Dara Birnbaum, PM Magazine, 1982/2006, five-channel color video with three stereo channels, two black-and-white photo enlargements, paint, aluminum, and custom hardware. Installation view, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2007.

Dara Birnbaum, PM Magazine, 1982/2006, five-channel color video with three stereo channels, two black-and-white photo enlargements, paint, aluminum, and custom hardware. Installation view, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2007.

“First Generation”

SOME AMBITIOUS exhibitions devoted to the history of video art have taken place in recent years—“Video Acts in 2002 at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, for example, or “Beyond Cinema” this past winter at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin—but, curiously, they have predominantly been organized around loans from private collections. “First Generation: Art and the Moving Image, 1963–1986” represented a different sort of institutional commitment. For the past several years, Berta Sichel, director of the audiovisual department at the Reina Sofía, has been building a collection intended to illustrate the origins and early years of video art; this exhibition—comprising more than forty installations and projections, along with eighty single-channel works accessible via computers placed within the exhibition space—was a presentation of what the museum described as the “historic core” of this collection, supplemented by a small number of loans.

In spite of the show’s capacious subtitle, the works on display were almost all shot on video; also included were some using modified television sets or CCTV and a few pieces originally made as films that Sichel sees as contributing to the emergence of a video aesthetic. The curator highlighted the role of Fluxus in the origins of video art, with works such as Takahiko iimura’s Fluxus Replayed, 1991, which documents performances of the 1960s reenacted by their original protagonists—George Brecht, Benjamin Patterson, and others. In the context of this exhibition, however, what stands out is how these performances were modeled on the classical music recital whose formal conventions they subvert—not for nothing did Fluxus flow out of John Cage’s composition class at the New School for Social Research in New York. However, Fluxus represents an ethos completely different from that of the next generation of performance art, as well as that of the video work that emerged from it, in which the underlying paradigm is based on the image rather than on music—for example, in the work of Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, or Joan Jonas, the last of whose Glass Puzzle, 1974/2000, in part a response to E. J. Bellocq’s turn-of-the-century photographs of New Orleans prostitutes, is one of the Reina Sofía collection’s highlights.

Still, it is incontrovertible that video art’s point man, Nam June Paik, emerged from the Fluxus milieu, though it may be that his move to video was also a means of distancing himself from the games of Fluxus. In this exhibition, Paik’s Magnet TV, 1965/1995, and several of his other installations based on the détournement of television were complemented by the less-often-seen work of Wolf Vostell, who filmed a TV screen to deconstruct its illusion of continuous motion for works such as Sun in Your Head, 1963, and 6 TV Dé-coll/age, 1963/1995. The critique of televisual truth that began with Paik and Vostell had a significant effect on subsequent artists: It led, on one hand, to a deconstruction of television that now often seems rather heavy-handed—for instance in the use of appropriated footage in Dara Birnbaum’s PM Magazine, 1982/2006—and, on the other, to an analysis of television’s material properties, as in Eugènia Balcells’s remarkable TV Weave, 1985, an array of screens in which horizontal bands block out most of each image, leaving only a handful of thin lines that nearly turn the image into an abstraction (though in fact it can often be mentally reconstructed, if one cares to do so).

Such approaches seem, however, to have held little weight for other artists who deployed video primarily for its documentary value. Their works may seem naive, but they can possess a powerful charm—as is the case with Ira Schneider’s Manhattan Is an Island, 1974/2006, a sort of travelogue of the borough laid out on six channels of video shown on twenty-two monitors, and Juan Downey’s Video Trans-Americas, 1976/1997, which applies a similar strategy to the whole of the Americas. For these artists, installation seems not least to have served as a means of adapting documentary film traditions to a gallery context, with the spatial strategies of multichannel video substituting for linear narrative.

The curatorial decision to show most of the single-channel videos separately from the installation-based works in the exhibition made practical sense, but, given the ubiquity of large-screen projection today, it resulted in an unwitting exaggeration of the stylistic continuity between today’s video art and its precursors—all the more so because many of the artists have reconfigured their old works, in some cases especially for the Reina Sofía. While the desire to refresh a historical work for present conditions can be salutary, and an overinsistence on historical purity unnecessarily constricting, as much is lost as is gained in the process. David Hall’s TV Interruptions (7 TV Pieces), 1971, for example, consists of works originally broadcast on Scottish television, where each of the constituent short films had interrupted the usual program without warning. Here the films were reworked into a multichannel video installation (TV Interruptions [7 TV Pieces]: The Installation, 1971/2006) in which the seven episodes interact with one another, surely to very different—and more conventional—effect, even if their mixture of absurdity, banality, and humor becomes more perspicuous by their being shown in a more concentrated way.

That relatively little-known artists such as Hall or Balcells emerge so strongly here, while more familiar figures such as Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman recede into the background, is a reminder that the canon and the criteria of value for early video are still in flux. Many better-remembered works seemed mere period pieces—but then a credible account of the inventive ferment of early video art needs to reconsider everything: the overlooked and the overrated, the failed experiments and the masterworks. Thanks to such catholicity, “First Generation” shows that the early history of video is richer—and more complicated—than we remember.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.