Images in motion: The rise of video art

  • Published 7 January 2016
Oliver Bennett

As the Art Fund launches its Moving Image Fund to support the creation and acquisition of works on film, video and other ‘time-based’ digital formats, Oliver Bennett explores this most mutable of art forms.

Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at St Paul's Cathedral © The artist, courtesy of Blain Southern

Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at St Paul's Cathedral


© The artist, courtesy of Blain Southern

Last year a subtle boundary was crossed. In St Paul’s Cathedral a video installation, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), the first of two large-scale permanent video installations by Bill Viola, was shown on four 65in plasma screens by the cathedral’s high altar. It wasn’t a first, or even Viola’s first: he’s made works in a few churches, including Durham Cathedral. But to have permanent video art in St Paul’s represents something of a coming of age for the medium.

‘It was a symbolic moment and said something about permanence,’ says Pip Laurenson, head of collection care research at Tate, which in November hosted a landmark event called Media in Transition that looked at how to maintain and store video art.

As Ben Cook, director of Lux, the UK agency that promotes artists’ moving-image practice, says: ‘From having an underground, slightly awkward and anti-institutional tendency in the 1960s, there has been a profound change, and moving-image work is in the mainstream.’ In 2011, for example, Christian Marclay’s film The Clock (2010) won the Golden Lion at the 2011 Venice Biennale. ‘We are now the grandchildren of the moving-image era,’ says one collector.

For the past 50 to 60 years video art has been the most mutable of all art forms. It cannot be characterised as a genre or a movement: rather, it covers a huge range of artistic practice with the common strand that it features moving, electronic imagery, which also means the commonplace term ‘video art’ is misleading, stuck in an earlier analogue world. ‘Sometimes it makes no more sense than talking about “bronze art”,’ says Chrissie Iles, curator at the Whitney Museum in New York. Over the years various names have been tried: ‘third area’, ‘time-based’ (Tate’s choice), ‘media art’, ‘mixed media’ and ‘moving image’. Indeed, the Art Fund’s new Moving Image Fund uses the latter sobriquet. This serves to illustrate the speed of this artistic sector, as well as its generic nature, including film, video, installation, performance-documentation, even old slide-tape work.

Whatever the name, moving-image art has an ever-growing infrastructure with specialist collectors and curators, and the five-year-old Moving Image Fair, hosted in London and elsewhere. It has seen sales milestones, such as Bill Viola’s Eternal Return (2000), which sold for $712,452 in 2006. Moreover, the past half-century has seen the development of a moving-image canon, ranging from 1960s and 1970s names such as Nam June Paik, Frank Gillette and Les Levine, to Pipilotti Rist, Steve McQueen, Matthew Barney and Rachel Rose today. Playful, serious, critical, introspective and with a special connoisseurship: moving-image work is embedded in general arts practice and now finds itself in tune with the YouTube- and smartphone-using public. ‘Moving images are part of our understanding of the world,’ says Laurenson.

Indeed, moving-image art even has an origin myth: that in 1965 Nam June Paik, the Korean doyen of video art, used the first portable video camera to shoot footage of Pope Paul VI in New York, which he later showed in a café. Apocryphal, of course: and Paik’s exhibit at the Wuppertal’s Galerie Parnass and Wolf Vostell’s ‘Television Dé-collage’ at the Smolin Gallery in New York, both 1963, are firmer foundations. But, of course, artists were going to find material in film and television, particularly in the experimental ferment of the time, with music, audio, assemblage, kinetic art and light sculpture all making inroads into artistic practice. Iles also sees early video art as part of the avant-garde inspiration in the everyday: ‘Like Picasso using newspapers and Pop Art, it used something – television – that’s part of the commercial environment.’ Plus, naturally, artists will always respond to new means of expression.

At the same time, television itself was yielding a new way of looking, with the guru-like Marshall McLuhan at the philosophical helm. Pioneering galleries lapped up Paik and his peers, including the great gallerist of Abstract Expressionism, Leo Castelli (Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films is a key archive of American artists’ films and videotapes of 1960s and 1970s). Exciting, underground and futuristic, video art became wrapped in a critical dialogue about the nature of reality and consciousness. Gene Youngblood’s 1970 book Expanded Cinema spoke of the ‘urgent need for an expanded cinematic language’.

Gillian Wearing, Self Made, 2010 © The artist, courtesy of Maureen Paley

Gillian Wearing, Self Made, 2010


© The artist, courtesy of Maureen Paley

Video art began exploring certain themes: identity, power relations and sometimes alarming investigations into body and self. Bruce Nauman’s Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970) used a live closed-circuit video in which viewers could see themselves appear and disappear, while Vito Acconci’s Pryings (1971) showed a female performer trying to keep her eyes closed while a male attempted to pry them open. An influential 1976 essay by the art historian Rosalind Krauss called ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, commented on this Freudian mood: ‘Self-encapsulation – the body or psyche as its own surround – is everywhere to be found in the corpus of video art’. To an extent, this self-exploratory aspect continues in the work of artists such as Gillian Wearing.

