Video and New Technologies
by Simon Biggs

Why is it that at this time new digital technologies have had only a marginal impact within video art practice? Only a relatively small number of artists have chosen to explore computer applications in image manipulation (frame stores, special effects, etc) and even fewer the area of image processing (digital paint systems) and very few the field of image generation (generative graphics and simulation).

Initially a number of reasons for this might seem apparent, some historical, some that could not have been foreseen when computers had their initial impact upon the arts and some reasons associated with ideological and philosophical issues arising out of a broader social context.

Following an intense flirtation with new technologies in the 1960's, which culminated in events such as Cybernetic Serendipity (the ICA, London) and the Nine Evenings (Experiments in Art and Technology, New York City) many artists abandoned such exotic media forms for others which, for various reasons (financial, technical and ideological), were more accessible. In the early 1970's many artists were captivated with conceptual, minimalist or Art Povera oriented practices. This shift towards more tangible media, even a focus on materiality itself, could be seen as a direct reaction to the 1960's, with its engagement with new technologies and impermanent or immaterial media, but was also a possible response to a wider range of issues.

At this time video had only emerged as a medium and its possibilities, when allied with new technology, hardly broached. Artists such as Peter Campus were most unusual in following this path, although after a series of remarkable interactive installations he abandoned this approach many years ago. Of course there was Paik - there is always Paik - however his position is most notable for its singularity.

The Pepsi Pavilion at the 1970 Osaka World Expo, designed by Experiments in Art and Technology led by Billy Kluver, represents perhaps the best and worst that could be expected of new media arts at that time. Involving artists in a high profile and inescapably commercialised environment many of those involved, and those observing with interest, became disillusioned and could not deal with the ideological conflicts implicit in the project. The artist/composer Pauline Oliveros or the film-maker and kinetic sculptor Robert Breer certainly made rapid changes to the nature of their practice shortly after involvement in the Pavilion project.

As such the notion of a marriage of art and technology as the logical outcome of a Modernist ethic came into doubt, leaving only a few working on the edge of this technical and ethical precipice. This was reflected in more general social changes, with a shift in discourse away from structuralist, determinist and positivist modes towards a post-structuralist, pluralist, relativist and ultimately more cynical world-view.

Unlike many of the media of this period, much of which derived from high-tech sources, video (and artists use of it) had a far more low-tech feel. It should be noted though that as with much technology video had its genesis in military research, the original Phillips 3/4" portapak video cassette standard tracing its genealogy to a military tender for surveillance and recording equipment required for use during the Vietnam War. It is perhaps therefore ironic that those that appropriated this medium to artistic ends did so due to those properties described in the original military brief when development of the portapak was undertaken; properties such as cost-efficiency, portability, ease of use, instant playback and durability. These were the same qualities in a medium sought by those artists engaging with many of the issues of the 1970's, such as civil rights, feminism, the media and of course the Vietnam War itself.

This irony can be seen reflected in a similar shift in the strategies of dissent, from that of peaceful protest to direct action and even terror, through the appropriation of the means of those such activists wished to interrogate or dissemble. At this time there was talk of video artists, and those working in related media (pirate radio, community TV, etc), as self-styled cultural terrorists, invading the inner-sanctums of the technocracy through turning their own fire against them.

Without wishing to compose a history, the late 1970's saw the collapse of faith in such strategies and the various ideological arguments that supported them, leading to what could be described as a form of moral paralysis and philosophical infirmity which is often referred to, mistakenly, as post-Modernism - something undoubtedly connected to a more fundamental change in society. Although this period might be described as one of ethical uncertainty that is not to suggest it lacked moral structures. This paralysis was not in a lack of morality but in a lack of faith, resulting in a moral code that circumscribed and fixed what was ideologically correct and what was not. It was a period of inflexibility, a time of reaction rather than action.

Video art has reflected much of this context, especially in its relationship with technology and its function in the apparatus of power. Many of the artists who initially addressed the ensuing issues, such as the loss of identity, death of the author or the failure of action, did so through the video medium. The contrast between Richard Serra's "Television Delivers the People", constructed as it is upon the certainties of its subject, and the work of Vito Acconci, or even the very early work of Bill Viola, could not be more apparent. A sense of loss permeates the work of the latter artists and many of their contemporaries - a loss of a certainty that artists such as Serra were unable to entertain.

It is therefore not particularly surprising that the application of computers and other new technologies, or the exploration of their cultural significance, was not a priority for such artists as the questions and problematic that surrounded technology were unclear and unresolved.

However, the 1980's have also seen the development of cheap and "user-friendly" computer systems rendering such technology not only more accessible but more desirable. It is very probable that a technology no longer of primarily military character, filtered through market driven consumerism where the domestic purchaser is all powerful, no longer so obviously carries the signature of military hegemony.

The media, especially television, also adopted the computer as a central means of its televisual grammar, making digitally derived or manipulated imagery a common component of visual culture. In an art of the late 20th century that has taken such a reactionary position (in the sense that it reacts to stimuli rather than generates new experiences) many artists found these developments detracted from the desirability of using such technology. However, some were attracted to (re)engage it; some for the visual possibilities new digital media offered, others because of a cultural significance they perceived in this technology.

