Straight to Video

Roy Exley charts the history of video art and picks some current favourites

When video technology took off in the late 1960s, it was taken on board, with gusto, by a whole army of avant-garde artists – and the term avant-garde had not yet passed into history. Only a handful of early video artists, however, went on to become stars of the international art circuit – the canvas and the free-standing sculpture, although subsumed by minimalism, and threatened by conceptualism, still held their own. Among these video artists were Korean-American artist Nam June Paik and Americans such as Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari. The work of these artists had a rough and ready demeanour, full of immediacy and aggressive edge. The slick commercialism of TV was missing here, no slow zooms, dissolves or fades, no seamless patching. In fact, editing was kept to a minimum in order to preserve that raw, spontaneous, real-time feel that is a characteristic of video.

Acconci and Nauman regularly turned the camera on themselves, so that the artist’s gesture, previously preserved on the surface of the canvas as an integral part of the artistic process, now appeared on the screen as the work itself, with the viewer as its voyeur. Paik created works with staccato rhythms by patching together whole hosts of short video takes into a chaotic montage, the viewing of which became a breathtakingly manic experience. Baldessari’s videos can only be characterised as anarchic, technically clumsy and artless; they were, essentially, a contemptuous critique of the overblown pomposity of the blue-chip art world.

The work of these early video artists was, typically, cutting-edge art, unapologetically transgressive, and aggressively uncompromising. Much of this early video art was extended experiment, pushing the technical possibilities of video, as, flying by the seats of their pants, these artists explored the new territory that it offered.

In the late 1970s a second generation of video artists came on to the scene. The work of Bill Viola, Gary Hill and Woody and Steina Vasulka was more aesthetically considered and philosophically rigorous than the work of their forbears – and it was slicker and sharper.

The body came to feature strongly in some of the video art of the 1970s. Trapped inside the monitor, the feeling of claustrophobia, confinement and isolation is a given, through which the depiction of the tortured body is afforded heightened intensity. This phenomenon was used to full advantage in the work of Chris Burden, Ana Mendieta and Carolee Schneeman, who submitted their bodies to trials of endurance, self-torture and mutilation. Burden had someone shoot him in the arm, was crucified on the roof of a VW Beetle and slithered, on his stomach, along a road scattered with broken glass, all for the sake of art, via the videotape.

At the other extreme of bodily sensation, the prostitute turned sex-therapist Annie Sprinkle made a host of videos where her therapeutic techniques were graphically depicted – as well as being a sex-therapist, she is an artist, thus maintaining a tentative, ever dubious line between pornography and art.

All of this early video work was confined to the screen of the TV monitor, which of course limited its possibilities as gallery art.

Video, however, was given a completely new lease of life with the advent of the video projector in the 1990s. It facilitated the large-scale projection of video images, whereby whole walls of galleries could be used and complex video installations could be created, the viewer becoming subsumed by the spectacle. This has been employed, to great effect, by artist Steve McQueen with his Turner Prize-winning homage to Buster Keaton, Deadpan; Jane and Louise Wilson in their works, Stasi City, Gamma and Parliament, which also featured in the Turner Prize last year; and by Bill Viola, who used video projection in a skilful and sympathetic way in Durham Cathedral in 1996 to show his compelling and moving work, The Messenger.

The video art spectrum covers many genres, from pseudo-documentary, through performance, self-portraiture, choreography, to landscape, romantic and sublime, abstraction, and even out-and-out fantasy. Any selection can only be a partial view, but the following survey covers as many genres as possible.

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