other possible position-takings, past and present. The full explanation of artistic works is to be found neither in the text itself, nor in some sort of determinant social structure. Rather, it is found in the history and structure of the field itself, with its multiple components, and in the relationship between that field and the field of power

3 I will consider only the characteristics of TV as a ‘channel’ for the transmission of images, from technological, linguistic and institutional vantage points. Video artists interpreted the TV language and formats (the narrative structure, the montage, the social and anthropological meaning of the programs), but the first and more problematic level of analysis is that of the particular way TV produces and ‘distributes’ images: the ‘live’, never-ending flow controlled by mass media organizations. The flow structure and the broadcasting system--the characteristics of TV as a ‘channel’-- were for a long time considered incompatible with the context and content of an art work.

4 The terms ‘movement’ and ‘category’ refer here to a set of ‘position-takings’ (expressed through works of art or critical theories) regarding a particular formal or thematic aesthetic matter.

5 By the term ‘medium’ most art historians refer to the technology used to produce the art work materially. In this case it is synonymous with ‘technology’.

6 For a definition of ‘art world’ see Howard S. Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982).

The problem with this movement is that the term does not refer to a particular form or function of analogue audio-visual electronic technologies, but rather includes works which investigate the articulations of some of those forms and functions inside or outside the art world. For instance, the videotape and the portable video camera have sometimes been used by artists in order to provide new and more ‘personal’ models of social communication. At other times, on the contrary, they were interpreted as a means to produce ‘finished’ texts7, conceived for the exceptional, almost religious experience in the gallery space, experience that could assume ‘auratic’ value in opposition to the never-ending, all-encompassing flow of television. Video
technologies, in video artists’ intentions, are not a ‘tool’ in the service of new avant-garde ideologies (as they were used by movements like Fluxus, conceptual art, etc.) or of ‘institutionalized’ artistic values like the independence from economic or practical goals, the free expression of personal feelings, etc. Until the mid-1970s video was the instrument used by the new avant-garde to express a political or
ideological ‘position taking’ against mass television: it could take the form of an ‘alternative’ or guerrilla television program, a tape recording a performance or an image-processing experiment. Video art was coherent with the avant-garde discourse within the art field. From the late 1970s it consolidated its status as movement8, but its position within the art field became uncertain, because it did not express a particular position-taking against mass communication, and when it followed postmodernist trends it seemed to lose its identity as a category based on technological specificity. At the same time, agents from the video art field did
not want to dismiss the predicament ‘art’, abandon the art circuit, and work in commercial sectors which allowed the ‘creative’ use of technologies.

1.2 The modernist approach to video art history
This problem induced art historians, from the late 1980s on, to attempt a systematic history of this movement, which could define its position in the art and mass communication fields. In the Netherlands a first overview was Into video art. The characteristic of a medium by Rob Perrée, pioneer video art critic and curator. Perrée devoted this book to the defense of video in the art context. The problem was the ambiguity of the movement, isolated “in the no man’s land between art and television”. The independence of video artists both from ‘artistic’ and ‘commercial’ circuits was seen as self-imposed confinement to the limited rounds of national and international video festivals. This self-ghettoisation had weakened video’s role within the artistic world. According to Perrée video art clearly belongs to the art world, as it is meant to express ‘the characteristics of the medium’ (the chapters are named by ‘technical’ concepts like space, time, sound, medium language), interpreted by artists. In this way video artists resemble artists working in other media (painting, installation, etc.). In the ‘mass medium’ chapter, Perré takes his cue from the slogan ‘VT is not TV’ which had introduced video art at the exhibition Documenta 6 in Kassel (1977). He
quotes Baudrillard to affirm the fundamental incompatibility of interests and principles between the artist and the maker of television programs. The Dutch critic considers television as a uniform, immutable, one-way communication device, whose only aim is to fabricate homologated ‘narrative’ programs. Even in the
Netherlands, where TV was exclusively a public service, the dependence on ratings and the competition with satellite channels led to the production of low-quality programs9. Perrée uses modernist (formalist) and new avant-garde (political) arguments to distinguish art videos from ‘commercial’ videos.

1.3 The postmodern approach and ‘the end of video art’
The anthology Diverse Practices: A Critical Reader on British Video10 offers a more complex image of the movement’s history and identity and of its relationship with television. It includes very different positiontakings about the matter. John Wyver suggests in his article “The necessity of doing away with ‘video art’” that we should nurture a broad and disparate moving-image culture, with many different, overlapping and often contradictory stands within it, and develop moving-image festivals in which film and television and computer animations are shown alongside works made in video by those who choose to work as artists and those working within other 7 Autonomous in their material support, with a beginning and an end, expressing the personal view of a single artist. 8 According with Rudolf Frieling the ‘media Documenta’ in 1977 represented the point of crystallization for video art as a genre. See Rudolf Frieling, “VT # TV: the beginnings of video art”, in Medien Kunst Aktion. Die 60er und 70er Jahre in Deutschland / Media Art Action. The 1960s and 1970s in Germany, eds. Rudolf Frieling and Dieter Daniels (Wien:Goethe-Institut and ZKM, 1997): 122-129, 125.
9 Rob Perrée, Into video art. The characteristic of a medium (Rotterdam and Amsterdam: Con Rumore, 1988), 53-66
10 Diverse Practices: A Critical Reader on British Video, ed. Julia Knight (Luton: University of Luton Press, 1996).

production set-ups11. Michael O’Pray replies in “The impossibility of doing away with video art”, attacking
Wyver’s argumentation as representing “a sort of vacuous aesthetic whereby… any politics have been
eschewed along with the high culture autonomy of aesthetics central to the modernist project”. He asserts
that there are “concerns that can only exist in the domain of art, for their aims are in many ways ‘subversive’
of the general flow of images that seems to bewitch Wyver”12. But the concerns he names (filmic style,
personal, at times, ‘confessional’ aims) are quite vague, and, like their ‘subversiveness’, named between
brackets. Besides, they are certainly not exclusive to the art discourse.
n the U.S., a large anthology of essays about video was published in 1990: Illuminating Video. An
essential guide to video art, with contributions by Marita Sturken, Kathy Rae Huffmann, Deirdre Boyle and
others13. Sturken argues that video’s funding and inclusion in the art world depend on establishing its
uniqueness and aligning itself with art and away from TV. She warns against the danger of traditional
criticism based on formal qualities, which marginalizes works that don’t conform to formalist interpretations.
Other contributors examine the tension between video artists and institutions and, by extension, the problem
of writing the history of video from an art-historical vantage point.
As for the relation between video and TV, the authors examine it from sociological and aesthetic
perspectives. The general conclusions are that the electronic medium operates as a marginal and critical
form in relation to dominant media by revealing methods of audience manipulation, but it also makes use of
the very strategies it criticized in order to capture and hold the attention of the viewer. The dichotomy ‘VT vs.
TV’ is not seen as a rigid opposition. Essays like that of Bruce Ferguson about the pioneer ‘television artist’
Ernie Kovacs, who made unconventional TV programs from 1950 through 1962, and those about the
psychology and sociology of video in the mass media society give a broader outline of video art.
In 1996 Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg edited a second anthology about video, Resolutions.
Contemporary video practices, whose aim was to encompass new investigative sites well beyond the
scope of broadcast television or the art world.
The focus is on independent video production, whether it falls within the rubric traditionally defined as
‘art’ or not. This continuum includes video installation, single channel video, ‘experimental’ video,
broadcast intervention, cable, interactive video, computer-generated video, experimental
documentary, home video, video documentation service, video collectives, ethnographic applications
and implications14.
‘Art’ has been excluded before its position between video and television could be defined. The funeral of
video art is celebrated in Michael Nash’s essay “Vision after Television”, which closes this anthology
announcing the advent of the new digital era.
There are almost no ‘video’ festivals in the Unites States anymore. Video artists… have been
absorbed by traditional arts establishments and now concentrate on creating collectible video
installations. (…) It was said a decade ago that video art may have been the only art form to have a
history before it had a history, and now its history is history before we had a chance to mourn its
passing. Disestablishement of television, the ultimate cause that united video artists and
independent documentarians for years, no longer galvanises the field… Distinct philosophical and
stylistic shifts have muted the dichotomy between video art and television, as artists and activists
seek to participate in TV culture in order to revitalise the medium’s modalities and pursue the illusive
goal of cultural democracy15.
But the (hi)story is not ended yet…
11 John Wyver, “The Necessity of Doing Away with ‘Video Art’”, in Diverse Practices: 315-320, 318.
12 Michael O’Pray, “The impossibility of doing away with video art”, in Diverse Practices: 321-334.
13 Illuminating video: an essential guide to video art, eds. Doug Hall, Sally Jo Fifer and David Bolt (New York:
Aperture Foundation, 1990).
14 Resolutions. Contemporary video practices, eds. Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1996), XVIII.
15 Michael Nash, “Vision after television: technocultural convergence, hypermedia, and the new media arts field”, in
Resolutions: 382-99, 382.

1.4 From video art to ‘media arts’
n February 2003 the Netherlands Media Art Institute/Montevideo/Time Based Arts published a book and
presented an exhibition on Dutch video art. It was the first historical retrospective on that subject in the
Netherlands. In the introduction to the anthology De Magnetische Tijd: Videokunst in Nederland 1970-
1985, Jeroen Boomgard and Bart Rutten explain why 1985 had been chosen as ending date for video art:
1) The first reason is that around that time video entered the museum circuit. It is not clear why this
should mean the end of video art. According to the authors video art in the museum, video
installation in particular, entered into connection with other ‘art objects’ (sculpture, installation) and
art movements (inspired by postmodernism), and thereby lost its ‘innocence’ as a medium that
allows a direct approach to reality and free formal experimentation, independent of art trends16.
2) The second reason is that in the mid-1980s artists began to use digital technologies.
Regarding the first point, it is true that the ‘social’ use of video, the ‘recording function’ inside ‘anti-objectual’
new avant-garde movements like Fluxus, performance art, etc., and the first image-processing experiments
were all part of the same movement against established art and mass media. But this movement operated
inside the art world, even inside the museum, much earlier than 198517, and it formed part of the dialectic
between innovative and established art which has always characterized the field of ‘high art’. Besides, video
art had already abandoned modernist and new avant-garde ideologies in the early 1980s, evolving towards
more postmodernist views (narrative videos, confrontation with traditional media and aesthetic values, crossovers
with commercial disciplines like music video and design, etc.) until the late 1980s. Both tendencies
were called video art and were supported by art institutions, both questioned the relationship between art
and mass media in different ways.
The second point may be regard as a more ‘objective’ one: computer is not video, thus computer art cannot
be video art. But the choice of this particular year is not defended on the basis of any special event, and
computers were used in video image-processing before 1985. I prefer to refer to 1990 as the symbolic (and
equally arbitrary) date marking a more general change: in the 1990s Internet and digital data bases were
sufficiently widespread to produce a social and cultural revolution, and all kinds of video were entirely
digitalized (in production and post-production).
As is clear from the above discussion, some art historians try to limit the field of video art to a certain period,
function, or electronic form, without finding a coherent theoretical line. The contradiction remains between
the acknowledged necessity of independence from general art trends (which allows the evolution of the
medium) and the feeling that isolation from the art world makes the definition of video art difficult.
To overcome this contradiction, we have to find the reason for the persistence of the category ‘video art’
through different periods as a(n) (independent) field, while remaining rooted in the art world.
I shall take as point of departure the definition of video art by the English video artist David Hall (1978):
Video art is video as the art work - the parameters deriving from the characteristics of the medium
itself, rather than art work using video - which adopts a device for an already defined content. By
characteristics I have meant those particular attributes specific to both its technology and the reading
of it as a phenomenon. Video as art largely seeks to explore perceptual and conceptual thresholds,
and implicit in it is the decoding and consequent expansion of the conditioned expectations of those
narrow conventions understood as television18.
Video art expressed various position-takings of the art world with regard to the technological, linguistic,
political, social, institutional and economic applications of audio-visual communication technologies. Initially it
16 See Jeroen Boomgarts and Bart Rutten, “Het eerste uur”, in De Magnetische Tijd: Videokunst in Nedeland 1970-
1985, ed. Bart Rutten (Amsterdam: Montevideo, 2003), 10, 50.
17 Already in the 1970s video art was funded by art institutions, taught in art academies, exhibited in art spaces. Some
examples: in 1976 Michel Cardena carried out videoperformances at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum; in 1978 the
Nederlandse Kunststichting and the Ministery of Culture produced the documentary on international video art 625
Lijnen, which included four videos made specially for this project (works by Cardena, Livinius, Hoover, Struycken); in
1983 the Stedelijk Museum presented the exhibition The Second Link, on Dutch and American video art, and in the
same year the VPRO-TV produced a program on video art called Tape-TV.
18 David Hall, “Using video and video art: some notes”, Video Art 78 (Coventry: Herbert Art Gallery and Museum,
1978), 6.

