PRINT December 1975

Television: Video’s Frightful Parent

VIDEO ART. THE NAME IS equivocal. A good name. It leaves open all the questions and asks them anyway. Is this an art form, a new genre? An anthology of valued activity conducted in a particular arena defined by display on a cathode ray tube? The kind of video made by a special class of people—artists—whose works are exhibited primarily in what is called “the art world”—Artist’s Video? And if so, is this a class apart? Artists have been making video pieces for scarcely ten years, if we disregard Nam June Paik’s 1963 kamikaze TV modifications, and video has been a fact of gallery life for barely five years. Yet we’ve already had group exhibitions, panels, symposia, magazine issues devoted to this phenomenon, for the very good reason that more and more artists are using video, and some of the best work being done in the art world is being done with video. Which is why a discourse has already arisen to greet it.

Actually two discourses: one, a kind of enthusiastic welcoming prose peppered with fragments of communication theory and McLuhanesque media talk; the other, a rather nervous attempt to locate the “unique properties of the medium.” Discourse 1 could be called “cyberscat” and Discourse 2, because it engages the issues that pass for “formalism” in the art world, could be called “the formalist rap.” Though there is no necessary relation between them, the two discourses occasionally occur together as they do in the talk of Frank Gillette, which offers a convenient sample:

1) The emergence of relations between the culture you’re in and the parameters that allow you expression are fed back through a technology. It’s the state of the art technology within a particular culture that gives shape to ideas.

2) What I’m consciously involved in is devising a way that is structurally intrinsic to television. For example, what makes it not film? Part of it is that you look into the source of light, with film you look with the source of light. In television the source of light and the source of information are one.1

It is not quite clear what “high-class” technology has to do with the rather pleasantly shabby technical state of contemporary video art; nor what is the significance to human beings of the light source in two adjacent representational media, though statements of this type are characteristic, and similar quotes could be multiplied endlessly. And if these concerns seem somewhat gratuitous or insufficient regarding the work at hand, they often share a kind of aptness of detail, even though it is rarely clear what the detail explains of the larger pattern of activity in which these artists are involved. In fact what seems most typical of both types of discourse is a certain anxiety that may be seen most clearly in a recent piece by Hollis Frampton:

Moreover it is doubly important that we try to say what video is at present because we posit for it a privileged future. Since the birth of video art from the Jovian backside (I dare not say brow) of the Other Thing called television, I for one have felt a more and more pressing need for precise definitions of what film art is, since I extend to film, as well, the hope of a privileged future.2

It would be so much more convenient to develop the refined discussion of the possible differences between film and video, if we could only forget the Other Thing—television. Yet commercial television, which controls the technology and shares the essential conditions of production and viewing of everything seen on the video monitor screen, has also provided almost all the background viewing experience of the video audience and even of the video artists. So, no matter how different from television the works of individual video artists may be, the television experience dominates the phenomenology of viewing and haunts video exhibitions the way the experience of movies haunts all film. Many video artists are aware of this, and their work reflects stances taken in relation to television, only the most obvious of which manifest themselves directly in quotes, allusion, celebration, parody and protest.

The recent ICA exhibition “Video Art” in Philadelphia provided numerous examples of these stances in works like Telethon’s TV History, TVTV’s Lord of the Universe, Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People, and Douglas Davis’s installation piece Images from the Present Tense I, where the TV set is forced to face the wall. If negative attitudes prevail in this video work, it is because the politics of the ’70s has moved the art world away from the apparent neutrality of Pop. Otherwise we might now have a critical discourse identifying television “artists” and “art works” like Walter Cronkite, Sam Ervin, Ron Ziegler, the Sid Caesar Show, Cal Worthington, McCann-Erickson. Perhaps in time, with a similar Pop logic, there will appear an auteur theory for television that will do for Milton Berle and Sid Caesar what Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Cahiers du Cinema have done for John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. But even Cahiers du Cinema has abandoned Hitchcock and Ray for Dziga Vertov and the European avant-garde, on sociopolitical, esthetic grounds. So this will have to wait.

Nevertheless, it is unwise to despise an enemy, especially a more powerful, older enemy, who happens also to be your frightful parent. So it is with television that we have to begin to consider video, because if anything has defined the formal and technical properties of the video medium, it is the television industry.

The history of the television industry in the United States is well known. Commercial television is essentially a post-Second World War phenomenon, and its use was, logically enough, patterned on commercial radio, since control of the new medium was in the hands of the powerful radio networks, which constitute essentially a government-protected, private monopoly. This situation determined many of the fundamental communication characteristics of the new medium. The most basic of these is the social relation between “sending” and “receiving,” which is profoundly unequal and asymmetrical. Since the main potential broadcasters, the powerful radio networks, were already deeply involved with the electronics industry through complex ownership affiliation, and since they also constituted the single largest potential customer for the electronic components of television, the components were developed entirely for their convenience and profit. While this may not seem surprising, the result was that the acts of “picture taking” and “transmission” were made enormously expensive: cameras and transmission systems were designed and priced out of the reach of anything but corporate ownership. Moreover, government regulation set standards on “picture quality” and the transmission signal, which effectively ensured that “taking” and “transmission” control would remain in the hands of the industry into which the federal government had already assigned the airwaves, channel by channel. The receivers alone were priced within the range of individual ownership. This fundamental ordering, establishing the relations between taker-sender and the receiver, had, of course, been worked out for commercial radio.

