The preference for alternately randy and disoriented cavorting characters in video art (seen, most recently, in the work of Paul McCarthy) was foreshadowed in pushy, confrontational work of Vito Acconci.
Watch the video here.
Christian Marclay, Telephones, 1995
The most famous work of video art in the world right now is Marclay’s The Clock (2010), a montage of recognizable moments from TV and movies that feature clocks or watches, which Marclay and his assistants pasted together to create a fairly accurate timepiece that could run continuously for 24 hours. Many historians have read Telephones as a harbinger of this kind of a supercut tribute to the history of cinema.
John Baldessari, I Am Making Art, 1971
I Am Making Art is an exemplary work by Conceptualist John Baldessari, who has specialized in works of art that were completed when the work was simply named or announced. This has taken form in painting and sculpture, but Baldessari has also engaged the potential of video art to create these radically self-contained art objects.
Joan Jonas, Vertical Roll, 1972
Visual effects employed by video-art experimenters have often been used to turn on its head the sexualized surveillance of women. This can often mean “deconstructing” the male heteronormative gaze with abrupt cuts, pans, or rolls.
Peter Campus, Three Transitions, 1973
Still other effects have been put to use to make art that breaks down the sense of corporeality that binds sculpture and performance. It can be an empowering thing, as this work shows, to make oneself melt or disappear, which of course isn’t possible in other media.
Chris Burden, Through the Night Softly, 1973
Burden’s rougher edge (and tolerance for self-abuse) has come up more than once. This performance, arranged at a less inhibited point in his career, involved dragging himself across the floor (in another version it was outdoor pavement) through a scattering of broken glass.
Cory Arcangel, Paganini’s 5th Caprice, 2011
Demonstrating his characteristic use of the super-fast-paced spirit of contemporary media, Arcangel devised this supercut from videos of amateur guitar players, which he pasted together to form a single performance of the famously chaotic solo composed, originally for the violin, by the early-19th-century composer Niccolò Paganini.
Chris Burden, Big Wrench, 1980
Burden’s deadpan monologue about his love affair with an out-of-production cargo truck comes from a point in his career when he came to exploit the narrative aspects of film, using the affection for a rig called “Big Job” as a metaphor for his flirtation with madness.
Watch it here.
Matthew Barney, Cremaster Cycle, 1994-2002
During the eight years that Barney was composing and producing his five-part epic Cremaster Cycle, critic Michael Kimmelman called him the “most important artist in the world.” DVD editions, sold as individual works of art, carried a price tag of at least $100,000. On one occasion, a single DVD of Cremaster 2 reportedly sold for $571,000.
Pipilotti Rist, Ever Is Over All, 1997
Over the course of her career, Rist’s work has been defined less by small, single-screen works than by giant, room-sized installations. The immersive effect is designed to overwhelm the viewer, which can be hard to reproduce on a computer screen. This is nevertheless a decent-quality example.
Bill Viola, The Quintet of the Astonished, 2000
Viola grew up looking closely at ecclesiastical painting from the Renaissance. As you can see in this video, he has remained enraptured with the medium’s power to observe human facial expressions with the same overwhelming attention and care practiced by the Old Masters.
Marina Abramovic and Ulay, AAA AAA, 1978
While other performance and video artists have sought to capture the sentimental beauty of previously banal objects and situations, artists like Abramovic (here, with her old collaborator Ulay) focused more on tension and distress.
Marina Abramovic and Ulay, The Other: Rest Energy, 1980
This obsession with tension of Abramovic’s and Ulay’s regularly spilled over into a preoccupation with pain and endurance. More than a few of Abramovic’s performances involved her sitting or standing in place, for hours, until her body ached. Still others, like this example, involved the artist exposing herself to theatrically contrived (or even genuine) physical danger.
Bruce Nauman, Art Make-Up, 1967
Bruce Nauman stands out among artists for his willingness to adapt a willfully opaque persona or character in his video work — most famously, as the title character in Clown Torture (1987). But the very act of transforming into these characters has also been a subject, as in this piece, in which Nauman covers his head and torso in white makeup.
John Baldessari, John Baldessari Sings LeWitt, 1972
This homage to the father of Conceptualism involved Baldessari reciting LeWitt’s instruction-based Sentences on Conceptual Art, adding humanity and idiosyncrasy to the otherwise austerely presented list of rules.
Dan Graham, Performer/Audience/Mirror, 1975
Influenced by philosophic writings of Jacques Lacan, Graham sought the verbal, self-completing approaches of Lewitt and Baldessari with the added dimension of self-portraiture, as in this work, in which he narrates his posture, movements, and appearance while standing in front of the gallery audience.
