Characteristics of an Expanding Medium


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Oppenheimer, Robin Afterimage (March 1, 2007) [1]

Video installations, with their multiple historic roots, are unique hybrid art forms that represent the dominant direction art-making has taken in the twentieth century toward interdisciplinary boundary-crossing collaborations that connect artists to new ideas and practices, while integrating media technologies and systems into the art world. How can we begin to define these ephemeral, protean art forms that have become increasingly dominant artistic modes of expression? In this essay, I will first identify some of the significant cultural, conceptual, and technological characteristics that define video installations; I will then examine three video installations by first-generation artists who helped define the medium.

The history of early video installations is imbedded in the larger histories of video as an art form. According to Michael Nash, "It was said a decade ago (by Bill Viola) that video art may have been the only art form to have a history before it had a history, and now its history is 'history' before we had a chance to mourn its passing." (1) As an artistic genre, video has become increasingly visible and more predominant in the hyper-mediated world of the early twenty-first century. Since video's emergence as a distinct technology and art form in the mid-1960s, artists--painters, sculptors, and poets--quickly found in it an expressive medium. Video is now an inexpensive, accessible image-making tool for artists, and many of today's artists working in the plastic and performing arts incorporate video into their dances, theatrical productions, musical performances, sculptural pieces, and multimedia installations.


From its beginnings, video technology used by artists represented a complex, multidimensional set of processes, interrogations, and oppositional practices that extended video beyond the traditional art world due to the ephemeral and technological nature of the final "product" of videotape and live transmission. Early video artists tackled a number of larger political, socioeconomic, and telecommunications issues that were just beginning to be recognized by the general public in the late 1960s.

There is no one "official" version of video art's history because of its international and heterogeneous nature as part of a larger set of histories. A primary set of histories that began to define video art took place in the 1960s when the technology was first introduced. John Hanhardt, one of the first media arts curators in the United States, witnessed much of the early history and has written about it extensively. In 1988, he described how some of the major mid-twentieth century art movements contributed to the initial emergence of video art:

The potential of artists' video was first apparent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the art object and its sources were being re-evaluated in the diverse movements of Pop, Fluxus, Happenings, Minimalism, lettrism, avant-garde film and the intertextual and multi-media programs of performances and dance. All these movements rejected the notion of the heroic, existential artist-self portrayed in Abstract Expressionism. The metaphysics of the Action Painter's canvas was replaced by the matter-of-fact and everyday .... One of the inescapable facts of daily life was the omnipresence of television. From the initial questioning in the early 1960s of the power myth and of television to the expansion of technology's potentials in the 1980s, artists have sought to question assumptions of art and art-making. (2)

As Hanhardt explained, video art helped reshape and redefine the nature of art and art-making in the last century through its conceptual links to larger cultural and technological histories, especially television, which had already begun to change people's perceptions of the world. This blending of aesthetic and technological forces emphasizes video art's unique legacy.

Video art also emerged out of a turbulent era defined by a larger set of radical social and political issues in the late 1960s. Just as Sony was marketing the Portapak video recorder in the mid-1960s, the political landscape in the U.S. was exploding with antiwar protests, counterculture be-ins, civil rights actions, and new theories of media introduced in the popular press from the writings of Marshall McLuhan and others. As a result of these larger converging cultural, technological, and social forces, video is not only an art world phenomenon. As Marita Sturken explains. "This is a medium whose development embodies many dichotomies of Western culture, whose position at the axis of art, electronic technology, and telecommunications offers a problematic subject for historical interpretation that has no direct antecedents." (3)

If video art is a problematic art form to define, video installations are even more ambiguous in terms of their historical roots and unique characteristics. At their most basic, video installations are spatial and temporal art forms that can include the elements of audio and video/moving images, sculptural forms, and other visual static or moving elements situated and aesthetically constructed in a three-dimensional space. They also lend themselves to larger cultural and socioeconomic explorations. As Margaret Morse suggests in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (1991):

... exploring the materialization of the conceptual through all the various modes available to our heavily mediated society is at the heart of the cultural function of video installation. In that sense, the "video" in video installation stands for contemporary image-culture per se. Then, each installation is an experiment in the redesign of the apparatus that represents our culture to itself: a new disposition of machines that project the imagination onto the world and that store, recirculate, and display images; and,a fresh orientation of the body in space and a reformulation of visual and kinesthetic experience. (4)

