PRINT May 2023


View of “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” 1968–69, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Left: Nam June Paik, Rondo Electronique, 1966–68. Right: Nam June Paik, McLuhan Caged, 1967; Nixon Tape, 1965; Lindsay Tape, 1967. Photo: James Matthews. © Nam June Paik Estate.

THE HISTORY OF VIDEO ART at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, begins in 1968 with Pontus Hultén’s sprawling exhibition “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age.” As suggested by its title, the show was a retrospective survey of modernism’s fascination with all things metallic, kinetic, and electric, from Giacomo Balla’s paintings of speeding automobiles to the self-destructive automatons of Jean Tinguely. But Hultén also included two monitors displaying Nam June Paik’s single-channel videos, auguring art’s transition from the industrial-machine age to the postindustrial age of information and introducing lambent cathode rays into MoMA’s hallowed halls. In the show’s catalogue, the curator emphasized the relationship of Paik’s works to broadcast television, describing his scrambled transmissions as “a direct frontal attack on the principal modern machine for manipulating men’s minds for commercial or ideological reasons” and hailing them as acts of “counterterrorism” waged against the terrorism of univocal mass media.

In 1974, MoMA extended its relationship with video by hosting “Open Circuits: An International Conference on the Future of Television,” the first major museum conference devoted to what was by then being called video art. It also inaugurated its video-screening program, which was organized by Barbara London—the first and now-legendary museum curator of video art—until it ended in 1981. As London recounts in her contribution to The New Television: A Public/Private Art, the 1977 publication that followed from “Open Circuits,” MoMA initially presented a selection of these programs in a small gallery next to its basement film auditorium. They were screened on two seventeen-inch Sony Trinitron monitors that shared the darkened space with Thomas Wilfred’s kinetic light experience Lumia Suite, Op. 158, which the museum had commissioned in 1963 and left on display until 1980. The arrangement is telling: Video art was literally situated between lumia and cinema—and also above the museum’s air-conditioning pumps, which occasionally emitted an “electrical interference” that caused “extraneous color to permeate the corners of the monitor screen,” as London glumly noted.

 View of “Signals: How Video Transformed the World,” 2023, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

One might be tempted to view “Signals: How Video Transformed the World”—MoMA’s largest presentation of any form of media art to date, according to director Glenn D. Lowry, and a Herculean achievement for the institution’s conservators and installers—as the apotheosis of video, which finally has ascended from the museum’s basement to its lofty sixth-floor special-exhibitions galleries. Indeed, it was hard not to be moved seeing London in attendance at the press preview, during which “Signals” lead curators Michelle Kuo and Stuart Comer reverently acknowledged her role in building the collection from which their exhibition is drawn. But at the very same moment that the show “signals” the institutional triumph of “video art,” it also points to and even hastens its undoing—and not a moment too soon.

“Signals” feels retrospective—even elegiac.

Video art has been screened and circulated in myriad ways since the mid-1960s, but from the mid-’90s until very recently, the mainstream art world has been preoccupied with one format in particular: high-definition cinematic experiences staged in a black-box space, created with the aid of prosumer digital tools and enabled by blue-chip gallery production budgets. Museum surveys in this period largely (and helpfully, I might add) focused on the ways that video entered the physical and discursive space of the white-walled gallery, from the Buffalo AKG Art Museum’s “Being & Time: The Emergence of Video Projection” in 1996 to “Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974–1995” at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2018. But the flooding of the internet with video content and the proliferation of screens in our daily lives, as well as the trend toward fascism in contemporary politics over the past decade or so, demand new frameworks for understanding video art. “Signals” responds with an emphasis on video’s political (not just aesthetic) radicality, which the curators locate in its technical capacity for liveness, simultaneous transmission, and feedback. In other words, “Signals” is less a comprehensive history than a strategic archaeology of video art that begins with its origins as an agitprop form of counterterrorism, privileging works that constitute counterpublics, record countermemories, or articulate counternarratives. Ultimately, “Signals” wants us to consider video art as itself a form of “electrical interference” (not unlike the monitor-distorting emanations from MoMA’s subbasement) emerging from the interstice between kinetic art and cinema but also jamming the frequencies of hegemonic ideologies and enabling what Ravi Sundaram describes in the exhibition catalogue as “pirate modernity.”

More specifically, “Signals” is less about defining and defending video as a medium than understanding video’s role in defining and defending democracy (whose meaning is always up for debate). Even a cursory glance at the titles of the works reveals this: Notable examples include Marlon Riggs’s Anthem, 1991; Artur Żmijewski’s Democracies, 2009; and Chto Delat’s The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger, 2014. The exhibition pointedly opens with two works that are both about video’s capacity for mediating public space and constructing a public sphere, albeit in different ways. Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway’s Hole in Space, 1980—exhibited here via archival footage—was a stealthy sidewalk installation that used live video transmission to link pedestrians in New York and Los Angeles in real time, embodying the ideas promoted in publications like the grassroots magazine Radical Software and Michael Shamberg’s 1971 book Guerrilla Television. It faces Tiffany Sia’s Never Rest/Unrest, 2020, a nearly half-hour-long compilation of iPhone footage taken by the artist during the 2019 Hong Kong protests, the public images of which were tightly censored. Sia’s video is smartly presented in front of windows that overlook New York’s own streets, creating another “hole in space” and suggesting the expanded role of video in interpolating a global body politic, however contested or tenuous.

