Lecture Companion, Brief History of Video

Below are notes and several videos that correspond to Kate Horsfield’s essay “Busting the Tube: A Brief History of Video Art

As suggested by Horsfield, video emerged with the Sony Portapak in 1965. The Portapak was the first “affordable” and portable video camera available to consumers. Because the Portapak was still expensive ($1,000 – 3,000 in 1967, compared to $10 – 20,000 TV cameras) many groups of artist and activists bought a camera collectively and shared it for their multiple projects, and commonly worked collaboratively.

Sony Portapak
Videofreex using Portapak, likely early ’70s

It is important to understand that the entrance of the Portapak into the market and the emergence of video art corresponded with a groundswell of cultural and political activism contemporaneous with the Vietnam War and what many deemed as US Imperialism, racism, the beginnings of a resurgent feminist movement, and a vibrant counter-culture. In short, there were several massive social movements. As of part of this cultural shift, particularly with young people, it is hard to underestimate the influence of Television on Americans in the mid-60s, which approximately 90% of  households owned. With only three network channels, the political spectrum presented was often narrow, which was cause for great concern for many early adopters of video and the Portapak. In this light we can begin to understand how many young activists saw Television as the primary means through which information was being disseminated, and thus to create their own content was, in a way, to also take control of the means of production in one aspect of culture. These activists wanted to be producers of content rather than spectators of Television, and create a different, more grassroots narrative of what was happening on the ground. Thus we begin to see collectives forming like the People’s Video Theater and Videofreex. These collectives were the first to take the camera into the streets, interviewing participants of social movements, demonstrations, and marches. It would not be a stretch to say these collectives created a style of Television we would later call “on the scene,” (they preferred “Guerilla TV”) now even more common post-internet and post cell-phone cameras. The point was to democratize video, for the spectators to begin authors in their own right.

Below is the trailer for Here Comes the Videofreex, which will help you get a sense of the climate these activists were stepping into, their style of shooting video, and their goals.

Here Come the Videofreex, dir Jenny Raskin & John Nealon, 2015

Below you can get a sense of the kinds of video Videofreex were producing and how they attempted to create content of social and political significance. This an interview with Fred Hampton, leader of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, a few weeks before he was murdered by the FBI in 1969. Notice the intimacy of the recording and the willingness of the videographer to be open to Hampton’s thoughts. To offer the Black Panthers a platform on a video form was extremely uncommon in 1969.

Videofreex interview Fred Hampton, 1969

Artist were also using video to explore power, although in a quite different fashion. Horsfield cites Vito Acconci’s Prying, (18m, 1971). Note the use of the body and time to affect the viewers attraction / repulsion to the video. This is common with Acconci, and illustrates one of the strategies time-based media will use frequently in the years following. Of course, to not discuss gender in relation to power with this video is impossible. That a masculine performer (VIto Acconci) is attempting to trespass the feminine performer’s (Kathy Dillon) bodily space is significant. Here is the description from the distributor, EAI:

“A documentation of a live performance at New York University, Pryings is a graphic exploration of the physical and psychological dynamics of male/female interaction, a study in control, violation and resistance. The camera focuses tightly on Kathy Dillon’s face, as Acconci tries to pry open her closed eyes. Dillon resists, at times protecting her face or fighting to get away. Locked in a silent embrace, the couple’s struggle is violent, passionate; Acconci’s sadistic coercion is tinged with a sinister tenderness. The body is a vehicle for a literal enactment of the desire for and resistance against intimate contact.

Acconci writes, ‘The performer will not come to terms, she shuts herself off, inside the box(monitor), my attempt is to force her to face out, fit into the performer’s role, come out in the open.’”

Please be aware this video is very hard to watch, particularly for those sensitive to depictions of violence. TRIGGER WARNING.

Vito Acconci, Pryings, 1971

Joan Jonas’ Vertical Roll (1972) is a “performance piece re-scanned from an image on a monitor on the vertical roll control that was set off kilter. The effect is of an image continuously rolling vertically out of the frame that deliberately interferes with the visual pleasure of watching a woman on camera.” But Jonas is also altering the reliability of the televisual signal. One way to read this action — destablilizing the signal — is an act of power, to destabilize the medium of television, particularly as it intersect with a reinforcement of patriarchal values. To put it another way, Jonas doubles her critique by simultaneously showing the instability of form of television while disrupting the common representations of women-as-objects, disrupting our ability to view women as objects of pleasure. The video refuses the viewing an opportunity to participate in voyeuristic viewing of the woman’s body, and refuses a pleasurable viewing experience. In this way, Jonas deploys an antagonistic strategy toward the viewer, another strategy artists will employ in various ways.

