Video has always been a medium to argue over, inflamed as it is by a samizdat literature of manifestos, postures and (sometimes very angry) tracts. Few were angrier than Radical Software, the self-conscious voice of ‘expanded cinema’ activism between 1970 and 1974.
In the first issue the editors printed an image of a woman holding a video camera up to her eye while smoking a cigarette. Half her face was skin and flesh, the other metal and plastic. This co-mingling of the organic and the mechanical, the casual and the intended, seemed to redeem Marshall McLuhan’s statements of technology as a form of amputation—the eye being replaced by lenses, memory by strands of tape.
Said strands of tape have proved as mutable and inconstant as human synapses, one reason among many that ‘video’ more resembles an ongoing ideological struggle than a medium. But attempts are being made to keep a cooler head, even, God help us, to establish a ‘canon’ with German critics at the forefront.
The latest to reach English language audiences is Yvonne Spielman’s intellectually muscular Video—The Reflexive Medium. This is not for the most part, an easy read. Whether due to the author’s personal style or the filter of Anje Well and Stan Jones’ translation, the text is densely layered with terminology and some sentences so long they leave you gasping for air.
Nevertheless it is worth a little perseverance as these discursions set out some very important ideas suffused within the rest of the book. Spielmann’s opening paragraphs consider, Radical Software-style, the ramifications of video technology drawing on the work of early practitioners such as Dan Sandin, an artist who argued that the distinctions between images created from the light sensitive surface of film, and those from the generation of electronic signals went beyond technique or mechanism. Spielman takes this on to skirt round the ‘expanded cinema’ notion of video to argue that it possesses a unique ‘electronic vocabulary’ that may trace its lineage from other media technology but is fundamentally different.
Spielman acknowledges a kinship with cinema as another time-based artform, but sees a more commonsensical connection with the ‘processuality’ of computers. Video and the computer are media that interrogate their own processes, while cinema works to cover up its tracks as an inherently intrusive, interventionist practice, presenting only a glossy, harmonious and self-contained ‘product’ to the audience.
Cinema is chemical magic, video the moving image version of pointillism, and after Spielmann is through with both they seem barely connected. Her account of the early relationship between video and experimental film-making shrewdly explains the philosophical differences between the two while remaining of ‘purist’ demarcations between them. Of surveillance she draws the inescapable conclusion that rather than a distortion of video’s potential, surveillance is the cold, voyeuristic but essential counterpart to video’s extraordinary (and often uncomfortable) intimacy. Some of this is taken up in more detail, in chapters that look at a selection of practitioners ranging from Vito Acconci to Jud Yakut.
These sections are not only very strong, but are also the most enjoyable aspect of the book, supported as they are by a concise yet comprehensive selection of illustrations.
I was a little concerned however over her notion that ‘video’ can, as a concept, be extracted from its various contexts (or indeed artists) and analysed separately.
Is that really the case? In art created around video-blogging for example, the structures built by the blog page and the ever-expanding thread of comments is vital to the ‘video’ being produced—what happens to the video segments when you take them out of a context into which they have been carefully integrated or even created.
Spielman helps us to see that video is an aesthetic with a unique ‘potential for simulation’ that has made it impossible for any one of the artists studied in this book to claim a definite, seminal contribution.
There is of course, a flipside—‘video’ is in itself taken as a trademark, a style or a quality that is itself simulated—think of recent Hollywood blockbusters in which unknown actors pretend to be ordinary Joes, who are themselves simulating film directors in the midst of disaster, authenticated by a ‘faux-video’ grain and gut juggling camera-work.
Given these realities, Spielman’s assertion that notions of video as ‘schema plus variation’ are defunct is hard to dismiss.
So perhaps video is really the anti-Gombrich medium par excellence—there really are no video artists, only Video?
Mitch Millar is editor of Drouth