Chrissie Iles, Whitney Museum of American Art's Anne & Joel Ehrenkranz Curator, elaborates on "a fresh orientation of the body in space" when she describes an installation as "a hybrid work of art which demands a critical distance (and) the physical presence of the viewer to complete the work ...." (5) Critical distance enables the viewer to move between immersion and contemplation so that he/she can both experience and analyze the work's intentions and contents. The viewer's physical presence is crucial because the elements of video installations are arranged by the artist as part of a larger gestalt in a complex cybernetic loop of technology and mind/body that form a conversational communication system of sender (artist) and receiver (audience).

Video installations encapsulate three approaches to art-making--representational, presentational, and perceptual--which help to define their protean form and content. Hanhardt described what he called the "expanded forms" of video installations as both the visual (representational) and performance (presentational) art forms of "collage" and "de-collage" that create an "intertextual" language, including critiques of media's language. As he explained in 1990:

  The spectacular history of the expanded forms of video installation
  can be seen as an extension of the representational techniques of
  collage into the temporal and spatial dimensions provided by video
  monitors placed in an intertextual dialogue with other materials
  .... The technique of de-collage in video installation also extends
  performance and multimedia into a critique of the social and
  ideological by deconstructing existing constructions of
  communication technologies and industries. (6)

The presentational aspects of video installations also foreground their connection to the larger cultural rebellion against the art establishment during the late 1950s and early 1960s. When video first became accessible to artists, it represented a way they could defiantly work outside the traditional art world to explore video's distinctive non-art world features of time-based processes including recording and altering real time; recording and transforming the flow of broadcast television; and creating a spatial or conceptual critical distance from the usual televisual and cinematic viewing experience.

Both the representational and presentational aspects of video installations are grounded in the art world. The third aspect, perceptual, revolves around the "live" quality of video and links it to the counterculture movement that embraced Eastern and Native American religions, cybernetic systems theory, environmental awareness, and psychedelic explorations using mind-altering drugs for expanding consciousness. Video's unique phenomenon of "liveness," manifested in the ability to record and playback real time, came close to simulating some of those subjective and technology-based processes. "Liveness" enabled artists to explore psychological states of mind, levels of consciousness, interior vs. exterior realities, communication processes, and the body's multi-sensory relationship to both the technologically based media and natural environments.

These perceptual explorations also link to the technological history of cinema and the media of film and television. Hanhardt wrote about this connection:

  Video works exploring the artist's relationship to the world around
  him/her have proliferated since process and site-specific land art
  of the 1960s and 1970s dematerialized the art object. Part of this
  response to a landscape/place derives from a unique property of the
  video medium--the property that allows an artist to see immediately
  the image that is recorded on videotape. This is unlike film
  celluloid--which must be processed before the image can be screened.
  The power of this essential, indeed central, capacity of video was
  to have a subtle and profound impact on how the medium itself was
  employed. Even prerecorded video carries an immediacy born from its
  electronic nature and the almost mythological connotations of video
  as a "live" medium. This mystique of "live" television, which began
  in the commercial sector during television's "golden age" of live
  telecast, continues today in the use of the home video camera
  recorder and player .... (7)

Three historical works by first-generation artists exemplify many of the unique characteristics just described. In 1969 Howard Wise, a wealthy New York City art dealer who was interested in art that incorporated "new" technologies such as kinetic and light sculptures, organized the exhibition "TV as a Creative Medium" in his gallery. Presenting the works of twelve artists, this seminal event in the history of video art explored a wide set of issues both within and outside the traditional art world. It was the first group exhibition in the U.S. to identify and reify video as a new art form and art-making tool. (Soon after the exhibition, Wise closed his gallery in order to fully support the emerging art form of video. In 1971, he established the nonprofit organization Electronic Arts Intermix, which has grown into one of the major video art distributors in the world.)