was mostly ‘against’ TV, because ‘paleo-television’19 did not realize all the (social, economic, linguistic…)
potentials of the medium. But in the 1980s television was losing its ‘monopolistic’, mass media
characteristics (with cable, satellite, local TV, etc.), its language had evolved, and it produced more
innovative programs. Believing that ‘TV can be art’, Anglo-American ‘agents’ (critics and artists), in particular,
included commercial productions (even old programs from the 1950s and 1960s) in the video art field.
At this point the function of video art was not only to challenge mass media conventions and
politics, but to select works from other fields on the basis of shared aesthetic values. Those values
depended on the (evolving) relationship between the various fields of cultural production and between these
and the field of economics, following a pattern of completion more than of ‘progress’ (as we will see in the
section about practices).
This development did not lead to the end of the art world. Even if connections and interchanges with
commercial sectors are growing, research and experimentation in the field of new media still require
institutional support outside the commercial field.
2. Changing practices
n this section, I analyze how video artists (and those makers of TV programs included in video art history)
interpreted television as a ‘channel’ of transmission, in its technological (simultaneity), institutional
(programming structure), and sociological (TV as ‘popular’, ‘domestic’ medium) characteristics.
2.1 Early television and intellectuals
Television technology, the (simultaneous) transmission of electronic images, has a long history. After the
invention of the telegraph and the telephone, television occupied a central place in the horizon of
expectations as a technology and as a cultural form. At the 1900 world exhibition in Paris mechanical visual
storage systems competed with real-time electrical visual transmission systems (the ‘artograph’ image
telegraph). Some years later, in 1913, a time signal from the Eiffel Tower was sent around the world,
achieving for the first time global simultaneity. The longing for a ‘live’ visual reproduction of reality was so
strong that in the same period the film movement of the actualité was characterized by an attempt to evoke
the ‘actual’ in the sense of ‘presence’. The cinematographic dimension of experience was frequently
described in period reports as ‘liveness’20. But those expectations, certainly made more urgent by the
popularity of another live medium, radio, would be fulfilled only in the 1940s, when television reached the
masses. The very characteristics of liveness and domestic presence of the new medium had a huge
influence on the audiences’ behavior, even though at the beginning of its history television exploited
simultaneity as a window, not on the world, but on older forms of representation (it extended the possibility to
be present at theatre shows, historical events and sports competitions), and it had not yet developed its own
language and cultural identity.
The first reaction of intellectuals to the new medium, indeed, was not directed towards its language and
contents, but towards the strong impact of the new technology and communication system on western
society and politics. In America in 1953, Theodor Adorno expressed his distrust of the medium’s power of
manipulation; in Europe, the Dutch government researched the negative effect of television on behavior and
psychology21. Whatever the reasons for this distrust (the psychological effects of cold media described by
McLuhan, competition with radio, etc.), TV was immediately labeled as a culturally ‘bad’ medium.
In the early 1960s, when the art world began to be involved with television, aesthetic—as well as political
and anthropological-- questions were at stake.
2.2 Political position-takings and the modernist approach in early video practices
Wolf Vostell’s TV dé-coll/ages (1963), which are considered by many the beginning of video art, were real
‘political actions’ against television: by destroying TV sets he was condemning the mass media political and
19 Casetti divides the evolution of TV into two main periods: paleo-television and neo-television. See Francesco
Casetti, Tra me e te: strategie di coinvolgimento dello spettatore nei programmi della neo-televisione (Turin: VPT/Eri,
20 William Uricchio, “Technologies of Time”, in J. Olsson, Allegories of communication: intermedial concerns from
cinema to the digital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
21 Information about television in The Netherlands is taken from Omroep in Nederland. Vijfenzeventig jaar medium en
maatschappij: 1919-1994, ed. Huub Wijfjes (Zwolle: Waanders Uitgevers, 1994).

economic system as a whole. But these ‘actions’ were not only a statement about the bad influence of the
medium in terms of social and cultural behavior. Television, after photography and film, led to the complete
destruction of aura and changed the attitude of the audience towards art works. In the first video art decade,
artists already knew that there were only two possible responses to this phenomenon. The first possibility
was to reject mass communication and reaffirm ‘art’ as the only form of communication having aesthetic,
connotative, and spiritual value. Vostell’s dé-coll/ages, for instance, led to the disruption and final destruction
of the TV picture, taking on the air of almost religious rituals22. The second option was to adopt a modernist
perspective and consider the electronic reality as a mean to realize new forms of communication in the art
world as well as in television. Lucio Fontana, founder of the movement called Spazialismo, participated in the
first transmission of national television in Italy and published in 1952 the Manifesto per la Televisione23. In
this manifesto he celebrated the electronic medium because it creates a new space and time dimension,
opening new artistic perspectives.
Ten years later one of the greatest video artists, Nam June Paik, was inspired by a similar ‘visionary’ idea
about the medium. Paik contributed with Vostell to the first video art exhibition, Exposition of
Music/Electronic television (1963), held in the Gallerie Parnasse in Wuppertal. His work, 13 distorted TV
sets, involved moving a magnet close to the cathode-ray tube. The transmission of normal programs was
thereby transformed into an abstract flow of electrons. In Paik’s mystical vision, the new technology allows a
sensorial and spiritual experience which can get beyond the traditional idea of art:
I had put just a diode into opposite direction, and got a waving negative television. If my epigons do
the same trick, the result will be completely the same… that is… - My TV is NOT the expression of
my personality - but merely - a physical music (…) - My TV is more (?) than art, - or - less (?) than art
(…) The ‘Fetishism of Idea’ seems to me the main critical criterion in contemporary art… -
INDETERMINISM and VARIABILITY is the very UNDERDEVELOPED parameter in the optical
When the half-inch portable video camera was launched on the market (1965), artists realized that this
important fulfillment of televisual technology gave them access to the electronic image and allowed the
acceptance of the new medium in the art world because it permitted a more personal and free use of the
medium. Economic and thematic independence from television made possible the birth of video art, a
movement which always maintained a controversial relationship with mass communication. But, whether
artists emphasized the differences between video and TV or tried to enter the mass medium with their video
works, they prepared, accompanied and anticipated the development of a television language (from ‘paleo-’
to ‘neo-television’), of the form and the thematic of representation. Paleo-television25 did not know yet how to
transform its technical characteristics into an original language. Simultaneity served only to reproduce events
from an ‘objective’ point of view. Even the organization of programming imitated the presentation strategies
of old media, in part because the transmission time was limited. The first generation of video artists reacted
to the didactic, authoritarian character of transmissions not only by destroying or modifying them. They
understood that the electronic nature of the image required new forms and contents; the new technology
required a new cultural form. They investigated the main characteristics of TV as a channel: simultaneity and
the programming structure as ‘flow’.
2.3 Video artists and simultaneity
mages produced by a video camera are not a trace or a memory of a piece of reality. The camera picks up
visual data and transports them into the electronic dimension: the resulting images exist simultaneously in
the ‘material’ as well as in the ‘electronic’ reality. Artists were among the first to understand how this
22 Dieter Daniel, “Art and television - Adversaries or partners?”, in Medien Kunst Aktion: 68-76, 69.
23 Friedemann Malsch in his essay “Video Art” (1995) documented an even earlier attempt by the avant-garde to use
televisual technology: in the manifesto “Il teatro futurista aeroradiotelevisivo” (1931) the Futurist Filippo Tommaso
Marinetti proclaimed the notion of ‘total theatre’ that would include large television screens.
24 Nam June Paik, “Afterlude to the exposition of experimental television”, in Medien Kunst Aktion: 46-49.
25 Casetti describes paleo-television as a vehicle for pedagogic messages, where every kind of program had its own
space and time depending on its specific function (information, entertainment, education) and is structured as a discrete
unit (not yet connected to other programs in a continuous flow). The newsman, the announcer and the quiz master were
bearers of an objective knowledge imposed by an external authority (government or commercial company). See
Francesco Casetti and Roger Odin, “De la paléo- à la néo-télévision: un approche sémio-pragmatique”,
Communications, no. 51 (1990): 9-26.

electronic dimension was contiguous and intimately linked to our world. To show this fundamental
characteristic of the medium, they used the most intimate and ‘concrete’ material they had: their own bodies.
Eliminating editing, stages and theatrical structures of narration they focused on simultaneity as a way to
produce an alter ego of themselves.
n his video performance Claim (1971) Vito Acconci ‘played’ with the technical and anthropological
consequences of simultaneity. The artist was sitting in the basement of a gallery, making noise with a
crowbar and screaming, while, in the room above, a TV set showed his image. The public could hear the
noise made by Acconci on the screen as well as that emanating from the real source in the basement.
Almost nobody dared to challenge the threats of the artist against those who would try to come near! Acconci
underlined the dramatic contradiction of televisual simultaneity: it gives a stunning impression of physical
presence (contiguity and intimacy of the medium), but causes a ‘split of identity’ in the filmed subject26 and a
‘cool reaction’ on the part of the viewer. According to McLuhan, TV is an extension of the sense of touch,
which involves maximal interplay of all the senses. The mosaic form of the image demands participation and
in-depth involvement of the whole being, as does the sense of touch. The Kennedy assassination gave
people an immediate sense of the power of television to create in-depth involvement, on the one hand, and a
numbing effect as deep as grief, itself, on the other27.
n the Netherlands, Marinus Boezem’s work Het Beademen van de Beeldbuis (broadcast by the NOS in
1971) is an ironic interpretation of the concept of ‘electronic presence’: the simple act of the artist misting the
lens of the camera with his breath is an amazing demonstration of the illusionistic character of television.
Although it was not transmitted ‘live’, this work functioned as a redundant representation of liveness, pointing
out the strong sense of ‘presence’ and contiguity the early TV public was experiencing in looking at the
n the 1970s artists manifested the necessity of redefining the concept of ‘presence’ and finding a new
psycho-physical integrity. The ‘real’ body assumed a tautological, symbolic meaning it had never had in
history, and the ‘virtual’ body investigated its own specificity and possibilities. Real time, feedback and
closed-circuit cameras demonstrated how deeply the new technology could penetrate man’s consciousness,
as well as its contiguity to the body and the senses.
Many other artists working with video performance (in the Netherlands Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Lydia
Schouten, Michel Cardena, Raul Marroquín, etc.) and video installation, even if not directly involved with
television, were making a statement about the qualities and the anthropological meaning of the (tele-)
2.4 The programming structure: video art ‘inside’ television
2.4.1 ‘Televisual flow’: a place for an art work? Aesthetic and institutional problems
Simultaneity alone would not have been sufficient to create the complex and powerful universe called
‘television’. The programming structure, which became more and more an organized flow28 of images made
to accompany every moment of our daily life, transformed a simple ‘information technology’ into a ‘clone’ of
reality, whose time flows parallel to the ‘real time’, independent of our behavior (TV is there even if we do not
watch it).
26 “The peculiar character of the TV image in its relation to the actor causes such familiar reactions as our not being
able to recognise in real life a person whom we see every week on TV”. The person on TV seems real, and he IS real
(he is ‘happening’ in the moment we observe him on the screen), as a mediatic person living in the electronic
dimension. His image ‘separates’ from his body and lives on its own. See McLuhan, Understanding Media (London:
Routledge, 1997), 317.
27 Ibid., 333-335.
28 Raymond Williams described the development of programming. Broadcasting, in its earliest stage, worked mainly
within the tradition of old communication systems, where the essential items were discrete. Traditional forms (a
concert, a lecture, a play) could be broadcast: the word ‘programme’ has indeed its bases in theatre and the music-hall.
With increasing organisation this program became a series of timed units. Problems of mix and proportion became
predominant in broadcasting policy. In all developed broadcasting systems the characteristic organisation, and therefore
the characteristic experience, is one of sequence or flow. This is, according to Williams, the defining characteristic of
broadcasting, simultaneously as a technology and as a cultural form. See Raymond Williams, Television. Technology
and Cultural Form (London: Fontana/Collins, 1974), 88-89.

