The Single-Channel Fallacy and Other Myths About Curating Video Art

by Corinna Kirsch , Summer 2011

In a recent show at MoMA, video art received less-than-preferential treatment, exhibited in a wedge-like corridor between an elevator and a wall. This thin walkway disguised as an exhibition acted as a curatorial dumping ground for video, a common fate for this difficult-to-exhibit form. Although video’s become a well-historicized media art, it’s more often than not kept out of the museum’s encyclopedic galleries of painting, photography and sculpture. Some museums even maintain an official “no video” policy; they won’t acquire video art for its permanent collection. As much as MoMA’s mini-exhibition appears curious, if not downright sloppy, there’s one aspect to its installation that informs a more complete picture of video art then and new media now: the big, black and bulky monitors.

It’s a small detail to pick out amidst other problematic curatorial decisions, of course, but emphasizing the extended physical situation of video away from the onscreen image has become more and more common in recent exhibitions. In terms of contemporary practice, screening videos on monitors that bring attention to the physicality of video and providing sofas rather than uncomfortable museum benches, have become more and more common. The monitor as framing device emphasizes the physical qualities of video—or of any viewing situation in general—and reinforces current video’s reflexive stance towards its history. These unwieldy things seem anachronistic in the ephemeral flat-screen era, and they are. They are exhibition tactics common to early video art, but even contemporary exhibitions of video emphasize its presence as a hard object and the accoutrements of its presentation, case in point being Seth Price’s thin and intimate video-corridors at Friedrich Petzel and the living room furniture that surrounds Ryan Trecartin’s videos at PS1.

This way of exhibiting work persists from the beginnings of video exhibition, stemming from two shows that devised and established these exhibition modes: TV as a Creative Medium (1969) and Video Art (1975), the former being the first all-video art exhibition and the latter being the first retrospective of the medium. Both exhibitions utilized innovative models for video art installation that initiated participatory and corporeal responses from viewers. These pioneering exhibitions have accounted for the dominant strain—and now institutionalized form—in the presentation of video art, one that consists of single-channel videos shown on box monitors. They’re easy to collect, play and exhibit.

The theoretical drive behind both of these exhibition models was based on allowing viewers to have a tactile and whole-body experience with video so as to instigate individual choice within commodity culture. What early video exhibition designs emphasized was video’s integration into a scene of entirety, consisting of onscreen imagery and the equipment on which to exhibit it, all of which implicates the physical body of a viewer. This act gets away from the ephemerality of transmission, dismissing the idea that video is like just any window—or like a Microsoft Window—to click open, revealing a flat visualization of the world.

Multiple Channels: TV as a Creative Medium

TV as a Creative Medium was held at the Howard Wise Gallery in Manhattan, owned by the future founder of Electronic Arts Intermix, a video and media art archive. The Wise gallery was known to hold a number of technologically-minded exhibitions; yet “video art” hadn’t been termed as such and the ways to exhibit it were equally undefined.

The twelve works shown in TV as a Creative Medium used a variety of video equipment. Self-generative works, those using video synthesizers to produce an image on a monitor, as in Eric Siegel’s Psychedelevision in Color and Thomas Tadlock’s The Archetron, never required a camera; these were self-generative video works that used a synthesizer to distort and transform the video signal. The monitors, for the most part, were of the living-room variety. On the night of the opening, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman prominently exhibited their watershed TV Bra for Living Sculpture. The “doubling” effect of this performance dissolved each work’s autonomy and instead emphasized how video’s dual functions of recording and self-generation were influenced by each other’s feedback.

In most cases for this exhibition, nothing remains of the videos; the works were ephemeral and what remains is filmed—not videotaped—archival footage. This is evidence for how “[t]he video signal itself, of course, began its technological life as television, a medium designed for the live transmission of images, not their permanent retention” (“Single Channel Video,” Electronic Arts Intermix Online Resource Guide for Exhibiting, Collecting, and Preserving Media Art), Video’s entropic beginnings should be taken as a paradigm for exhibiting digital works. We shouldn’t try to make permanent something that wasn’t meant to last when the integrity of digital images and videos decays through file transference, modified file-formats, and file compression. The means to communicate, regardless of the quality of transmission, has taken precedence in our age of high circulation/diminished precision imagery.