All the artists in "TV as a Creative Medium" explored the larger issues around the then-new concept of a "media environment," and especially the phenomenon of television. They presented ideas of how society consciously and unconsciously is shaped by the pervasive landscape of a manmade communications ecology where radio, telephones, and television are ubiquitous technologies in the home and workplace. The exhibition also expressed a utopian, McLuhanesque vision of a "global village" of instant communication and expression through the electronic medium of video/television that anticipated today's wireless world. These were revolutionary ideas signaling a new technological force in art-making practices that would change the very meaning of art. Sturken, in her 1984 article in Afterimage about Wise, describes this landmark show:

  [It] effectively pointed to the diverse potential of a new art form
  and social tool. Subsequently, the show became renowned for the
  inspiration it provided for many artists and future advocates of
  video .... Theoretically, they variously saw video as viewer
  participation, a spiritual and meditative experience, a mirror, an
  electronic palette, a kinetic sculpture, or a cultural machine to be
  deconstructed. Ripe with ideas and armed with a heady optimism about
  the future of communications, these artists used video as an
  information tool and as a means of gaining understanding and control
  of television, not solely as an art form. (8)

Thus, this show signaled artists' connections to larger ideas and issues found outside the art world such as the counterculture movement.


One of the key works in the show was "Wipe Cycle" (1969), created by Ira Schneider, a filmmaker, and Frank Gillette, a painter. Gillette was able to gain access to a Portapak video recorder through Paul Ryan, McLuhan's research assistant at his Center for Media Understanding at Fordham University in the Bronx. "Wipe Cycle" is often mentioned in the historical writings about "TV as a Creative Medium" as the most successful and intriguing work in the show. It represented the artists' view of video as "a cultural machine to be deconstructed" and was one of the earliest uses of video surveillance in an artwork to incorporate the viewer directly into the real-time imagery of the piece. It was also one of the first video installations to directly address the larger issues around communications media and their pervasiveness in a larger "media ecology" that blurred the boundaries between the body and the phenomenon of recorded (time past) and real time (time present) displayed on a TV screen.

The installation consisted of a 3- x 3-foot wall of nine color TV monitors. Intercut with broadcast images, live images, captured from a camera hidden amid the monitors, were fed to the center screen, shifting to outer monitors in eight- and sixteen-second intervals. The work situated the viewer in a space where he/she felt firsthand the simultaneity of time present and time past as a visceral response to being "inside" the immaterial media space of network television, which itself is a blend of multiple, simultaneous time periods. Video art curator Kathy Rae Huffman has recently described video artists' explorations of real and virtual spaces in installations that demonstrate their early colonization of cyberspace:

 In the earliest actual practice, video was used in the same way as
 surveillance devices are today: it was employed to keep watch over
 and to observe reality .... It was ... a valuable experience that
 facilitated artists' understanding of electronic space, memory and
 video's ability to document experience in real time .... This
 act--creating electronic territory and involving the viewer in it as a
 physical entity--is a direct predecessor to contemporary, interactive
 multimedia art and immersive technology. Installation artists
 introduced strong concepts of both psychological and physiological
 territory, and advanced an awareness of extended boundaries, as well
 as an electronic ability to define space, time, and energy. (9)

Another work in the Wise show, "Participation TV" (1969), was created by Nam June Paik, a key figure in video art history. Paik was one of the first artists to take on the phenomenon of broadcast television as both a sculptural icon and a powerful communications medium. Hanhardt wrote about Paik in his essay for The Luminous Image video installation catalog in 1984:

  The transformation of television into a post-modern art form came
  about through Paik's understanding of the social presence and
  meaning of television. To Paik the popular perception of television
  as only a mass commodity of entertainment, or as simply a radio with
  pictures, was shortsighted and he set out as an artist to both
  demystify and change it. As he expressed ... television represented
  a new communications technology of enormous potential and signaled
  the beginning of a post-industrial age where manufacturing, the
  organization of society, and the making of art would be transformed.

