Thursday, February 7, 2008

Video Artists, Video Art ...And Television?, Torben Soeborg

A paper for the FIV 95 Festival, Nov. 1995, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Prejudice against video art?

From time to time the discussion about video art and television emerges once again, especially in connection with the discussion among artists and others about how to show video art, how to get video art out to the general public - and not only inside the secluded walls of festivals like FIV 95, however prestigious they might be .

You may state as the German video artist Egon Bunne (and many before him) that: "In modern culture, video art still has not gained the rank it deserves. Though video installations are welcome visual points of contemporary exhibitions, enriching and revaluating them upwards, video art itself is still burdened with prejudices and exposed to suspicious looks, if at all looked at." (1)

This goes also and to a high degree for the television. Both public and private television stations and networks find that "video art is too extra-ordinary to find a fixed place in the program" - with a few and unregular exceptions, "but they are soon dismissed because of low numbers of viewers". (1)

Now you could of course ask - and it has been done before - the "heritical" question: Should video art at all be shown at TV?

For the uncritical person the answer will, I am sure, be: Of course - where else? You do show video art on a Tv-screen and almost all television today is brodcast from video tapes and not "live". Also many artists working with video would answer like this.

Anti-TV - or talking back to media

If we look in the historical rear-view mirror you will find that the first video art in the 60’th were created in contrast to television as an encounter against the commercial television: "a counterpractice", as Nam June Paik said, "making gestures and inroads against Big Brother" (2). Both a critical and Utopian encounter:

"Not only a systematic but also a Utopian critique was implicit in video’s early use, for the effort was not to enter the system but to transform every aspect of it and - legacy of the revolutionary avant-garde project - to redifine the system out of existence by merging art with social life and making "audience" and "producer" interchangeable", and Martha Rosler (2) goes on and notes that "The surrealist-inspired or -influenced effort meant to develop a new poetry from this everyday "language" of television, to insert aesthetic pleasure into a mass form and to provide the uthopian glimpse afforded by "liberated" sensibilities."

You could say that the first video artists created "anti-TV", but later on you find that many video artists take their starting point in the mass media and consciously reflect over, comment on and deconstruct that virtual world the television as a mass media creates.

The artists choose to answer back: "Talking Back to Media", as the organizers called the big manifestation in Amsterdam in November 1985. They wanted through this manifestation "to show the work of artists who use a mass media and who, in their work want to deconstruct the "reality" conjured up by the mass media or, in some other way, to provide a commentary on those media" (3).

The artists now had better equipment, better tools and could as Peggy Gale points out, "reasonable infiltrate - if they were so inclined", but as she goes on: "But video as means of "talking back" does not aim to be TV".(3)

At the manifestation in Amsterdam were shown videos by a number of artists, among them Nam June Paik, Dara Birnbaum, Richard Serra, Klaus von Bruch, and I was asked to participate with the video "Vidéo: Ceci est la couleur" which might illustrate the "talking back": This video comments on how the mass media has influenced our sense of time. Måns Wrange expresses it like this: "The effect of the implosive media boom on our grasp of time is reflected in Torben Søborg’s "Vidéo: Ceci est la couleur", 1985. In a sequence taken in a living-room we INDIRECTLY see a film being shown on the television. Gradually the TV-screen is zoomed until it covers the whole picture surface. Suddently the film cuts DIRECTLY onto the video, and there is a dislocation between two fictive times in a single picture sequence" (4).