Omer Fast, 5,000 Feet Is Best, 2011
Drawing on interviews from former drone operators in the US military, Israeli artist Omer Fast paired a documentary comment on the rising use of unmanned drones with a theatrical piece of narrative about a group of civilian victims, which he cast using white actors. This is one of my personal favorite Fast videos.
Martha Rosler, Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained, 1977
Portraits examining the alienated gaze of video surveillance, experimented with formally in Joan Jonas’s Vertical Roll (above), were given an additional dose of intensity in this work, in which one subject offers a physical profile to two women wearing lab coats. Much of this work has to do with the severity and plain candor of the patient-doctor-nurse relationship, typifying the “disciplinary society,” with characteristic notions of observation and control, described by French historian Michel Foucault.
William Wegman, Selected Works, 1972
Applying some of the earliest, most innovative visual magic tricks to his video work (many of which had not yet been mastered by the television industry), Wegman created videos that starred his two Weimaraners in dynamic speaking roles. Not surprisingly, Wegman has made at least one contribution to an episode of Sesame Street.
Gary Hill, Processual Video, 1980
For this text-and-image work, the rigidly minimal effect of a rotating bar across the video screen is endowed with newfound flexibility and dynamism. Hill recites a narrative whose setting — flipping between the horizontality of a landscape and the verticality of a mountain cliff — is dynamic, and even with very little to go on, the moving imagery keeps up with the pace of his reading.
Colin Campbell, Bad Girls, 1980
The alternative stories and modes of self-presentation offered by the video medium have often been ideal for marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ community. This tradition has been carried on fruitfully by artists like Cory Arcangel and Wu Tsang. Campbell, who identified as bisexual and “bigendered,” was one of the first.
Miranda July, Getting Stronger Every Day, 2001
The woman who directed and played the quirky video artist in Me and You and Everyone You Know is, in real life, an artist who makes quirky videos, endowed with the same idiosyncratic humanism as her features. Video art is often indistinguishable from “art house” cinema, and many people, like July, have one foot in each arena.
David Hall, TV Interruptions: Tap piece, 1971
An essential part of video art’s kinship with the Fluxus movement was the medium’s interest in dramatizing emphatically simple physical processes as they moved through space in time. This is something that only seems to work when the viewer is compelled — forced, really — to pay attention to something as banal as a vessel of water being filled and emptied.
Gary Hill, Incidence of a Catastrophe, 1987-88
Gary Hill’s work in video has been highly ambitious, and uncommonly eager to exploit as many different new media as possible. His pieces are long, richly produced, and regularly employ digital music compositions using an array of digital, analog, and acoustic instruments. Adding to this sophistication are written source material for Hill’s videos. For Incidence of Catastrophe, 1987-88, Hill chose Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure, a novel whose intermingling of visual “dialogue” and verbal storytelling was attractive to his own sensibilities.
Bill Viola, Ancient of Days, 1979
Described by Viola as a series of “canons and fugues” for video, Ancient of Days is marked by a meticulous sense of balance and symmetry between shots of the various natural and handmade monuments. One highlight is the inventive, downwardly arced shot Viola takes of a busy New York City street.
Peter Weibel, Endless Sandwich, 1969
What contemporary viewers might look at as a hokey toying with the moving-image camera was, in Weibel’s case, an avant-garde statement about spectatorship and the separation between the viewer and the viewed.
“In the screen there are viewers seen sitting in front of their TV. In the last picture a disturbance occurs,” he explains, “so that the viewer who watches this scene has to get up, in order to repair the failure. Thus the screen of the next viewer is disturbed. The disturbance reproduces itself, up to the real TV set, so that the real viewer must rise the same way, in order to remove the disturbance. Time delay: The real action is the final point of the reproduced process.”
Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia, The Couple in the Cage: Guatianaui Odyssey, 1993
In this work, Fusco and Heredia came to the museum dressed as visiting Amerindians, natives of a fictitious civilization eager to reciprocate the arrogant, head-patting attitude of post-Columbian Westerners by entertaining them with exotic stories and dances. Many people regard the resulting work as the centerpiece of the 1993 Whitney Biennial, a breaking point in the history of recent contemporary art, in which video, installation, and performance-based works centered around the multiculturalism debate dominated for the first time.
Watch an excerpt here.
Lisa Steele, Talking Tongues, 1982
Taking on some of the best features of video performance — deadpan presentation, prominently fake props and makeup — Steele delivered this monologue with the verisimilitude of a working-class woman’s confessional. It is one of the rarer works in which Steele did not collaborate with artist Kim Tomczak.