Thus did video art became an indelible part of the laboratory of ideas, technology, and critical theory. And like the early internet, it would empower new artists to challenge old power structures; an idea that lives on. ‘It’s interesting that women are prominent in this area of artistic practice and thinking,’ says Laurenson, adding that Runa Islam, Hito Steyerl and Susan Hiller were all speakers at Media in Transition.

Still, the UK was slower than the US. While there were champions, including the ICA, the Lisson Gallery and London Video Arts – set up in 1976 by David Hall, the late sculptor-turned-video artist – it remained somewhat difficult and marginalised, according to Chris Meigh-Andrews, artist and author of A History of Video Art (2006). ‘The Arts Council didn’t fund video art until the late 1970s, nor did it sit comfortably with many filmmakers. So it became absorbed into the growing world of live performance, happenings, live art.’

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975, 35mm film, 200 minutes © The artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975, 35mm film, 200 minutes


© The artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

By 1992, when the video artists Gary Hills and Bill Viola showed at the influential art fair Documenta, there was a sense that moving-image art had matured. Now, as video art becomes part of art history, comes a sense of its past. Earlier this year, I stood in the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna, Italy, to see Imponderabilia (1977) by Ulay and Abramović. Streaky and hissing, this document of a performance lacked the pinpoint polish of digital video, but it had historic aura: like seeing a real Bauhaus chair rather than a copy.

So video art has also functioned as a record of the live art of the 1960s and 1970s. Tate’s first moving-image acquisitions were, for example, Gilbert & George’s three pieces Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk, In the Bush and Portraits of the Artists as Young Men (all 1972). ‘The videos came in as an edition of 1/25 with a certificate calling it “Sculpture on Videotape”,’ says Laurenson. ‘Nearly 50 years later, we can see Gilbert & George perform to camera and the certificate itself is a wonderful object.’ Tate now has about 500 time-based works.

Meigh-Andrews identifies three broad phases of video art: single-screen video works that ‘now have the quality of early photography’; then video installations with multiple screens; then the digital era. With large multiple screens came immersive installations, such as Jane and Louise Wilson’s 1999 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, including the installation Gamma, filmed at a former US military base. By the mid-1990s installations broke from the screen, to be projected on to all manner of surfaces: Pipilotti Rist’s Mutaflor (1996) was projected on to the gallery floor, while Tony Oursler’s Crash (1994) projected a face on to a doll in a suitcase to nightmarish effect. At the same time, the video-loop format became popular, posing a question to viewers: when did it begin and when does it end? In some cases, a certain confrontational awkwardness became part of the experience.

Whatever its intent, moving-image art became so important that it even began to influence museum and gallery design. As Karsten Schubert puts it in his waspish book about museums, The Curator’s Egg: ‘Video and film can turn … galleries into virtual multiplexes’ with visitors ‘engulfed enraptured and overcome by spectacle.’ Monumentality and immersion in large-scale projection became a commonplace gallery experience.

In that case, how does moving-image art differ from cinema? Well, the former tends not to use conventions of entertainment such as actors, dialogue, narrative or plot. But it might – and there’s increasing traffic between art and cinema. Not only did Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993) use film as raw material (as did Marclay’s The Clock), but artists including Steve McQueen, Sam Taylor-Johnson and Wearing have all made cinema: indeed, the longueurs of McQueen’s video works of art are recalled by his unbearably long takes in Hunger (2008) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). Latterly, moving-image art has offered the possibility of mega-display. In 2007 MoMA New York presented a seven-screen video projection by Doug Aitken on its exterior at night, while Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno showed their film Zidane (2006) at Art Basel on a screen in a football stadium. It’s a long way from a fuzzy monitor in an avant-garde gallery to huge-scale public spectacle.

In that respect, the art of the moving image has tracked technological change. When the Portapak – a self-contained battery-powered video-tape analogue recording system light enough to be carried by one person – came on to the market in 1967 it cost about $1,500 (more than $10,000 in today’s money). Editing was expensive and difficult, but easier than 8mm and 16mm film. Then came the Sony Video8 camcorder in the late 1980s and, by the 1990s, anyone could buy a digital camcorder and edit videos with consumer software. ‘The desktop computer was a great incubator for moving-image work in the 1990s,’ says Ben Cook, ‘and digital projection meant that moving-image art could really start to occupy space, to become monumental.’ High-definition digital video is now the norm, and cheaper and more fluid than ever – as Laurenson says: ‘Artworks for exhibition can even be sent by email.’

Now the key question is one of conservation. These media have moved fast and many are on old formats: 16mm, Polaroid, VHS, DVD, hard drives. ‘I think of them as fragile, like prints from the 16th century,’ says Meigh-Andrews of old VHS tapes. ‘Like all precious art, you have to protect them and keep them away from magnetic fields and dust.’

Which is why migration from analogue to digital is, Laurenson says, ‘a really significant and growing area of expertise’. Even with digital there are issues of ‘bit preservation’ and, for now, all old moving-image formats find a simple equation: three copies, two locations. ‘It’s so important,’ says Laurenson. ‘This history is being written down and we need to keep it safe.’

The Moving Image Fund for Museums is a pilot scheme launched by the Art Fund with Thomas Dane Gallery to share artists’ films with the nation.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's winter 2015 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass and become a member.

Tags: Art Quarterlymoving-image-fund-for-museums