The flow structure changed television language and contents: in neo-television the fragmentation of the
programming scheme (there is not a given time or day for a particular kind of program) and of programs
themselves (‘omnibus’ shows include entertainment and information, live and recorded material) is
compensated for by a rhythmic, frequent presence of ‘inserts’ (clips, advertisement, station calls), that act as
a ‘glue’. The relationship with the public, hierarchic in paleo-television, becomes a relationship of ‘proximity’.
The programming is based on the rhythms of the daily life (‘morning’, ‘lunch’ shows, etc.), sets represent
familiar places like the living room, the square, etc., and the viewer can ‘interact’ through the telephone or
intervene as a guest on the shows29.
The situation in which we watch TV (at home, in a bright space) is also a source of confusion between
representation and real life. As Costa argues, there is a fundamental difference between cinema and TV.
The conditions in which we watch a film (in an almost hypnotic state due to darkness and relaxation) can be
compared to dreaming and lead to identification with and affective participation in the story, generating
‘illusion of reality’. Television, on the contrary, breaks down the symbiosis image/imagination and dissolves
the illusion of reality. TV creates another reality level which does not ‘de-realize’ physical reality but
complicates it by causing an endless shifting from one level to the other30.
The capacity to break down the border between life and art, to transform the real world into a powerful image
of itself, wrote Stuart Hall in 1976, changes the relationship between the viewer and the message: the
message is no longer fixed in a tradition and a ritual, it is part of a process of analysis from potentially
endless vantage points31.
The structure of the flow itself has been a radical challenge to traditional ideas about art, its forms and
function. At the turn of the 20th century, the field of cultural production reacted to the ‘desacrilisation’ of
images (first caused by reproduction techniques) by creating a separate context for the artistic message,
where the art work was still an independent, ‘personal’ and ‘concluded’ kind of expression. In the same way
many video artists and curators share the opinion that video can be art only if shown in a museum and
identified through the concept of ‘authorship’. Ulises Carrión’s video TV-Tonight-Video, produced in Holland
in 1987, gives form to this idea. A voice-over talks about TV, video and life while television samples form a
uniform rhythmic sequence, whose images echo the words of the speaker:
Television is a frame that makes everything equally real. (…) If it’s on TV it’s not art, it’s real. Video is
different because it happens outside television… because it isn’t real. (…) Video can be good or bad,
but it’s always free. (…) The black preceding and following a videotape on the screen guarantees the
videotape’s uniqueness, which is to say, its freedom. Watching a videotape is to participate in a
singular ceremony. (…) Unlike ceremonies, TV broadcasts are life and therefore subjected to the
laws of nature and economics. Even when turned off TV set is alive… Videotapes are only alive and
meaningful as a part of a ceremony.
This position reflects the general tendency in the 1980s to go back to ‘traditional’ values and forms in the art
world, institutionally and formally (a ‘traditional’ medium like painting and a context like the museum were
flourishing again in that decade).
As Jeremy Welsh remarks:
The unique, individual, material presence of the art object was, paradoxically, firmly re-established
during the ‘video decade’. (…) As the Dutch writer and designer Willem Velthoven commented on
Mediamatic, ‘Fine Arts makes New Media old’32.
But from an economic-institutional vantage point, this revival of the ‘art object’ (in this case a videotape) did
not work for video, because
video art does not fit neatly in any of its possible outlets or markets, e.g. galleries, museums, cinema,
festivals, and more recently video sell-through. Different kinds of work have to be promoted to
different markets33.
29 Casetti and Odin, 9-26.
30 Mario Costa, L’estetica dei media. Avanguardie e tecnologie (Rome: Castelvecchi, 1999), 195.
31 Stuart Hall, “Televisie en cultuur”, Skrien, no. 121 (September 1982): 32-41, first in Sight and Sound (autumn 1976).
32 Jeremy Welsh, “One nation under a will (of iron), or: the shiny toys of Thatcher’s children”, Diverse Practices: 123-
46, 128.

According to some critics, it was just such ambiguity that kept video art alive:
Video does not exist as a major movement in the typical sense. (…) Criteria and categorisations
applied to the medium are largely derived from other disciplines (painting, sculpture, film, theatre.
etc.)… Video… remains unable to establish itself by virtue of varied participation and use. In
retrospect, nothing better could have happened for the medium34.
On the other hand, artists’ involvement with mass communication (as producers and writers of TV programs)
could threaten the legitimacy of the art field. The debate between progressive and conservative positiontakings
continued throughout the ‘video decade’, for the first time inside the same ‘movement’. An example
of this debate, on a theoretical level, is the article “On Serving Two Masters”, in the magazine Mediamatic
(1987): Max Bruinsma questions the validity of Perrée’s idea of promoting video in the art world by means of
an exhibition where video artists were ‘compared’ with painters/sculptors. It is not the affinity with other
media which demonstrates video can be art, but the context and the system of values. Broadcast on TV the
same tape is perceived differently than when shown in a museum, a setting that gives ‘aura’ to reproducible
and even commercial works.
Artists who chose to show (or produce) their work on TV were aware of this difference and often used it for
their artistic purposes.
2.4.2 Video art on TV
Most artists and critics consider TV a suitable medium for the distribution of video art works. Some of them
make a distinction between ‘video art’ shown on television and ‘television art’.
According to Carl Loeffer, “video art is presented in a gallery context or a ‘framed’ segment of television”35. In
this case art defines itself as something different from TV, something aimed to change the mass medium
from inside. Dara Birnbaum, for instance, argues that the ideal place for the distribution of her video work
would be the television set itself: “inside the language and inside the institution of television would the
quotation and deconstruction of television be most successful, and … would effectively dismantle the totality
of television ideology. And that would bring art to a more ‘popular’ audience”36.
n the 1970s video artists armed with an aesthetic/political purpose tried to get inside the television
establishment: the dream of bringing art to the people inspired many projects, like the long collaboration
between artists and public television in the U.S. (WGBH-TV in Boston and KQED-TV in San Francisco).
Europe was more conservative: video art was sometimes included in art ‘documentary’ programs, but it
rarely got a regular space in the programming37.
n the Netherlands video made by artists was broadcast for the first time by the NOS-TV (Nederlands
Omroep Stichting) in 1971: Beeldende Kunstenaars Maken Video, a program in three parts inspired by
Schum’s Fernsehgalerie and produced by the public foundation for the arts Openbaar Kunstbezit. Four
artists (Marinus Boezem, Stanley Brouwn, Jan Dibbets, Ger Van Elk) presented conceptual works; Peter
Struycken’s black-and-white film is an experiment about the transformation of images and image
processing38. Regular programming of video art ‘pieces’ on TV or collaboration between artists and public
channels is rare. Only some social activist groups--like Meatball, which was founded in The Hague in 1972,
33 Julia Knight, “In Search of an Identity: Distribution, Exhibition, and the ‘Process’ of British video art”, in Diverse
Practices: 217-38, 226.
34 Carl Loeffler, “Toward a television art: video as popular art in the Eighties”, in The Second Link: viewpoints on video
in the Eighties, catalogue of the exhibition at the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, July 8-21, 1983 (Alberta: Walter
Phillips Gallery, 1983): 14-20, 14.
35 Ibid., 15.
36 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “From gadget video to agit video: some notes on four recent video works”, in Art Journal,
vol. 45, no. 3 (Fall 1985): 217-227, 222.
37 According to Michael Rush, American artists had access to TV equipment earlier than did Europeans because cable
and local television gave them the opportunity of broadcasting their own content, while in Europe in the 1960s
television was highly centralized and under the auspices of government sponsorship. See Michael Rush, Video Art
(London: Thames & Hudson, 2003): 38.
38 Marie-Adèle Rajandream, “Videokunst”, in Vrij Spel: Nederlandse kunst 1970-1990, eds. Willemijn Stokvis and
Kitty Zijlmans (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1993): 127-165, 138-140.