In "Participation TV," Paik worked with engineers to distort the live signals from several television cameras that were displayed on multiple monitors. The name "Participation TV" is an ironic comment on the actual one-way, non-participatory nature of broadcast television. Paik's revolutionary views about television and its relationship to the artist and society came out of his training as a musician and his active participation in the New York-based Fluxus movement, which Hanhardt describes as "anti-high art ... that resulted in events which highlighted the materiality of consumer culture." (11)

Out of this fertile environment of new ideas and technologically based art-making processes, Paik began to develop a new way of thinking about television and its role in society. Paik's "Participation TV" was one of many early approaches to making video/TV artworks that included the "TV Bra for Living Sculpture" (1969) series with cellist Charlotte Moorman, also seen for the first time at the Wise exhibit. Television's sculptural element is represented by the single TV monitor on a stand, with several video cameras focused to capture both a wide shot and the viewer's face as a close-up image on the screen. It is similar to "Wipe Cycle" because it uses a closed-circuit video surveillance system that posits the viewer as an active performer inside a live electronic image/playback loop where he/she performs as both viewer and actor in real and televisual space.

This almost visceral connection linking the physical human body in actual space to a real-time virtual representation on a video screen has become a defining characteristic of video installations. New media critic Holly Willis elaborates in her recent book about digital cinema:

   Video installation's focus on the body is not insignificant. The
   relationship between the body and technology has grown increasingly
   complex over the last decade such that to speak of one is to speak
   of the other. Body and machine become co-extensive, and yet the
   predominant trope for understanding the relationship between the
   two tends to presuppose a desire to be rid of the body altogether,
   or to view technology as a prosthesis. (12)

These two video installations are also distinctive because they represent the mutability of time in all its simultaneous past, present, and future tenses. Morse also distinguishes between two types of video installations that present Time, the first type describing both "Wipe Cycle" and "Participation TV," which, she states:

  explore the fit between images and the built environment .... Two
  types of video installation art can be differentiated by tense.
  Closed-circuit video plays with "presence" .... Shifting back and
  forth between two and three dimensions, closed-circuit installations
  explore the fit between images and the built environment and the
  process of mediating identity and power. [Secondly, t]he
  recorded-video art installation can be compared to the spectator
  wandering about on a stage .... That is, the technique for raising
  referent worlds to consciousness is not mimesis, but simulation.

Morse's second type describes installations in the 1980s that attempted to create immersive architectural environments through the use of large-screen cinematic video projection. They expanded the earlier-articulated cybernetic communication cycle of viewer and media technology beyond the single surveillance mode into more complex loops that included narratives and simulations of altered states of consciousness. They also situated the viewer inside the work as an active participant, connecting the body to a range of media-based phenomena that were potentially (and intentionally) transformative.


"Room for St. John of the Cross" by Viola, first shown in 1983, indicates how video installations quickly expanded into separate, controllable spaces intended to be dramatic, immersive environments through the artful combination of sound, lighting, and the use of multiple monitors and projected video images on walls or screens. Viola's installations are designed to remove the audience from the usual gallery experience of viewing multiple static visual artworks in a large space. They give the viewer a more intense, theatrical experience of entering a private space much like that of a movie or live theater. The darkened space is charged with narrative, multisensory elements that situate the viewer as an active participant inside an environment. As Viola has said, there is no "outside" to the piece. Once viewers enter the dark space of the large room, they are enveloped by the work, which negates distancing or objectivity.

In 1988, media art historian Deirdre Boyle wrote a detailed description of the piece:

  Within a large room is a smaller room--a low hut that invokes the
  cell in which the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, who was
  imprisoned by the Catholic church and tortured, composed his most
  profound mystical poetry. By enclosing his room within the larger
  room of the installation itself, Viola creates a dialectic between
  interior and exterior space. And through the metaphysics implicit in
  the geometry of opposites--inside and outside, being and
  non-being--Viola confers spatiality upon thought. The larger room
  is dark, except for one wall where a video projection screen emits a
  dim light as a camera dizzily scans the bleak horizon of jagged
  unsurmountable mountain tops. A roaring wind resounds in the space,
  and the viewer feels buffeted and menaced by all that is hostile
  .... But in the very center of this stormy negative space a warm
  light inside the small hut glows through a window .... The
  dialectical opposition between interior and exterior space reflects
  the psychological reality of St. John's mystical experience ... (14)

This installation is exemplary of video artists' early use of projected video to create immersive, even transformative viewer experiences.

