research > video > Video needs art history like a TV set needs a plinth
Anthony Auerbach

‘Video needs art history like a TV set needs a plinth’, session convened by Anthony Auerbach for the College Art Association Annual Conference, Dallas, Texas, 23 February 2008. This session acknowledged video as a disputed, unstable field and called for a cross-disciplinary discussion of contemporary video practice and interpretation: As the traditional public space of art is increasingly intersected by its own video-mediations — on TV, online, by information and advertising screens, by video surveillance and the public’s own portable devices — the challenges to established relations of representation become clear. For artists, video provides no security of artistic identity and no reliable means of instructing audiences how to look. For institutions, video offers new means of communicating with audiences and monitoring visitors’ behaviour, but threatens the basic fiction of the museum: that culture exists independently of its reproduction. For art historians, video offers no surface for inspection, nor necessarily any depth. Meanwhile, everyday viewers are highly discriminating interpreters, continuously decoding the claims of rival channels and multitudes of screens. While the power of this technology to propagate norms is far from exhausted, video practice continually escapes disciplinary boundaries.

Anthony Auerbach’s introduction to the session and the session programme follow.

Nam June Paik, Reclining Buddha, 1994

I’d like to open this session by suggesting what I think is at stake in the proposition, ‘Video needs art history like a TV set needs a plinth’. It will be down to the speakers and our respondent to interpret it more concretely, if partially. The aim of the session is to open up the territory, but without universalising it. We should be prepared to pursue video beyond the disciplinary boundaries of art (or art history), not necessarily to recapture it for art (or art history), but to chart the relationships and dependencies between video practice, video as art-practice, and the practices of everyday life, in which we must include not only the everyday production and consumption of moving images, but also the ways in which the technologies and habits of video shape subjectivity, identity and sexuality; experience, perception and knowledge.

‘Video needs art history like a TV set needs a plinth’ is an ironic statement in so far as each half of it tells the truth about the other. That also makes it a truism. Cleaving an assertion in two, however, has the effect of dilating it, suspending for it a moment, as if pressing pause and thus raising the possibilities of review and of play — of affirmation or contradiction; reconciliation or critique. The idea of this session is to use this pause, this interruption of the flow, to examine some of the intersections which could disclose what I would call the relations of representation mediated by video.

In addition to the four speakers named on the programme I am very pleased that Jan Hein Hoogstad has agreed to take the role of respondent and I trust will help stimulate and sharpen the discussion which I would like to open with you before the session is over.

Angela Harutyunyan’s paper ‘The Real and/as Representation: TV, Video and Contemporary Armenian Art’ examines the meaning of video art in the context of the transition from Soviet conditions to those of independent artistic production in an independent Armenia. Whereas formerly, the self-styled avant-garde had mounted an underground defence of bourgeois art against Soviet socialist realism, the collapse of the communist regime left artists exposed to the full force of global capitalism. The new situation promised not only international recognition and the technical means of achieving it in the form of consumer electronics, but also a refuge for a beleaguered artistic identity.

One might point out — and it could have been the subject of another paper — that by the 1990s, the utopian-narcissistic drive which had motivated pioneer video artists and activists in the United States in the 1970s was all but exhausted. Those aspirations, at the time associated with the left, and supposing some kind of resistance to the mass-production (as Chomsky would say) of consent by monopolistic media corporations — those aspirations have, by now been absorbed into to user-generated content phenomenon being promoted by today’s most powerful advertising and media corporations.

Naima Lowe’s ‘Pushing Porno’s Buttons: Spectator Pleasures in Hard-Core Narrative Pornography’ switches channels to consider the subject of video as an active spectator, whose paradoxically private participation in mass culture (i.e. the porn industry) is reflected, and occasionally mocked, in the narrative premises of the porn movies themselves. Here the question is whether the reflexive devices normally regarded as the hallmarks of art — even critical art — are in fact endemic in video and indeed in pornography.

Sönke Hallmann — a theorist with no particular allegiance to art history — and Karolin Meunier — an artist whose performances and video works frequently puzzle over the debts, complications and redundancies which burden and give form to the communication of identity and intention — these two have woven their presentations together to consider video and the notion of reading, in particular the time of reading. Their presentations hint at a way of reading video as video, that is to say, hesitating to apply the patterns of reading inherited from the reception of literature, painting or cinema.

Following the presentations we will hear Jan Hein Hoogstad’s response which will lead us into an open discussion (so, please save your questions and comments). Jan Hein is a philosopher and media-theorist with particular interests in popular culture, in particular US American Black music, media technologies and the figure of the intellectual — which in his view is as likely to be an artifact as a person.

A similar line of argument would suggest that the figure of the artist is also something produced rather than necessarily the autonomous producer of the art work. Accordingly, the proposal for the session calls attention to a relationship between the institutional, disciplinary and ideological (i.e. cultural) recognition of a practice — read art history — and its spatial, social and concrete supports — that’s the plinth.

Predictably, the way video tends to treated in the field of art is modelled on the way art works in general are treated. Some transcendental or essential content is supposed to be transmitted by the work even as the object (the painting, sculpture, text etc.) is venerated, not to say fetishised. Even without the burden of art’s higher claims, video tends to be regarded principally as a transmission medium — with timeshift, of course — and the emphasis is on fidelity and transparency: the reality show. Video appears to fulfil the promise held out by the Albertian picture of being a window on the world, but to the exclusion of art. Video combines optics as compelling as those of a camera obscura, with the consuming subjectivity of the bourgeois interior that Walter Benjamin described as a box in the theatre of the world.

As we speak today, the box is beginning to look archaic. The sculptural potential of the cathode ray tube set is currently being revoked by the flat screen, the biggest consumer electronics bonanza of all time. The after-image image of the box is preserved for the moment in the pleonastic term ‘flat screen’ which contains a homage to screens that were not flat. Nam June Paik, one of the first to exploit the potential of the TV set as sculpture — and its archaic qualities — famously said ‘I make technology ridiculous’. At what point does video return the compliment to art?

The following papers were heard:

Video Art and the Politics of Representation in Contemporary Armenian Art
Angela Harutyunyan

Pushing Porno’s Buttons: Spectator Pleasures in Hard-Core Narrative Pornography
Naima N. Lowe

Reading Video
Sönke Hallmann

Video as Reading
Karolin Meunier


Nam June Paik, Reclining Buddha, 1994, 2 colour televisions, 2 Pioneer laser disk players, 2 original Paik laser discs, found object Buddha, 20 x 24 x 14 ins

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