Pioneering video art and its language
Curated by Vince Briffa
11th - 28th September 2018
Steina and Woody Vasulka
Since its inception, video has been a problematic medium to define. In his book Being & Time: The Emergence of Video Projection, Marc Meyer describes video’s enigmatic character and its unstable relationship with the plastic arts as one that “would connect it more appropriately to the temporal arts of music, dance, theatre, literature or cinema” (Meyer, 1996). He explains that through a set of complicated electro-magnetic devices, “video is more an end than any one specific means; it is a series of electronic variations on an audio-visual theme that has been in continual progressive flux since its inception” (Meyer, 1996). When looking at the medium from the already established, plastic arts point of view, Meyer at the time of writing explains that “video’s theoretical and practical possibilities are so inconceivably vast, its versatility so immeasurably profound and of such perplexing unorthodoxy, that even after a quarter of a century, the medium’s defenders are still struck with vertiginous awe as if glimpsing the sublime”.
In this light, it becomes rather clear why video, unlike many other mediums of creative expression, was practiced in mostly unorthodox ways. So much so, that in the 1960s and approximately the decade after, the art world was still trying to allocate it a suitable art-historical pigeonhole in order to make sense of what a relatively small group of artists – who understood the medium’s intellectual and communication potential – were producing and showing on TV sets*; the same devices that had by then become the most popular source of information and entertainment dissemination.
It was, therefore, through this strange amalgamation of intellectual and increasingly political artistic practice, carried through this popular mass communication device, that Video Art practice deconstructed and dismantled the ‘preciousness’ of the art product, and, subsequently, the revered status of the artist.
The exhibition Electromorphologies brought together some of the earliest exponents of the moving image in Contemporary Art and presented works that precede Video Art’s dispersion within the mainstream of the museum and gallery convention in the 1990s. The exhibition focused on two areas of artistic concern and handpicked key works that manifest artists’ engagement with the many layers of language, particularly those of a conceptual and linguistic nature. It also included works that propose audio-visuality’s aesthetic as a new language of creative expression.
This curatorial decision was based in light of the fact that this exhibition was to be the first of its kind presented to a local public in Malta. The exhibition’s body of work largely belongs to the experimental phases of Video Art when, even internationally, the work struggled to establish itself within the mainstream art scene. The artistic form certainly had little or no relevance to the local (Maltese) artistic scene of the time when it was being presented in the 1960s and 70s, so these specific parameters were key to the selection of works. It is perhaps important to establish that in Malta, Video Art started being practiced and exhibited towards the mid-to-late 1990s, when the genre had already somewhat taken form internationally.
In his introduction to ‘The History of Video Art’, Chris Meigh-Andrews mentions that the beginnings of Video Art were not only problematic due to video’s ambiguous relationship with the broadcast media, but because Video Art was referred to by many different names, namely ‘artists’ video’, ‘experimental video’, ‘artists’ television’, ‘the new television’ and even ‘Guerrilla TV’. The latter reference arguably came about through the radical youth movements of the 1960s and ’70s, and the larger alternative media wave that swept across the US, particularly through the political use of media vehicles – radio, music, film, video, and television; but also including newspapers and magazines, as well as the fine and performing arts practices (Meigh-Andrews, 2006).
Video naturally was one of the most utilised mediums, even to the extent of coining the phrase ‘video activism’ – an activity that actually preceded the 1980s breaking of artist-viewer conventions by nearly two decades, through its process of mass dissemination on the airwaves. This strong bond between Video Art and activism has today found an even better platform for wider dissemination through the introduction of the World Wide Web, and particularly through the many social media channels available on the Internet.
Electromorphologies rewinds back to the late 1960s to historically contextualise a time where Conceptual Art, Body Art, Arte Povera, Kinetic Art, and Minimalism had already been around for a decade, and where Installation Art was taking its form. This was a time when the artist was also able to add another tool to his or her arsenal – the Sony Portapak. This combination of camera and portable recorder equipped the artist with a device that could record and instantaneously play back sound and vision, unshackled from the more expensive process of celluloid film which needed developing and projection. With the Portapak, the artist could not only speak with the same language of the journalist, but also blur the boundaries between the plastic and the media arts. It is through the availability of such technology, and its appeal to the grass roots of society, that a good proportion of early Video Art was able to be used to expose or spread awareness on issues and information of a political nature. The innovation of the medium particularly appealed to artists who were trying to push limits in contemporary society. Spreading the artist’s message took on a whole new dimension, as can be seen in the Feminist Art movement of the time, where video became the medium of choice for many female artists who sought to distance female and male artistic production and sensibility.
