When Video Art Was Television

John Haber
in New York City

The Experimental Television Center and LoVid

Contemporary art's history can unfold on the fringes of New York galleries. It can happen while everyone is watching television.

In 1996, it happened within a block of Soho, in a neighborhood, Tribeca, that the city has never quite accepted as a gallery scene. Participants came from all over, but a native like myself was encountering the Experimental Television Center for the first time. It had to be in New York City, but it celebrated twenty-five years of activity in upstate New York. LoVid's Roots No Shoots (Smack Mellon, 2013)

As a postscript in 2013, after ETC has closed its residency and grant programs, LoVid in Brooklyn helps to remember. Cleaning out the closets at last for the old year? You have nothing on them. Think more than forty years of television sets in a small room.

Doing what they want

The Experimental Television Center started in 1971, as a workshop in New York's state university system. One can see an admiring letter from back then, between a student and Nam June Paik. Even now, it may count as a discovery for New Yorkers. It can also count as an urban playground. Now long independent, the Center prides itself, says Anne-Sargent Wooster in an exhibition 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. With luck, they will linger longer in memory. With or without luck, they will stimulate new media from others.

Wooster hosted the well-attended opening screening. At Art in General, the audience included Jones and Gary Hill, the pioneering video artist. Wooster began the evening by rambling maybe fifteen minutes too long about her discovery of the Center, when she first offered to write about video in a free newspaper. In time, however, the Center empowered her to make videos for herself. And so it has for many others as well.

Do you find new media too mushy for the fringes of Soho? Is it too wrapped up in video rather than art. It certainly runs the danger, and this event 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 contrasts repressed office types, picking on a black secretary, to the dancing she could teach them in nature. At least I think it is that simple. Chase's virtuosity has plenty of compensations anyway.

Even artists who avoid the worst traps have an obviousness of their own. Wooster makes fun of romantic love, like Sophie Calle but with romance fiction of her own devising. Set in Venice, her video substitutes dolls and other props for, say, Katherine Hepburn in her middle-aged romance. With so much patent sarcasm, again the virtuosity rescues it for me. A car commercial with dolls shows that corporate culture can defang anything, but I was laughing for real.

Taking video for granted

A trickier exception, by Peter D'Agostino, faces the corrupting power of television head on. One must look closely to see a Marlboro billboard replaced five minutes later by an empty one. One must be paying impossibly close attention to catch the 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 toys 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 retrospective of twenty-five years, the medium is never comfortable with the message.

It often works best if one tunes out the image and focuses on the manipulation. Yet both strategies 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. As video in Soho gives way to low-tech and even more cluttered installations in Chelsea, the contradictions can only increase. They also become more difficult to overcome.

Is the choice between two kinds of Romanticism, in the displays of virtuosity and the sentiment? Does it have to be? Many artists today would shout no. In recent video installations, nature has come into question in virtual reality, just as it had in other art some time ago. If the ETC has not gone there, no matter. Others surely will.

The anniversary was an important look into the past, back when video art was still called television. It was a look, too, at when art could still exist on the fringes. One could also more easily define the mainstream. In Tribeca, I could see some of the best innovators in a form that I now take for granted. Evidently I take too much for granted, too, how challenging it has become. More and more, the challenges include reaching a growing public and surviving.

The end of video history

When the Experimental Television Center celebrated its first twenty-five years, it was celebrating television as art for even longer. New media, the survey insisted, was no longer new, and it was not just a digital alternative to film. No, a picture tube or TV set begins life as an object apart, before it becomes video. And it becomes video not just through technology, but through installation, performance, and sculpture. The celebration, after all, included that letter from a student to Paik himself. It promised not just a long history behind it, but a long future ahead.

Seventeen years later, a big chunk of that future is gone, and LoVid would like to remember what has been lost. The artist team would also like to strew its memories all over the floor and to project them on the walls. Their latest project emerged from ETC, where LoVid (in real life Tali Hinkis and Kyle Lapidus) held the last of its residencies. In 2011, ETC closed that program, to concentrate on its archives. Born at SUNY-Binghamton, the Center still lies not too far west of campus, in Oswego, New York, but now even more outside the mainstream. LoVid, though, is not so much preserving video's history as trashing it, in the interest of putting on a show.

Roots No Shoots sounds like an elegy for something no longer living. Yet it boasts of the impact of technology in a rapidly changing present. LoVid fills a room in Dumbo with every conceivable variant on a television—from early cathode ray tubes to last year's sale item for Black Friday. One can imagine them tossed aside for an upgrade. The pulsing video on the monitors and walls seems incomplete without an audience carrying smart phones and ready to rock out. A statement calls the opening an eVernissage.

You may associate residencies with emerging artists, but LoVid has its own history. It appeared in "Produced at Eyebeam" in 2005 and in the New York Electronic Arts Fair in 2011. Each time, old and new media collided with the shiny wrapping to regift them. Even more this time, one could dismiss the work as yet another oversized and trashy installation. The TV sets look randomly distributed or just plain thrown away, now and again stacked vertically to rub in the excess. The set-up alludes to technical obsolescence without quite grappling with the new face of industrial waste.

Still, the display of junk has a point. As for Peter Fischli and David Weiss in The Way Things Go, the flickering parts are deliberately quaint, and they sustain their variety the longer one looks. The sensory overload also continues into the air. The flashing lights and repeated patterns have an accompanying soundtrack, thanks to what the artists call their handmade synthesizer—and here, too, presence competes with nostalgia. The light show belongs at least in part to the psychedelic age, and the pulsating sounds approach syncopation. A young audience seems to enjoy it anyway, but what would an experimental television center so much as look like in this streaming age?

Roots No Shoots no doubt refers to ETC, but it could also apply to Andrea Loefke in the front room. Her Homecoming makes use of trees, milk cartons, a ladder, and much else, on a large tilted platform shaped like a boat. One can picture an epic voyage a thousand years before global warming—and with an uncertain homecoming by the waterfront in Brooklyn. Still, Loefke does not provide much help, and I would just as soon dance to the end of video history. LoVid leaves real issues unresolved or just plain unstated, but then ETC's 1997 celebration was bound to skirt over specifics as well. Something really is dying, whether an institution or last year's hot toy for grownups, but why worry when you can pick up the pieces?

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The Experimental Television Center's celebration of twenty-five years ran in the winter of 1997, at Art in General. LoVid and Andrea Loefke ran at Smack Mellon through January 5, 2014.


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