Hot art in a cool medium

Brian D. Johnson March 3 1986

Hot art in a cool medium

Brian D. Johnson March 3 1986

Hot art in a cool medium


It was a case of artists seeking revenge against television. Eleven years ago in a San Francisco parking lot, a souped-up 1959 Cadillac smashed through a wall of burning television sets at high speed.

While TV cameras turned the spectacle into a colorful item on the evening news, the organizers, a local artists’ collective named Ant Farm, used their own cameras to create a now-classic videotape titled Media Burn. Video art—television’s rebel offspring—has indulged in iconoclasm since its origins in the 1960s. But now video artists are emerging from the underground into the mainstream. This summer visitors filing through the Expo 86 Canada Pavilion will see a TV wall very different from the one obliterated in Media Burn. Designed by Toronto video artist John Watt, it consists of a computerized mural of 108 screens displaying a fiveminute swirl of images—at a cost of $3 million. Indeed, despite a burst of recent controversies, video artists are at last beginning to paint themselves into the big picture.

For one thing, they are enjoying broad exposure. This week marks the opening of Luminous Sites, a show of 10 video exhibits that will spring up across Vancouver in locations ranging from art galleries to office towers. Meanwhile, Canadian video artists have established a considerable reputation abroad. Their art has been exhibited prominently in museums and video festivals from Paris to Tokyo, and last month Canadian artists were featured in a six-hour series of video art titled Ghosts in the Machine, aired on Britain’s independent Channel Four. Montreal-based curator Bruce Ferguson, a former assistant curator of contemporary Canadian art at Ottawa’s National Gallery, helped chose the entire program’s content.

Said Ferguson: “You could almost argue that video art is an indigenous Canadian form.”

Still, video artists face a basic dilemma: although they use the world’s most powerful medium, their work has rarely reached television’s mass audience. Instead, work by such prominent Canadian video artists as Colin Campbell and Noel Harding are showcased in art museums—and in a coast-tocoast network of small, communityrun video galleries funded largely by government grants. Although it is a young art form, video encompasses a wide range of styles: various artists have treated the picture tube as a performance medium, a satirical tool, a documentary vehicle, an abstract canvas and as a building block for a TV sculpture. But a common theme running through video art is its opposition to conventional television.

Last year Toronto directors Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak won first prize at Vienna’s Video Biennale for a tape consisting largely of reshuffled images from broadcast television.

Playing with FEEDBACK-TV’S capacity to mirror and repeat—has been another frequent theme for the first generation of video artists. Explained Marien Lewis, a cofounder of Toronto’s VideoCabaret performance group: “After growing up with 15 or 20 years of oneway television, we all fantasized about being on it.”

Video artists first began toying with the fuzzy images provided by the original Sony Portapak cameras in the early 1970s. Now, a revolution in video technology is opening up a dazzling array of expensive techniques—leading some artists to abandon the fringes for commercial modes that allow them to indulge in a new visual vocabulary. At the cutting edge are computer graphics, which create both the logo introducing CBC’s national news and alien landscapes for rock videos. Even the term “video,” which artists treated as their own property, is now more commonly identified with a home appliance.

Artists in the rapidly changing medium are still struggling to stake out

their personal terrain. Watt says that he relished an opportunity to work on the big-budget canvas of Expo’s video wall—even if he is required to fill it only with commercially promotional images of satellites, airplanes, trains, icebreakers and even flags. “I took the project,” he said, “because it gave me a chance to work within this medium.”

But Canadian video artists are usually restricted to a more modest scale because government grants are small. And despite their international success, domestically their work has been hampered by feuds with museum directors and censors. Since last fall in Ontario, major galleries have stopped showing video altogether because artists refuse to submit their tapes to the Ontario Film and Review Board for approval. Although the provincial government revealed plans last week to exempt galleries from censorship, video makers called the action a token gesture, because nongallery shows would still be scrutinized.

Meanwhile, a debate within the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) about the merits of a video work has led to a legal battle. In a Vancouver courtroom this summer local video artist Paul Wong will continue his suit against the VAG for breach of contract—the first time an artist has sued a public gallery in Canada. In 1984 the gallery cancelled an exhibition of Wong’s ninehour epic, Confused: Sexual Views, less

than a week before it was scheduled to open. Luke Rombout, then VAG director, overruled his video curator, JoAnne Birnie Danzker, who had organized the show. Rombout decreed that Wong’s tapes—which contain no nudity but consist of long, candid interviews with people about their sex lives—were not traditional art.

Danzker, now the VAG’s director, agreed. Confused's varied images are generally “cool, detached, voyeuristic,” she said, “while the subject is hot, raw, controversial, extreme. I found it absolutely rivetting.”

Across Canada artists are questioning the basic commitment of public galleries to video. Ottawa currently subsidizes video artists with annual grants totalling more than $1 million from the Canada Council. But in De-

cember, when the National Gallery dismissed its curatorial assistant in charge of video, Robert McFadden, and did not replace him, some members of the arts community were incensed. A letter from a coalition of Toronto video producers said that the action “isolates video as an ‘expendable’ art form.” Officials at the Ottawa gallery, which owns a collection of 267 videos, replied that budgetary constraints forced it to cut back its video program until its new building opens in 1988. Toronto curator Peggy Gale, who is currently preparing a $100,000 show of Canadian video art to tour North American museums, said that the decision reflects a unique predicament which confronts video artists: “Video has always been homeless,” declared Gale. “A museum may not be the best place to look at it.”