Lisa Steele, The Gloria Tapes, 1980
A great part of Steele’s oeuvre deals with the effect of television and video on the public perception of women. This video, a more exemplary work of Steele’s, involves a deeply theatricalized presentation of a visit to an obstetrician, set in a soap opera-like office background.
Bill Viola, The Reflecting Pool, 1979
Nothing seems to make Bill Viola happier than to make a work that extends itself to the limits of the video medium’s technological potential. A slow-motion fade like this, of a subject diving through a pool of water, may seem banal at first, but in Viola’s heyday, it represented the peak of what was available to television and film producers, and the artist was obviously exhilarated by the expressive potential of the effect.
Chantal Akerman, Je, tu, il, elle, 1976
While some of Akerman’s works seemed preoccupied with cheerful, deadpan examinations of domestic life, it wasn’t outside her range to approach these kind of scenes — many of them still very brief — with a sense of tension and distress. The video has notes of Vermeer in its appreciation for the unspoken hopes, expectations, and fears of private, intimate moments between cohabitating women.
Gary Hill, Happenstance, 1983
In this video, Hill used his technical tools and skills to make emphatically synthetic, otherworldly works that harnessed the medium’s power to make art that seems odd and unreal. Many critics say his style foreshadowed the playful, decorative attitude of many net artists in the 21st century.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila, If 6 Was 9, 1995
Much of what is great about ’90s video art can be said, specifically, about Eija-Liisa Ahtila, whose work demonstrated a deep preoccupation with the effects modern technology on privacy. Her videos, like If 6 was 9, feel like less-risqué adaptations of Larry Clark’s films of teenagers cavorting in private and hanging out in bright-hued supermarkets, with their intrinsic connotations of banality, invasion, and disappointment.
Richard Serra, Hand Catching Lead, 1968
It’s hard to miss the seeds of GIF and Vine art in this prodigious work by artist Richard Serra. It’s not a surprise that Serra is credited so much more as a sculptor; his early video works are particularly hard to find, which hides the degree to which his work commingled with extremely influential contributions by Nancy Holt and Bruce Nauman.
Bruce Nauman, Walking in An Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967-68
Predating the Monty Python sketch “Ministry of Silly Walks” by at least a year is this slightly less iconic entry by Bruce Nauman, which once again exemplifies the artist’s preoccupation with the reducto ad absurdum of everyday human movement and behavior.
Colin Campbell, The Woman From Malibu, 1976
Classic Campbell involves the artist addressing some facet of the novels and cheap melodramatic paperbacks he was exposed to in the ’60s and giving them a more palpable form, as in this video, in which he delivers the monologue in drag.
Matthew Barney, Hoist, 2004 [NSFW]
The title of the Cremaster Cycle refers to a part of the male anatomy responsible for raising and lowering the scrotum, and Barney gave his valedictory speech about sperm. All of this is to say that in addition to the work’s mysterious emblems and otherworldly characters, it’s hard to overstate the extent of Matthew Barney’s work with animal and human sexuality. Hoist shows an eagerness to bound all of these motifs together, intensely presenting the comparable morphology between machine parts, natural formations of soil and grass, and, of course, a humanoid body.
Bill Viola, Anthem, 1983
Although Viola’s oeuvre is heavy on portraiture, it isn’t always that heavy on biography or narrative. Anthem is a unique piece of work in this respect, exploring scenes around the Union Railroad Station in downtown Los Angeles as they take place surrounding the life of an 11-year-old girl. The video takes on an existentialist timbre as shots of skyscrapers are paired with scenes of depicting the technology of surgery, delivering a sense of bleak alienation.
Angela Dufresne, Not, 2007
In Not, Angela Dufresne pairs flashes of herself walking around the Met in New York with the recitation of an Angela Lansbury-style monologue about how much she loves exploring the Met. Dufresne is the only artist I’ve encountered who approaches narrative art videos with a truly entertaining feel for irony, stepping back from the outright institutional critique of museum tour videos exemplified by Coco Fusco’s and Paula Heredia’s work. It is meant, at least in part, to make you laugh. And it does.
General Idea, Shut the Fuck Up Parts I-III, 1984
Before he started operating Printed Matter, the most favored art book shop in New York City, and spearheading the New York Art Book Fair, AA Bronson was one third of the group General Idea. A Canadian art collective dedicated to interrogating media image culture and to reshaping the power structures that normally exploit film, television, and magazines, General Idea approached video with a sense of mischief and polite skepticism. “We don’t want to destroy television,” Jorge Zontal announces at the opening. “We want to add to it. We want to stretch it until it starts to lose shape.”