Only ham transmission—also hemmed in severely by government regulation—and special uses like ship-to-shore, pilot-to-control tower and police-band radio deal in the otherwise merely potential equalities of wireless telephony. That this was not technically inevitable, but merely an outcome of the social situation and the marketing strategies of the industry, is obvious. There is nothing necessarily more complex or expensive in the camera than there is in the receiver. It is merely that the great expense of receiver technology was defrayed by the mass production of the sets, whose multiplication multiplied the dollar exchange value of transmission time sold by the transmitter to his advertisers. So the broadcasters underwrote receiver development, because every set bought delivers its viewers as salable goods in an exchange that pays for the “expensive” technology.

For television also there is a special-use domain—educational, industrial and now artistic—where the relation between the camera and receiver may be more or less equalized, but this is because transmission is not an issue and the distribution of the images is severely restricted. The economic fact remains: transmission is more expensive than reception. This ensures a power hierarchy: transmission dominates reception. And it follows from this asymmetry of power relations that the taker-transmitter dominates whatever communication takes place.

This is clearer when you consider the manners of telephony. A would-be transmitter asks for permission to transmit, rings the home of a potential receiver. It’s like ringing a doorbell. Or a would-be receiver rings the home of a possible transmitter, asks him/her to transmit. This formal set of relations has become even more refined with the introduction of the Answerphone and the answering service, which mediates between the ring—an anonymous invitation to communicate––and the response, requiring the caller to identify himself and leaving the receiver with a choice of whether or not to respond. In telephony manners are everything, while in commercial television manners are nothing. If you have a receiver you merely plug in to the possibility of a signal, which may or may not be there, and which you cannot modify except in the trivial manner of switching to a nearly identical transmission or in a decisive but final manner by switching off. Choice is in the hands of the sender, leaving the receiver only the alternative of refusal.

Now while this asymmetry is not inherent in the technology, it has become so normative for the medium that it forms the all-pervasive and invisible background of all video. This may not be so dramatically manifested in most artwork video, but that’s because most artworks have very equivocal relations to the notion of communication and are, like industry, producer-dominated.3 Yet it has a formidable effect on all attempts at interactive video, which operates primarily in reaction to this norm. In this sense, the social structure of the medium is a matrix that defines the formal properties of the medium—since it limits the possibilities of a video communication genre—and these limits then become the target against which any number of artists have aimed their works.

What else could Ira Schneider have had in mind about the 1969 piece Wipe-Cycle he devised with Frank Gillette:

The most important thing was the notion of information presentation, and the notion of the integration of the audience into the information. One sees oneself exiting from the elevator. If one stands there for eight seconds, one sees oneself entering the gallery from the elevator again. Now at the same time one is apt to be seeing oneself standing there watching Wipe-Cycle. You can watch yourself live watching yourself eight seconds ago, watching yourself 16 seconds ago, eventually feeling free enough to interact with this matrix, realizing one’s own potential as an actor. [my italics]4

What is attempted is the conversion (liberation) of an audience (receiver) into an actor (transmitter), which Schneider and Gillette must have hoped to accomplish by neutralizing as much as possible the acts of “taking” and electronic transmission. If they failed to accomplish this, they were hardly alone in their failure, which seems to have been the fate of just about every interactive artwork employing significantly technological means. Apparently, the social and economic distribution of technological resources in this culture has a nearly determining effect on the semiotics of technological resources.

More concretely, an expensive video camera and transmission system switched on and ready for use don’t lose their peculiar prestigious properties just because an artist may make them available under special circumstances to an otherwise passive public. In fact, this kind of interactive video situation almost invariably begins by intimidating an unprepared audience, which has already been indoctrinated about the amount of preparedness (professionalism) the video camera deserves, regardless of the trivial nature of television professionalism, which is not measured by competence (as in the elegant relation of ends to means) but by the amount of money notably expended on this preparation.

Yet while the most fundamental property of television is its social organization, this is manifested more clearly in its money metric, which applies to every aspect of the medium, determining the tempo of its representations and the style of the performances, as well as the visual syntax of its editing. The money metric has also played a determining role in neutralizing what is usually considered the most markedly distinctive feature of the medium: the capacity for instantaneous transmission. In principle, television seemed to combine the photographic reproduction capacities of the camera, the motion capabilities of film, and the instantaneous transmission properties of the telephone. But just as the photographic reproduction capacity of the camera is essentially equivocal (and mainly significant as mythology), so is the fabled instantaneity of television essentially a rumor that combines with photographic duplicity to produce a quasi-recording medium whose main feature is unlikeliness in relation to any notion of reality. The history of the industry is very instructive with respect to this remarkable outcome.

