Barbara Borčić
No. 845
"Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism"
Artist: Barbara Borčić
Title: Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism
Year: 2003
Genre: Essay
Production: MIT Press, Massachussetts, USA

Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism
The Seventies: the Documentary and Communicational Use of Video

Yugoslav artists encountered their first obstacle at the very beginning, regarding the question of the conditions of production. Video equipment – this widely known technology available to anyone – was simply not at their disposal in those "pioneering times" of the 1970's. It was not in the possession of institutions, galleries or museums like in the West, where thanks to its wide availability, institutions were able to monopolize their position. Nevertheless, surprisingly enough, Yugoslav video production did not lag behind that of Western countries neither chronologically nor in terms of its message. However, the position of video in Yugoslav proportions remained marginal for a long time, and in terms of the number of tapes produced and their technical excellence it could not be compared with production in the countries of developed capitalism. In order to be able to produce a video, our artists had to find their own ways and be quick and efficient. Only in exceptional cases were they able to borrow equipment from rare companies or agencies. They were able to become acquainted with and use video technology only on rare occasions, which is why in most cases they did not learn how to handle it. They either realized their works during their stays abroad while participating in exhibitions and international spectacles such as the Trigon Exhibition and the International Open Encounter on Video organised by CAYC in Ferrara, Paris and Barcelona or during occasional international encounters in Yugoslavia where the visiting artists or the organizers brought their equipment with them thus giving their Yugoslav colleagues the opportunity to handle their equipment, learn from them and cooperate. Marina Abramović, for instance, realized her first video performance entitled Freeing the Voice at the Belgrade April Encounters in 1975 in collaboration with Jack Moore, member of the Paris group Video Heads.

Video shows, where the latest works by international and local artists could be seen, were relatively frequent in Yugoslavia from the beginning of the 1970's onwards, usually organised by the Zagreb Gallery of Contemporary Arts and the Belgrade Student Cultural Centre (SKC) and quite frequent in collaboration with the Ursula Krinzinger's Gallery in Innsbruck, the Cavalino Gallery from Venice, the Art/Tape 22 Studio from Florence and the cousins Ingrid and Žika Dacić from Tübingen. From 1972 there were regular April encounters of expanded media in the gallery of the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade, and after 1974 there were also video encounters in the Croatian towns of Zagreb, Motovun and Brdo. The April encounters in the 1970's were undoubtedly the most significant international shows of contemporary artistic practice in Yugoslavia, with participants such as Joseph Beuys. An important aspect of those encounters was that the foreign artists participated personally, some of them appearing quite often, including personalities such as Luciano Giaccari, Ulrike Rosenbach, Luigi Ontani, Katharina Sieverding and the group Video Heads.

The aforementioned manifestations encouraged interest in video and at the same time determined distribution since outside them the broadcasting of video tapes was practically impossible. Similarly to other conceptualist practices, particularly performances and actions, video remained a more or less exclusive medium, linked to the gallery context and thus limited to a narrow circle of artists and followers, also determined by time. Goran Trbuljak, a Croatian artist who was one of the rare Yugoslav artists to research the technological possibilities and limits of video as a medium, pictorially described this paradoxical situation and utopian desire for change, according to his own experience:

At the several exhibitions/festivals of video tapes held so far it has become obvious that those manifestations are hardly attended by anyone else but those who appear on the screen. Such a scene always reminds one in a way of a person standing in front of a mirror, looking at their own reflection... When an artist thus communicates with himself, it rarely interests the other. However, if anyone who has not worked with video before were given the possibility to handle it, they would soon realize that they are caught in the charms of one of the most seductive media. Perhaps its democratic ability to arouse creativity in people will lead to a time in the future when everyone will be equipped with video technology – a time of art without artists, when everyone will be doing art.1

The potential of video as a technology and as a communication apparatus was thus recognized and its socializing role defined. The fate of these utopian desires in our country like those elsewhere, of course, was not in the hands of the producers – the artists – but in the domain of ideological and economic demands and interests. Although the artist's socializing tendency could nicely match the proclamation of "art for everyone" made by the Yugoslav socialist authorities, video artists also remained in the isolation of a kind of a ghetto from which they were unable to have a wider impact on society. In any event, it was the fate of conceptualist art in general. Video was related to such practices – locally termed "new art practice" – quite directly. Accepted as a new technological attraction and a technical aid, video made the broadening of the field of vision and experience possible. From the very beginning, however, a distinction was established between the specific video expression and the video as a means of documenting ephemeral events. Regardless of whether it concerned the documentary, communicational or experimental application of the video technology, early video works were based on actions and performances which emphasized the relationship between the artist and society. Video authors also came from the context of visual art, less often from the domain of cinema or other fields. For some of them, learning to use video technology was of decisive significance for their later work, but for many of them it was only a transitory experience, one which was soon to be forgotten In most cases, video, as a new reproductive technology abolishing the aura of the original and producing a matrix which can freely be copied and distributed, did not interest them; video technology was not used to its full potential, its language and its communicational effects were not studied. Video was mainly used as an auxiliary means of recording and presenting the artist's performances or as a technical tool related to the artistic message within the context of other media, i.e. as a conceptual continuation for the formulation and transmission of social and political statements.

