Surveying the First Decade: Video Art and Alternative Media in the US, 1968-1980 (Web Exclusive)
by Jared Rapfogel
We live, as even the most celluloid-happy of film scholars and enthusiasts have increasingly been forced to acknowledge, in the Age of Video. The transition away from film has transpired almost imperceptibly, with high-definition video having achieved a resolution and clarity that makes it nearly indistinguishable from 35mm film. But the fact remains that digital production and projection are rapidly consigning the more expensive and unwieldy processes by which the cinema has traditionally been defined to the history books (or in any case, to the realm of film archives and repertory theaters). In this brave new digital world, it’s worthwhile to contemplate a period when the medium was not so much a threat to film, a new technology fated to supersede it, but rather a genuine alternative, a method of creating and presenting moving pictures that was radically new, technologically but also esthetically and even philosophically. With the introduction in 1967 of the first affordable portable video camera, the Portapak, filmmakers, artists, and purveyors of radical media suddenly found themselves armed with a motion-picture apparatus that offered a host of new tools and potentialities, new methods of expressing ideas and capturing reality, a new medium whose nature and parameters cried out for exploration and experimentation. And in the decade or so of the medium’s infancy, an explosion of exploration did indeed occur, as a host of pioneers set about mapping the possibilities offered by video.
Given the enormous volume of creative activity that transpired in video’s infancy, and the vast range of approaches, the project of encapsulating this period is an inherently daunting one. But Surveying the First Decade: Video Art and Alternative Media in the U.S., 1968-1980, the ambitious DVD box set organized and produced by Chicago-based Video Data Bank—one of the most important, committed, and longstanding of experimental video distributors—manages the task with great aplomb. Originally released on VHS in 1995, and now making its first appearance on DVD (albeit pitched at and priced for the educational/institutional market), Surveying the First Decade is more than simply a compendium. Organized thematically, it comprises eight tightly-curated programs, each designed to represent a particular facet of early video, from performance-oriented works and formal experiments to videos critiquing, or providing alternatives to, mainstream media. These eight programs add up to a remarkably thorough and coherent history of the medium’s early years, a survey of the diverse ways in which video was utilized.
If Surveying the First Decade has an overriding organizational principle, it’s a movement from pieces emerging from the avant-garde or art world—works that explore the medium’s formal and esthetic dimensions, and its intersections with the then-emerging realms of performance and conceptual art—to those rooted in political protest, social activism, and the determination to establish a truly independent, noncommercial media. Not that these strands are always opposed. Perhaps even more than in the realm of underground filmmaking, the formally and politically radical frequently went hand in hand in early video works—examples here include Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman’s Television Delivers People (an all-text, direct-address attack on corporate television), Phil Morton’s General Motors (a chaotic and comic rant against the filmmaker’s local GM dealership), Ant Farm’s The Eternal Frame (a study on the media coverage of the Kennedy assassination), and almost all of the feminist oriented films included in the program entitled “Gendered Confrontations.” But while the two strands overlap in particular cases, most of the works selected here occupy one or the other end of the spectrum.
The box set’s first three programs unambiguously represent the esthetic/formal position, bringing together a selection of works exploring the new medium’s appeal to artists of many different stripes. Indeed, one of the most striking features of these programs (not to mention of the set as a whole), and perhaps a further indication of the crucial if not always self-evident distinctions between film and video, is how few of the videomakers represented on these eight discs are familiar from the world of avant-garde or underground film. Filmmakers had been exploring the possibilities of an alternative, noncommercial cinema for decades by the time the Portapak came on the scene, with the late-Sixties/early-Seventies witnessing the emergence of structural film (a turning away from narrative, performance, documentation, and even photography, which manifested itself in the exploration of the physical characteristics of photochemical filmmaking). Early video art was dominated not by representatives of the underground film tradition, but by artists from many different disciplines. Among the videomakers represented on the first three discs are the sculptor Richard Serra, the composer Charlemagne Palestine, the playwright Richard Foreman, and a whole host of artists associated with performance or conceptual art, including Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Robert Morris, Paul McCarthy, and Bruce Nauman, very few of whom had ever been active as filmmakers. There are exceptions to be sure, including Tony Conrad (whose The Flicker is one of the seminal structuralist films), Ed Emshwiller, and Serra; and many other filmmakers not included here expanded into video sooner or later (Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, and Ernie Gehr, among them). But the relative lack of cross-pollination—surprising on the surface, since film and video would appear to be close cousins—underlines the fact that these are indeed two profoundly different forms, involving very different processes and offering very different possibilities. And the proliferation of conceptual and performance artists in particular points to a special affinity between this new medium and the trends that were transforming the production and reception of art in this period.