In the beginning, television made widespread use of live broadcasting both for transmitting instant news of events that were elapsing in real time and for more or less well rehearsed studio performances; some of the most interesting events recorded by media were the result of the unpredictability of instantaneous transmission. Spokesmen for the industry never failed to call attention to this feature of instantaneity, and as late as 1968, a standard handbook for television direction and production by Stasheff and Bretz asserts:

Perhaps the most distinctive function of television is its ability to show distant events at the moment when they are taking place. The Kefauver hearings, with a close-up of the hands of gangster Frank Costello; the Army-McCarthy hearings; the complete coverage of the orbital shots; the presidential nominating conventions; the Great Debates of 1960; the live transmissions from Europe and Japan via satellite—this is television doing what no other medium can do.5

Yet the same handbook casually points out a few pages later that between 1947 and 1957, kine-recordings, films taken directly from the TV screen, were in constant and heavy use, especially for delayed broadcast of East-Coast programs on the West Coast, in spite of the much poorer image quality of the kines, and that by 1961 virtually all television dramatic programs were being produced on film. There were, apparently, from the industry’s standpoint, great inconveniences in instantaneous transmission. The most obvious of these was that at the same instant of time the life cycles of New York and Los Angeles are separated by three full hours. And since the day for the industry is metrically divided into prime and non-prime viewing time, in accordance with whether more or less viewers may be sold to the advertisers, the money value of instantaneous transmission is inversely related in a complicated way to the temporal distance of transmission. But this was only the most obvious manner in which the money metric worked to eliminate instantaneity. A more basic conflict between the structure of the industry and the possibility of instantaneity is the inevitable relationship between instantaneity and unpredictability.

Any series of events that is unfolding for the first time, or in a new way, or with unanticipated intensity or duration, threatens to overrun or elude the framing conventions of the recording artists (the cameramen and directors). This element of surprise is always in conflict with the image of smoothness, which has the semiotic function of marking the producer’s competence by emphasizing his mastery and control, his grasp of events. And this is most obvious in its special uses of disjunction and ragged edge. The signs of unpredictability and surprise are discontinuities and ragged edges that mark the boundaries of that competence by jarring or loosening that grasp. The image of smoothness depends always upon the appearance of the unimpeded forward course of the producer’s intention, of facility, which means that there must be no doubt in the viewer’s mind that what is transmitted is what the transmitter wants to transmit. And the only ways to achieve this were through a) repeated preparation of the events, b) very careful selection of highly predictable events, or c) deletion of unexpected and undesirable aspects of events, which meant editing a recorded version of these events. Videotape came in in 1956, and at the beginning Ampex was taping the Douglas Edwards newscasts and, not much later, the stage presentations of Playhouse 90: once again according to Stasheff and Bretz:

. . . by 1957 a new TV revolution was under way. Undistinguishable from live TV on the home receiver, videotape quickly replaced most of the kine-recording done by the TV networks. Not only did the stations put out a better picture, but the savings were tremendous. . . . Live production, videotape recording of live production, kine-recording, and film began to assume complementary roles in the pattern of TV production. Videotape recording, by 1961, became so commonplace that the true live production—reaching the home at the moment of its origination—was a rarity limited largely to sports and special events. The live production on videotape, though delayed in reaching the home by a few hours or a few days, was generally accepted as actual live television by the average viewer. [my italics]6

Yet this did not place television in the same position as film, which from its origins appeared to be situated squarely in the domain of illusion. Film, after all, has made very few and very insubstantial claims to facticity. Amet’s bathtub battle of Santiago Bay may have convinced Spanish military historians of its authenticity, but that was back in 1897, before the movie palaces, together with the movie-makers, dispelled any illusion of potential facticity. Flaherty looks as clearly fictional as Melies now. But a genre that is marked “fictional” doesn’t raise issues of truth and falsehood, and television never ceases to raise these issues. The social uses of television continually force the issue of “truth” to the center of attention. A President goes on television to declare his “honesty,” a minister announces his “intentions,” the evening news reports “what is being done to curb the inflation.” The medium maintains a continual assertion that it can and is providing an adequate representation of reality, while everyone’s experience continually denies it. Moreover the industry exhibits a persistent positive tropism toward the appearance of the spontaneous and unrehearsed event in its perpetually recurring panel shows and quiz programs and in the apparently casual format of its late evening news shows. According to Stasheff and Bretz:

. . . the television audience will not only accept, but even enjoy, a production error or even a comedian who blows his lines and admits it or who asks his straight man to feed him a cue once again so that he can make another try at getting the gag to come out right. This leniency on the part of the audience is caused by the increased feeling of spontaneity and immediacy which minor crises create. The audience loves to admire the adroitness with which the performer “pulls himself out of a jam.”7

The industry wishes or feels obligated to maintain the illusion of immediacy, which it defines rather precisely as “the feeling that what one sees on the TV screen is living and actual reality, at that very moment taking place.”8 The perfection of videotape made possible the careful manipulation and selective presentation of desirable “errors” and “minor crises” as marks of spontaneity, which became as equivocal in their implications as the drips and blots of third-generation Abstract Expressionists. It’s not that you couldn’t see the Los Angeles police department’s tactical assault squad in real time, in full living color, in your own living room, leveling a small section of the city in search of three or four suspected criminals, but that what you would see couldn’t be certainly discriminated from a carefully edited videotape screened three hours later. So television provides video with a tradition not of falseness, which would be a kind of guarantee of at least a certain negative reliability, but of a profoundly menacing equivocation and mannerism, determining a species of unlikeliness.

At first glance artists’ video seems to be defined by the total absence of any of the features that define television. But this apparent lack of relation is in fact a very definite and predictable inverse relation. If we temporarily ignore the subfamily of installation pieces, which are actually quite diverse among themselves, but nevertheless constitute a single genre, the most striking contrast between video pieces and television is in relation to time. It may not be quite hip to say so without qualification, but it is a commonplace to describe artists’ videotapes as “boring” or “long,” even when one feels that this in no way invalidates or dishonors the tapes in question (viz. Bruce Boice’s comment that Lynda Benglis’s video is “boring, interesting and funny,”9 or Richard Serra’s own videotape Prisoner’s Dilemma, where one character advises another that he may have to spend two hours in the basement of the Castelli Gallery, which is “twice as long as the average boring videotape”).