Although what has been discussed here so far is neither an exhaustive attempt to analyse the dynamics of artist's use of new technologies as medium and subject, nor an attempt at a short history, it is hoped that certain emerging principles and relationships may have been developed such that something of a context has been established that allows us to ask the question; what does it mean to use computers in art at this time (1988) and how does this relate to concurrent developments?

In the recent writings of theorists such as J-F Lyotard, Geoffrey Hartman, Jean Baudrillard and (surprisingly) Gene Youngblood a re-engagement with the significance of the machine, and especially the computer and related information and reproduction technologies, within culture has been undertaken. A significant part of this debate has been associated with the notion of the simulacra, a Latin term designating both an image of God and a simulation. The impact upon art of this strand of thought has been profound, especially in Europe and North America, and no more so than on artists video practice. Given this, and the nature of the computer (a device originally developed for simulation) a number of artists have been attracted to engaging the implications of such ideas dealing with that territory where creativity meets the machine.

However, in this mode of address the celebratory characteristics of the 1960's are absent, replaced as they are by a critical analysis of both the function of machines and their relationship to the society that creates them. In the work of Jeremy Welsh (UK) we can see the desire to account for technologies relationship with power. Welsh uses not only the computer but other related signs of technological power, such as architecture (Democracy, 1987) in conjunction with speculations upon language not as a reflective but active element in personal and social constitution.

In a more lyrical manner we find Steve Hawley's "Trout Descending a Staircase" (1985) which explores the coincidence of the apparently insignificant (a bunch of flowers, assorted vegetables, a fish) with the power of the computer and its representational transformative potential. Through establishing such contradictory conjunctions of information Hawley can apply a deconstructive lever to his subject, the relationship between representation and its means, in what is a surreal and poetic amalgam.

Minus Delta-T (pan-European) seek to employ certain strategies associated with the disruptive ethics of "terrorist art", placing their work as anarchic intervention into the media they use as both production tools and dissemination. They view the machine itself as an already loaded representation of power and engage the contradictions of using it whilst developing a critique of its status. Inge Graf and XYZ (Austria) appropriate forms of the pop video but with a dry irony that is unlikely to place them at the top of the charts. George Snow (UK), with "Muyerbridge Revisited", employs the computer to animate and reconstruct the past so as to open up aspects of the present whilst Tony Oursler (USA) uses paint box technology to renegotiate images of the (sexual) self as reflected in and mitigated by the machine. Oursler, in particular, is able to create a visual patina not usually associated with digital imagery.

Max Almy (USA) looks at the role of the machine (the computer and the media) in the construction of desirable selves. In "Perfect Leader" (1985) Almy presents us with a US Presidential candidate not only selected by computer but actually a product of it. Peter Weibel (Austria) applies digital editing and framestore techniques to placing conflicting images against one another, while Rafael Montanez Ortiz (USA) utilises computer laser-disc editing to explode a few seconds of material into an eleven minute staccato fugue that takes apart every frame in the sequence with a pace likely to induce epilepsy.

Artists such as John Sanborn (with Mary Perillo) (USA) and Ko Nakajima (Japan) or Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips (UK) luxuriate in the visual possibilities the computer can facilitate, Sanborn/Perillo exploring the conjunction of live actors and computer generated material in a technically challenging manner. Nakajima uses the computer to reproduce and enhance images of classic natural beauty to the point of (intentional) banality whilst not neglecting the nature of that beauty as a social construct.

Given the degree of activity and critical success represented in these works it thus seems surprising that video art that utilises computers and similar media is not representative of mainstream video art practice - although as we have seen there are numerous mediating circumstances. The question is whether this will remain the case? What will be the future directions and balance of interests?

One distinction might be made that could inform this. That is, the difference between those artists who engage with technology as a medium and those who regard it as a tool. In recent years, as the technology has become more available in the form of user-friendly computer software systems predicated on manufacturer predetermined functionality, emphasis has been on activity of the latter kind. Computers and video are therefore best seen as fundamentally distinct media whilst each can be applied in the service of the other. For example, computers can be used for digital effects whilst video as an output media for generative graphics.

Although video is a younger medium than the computer (emerging as a technology a decade later) it seems to have developed as a creative tool at a more rapid pace. This may be party due to the existence of other media that function as effective formal precedents to video, such as film, whereas the computer represents a media of potentially more novel and distinct character and as such has less of a connection to a clear artistic genealogy. Perhaps the computer should not be regarded as a medium at all but rather as a control device for media. The same computer program, with only small adjustments to output parameters, can be used to drive a range of output media, such as audio synthesisers, video monitors, kinetic structures and lighting.

Most of the artists mentioned here, and who should be seen as representative rather than a top ten, use the computer as a tool. After all, they are all video artists and not computer artists and as has been pointed out, these are distinct media and methodologies, not only in their application but also in their mode of display and circumstances of dissemination. At this point the question as to future directions would therefore appear to remain open, with the observation that as computers become cheaper and easier to use (better designed) there would seem to be emerging even greater opportunities for their application in video. Whether video artists will feel the need to respond to the computers growing social presence, whether negatively or positively, is another question.

Simon Biggs

Simon Biggs 4.2.1988