Circa 1971: Early Video & Film from the EAI Archives

An Exhibit Review

December 7, 2012

In the years around 1971, the electronic medium of video became available to artists. Portable video recorders like the Sony AV-3400—universally known to users as “portapaks”—brought video out of the television studio and into both the artist’s studio and the streets, where they were used to document political activism, countercultural exuberance, and everyday life. This is the moment curator Lori Zippay captured in Circa 1971: Early Video & Film from the EAI Archives, an exhibit drawn on the collections of Electronic Arts Intermix and displayed at Dia:Beacon in 2011 and 2012.

As Zippay writes, “performance and visual artists, political activists, cybernetic theorists, filmmakers, Fluxus provocateurs, and self-described video freaks and electronic geeks all contributed to the fluid mix—and creative friction—of the emergent video art scene.” She portrays this diversity of early video by bringing together 15 video productions and eight related films from 1970, 1971, and 1972. This tight periodization means the show, like an archaeological dig site, reveals a single stratum of video’s early history rather than a chronology of video art.

David Cort, Mayday Realtime (1971)

The most fascinating works are those sometimes described as video verité, which provide glimpses into an unrehearsed past. In Mayday Realtime, for example, David Cort walks and drives around Washington, D.C. on May Day 1971, documenting antiwar demonstrations and the police response. Cort, founder of a video collective called the Videofreex who lived in a communal house in the Catskills, consistently turned up with a camera at countercultural events like the Woodstock Festival and the Chicago Seven trial.

Shirley Clarke’s The Tee Pee Video Space Troupe: The First Years portrays cultural moments both more mundane and more glamorous than Cort’s May Day. In one segment, Clarke carouses with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Andy Warhol. “Video gives me something to do at parties,” Clarke tells the audience with an intertitle. Like many other videographers, Clarke—already an Academy Award winning filmmaker—was fascinated by the unique features of the video medium. As she tells a silent, posing Ono, her camera recorded sound, as film cameras could not. (Recording sound for film requires separate recording equipment.)

In the second segment of The Tee Pee Video Space Troupe, Shirley Clarke and Arthur C. Clarke—no relation—experiment with the interactions between two new gadgets. The science fiction writer points a laser at the filmmaker’s video camera, producing beautiful “sunbursts” and kaleidoscopic images. She has set up monitors displaying the video being recorded, so he watches himself and the abstractions he produces in real time, a mirroring practice characteristic of experimental video.

Joan Jonas, Vertical Roll (1972)

Indeed, many of the more explicitly artistic videos in Circa 1971 are subversive self-portraits. Joan JonasVertical Roll consists of sensual explorations of the artist’s body interrupted by the vertical rolling characteristic of a poorly calibrated CRT television in time to a violent clanging sound. This disruption of the viewing experience challenges viewers to question the routine objectification of women’s bodies. Similarly, in I Am Making Art John Baldessari challenges the category of art itself by incessantly repeating the titular phrase while moving through the video frame.

As Zippay notes in her essay, these pieces convey “an analog—that is, slowed-down—experience of time” compared to that of 2012. The sparse arrangement of the self portraits—displayed on large video monitors set along the wall of the gallery like paintings, with no seating—compounds this sense of slowness. Since each of six is around 20 minutes long, I found myself circulating among them, returning to those I’d already watched for a few minutes to see how the artists were doing.

Experimental videographers generally embraced the ability to record continuously afforded by cheap tape—which, if you ran out, could also be recorded over. The ideal of cinema without editing pioneered by Warhol on film (and at least once on video) became common among videographers, and is evidenced here both by documentary works like Mayday Realtime and consciously artistic ones like I Am Making Art. It was often in editing, though, that experimental video most effectively demonstrated its emotional range.

In a series of Media Primers, three members of the video collective Raindance edited together segments from their diverse tape collection. I was particularly struck by Ira Schneider’s contribution, perhaps the least cerebral of the three, in which a hippie playing guitar and singing euphorically is intercut with footage of a campaign event for Richard Nixon and scuffles in the audience at Altamont.

Circa 1971 also includes a handful of short films from the era, which are projected rather than displayed on CRTs. TV Cello Premiere by Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut, shown at the exhibit’s entrance, depicts one of Paik’s collaborations with Charlotte Moorman. The cellist played a one-stringed cello constructed by Paik, TV Cello, which displayed the performance, other cellists, and broadcast television on its three TV screens.

Many of the works in Circa 1971, most notably TV Cello Premiere and Vertical Roll, reveal particular technical features of the video technology used to create them. This is not the technology on which they’re displayed, however; despite being about analog media, Circa 1971 is an exhibit of digital reproductions. Given the fragility and glitchiness of analog video, such concessions to practicality are necessary to display this work, but they leave the analog video medium itself absent from the gallery. An exhibit which more fully portrayed analog video as both a technology and an artistic medium might feature a portapak on a pedestal in the center of the gallery, surrounded by the art it helped create.