This perceived quality of being boring or long has little to do with the actual length of the tapes. It has much more to do with the attitude of just about all the artists using video. John Baldessari has a tape called Some Words I Mispronounce. He turns to a blackboard and writes:

1. poor

2. cask

3. bade

4. Beelzebub

5. bough

6. sword

As soon as he completes the “d” of “sword” the tape is over. Running time is under a minute. It feels amazingly short. But it is longer than most commercials.

Robert Morris’s Exchange, a series of verbal meditations on exchanges of information, collaborations and interferences with a woman, accompanied by a variety of images taped and retaped from other tapes and photographs for the most part as indefinite and suggestive as the discourse, goes on till it arrives at a single distinct and comic story of not getting to see Donatello’s Gattamelata, after which the tape trails off in a more or less leisurely fashion. Running time: 43 minutes. Television has many programs that are much longer. The two artists’ tapes are very different. Baldessari’s is a routine, explicitly defined from the outset and carried out deadpan to its swift conclusion. Exchange is a typical member of what is by now a well-defined genre of artist narrative, essentially an extended voiceover in a carefully framed literary style that seeks its end intuitively in the exhaustion of its mild narrative energy. But they both have the same attitude toward time: the work ends whenever its intention is accomplished. The time is inherent time, the time required for the task at hand. The work is “boring,” as Les Levine remarked, “if you demand that it be something else. If you demand that it be itself then it is not boring.”10 Which is not to say that the videotapes are inevitably interesting.11 Whether they are interesting or not is largely a matter of judging the value of the task at hand, and this could hardly be the issue for people who can look with equanimity at what hangs on the wall in the most distinguished galleries. For whatever we think of the videotapes of Morris, or Sonnier, or Serra, they are certainly not inferior to whatever else they put in the gallery. Levine is right. Videotapes are boring if you demand that they be something else. But they’re not judged boring by comparison with paintings or sculpture, they’re judged boring in comparison with television, which for the last 20 years has set the standard of video time.

But the time standard of television is based firmly on the social and economic nature of the industry itself and has nothing whatever to do with the absolute technical and phenomenological possibilities of visual representation by cathode ray tube. For television, time has an absolute existence independent of any imagery that may or may not be transmitted over its well-defended airwaves and cables. It is television’s only solid, a tangible commodity that is precisely divisible into further and further sub-divisible homogeneous units, the smallest quantum of which is measured by the smallest segment that could be purchased by a potential advertiser. This is itself defined by the minimum particle required to isolate a salable product from a variable number of equivalent choices. The smallest salable piece turns out to be the ten-second spot, and all television is assembled from it.

But the social conventions of television dictate a code of behavior according to which the transmitter must assume two apparently different roles in transmission. In one he must appear to address the viewer on the station’s behalf as entertainer; in the other on the sponsor’s behalf as salesman. The rules of the game, which are legally codified, prescribe a sharp demarcation between the roles, and the industry makes a great show of marking off the boundaries between its two types of performances—the programs and the commercials.

At their extremes of hard-sell and soft-show, one might suppose that the stylistic features of the two roles would be sufficient to distinguish them, but the extremes are rare, the social function of the roles not so distinct, and the stylistic features seldom provide sufficient separation. Since the industry’s most tangible presentation is metrically divisible time, the industry seems to mark the separation emphatically by assigning the two roles different time signatures. The commercial is built on a scale of the minute out of multiple 10-second units. It comes in four common sizes—10, 30, 60 and 120 seconds—of which the 30-second slot is by far the commonest. The program is built on the scale of the hour out of truncated and hinged 15-minute units that are also commonly assembled in four sizes—15, 30, 60 and 120 minutes—of which the half-hour program is the commonest, though the hour length is usual for important programs, two hours quite frequent for specials and feature films, and 15 minutes not entirely a rarity for commentary.

Television inherited the split roles and the two time signatures from radio, as well as the habit of alternating them in regularly recurrent intervals, creating the arbitrary-appearing, mechanical segmentation of both media’s presentations. But television carried this mechanical segmentation to a new extreme and presented it in such a novel way, through a special combination of its own peculiar technology and production conventions, that television time, in spite of structural similarity with radio time, has an entirely different appearance from it, bearing the relationship to radio time that an electronically driven, digital counter does to a spring-driven, hand-wound alarm clock.

Television achieved its extreme segmentation of transmission time mainly through the intense development of multiple sponsorship. Old radio programs from the 1930s and 1940s tended to have a single sponsor. The Lone Ranger was sponsored for years by Silvercup bread, Ma Perkins by Oxydol, Uncle Don by Ovaltine; and these sponsors would reappear regularly at the beginning, middle and end of each program with pretty much the same commercial pitch. This pattern continued by and large into the early days of television, with Hallmark Theater, The Kraft Playhouse and so on. But current television practice is generally quite different. A half-hour program might have something like six minutes of commercial fitted to it in three two-minute blocks at the beginning, middle and end of the program. But these six minutes of commercial time might promote the commodities of 12 different sponsors, or 12 different commodities of some smaller number of sponsoring agencies. The commodities could be nearly anything—a car, a cruise, a furniture polish, a breakfast food, a funeral service, a scent for men, a cure for smoking, an ice show, an x-rated movie, or a politician. In principle they could apply to nearly any aspect of human life and be presented in any order, with strategies of advocacy more various than the commodities themselves.