Made-to-Order: Video Art

Video Art, the first retrospective of video in the United States, was a traveling exhibition on a massive scale; Video Art’s organization attempted a comprehensive retrospective of the first decade of the form. The exhibition featured over eighty artists from the United States, Italy, Canada, Brazil, Germany and Japan, among others, and hundreds of hours of video. The most problematic recasting of this exhibition took the form of Video Art U.S.A, a smaller version of the exhibition consisting solely of thirty-two artists from the United States. This version of the exhibition was chosen as the United States’ entry to the thirteenth São Paulo Biennial.

Throughout its various incarnations, the exhibition’s videos were played on loop, an unfortunate situation if you wanted to watch a specific video, given that works by over eighty artists were featured. This type of presentation is cinematic rather than televisual in that the viewer cannot choose what to watch at any given time.

However, once a week, this situation was disrupted; visitors could choose their own videos and a concierge would then retrieve the selection for them. By allowing this freedom, however limited, it contrasted with the predetermined, continuous stream of video art presented during the rest of the week. This gesture towards channel surfing, however banal and easy, connected video art to TV. Similar video checkout programs have been enacted within the last few years, including e-flux video rental.

Another peculiarity: the seating. Unlike contemporary exhibition practices, visitors to these early shows were provided with director’s chairs to sit on while watching videos in the open space of the galleries. This type of display at once emphasized the necessity of viewers needing personal space to sit for an extended period of time while also realizing the public experience of watching video as a shared event. The lack of seating common to most museums and galleries is sadistic, promoting a quick-run through of the galleries so that people will leave.

The Cinematic Fallacy: Video Art U.S.A.

The problem of how to encourage prolonged engagement with video isn’t something that was solved by the check-out design, but it probably would have prevented the minor scandal of the United States Commissioner John Boulton who publicly denounced the São Paulo Biennial judging panel publicly. He ranted on a live news broadcast that he wanted to completely withdraw the U.S. exhibition from the biennial and that the only reason the judges didn’t award any prizes to the U.S. entry was because they only spent a few minutes looking at the videos (Marc Berkowitz, “Biennial Politics,” Art News, February 1976).

Video Art U.S.A., predictably, was a smaller affair than its stateside counterpart. Other than the exclusion of Video Art’s international artists, the most notable change to this version of the exhibition was the running time; none of the videos shown were over thirty minutes long. Despite the curatorial efforts at making video more digestible through shorter running times, this points to a problem still common with video art and the general category of time-based artwork today. This is not the case with work you can behold “all-at-once” and “all-over,” recalling two of Clement Greenberg’s most recognizable terms. Regarding Video Art U.S.A., conventions of social viewership remain, especially in the context of a Biennial in 1975, where a judging panel would be more accustomed to glancing then gazing for a minute or two before idling onto the next pavilion.

The most recent exception to the arbitrary rule of “glance and gaze”: Christian Marclay’s twenty-hour-long The Clock, winner of the Gold Lion at this summer’s Venice Biennale. When shown this year at the Paula Cooper gallery, hordes of visitors waited for hours in the winter cold in order to sit for any number of minutes or hours inside the gallery-turned-movie-theatre, outfitted with sofas. Discussions about how this art world rarity was able to capture the time and attention of so many viewers relies on the language of film in its content and presentation; it’s composed of clips from film classics to recent Hollywoood blockbusters, best described by Jerry Saltz as “an ecstatic love letter to all other movies” (Jerry Saltz, “Jerry Saltz on the Best Movie You Can See in New York (for Two More Days)”). If this work wasn’t such a filmic cut-and-paste medley, the crowds wouldn’t have been so willing to stay, sit and watch.

The cinematic doesn’t always work with video or new media’s history. Looking back at early video exhibition design is overdue, and not just because of the contemporary art world’s short-term memory when it comes to new media art. What’s new in new media isn’t always so new—participatory practices do go back further than relational aesthetics—and the installation of new media is a strong way to emphasize that what’s art is more than just an on-screen image. Video art still has a problematic history, as evidenced by its separation from other media in exhibitions and by some museums’ aversion to the form, but expanding the historical situation of early video art to include its international, multi-channel and televisual exhibition designs leads to a more complete picture of current curatorial practice. Video installation has its own history, one full of whimsy, sociability, and immediacy, all of which contributes to rethinking current exhibition models of video and new media.