This close reading of three early video installations reveals approaches to making art that are more about systems and process, interaction with the viewer, and subjective explorations and transformations than they are about art as object, image, or genre. Artists such as Viola were interested in exploring new ways of perceiving, experiencing, and making meaning with all our senses, while others such as Gillette, Paik, and Schneider explored the increasingly permeable membrane that separates what is now called "cyberspace." Video installation artists embraced change and fluidity, dialogue and communication systems, and subjective explorations of consciousness and reality as central to their artistic practices. These artists also tackled scientific concepts of time and space and intuitively recognized how technology transforms people into information by inserting them into the global flow of electronic impulses through the use of video cameras and screens capturing their images in real time.

In Installation Art in the New Millenium: The Empire of the Senses (2004), Nicolas De Oliveira defines the current state of installations that embrace video installations as part of larger, fluid forms that self-consciously push on their own boundaries as they connect artists to their audiences:

  Earlier attempts to define Installation art by medium alone failed
  because it is in the nature of the practice itself to challenge its
  own boundaries. This questioning process constitutes a discourse
  which investigates the relationships between the artist and the
  audience. Installation is therefore defined by this process,
  something that has led artists to work with materials and
  methodologies not traditionally associated with the visual arts ....
  Marshall McLuhan was one of the key theorists writing in the early
  1960s to address the impact that information technology would have
  on global culture. This formula predicts the shift from objective
  critique towards a new subjectivity which emphasizes uncertainty and
  brings both artist and viewer together in a discursive environment.

As early forms of installation art, video installations define a unique set of characteristics and issues in contemporary art practice and discourse that are centered on the cybernetic processes of the body's real-time interactions with technology, the media environment, and alternative realities. Video installations can now be defined as hybrid art forms that were the first to introduce media technologies as legitimate art-making tools into the cloistered, privileged spaces of museums and art galleries. They also explore a wide range of phenomena outside the art world that connect human consciousness to new techniques involving video surveillance systems and the body located in simultaneous times and spaces. Finally, video installations introduce a critical awareness of technology and the media environment as a pervasive landscape into art world discourse and demonstrate how media technologies continue to change the process of art-making and the very nature of art.

NOTES (1.) Michael Nash, "Vision After Television: Technocultural Convergence, Hypermedia, and the New Media Arts Field" in Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, eds., Resolutions (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 382. (2.) John Hanhardt, "The Discourse of Landscape Video Art: From Fluxus to Post-Modernism," in William Judson, ed., American Landscape Video (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 1988), 70. (3.) Marita Sturken, "Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form: Great Expectations and the Making of a History" in Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer, eds., Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (San Francisco: Aperture/BAVC, 1990), 106. (4.) Margaret Morse, "Video Installation Art: The Body, the Image, the Space in Between" in Illuminating Video, 153. (5.) Chrissie Iles, "Signs and Interpretation: Time-based Installation in the Eighties" in Chrissie Iles, Signs of the Times (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1990), 19. (6.) Hanhardt, "De-collage/Collage: Notes Toward a Reexamination of the Origins of Video Art" in Illuminating Video, 79. (7.) Hanhardt, 1988, 64. (8.) Sturken, "TV as a Creative Medium: Howard Wise and Video Art," Afterimage Volume 11, no. 10 (June 1984), 2. (9.) Kathy Rae Huffman, "Video and Architecture" in Timothy Druckery, ed., Ars Electronica: Facing the Future (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 138. (10.) Hanhardt, "Video Art: Expanded Forms, Notes toward a History" in Dorine Mignot, ed., The Luminous Image (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1984), 57-8. (11.) Hanhardt, "The Discourse of Landscape Video Art: From Fluxus to Post-Modernism," 73. (12.) Holly Willis, New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image (London and New York: Wallflower, 2005), 76. (13.) Morse, 157-8. (14.) Deirdre Boyle, "Bill Viola's Phenomenology of the Soul" in Marilyn Zeitlin, ed., Bill Viola: Survey of a Decade (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1988), 9-10. (15.) Nicolas De Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, and Michael Petry, Installation Art in the New Millennium: The Empire of the Senses (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 13-14.

ROBIN OPPENHEIMER is a PhD student in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. COPYRIGHT 2007 Visual Studies Workshop


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