Moving Pictures?

Video Art, Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art
[286pp 16.95. Skira Editore, Palazzo Casati Stampa, Via Torino 61, Milan, Ital

Let's get the obvious point out of the way first. The problem with showing video art in book form is that the two properties that distinguish video from other visual mediums - movement and sound - are impossible to replicate on the printed page. Of course, a case can be made that painting and photography also lose something by being reproduced in a book or catalogue; there are compromises to be made in terms of scale and quality and, with painting, a loss of a sense of texture. But the loss of 'essence' in the case of video is so much greater that it raises serious doubts about whether the transfer can be achieved at all.

Only a tiny fragment - often a frame or two - of the work can be shown. So, where a publisher of a book of paintings or photographs can reproduce a sufficient portion of the artist's output to give the reader a fighting chance of getting to grips with the work, in the case of this book all we are left with is a single still from each video and a short description of the piece. It is almost impossible to get a feel for the work under discussion from those fragments.

Which brings us to the second problem. It is unlikely that many of the videos will actually have been seen by the book's readers. Unlike still photography or painting where there is easy access to the work through reproductions in books and exhibition catalogues, in the case of video widespread dissemination of the artists' work is highly problematical. I would take issue with the claim in the book's introduction that early video artists 'were reaching out of the traditional boundaries of the art world and engaging a medium with the potential to create direct lines of communication between artists and audiences, ignoring or short-circuiting the power of museums, galleries and critics.' The claim that there are parallels with artists' use of the Internet today is especially misplaced. In the early days not only was there no Internet, even video had yet to been invented, leaving the artists reliant on Super 8 or 16mm film and making mass reproduction of the work almost impossible. Any 'direct communication' with the audience would therefore have taken place on a very limited scale, at least in the early years.

Not a terribly promising start then. So how have the authors of this particular survey, based on the video art collection of the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Italy, tackled the task of explaining this difficult medium?

Given the difficulty of representing video art on the printed page, the book's text becomes perhaps more important than usual in a collection of this type. The title of the introductory essay - 'The History Remains Provisional' - acknowledges the relatively short lifespan of the medium.  Video artists of the early 1960s were typically divided between those who saw the new medium as a way to make documentary films outside the control of the mainstream mass media and those who explored the medium for purely artistic ends. In North America especially, conceptual artists like Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari saw the potential of video to extend their work through recorded 'performances. By the mid 1970s, artists in all areas of practice were using video, enjoying the liberation from the prevailing critical stranglehold that was constraining other mediums.

Moving on to the individual artists themselves, the impossibility of summarising the vast range of styles and approaches rapidly becomes apparent. We have everything from a William Wegman film of two dogs moving their heads rhythmically from side to side as if watching a tennis match, a 60 minute black and white piece by Bruce Nauman in which 'the artist's body is filmed while it bounces against the corner of his studio' and an 18 minute video by John Baldessari in which a series of letters are held up in front of a houseplant in an apparent effort to teach it the alphabet. There are also works which are relatively 'straight - for example a selection of films by Joseph Beuys in which the artist is either interviewed about his work or talks directly to an audience - which could I suspect have just as easily emanated from the mainstream media.

One thing that does stand out, however, is that the main concern of video artists frequently seems to be the exploration of the nature, possibilities and boundaries of their medium itself. Of course, in other areas of the visual arts there are many who share similar concerns, but perhaps the fact that video is so much younger as an art form means that there seems to be a greater fascination with the tools of the trade. The medium, very often, is the message.

Another consequence of the novelty of their craft is that video artists appear unusually concerned to stake the claim of their medium for a place in the gallery environment as its natural home. The question of how video 'art' can distinguish itself both from mainstream movies and, more importantly, art-house cinema would seem to be answered on the basis of who owns it and where it is viewed as much as anything else. Photography moves much more easily between the world of the book, magazine or even billboard (Mario Testino's fashion images being a case in point) and the gallery than does the moving image. Where critics endlessly debate the claims of an individual photographer to be an artist, in the  case of video it would appear that the decision of a gallery or collector of video art to purchase a piece of work is the necessary (and sometimes sole) prerequisite for the bestowal of the status of art.

Overall, then, video art remains a tricky proposition as far as the book form is concerned. This is unfortunate as the medium encompasses a vast range of styles and subjects and, given the power and ubiquity of the mass media in the 21st century, we need artists capable of critiquing and offering a different take on the moving image. There is enough in this particular collection to whet the appetite of anybody wanting to learn more about the history of this still youthful art-form.

     Colin Bradbury 2007