A somewhat mythologized tale purports that in 1965 Nam June Paik purchased his first portable video camera, got stuck in traffic, and as fate would have it, he was able to capture footage of the Pope; this is oft cited as the beginning of video art. Some recognize Andy Warhol as a precursor to the genre for his famed film stills, while many others tie origins back to Fluxus and its artists, like Wolf Vostell, who may have been the first to incorporate a television into a work of art. That said, video art’s breadth and phenomenological, international growth have left its origins practically untraceable; what we can trace is its path since then, through these 10 innovative video artists.
Often considered the pioneer of video art, Nam June Paik was influenced early on by Fluxus artists John Cage, Joseph Beuys, and Wolf Vostell, who he met while studying music in Munich. Later in Tokyo he learned how to interfere with the flow of electrons on color televisions, before moving to New York in the mid-1960s, and creating seminal works with a portable Sony Portapak camera. Paik was also skilled at creating installations from stacks of TV sets and in 1969 he explained his aim was to “to shape the TV screen canvas as precisely as Leonardo, as freely as Picasso, as colorfully as Renoir, as profoundly as Mondrian, as violently as Pollock, and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.”
Founders of The Kitchen in 1971, a media arts mecca for production and exhibitions, the Vasulkas arrived in New York just years before, and though they each created video art individually, they also worked collaboratively, with their respective backgrounds in engineering and music, to investigate analog and digital processes that were crucial to the field. They are credited with developing various tools and hardware for the genre, as well as trailblazing computer-assisted video and defining a formal vocabulary and syntax specific to video art.
A prominent innovator in the field, Eric Siegel was able to construct a TV set by the time he was fourteen and thereafter used his technical expertise to contribute the Siegel Colorizer in 1968 and the Electronic Video Synthesizer in 1970. His Einsteine was one of the first videos to employ video feedback in order to display psychedelic, technicolored effects.
While not a video artist per se, filmmaker Bruce Conner’s contributions to moving image art are undeniable; his impeccable skill for creating filmic montage is renowned, as seen in his 1958 film, A MOVIE, and his integration of popular music eventually earned him a reputation as the godfather of the music video. After receiving a Ford Foundation grant in 1964, Conner said “all of a sudden instead of being an artist that had made a couple of short films, I became a filmmaker who dabbled in the arts.”
Known for her performance-based videos of the 1960s and ’70s, Joan Jonas played an important feminist role in video art, conveying female identity through the roles she would assume on camera. Her dynamic performances, for which she dressed in costumes and masks, were layered in symbolism that was intensified through being captured on video. Jonas believed, “New technology gave women a new way of expression. During this time our friendships altered. This was a time of women talking, becoming more open, sharing how they were represented, revealing their position. My work developed against this background; I became involved in the roles women play.”
Through ever-confrontational, often body-based videos that boldly consider the relationship between artist and audience, Vito Acconci intends to draw in the viewer as a participant in his video works. He once explained them, “I was thinking in terms of video as close-up, video as a place where my face on-screen faces a viewer’s off-screen—a place for talk, for me talking to you, the viewer.”
Beginning as filmmaker-in-residence at Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Charles Atlas went on to collaborate with performance and dance greats like Yvonne Rainer, Michael Clark, and Marina Abramović. He spearheaded the development of media-dance, a movement where dance performances are planned and choreographed specifically to be captured on camera. A self-taught video artist, Atlas explains, “I learned video really only at the invitation of Merce because it seemed easier to make videos than films when he was working.”
Also known for his concern for the viewer, Bill Viola is renowned for his multimedia installations, in which he uses universal symbols and theatrical sound and image to create immersive, transcendental experiences. Viola’s works often employ extreme slow motion, which allows the viewer to pick up on visual subtleties; he told Art in America last year, “The camera is the embodiment of an always-open eye. It can teach us how to see deeply, which is the essence of all spiritual practices. To my mind, technology is ultimately a spiritual force and a part of our inner beings.”
Known for his fresh take on the influence of mass media and his mastery of digital manipulation, Paul Pfeiffer has received acclaim for his video works that extract key imagery from iconic settings to comment on spectacle, popular culture, and identity. An example of this is his well-known works featuring sporting events, like John 3:16, where he digitally removed the players from a basketball game, shifting focus to the spectators.
Notable for her ability to merge fantasy and
reality through lush, dreamlike scenes in room-sized installations, Swiss video
artist and filmmaker Pipilotti Rist explores themes of media culture and
feminism. Drawing from a background in graphic design, TV, and advertising
motifs, as well as pioneering predecessors, Rist’s wistful videos ironically
comment on consumer and popular culture through suggestive imagery, ambiguous
narratives, and a touch of voyeurism.