The action happened only in front of the video camera and not live in front of an audience, and even if video made it possible for the audience to follow a live performance happening in a physically detached space, such as in Rhythm 4 by Marina Abramović (1974), video was accepted only as another means of expression in all its immediacy. The early performances of this Belgrade artist, who later worked alongside the German activist artist Ulay in the period between 1976 and 1988, were marked by a considerable amount of self-aggression, i.e. self-destructiveness, at the risk of causing the sensations of discomfort and resistance among the audience. In Rhythm 4 – a performance where the artist was interested in how her body would react to a great air pressure produced in a narrow empty space by huge fans – video also carried out the function of a screen which made the acceptance of the indirect action, despite its simultaneity, somewhat less painful.

In any event, the pioneering usage of video at the time was characterized by a static camera which recorded the event in real time, while the subject and the object was the artist him or herself – only exceptionally from different angles or focusing on fragments of his or her body. The documentary record contained the temporal and spatial unity, while the length of the video tape corresponded to the real time of the action, since the shots were not edited or transformed in any other way. A representative of such 'reduced' usage of video was Raša Todosijević who explained his dealings with video as follows:

I have made my video works without any special interest in the technical side of this medium, in the process of production or those spectacular possibilities of manipulation of electronic technology. I was interested in video more as a transmitter of psychological and mental activities in which any technical exhibitionism is fundamentally extraneous. My video works should be regarded as realizations closely related to all that I did in my performances. Such behaviour and usage of video tape has been termed video performance.2

This Belgrade artist, who sharply analysed the issue of the artist's position in a cultural and social context – e.g. in the video Who profits from art and who makes honest money – accepted video only as one of the numerous means of expression, without the illusion that the technique itself contributed to the democratisation of the arts. In a series of performances entitled Was ist Kunst for example, he obsessively repeated this same question, directly examining what is and what could be art, while the video, by focusing on the artist addressing the audience in a narrowed frame, emphasized the almost unbearable aggressiveness of the act.

Fascination with video technology and the understanding of video surface as a latent erogenous image inspired  Nuša and Srečo Dragan from Ljubljana to remain involved in video for years – from 1988 until today. They were active in a movement which united various artistic practices of creating art as an idea which developed around the Slovenian conceptualist group OHO. In 1969 they made Belo mleko belih prsi ("The white milk of white breasts"), which is considered to be the first video in the former Yugoslavia: a static black and white recording with mobile graphic signs/captions and statements made by the participants in the action who discussed video art in different languages. Action was seen as the target of their activity, as they understood video in actions (the analysis of observation and the mechanisms of illusion) and attempted to use it as a medium of immediate and interactive communication with the public. Since they could interfere in the course of the action – they were in an active relationship with the camera and the monitor – moreover, they were expected to do so, the participants in these actions were supposed to feel included in the video experience and establish an active mental relationship with what they saw. Video was at the same time a realization and a regular notation of the process model of communication, the visualization of ideas or – as they classified it themselves – an imprint of the creative consciousness. The image was on the monitor immediately, without a time gap, thus emphasizing the unity of time, place and action. In the action Video painting, for instance, performed by its authors at the international manifestation Trigon in Graz in 1979, they demonstrated the ephemeral procedure steps of painting by mixing various pigments in real time and at the same time prolonging this process by video camera and freezing it on the monitor.

We could similarly classify the video work Rhythm by Neša Paripović (1981) in which the artist applies paint onto a white sheet of paper by rhythmical beats of his fingers, until eventual saturation. This record of creating both a painting and a sound finally demystified the modernist process of the creation of a painting, at the same time introducing the omni-dimensionality of video which includes the subject, sound, object, movement and colour etc.

Conceptualism, as a movement started by a resistance against industrial society and consumer mentality, seeks meaning in the confrontation of the field of art with social and political contexts. Despite its undisputed critical attitude toward society, in hindsight it can often be recognized as a specific kind of escape from reality and withdrawal into a hermetic world of self-reference, the acceptance of oriental philosophy and a turn towards rituals and meditation.

Resistance against the established system of art was almost without exception condemned to marginalisation or resulted in its general acceptance and agreement with its mechanisms, including musealization. Here we should raise the issue of the video document and its usage: how can something performed live in front of an audience in real time, involving a special relationship between the artist and the audience and the real duration – in other words, performance art, as one of the most radical art practices – be presented with the available documentation, photography and video? What does it lose and what can it gain? The question concerning the nucleus of (conceptualist) practice of this kind – the dematerialization of an art object with a potential market value – and the performer's resistance toward historicization, sometimes even before recording the documentation and especially before viewing it, will be left aside here due to the time distance. This is also due to the fact that the artists' utopian effort to avoid the functioning of the system of art and market mechanisms is as a rule condemned to failure and in retrospect appears only as a short term naive belief. This should not mean, however, that such a standpoint is not a significant base for a certain value and reflection. Nonetheless, it appears that it was video – next to less attractive static photographs –which made the co modification of what had passed possible. The fact that the conceptualists themselves, along with many other rising artists, profited from this short period when attempts were made to deprive society of material works of art, seems from this perspective quite just. Finally, it was they who brought about the increased demand and higher prices in the market due to the rarification of art works.

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