Early video art’s democracy and cheapness is a lie. Video art used to be expensive and in the 1970s, I could’ve spent a year’s rent on buying video equipment and editing tapes. 1 More than a money matter, the lie about affordability has created a mistaken identity for early video art as an uplifting, democratic medium embraced by ‘penurious’ and ‘disenfranchised’ artists, especially women. 2 The hope video offered artists in the disco decade wasn’t so simple or moralistic.
Producing video in the 1970s was difficult. The cost of the cameras gave you a good reason to join a video collective with shared resources. Lugging around clunky and heavy equipment wouldn’t have been much fun either. With the Sony Portapack weighing in at over 20 lbs. it would’ve provided a gym-worthy workout. 3 And then if you wanted to edit the tapes, you’d need to plant yourself in an editing studio for a few hours. Even if the affordability of early video deflates its democratic myth, historians like David Joselit have continued to dig up more and more artists in order to keep afloat the idea that anyone and everyone could make video. It’s really easy to find unknown artists. It’s harder to persuade and prod about why early video art should, and does, matter now – without continuing to lead the lie that it was somehow democratic because it was cheap and easy to use.
The most recent example to mine the archives for unknown artists, Stéphanie Jeanjean’s article in the Summer 2011 issue of Afterall, ‘Disobedient Video in France in the 1970s: Video Production by Women’s Collectives,’ puts forward a positive picture of video art-as-democratic due to its widespread use, in particular, by women’s video collectives in France. In the opening lines of her essay, Jeanjean states that:
‘The ongoing reconstruction of early video’s history shows a wider usage of the medium at its start than previously thought…and the leading role of women in exploiting video as a new audiovisual medium.’
The consequences of these claims are flimsy. I’d be hard pressed to find anything at stake by saying, ‘There were a lot of women using video in the 1970s in France.’ The fact that someone was there doesn’t automatically grant anyone a ‘leading role’ in the development of a new medium. The greater problem, though, is that Jeanjean’s addition of more women into art history sneakily seems like a [female] art for [female] art’s sake argument. I thought that this type of revision would have faded away with Linda Nochlin’s ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ (1971). Nochlin argued against adding more female artists into art history just to prove that a handful were around. Finding and adding disenfranchised artists into a history of video art attempts to confirm video’s democratic potential. Instead of struggling with why democracy should be valued in art or questioning whether the videos themselves, getting back to the actual works at hand, are somehow democratic, Jeanjean’s gesture expands the canon without questioning it.
One of the works Jeanjean discusses at length, LIP, shows female factory workers interviewed by members of the video collective Vidéo Out. For Jeanjean, video had the ‘ability to offer a more democratic and egalitarian experience than other audiovisual media could, television in particular.’ True, France’s state-operated TV channels wouldn’t have given much airtime at all to female factory workers in the 1970s – and Vidéo Out did. That said, the format of this video, with an interviewer behind the camera and an interviewee caught on screen, replicates a style of on-air news broadcasting that’s just dry and paternalistic. Without a flinch of humour, these videos replicate the TV style they were trying to work against.
If we’re not going to go searching for previously unknown artists, it’d better be for a good reason. Telling a history of any art’s problematic. It’s a lie to continue saying that video art was democratic, cheap, and allowed a voice to previously unrepresented groups. It erases struggle in the name of utopia. Telling a history of art now, if strictly tied to the gleeful claims of democracy and accessibility, will likely produce unlucky consequences. Boring artworks will be preferred to engaging, nuanced ones if they don’t fit into the categories of democracy, affordability, and accessibility. Early video art wasn’t cheap; but it’s cheapened by these claims.
Response to Corinna Kirsch,
Your response to my essay ‘Disobedient Video in France in the 1970s: Video Production by Women’s Collectives’, published this summer in Afterall, indicates that very little remain known today about French art after the 1970s, about its politic and institutional histories, as well as about French video outside of the borders of France. I am pleased to submit additional contextual information, which should correct some of the misconceptions that have emerged from your reading of my text.
In your Letter to the Editor, you state that it is a lie to pretend that early video was cheap, easy, and democratic – and I agree. In France as well as in the US, the high cost of purchasing the technology and the consequent necessity of sharing video equipment led to video often being made among a group or collective, or between a couple. This was not, however, the only motivation behind working collectively. Carole Roussopoulos acquired her own video camera in 1969 and nevertheless insisted in working collectively with Vidéo Out (with her husband Paul, who barely ever stood behind the camera but was technically savvy) and Les Insoumuses (with Delphine Seyrig and Ioana Wieder). However, even if it was not cheap and easy, it is fair to say that portable video was easier to manipulate and more accessible commercially than any other audio-visual technology used in television or in cinema.