In practice, the range of commodity and style of advocacy are somewhat more limited, but the fact remains that in half an hour you might see a succession of four complete, distinct and unrelated 30-second presentations, followed by a 12-minute half of a presentation, followed by a one-minute presentation, one 30-second presentation and three 10-second presentations, followed by the second and concluding half presentation (12 minutes long), followed by yet another four unrelated 30-second presentations. But since this would lead to bunching of two two-minute commercials into a four-minute package of commercial at every hour ending, and since viewers are supposed to want mainly to look at the programs—or because program makers are rather possessive about their own commercials and want complete credit for them—the program makers have recently developed the habit of presenting a small segment of their own program as a kind of prologue before the opening commercial, to separate it from the tail end of the preceding program, while the program makers of the preceding program may attempt to tag onto the end of their own program a small epilogue at the end of their last commercial, to affix it more securely to their own program.

Meanwhile, the station may itself interject a small commercial promoting itself or its future presentations. All of these additional segments—prologues, epilogues, station promotions and coming attractions, usually lasting no more than two minutes, are scaled to commercial time and are, in their functional nature, promotions for either immediately succeeding or eventually succeeding transmissions. This means that you may see upward of 14 distinct segments of presentation in any half hour, all but two of which will be scaled to commercial time. Since commercial time is the most common signature, we could expect it to dominate the tempo of television, especially since the commercial segments constitute the only examples of integral (complete and uninterrupted) presentation in the medium. And they do, but not in the way one would generally suppose.

It is very easy to exaggerate the apparent differences between commercial time and program time by concentrating on the dramatic program. Television has many programs that share a mechanically segmented structure with the packet of commercials. The most extreme cases are the news programs, contests and the so-called talk shows. What is called “news” on television is a chain of successive, distinct and structurally unrelated narrations called “stories.” These average from 30 seconds to two minutes in length, are usually presented in successions of three or four in a row,and bracketed between packets of commercials from one to two minutes long. The “full” story is built very much like a common commercial. It will usually have a 10- to 30-second introduction narrated by an actor seen in a chest-shot, followed by a segment of film footage about one minute in length. There are alternate forms, but all of them are built on exactly the same type of segmentation.

The narrating actor may merely narrate (read off) the event from the same chest-shot, seen against a back-ground of one or two slides plausibly related to the event. The only continuity for the six- or seven-minute packet of programming called “news” consists of an abstract categorical designation (e.g. National) and the recurrent shots of the newsmen, actors who project some well-defined character considered appropriate for this part of the show—informed concern, alert aggressiveness, world-weary moralism, or genial confidence, and so on. This tends to be more obvious in the packets designated as “Sports” and “Weather,” where what passes for information consists of bits so small, numerous and unrelated that they come down to mere lists. These may be held together respectively by more obvious character actors like a suave ex-jock and a soft-touch comic. Similarly, contest shows consist of structurally identical, separate events joined edge to edge and connected mainly by the continuous presence of the leading actor (the host).

Television has also—through selection of the events themselves and manner of representation—managed to present most of its sports programs as sequences of nearly identical unrelated events. Baseball gets reduced to a succession of pitches, hits and catches, football to a succession of runs, passes and tackles, while the ensemble of events that may be unfolding lies outside the system of representation. If we count together all the programs that are constructed out of these linearly successive, distinct segments of commercial scale, the contrast between commercial and program becomes much less sharp.

Moreover a closer inspection of both will show that there are really no clear stylistic distinctions between commercials and programs, because just about every genre of program appears also as a commercial. Dramas, comedies, documentaries, science talks, lists, all show up in 30- and 60-second forms. Even their distinctive integralness can be exaggerated, because often there is a clean partition between the programmatic parts of the commercial—its dramatic or imagistic material—and the details of the pitch that specify the name of the product and where you can get it.

This separation is so common that it is possible to watch three 30-second commercials in succession with some pleasure and find it difficult to remember the name or even the nature of the commodity promoted. This is not a functional defect in the commercial, the main purpose of which is to produce a kind of praise poetry that will elevate to a mild prominence one member out of the general family of commodities that television promotes as a whole tribe all of its transmitting day. Poems in praise of particular princes are addressed to an audience already familiar with the tribe, and commercials are constructed to particularize an already existing interest. Nobody unconcerned with body odors will care which deodorant checks them best. It takes the whole television day to encode the positive images of smoothness, cleanliness or blandness upon which the massive marketing of deodorants and soaps depends. There is no fundamental distinction between commercial and program, there is only a difference in focus and conciseness, which gives the 30-second commercial its appearance of much greater elegance and style. Both commercials and programs are assembled out of the same syntax: the linear succession of logically independent units of nearly equal duration. But this mechanically divisible, metrical presentation has none of the percussive or disjunctive properties of radio presentation. This is because of the conventions of camerawork and editing that television has developed to soften the shock of its basically mechanical procedures.

It is probably fair to say that the entire technology, from the shape of the monitor screen to the design of the camera mounts, was worked out to soften the tick of its metronome. Almost every instrument of television technique and technology seems to have the effect of a shock absorber. As in film, the television presentation is assembled out of separate shots. But these shots are very limited in type and duration.