The video also reflects and comments on the sense of reality the mass media conveys: "We live in a world, feeling surrounded by video: music video clips on every TV-channel - almost. some nights two or three channels have MTV at the same time or just following each other. You see part of a video on one channel, flip to the next and see the beginning of that same video - and get the end on the third channel. All these videos melt together in your mind: make their own story, get their own life, a meta life of video - what is life? - what is video? - is it real or ... surreal? (5)

Regarding the deconstructive and Utopian aspect Jean Baudrillad (6) stresses that "...Duchamp, Dada, the surrealists and all those who have tried to deconstruct representation and let the art works blow up all still belongs to an avant-garde and in one or another way to the critical Utopia, but in his book "Theory of the Avant-Garde" (7) Peter Berger states that the avant-garde movement has failed: instead of destroying the commercial art world, the commercial art world swallowed the avant-garde and its "technics" as refreshing new effects: "Anti-art became art" as the creator of happenings Allan Kaprow did express it. The same happened to a certain degree with video art: Television "swallowed" and used the (anti)technics of video art, especially in music videos and ads.

... to be on TV

The goals of Anti-TV and Talking Back to TV was not "to be TV", nor to be shown on TV, but as the well-known American media artist John Sanborn pointed out a couple of years ago a change of attitude developed between American video artists. "Three years ago your honest video artist wouldn’t be caught dead with his or her work on TV. Just not done, old chap", but this gradually changed and now "The fact is we are interested in television ... getting our work on it: the name of the game is T-fucking-V". (8), and this change or tendency you also meet in Europe.

"A still greater number of video art productions meet the demans of television" and the Editorial of the Dutch magazine "Mediamatic2 goes on and states that you have to and must say that "this is a gratifying development that points to the videomaker’s increasing professionalization" (9),

... or do you really have to and must?

Although I have had some of my videos shown on television (Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Finland and New York) I am not shure and I want to question the statement that "this is a gratifying development".

To "play the game: T-funcking-V" is not exactly without costs. The statement that "A still greater number of video productions meet the demands of television" expresses indirectly somthing about the costs for the video artists: they are forced to "... establish an alternative aesthetic, one that is not alienating to the public nor economically impractical to the industry". (9)

I don’t think it can be said more clearly and precisely, and with a few exceptions (while writing this I look at a video by Bill Viola, taped from German television) it is, I am sorry to say, quite so. And the question is if its a good thing for the video art ?

Exposure on television means of course that so many more see the video art works, but if its only works of a certain type: those that "meet the demands of television", then the question is: Should we distinguish between video art and art for television, as the Australian-British video artist and theorist Simon Biggs did at a symposium about "Arts for Television"? (10)

About reading video (you look at tv, but you read video)

Simon Biggs finds that a poetic/dreamlike approach is charateristic for video art. Video is in contrast to television a compact medium which you "read" rather than watched - a "medium in which the voices of the author and reader are both foregrounded". By video the "reader" gets the possibility to pick up, to aquire the work because she/he is able to stop it, rewind, fast forward, search etc. - i.g. "read" it rather than only look at it - and she/he is able to brake up its temporal structure and in this way to "translate" it to "the self’s synchronic time".

In this way the video artist works with a medium that gives the viewer access to the role as reader, observer and interpreter. Television is in contrast to this composed of incidents which unfold in a diachronic time, a non-reversible narrative. Television is a medium predicted upon consensus and agreed codes over which the viewer has little control. Television neither affirms the author/reader relationship nor the particularity of the self .

TV and video is each based on different, distinct and special pshycological dynamics both concerning production and reception and even if it is technically possible to place the one medium with another, the "original" will - according to Simon Biggs - get lost in this process and change to a record or document of an artefact - or as Jeremy Welsh puts it: "Once video enters into working relationship with television, the two become functionally indistinguishable, or rather the parent swallows the child". (11)

And for the video art, Simon Biggs claims, this means the loss of what is characteristic about video art and in this way also the loss of its personalising characteristics and thus its nature as art. Jeremy Welsh puts it very short and sharp: "In short, video made for television is television"!

The real, poetic language

"Es bleibt dabei: Die Zeitfolge ist das Gebiete des Dichters, so wie der Raum das Gebiete des Malers"

The Swedish artist Måns Wrange quotes this sentence from Lessing’s book "Laokoon oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesi" (1776) in a draft about art and time (4), but the video artist must answer: ... aber es bleibt nicht dabei (but it does not stay with that), because the video art can be said to involve a temporalization of space in which the logical and causal (sensomotoric) connection between different kinds of picture sequences has dissolved. Wrange finds, like Biggs, that the effect is that it uges the viewer to an "active textual reading" instead of being automatically restrained to

convention-bound narrative and logic sequences as on TV..

