When Video Art Was TelevisionJohn Haber
in New York City
The Experimental Television Center
Contemporary art's history can unfold on the fringes of New York galleries. It can happen while everyone is watching television.
Not long ago, it happened within a block of Soho, in a neighborhood, Tribeca, that the city never quite accepted as a gallery scene. Participants came from all over, but a native like myself was encountering it all for the first time. It had to be in New York City, but it celebrated 25 years of activity in upstate New York.
The Experimental Television Center started 25 years ago, as a workshop in New York's state university system. I saw an admiring letter from back then, between a student and Nam June Paik. Now long independent, the Center prides itself, says Anne-Sargent Wooster in the exhibit handout, on allowing video artists to do what they want.
I could hardly be the one to stop them, not when it is this complicated. The rest of the handout quotes one of the expert minds and craftsmen behind it all, David R. Jones. Jones attests to his love of the Amiga and his mastery of terms like "frame buffers." In other words, thanks to people like him, images were going to stay put on video, at least until the end of the exhibition.
Wooster hosted the well-attended opening screening, where the audience included Jones and the artist Gary Hill. She began the evening by rambling about 15 minutes too long about her discovery of the Center, when she first offered to write about video in a free newspaper. In time, the Center empowered her, like so many others, to make videos for herself.
Too often, I find video art surprisingly mushy for the fringes of Soho—or else too wrapped up in video rather than art. This was hardly an exception. Covering those more than two decades, the screening moved from images of birds in flight to Doris Chase's choreography of a white-outlined dancer, seemingly set free by ragtime. Another video contrasted repressed office types, picking on a black secretary, to the dancing she could teach them in nature. At least I think it was that simple. Chase's virtuosity has plenty of compensations anyway.
The exceptions to my rule had a kind of obviousness of their own. Like Sophie Calle, Wooster herself made fun of romantic love, with romance fiction of her own devising. Set in Venice, it substitutes dolls and other props for, say, Katherine Hepburn in her middle-aged romance. With so much patent sarcasm, again the virtuosity rescued it for me. Car commercial with dolls show that corporate culture can defang anything, but I was laughing for real.
A trickier exception, by Peter D'Agostino, faced the corrupting power of television head on. You have to look closely to see a Marlboro billboard replaced five minutes later by an empty one. You have to be paying impossibly close attention to catch his magician in the act.
D'Agostino's or Wooster's devices would have worked fine on film, so I could see purists enjoying other videos even more. I loved how Richard Kostelanetz toyed with lettering in words on the screen.
I had to leave soon after, but the painful choice between sentiment and cleverness stuck with me. In painting, once I understand how the formal kick releases new meanings, I become all the more at home in the old ones—and all the more ready to take them apart. Here I could see artists choosing between the old and the new, between obvious messages and technology for its own sake. In this 25-year retrospective, the medium is never comfortable with the message.
It often worked best if I tuned out the image and focused on the manipulation. Yet both hide a suspicious simplicity. I am uncomfortable with both, as well as the contradiction between an avant-garde form and the clichés that it must overcome.
Is the choice between two kinds of Romanticism? Does it have to be? A number of video artists today would shout no. In many recent video installations, nature has come into question in virtual reality, just as it had in other art some time ago.
The anniversary was indeed an important look into the past, back when video art was still called television. I could see some of the best innovators in a form that I take for granted. Evidently I take too much for granted, too, how challenging it has become.
The Experimental Television Center's celebration of 25 years ran in the winter of 1997, at the gallery Art in General.