and the Lijnbaancentrum in Rotterdam--strove to have early video art represented on mass media., by
producing ‘alternative documentaries’ that were rarely transmitted on the national television39.
In the 1980s the situation in Europe changed. More channels, local/cable broadcasters and satellite
transmission allowed specialized ‘sub-cultural’ fields to get space on the air. Art in its various forms (design,
music, audio-visual movements) could produce high-quality programs at low costs. In the catalogue of the
exhibition Revision Dorine Mignot argues that it is “an obsolete view that television is merely a mass medium
for a mass public. (…) Why not a mass medium for a mass of minorities? Qualitative programs for different
This development should give artists producing in the art circuit more opportunities to ‘show’ their work on
TV. The situation in continental Europe, however, differs from that in England. While in the U.K. a public
channel (Channel Four) was created in 1982 to produce artistic videos and high-quality programs, in
Holland the process of specialization and diversification ran more slowly. The national cultural channel,
Nederland 3, was established only in 1988. Dutch artists obtained some space on TV41, but the first channel
entirely dedicated to art appeared only in 1987: the local cultural network Kunstkanaal42.
2.4.3 Television Art: improving the flow…
“Television art is presented in an ‘unframed’ television context, or a ‘framed’ gallery situation”43. Television
art includes TV programs whose language or programming frames are particularly innovative and works
made by artists for TV, presented without introducing their artistic, experimental character.
Some early TV programs are considered art because of their ability to exploit and develop the characteristics
of the medium, like its intimate relationship with the viewer, the ‘illusionistic’ style of shooting and editing
images, and the ‘flow structure’. In early TV the image produced by the multiple-camera set-up was theatrical
rather than cinematic (cameras were arranged in a single line, producing a bas-relief rather than the threedimensional
sets of the film)44. As Susan Sontag remarked in 1966, early TV, like theatre, was confined to a
logical or continuous use of space, while cinema had access to an alogical or discontinuous use of space45.
In his book Liveness. Performance in a mediatized culture, Auslander quotes Burger and Sontag, arguing
that television strove to be theatrical, instead of cinematic, because of the ontology of liveness46. But that
ontology required a more flexible language than the classic ‘perspective box’ with a fixed point of view.
According to Bruce Ferguson, the first television artist was the American Ernie Kovacs, who produced, wrote
and directed television shows from 1950 through 1962. His programs are a (de)structuralist analysis of
television on all levels. One program, for instance, begins with the camera out of focus. Then, as it gradually
comes into focus, we see Kovacs rubbing one of his eyes and saying that, although we may have thought
the fuzziness had been caused by our set, it was really just him adjusting his retina’s focus! The structural
unmasking of a ‘technological point of view’, which interrupts the ‘fiction’, the illusion of reality, is often
obtained through unusual ‘subjective shots’, like the sequence with a bullet moving from within the field of
the narrative fiction to outside of it, breaking the glass in the cameraman’s lens and our physical field of
vision. In another episode, talking about what the cameraman was doing before the show started, Kovacs
emphasized the (historical) time that existed before the production; cross-referencing his program to another
one that was on another channel at the same time, he points out the coexistence of different spaces and
39 See Kijkhuis, Videotheekcatalogus, The Hague, 1984.
40 Revision. Art Programmes of European Television Stations, exhibition curated by Dorine Mignot, Stedelijk Museum,
Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Edition Stedelijk Museum, 1987), 7.
41 In 1983 the VPRO-TV produced a program about video art, Tape-TV; in 1984 the local cable networks in South-
Holland launched a project of ‘TV made by artists’ called Golfbreker; in 1987 the art program Het Lab (VPRO-TV)
included video art works.
42 The foundation Culturele Hoofdstad Zender (CHZ) was established in 1987 to report on events organised in
connection with Amsterdam being named European Cultural Capital. Afterwards it became active in Groningen and
Hilversum as well and transmitted commissioned programs. In 1989 CHZ merged with the foundation Kunstkanaal,
established in 1988 which produced programs of local interest. Programs are mainly informative (interviews,
documentaries about concerts, theatre, dance), but video art works were presented monthly. (Kunstkanaal, report of the
activities, June 1991, Library Boekman Stichting, Amsterdam.)
43 Loeffer, 15.
44 Hans Burger, “Through the television camera”, Theatre Arts, 1 March 1940, 209.
45 Susan Sontag, “Film and Theatre”, TDR: Tulane Drama Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 1966, 24-37, 29.
46 Philip Auslander, Liveness: performance in a mediatized culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

‘happenings’ inside the same televisual reality. Kovacs also plays with the apparently ‘realistic’ concordance
between sound and image. The Eugene episode (1961, ABC) announces itself with a rolling text to tell the
audience that, in the midst of the usual cacophony of noise that is television, this program will be dedicated
to silence. In 1973 in his video Television delivers people Richard Serra used the same technique to warn
the public against the manipulative power of TV. Kovacs’s work anticipated video art and structuralist film,
pointing to how specifically the autonomy of discourses or the defensive lines between the ‘fine’ and ‘popular’
arts are constructed and maintained. As most versions of the avant-garde are deliberately pitted against
mass media as its romantic enemy, certain convergences are scrupulously avoided47.
Holland can boast its early examples of television art as well48: the art program Kunstgrepen (AVRO, 1959-
1974), hosted by the art historian Pierre Janssen. The traditional art program was an illustrated lecture
usually about religious art with a background of classical or jazz music accompanied by some verses from an
appropriate poem. Janssen transformed the didactic style typical of paleo-television into a moving
performance. His personality linked the paintings and sculptures. The presenter was able to forge
unorthodox links between works of widely different character: they fitted naturally into his personal narration.
This made Janssen the ideal TV personality: an emotional man, not shy about displaying personal feelings49.
The showman refused to allow his old programs to be rerun, because they were conceived to take the public
by surprise. TV is a medium of happening, not a means of documentation.
Another television artist in the Netherlands is Wim T. Schippers, whose appearance on the art program
Signalement (VARA, 1963) was also the first tape in Holland to be preserved in museum collections and
labeled as ‘art’. Schippers, an artist himself, was irreverent towards other artists and towards all TV
presentation rules. He wrote, directed and played in variety shows, sit coms, and dramas, always subverting
the movement conventions. One of his best ‘television art works’ is a simple ‘happening’: on 6 December
1961, at 10:30pm, the artist emptied a bottle of lemonade into the sea before the eyes of the locals in a small
town. This action was broadcast in the (fake) news, with the terse and apt commentary of a news reader.
Like Kovacs, Schippers uses humor to ‘deconstruct’ television characteristics, in this case the ability to turn a
banal happening into a big event. In his oeuvre Schippers desecrates art, more than criticizes television: art
claims its independence from commerce, but in fact it has become a media-constructed phenomenon.
When in 1965 the portable half-inch camera was launched on the market, artists independently used this tool
to ‘improve’ television representational conventions.
Nam June Paik’s tape Café au Gogo, 152 Bleecker Street, October 4 and 11, 1965, (the first art work
produced with a portable camera) shows the crowded Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village on the day the
Pope visited New York City. This work was not broadcast, but it is an amazing anticipation of neo-television
aesthetics, where TV is not a window on the world, but an extension of the spectator’s eye that brings him
right into the event, on the spot where he could really be, and allows him to participate in a big event in the
most ‘realistic’ way.
n the U.S. groups called ‘Guerrilla TV’ adopted Paik’s approach, creating a completely new style in
traditional television programs. TVTV (Top Value Television) used black-and-white cameras to produce
reportages about the Presidential nominating conventions, commissioned by two cable stations in 1972, and
inaugurated the iconoclastic, intimate New Journalism style on television. Instead of pointing its cameras at
the podium, TVTV threaded its way through delegate caucuses, Young Republican rallies, cocktail parties,
antiwar demonstrations, and the frenzy of the convention floor50. The public became more ‘private’.
Television did not bring ‘the world into our house’, it transformed the world into a big house. In the late 1970s
TVTV’s “sincere documentaries about ordinary people had been absorbed and transformed into mock-uentertainment
like Real People and That’s Incredible!”51.
Quite different is the experience of ‘pirate televisions’ in Holland, already embedded in neo-television
aesthetics. De Vrije Keyzer52 used the cable network in Amsterdam to transmit news and documentaries,
47 Bruce Ferguson, “The importance of being Ernie: taking a close look (and listen)”, in Illuminating Video: 349-365.
48 Even if in continental Europe ‘television art’ was only occasionally recognized by the art world and rarely became an
item of theoretical discussion, one of the first ‘television art’ exhibitions in a museum space was that organized in 1978
by the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam and dedicated to Wim T. Schippers’s TV programs.
49 Emile Fallaux, “Waar heb dat nou voor nodig”, in Revision: 58-65, 63.
50 Deirdre Boyle, “Subject to change: guerrilla television revisited”, Art Journal: 228-232, 229.
51 Ibid., 232.
52 See World Wide Video Festival 1982, catalogue, The Hague, 1982.

‘self-made films’ and dramas stolen from the official channels. Rabotnik TV (born as PKP TV in the early
1980s) gained a regular place on the Amsterdam cable in 1988, but the spirit did not change:
Rabotnik’s editorial formula, borrowed from the New York Times’s motto, is All that’s fit to transmit, and it
embraces a post-punk, dadaist, modernist approach - from God to trash - in which the main thing is to
democratize the medium of TV… and at the same time to mystify. All journalistic, artistic and technical codes
are contravened if possible or deliberately applied with extra emphasis. The creators of Rabotnik TV (Menno
Grootveld, Gerald van der Kaap, etc.) work in anonymity to emphasize the anonymity in artistic thinking and
are inspired by contemporary formulas such as rapping, scratching and sampling and by classic artists such
as Eisenstein, Godard and Andy Warhol53.
Another important Dutch television artist, who interpreted characteristics of TV flow structure from a formal
vantage point, is Jaap Drupsteen54. Because of the space-time uniformity in the televisual reality, the
differences between TV genres and between the space of a program and that outside it gradually fade,
leading to an evolution of the form and contents of the programming. On a formal level, the most important
characteristic of neo-television is the growing presence of inserts and therefore of television graphics:
temporal inserts (advertisements, that break up the flow in a rhythm of uniform fragments) and spatial inserts
(logo of the channel, subtitling, ‘sub-frames’). Drupsteen introduced animated logos to Dutch television as
early as 1965, created the discipline of TV graphics and reshaped the aesthetics of entertainment and
information programs. He also understood how deeply the electronic image is connected with sound: in his
music programs and dramas images are modified and directed to follow music patterns and rhythms.
2.4.4 …or interrupting the flow
Artists’ intervention ‘inside’ television did not always lead to improvement of its language and programming
structure. Sometimes they just produced an ‘action’, inserted between the programs, which would break the
uniformity of the structured flow: it is not a program nor a linking element between programs (advertisement,
leaders, etc.), but an ‘alien’ entity inside the TV flow. Because of its exceptional and almost ritual character, it
could be defined as ‘television performance’.
An example is Jan Dibbets’s TV as a Fireplace, a film showing a three-minute single shot of a burning fire,
transmitted every day for a week at the end of the transmission. Dibbets’s work was part of Schum’s
Fernsehgalerie (1969-70), but in this case TV is not just a ‘gallery’, a showing place for electronic images, it
is ‘the’ context which gives that work a particular meaning.
David Hall’s work TV pieces, produced by Scottish Television in 1971, was even more radical: the most
famous piece was that of the TV monitor filled with (virtual) water, intended to take the audience by surprise,
without any contextual packaging55.
From about the late 1970s TV performance became more difficult to realize: television began to exploit the
intimate, personal, even ‘casual’ communication style that had previously been the experimental domain of
artists, and in the more complex programming structure a ‘shocking action’ would hardly be noticed (or,
much worse, could pass for a new strategy to gain higher ratings).
2.5 Communication art
Some television ‘experiments’ by artists are focused on the communicative potential of the medium and on
the relationship with the viewer, more than on its mass media character.
The first ‘interactive program’ is probably Paik’s Video Commune (1970), in which the artist allowed the
audience to participate in the composition of the visual aesthetics of a four-hour-long live program via the
‘Paik/Abe synthesizer’.
Another example is the magazine Impulse (1972) shown on the Austrian TV, ORF, which invited the public to
collaborate on projects and--anticipating the TV policies of the 1980s--tried to create a TV channel for
53 Paul Groot, “4 Rabotnik TV”, Mediamatic, vol. 2, no. 3 (March 1988): 137-44.
54 He presented only a few videos on the video art circuit, but had a solo exhibition in the Museum Boymans van
Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1983 and is quoted in many publications about video art in Holland. His leaders are
included in the historical retrospective Dertig jaar Nederlandse Videokunst (11/1 - 8/3 2003) at the Netherlands Media
Arts Institute.
55 Mick Hartney, “Int/ventions: some instances of confrontation with British broadcasting”, in Diverse Practices: 21-58.