Although in many ways Electromorphologies could be read as tinged with a variety of levels of political reference, such motivation becomes secondary to the pieces selected as the main concern of the exhibition was the works’ involvement with language, both textual as well as material. On opposite ends of the curatorial spectrum, one finds Mona Hatoum’s and Gary Hill’s works which exemplify the political and the linguistic inclinations respectively, while David Hall’s work embodies the ambiguous language of the medium.
When one looks at Mona Hatoum’s work which can be regarded to be the more political of the works shown, and which was made at a very early stage in her career, when she was forced to settle in the UK from her native Lebanon caught in the outbreak of civil war, cut off from her family and fearing for their safety, one finds the face of a woman obstructed by two male hands which gag and cover parts of the face, sometimes even completely. The work encapsulates the difficult situation the artist was personally going through at the time through the voice-over, spoken by the artist herself, which nauseatingly repeats the phrase “so much I want to say”.
Gary Hill’s ‘Why do Things Get in a Muddle? (Come on Petunia)’ is a very complex work that explores the relationships between the direction of time and the order of things, employing an elaborate technique of reversing the characters’ lines – originally performed through phonetic interpretation backwards. The work purposely mixes forward and reverse actions in the video and audio to suspend meaning. On the other hand, Joan Jonas’s ‘Volcano Saga’ ingeniously translates a previous performance by the same artist into a video narrative that uses the science and technology in its own materiality as metaphoric layers of illusion and reality.
David Hall’s ‘TV Interruptions’ seek to fuse reality with image, spatiality and spectatorship. Made specifically for broadcast television to be inserted as interruptions to regular programmes, ‘TV Interruptions’ sought to pull Video Art away from the confines of the conventional art gallery and into that of the broadcast media where they appeared unannounced and unaccredited during the usual TV programming. The site-specific works therefore proposed a bridge between sculpture, performance and media art, while using the more popular broadcast medium as dissemination channel.
With the proliferation of galleries and museums, the mushrooming of biennales and art fairs, and the great volume of work now being made, shown, and sold, Video Art and its practice, like the art world has changed substantially over the last fifty or so years. When one also looks at technology and the speed with which it is changing the media scenario and the way we communicate – particularly at how the moving image (as the term ‘video’ has quickly become obsolete) is being produced and disseminated – one cannot help but wonder how this most common ‘language’ of communication has evolved to become even more reachable by all. In less than a decade, the production of a ‘video’ – which ten years ago needed dedicated equipment to be shot and edited, and which needed some resource allocation in order for it to be distributed – can nowadays be handled by tools at everyone’s disposal. The advent of the mobile phone, movie software, video platforms, social media, and live streaming apps have made the language of activism not only available to anyone, but also virtually extremely difficult to monitor, as one can see from the huge number of terrorist propaganda and hate videos one can find online. This raises serious doubts about the democratisation of the ‘language’ of video, and its distribution channel that we call Web 2.0, a platform that focuses entirely on the ability for people to collaborate and share information online.
* The TV set and the vision monitor were the only means of dissemination of Video Art prior to the video projector, which was only developed in the late 1980s and popularised in the early 1990s
Meyer, M. (Ed.). (1996). Being & Time: The Emergence of Video Projection. Albright-Knox Gallery.
Meigh-Andrews, C. (2006). A History of Video Art: The Development of Form and Function. Bloomsbury Academic.
Vince Briffa is a researcher and a curator of contemporary art exhibitions, guest writer for various local and international publications and organiser of discussions, exhibitions and art residencies. Briffa is also a multi-media artist. As an artist, Briffa produces gallery and site-specific artwork, objects and installations which integrate drawing, painting, text, photography, sculpture and the moving image. He was awarded a PhD by the University of Central Lancashire in the UK in 2009 and an MA in Fine Arts with distinction from the University of Leeds in 2000. He was also artist in residence at the Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland in 1996 and is also a recipient of the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, with residency in 2018.
As an academic, he is an Associate of the Electronic and Digital Arts Unit (EDAU) of the University of Central Lancashire, an affiliate of the Centre for Moving Image Research, University of the West of England, Bristol, and a visiting academic at the Visual Institute of the University of Kaposvár, Hungary. Since his appointment as Head of Department of Digital Arts within the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences at the University of Malta in 2011, Vince has written, taught and led a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Digital Arts and a Bachelor of Fine Art (BFA) in Digital Arts. Vince Briffa has been involved in the creative industries for the past thirty years and was instrumental in launching computer graphics for television broadcast in Malta in the late 1980s.