Teaching Perception through Video Art

Article excerpt

Video art is among the newest of art forms. Some date its beginnings from the day in 1965 when the artist Nam June Paik bought one of the first Sony Portapak video cameras (Rush, 1999). In its 42-year history, video art is distinguished by its representation of time and memory, documentation of the body in performance, inquiries into personal histories, capacity to obtain immediate feedback from the present time, and critique of the role of media imagery in everyday consciousness. The works of artists such as Bill Viola, Paik, Pipilotti Rist, Lorna Simpson, and Su Friedrich have contributed much to culture and hold great potential for inspiring new kinds of learning experiences in art education.1

In this article, I focus on a capacity of video art to contribute to art education in a way that is very basic, and yet not sufficiently discussed in either theory or curriculum. Because video art is a means of representing movement, it can assist in teaching perception of movement. Works of video art can also provide opportunities for extending perception in ways that may not otherwise be available.

Film, Video and the Representation of Movement2

When the Lumiere brothers in 1895 showed a film of a train approaching a station, legend has it that many people ran from the theatre, afraid for their lives (Calhoon, 2001, p. 149). While movement was depicted in paintings before, with storms, waterfalls, or puffs of smoke in the sky trailing from a train engine, there was never a moving representation of motion. Since the train appeared to be coming from the distance, how were people to be sure that it would not go beyond the plane of the screen, never having seen this form of representation before?

These viewers in 1895 were equally absorbed in Lumiere films of the movement of leaves blowing in the wind, or a film of a snowball fight, things never seen before in a moving image. When Bill Viola, in his 1981 video masterwork Hatsu-Yume, represented the lights of Japanese fishing boats, or clouds passing over a ceremonial rock, he demonstrated the continuing power of moving images to fascinate.

Now, the widespread availability of the digital camcorder and editing software makes it possible for many more people to make video art, and to practice the exercise of perceiving and representing movement. What is it that moves? People walking on city streets, playing at the beach, cars on the freeway, trains, food cooking, machines working. A world opens up that was always before us but now is seen with new interest.

Elliot Eisner (1994) discussed the ways that diverse art forms direct our perception. Perception may attend to different features of the environment when the goal is to create a drawing, a painting, a poem, or a dance. The visionary critic Walter Benjamin (1936/1968) noted:

During long periods of history, the mode of human sense perception changes with humanity's entire mode of existence (p. 222) ... The characteristics of film lie not only in the manner in which man presents himself to mechanical equipment but also in the manner in which, by means of this apparatus, man can represent his environment, (p. 235)

Eisner (1994) and Benjamin (1936/1968) call attention to the capacity of the medium (here, film and video) to redirect perception and open up possibilities for new forms of representation.

Perception As A Goal in Art Education

Let me trace specifically the connection between the goals of art education and the capacity of video to enrich perceptual experience. Teaching perception is a central goal in much art curricula. Teaching the skill of drawing, for example, can be understood as a perceptual exercise. Drawing has value for its heightening of attention to contour, light, shape, and mass. Educators from Kimon Nicolaides to Betty Edwards emphasize perceptual experience as the center of the drawing experience, rather than placing emphasis on mimesis or on the success of the product. …