If there’s one thing that ties together many of the videos on both ends of the esthetic/political spectrum, it’s a palpable excitement at the newfound ease with which it had become possible to record reality. Never before had the process of filming been so simple, so direct; never before had it been possible to film without interruption for such a long period of time, or to view the results so immediately. For the videomakers motivated mainly by a determination to combat the hegemony of mainstream media—in other words, for those who were primarily interested in the message rather than in the medium—the benefits of this technical simplicity and immediacy were uncomplicated and unmistakable, a primarily practical advantage. But the medium’s qualities were equally well-suited to the concerns of performance and conceptual artists, for whom it soon became an integral part of their practice—and these artists were to launch an investigation into the broader implications of video’s attributes.
For some of the artists featured in the box set, video simply provided an opportunity to document their work and make it available to much larger audiences than possible otherwise. Examples include Paul McCarthy’s Black and White Tapes, which finds the artist dragging his body through a pool of paint on the floor, and later hanging against a wall with his head cropped out of the frame, creating a strikingly abstracted form with his lower body; John Baldessari’s Baldessari Sings LeWitt, wherein the artist wittily sets some of Sol LeWitt’s critical writings to song; and Dan Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror, a document of one of the many performance pieces with which Graham in this period explored questions of public and private identity, consciousness, and self-presentation. In this film, he positioned himself between the audience and a wall-size mirror, alternately describing his own actions and appearance, and those of the audience, who were visible to Graham and to themselves.
In many of the videos included in the set, though, the medium plays a much more complicated, active role—the camera becomes more than simply a recording apparatus, but rather something like a partner in, or element of, the performances themselves. This is perhaps most apparent in Joan Jonas’s Vertical Roll, a kind of dance choreographed for performer, image, and video monitor. By adjusting the vertical hold on her TV set, Jonas destabilized the image, triggering a rhythmic vertical roll, which is emphasized by a loud, piercing, hammering sound that occurs in concert with the repeated jumping of the image. The focus on an effect unique to video qualifies Vertical Roll as an example of video structuralism. Jonas, however, uses the vertical roll as much more than simply a way of calling attention to the medium; the images subjected to the vertical roll depict Jonas herself—dancing, performing simple actions, and manipulating various objects—and her movements on-screen often rhyme or interact with the rhythmic movement of the image. The vertical roll, in other words, is integrated into the performance, becoming a participant in it.
The interaction between camera and performance recurs again and again, often in witty ways. In William Wegman’s Dog Duet, off-screen space plays a crucial role, as Wegman waves a tennis ball behind the camera, an invisible action visible only as reflected in the hilariously synchronized motions of two Weimaraners whose attention is fixed on the unseen object. And in Bruce Nauman’s Stamping in the Studio, the artist’s comically pointless and seemingly endless stomping around his empty studio is made even more absurd by Nauman’s flipping the image upside down, and rendering the image and sound out of synch.