Because of the poor resolution of the television image and the normal screen size, the bread-and-butter shots of television are almost all subforms of what film would consider a close-up. Common shot names illustrate this—knee-shot, thigh-shot, waist-shot, bust-shot, head-shot, tight head-shot. Or else they count the number of people in the frame—two-shot, four-shot, etc. Probably primarily for this reason, shot durations are very limited in range—usually from two to 10 seconds—and very predictable in function and type. The two- to three-second shot is almost always a reaction-shot or a transition detail in a narrative, so it will usually be a head-shot or detail of some activity. Distant shots of moving cars, or whatever, will usually run seven to 10 seconds, like action in general. Shots of a second and under are rare and only used for special occasions, but distinct shots over 20 seconds are practically nonexistent.

“Distinct” because television’s camera conventions include a cameraman who is trained to act like an antiaircraft gunner, constantly making minute adjustments of the camera, loosening up a bit here, tightening up there, gently panning and trucking in a nearly imperceptible manner to keep the target on some imaginary pair of crosshairs. These endless, silken adjustments, encouraged and sometimes specifically called for by the director, and usually built into the cameraman’s training, tend to blur the edges of what the film director would normally consider a shot.

To this we can add the widespread use of fade-ins and fade-outs and dissolves to effect temporal and spatial transitions, and the directors’ regular habit of cutting on movement to cushion the switch from one camera to another. This whole arsenal of techniques has a single function—to soften all shocks of transition. Naturally the different apparent functions of various genres of program or commercial will alter the degree of softening, and a news program will maintain a sense of urgency through its use of cuts, soft though they may be, while the soap opera constantly melts together its various close shots with liquid adjustment, and blends scene to scene in recurrent dissolves and fades. This ceaseless softening combines with the regular segmentation to transform the metronomic tick-tock of the transmission into the silent succession of numbers of a digital clock.

Because of the television industry’s special esthetic of time and the electronics industry’s primary adaptation of the technology to the needs and desires of television, the appearance of an art-world video had to wait for the electronics industry to attempt to expand the market for its technology into special institutional and consumer domains. The basic tool kit of artists’ video is the Portapak, with its small, mobile camera and one-half-inch black and white videotape recorder that can accommodate nothing larger than 30-minute tapes. Put together with a small monitor and perhaps an additional microphone, the whole operation costs something in the vicinity of $2,000—a bit less than a cheap car and a bit more than a good stereo system.

This is the fundamental unit, but it allows no editing whatever. The most minimal editing—edge to edge assembling of tapes into units larger than 30 minutes—requires access to at least another videotape recorder with a built-in editing facility, which means at least the investment of another $1,200. This is a primitive editing capacity, but increases the unit cost by 50 percent to about $3,000.

Yet precision editing and smoothness are still out of the question. Unlike film, where editing is a scissors and paste job anyone can do with very little equipment, and where you can sit in a small room and shave pieces of film down to the half frame with no great difficulty, video pictures have to be edited electronically by assembling image sequences from some source or sources in the desired order on the tape of a second machine. The images are electronically marked off from each other by an electronic signal recurring (in the U.S.) 60 times a second. If you want to place one sequence of images right after another that you’ve already recorded onto the second tape, you have to join the front edge of the first new frame to the final edge of the other, which means that motors of both machines have to be synchronized to the sixtieth of a second and that there must be a way of reading off each frame edge to assure that the two recorded sequences are in phase with each other. Half-inch equipment is not designed to do this, and the alignment of frame edge with frame edge is a matter of accident.

Alignment of a particular frame edge with a particular frame edge is out of the question. If the frame edges don’t come together the tape is marked by a characteristic momentary breakup or instability of the image. You may or may not mind this, but it’s the distinctive mark of this type of editing. Since this is absolutely unlike television editing, it carries its special mark of “homemade” or “cheap” or “unfinicky” or “direct” or “honest.” But the dominance of television esthetics over anything seen on a TV screen makes this rather casual punctuation mark very emphatic and loaded with either positive or negative value. An installation with synchronized, multiple cameras, with capabilities for switching through cutting, fading and dissolving, and some few special effects like black and white reversal will cost somewhere in the $10,000 range, provided you stick to black and white and half-inch equipment. This is only a minor increase in editing control and a cost increase of one order of magnitude. If you want reliably smooth edits that will allow you to join predictably an edge to an edge, without specifying which edge, you will need access to an installation whose cost begins at around $100,000.12

One major art gallery has a reduced form of such a facility that permits this sort of editing, which costs about half that. Again we have an increase of control that is nearly minimal and a cost increase of another order of magnitude. Some artists have solved this problem by obtaining occasional access to institutions possessing this kind of installation, but usually this takes complete editing control out of the hands of most artists. There are also ways of adapting the one-inch system to precisionist frame-for-frame capacity, but that requires the investment of several thousand dollars more. A rule of thumb might specify that each increase in editing capacity represents an order of magnitude increase in cost.

Color is still another special problem. Though it is beset by difficulties, technical and economic, and though much color video is nearly senseless (viz. Sonnier’s pointless color work), it is by now television’s common form and has certain normative marks associated with it. To use black and white is a marked move, regardless of what the mark may be construed to mean. So, many artists will seek color for mere neutrality. But it comes at a price. There are bargain-basement color systems, wonderfully cheesy in appearance, but the most common system is the three-quarter-inch cassette ensemble, which together with camera, videotape recorder and monitor goes at about $10,000. If the Portapak is the Volkswagen, this is the Porsche of individual artists’ video. For editing control, the system of escalation in color runs parallel to black and white. The model of ultimate refinement and control is the television industry’s two-inch system, and since that’s what you see in action in any motel over the TV set, interesting or not, everyone takes it for the state of the art.

