I'm considering taking a class on early video art, but one week into the quarter remain undecided. The decision hinges mainly on logistics, but the class has got me thinking about my love-it-or-really-really-really-hate-it attitude towards video art. While I've seen plenty of genuinely exciting, innovative uses of video, I'm still generally ambivalent towards the whole damn medium. From my own (partially informed) perspective, the problem isn't just that a lot of gallery-based video art instantly arouses my bullshit detector, or even that sooo much of the stuff you see in museums (possibly more than what I've seen in galleries) seems to be a video version of a final essay in an art history class ("the performance symbolizes x, while the music on the soundtrack references y, which comments on z"), or even that fine arts types privilege technically-incurious video artists over any and all shades of cinema-bound experimental filmmakers. My biggest objection to video art has to do with its current status as the commodity form of performance art on the one hand and experimental filmmaking on the other - that is, it's performance art or experimental filmmaking crammed into a collectible/sell-able package, and not-infrequently fails to engage even a little bit with the properties of video as a medium. Part of me wants to say that's great, because any way that an artist can make money off his art is good for the culture because it keeps him making art. Part of me also wants to point out that performance art was at least partially born out of anarchic, anti-consumerist, anti-art establishment impulses.
It seems to me that video art collection is exclusive and exclusionary, and I have a real problem with the sort of habits it's encouraging. Although complexity (technical, narrative, visual, dialectic, sonic) isn't necessarily discouraged, much of what I've seen falls under the "high concept" category that makes for nice little explanatory notes from the curator. I've spoken with one filmmaker who makes narrative animations that are unusual but still highly accessible who prefers to sell her pieces as video art. Of course, the decision is financial - and I should quickly add that I'm very glad she has that option because I like her work a lot. What else is a maker of short films to do? But she does this instead of trying to screen them in cinemas, which wouldn't be particularly lucrative even in the best circumstances - even if there were large-ish, solid audiences, a short film program means there are several other filmmakers to split the door with. Unless you do a retrospective of your own short works, in which case you have to be well-known enough to draw a crowd, as there are few local publications that devote much space to experimental film screenings.
(Again, before I start to sound too shrill I should mention once again that I have seen some mind-melding videos and video-based installations, and am considering taking this class because of an interest in the classics of the medium. And pretty much everything I saw at the Henry in Seattle was interesting-to-great.)
But I'm interested in video art because I'm interested in the moving image, and because, logically, it seems like the line between video and film art should be blurring, rather than falling into such distinct, seemingly incompatible categories. Why isn't it blurring? Why is the art world now completely uninterested in experimental film, leaving experimental filmmakers even more broke now than ever before, and competing for grant money with art school hotshots videotaping themselves lip-synching to songs by the Backstreet Boys (to be as shrill as I possibly can in conjuring up an example). The hard truth is that experimental film is floundering in this country, because there's less and less money and smaller and smaller audiences. Noble attempts by Matt McCormick's Peripheral Produce, Other Cinema DVD, Microcinema and a couple others to put experimental films out on dvd has managed to make old and new classics available to the interested, but none of them has succeeded in making experimental filmmaking financially sustainable.
Not too long ago I saw two multi-channel video pieces by a highly respected artist. Scanning through the dvd, I watched one piece in its "installation view" and the other in "video view." The "installation view" chronicled what was, to me, a chaotic jumble of distinct experimental semi-narratives (five channels projected onto a wall) that failed to play off one another visually even as one performer could be seen on two channels simultaneously. The "video view" was a single-channel version of a different piece, or rather, it was the original video that would be divided among separate projectors for gallery display. It was shot on 16mm, and worked much better as a more experimental film-ish single channel piece than the other one did as a video/gallery art-ish multi-channel piece. I don't want to claim that I know the artist's motivation, but it's clear that galleries have a worldwide support system that for experimental film largely consists of three or four festivals, university courses and Anthology Film Archives. That is, it doesn't pay to be an experimental filmmaker, and I suspect that the desire/need to play up gallery-ready aspects of an artwork might be detrimental to the art itself. Watching the single-channel video, I found myself wanting to see it on film and in a cinema, rather than watching excerpts on a tv screen.
Also, the communal experience of a gallery is different from that of a cinema. I tend to think that the cinema is more prone to community-building, which is particularly important for experimental film. So often experimental filmmaking is done in isolation, one obsessive working alone, and one of the reasons why the 60s was so rich a time in experimental/underground film is that the NYC filmmakers had a community of artists in which they could screen their work, and see everyone else's films, bouncing ideas and new techniques off one another.
I'm of the one-world philosophy that believes that experimental cinema histories should be expanded to include video artists, but also that video art histories should take into account monumental cinema artists like Godard, Marker and Kiarostami as they explore digital terrain. And when important contemporary experimental or underground filmmakers like Jem Cohen and Matt McCormick alternate between film and video (while both can be seen on video either through Netflix or the VDB), we need to adapt our frame of reference along with the medium.
Oh, and, for me, Histoire(s) du cinema is, for me, the single most remarkable piece of video art ever made.