If many early video artists were quick to embrace the unprecedented ease of recording that video provided, there was another crucial quality to the medium that soon became a recurring, and extremely fruitful, theme in their work, one suggested by Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror, even if somewhat indirectly. The piece is a complex, multilayered investigation into the concept of performance and self-consciousness—Graham’s real-time descriptions of the minutiae of his own appearance and behavior as he performs various actions before the audience question the relationship between performer and viewer, a relationship that is soon transformed as he turns his attention to describing the audience’s own reactions. And the mirror before which he performs provides another layer of complexity, with Graham observing himself and the audience sometimes directly, sometimes via the mirror, and with the audience always visible to themselves. This mirror, and the self-consciousness it encourages, stands in for an aspect of the new medium that early video artists found perhaps even more radical and inspiring than the simple fact of being able to record easily and uninterruptedly: namely, the immediate playback it made possible. The ability to record easily was an element that had momentous consequences, to be sure—but this feature was nevertheless essentially an expansion of the possibilities provided by the film camera. Immediate playback, on the other hand, was truly something new under the sun. And video artists were quick to embrace this new tool, enthusiastically exploring its artistic, theoretical, and philosophical implications.
The theme that emerges most conspicuously from those videos that experiment explicitly with immediate playback is the concept of mirroring. Richard Serra’s Boomerang, made in collaboration with Nancy Holt, is the clearest embodiment of the theme among the works selected here. In Boomerang, Serra trains the camera on Holt, who, as she speaks, hears her own voice played back, with just a slight delay, through a pair of headphones. Maintaining a running commentary, Holt describes her experience as it occurs, becoming both the subject and the object of her observation (much like Graham in his own piece). The spectacle Serra conveys is that of a woman transformed into an image before her very eyes (or ears—in this case it is purely an aural image, but of course the phenomenon could just as well extend to the visual). And the implications of this are profound, in the context not only of the moving image but also of perception, identity, and self-consciousness. Boomerang begins to question the effect on human consciousness of living in a world in which reality can be instantly transformed into an image—and not the “natural” image found in a mirror, but the media-inflected image found on a TV monitor.
As Holt speaks, hears herself speak, and speaks about hearing herself speak, the medium of video begins to take on the qualities of a hall of mirrors, an endless succession of reflections created by a single reality, an infinite feedback loop. It’s a quality suggested by Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror but acknowledged even more explicitly in another Graham piece, not included in Surveying the First Decade—the installation Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay, in which two monitors, each connected to a camera, face two mirrors on opposite walls. Entering this room, one is encompassed in a series of reflections: the infinite series of “real” reflections created by the facing mirrors, as well as the video images, one of them live, the other delayed by several seconds. Graham creates an environment in which one is encouraged to ponder the existential status of these various images, their relationship to one’s own actuality, and their impact on one’s consciousness and sense of self.
While the installation format allowed Graham a level of complexity and layering not easily achieved with a single-channel video, several other pieces on the Video Data Bank set follow Boomerang’s lead in using video to express some form of mirroring or doubling, perhaps never so systematically as in Peter Campus’s six-part Double Vision, a veritable catalog of the effects that can be achieved by juxtaposing images shot simultaneously by two separate cameras, a series of ingenious variations on a theme. In the first part, two cameras pan in opposite directions across a room, creating a dynamic, almost dizzying visual effect; in the next, the cameras move in synch, but are not perfectly superimposed, so that one image resembles the shadow of the other; in the third, the cameras are stationary, as Campus walks away from them towards the other side of the room and then back, each time adjusting the cameras so that his twin images grow closer and closer together; in the fourth, he juxtaposes the image filmed by one camera with the image of that camera filming; and so on.
Other works in the set articulate different modes of feedback or layering. In Robert Morris’s Exchange—the result of his collaboration with Lynda Benglis, a fellow video artist with whom he engaged in a dialog that took the form of exchanging videotapes—Morris combines various chapters in this correspondence, along with a commentary explaining the process. In Arthur Ginsberg and Video Free America’s hour-long tape, The Continuing Story of Carel and Ferd (a half hour of which is excerpted here), a couple who was filmed in intimate detail is shown reacting to these original tapes several years later, confronting their earlier selves. And in My Father, Shigeko Kubota records herself watching a tape of her deceased father, who exists for her now only as a video image.
If all the works mentioned so far have one thing in common, it’s that their departure point is video’s capacity as a tool for documenting the visual world. Whether they are relatively straightforward documents (Black and White Tapes, Stamping in the Studio, Performer/Audience/Mirror, Baldessari Sings LeWitt, the Wegman videos), or more complicated meditations on video’s capacity to record (Vertical Roll, Exchange, Boomerang, Double Vision), they are still founded on the principle of photography. And as such, it’s striking how much of early video is distinctly and unapologetically rough, how unconcerned these artists are with any conventional sense of visual pleasure. Where even the most willfully amateurish and unpolished Underground films—Pull My Daisy, Flaming Creatures, and The Flower Thief, for instance—achieved a new kind of beauty in their liberation from the “rules” of commercial filmmaking, most of the early videos included in the first half of the Video Data Bank set eschew any notion of plastic beauty. These are more or less conceptual pieces, and as such they embrace the lo-fi, “ugly” nature of the young medium as a way of stripping things down to essentials, of moving beyond visual pleasure.
Nevertheless, an entirely distinct approach to video was being explored in this period as well, one that engaged with an element of video technology every bit as novel as the elements with which Graham, Jonas, Serra, and the others were preoccupied. Program 5 of the box-set is entitled “Performance of Video-Imaging Tools” and is devoted to artists who embraced the various means the medium provided for manipulating, transforming, and abstracting video images, or indeed for bypassing the camera entirely and creating images directly via video synthesizers. Factoring in this program, as well as several other pieces scattered throughout the other discs, the box set reveals early video as a format vacillating between two opposite poles: straightforward, largely unadulterated recording of reality on the one hand, and maximum image manipulation on the other. Many of the films that indulge in video manipulation appear rooted in the tradition of film abstraction pioneered by Harry Smith, Marie Menken, Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, and others. But the tools available to videomakers are profoundly different than those of their cinematic counterparts, and the variety of pieces included here demonstrate many of them, from the total abstraction of works like Stephen Beck’s Video Weavings or Ralph Hocking’s Wave Forms—which were created without a camera—to others such as Ernest Gusella’s Video-Taping, Peer Bode’s Music on Triggering Surfaces, or Woody Vasulka’s C-Trend, which radically transform an original image without obscuring it entirely. Then there are pieces like Phil Morton’s General Motors and the great Nam June Paik’s Merce by Merce by Paik, which combine extreme stylization with relatively unmanipulated elements, creating impossible worlds made possible only by video technology. In all of these works, the recorded image, or the otherwise generated video signal, become raw material, subject to an infinite range of possible interventions, transformations, and departures.
As radically different as these highly manipulated or camera-less works are from the conceptual and performance-based videos of Serra, Jonas, Graham, McCarthy, Wegman, and the others, they are even further removed in their aims from the works that comprise the last three programs in the box set. Rather than exploring the formal and theoretical dimensions of the newly-accessible medium, a whole host of other moving-image makers and groups seized upon video’s potential as a tool for documentary production, and in particular for the creation of an alternative media situated in opposition to commercial broadcast television. Coming together to form collectives, independent institutions, and even alternative television stations—establishing communities as well as pooling the still-expensive video equipment—these videomakers set about documenting the social and political realities they perceived as being neglected or suppressed by commercial mass media. Groups such as Broadside TV, Downtown Community Television, Global Village, Optic Nerve, People’s Communication Network, People’s Video Theatre, Portable Channel, Raindance Corporation, Top Value Television (TVTV), Video Free America, Videofreex, and many others worked to create, distribute, transmit, archive, and encourage the production of works embodying a socially and politically radical perspective.
