An essay on Video Spaces: Eight Installations; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; June 22-September 12, 1995.
by Samuel Delany
For many people video is the quintessential "new" art; consequently, there is a tendency to look at it with the slightly patronizing gaze reserved for the forever young. However, most of the artists represented in Video Spaces have been working in the medium twenty years or longer. All have developed rich vocabularies and intricately explored techniques. The newness here is in the event--in the assemblage of the work of nine mature and proven artists.
Using video as a generic term for television, it is useful to remember the key Marshall McLuhan proposed to understand our reaction to what flickers and flashes across the tube: "Low resolution, high involvement." Video is ultimately more engaging than film because we are given so much less information. Even the color range is narrower, the hues more muted, than in a projected film. Before color, the range extended from pale to dark gray, without ever hitting a true black, a true white. When looking at a video monitor, your attention is tuned way up out of necessity, so that nothing is missed.
In many homes the television set dominates the room it occupies, often droning from morning till night, in the same way that the computer--with its all-important monitor--dominates our workspaces. In the earlier days, video and computer artists were comfortable letting their technical apparatuses overwhelm the architectural spaces in which their work appeared, creating an analogue of our lives even as the images and form of that domination critiqued our experience of commercial television and computers.
In much of the video art today, however, technology--while certainly evident--is no longer the center of attention the way it once was. While there are still images projected onto screens, others hang in the air or sweep about the walls. And there has been a shift in content, toward memory and subjectivity, AIDS, and the transience of the body. The old-fashioned formalists we all tend to be in matters aesthetic must constantly think about new ways to talk about such art.
Beginning as an accommodation for art that erupted beyond the physical confines ordinarily associated with the picture frame and the pedestal, the video installation collapses the distinction between painting (images presented along a wall) and sculpture (images standing free of those walls and commanding interior space and air), between interior and exterior, present and future. Paradoxically, science fiction (my particular domain) is rarely about time. And it is almost never about space. It takes both as given, infinitely extendable categories, pictured as almost wholly under human control--and thus almost wholly unproblematic, even invisible. (It is often about what you can find in them--the specifics of history--but that is something else.) What science fiction often is about is scale--and it uses the infinite fields of time and space to reimage the past as well as the future.
Two characteristics that video shares with much other contemporary art, especially installation art, are a lack of permanence (the "timelessness" that for so long has seemed essential to "serious" art) and the use of movement--that motion in excess of the contained cycles and oscillations of the mobile, the sweep of movement and image that film, video, and certain large-scale mechanisms alone can provide. When such motion enters the exhibition space, it excludes a certain concept of history as a static moment to be considered, in all its elements, like a dioramic re-creation. We're still learning what concept of history is freed into play by these mobile images. But even as we are learning how to read them, my suspicion is that underlying them is a concept of history far more complex than most of us are used to.
What is valuable about science fiction is not that it predicts new things (thus presumably giving the reader a head start on the rest of us), but rather, that it presents a range of possibilities (the vast majority of which never come about) that exercise and open up the imagination. Consequently, the new things that do appear--whether in art, technology, or in social patterns--are easier for such readers to fit into their existing world views. It gives us vivid, immediate, and luminous images of new or alternate possibilities--and invites us to describe, to assess, to judge, to reexamine, and to interrogate.
Similarly, the artists of Video Spaces use a great variety of technological and aesthetic underpinning, as well as acquired skills and knowledge, to make new images and new experiences, and to pose new questions. Only an exploration sensitive to the discourse of the times can begin to fix their import--something that can only be suggested by criticism, something that can be experienced only by standing before, and moving about in, the works themselves.
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