diversified and specialized audiences. During the program Grazer Fernsehtage (1974) artists could help to
build the ‘citizen’s TV’: an artist-run space, where a discussion took place about the nature of television, was
‘televisually’ connected to a flat and a shelter for the homeless. Each group could see and comment on what
was happening in the other locations56. The project foreshadowed future developments towards a more
flexible, easily accessible medium which could allow two-way communication without losing ‘publicity’.
In the 1980s a new technology seemed to help TV in this direction: the satellite. While broadcasting
companies exploited satellites to build up international, specialized channels, artists had different ideas. Kit
Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s Hole in Space (1980) explored the new possibilities of the televisual
channel. The project consisted of a three-day satellite connection between New York and Los Angeles,
during which two big screens showed images from a camera placed in a public space in the other city.
Because it was unannounced, passers-by discovered slowly that they had stumbled on an open channel, a
live two-way link by which they could see and talk with people miles away. This event generated great
excitement because of the “collective intimacy rarely experienced in public situations”57. And yet, ‘private’
use of the televisual technology was already possible and had been tested in Germany in the 1930s58.
Raul Marroquin, a Colombian artist living in Holland, systematically researched television mechanisms and
languages. In 1981 he planned a satellite connection between New York and Amsterdam. The story of
Dracula going to New York was made the object of a news special in the two cities, with guests (the
characters of the story), experts and journalists. The fake news, hybridized with TV drama and variety show
(a postmodern reading of television formats) was the object of a real satellite connection. Unfortunately the
connection could not be realized due to the opposition of the Dutch authorities, and only a recorded version
of the work was transmitted on the local cable TV.
These experiments demonstrate the magnitude of the audience’s need for an immediate two-way
(participatory) communication medium, to express their feelings and to broaden the practical applications of
audio-visual technology (someone talks about the use of satellite technology to hold international
congresses). These expectations have since been fulfilled by the Internet, which has brought together
‘private’ (video, computer, telephone) and public (television) media. Digital media, which follow a network
pattern and are based on variety and individuality, redefined and expanded the cultural identity and social
applications of audio-visual communication systems, from surveillance cameras to home videos, television
and computer games.
started this essay by raising some apparently different questions about the relationship between art and
video. My investigation showed that there are no clear-cut answers to those questions.
Was video the end of all arts? It was certainly the end of a certain kind of art, ‘independent’ or ‘isolated’ from
the field of ‘mass production’. Was it a particular form of communication, therefore not at all an art form? Or
was it television art? Does it fit into the film world? How does it relate to music, in video clips and discos?
Video art was the first movement which affirmed that ‘commercial’ ‘time-based’ productions can be art (the
Bauhaus did this for design objects in the 1920s), and included television, narrative video, video clip and
even night club performances (the first ‘VJs’ were Dutch and English video artists in the 1980s) in the field of
art. The role of the art world, and of the different disciplines within it, remained the assertion of
aesthetic values (by means of works produced in its own context or selected from other contexts).
By the early 1990s the term video art had been replaced by the more updated ‘media art’. The matter did
not substantially change (all art works made by means of and exploring digital technologies can be included
in this category), but the acceptance of the new movement was not as problematic as that of video art. The
reason for that can be found in the nature of the medium used: video was associated with television, in a
field of cultural production characterized by the opposition between the field of restricted production and the
field of large-scale production, as Bourdieu calls them. Media art, on the contrary, is based on digital
technologies, which do not have necessarily a mass media status, and is embedded in a changed field of
cultural production. New media departments in art academies train young designers in the production of
websites, computer games and interactive devices for both the art world and the industry. Media art, like
56 Heidi Grundmann, “Television in Austria 1955-1987”, Revision: 8-15, 11-12.
57 Video: a retrospective. Long Beach Museum of Art 1974-1984, catalogue of the exhibition curated by Kathy Rae
Huffman, 9 September - 4 November 1984, 25 November - 20 January 1985 (Long Beach: Long Beach Museum of Art,
1984), 62.
58 See William Uricchio, “Television as History: Representations of German Television Broadcasting, 1935-1944,” in
Framing the past: The historiography of German cinema and television, eds. Bruce Murray and Christopher Wickham
(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992): 167-196.

video art, represents not the end of all arts, but their integration and the blurring of the boundaries
between different genres and between commercial and ‘independent’ productions.
Appendix - The terms
Art. The field of cultural production, according to Bourdieu, is structured by an opposition between two subfields:
the field of restricted production and the field of large-scale production. The first one (the field of ‘high
art’) is the most autonomous from the fields of power and economics, because it is based on an inversion of
the principles of ordinary economies, that is, on the game of ‘loser wins’ (it excludes the pursuit of profit,
power or academic consecration). But the field and theories of pure art are a recent phenomena (dating from
the nineteenth century), and the aesthetic value is contingent on a very complex and constantly changing set
of circumstances involving social and institutional factors. The large-scale production characterizes ‘mass’ or
‘popular’ culture (television belongs to this sub-field). It is less susceptible to formal experimentation,
although it frequently borrows from the restricted field of production in attempts to renew itself.
This article does not aim to give an explanation for the existence of a ‘pure art’ field, but to analyze the
transformations it has undergone (both internal and in the relation to ‘popular’ culture) because of the
introduction of analogue video technologies.
Video. Video is the medium used to create video art. The technology of video, like that of television, has a
complex cultural identity. Most artists and art critics consider ‘video’ to be the videotapes produced with
home video cameras or synthesizers or the use of those cameras ‘live’ (feedback and closed-circuit systems)
in the art context. The technology of video (videotape, VCR and home cameras) is part of televisual
technology in general (transmission of electronic images) and does not differ substantially from the
technology used by television. But until the 1970s television was mainly a public medium--rental videotapes
did not yet have a mass distribution, and artists were among the first to use home video cameras and
synthesisers. For these reasons the identity and nature of fruition of video differed markedly from those of
television, and it better fit into some traditional attributes of art (personal, experimental, etc.). Nevertheless,
video art has often been involved with television and has used the broadcasting, narrowcasting and cable
spaces to realize or transmit video art works. Furthermore, the audience’s expectations and industry’s
development in the 1980s were going toward a fusion of the two mediums (through the increasing
‘personalisation’ of TV programs and ‘publicity’ of video), a fusion which has been completed by the
introduction of PCs and the Internet.
Television. The term ‘televisual’ includes all possible cultural applications of analogue visual electronic
technologies as a whole (production and/or transmission of electronic images), from the videophone to
military control devices and surveillance cameras. Television is the most popular and hegemonic of these
applications in history: the (simultaneous) transmission of images by broadcasting companies in the form of
programs included in a frame called ‘programming’. The identity of television has undergone a radical
transformation in the period from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s. New technologies like home video
cameras, satellite, cable, pay- or thematic TV and zapping changed the traditional broadcast television, its
function and contents, creating new cultural interfaces later adopted by digital media. Video artists witness
this ‘revolution’ and sometimes foreshadowed future developments of the television language, programming
and fruition models.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Interview with Paul DeMarinis

By Renny Pritikin April 17, 2012

Between February 10 and March 25, 2012, I exchanged a series of emails with a longtime colleague, the artist Paul DeMarinis. Paul and I were part of a circle of artists hanging out during the founding and early years of the 80 Langton Street gallery, later New Langton Arts, in San Francisco. I met him through my teacher then, Jock Reynolds, who owned the building in which 80 Langton Street was housed. Paul and I were on the Langton board of directors together in the late ’70s when we received a proposal from an obscure New York photographer, which had been declined at the last minute by his San Francisco gallery. The images were shocking and dramatic, and I’ll never forget how excited Paul got about them, while almost everyone else was completely unsure of what to make of them. It turned out the artist was Robert Mapplethorpe, and we ended up showing the X Portfolio in 1979, a decade before it became a scandalous success. Paul’s reaction was that of the true artist: thrilled at new visual information, unafraid, open to life. He was also making small computers and computer music when I first met him in his Berkeley studio in 1974, almost forty years ago. ________ Renny Pritikin: If I were to ask you for a list of a half dozen of the most seminal pieces, to begin a discussion of your work, which would you suggest? Paul DeMarinis: What you want is a list of six pieces: The Pygmy Gamelan (1973), The Music Room (1982), Music as a Second Language (1991), The Edison Effect (1989-1993), The Messenger (1998), and Dust (2009). RP: I met you in ’74, so Pygmy Gamelan dated to just before then. Do you include it because it was an interactive sculptural installation? PDM: Well, it was before those categories really existed. I had been building electronics for a couple of years, and everyone around me had the idea of building synthesizers, instruments to use to do something else—a performance. I wasn’t interested in that even though I was doing performances then, too. I wanted to make pieces that stood on their own as artworks. The problem was what to do with Pygmy Gamelan, how to place it, and in thrashing around with this problem, I encountered the three terms you defined in your astute question. But my first idea was to mass-produce and market it as a replacement for the car radio; like Max Neuhaus, I have always had some inclination toward placing my pieces in quotidian, even useful, situations. I met a Detroit auto designer and showed him the Pygmy Gamelan and explained how it would play in response to driving through the varying electromagnetic fields of urban landscapes. Nothing came of it, needless to say. Paul DeMarinis - A Byte at the Opera Paul DeMarinis and Jim Pomeroy. A Byte at the Opera, 1976 (still); 1977 performance at 80 Langton Street; sheetrock, dried beans, loudspeakers, colored chalk dust, silly string, power tools, Kim-1 microcomputer, digital port drivers. Photo: Marion Gray. I had by then made about a dozen of them, each playing in a different tuning. It was Jim Pomeroy [a San Francisco performance artist and sculptor, 1945–1992] who suggested that I make an installation of all of them together—that they could move away from individual sound sculptures into the realm of an installed environment. I went on installing them for about three years in groupings inside galleries, where they would infect the space. I think the first one was at the WBAI Free Music Store in New York in January 1974, which got surprisingly rave reviews from Tom Johnson of the Village Voice and John Rockwell of the New York Times. I guess it must’ve been a dull day. As I recall, the term interactivity, with respect to art, didn’t really exist then and didn’t emerge until the late ’70s or early ’80s. Of course, it has gone through several iterations and now means something quite different. The idea of the viewer participating in the behavior of the artwork hadn’t been formalized yet. On the other hand, to the people who were building synthesizers, it was part and parcel of the territory, continuing the tradition of bongo drums and clarinets. So while the Pygmy Gamelan emerged from that womb and inherited several capabilities of its ancestry, the notion of interactivity was somewhat differently constructed; you could affect the artwork but not quite control it. Nobody could become a virtuoso. So clearly, I had made my desired move away from the experimental musical instrument and gained interactivity and installation in the bargain. I suspect that the reason we accepted the idea of interactive art at that time has something to do with the general problem of making art in a democracy, outlined by de Tocqueville in the 1830s. The Pygmy Gamelan is not my first piece but the oldest that I would still exhibit publicly; indeed, I did exhibit it in my retrospective show in Oldenburg last year. Since it is a hardware hybrid digital/analog circuit, I only had to take it off the shelf, dust it off, plug it in, and do some minor tuning to get it going again. That is not the case with the many computer-based works I have done since. Endurance counts! RP: You know, I befriended Syd Mead, the futurist designer who created the look of Blade Runner, and I curated a retrospective of his work. He started out as a Detroit car designer. If I knew him then and could have put you two in touch, the world might be very different now. What does Pygmy Gamelan sound like? PDM: Here’s a recording of a single Pygmy Gamelan set. RP: One of my favorite memories of your work is the performance in Union Square where, to my knowledge, you first used the Speak & Spell children’s toy to create the faux-guitar work that was eventually made into your wonderful piece, The Music Room, at the Exploratorium. I love when artists appropriate commercial and found objects in the world and turn them into great art. I still think that was one of the most beautiful moments of sheer delight in my career. I now see the connection for you when you say, about the Pygmy Gamelan, “All inexpensive surplus items [were] originally intended for consumer products. Their use here, however, is purely folkloric and tends…to refer to a culture other than that of high technology.” PDM: I think many people today wouldn’t understand the political stance embodied in such experimental art. I recall that some years ago a grad student showed some work she was really excited about, in which people were hacking Speak & Spells and performing with them. When I mentioned that I had done this in 1978, she became profoundly confused. I suppose the politics of hacking has remained the same over some period of time that predates us all: the Poles hacking the Nazi’s Enigma cryptographic device, Captain Crunch/John Draper’s phone phreaking. But there is so much ordinary and orderly circuit-bending going on now, as there is so much ordinary and orderly political dissent. RP: It seems to me that this work predated Wii Guitar by thirty years. PDM: The Music Room at the Exploratorium was an interactive piece with five guitar-like controllers. I had been working on a number of different pieces for my performances, first using the KIM-1 computer (1976–78), then the Apple 2 (1979), writing software in assembly language and then in a language called Forth, building my own hardware hacks to control various gadgets like Casio MT-30’s, rhythm machines, and Speak & Spells. I conducted a concert in the Exploratorium’s Speaking of Music series in 1980 or 1981. Afterwards, Frank Oppenheimer asked me to be an artist-in-residence there. I thought about it for some time, as I couldn’t figure out what to do there. One day in the midst of working on some pieces at home, I took a break and went outside. I was surprised to hear my computer playing itself without me. It turned out to be my son, Grover—then four- or five-years-old—playing. It sounded just like what I was doing. So I figured that it might be possible to make a piece out of what I was interested in, that the general public might also be interested in. It turns out it was possible, if the success of The Music Room was any measure, but of course also looking at the success of Guitar Hero on a much larger scale. I always had ideas of seeding projects in the public sphere: with the Pygmy Gamelan, it was the car; with The Music Room, it was public spaces and home entertainment. I guess it was my way of realizing the political goals of my generation. Whether I was successful or not depends on how you look at it. I always figured that if I had a coin slot on The Music Room at the Exploratorium, I could have made money. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to make money, though. I went to Tokyo in the fall of 1982 and met with executives from Sony, Yamaha, and Casio to try to sell them on the idea of the touch-sensitive air guitar as a computer interface for games and music activities. Nobody was interested. Shortly thereafter, I got a job as a video game programmer for Atari, which I landed largely on the basis ofThe Music Room. A few years later, by 1987, there were several products coming out, probably most of which were losing money. In many of them, I could see or hear the form of the piece I had made at the Exploratorium. In fact, the designer at Electronic Arts, which was the first company to make any money on the idea of automatic music, told me he got the whole idea and design from playing with The Music Room at the Exploratorium. So in the end, it was out there, and somebody made money. Music as a Second Language was a CD I published in 1991 (still available on Lovely Music), comprising a series of “songs” based on the prosody of natural language. It was, in its own way, a seminal publication. It is one of the only works for which I am known in the musical world. But, like the rest of the pieces, working on it led me to a great many insights about the sounds of language and moved me into some new places. CDs have a wonderful way of circulating and have lives of their own in ways that art objects never do, unless they achieve masterpiece status. RP: How about The Edison Effect? PDM: The Edison Effect started in 1986 with a chance experiment. I had moved to the middle of nowhere in upstate New York. Rural hell. I built a helium-neon laser with no particular purpose in mind. One winter night I wondered if I could play the grooves in an LP with it. I didn’t have any photocells available to try it with, the closest one being at the local Radio Shack, fifty miles and one and a half hour away. With the urgency born of sheer desperation for something to happen, I plucked an EPROM—the old kind of nonvolatile memory chip that had a quartz window to erase it—out of my Apple II computer, and randomly hooked up its leads in various combinations to an audio amplifier, reasoning that if it was a piece of doped silicon, then some junction in it must generate a photocurrent when light falls on it. And it did. I shone the laser on an old LP rotating on a turntable, and I heard the sound of the music recorded in its grooves. Over the next weeks, I filled notebooks with ideas for playing records with this configuration and plotted my escape. The first piece I did with it was actually a performance at New Langton Arts in March of 1987, called Laserdisk. It used the gas laser and photo-detector assembly from an old supermarket barcode scanner to play 78-rpm records—of the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto, “I've Always Loved You,” and Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite—along with some other experiments with analog optical phasing and filtering that were intriguing and that I always meant to follow up on but never quite got around to. Maybe you were even there? Anyway, I set forth to make self-playing sculptures with this kind of hardware, thinking all along about the history of phonographs, which I had studied a lot in my youth. I sat in second-grade class repeatedly daydreaming: first, of a record lathe that could record what the teacher was saying so that if she called on me, I could quickly replay it and know what she was asking about, and then of recording on a huge record everything that went on in the classroom overnight, to recording every sound in the world, the universe, and so on. My father had been on a crash development team for magnetic audio recording in World War II so I understood a fair amount about recording principles by then. Looking back at my solutions to the problems of interactive music controllers, in the rooted way that they implement musical intelligence, I think they may underlie most of the existing systems today. But I don’t think the whole thing was a good idea. Of course, I feel that way about a lot of things, including the iPhone, the personal computer, the World Wide Web—clever but not good ideas. Nonetheless I discovered a lot about interactivity, enough to eventually abandon the idea—or at least encapsulate it in some broader philosophical framework—and move on in my work. The first piece I showed was Al & Mary Do the Waltz (about 1988) at the Fuller Gross Gallery—the one with the Edison wax cylinder of the “Blue Danube Waltz” and the goldfish—and, I guess encouraged by a favorable review from Ken Baker, I kept on making more. I did another show of about four or five of them at Het Apollohuis in the spring of 1989, and then they became my main work in sculpture right through the show at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1993; by then, they numbered about twelve pieces. My thoughts and ideas about this work are pretty well-documented inEssay in Lieu of a Sonata (1993) so I won’t repeat that stuff here, except to say that the notion was a very playful, direct but loose coupling between found material, the contents of the records, and the structure of the object, with another leg being the play of attention and observation—how the media object was attended to by the machine that played it and by the listener. RP: And lastly, can you talk about The Messenger and Dust? PDM: The Messenger is the most interesting piece for me, of the ones we have discussed, because it participated in the flow or shift of meanings that I think about when I make my works. As you know, I think that by carefully studying the histories of current day technologies, we can uncover insights into the constellation of human and technical arrangements that can help to projectively crystallize an understanding of the real nature of our current condition. This is based on my prejudice that cultures have long-standing currents of agenda—over hundreds of years and often unspoken—and that technologies, like the rest of material culture, are a reification of these agendas. They are neither discoveries nor neutral. They come out of the dreams of people and offer indications of social relations. The piece has a long background stemming from a childhood interest in telegraphy. I was reading a lot about pre-Morse telegraphy and discovering Francisco Salvá y Campillo while I was at Wesleyan from 1979 to ’81 (hooray for open stacks!). And of course, the unstated topic of The Messenger is the opening up of the Internet to the public, which was being much ballyhooed then in 1998. Everybody was assuring us that this was a revolution in freedom: we didn’t need to worry about human rights in China; the Internet was going there; it would bring freedom of communication and commerce; democracy is inherent in this two-way system, et cetera. I knew that these very same claims had been made in the 1840s for telegraphy and that there is nothing inherently two-way about electrical communication—it is only by agreement and appropriate technical arrangements made to embody that agreement that electricity flows in both directions. I was lucky to meet the collector, Rafael Tous, who at that time ran a gallery in Barcelona called Metronom, and he asked me for a commissioned piece. This was perfect, as Salvá y Campillo was a Catalan doctor and had been the director of the medical school there in the eighteenth century. Of course, it turned out that no one in contemporary Barcelona had ever heard of him. Salvá’s first system used electric shocks from Leyden jars, one for each letter of the alphabet, transmitted over an equal number of individual wires and received in a remote location by an equal number of people (presumably illiterate servants) who would call out their respective letter when they received a shock—one-way communication, patriarchy, the old regime, the Internet in another form. Salvá’s ambitions for his electric telegraph were to convey commands, from the court in Madrid to the colonies in Havana or Lima, or merely from the manor to the servants’ quarters. In fact, he was also the first to propose undersea telegraph cables. The image I started with for the work was the reception point—perhaps a colonial telegraph reception center, ringed with the chairs of servants. The fact that the messages destined for a non-place were intended for my own email inbox constitutes a kind of trace of the manifold that exists between public and private. The point is that during the exhibition period of this work (1998–2006), the entire meaning shifted from two-way to one-way. We have not explicitly discussed the status of the sounds themselves that inhabit most of my pieces. In fact, I am often pegged as a sound artist, although those who consider themselves sound artists will hardly admit me to their fold. I just don’t care about sound in the same way they do, although I do care very much about the way it connects things together—objects, mental states, sensory attentiveness. Every decade or so, I have reconsidered everything I have done, and the last fold in this surface occurred about six years ago. I have included Dust (2009) because it is one of several pieces over the past decade that joins in a critique of my previous works, especially of the way that they employed some kind of completeness—something I didn’t feel at the time the necessity of avoiding. The problem with completeness in the kind of work I do is that it often produced a suturing between idea and object and between sound and vision. There wasn’t any way to pry them apart. Of course, this was the result of the way I set out with the Pygmy Gamelan, avoiding making instruments that music could be performed on. But its shadows were long. So the more recent pieces use a kind of decoy strategy—an unavoidable slippage between the materials and ideas, the sounds and the images. Maybe decoy is a little sinister-sounding when referring to things as flat as art or media objects. But then, really, isn’t what our mind does—when it tries to converge on the same mental state from seeing a picture of a duck, the written word duck, looking at ducks flying overhead, and playing with a rubber ducky—somewhat like what a duck does when it sees a decoy bobbing on the pond? Dust projects pairs of similar-looking human faces (in this case scavenged from bulk-mail flyers of abducted children) piecemeal onto a bed of phosphorescent pigment powder. There are little pieces of light flitting over what seems like a gently contoured surface for a few minutes. When the projector goes dead black, what’s left behind is a pair of faces, side by side. A sound begins, kind of an eerie, 1950s, sci-fi, abstract electronic sound, which grows in amplitude as the images begin to distort, warping into odd expressions as the powder is moved by the sound waves. This process continues as the sounds deepen and become louder and the pigment powder begins forming little animated worlds—fountains, dunes, strings of pearls moving and dancing before your eyes. The sound fades and the movement abates. In the end, all that is left is an abstract pattern of glowing dust—the patterns of sound waves themselves. Where the faces went is anybody’s guess. The whole thing fades, and the process starts again.
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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Photographic Idea: Reconsidering Conceptual Photography (1999)

Afterimage, March-April, 1999 by Lucy Soutter

“They were there simply to indicate a radical art that had already vanished. The photograph was necessary only as a residue for communication.” – Dennis Oppenheim on his use of photographs.(1)

This statement by Dennis Oppenheim introduces the paradox inherent in any discussion of photography within Conceptual Art. Since the mid-1960s, conceptual artists have denied any interest in photography per se. To hear the artists tell it, photography was only useful or interesting to them insofar as it was instrumental in conveying or recording their ideas. Time and again artists describe the photographs themselves as either brute information or uninflected documentation. For many years curators, critics and historians have corroborated this reductive understanding of the role of photography in Conceptual Art. Sidestepping the aesthetic properties of conceptual photographs is convenient; it simplifies the distinction between Conceptualism and the more material-based practices of Pop Art and Minimalism. Taking the artists at their word, writers have also been able to divorce conceptual photography from the history of photography more broadly, maintaining a rigid distinction between conceptual and fine art photography of the same moment.