Program 7, entitled “Critiques of Art and Media as Commodity and Spectacle,” offers a selection of works that explicitly critique, or offer critical analyses of, mainstream media, from Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman’s Television Delivers People (which posits commercial television as a medium designed not to deliver information to viewers but to deliver viewers to advertisers) and University Community Video-Minneapolis’s The Business of Local News (an exposé of the purely commercial motive of most television news), to Anthony Ramos’s fascinating About Media, in which Ramos, one of the Vietnam War deserters covered by Jimmy Carter’s blanket pardon, investigates his own intersection with the mainstream media, via its coverage of his story.
The works in Programs 6 and 8 are every bit as critical of the mainstream media, but their critiques are embodied in their own alternative practice. Program 6 includes remarkable, vérité-style documents of social unrest and activism, including David Cort and Curtis Ratcliff’s Mayday Realtime, shot during a 1971 anti-Vietnam War demonstration in D.C., and excerpts from the library of the People’s Video Theatre, capturing a Women’s Liberation March, a Gay Pride march, the occupation of a NYC church by the radical Puerto Rican group the Young Lords, and a Native American protest at Plymouth Rock. There are testimonials from figures who would almost certainly be ignored by commercial television in Portable Channel’s Attica Interviews and People’s Communication Network’s Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison. Perhaps most important among the selections on Program 6, despite its brief running time and unspectacular content, is the excerpt from the First Transmission of ACTV (Austin Community Television), since it makes explicit reference to the establishment in 1972 of public-access television, and features an appearance by George Stoney, one of the pioneers of independent media and public access. The advent of public-access TV consummated the promise represented by video, making it possible for those with minimal means not only to access equipment and produce work, but to transmit that work throughout a community. This ability did not prevent independent media producers from aspiring to reach larger audiences: the Video Data Bank set concludes with three hour-long documentary films whose makers succeeded in finding a home for their work on public television stations (including one—Healthcare: Your Money or Your Life—whose undimmed relevance more than three decades later is grimly depressing). But however limited in scope, public access, nevertheless, represented a significant alternative to the hegemony of mainstream media.
The range of work—of approaches, experiments, and aspirations—encompassed within the first decade of independent video is breathtaking, and Surveying the First Decade displays the curatorial sophistication, and sheer bulk, necessary to convey it. If there’s a caveat to be made regarding the set, it’s the prevalence of works that are excerpted rather than included in their entirety. In some cases, this is understandable—in this context, there’s clearly no need to watch Bruce Nauman stamping around his studio for an extra fifty-six minutes and thirty-five seconds. And the benefits of the set’s emphasis on presenting curated programs, rather than simply compiling an enormous number of individual films, surely outweigh the sacrifices. Some pieces, however, feel severely truncated (Richard Foreman’s Out of the Body Travel and Ramos’sAbout Media, among them) or are important enough that access to the whole would be very welcome (Vito Acconci’s Undertone, McCarthy’s Black and White Tapes, and so on). In other cases, it’s unclear why we’re given only an excerpt (the extreme case is Hocking’s Complex Wave Forms, of which we see four minutes and eleven seconds of what is apparently a five-minute tape). Most likely the decision to excerpt has something to do with the rights for licensing these films to video, but nowhere is the rationale provided.
Nevertheless, this is an insignificant complaint in the face of the wealth of material gathered over the course of these eight DVDs, and the coherence of the set’s historical narrative. All the more so since, along with the DVDs themselves, the set comes with a CD-ROM containing REWIND, an invaluable, 150-page book that provides a wealth of (much-needed) historical, contextual, and technical information. With a comprehensive, extremely informative opening essay by Chris Hill, introductions articulating the rationale behind each program, brief descriptions for each film, and two articles (one from the initial 1995 edition, the other a more recent follow-up) describing the processes and problems involved in preserving early video works, REWIND is nearly as indispensable as the box set itself. Taken together, Surveying the First Decade is a magnificent achievement, a demonstration of the potentialities and energies unleashed by the advent of new modes of expression and communication—Jared Rapfogel
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Jared Rapfogel is an Associate at Cineaste, and a Film Programmer at Anthology Film Archives in New York City.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.