Video Art

By Catherine Elwes


Michael Rush has here produced a glossy and lavishly illustrated overview of video art past and present. He deftly tells the story of television’s bastard child from the early black & white real-time experiments in the mid-1960s, when artists like Bruce Nauman were seen pacing the studio until the tape ran out, to today’s complex digital interactive environments that have swallowed up the old technology and with it much of its critical edge.

Like any view of history, Video Art is selective, concentrating on predominantly performative American work that has survived the marginal practices of the 1970s and ’80s, as well as gaining prominence and the cultural endorsement of major public galleries. The contemporary video he discusses is similarly dominated by gallery exhibits. This ignores the early Marxist-informed work that deliberately avoided what was considered to be a capitalist art market and found outlets in artist-run centres and alternative spaces. This model still pertains for many younger artists, especially for those who, like the Frenchman Patrick Bernier and the UK duo Thomson & Craighead, by-pass the commercial sector and make their work online.

I was disconcerted to read about video in the UK without mention of the key artist-run distributor London Video Arts (now Lux). Rush’s account of Canadian video likewise left out the contributions of Vtape in Toronto and other important video distributors. With this level of selectivity in the two countries I know well, I wondered how accurate his accounts of other nations’ contributions to video art might be.

This is nevertheless a richly descriptive book in which artists’ and curators’ interpretations of their practice are taken on trust and there is little dissent from the author. Notions like interactivity are left unchallenged even when it is reduced to a choice of buttons to push. The lack of critique struck me particularly in the feminist section in which the aggressive sexuality of Valie Export is carefully described, but none of the heated debate that ensued among feminists of the period. I also found it curious that Rush continues to refer to ‘women artists’ in an era when the women themselves consider such categories to be counterproductive.

The only strongly stated opinion Rush propounds on video art is his denial of medium specificity in favour of a dominance of concept. This may well be the case from the 1990s on, but in the early days, the intrinsic properties of video were explored in works ranging from Paik’s TV interferences, through the Vasulka’s video-instruments to David Hall’s re-copied and disintegrating news reporter. Is Rush’s contention that medium specificity is dead in contemporary work not contradicted by Doug Aitken who tells Rush in one breath, “I use mediums as they suit the concept” and in the next that he loves the quality of light in film? It has something “less tangible... more hidden”, in contrast to video, which is “flat, revealing everything at once.” Aitken is in love with film as film and demonstrates that material informs concept, even today.

For all its shortcomings, Video Art remains an accessible and informative account of the achievements of video artists in the last 40 years. I, for one, learnt about artists who were new to me and, given Rush’s tendency faithfully to transmit their views, it is possible to glean valuable information about the motivation and aspirations of a wide range of practitioners.

Video Art is available from Thames & Hudson priced £28

Catherine Elwes’ book Video Art: A Guided Tour is published by I.B. Tauris in the Autumn.