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Early Days Yet

8 November 199130 November 1991

The Australian International Video Festival - Essay

Early Days Yet

John Conomos

To speak of television and video art in the same breadth is to speak of an uneasy complex tension existing between the two contemporary cultural forms of representation-production. It is a constant love-hate relationship that has been evident for the last three decades. It is particularly noticeable when we explore the genealogical formation of video art in relation to television and the emerging intermittent development of television as a creative medium, or as it is known in Europe and America, "creative television". Here in the antipodes this problematical cultural discourse is in a state of virtual non-existence (I am excluding for the moment the recent Carpet Burns series on SBS TV). For it is quite apparent that television and video art are often seen (by anyone working in television and the high-art world) as being seemingly two incompatible electronic mediums of cultural production. Indeed, it can be said (putting aside the BBC-influenced arts programming on ABC TV and the more Eurocentric "multicultural" arts programming on SBS TV) that to my knowledge, with the exception of one or two individuals there is hardly anyone suitably qualified to commission artists (let alone video artists) to make programmes for broadcast television. It has been argued for some time now (viz Doug Davis, Kathy Rae Hufftnan, Rob Peree and Gene Youngblood to name a few salient commentators) that though the video artist and television maker use the same medium of electronic imagemaking it is a case of cheese and chalk. My point is that this does not have to be so. It is possible to engender and sustain (if the funding, production and critical reception circumstances are right) a creative dialogue between video art (and the arts all-round) and television.

Given the centrality of television in shaping the postmodern image and sound language of the contemporary arts (particularly video art) it is significant to point out that commercial television (despite the numerous experiments in the past with public television in the USA and in Europe - more of this in a moment) is loathe to be open-minded and sympathetic to the aesthetic, cultural and technological preoccupations of (video) artists. The reasons are many and quite intricate to fathom: though television has played an indispensable role in the oeuvre of many video artists since the early days of Wolf Vostell (one of video art's least known figures) and Nam June Paik's Fluxus attempts in the early to midsixties to demystify television as a broadcasting medium and as a complex aesthetic-historical-technological discourse, television has been crucial to the way we think and make video. Video art has been haunted by the large presence of television since its inception as a time-based art form. The whole question of video-graphic spectatorship (the phenomenology of seeing and hearing video images and sounds) has been governed by our intimate daily knowledge of television. As David Antin once put it " no matter how different from television the works of individual artists may be, the television experience dominates the phenomenology of viewing and haunts video exhibitions the way the experience of movies haunts all film".1 It is a complicated shifting relationship that is predicated on many interrelated and problematic factors dealing with video's temporality, portability and reproducibility, and television's unshakeable drive for advertising, profit making and rating. For someone like Youngblood it is a relationship that exemplifies an incompatible messy amalgam of art and commercial interests, the former being for Youngblood “always non-communicative: it's about personal vision and autonomy; its aim is to produce non-standard observers. Television in its present form represents exactly the opposite. Its goal is the production of standard observers through communication understood as a domain of stabilised dependency relations that maintain constant the cognitive domains of the population"."'2 The question here is that television and video art do not necessarily have to be seen to be diametrically opposite to each other; an immutable binary relationship irrespective of their aesthetic, cultural and technological specificities. Television and video art could contribute to each - it's a question of believing in the Deleuzean concept of "AND".3 Electronic imagemaking as a creative stutter, as a rhizomatic line of flight, questioning the stifling modernist doxas of the visual arts and the "Madison Avenue" cultural logic of television as we know it now. Both can contribute to the avant-garde realm of experimental television as best exemplified by the early efforts of artists like John Cage, Nam June Paik, (who helped to change our understanding of television as a post-modern art form), Peter Campus, Otto Piene, Allan Kaprow, and William Wegman who all worked in the late 60s with the early television TV workshops with San Francisco's KQED station (and the other two PBS stations: Boston's WGBH and New York's WNET). 14)4 In the wake of these critical efforts to establish an avantgarde experimental television over three hundred artists since then have contributed to this sporadically developing (in)visible discourse of artist's television.

This new phenomenon was also equally surfacing in Europe during the same time. In Germany the video visionary Gerry Schum was responsible for the broadcasting in 1969 and 1970 [of] works made by artists (short films) for television. These programs, Land Art and Identifications respectively, proved to be unsettling for the then current German TV producers. In the mid-seventies in Belgium Jean-Paul Trefois produced for Radio-television Belge de la Communaute Francaise (RTBF) a monthly series called Videographie. This is not to overlook the early development in Germany in 1970 when ZDF initiated a weekly program called Das Kleine Fernsehspiel (Little Television Plays) and which has successfully broadcast countless new works since then. More recently the creation of Channel Four in England in 1980 should not be ignored either: this channel has been responsible for commissioning many artists to make new works for television, film and video. Significant programs like Dance on Four, the Eleventh Hour and Ghosts in the Machine and including the more recognisable State of the Art (1986) have all in their way shaped the post-war American and European cultural landscape.

By the mid-eighties three public television program series in America were developed to televise video art. KTCA's Alive From Off Center was first aired in 1985; New Television, which commenced as an acquisition program by WNET during the same year and then later joined by WGBH as co-producer in 1987: and also in 1985 The Learning Channel (an independent national cable station) produced an influential series called The Independents. However, the eighties was a difficult decade for funding experimental television. As a response to this in 1983 WGBH and The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA, Boston), established the innovative The Contemporary Art Television (CAT) Fund which was designed to support artists within the general context of public television and find new ways of distributing video art on an international basis. Because of insufficient funding from its parent institutions The CAT Fund eventually became an ICA program concerned with promoting video art in a number of different directions: installation, performance, single-channel work, and broadcasting it on television.

The future of televising video art is uncertain. It's a challenging situation asking of us to find new open-ended ways of conceptualising video art in the overall context of the radically mutating mediascape of postmodern televisual culture. Video has the potential of becoming a mass media art form thereby making it more visible to a larger public audience. Television's role here is mandatory. But for many different intricate reasons television and video art don't seem to like to share the same screen: video's aesthetic discourse critiques the commercial values of television's largest common denominator ideology. This does not mean that they are irrevocably incompatible with each other: this is a time for questioning the either/or boundaries between art and entertainment/television, to engender situations where it is possible to engage in mutually beneficial dialogue over self-imposed ghetto walls. Artists and television producers need to question their own cultural baggage in the hope of keeping alive experimental television. It would be a worthwhile aspiration for both parties. Why can't 1 switch on my TV set to see something by Ernie Kovacs, Wim T. Schippers or Jean-Christophe Averty? Things can change as these are early days yet.


1David Antin, "Television: Video's Frightful Parent", Artforum, Vol.14, no.1 (December 1975), p36.

2Gene Youngblood, "A Medium Matures: Video and the Cinematic Enterprise", in the catalogue The Second Link. Walter Philips Gallery, Banff (Canada), July 8-21, 1983, p9.

3Deleuze defines AND as "neither a union, nor a proposition, but the birth of a stammering, the outline of a broken line which always sets off at right angles, a sort of active and creative line of flight: AND... AND... AND...”. See Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, New York, Columbia University Press, 1987, pp 9-10.

4On the history of video art and public television I am indebted to Kathy Rae Huffinan's invaluable two articles: "Seeing is Believing: The Arts on TV" in Kathy Rae Huffinan and Dorine Mignot, The Arts for Television, Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art / Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1987, pp 8-16, and "Video Art: What's TV Got to Do With It?' in Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, Illuminating Video, New York, Aperture in association with the Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990, pp 81-90.