Wrange also finds it tempting to compare video art with modern poetry’s attempt to brake down language to create new and unexpected combinations and engendering poetic effects in the voids between the fragments. Also Wolfgang Preikshat, coordinator at documenta 8 i 1987, assigns a poetical potential to video in his book "Die Poesie der Neuen Medien" (The Poesie of the New Media).

Video art: determine and develop its own way

With these reflections in mind I think we perhaps once and for all should drop these discussions about video art on television. I have no bad conscience about having some of my video art works shown on television. They were shown as they were and they were not created with the purpose to be shown on TV, not created out of an "alternative aesthetic, one that is not alienating to the public nor economically impractical to the industry". I even find it a good thing to get video art on television - let us for all things get as much video art on television as possible - but I do not think that this should be the goal for the artist working with video. The goal must first and last be the creation of an independent art work - an art work which, although it uses the same technical instruments as television, is essentially different from televison.

In "Simulations" Jean Baudrillard gives the famous McLuhan-sentence "The medium is the message" a new meaning:

"The media do not bring about socialization, but the opposite, the implosion of the social in the masses. And this is only the macroscopic extension of the implosion of meaning at the microscopic level of sign. The latter is to be analysed starting from McLuhan’s formula "the medium is the message", the consequences of which are far from being exhausted ... Its meaning is that the contents of meaning are absorbed in the dominat form of the medium. The medium alone makes the event and does this whatever the contents, whether conformist or subversive. A serious problem for all counter informations". (12)

You may ask: Where does this analysis leave video art? Must the goal of video/video art be, "to change the nature of the media, or to change our perceptions of what the media are, could be, or should be? Is it possible to subvert the media’s power, not simply inserting radical messages into its existing form, but by trying to change the thing itself?" (11). There is, Jeremy Welsh goes on, of course not a simple answer to this. It is of course tempting, when you think of the current hostility of the environment, for video to drop its critical guard, take the soft options and give television what it wants without retaining any independence, but for me there is no doubt about that the answer must be, as Jeremy Welsh puts it, that "video must continue to develop its own resources, its own practices" and in this way also by itself "determine the ways in which it will relate to television, to society, to its audience".

Torben Soeborg

1. Egon Bunne: "Videokunst zwichen Warenhaus und Television/Video Art Between Department Store and
Television", Catalogue of European Media Art Festival 1993, Osnabrück 1993, p. 307ff
2. Martha Rosler: "Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment", in René Payant: "Vidéo",
Montréal 1986, p. 240ff
3. Sabrina Kamstra et al: "Talking Back to the Media", Amsterdam 1985.
4. Måns Wrange: "Utkast om konst och tid" in Siksi. Nordic Art Review,4/87, Helsinki 1987, p.32ff
5. Torben Søborg: Text to the video "Vidéo: Ceci est la couleur", 1985
6. Jean Baudrillard: "Den maskinelle snobbisme", Copenhagen 1992, p. 8ff
7. Peter Berger: "Theory of the Avant-Garde", Minneapolis 1984
8. John Sanborn: "Clues visual Humming: the Video Artist as Schizoid", in "Video 80, 1989, p. 11
9. "Mediamatic", vol. 2, No. 2, Amsterdam 1987, p.
10. Simon Biggs: "Dreamtime. Speculations on video as Dream",
in "Mediamatic", vol.2, No. 2, Amsterdam 1987, p. 89ff
11. Jeremy Welsh: "Mixed Methaphors: Broken Codes", in René Payant: "Vidéo",
Montreal 1986, p. 213ff
12. Jean Baudrillard: "Simulations", Semiotexte, 1983

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