Signals in Syracuse - Video History: Making Connections conference

Publication Type:

Journal Article




Afterimage, Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY (1999)




Video History Making Connections conference, Syracuse University October 16-18, 1998. Conference organizer - Experimental Television Center.

Full Text: 

"Life and work are fragile and fleeting. People are getting older. Memories fade." This was, in the words of conference co-organizer Sherry Miller Hocking, one impetus for holding "Video History: Making Connections." Independent video production in the United States has recently celebrated its thirtieth birthday and continues to struggle with its identity. Since the late '60s, when Sony Portapak equipment first became available, artists and makers discovered many different uses and applications for video, providing a broad foundation for the diversity existing within the medium at the end of the '90s. Reexamining the history of early video was one of the imperatives of the conference. But in addition to looking back, this conference also addressed present activity in the field and even dared to gaze into the future.

There is a growing sense of concern that the history of the first 30 years of video has not been as fully documented or made as widely accessible as it should be. There is no definitive history of video, but as in other disciplines, there are no textbooks. There is, rather, a set of histories that connect and interweave in the form of documents, articles and interviews. Scholarship in the history of video has been sparse thus far and only schools with strong regional and historical connections to the early years have developed courses to focus on this history-a history that has been largely an oral tradition supplemented by patchy literature. As the medium continues to age, certain parts of the history have already been omitted or forgotten. The instability of early magnetic tape material is forcing video producers and archivists to face another problem. Many of the early tapes cannot be played due to their deteriorating condition and to the decreasing number of early playback machines. This will naturally impact the archive of video works that exist and that can be .screened. It will ultimately reduce the source material for historians and writers.

"Video History: Making Connections" opened with "Video Rewind," a day-long seminar organized by video historian Deirdre Boyle as an introduction to the history of early independent video in the U.S. The panel consisted of Paul Ryan, author and former Raindance Coalition and TVTV member, Barbara London, Museum of Modem AA (MOMA) video curator, and Parry Teasdale, ex-Videofreek and writer. After introducing the panel Boyle asked everyone present in the room to introduce themselves. This particular gathering of people inducted pioneer video artists Steina Vasulka and Tony Conrad as well as other artists, curators, teachers, writers, historians, students, distributors and programmers. Boyle screened four tapes including Proto Media Primer (1970), an interview with Abbie Hoffman by Raindance, and Calligrams (1970), an early example of signal alteration by Steina and Woody Vasulka. While these tapes are now considered historical standards in the context of the seminar the screenings served to reprise same of the questions of genre and boundary that have been at the heart of the debate concerning video's early days. They also invoked the problems inherent in selecting the work that is deemed to be of historical importance. And finally they provoked questions about how the history of video can be expanded to include work that has been neglected.

Both Ryan and Teasdale, members of influential '70s video collectives, represented the strong historical connection between political and social activism and video production. Ryan's writings constitute a long commitment to a vision of how theory and practice can coalesce. In his presentation he sought to reactivate interest in the particular strain of utopianism present in the video collectives. Referencing the objectives of the collectives and his own projects, Ryan reminded the audience that video can still be harnessed to promote social change and influence social behavior in a meaningful way. He talked of rescuing "utopia" from its naive associations and encouraged those present to reexamine the early history of video in relation to these ideas. Teasdale was more anecdotal as he attempted to recreate the context for his own and other video activists' involvement in collective activities during the '70s. He described the financial arid political climate that enabled the Media Bus to develop and read from his forthcoming book on the creation of Lanesville TV in 1972. Lanesville TV was the first pirate television station in the U.S. and represents the beginning of community television broadcasting.

London reviewed the landmark years in establishing video art at the MOMA, interspersing memories of her more than 20 years as video curator with slides and tapes of work she exhibited during her tenure. Rather than examining her role as a curator or how her vision impacted the institutionalization of video art and particularly video installation, she talked about her concerns with maintaining the integrity of the work in the museum setting and of nurturing emerging artists.

On the whole one had the sense that those present saw the need to acknowledge early and current contradictions in the history and even to embrace them. The presentations ultimately served to bring general issues to the foreground. Opening up the floor Boyle confessed to her pre-conference terror of dealing with the multiple histories of video. Steina Vasulka made the distinction between those who were experimenting with signal processing and the video artist Nam June Paik, characterizing him as an artist who was "always in the gallery." There was some disagreement about the importance of New York State as a locus of tool development and signal processing. There was an interest in acknowledging the explicit historical links between video and performance art, film and theater. A host of themes emerged during this discussion, all of which can be broadly categorized in terms of integration: how to bring more widely related issues into the history of video and how to bring the history of video into the wider arena of AA History. Much of the discussion was dominated by educators, a sign that there is an appetite for greater knowledge of video history in the academy.

Attempts to integrate the pressing issue of video preservation into the debate were less successful. Running simultaneously with "Video Rewind" was "Video Preservation," a day-long meeting of artists, media organizations, educational institutions and others directly involved in preservation projects. During the morning session participants reported on the progress being made in cataloging and preservation work. In the afternoon the group strategized based on that information. Conference co-organizer Mona Jimenez was enthusiastic about the accomplishments made since the first preservation meeting at MOMA in 1991. Stronger links with the film preservation field have been established and this has encouraged information sharing, referral and recognition. Much has still to be developed con- knowledge and technical support funding for the continuation of the preservation protect is crucial, and more support from the rest of the video community is also important, especially from those who are eager to expand the history. It was practical but regrettable that the preservation meeting and the "Video Rewind" seminar remained separate meetings.