Tiffany Sia, Never Rest/Unrest, 2020, HD video, color, sound, 29 minutes. Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2023. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

The juxtaposition highlights a significant difference between past and present: namely, our diminished faith in the kind of techno-utopianism espoused by the likes of Paik or Rabinowitz and Galloway. The question of whether we may still hold out any hope for better living through circuitry is literally writ large by the exhibition’s giant mural of long-haired hippies frolicking with anthropomorphized video equipment in a meadow under a smiling sun. (It is an enlargement of one of Ann Woodward’s illustrations for The Spaghetti City Video Manual, a guide to setting up pirate video networks published in 1973 by a media collective called Videofreex.) As suggested by the placement of this mural on a wall overlooking the show’s entrance and exit, “Signals” is animated by an acute awareness of the failures of the first generation of video “counterterrorists,” as well as by a sense of urgency and even a renewed, if cautious, optimism. The text of Chto Delat’s video, in which performers attempt to embody concepts such as being “a part of society and responsible for it,” admits, “We lost. But we are prepared to learn from our mistakes.” In her essay in the catalogue, Sia admits that some people think her video is hopeful but says that she herself thinks it “simply shows bursts of hope, or glimmers, and even those are open to interpretation.” Collectively, the works in “Signals” suggest a Foucauldian assessment of politics: There is no defeating or escaping power—only constant maneuvering within its networks, as measures beget countermeasures ad infinitum. Appropriately, then, the penultimate room features Sondra Perry’s instantly iconic work Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II, 2013, in which digital editing causes the frenetically moving bodies of two Black dancers (Danny Giles and Joiri Minaya) to appear as if they are perpetually “glitching” and struggling against either erasure or entrapment within digital systems—or both.

 Sondra Perry, Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I & II, 2013, two-channel HD video, color, silent, 9 minutes.

Although “Signals” ends with an invocation of the digital, the show feels largely retrospective—even elegiac. Like “The Machine,” “Signals” surveys an idea in the moment of its impending obsolescence, closing a chapter of institutional history that “The Machine” inaugurated. It helps us see “video art” as something that was shaped by television—a technology and medium that was also the site of a novel public sphere—and that, like television itself, is now transitioning into a new form. On both a technological and a cultural level, televisual and video technologies have been subsumed into the vast “metamedium” of binary code (which flattens the distinctions between the physical substrates of analog storage media) and meme culture (which blurs paradigms and genres). Tellingly, the show mostly eschews black-box projections in favor of installations that evoke the scale and physicality of domestic screens and even personal digital devices, and the catalogue abounds with moments of semantic slippage from “video” to “moving image.” This newer term encapsulates not only video (and film) but also the digital games, animations, and even screen savers made with software programs. These are often saved and shared as digital “video” files in art-world contexts, but like live video-art broadcasts, they may be experienced as images generated in real time—and sometimes should be experienced that way, depending on the artist’s concept, as is the case with the concurrent exhibition of Refik Anadol’s AI-generated art in MoMA’s lobby. London herself noted in her 2020 book Video/Art: The First Fifty Years that “today’s young artists consider moving imagery one category,” raising the question of whether video art as we know it will really have—as the title implies—a second fifty years. Given how few curatorial positions today are dedicated to video art, it seems entirely possible that video soon will cease to be a meaningful category of contemporary art, at least on a bureaucratic level.

“Signals” is less a comprehensive history than a strategic archaeology of video art that begins with its origins as an agitprop form of counterterrorism.

When that future comes, we may look back upon “Signals” as marking a caesura in video art’s history. In the meantime, we can appreciate it for exemplifying how to hold a conversation around technology that is not just formalist or aesthetic but also political and social. In fact, this conversation is political because it is formalist, in the sense that it attends to the way in which images are rendered material (or immaterial, as the case may be): A “moving” image is also one that is transmitted from sender to receiver in a particular time and space. Video was always already a heterogeneous constellation of technologies, formats, and modes of reception and distribution; perhaps broadening the conversation to the realm of “moving images” productively allows us to shift our attention from what video is to what it does (as demonstrated by Aria Dean’s contribution to the catalogue, which focuses on the complicated status of video’s evidentiary value in a post–Black Lives Matter media landscape). Artists will always relate to their tools as productive constraints, and the different affordances of, say, VHS tapes and Adobe Premiere continue to matter. But video’s radicality was always tied in part to its inherent transmissibility, as emphasized by the handful of nonprofit organizations that make artists’ videos available for rental or licensing, like Electronic Arts Intermix, and so it feels significant that with “Signals,” MoMA has for the first time created a free (albeit temporary) online “channel” that streams many of the same works that are presented in the show. The artists featured range from canonical pioneers (Dan Graham, Martha Rosler) to rediscovered innovators (Lynn Hershman Leeson, Jaime Davidovich), activist collectives (General Idea, TVTV), contemporary stars (Tony Cokes, Wu Tsang), and global voices (Juan Downey, Xu Zhen). This move to the internet humanely acknowledges that there is only so much video a museumgoer can absorb in one sitting and allows these few dozen works, which are presented on nine screens in the “Video Platform” at the end of the exhibition, to find larger audiences. But it also prioritizes the sending of signals over any vestigial commitment to the purity of video as a medium—suggesting that video has not only ascended into but also transcended the space of the modernist museum, as was its destiny. 

Tina Rivers Ryan is Curator at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum.