No Safety Net, High Wire

Article excerpt

It is rare when you can draw a line around a thing and call it a history. Often obstructions, like cloudy recollection and unanticipated complexity, rise up to impair your efforts. The history of video art is a special case because it exists within living memory. Younger than many of its practitioners, we assume video art to be in its infancy, perhaps in its adolescence, but, hoping for a long life, certainly not in its dotage. So the question arises: what can we learn from video art's earliest moments that will help us better understand its present state--something of a theory of child development applied to an art form.

The initial impulse toward video art came from a culturewide preoccupation with television. The object of contemplation was television's singular inescapability, but the modes of address, the ideologies, and the envisioned reforms that primed this fascination were diverse. The thinking about the great wasteland of the televised didn't come simply from artists. Theories of mass communication were widespread in academia, socially directed institutions had grown restive over television's dubious impact, and even the broadcast industry questioned the status quo, discerning broader outlets for the coming generations of viewers. So the early sixties saw an agitated ground swell of interests waiting for the critiques, the insurgencies, the redirections of this thing called television--all was welcome but cessation.

In the watershed year of 1967, two antipodal developments occurred: Sony decided to seriously market its inexpensive Portapak, a portable 1/2-inch video system, and the Rockefeller Foundation funded the TV labs at KQED (San Francisco) and WGBH (Boston) to the tune of $25,000. By 1969 video art had its prototypical exhibitions--Television, as a Creative Medium at the Howard Wise Gallery and The Medium Is the Medium on WGBH--and a smattering of formative shows by such pioneers as Bruce Nauman and Dennis Oppenheim. This same year the New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA) began supporting video artworks, with Aldo Tambellini being the first grant recipient. This wasn't simply any first grant; this was the first grant from an arts council that was in the vanguard of funding patterns. Soon thereafter the recently formed National Endowment for the Arts would add its own fuel to the fire.

The sudden infusion of funds into the video art community inflated expectations. Such significant support validated this nascent medium in an unprecedented way, making the stumbling block of expensive hardware--partially obscured by access at the TV labs and partially circumvented by low-tech strategies--seem realistically surmountable. Use of the tools of America's most beloved medium was exhilarating, expressive, and seductive. Never mind that production costs--which would ironically escalate as the technology was improved--was a daunting reality when weighed against the cost of paint, brush, and canvas, a canvas Nam June Paik assured us would be replaced by the cathode-ray tube. …