Video As Art?

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Question to the group: Have you ever seen the Mona Lisa in person and thought, “Eh, what’s the biggie?” I ask for a couple reasons. First, because I’m taking my kids to Paris this summer and debating whether we need to stand in line at the Louvre. Second, because over the holidays I saw a pretty big exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and came away unsure what to think (a routine reaction to art exhibits on my part, but this time for different reasons).

For starters, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., is my new favorite museum. I can’t believe I’ve overlooked it for so long, from the gallery of presidential portraits to the stunning Kogod Courtyard. But the museum’s not located on the National Mall like some of the other popular Smithsonian museums, and it’s surrounded by such other attractions as the International Spy Museum and the Verizon Center, home to Washington’s professional hockey and basketball teams (and site of the last Fleetwood Mac concert I ever saw–get psyched for the 35th anniversary of Rumours!). So I’ve allowed myself to forgive myself for this egregious oversight. If you’re ever in D.C., go check it out.

What finally attracted me to the American Art Museum was a special exhibit called Nam June Paik: Global Visionary, which opened in mid-December. Who was Nam June Paik? (And forgive me if it sounds like I’m lecturing to anyone who already knows all this.) Paik, who died in 2006, was a Korean-born video/performance artist, but you may know him best for giving rise to the phrase “information superhighway.” Actually, there’s been discussion over that phrase’s true origins–some say Paik came up with it before Al Gore–but few argue the fact that Paik first uttered the words “electronic superhighway” in 1974, and one of his best-known works, from 1995, is called Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii (pictured, above). It’s on display at the museum.

Also, Paik has been called “the father of video art.”

As far back as the 1960s, Paik was doing things like making a bra out of television sets. In 1971 he made a cello out of three TV sets and had a cellist “play” it. And I was somewhat drawn to a family of robots he created from TVs (not all were on display). But frankly, this is the kind of art I sometimes don’t get, though his use of some beautiful vintage TV cabinets kept me interested in pieces I’d otherwise ignore.

Turn to the 1995 Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, which is an enourmous sculpture of various-sized TVs (none of them LCD or LED, as you might expect) shaped to look like the U.S., with a huge rack of video players sending 51 channels of thematic video (including one closed-circuit channel) to all the “states.” I especially loved the loop of potato video indicating Idaho.

The Electronic Superhighway is big–about 15 feet high by 40 feet wide. And Paik’s choice of video at that time to portray the pieces of the Union are entertaining and often thought-provoking. But the guy in me who works in the AV industry couldn’t help but look over the exhibit and think of better ways–technologically at least–to do it. Is it unfair to wish Paik had had display tiles and HD video at his disposal when he created Electronic Superhighway? Yes, yes it is. But still…. I found myself wondering how an AV integrator today would reimagine Paik’s work–and whether the art world would like it more or less.

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The feeling goes double for another 1995 piece, Megatron/Matrix (right), which is essentially a videowall–if you were to create an 11-by-33-foot, eight-channel videowall from 215 CRT monitors (talk about bezels!). This time, Naik employed computers to overlay graphics and blend content into a single picture. There’s also a little nudity, as if to remind you that you’re looking at art and not, say, digital signage. He’s got some monitors installed in portrait mode, but alas, the content doesn’t adjust–whether by design or lack of technology support.

So I’m strolling this wonderful exhibition, enjoying much of it (loved the TV Garden, which is exactly what you’re probably imagining) but sometimes thinking, “I’ve seen better.”

Because, frankly, I have. Nothing against Nam June Paik, who was doing his best work long before HD, MicroTiles, laser-phosphor display technology, high-end projection, etc., but for several years now I’ve been able to close my eyes and pick an aisle at the InfoComm Show and come across a video installation that knocked my socks off. Not to mention walking through Times Square, or a hotel lobby, or a shopping mall, or any number of places where video as commerce might as well be video as art.

What video installations have you seen that would qualify as art?

Sometimes it takes stepping outside the AV industry, experiencing video through others’ eyes and in another context, to really appreciate where we’ve come.

But really, the Mona Lisa. Worth it?

About Brad Grimes

Brad Grimes is the director of editorial services for InfoComm International and the former editor of Pro AV magazine. He has been writing about technology for more than 20 years. For more, visit the Blogger Bios page.

4 Responses to “Video As Art?”

  1. Great post and discussion. I, too, love classic art and can while away hours in art museums. But that doesn’t mean I can’t fully appreciate the additional tools that video displays provide the artist.

    All forms of art have their merits and the mediums of art have inter-mingled histories. All art, throughout the centuries, has been rooted not only in creativity, but in technology. The development of canvases and pigments, are now joined by the development of video technologies (both on the capture and development side, as well as the playback). One innovation doesn’t replace the others. All the technologies combine to create a rich set of resources for the modern artist to employ.

    We have seen some incredible art installations, designed for a digital video environment. One that comes to mind for me is a recent gallery exhibit in New York City by Yorgo Alexopoulos. You can see a video of it (although it doesn’t do it justice) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJppPKsoV_o&list=PL2099CC65DBCEDE75. This installation featured the Planar Mosaic product, which allowed the arrangement of the displays themselves to become part of the art. Video as a sculpture is another development in the long-line of technology enhancements that enable artists to communicate as only they can.

    Today’s classic masters that we know and love all departed from the common art and techniques of the day, pushing the envelope of what could be done. I can’t wait to see what will continue to happen at the intersection of painting, sculpture, and video!

  2. We have a digital artist who is a client of ours. A Professor at UCLA, her name is Jennifer Steinkamp and her work is sold throughout the United States. Everything she does is computer-generated but has a feeling of being truly organic. It’s great stuff and you can see some of it on our Pinterest page at http://pinterest.com/driberi/cool-digital-art/. There are also some works from another artist, Bill Viola, and some great projection mapping examples. Enjoy!

  3. My thoughts on this topic are in my article: “When Video Became Art…and then Art Became…” http://bit.ly/VLGZzT

    Hope you enjoy it. I’m a big Fleetwood Mac fan as well…

  4. George V Fournier Jr., CTS Reply January 4, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Sorry but nothing ever replaces seeing the original masters to help define what “art” can do. What is the old saying “art for art’s sake”?

    Next time you are in Times Square go to 41st and Broadway, there are 2 clothing stores that will show you how video and digital signage is not art and when done wrong can make you want to avoid the store. So there is a fine balance integrators need to remember technology is neat but the art is in the content.

    By the way there are separate lines to see just the Mona Lisa if you wish to by pass the rest of the amazing Louvre.

    Seeing the Mona Lisa (though now behind 12 feet of bullet proof glass to keep her from getting stabbed again) or seeing the Venus De Milo are worth the wait.