Still, a good deal of video art requires public spaces, where it can be displayed on a sculptural installation of monitors. Tomiyo Sasaki’s 9 Spawning Sockeyes— I which appears in the I foyer of the VAG this week as the opening exhibit of Vancouver’s city-wide Luminous Sites exhibition—uses 20 video screens arranged in a rock garden. The installation shows vivid footage of salmon fighting their way upstream to spawn in the Adams River near Sasaki’s birthplace in Vernon, B.C. With a technique she calls “repetitive editing,” Sasaki repeats short sequences five or six times in a row, turning the images into a loom of texture and rhythm. Sasaki explained, “It’s a matter of building up layers like in painting or sculpture.” A former sculptor herself, she now lives in New York but has shot videos in locales ranging from Kenya to the Galápagos Islands. Focusing on wildlife subjects, she does not use the glossy techniques of commercial television. Painstaking editing is her only special effect.

Sasaki—and such artists as Toronto’s Jane Wright, whose works include Lake Huron—turn video images into a

kind of formal poetry. By contrast, some artists are using high technology to tackle the mass media on their own terms. Another Canadian working in New York, Calgary-born Ardele Lister, employs a full arsenal of gadgetry to make her art stimulating and accessible. Using computers that bend, freeze, tilt and spin images, Lister spent a year completing an intense 17-minute video titled Hell, which was aired last year on the American PBS network. Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, it pictures the satanic realm as a computerized eternity in which souls are stored on digital discs and tortured with video effects. Noting that the New York studios that create the effects allowed her to work at night for less than $100 an

hour—they charge commercial clients as much as $1,000 an hour—Lister said, “The engineers get tired of doing commercials, and they like to support artists who come in with a fresh ideological viewpoint.”

A number of video artists say that they try to serve as television’s conscience—an antidote to what they say are the medium’s numbing influences. Among the Canadian pioneers of media parody, Toronto’s three-man group General Idea has combined video installations with live performances, mixing art, fashion and politics to win an international reputation. In 1980 General Idea represented Canada at the Venice Biennale—the world’s largest festival of contemporary art—with a tape titled Test Tube. Another satirical group, the Hummer Sisters of Toronto’s Video Cabaret, won wide attention in 1982 when its three members— Deanne Taylor, Janet Burke and Jennifer Dean—ran a spirited mayoralty race against Toronto incumbent Art

Eggleton. Inscribing themselves on the ballot as “A. Hummer,” they hosted a festival titled Art Versus Art and they attracted local television news coverage of their campaign with the slogan, “This is no job for politicians.” Canada’s video community has in fact become an arena for activist politics. Two weeks ago a partisan crowd of 100 spectators jammed Toronto’s A Space gallery to view the premiere of No Small Change: The Story of the Eaton’s Strike, a 55-minute video shot during last year’s six-month walkout by department store workers. Kim Tomczak, manager of V/Tape, a Toronto video distribution and information service which cosponsored the showing, said “The closed-circuit net-

work is growing at an incredible rate: labor groups, women’s groups, gay groups — everybody’s got a VCR.”

What most distinguishes video from television is its use as a personal medium. Norman Cohn, 39, an artist living in Montreal, for the past 15 years has been making intimate video portraits of subjects ranging from a rock musician to a patient in an old-age home. Avoiding the standard documentary techniques of narration and interview, Cohn says, “I don’t make tapes about people, I make tapes of people.” His tapes were the subject of a one-man exhibition that opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1984 and toured six museums across North America before closing last December.

Video art spans a complex community, but one common feature among artists is the difficulty of living off their work: major galleries pay only about $500 to puchase videos—much less than the market value of a small

painting by a well-known Canadian artist. Still, the younger generation of video artists tends to be more interested in seeing its work broadcast than collected. Schooled in the slick techniques of the latest technology, its members are often reluctant to sacrifice style for personal or political content. Declared Montreal curator Ferguson: “The first generation of video artists remembers when there was no TV. The younger generation accepts it as the environment.”

Montreal video director François Girard, for one, has already acquired a serious reputation at the age of 23. Girard’s Le Train—a dreamlike sequence of a railway engineer seeing his past reflected through windows— won two prizes last year at video festivals in Geneva and Tokyo, and his company, Zone Productions, produced a $162,000 program of video clips which aired on Radio Canada. But Girard says he is still wary of commercial television. “To be accessible, we have to have visual clarity,” he said, “but we have to reinvent television’s accepted structures.”

Video art still awkwardly straddles the worlds of televiz sion and conceptual art. Before 5 Expo 86 commissioned Watt g and his colleagues to produce ^ the video wall, he had spent 15

0 years making tapes for a fringe " audience. His most recent work,

1 a 13-part series studying indusii trial surveillance systems titled o Industrial Track, had a budget ^ of $30,000. Of the video wall’s

$3-million budget, the technology alone is worth $2 million. The video wall displays a shifting mosaic of images, simultaneously beamed from 14 laser discs and compressed into a continuous five-minute show. A single image can be rippled across any of its 108 screens or magnified until it fills the entire wall. But Watt’s artistic horizons were strictly defined. His show is a commercial for Canada. It opens with a shot of Canada’s satellite arm and ends with a vista of Canadian flags. Said Watt; “One question that crops up continually is, what does this have to do with art?”

As video artists continue to forge their difficult compromise between art and commerce, that issue may continue to arise. But despite technical difficulties, by stretching the boundaries of television they are fulfilling one of art’s basic goals—changing the way people view the world.