As we know, however, the intentions of artists and the historical effects of their work are rarely synonymous. For example, artists who have benefited from the renewed critical and curatorial interest in Conceptual Art in the last decade have themselves resisted the label “conceptual.”(2) This is understandable – no practicing artist wants to be pigeon-holed as an example of an historical movement. Yet the conceptual designation has been crucial to the historical understanding of this period of work. Along the same lines, the conceptualists’ contrary stance on photography should not be accepted at face value. Despite their professed disregard for photography, the conceptualists participated in an important transformation of the medium, fueling a rise in the prominence of photography that attracted critical attention in the “Pictures” generation of the late 1970s and early 1980s.(3)

First-generation Conceptual Art is an important point of origin for the continuing success of photographs by artists who do not consider themselves to be photographers in the traditional sense.(4) The conceptual artists’ very lack of investment in photography allowed them to generate new possibilities for the medium. However, they were not alone in this enterprise. Fine art photographers during the late 1960s such as Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander shared with the conceptualists an interest in identifying and subverting the conventions of photographic vision.

The refusal of conceptualists to take photography seriously on its own terms is rooted in the earliest definitions of their project. From the beginning, ideas were prioritized over the material form in which they were conveyed. Sol LeWitt provided a seminal formulation of this notion in his 1967 essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” LeWitt dismisses the material form of the piece as secondary, an “afterthought” so to speak: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”(5) Due to its apparent immediacy, photography was an apt medium with which to pursue this idea-driven art.

Critic Lucy Lippard approached Conceptualism from a slightly different angle, coining the term “the dematerialization of the art object” in the late 1960s.(6) Framing conceptual works as a form of disembodied sculpture, the notion of dematerialization has been one of the main obstacles to the serious study of conceptual photography. Like LeWitt, Lippard acknowledges that conceptual works might take a physical form, including photographs, but she does not see the object as the site of the art idea. In the introduction to Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-72 (1973), Lippard admits to a flaw in the idea of dematerialization, that “a piece of paper or a photograph is as much an object, or as ‘material’ as a ton of lead” but she sticks with the term because of her conviction that a “deemphasis on material aspects” is key to the conceptual project. Thus Lippard gives critical support to one of the central fallacies of Conceptualism. Text and photographs participate in the production of the work’s meaning, but the existence of that form is repeatedly repressed or denied.

The analytic model of Conceptual Art that Joseph Kosuth provides in his 1973 essay “Art After Philosophy” is even more rigorous in undermining the visual, material aspects of the work of art. Playing an end-game with Clement Greenberg’s pursuit of the self-referential art object, Kosuth imagines a completely self-contained, tautological artwork, framed in language: “. . . the propositions of art are not factual, but linguistic in character – that is, they do not describe the behavior of physical or even mental objects; they express definitions of art, or the formal consequences of definitions of art.”(7) Recent writers, however, have begun to remark upon a blind spot in this analytic formulation of Conceptualism. As British art historian John Roberts points out in his 1997 book, The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966-76, the majority of conceptual artworks contain photographs, unruly visual elements that cannot be adequately matched by or contained in discourse.(8) This dynamic is evident in Kosuth’s own famous works such as One And Three Chairs (1965) in which the three instantiations of the word “chair” – a dictionary definition, a photograph and an actual chair – are not commensurable. The piece clearly demonstrates the failure of language to contain visual or physical form.

Although Kosuth and other conceptualists claimed not to be interested in photography, in fact photographic properties were at stake in much of their work. The conceptual work of the period provides a sustained exploration of the photographic medium and its conventions. Such diverse artists as Jan Dibbets, John Baldessari and Oppenheim created work in which the idea and its specific material instantiation are both photographic. In other words, these pieces direct their conceptual interrogation towards photography as medium; they question what a photograph is and does. Not all conceptual works that use photographs address the properties of photography in such a direct way. Nonetheless, the non-art “look” of much conceptual photography should not be taken at face value. Deadpan style conceals an investigation that takes place in visual as well as linguistic terms. Viewers unfamiliar with Dibbets’s perspective corrections often assume that they are manipulated or montaged photographs. Perspective correction – square in grass, Vancouver, 1969 looks as if the photographer has cut out a square from a photograph of earth and pasted it on top of the image of the lawn. Closer observation reveals cast shadows on the top and left-hand side of the dirt square and pieces of string marking the edges of the shape that show that the shape is in fact a hole in the grass. This straight photograph can be understood by remembering what we know about the workings of photography: that the monocular vision of the camera transforms three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional perspectival design. The photograph illustrates that it is possible to anticipate this effect and reverse it, for example, by making an irregular trapezoidal shape (as cut in the grass by Dibbets) that the camera will render as a perfect square. The “idea” of this piece is a visual one that can be most effectively grasped by the audience in the process of viewing. When interviewed about his work of this period, Dibbets described it as developing out of his troubled relationship with painting and the fixed viewing angle required by most canvases. Dibbets dismisses the photographs as unnecessary to the original intention of the work: “The documentation about the work isn’t of real importance to me either. I’ve done lots of works without taking photographs.”(9) Yet his documents have an independent existence as self-critical photographs. The most provocative part of the image is the area where photographic representation breaks down, forcing viewers to question their understanding of photographic perspective. The gaping dark square in the well-manicured lawn is disturbingly “wrong,” especially when measured against the dutifully receding architecture. Dibbets makes a linguistic play on this wrongness by calling each piece a “correction,” as if it is the camera that distorts and the artist who corrects. Perspective correction cuts to the heart of conventionalized photographic space and undermines our confidence in the transparency of the photographic index.

In Wrong (1967) Baldessari makes reference to a different photographic convention: that two shapes that touch in a photograph are understood as touching in the world. The image shows the artist standing on the sidewalk outside a suburban California ranch house. The viewing distance and symmetry of the photograph fit the rigid profile of the amateur snapshot, except that the subject is perfectly lined up with a palm tree, which therefore appears to grow out of his head. This faux pas is one that only the most careless shutterbug would make. Baldessari borrows the format of the image with its caption from photography “how-to” manuals, using the convention of “right” and “wrong” illustrations to skew formulaic art school aesthetics. Capitalizing on the medium’s potential to create perceptual confusion, Wrong undermines photography as a reliable system of representation.

Like Dibbets, Baldessari considered painting to be his frame of reference. He turned to photography in part because it seemed to be a way to free himself from painterly signifiers. He commented in a 1990 interview, “I thought, I’m not using paint, it’s a photographic process, and so you can’t claim that they’re paintings . . . I wanted to be less artful than Rauschenberg or Warhol: this is a photograph, here’s a text. That’s it.”(10) Bringing his photographic images and text (hand-lettered by a sign painter) together on canvas, Baldessari reinforces the reading of the works of this period as anti-painting. The image was made by coating the canvas with photoemulsion and projecting a 35mm negative directly onto it in the darkroom. This photographic process was experimental, crude and produced images of rather poor quality. Thus, the technique allowed Baldessari to avoid association with the traditional touch of painting, the pop slickness of photo-silkscreen or the glossy surface of fine art photography.

In Oppenheim’s Reading Position for Second Degree Burn (1970) the artist’s own body functions as a site for conceptual activity. The piece includes a linguistic, propositional caption: “Stage I, Stage II. Book, skin, solar energy. Exposure time: 5 hours. Jones Beach, 1970.” This text sets up the work’s conceptual parameters, but does not make the images redundant. The impact and humor of Reading Position relies upon the two photographs: the “before” image of the artist lying on the beach with a large open book resting on his bare chest and the “after” image, in which the artist’s skin is visibly redder, except for a pale rectangle where the book had been. Oppenheim, also, discusses his piece in relation to painting: “The piece has its roots in the notion of colour change. Painters have always artificially instigated colour activity. I allowed myself to be painted, my skin became pigment. I could regulate its intensity through control of the exposure time.”(11) In some ways, the photographs confirm this reference to painting – though as opposed to the sunburned skin, it is the white rectangle on the artist’s chest that looks like a monochrome painting. Yet the piece is clearly photographic as well as painterly, as is clear from Oppenheim’s reference to exposure time. In effect, the artist is using the book and the sun to create a photogram on his body.

The photography in Oppenheim’s piece bears a special burden because it documents a performance, a mode in which the actions and experience of the artistic subject are themselves identified as a locus of artistic meaning. Photographs of performance or body art have an ambiguous status. By some, including Oppenheim himself, they are seen as mere records of a lost moment of authenticity. By others, they are seen as figurative works of art in and of themselves, gaining their authority by dint of the direct indexical relationship of the photograph to the original event.(12) Reading Position is a demonstration of the principle of indexicality. By comparing his body to a piece of photographic paper Oppenheim is giving the authority of personal experience to the index; he felt the effects of the sun leaving its physical trace on his body. As opposed to a faked or staged photograph (such as Dibbets’s), the presumably painful image created on Oppenheim’s body is incontrovertibly “real” – at least to him. But Oppenheim also underlines the extent to which indexicality is a matter of degree, by contrasting the immediate effects of the sun on his skin to the more mediated process of photography. Comparatively, the photographic index is shown to be constructed rather than natural. Oppenheim signals this with the book, entitled Tactics, he chose to shield his chest.

In his essay on photography for the 1995 Conceptualism exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, photographer Jeff Wall takes the position of a critic. He states that Conceptualism did, in fact, explore the medium specificity of photography and that the movement contributed to the acceptance of photography as fine art. He asserts: “Conceptual art played an important role in the transformation of the terms and conditions within which art-photography defined itself and its relationships with the other arts, a transformation which established photography as an institutionalized modernist form evolving explicitly through the dynamics of its auto-critique.”(13) Wall attributes this transformation to two factors. First, he sees photographic Conceptualism as having undermined the kinds of artistic subjectivity represented by photojournalism by offering a parodic reportage without event. Second, he argues that the work negated the technique and imagination of traditional fine art photography by substituting a pose of amateurism. As he describes it, the resulting photographs are so visually banal that they demand to be viewed with a new kind of intellectual seriousness. While Wall’s overarching point about the impact of Conceptualism on photography is valid, his assessment of the status of the medium in the 1960s is debatable. Characteristics that he describes as unique to Conceptual Art were in fact much more pervasive in photography. Fine art photographers, as well as and perhaps more than conceptualists, defined their project against the professional mode of journalism. Many art photographers resisted the narrative legibility and compositional resolution of journalistic work and instead explored modes familiar to amateur photography.

The Conceptualists and the fine art photographers of the period were grappling with the high formalist theories of the 1950s, although through different channels. Conceptual artists often conceived their works in reaction to Greenberg’s writing on formalist painting. Greenberg’s own position on photography was dismissive; he only wrote one extended piece on photography – a scathing review of a 1946 Edward Weston exhibition. Greenberg saw photography’s uses within an art context as very narrowly circumscribed. For him, the limitation upon the medium’s artistic potential was its indexicality (although it was not a term he used himself). As he summarized the issue: “Photography is the most transparent of the art mediums devised or discovered by man. It is probably for this reason that it proves so difficult to make the photograph transcend its almost inevitable function as document, and act as a work of art as well.”(14)

In Greenberg’s view, photography’s transparent relationship to the world undermines any attempts on the part of photographers to make autonomous works of art. A photograph that respects the obligations of its own medium would be anecdotal and literary. Greenberg exiles realism from painting, yet requires it in photography. In accordance with this opinion that photography ought to have “human interest,” Greenberg finds Walker Evans’s photographs to be exemplary. Weston’s images, however, in attempting to become autonomous works of art through abstraction, fail to be self-referential. For Greenberg they are self-indulgently photographic, failing to show the true nature of photography and displaying an “excessive concentration on the medium.” An overemphasis on the surface of the photograph offers only an “estranging coldness.”(15) If the photograph placed emphasis on itself as index, rather than pointing outward to the world, it lapsed into a presence of its own. Greenberg considered medium specificity and formalism to be synonymous in painting. His analysis of photography, however, did not allow the medium any formal values of its own.