These conditions may not seem promising, but artists are as good at surviving as cockroaches, and they’ve developed three basic strategies for action. They can take the lack of technical refinements as a given and explore the theater of poverty. They can beg, borrow or steal access to technical wealth and explore the ambiguous role of the poor relation, the unwelcome guest, the court jester, the sycophant, or the spy. This isn’t a common solution. The studios don’t make their facilities available so readily. But it includes works done by Allan Kaprow, Peter Campus, Les Levine, Nam June Paik and numerous others. Artists can also raid the technology as a set of found objects or instruments with phenomenological implications in installation pieces. There are numerous examples from the work of Peter Campus, Dan Graham, Nam June Paik, Frank Gillette, etc.

To a great extent the significance of all types of video art derives from its stance with respect to some aspect of television, which is itself profoundly related to the present state of our culture. In this way video art embarks on a curiously mediated but serious critique of the culture. And this reference to television, and through it to the culture, is not dependent on whether or not the artist sees the work in relation to television. The relation between television and video is created by the shared technologies and conditions of viewing, in the same way the relation of movies to underground film is created by the shared conditions of cinema. Nevertheless, an artist may exploit the relation very knowingly and may choose any aspect of the relation for attack.

If Nancy Holt’s Underscan is an innocent masterpiece that narrates in its toneless voice a terrifying, impoverished story over a sequence of simple photographic images ruined twice over by the television raster, then the co-related Benglis Collage and Morris Exchange are cunning parodies that use the cheesy video image to depreciate a filmic genre that would sensuously exploit the personal glamor of stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, replaced here by the mock glamor of two pseudocelebrities in a visual soup. Holt calls into question anything that the medium has ever represented as documentary with her sheer simplicity of means, while Morris and Benglis produce a total burlesque of the public figure through the manifest absurdity of their claims.

Acconci’s Undertone is an even more precise example of this type of burlesque. In a visual style of address exactly equivalent to the presidential address, the face-to-face camera regards The Insignificant Man making The Outrageous Confession that is as likely as not to be an Incredible Lie. Who can escape the television image of Nixon?

In Baldessari’s wonderful Inventory, the artist presents to the camera for 30 minutes an accumulation of indiscriminate and not easily legible objects arranged in order of increasing size and accompanied by a deadpan description—only to have the sense of their relative size destroyed by the continual readjustment of the camera’s focal length that is required to keep them within the frame. Who can forget Adlai Stevenson’s solemn television demonstration of the “conclusive photographic evidence” of the Cuban missile sites, discernible over the TV screen only as grey blurs?

What the artists constantly re-evoke and engage is television’s fundamental equivocation and mannerism, which may really be the distinctive feature of the medium. But they may do this from diametrically opposed angles, either by parodying the television system and providing some amazing bubble, or by offering to demonstrate how, with virtually no resources, they can do all the worthwhile things that television should do or could do in principle and has never yet done and never will do.

Terry Fox’s Children’s Tapes exhibit nothing more or less than the simple laws of the physical world in terms of small common objects—a spoon, a cup, an ice cube, a piece of cloth. They make use of a single camera, adjusted only enough to get the objects and events into the frame, and no edits. The hands crumple a spoon handle, place an ice cube in it over a small piece of cloth, balance it at the neck over the rim of a cup. You watch. It takes how long for you to figure out that the ice cube will melt? That the cloth will absorb the water. That the balance will be upset. But which way? Will the water absorbed into the cloth be drawn further from the fulcrum and increase the downward moment on the ice cube side? Or will the water dripping from the spoon reduce the downward moment and send the spoon toppling into the cup? You watch as though waiting for an explosion. It takes minutes to come and you feel relieved. It has the form of drama. You’ll never see anything like it on educational television or any other television. It takes too much time, intelligence and intensity of attention to watch—except on video. There are, I believe, 22 of these children’s tapes. They have the brilliance of still-life and the intelligence of a powerful didactic art. But it is also a critique of means. Other works similar in this respect of means are Richard Serra’s Prisoner’s Dilemma and Eleanor Antin’s The Ballerina and the Bum.

The Serra piece shamelessly adapts a casual stage skit and a contest-show format to illustrate hilariously and with absolute simplicity a moral-logical dilemma with grave implications for human action. The problem is apparently simple. There are two prisoners, A and B. Each is offered a chance to betray the other and go free—provided the other refuses to betray him. Here is the first catch. In the event that this happens the prisoner who refused to betray will receive the maximum sentence—this is catch two. The other options are that both prisoners will refuse to betray each other; this will get both prisoners the second lightest penalty; or that both prisoners will attempt to betray each other, which will get each prisoner the second gravest penalty. On the face of it we have a straightforward 2 x 2 matrix with four outcomes for each player, but all the outcomes are linked pairs: you go free only if he gets life imprisonment and he goes free only if you get life imprisonment; you both get away with two years’ imprisonment if you both hold out against betrayal; you both get ten years’ imprisonment if you both try betrayal. If each player plays for his own advantage, he will inspect the reward columns and come to the single conclusion that the worst possible outcome is life imprisonment, which can only happen if he refuses to betray. This prevents the other player from screwing him and leaves the original player the chance of screwing his opponent. Since both players—regarded as unrelated individuals who will consider their own individual advantage—will play to minimize their loss, they will each play to cut their losses and inevitably come out with the next-to-worst payoff—ten years in prison. There is no way to win and no way to play for mutual nonbetrayal because failure to betray always risks total loss.

