The Devil’s Advocate: Why Video Art?

by Wendy Stefansson

On January 31st, at the closing of the multiple-venue, downtown video art exhibit, ARTery, the Prairie Art Gallery held a Community Reactions Panel to find out what people thought about the ARTery experience. I took this opportunity to play the devil’s advocate. I placed questions about video art that I wanted answered (in italics) in the hands of gallery. Director Robert Steven, who also had lots of questions and comments of his own (not in italics). The following is an excerpt from the conversation that ensued.

Robert Steven, Prairie Art Gallery Executive Director/Curator:
Why video art? Is there something intrinsic to the medium that makes it so compelling for artists at this time in history?

Edward Bader, ARTery Curator:
Well, one reason I chose video for this project is that it seemed like a good medium to be shown in the dark. Video glows in the night. I think one of the wonderful things about video is that it really allows one to play with the notion of time in a sustained type of manner. When you see these various videos screened, especially the Bill Viola piece, you really become aware of how time and our experience of it can be manipulated, slowed down, etc. We experience things happening through time and space very differently than we can in a painting which has evolved primarily in trying to engender a moment frozen in time. Video allows events to unfold. Things are said in video art that can not be said in a painting, architecture and sculpture. The wonderful thing about the medium and certain new media is that, especially as they cross over, they allow you to work in those in-between spaces and talk about different sorts of things.

Steven: What makes video ‘art’?

Bader: I would ask someone who has a question about video art, in terms of even the works in this show: “Are not most of the works poetic? Are they not both very visually strong and appealing? Do they not force you to contemplate and think about things? Do they not change your awareness of your space and place in the world?” And if you answer yes to all of those things, those are qualities that we have associated traditionally with art. I think a lot of times when people have a problem with video as art, it’s simply about the technology. But it would be like responding to a painter working in acrylic: “Why aren’t you working in egg tempera?” Art has always been involved in the forefront of technical innovations appropriating them for different ends and means.

Steven: A number of people have said to me, setting up rules for what can and can’t be art: “Well, maybe video can be art, but then can photography or photo-based painting and that sort of thing be art?” I’m surprised by some of those comments because I can’t think of a single artifact of any human culture that the artist has not tried to employ. Everything that comes along, the artist says: “Hey! I can make art with that!” So video art would be inevitable, just as asphalt art and paper pulp art and every other kind of art that you end up seeing was inevitable.

But what about the archival properties of video? Are you concerned that in 50 years the technology will have changed so much that nobody will be able to view this work anymore?

Bader: What would you say about a music or a dance piece? It’s an event… it’s the experience you take with you that unfolds through time. It’s no different than dance, drama, whatever. You may have a script, but the performance only occurs at that special moment in time. So why does art have to be lasting for 10,000 years? Why can’t it just be that experience of the moment?

Steven: Do you think video as a medium is more accessible than other media because it can be distributed far and wide and shown in multiple places simultaneously?

Bader: What’s the difference between a video being reproduced multiple times and a Rembrandt etching being reproduced multiple sets of times? It’s just another way of distributing your art. For me the whole ARTery exhibit is really about slipping art into the everyday world, getting outside the confines of the gallery box, the sacred temple of art, and having, in the words of Suzi Gablik, “a re-enchantment of art,” where art is a part of people’s lives and engages them in new ways. To me, this exhibit takes art to an audience that normally would never have visited the Prairie Art Gallery ever.

Steven: But why exactly are we having this discussion? It seems to me that there is still a need for this kind of discourse to make the bridge between artist and audience. Perhaps, in that sense, video art is elitist.

Bader: Well, there are different types of audiences for all sorts of things. There are just different levels of appreciation or understanding of works and images. But for this project I really chose works that were very striking visually, so that if you only saw an image in a second or a glance, there would be something about it that would intrigue you. I think most of the imagery is pretty accessible. It’s not non-objective. It’s not abstract. We’re used to surrealism; we see it in mass-media video all the time. So ironically a lot of the works in the show are very conservative, because they’re almost like painted images.

Micah Lexier, Exhibiting Artist:
Can we go back to that question about elitism versus accessibility? That’s such a crazy dichotomy because: how do we know? Isn’t the goal just to put work out there and let people decide if they like it or not? How can you decide in advance if something is popular or not? You give it a chance, and who knows what people are going to like?

Steven: To play the devil’s advocate on that one, the question is: Is it fixed? Is it rigged who has the opportunity to like something, because of their educational or socio-economic background? The gallery exists for the purpose of bringing art to people who couldn’t necessarily afford to have the art in their own homes. All around the world the people who go into art galleries are the ones who can afford to have art in their own homes and the people who don’t go in are the people who don’t have a relationship with art for various reasons. So one of the goals here was to put art out there in a less intimidating way than having it in the gallery. And, to be fair, there have been lots of people you wouldn’t expect to see in galleries – kids, teenagers – stopping and looking at the works. So I admit that we didn’t do very much interpretation with this work. Aside from today, we didn’t offer people much insight into what it is they’ve been looking at. There’s no text panel beside any of the pieces.

Lexier: I’m really glad you don’t have text panels beside the works. As an artist, I hope there’s never a text panel beside my work! As an artist that’s my job – to have my work as the text panel. What I present to the public is what I want to present to the public. I don’t want someone telling them how to read my work, and so I appreciate this opportunity of having the work in the public realm without any kind of mediation between it and the people. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an educated audience. I mean, I think it’s just one person trying to communicate with others.

Steven: I think we all agree that there’s no such thing as an educated audience. And that’s what I’m trying to convince people of. I’m trying to empower them. They don’t feel incapable or uninformed about deciding whether or not they like a piece of music. But a lot of people really do honestly feel that they can’t make a judgement about whether they like a piece of art or not. Because they don’t know what it means; they don’t know enough about it. They are afraid. Somehow we’ve convinced them that they need to be afraid about art. So I agree with you that the audience can look for their own traces, but the kind of text panels that we would like to somehow provide without undermining the art is the kind that convinces people of that, and lets them feel fully equipped to do that.

Bader: No, no, no, no, no. You just have the art, and the art convinces.

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