Unsurprisingly then, photographic aesthetics languished during the 1940s and ’50s. While Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator Beaumont Newhall had begun to develop a formalist theory of photography in the 1930s, relying in particular on a binary opposition between tone and detail, he was replaced by Edward Steichen after World War II. Steichen’s shows and publications, The Family of Man (1955) foremost among them, prioritized subject matter and did not hesitate to violate the form of photographs by cropping them, enlarging or grouping them theatrically in space. There was no real advocate of formalism in photography until John Szarkowski became Director of the Department of Photography at MoMA in 1962.(16) With a directive and desire to legitimate photography as a fine art, Szarkowski generated a transliteration of Greenberg’s formalist aesthetics into photographic terms. He embraced the notion of medium specificity but rejected Greenberg’s emphasis on the indexical essence of photography.

Szarkowski laid out his approach in 1966, in a brief but highly influential eponymous catalog essay for the exhibition “The Photographer’s Eye.” In it he distills the photographic medium to five properties: “The Thing Itself,” “The Detail,” “The Frame,” “Time” and “Vantage Point.” He defines “The Thing Itself” as the actual, the presence of reality in the photograph, what is called the index. While Greenberg describes transparency as the key defining characteristic of photography, Szarkowski seeks to undermine the power of the index by revealing its artificially conventionalized nature. He writes that our faith in the thing itself “is naive and illusory, but it persists.”(17) For him, photographs offer an illusion of transparency, which need not serve as a limitation, but merely add a frisson of reality to the image. Identifying the trace of the real as one of the defining characteristics of photography, Szarkowski claims it as part of his formalist model, even though it is a semiotic rather than an aesthetic property of the medium. Similarly, “The Detail” is a category designed to refute the notion that photographs are fundamentally anecdotal. The term does not refer to the precision of photographs, but rather to their capacity to resist narrative. Szarkowski asserts that the fragmentation created by cropping photographs allows an image to function as a symbol rather than a story because it is cut off from spatial and temporal continuity. “The Frame” and “Vantage Point” are the two most dearly formal categories. The former refers to the edges of each image and the resulting geometric patterns created within the picture, while the latter describes the spatial relationship between camera and subject. “Time” also becomes a formal category for Szarkowski; it refers to the lines and shapes created in the composition at the moment of exposure.

This brief overview of Szarkowski’s formalist categories reveals that each is threatened by the presence of impinging non-formal concerns. The scheme presented in “The Photographer’s Eye” was effective in legitimating a form of photographic modernism, complete with autonomous artworks and inspired authors. The theory was particularly useful to MoMA in allowing photographs made at any time for any reason to be judged aesthetically without reference to their original context. By daring to attempt to define photography in terms of medium specificity, Szarkowski opened the door to photographers making use of all photographic properties, including those that he deliberately repressed – indexicality, contingency and conventionality. These were precisely the properties foregrounded in the works of Szarkowski’s proteges Winogrand and Friedlander.

In an untitled Winogrand photograph from the early 1970s, a middle-aged woman and a boy walk hand-in-hand toward a cannon. The picture is full of visual incident. It appears to have been taken with a wide-angle lens, allowing the photographer to incorporate a broad swath of space from a close vantage point. Reflective puddles show that it was taken on a rainy day. The wood planks of the ground and the word “boat” on a building indicate that the picture was made in a maritime setting. The figures are framed by buildings and cars, including a wildly painted Morris Minor. The photograph’s force, however, derives from the cannon in the bottom right-hand corner, which points up at an angle towards the two figures in the center of the frame. The visual anecdote created by this composition is entirely an element of the photographer’s position. Szarkowski saw Winogrand as constantly supplementing the subject matter that he found before him: “He believed that a successful photograph must be more interesting than the thing photographed.”(18) In this case, the photograph’s success resides in its creation of a visual anecdote out of unrelated elements in the world. While Szarkowski might see this as a triumph of the photographer’s unique vision, it could also be read as a subversion of originality. Making use of the imaginary sight line between the old cannon and the figures, Winogrand is playing on the same photographic rules targeted by Baldessari in Wrong. As in that piece, the photographer relies upon a perceptual error to give the picture meaning.

Szarkowski writes that Winogrand would look through the viewfinder and if he saw a familiar image he would not take the photograph.(19) The critic reads this as a sign of genius, but we could also understand it as a surrender of control, especially given the extraneous fact that Winogrand often let curators select works themselves from his mountains of contact sheets. That Winogrand avoided composing his pictures suggests less that he wanted the naivete of an amateur photographer than that he hoped to stumble upon someone else’s amateur photographs and use them like readymades. Like the conceptualists, Winogrand exploits a de-skilled photographic aesthetic – though, in his case, with formal ends in mind. For Winogrand there is no linguistic content. The goal is to produce pictures that are interesting to look at specifically because they teeter on the brink of banality. In a process parallel to the way conceptualists defined themselves against formalist painting, many of the fine art photographers of the 1960s and ’70s set themselves up against the narrative richness and formal fullness of both journalistic and fine art photography.

In much of Friedlander’s photography, the “wrong” model of photography is elevated to a signature style. In Lafayette, Louisiana (1968), Friedlander deliberately places a conspicuous vertical object, with no inherent value, in the foreground of the picture field, blocking our entry into the photographic space. While Baldessari’s palm tree is read as a signifier of bad photography, Friedlander uses it as a formal leitmotif. With these obstacles, Friedlander repeatedly demonstrates his resistance to a professionalized photographic aesthetic. Lafayette, Louisiana is one of several parade images in which the photographer avoids conventional frontal views and offers instead an anti-journalistic rear view of the event. In this case we see the backs of three uniformed figures and a lone majorette. Any importance the event may have had, other than as a configuration of shapes in space, is lost. At the base of the telephone or electrical pole, we see the shadow of a head, presumably the photographer’s. This inclusion of Friedlander’s shadow or reflection is characteristic of many other photographs. The projection of the author into the plane of the image is another violation of journalistic practice. With the shadow, Friedlander shows that the work is intended to be self-reflexive and subjective. If it were not so completely associated with Szarkowski and his formalist approach, this series of self-portraits might be seen as a kind of performance piece. In her discussion of the origins of postmodern art, art historian Abigail Solomon-Godeau describes the decline of photographic formalism in the 1960s and ’70s and the corresponding rise of interest in photographic works by artists who were able to approach the medium without the theoretical or institutional baggage of photographic modernism.(20) She sees the fine art photography of the period as characterized by “exhaustion, academicism and repetition.”(21) This state resulted not only from the failure of Szarkowski-style formalism, but also from the photographers’ exploration of medium-specific, but non-formal characteristics of their medium. Winogrand and Friedlander simultaneously fetishize and collapse form in their photographs. Event is indistinguishable from non-event, bad timing is celebrated and tropes of photographic “failure” are used as signatures of a newly self-aware, self-critical tendency. These works were certainly framed institutionally as high modernism and were promoted with an emphasis on mastery and originality. Nonetheless, the photographs have similarities with the conceptual works of the same period and the boundaries between them were sustained with a certain amount of anxiety. Conceptualists and fine art photographers shared common attitudes: neither was content continuing reliance on the transparency of the photographic index or on the naturalness of familiar photographic conventions.

Photographic postmodernism owes a debt to both austere photographic Conceptualism and MoMA-style photographic formalism. Artists such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Louise Lawler advanced the conceptual exploration of the nature of art into a critique of the political, institutional and semiotic conditions of representation. At the same time, their work has a formal component, relying explicitly on meanings produced within the pictures themselves. Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” of the late 1970s, for example, interrogate the conditions of photography from both angles. Like Dibbets, Baldessari or Oppenheim, Sherman preconceives a conceptual project that she then carries out with photographs. Alleged stills from films that never existed, the “Untitled Film Stills” remind us yet again that the photographic index is illusory and that our vision is powerfully influenced by convention. Like Winogrand, Sherman plays with a found photographic aesthetic, though she creates seemingly familiar, cliched images rather than apparently flesh ones. Like Friedlander, she uses her own presence in the images as a formal leitmotif. In her case, however, self-portraiture does not point toward the photographer’s own subjectivity, but rather to a gendered critique of the gaze. Photography produced since the 1970s has relied on discoveries made in the work of the conceptualists and the formalist photographers of the 1960s. While the former worked in opposition to Greenberg’s formalist scheme for painting, and the latter were influenced by Szarkowski’s version of photographic formalism, together they demonstrated that medium specificity for photography could encompass both images and ideas. Inverting Greenberg’s criticism of photography as anecdotal, they showed that a system of reference to the outside word, indexically with all its perceptual tricks and pitfalls, was itself a strength of the medium. Whether tempering photographic modernism with the look of amateurism, like Winogrand and Friedlander, or making use of a banal instrumental aesthetic, like the conceptualists, 1960s practitioners opened stylistic avenues for photography while at the same time generating new subject matter within the dynamics of photographic representation. Contingency, which both Greenberg and Szarkowski identified as a central weakness of photography as a modernist medium, earned photography a key role in contemporary art.

A version of this essay was first presented at Reclame Evening Forums, New York City, December 3, 1998.

NOTES 1. Dennis Oppenheim, cited by Alison de Lima Greene, “Dennis Oppenheim: No Photography,” Spot Vol. 12, no. 1 (Spring 1993), p. 5. 2. Here I am thinking in particular of the panel discussion “When Art Became Ideas: Rethinking the Late 60s and Early 70s” moderated by Robert C. Morgan at the School of Visual Arts in New York City on March 12, 1998, in which Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry and Adrian Piper expressed their ambivalence towards art historical labels assigned by the academy. 3. For one of the first discussions of postmodern photography see Douglas Crimps essay “Pictures,” first published in October no. 8 (Spring 1979), pp. 75-88. 4. For a discussion of the peculiar art world status of photographs made by non-photographers see Michael Starenko, “On Photography by Artists,” Artpaper Vol. 9, no. 2, p. 8. 5. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967), p. 8. 6. Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, “The Dematerialization of Art,” Art International Vol. 12, no. 2 (February 1968), pp. 31-36. Lippard reiterated the term as the subtitle of her anthology, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966-72 (New York: Praeger, 1973). 7. Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Idea Art:A Critical Anthology (New York: Dutton, 1973), p. 84. 8. John Roberts, “Photography, Iconophobia and the Ruins of Conceptual Art,” The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain 1966-76 (London: Camerawork, 1997), p. 9. 9. Jan Dibbets, interview with Avalanche 1 (Fall 1970), p. 37. 10. John Baldessari cited in Coosje van Bruggen, John Baldessari (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), p. 29. 11. “Dennis Oppenheim Interviewed by Willoughby Sharp,” Studio International 182, no. 938 (November 1971), p. 188. 12. For a discussion of the production of authenticity in performance and performance documentation see Mary Kelly, “Re-viewing Modernist Criticism,” in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), pp. 87-103. 13. Jeff Wall, “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art,” in Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, eds., Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-75 (Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), p. 247. 14. Clement Greenberg, “The Camera’s Glass Eye: Review of an Exhibition of Edward Weston,” in John O’Brian, ed., Clement Greenberg, Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 60. 15. Ibid., p. 61. 16. For an overview of the institutionalization of fine art photography in the United States see Christopher Phillips, “The Judgment Seat of Photography,” in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989), pp. 15-46. 17. John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966), p. 12. 18. John Szarkowski, Winogrand: Figments from the Real World (New York MoMA, 1988), p. 21. 19. Ibid., p. 26. 20. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Photography After Art Photography,” in Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 103-23. 21. Ibid., p. 112. LUCY SOUTTER, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, lectures on photography and twentieth-century art. A practicing photographer, she has published two artist’s books, Obsessive Love (1994) and Art Theory Made Me Cry (1995).

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