Joan Jonas, Vertical Roll, 1971

One could view Vertical Roll as a structural critique of the form of video, of television. To disrupt the structure of something is it make note of the ideological foundations that support a given form. In Jonas’ case, it was both the form of television/video as well as representations of women in popular media. Rosler will take employ strategy by writing a performance and series of actions that uses mimicry to destabilize perceptions of white, domestic, femininity. Horsfield notes that Rosler’s important video could be read as strategically deconstructing feminine signifiers “the securely understood signs of domestic industry and food production erupt into anger and violence. In this alphabet of kitchen implements, states Rosler, “when the woman speaks, she names her own oppression.” (EAI description) As Angelica said eloquently in class, the subtleties of Rosler’s bodily movements — how she holds her body, her posture, her gestures — as well as actions (the stabbing of the fork, the slashing of the knife) suggest her strength, power, and a subversion of how we commonly understand feminine characteristics; her strong body, her unwillingness to smile or perform for the camera, he sharp, violent movements with the kitchen objects, all subvert the domestic space and femininity as a space of service and instead a site of power, subversion, and violent temperament boiling just beneath the surface.

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975

Dara Birnbaum invokes similar strategies political strategies as Rosler in analyzing and pointing to common gendered gestures on a popular television show, Wonder Woman. Notice how post-production becomes more important for Birnbaum, who incorporates more effects to emphasize particular aspects the video. In terms of the history of video technology, this corresponds with more affordable post-production equipment, which accounts for less editing and post production with early video art. Repetition, cuts, and montage become significant strategies in Birnbaum’s work unlike what we’ve seen before in video. Technology / Transformation is also an early use of appropriation, which will make use of popular media in order to deconstruct and subvert its’ gendered messaging.

Birnbaum points to the not-so-subtle sexism in the shows framing. Birnbaum writes: “The abbreviated narrative — running, spinning, saving a man — allows the underlying theme to surface: psychological transformation versus television product. Real becomes Wonder in order to “do good” (be moral) in an (a) or (im)moral society.” In post-production Birnbaum makes use of repetition and effects to emphasize the “real” woman who transforms into Wonderwoman and the ways Television’s code can gloss its ideological meaning. Finally, Birnbaum points us to the explicit sexualized lyrics of the theme song, hammering home her

Dara Birnbaum, Technology Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978

Through storytelling and role play Pindell both offers a personal narrative of what it means for her to be black as well as an analysis of whiteness — its common understandings, phrases, and dismissals — of black experience. Pindell’s double-character could be read as an attempt to take some unsympathetic viewers words right out their mouth, while cynically point out the common and tired narrative many white folks reiterate in the face of black experience. Pindell simultaneously brings us into her world, sharing her experiences. Pindell also uses mimicry and strategies of deconstruction to articulate and thus destabilize common rhetorical strategies to de-legitimize her black experience. Note how Pindell used storytelling, a time-based strategy, to bring us into her world.

Pindell also eloquently speaks to the art historical canon in stating that her work, as a black woman, will not be recognized unless it uses white symbols. As the “white” performer/antagonist says: “Your art isn’t political, either. You’re experiences have to be in your art in a way that we consider valid. If your symbols aren’t used in a way that we use them, then, we won’t acknowledge them.” Here Pindell makes powerful commentary on the ways the art world can often deligitimate modes of expression that fall outside of the accepted modes of making and expression. Pindell reinforces that what is accepted as a legitimate mode of artistic expression is often a highly racialized one.

pindellHowardeena Pindell, Free, White, and 21, 1980

Paper Tiger Television, founded in 1981 and based in New York City was “an early innovator in video art and public access television of the early 80’s, PTTV developed a unique, handmade, irreverent aesthetic that experimented with the television medium by combining art, academics, politics, performance and live television.” It is important to remember that public access (as pioneered by collectives like Videofreex, discussed above) was one of only a few channels, likely three or four. Below is a live performance for PTTV in which “Rosler deconstructs the messages in Vogue and its advertising. Rosler looks at the institutional slants of the magazine industry and the fashion industry’s reliance on sweatshops.” (ubu.com) Rosler will employs many of the strategies we’ve also discussed — critique, deconstruction, and subversion — in an explicit and direct manner while flipping through the pages of Vogue. Significantly, Rosler also connects gender to issues of class and economics, specifically capitalism, by drawing connections between content of the magazine, its owners, and its advertisements. Finally, it is important to emphasize that do-it-yourself nature of PTTV, which views itself autonomous from the network television and working directly against it using the same medium (TV). Understanding the DIY ethics of PTTV is essential to understanding their significance as well as their artistic and political project.

Paper Tiger Television, Martha Rosler Reads Vogue, 1983

Pipilloti Rist’s I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much is the last video we’ll view here, although obviously the “history of video art” is much more profound, complex, and does end in 1986! I elected to show this video because I think is illustrates how, technically speaking, video began to shift with the technology that became available. Rist’s use of post-production foreshadows many strategies arts can and will use in the future thanks to technology, which include audio manipulation, screen transitions, etc.

“Rist’s classic video takes on rock music with its own tools, pushing pop’s repetitive strategies and representations of women to absurd lengths. Footage of the artist chanting the piece’s title (a line adapted from The Beatles’ song Happiness is a Warm Gun) is replayed at high and low speeds, with obscuring video effects, blurring into an almost painterly procession of images. Rist’s manipulation renders her voice into a parody of female hysteria and her body into a grotesquely dancing doll. Through obsessive mimesis Rist exhausts any possible legibility of the words, only to finally deliver John Lennon singing the “real” song.” (EAI description)

Pipilotti Rist, I’m Not the Girl Who Misses Much, 1986