The integration of new technologies and the impact of the Web on video was made explicit during the address on Friday night by David Ross, former director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and current head of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His talk, "The Success of the Failure of Video," took place in the reverent setting of the Henriks Chapel on the Syracuse University campus. Ross described this homecoming to Syracuse as his "video bar mitzvah" - he became the first known video curator as a Syracuse undergraduate at the Everson Museum in 1972.

Ross began by saying that it was an appropriate moment in time to talk about the history of video. He described how the development of video in the late '60s and early '70s had helped to change and expand the very definition of art. The theme of utopia from earlier in the day resurfaced in the second part of Ross's talk, which dealt with the utopian potential of what he termed "Net Art" In reference to art disseminated on the Net (which may or may not include video), Ross zealously pointed to the promise this holds for artists to have control over the distribution of their work, a key factor in his account of video's historical failure. He stated that video art's radical innovations had been absorbed into the art world, and the medium was no longer considered a threat, citing the evolution of video installation as a product of this very "success of the failure of video." Ross promoted the Net as creating a community where many people have access and as a regular place to display art and identified part of video's failure as having been its inability to create such a communal space.

The audience appeared less enthusiastic about the promise of the Net, at least as it was described by Ross. The issue of viewing conditions, including the primacy of enjoying work in real space, was the first counterargument. The structural dominance of the phone companies supporting the Web is not reassuring for artists either. One respondent was as wary of the collapse of video into some amorphous "Net Art" category, as he was of the term "Media Art." Conrad had the last word, suggesting that there was perhaps a conflation of video on the Web with the on-line archive, and he was not so sure that in the future people would be out there looking for video artists' work.

The second day was broken down into a series of shorter panel presentations. "Writing About Video" reinforced the importance of critical writing for video history. Ryan described writing about video in the '70s as forging a discourse that did not already exist. Melinda Barlow, author and educator, described the difficulties facing writers attempting to chronicle installation where work is no longer physically intact and may have been scantily documented. For work that no longer exists, the writing stands in for the work-a considerable responsibility. Laura McGough addressed her role as curator and the critical decision involved in choosing one artist over another to show and to write about. It was noted that there are currently very few outlets for new critical writing on video, Afterimage being cited as one of the best forums.

"Teaching Video History" asked how video history can prove itself relevant in the era of multi-media and how it can be taught without major library resources. This panel was notable for its insistence on themes of integration in terms of recommending that the history of video be part of an electronic art curriculum where possible and also incorporated into production courses. There was discussion of the challenges involved in compressing a survey of video history into other courses. Panelist Tom Sherman described his decision to create a history of video course at Syracuse University when integration simply did not provide enough foundation for his students. The panelists had practical advice for teachers regarding gaining access to tapes, contacting artists and bringing new work to the attention of students by, for example, shooting video documents of installations to bring back to the classroom. Panelist Kathy Rae Huffman promoted the use of CD ROMs for the distribution of work. Getting institutional support to develop resources to teach video history, including building a library of tapes, was considered essential by the panel.

"Video History: Making Connections" emphasized the importance of individuals in the history of video. The power of artists or activists working together is a group with a shared goal was another facet of early video that perhaps provoked feelings of nostalgia for those present. Contributions to the field by organizations such as the Experimental Television Center in Owego, NY or Downtown Community Televison in New York City attest to a sustained commitment to facilitating video production that dates back to the influential early years. The Resource Room and Tool Workshop, organized by Pamela Hawkins of Alfred University, provided an incredible amount of historical material. Early analog and digital recording and playback equipment, along with image and sound processors, were displayed next to journals, publications and newsletters from video organizations in the U.S. and Canada dating back to the late '60s, all available for perusal. Videotapes were stacked by several monitors, each with a VCR, and accessible for viewing throughout the weekend. "Video History: Making Connections" also accommodated input from current makers and practitioners in the field by encouraging personal but informative presentations. There were a number of panels consisting solely of artists presenting work and talking about their practice, indicating the continuous expansion of video-based work.

In response to Michael Nash's pronouncement of video art's demise, Cynthia Chris's 1996 article "Video Art: Dead or Alive" (Afterimage 24, no. 5) examined some of the painful changes that video and the video community were undergoing at that time, ranging from funding cutbacks to artists migrating to film and to new technologies. Paradoxically all of this was happening despite a new interest in the field on the part of academics and writers, and a notable increase in the production and exhibition of video-based installation work. As witnessed at this conference, many of these observations still hold true three years later. However, there have been some new and positive developments since then: tapes are currently being cataloged and preserved, the Video History Project website has been created to encourage a generative history by inviting individual recollections and testimony and the history of video is developing a greater presence within art history and media education. "Video History: Making Connections" was an important conference in the history of the history of video. It was about coming to terms with the aging process in its various manifestations but it was also about celebrating and connecting to a rich and plural history.