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The Liquid Medium: Video Art

29 May 199911 July 1999

Group exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery.

There is a certain behaviour of the electronic image that is unique . . . It's liquid, it's shapeable, it's clay, it's an art material, it exists independently.  

In today's electronic matrix, the media arts ― particularly video ― reflect a diverse and complex aesthetic, cultural and institutional significance in relation to contemporary art exhibition and distribution. On the one hand, video's interdisciplinary background suggests a hybrid form, a fertile meeting ground and intertextual zone for the visual arts, performing arts and telecommunications. On the other hand it suggests a form that is kinetic and open-ended.

Thirty years ago in video's infancy, its earliest frame of reference was an era of social upheaval. During this period, the practices of certain artists encompassed multimedia concepts in opposition to modernism and sought to re-define distinctions between art and mass media communications.

The earliest examples of an 'electronic image' were an elusive, low-resolution black-and-white image produced by utilising the innovative (although primitive) system of an open-reel video 'porta-pak' recorder/camera introduced by Sony in the USA and Europe in 1965 and the early 1970s in Australia. Prior to the introduction of 'consumer' portable video equipment, Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell, acknowledged as the seminal figures of video art, included television apparatus in their performances and multimedia events and installations, drawing upon the anti-art Fluxus aesthetic to subvert the television 'image' and contradict the norms of 'commercial' television.

This interdisciplinary approach was also adopted by many artists who utilised the portable video camera to record self-referential performance works or 'actions', playing back the recorded works as experimental closed-circuit multi-screen environments, or in conceptual installation projects. The portability of 'porta-pak' equipment also allowed many artists to produce hours of documentary material often referred to as 'street tapes' or 'guerilla television' used as programming in public television broadcasts. These documentary works were usually linked with the anti-war, civil rights and/or the women's movement, and regardless of their intentions many artists produced these works as profound criticisms of mass-media industries and the corporate power systems of science and technology. Paradoxically, they were also expanding the role of television; and merging technology with art, and with television.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, video remained independent with few institutional infrastructures, and many myths began to emerge surrounding its development. Video art exhibitions were cluttered, noisy and often messy affairs in artists' studios, and artist-run galleries. As video and interdisciplinary exhibition projects began to develop, the portable video system evolved into a tool and means of developing ideas and experimental works surrounding various emerging art movements of the time. These included process art, conceptual art, performance and ecology-based art, thereby replacing video's early myths with new intertextual debates surrounding post-structuralism, media theory, spectatorship, authorship, and postmodern creativity.

However, what has remained central to video's evolution is its potential to transform time and space and its flexibility to combine and transform images ― as well as its potential for interplay with other media, such as sound and computer animation. Video's future hinges on two parallel factors, one centred on a detailed analysis of the 'electronic image' in its temporal, aesthetic, historical and stylistic dimensions, and the other defined by an intertextual axis of traditional media technologies (e.g. film, photography and television) converging with new digital technologies (e.g. virtual reality and hypermedia).

This publication lists outstanding video works from Australia and overseas, acquired since March 1996 when the Queensland Art Gallery formulated a policy to incorporate artist's videos in the Collection. These selected videos span a twenty-five year period from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. They display an interdisciplinary, experimental character and formal innovation which will indicate to viewers that the practice of video is a challenging and diverse activity. Video is a time-based medium and light is its basic and essential material. Its different modes of perception and visionary poetics of image and space (as displayed in many of the works selected for the accompanying exhibition) are defined by previously unknown spatio-temporal dimensions. We should also remain mindful that video has progressed from an early anti-television attitude to new outlooks of content, aesthetics, techno-image processes and exhibition.  



Essay by Brian Langer (curator, 'The Liquid Medium: Video Art', 1999)

  • 1. Woody Vasulka, quoted in Frank Popper, Art of the Electronic Age, Thames & Hudson, 1993, p.62.