But the video piece is more brilliant than that. It sets up two precise illustrations—comic, yes; casual, yes—but elegant in the way it demonstrates that any two unrelated prisoners—say a pair of suspected criminals picked up in the street—will inevitably betray each other and take the consequences. But any two prisoners who have a real community bond between them have no choice but to play for non-betrayal, because they must consider the value of the outcome in terms of its value for both players. Obviously, the differences in negative weights assigned to the penalties will work differently in deciding the outcome. Still, with these two players, nothing in the world of this low-budget game could make Leo Castelli betray Bruce Boice in public. This low-budget marker calls up beautiful improvisational acting from all of the players and loose styles from all of the collaborators in this group piece. The logical structuring of the piece owes a great deal to Robert Bell, who occupies a role somewhere between script-writer and director, and to all of the actors, whose improvisatory performances contribute markedly to the final outcome of the piece, which must be considered a community venture with Richard Serra assuming the producer’s role. This piece is also of a sort that will never appear on television and has the force of a parable.

Antin’s Ballerina and the Bum, another low-budget job, with single Portapak camera and two improvising actors, declares itself, from its five-minute opening shot, against television, time and money. The camera changes position only if it has to, to keep something in view, pans once along three cars of a freight train, to count them, moves inside the car. The mike has no windscreen. The sounds of the world of 1974—cars, airplanes, children and chickens—intermittently penetrate the film-style illusion of the image of a Sylphides-costumed, New York-accented ballerina “from the sticks” and a 25-year-old grizzled old bum on the way to the big city. Nothing happens but what they say and do. She practices ballet, sets up light housekeeping in the boxcar, they daydream of success, he cooks some beans, she eats them, the train goes nowhere. Everything else is moving—cars, planes and other trains. A whole Chaplin movie for the price of a good dub.

Other successful examples of this low-budget strategy are Andy Mann’s One-Eyed Bum and Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot’s 4th of July in Saugerties, which bring to bear the video of limited means upon documentary as a kind of artist’s reminder of the ambiguities of “honesty” and “simplicity.” It is no accident that the best of these works have, at least in part, a didactic and moral element behind them and are “exemplary.” And even the tapes that are not specifically presented in an exemplary mode become exemplary in their fundamental disdain for television time.

But the theater of poverty isn’t the only way. Peter Campus somehow infiltrated WGBH-TV, Boston, to produce a single deadly piece precisely aimed through their expensive equipment. A man holds a photograph, seemingly of himself. You see him set fire to it and watch it burn from all four sides. Gradually you notice that the photograph is breathing, its eyes are blinking. This is the image of television.

David Antin, known as much for his poetry as his art criticism, teaches art history at the University of California, San Diego.



1. Judson Rosenbush, ed. Frank Gillette Video: Process and Metaprocess (essay by Frank Gillette, interview with Willoughby Sharp), Syracuse, Everson Museum of Art, 1973, p. 21.

2. Hollis Frampton, “The Withering Away of the State of Art,” Artforum, December, 1974, p. 50.

3. Art is “producer-dominated” in much the same way that American industry is “producer-dominated,” in that it is not “consumer responsive.” There is an ensemble of “art people,” including a number of critics and dealers, who form each of the diverse “scenes” of the art world, of which there are a fair number. Each of these “scenes” produces art as a series of individual offerings the way a biological species produces novel individuals from its single gene pool, out of the various interactions of its members. The kind of communication these “producers” have with whatever “public” they reach is essentially Darwinian, like the “communication” of a species with nature whose only communicative act is to extinguish those individuals who are not minimally fitted to survive in its niches.

4. Jud Yalkut, “TV As a Creative Medium at the Howard Wise Gallery,” Arts Magazine, September, 1967, p. 21.

5. Edward Stasheff and Rudy Bretz, The Television Program: Its Writing, Direction and Production, New York, 1951, p. 3.

6. Ibid., p. 6

7. Ibid., p.

8. Ibid.

9. Bruce Boice, “Lynda Benglis at Paula Cooper Gallery,” Ardorum, May, 1973, p. 83.

10. Les Levine. “Excerpts from a Tape: ‘Artistic,’” Art-Rite, Autumn, 1974, p. 27.

11. I understand the terms “interesting” and “uninteresting” to have no more psychological sense than a mathematician does who judges a theorem “interesting” when it reverberates significantly throughout the system or systems it applies to and “uninteresting” when its reverberation is trivial. On the other hand, I understand the term “boring” to have essentially a psychological significance and to refer to those presentations which are judged to have too few or too poorly marked features for the mind in its normal career to attend to, and “boredom” to refer to that sense of frustration felt when the effort of attending goes unrewarded. Certain advocates of ’60s art considered “boredom” a valuable transition sue between two states of attention, an initial state in which the mind attended to what it expected but was not present, and a second state in which the mind attended to what was in fact there. Work which achieved this transition would have been considered “boring,” but hardly “uninteresting.”

12. These figures are necessarily approximate and depend on variations in marketing and the fluctuation of the dollar. At present there is a new three-quarter-inch facility capable of giving a clean frame-to-frame edit with an indeterminacy of about a third of a second that is going for about $25,000.