I acknowledged as much in my essay, and it is misreading it to imagine that thousands of women in France were practicing video in the 1970s. 4 Video-makers developing a militant production represented (broadly evaluated) perhaps twenty or thirty persons based in Paris, and an addition of ten or twenty more for the entire country. However, among them, and it is a demographic fact, at least three out of four were women and the themes of their production were predominantly women issues. Militant video by women’s collectives was consequent in content as well as in quantity; Roussopoulos alone signed or co-signed almost 50 videos in the 1970s, and more than 120 in her entire career.
Moreover, the democratic nature of early video also has to do with the fact that the women using video to develop a militant production thought that video had the potential to be or to become a truly democratic medium. They were originally attracted to it because it was new and open; video had no history and men had not yet appropriated it. This especially concerned the diversity of ideas, voices and life stories that it could potentially communicate, which was also more representative of the population’s diversity and preoccupations than the information that was served on French news. These ideas were indeed profoundly marked by the post-1968 utopianism that continued in France throughout the 1970s and, as you recalled, also developed in reaction to the framework of an exclusive state-controlled public television.
Along the same lines, I also wanted to attract attention to video’s role in creating a community of women, a global sisterhood, which could resist social discrimination and isolation. Video projections were pretexts for meetings and public discussions; video helped connecting women together as well as it contributed to communicate and share worldviews by making or viewing video. Notably, video also allowed exchanges between feminist and militant groups, between Paris and other cities in France, and beyond national borders.
In the first sentence of my text, I referred to limitations in the range of possible applications to videos originating from a definition of ‘video art’ that was set in France at the institutionalisation of the medium within the visual arts, in the late 1970s and the early 80s. This delimited a history for video art that excluded militant production as well as the entire branch of video practices developed by the movement of Art sociologique and Socio-critique, which also developed in the 1970s and were similarly disregarded by the institution for their lack of artistry and the socio-political nature of their content. 5 Here may be the opportunity to question the reasons that motivated the decisions of what would be, or not be, video art.
By comparison with most countries, it must be explained also that France was late at integrating video as a new medium for artistic practices (though once it appeared, the Centre Pompidou through its Département Nouveaux Médias was quick to add it for the collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, and its first acquisitions significantly concerned American video). Not only did the Portapak come onto the French market later than in many other countries, but also at first it did not attract the attention of established visual artists. 6 In fact, ‘video art’ truly only started in France in the late 1970s and 80s, with its institutionalisation.
Is it because they have not been acknowledged by the institution for their contribution to the history of early video or because of their absence from most of the literature developed on the medium since the 1980s that women’s collectives should now be confused with ‘unknown women artists’, and writing about them be a counterfeit ‘rehabilitation’?
Further, it must be noted as well that the women’s movement unfolded differently in France than in the United States or the United Kingdom, where feminism remained significantly active in the 1980s and 90s. In France, if the women’s movement had at first many sympathisers, only a small minority was actively involved. By the late 1970s the women’s movement had already weakened, and, by the 80s, it was generally seen as naïve and out-of-date. What has ultimately been gained in France from denying the contribution of women’s collectives to the history of video, to feminism, to socio-political action? And, what happens if or when feminism disappears?
Women’s collectives active in France in the 1970s did not create or find direct followers in the newer generations, and consequently failed to communicate their ideas or to perpetuate their modes of action. Did this disengagement result from a too restrictive framework made of female art for female art’s sake, as you suggest? Or had their work been too focused on its own contemporaneity to be able to communicate anything beyond its own time period?
Then, what can we learn from this production and why does it still matter today? First, it reveals unsolved issues for women’s conditions. Second, it touches on transnational and global approaches to feminism with a production that departed from better-known Anglo-American models as well as histories of video and feminism. Third, its use of an audio-visual technology in contexts of socio-economical and political crisis certainly chimes with recent international protests and occupation movements and their use of mobile telephone technology coupled with internet and social media. Finally, maybe both early video and modern telecommunications betray an acute sense of individuality growing with the possibility of self-representation, which can possibly derive in stardomania and narcissism, and ultimately circumvent any group effort.
The Sony Portapak came out in 1965 with a listing price of $1,250 and by 1971, cost almost $1,500: http://www.experimentaltvcenter.org/sony-dvk-2400vck-2400-battery-operated-videocordercamera-ensemble. If you include video editing equipment, that’s about the average amount paid on rent in 1971 or the price of a Datsun: http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1971.html↑
See Holland Cotter, 'Video Art Thinks Big: That’s Showbiz,' New York Times, published on 6th January 2008: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/arts/design/06cott.html↑
Top Value Television (TVTV), one of dozens of collectives in the States, addressed production costs in Johanna Gill’s 1976 publication Video: State of the Art: 'The point was that we could take this dirt cheap black-and-white video equipment that cost $1,500 for a whole unit, and twenty or thirty people who loved television…and make not only technically decent television but also television in which the information was shockingly different.'↑
Interestingly in the 1970s, Sony developed an advertisement campaign that promoted a familial use of audio-visual and televisual technologies with posters showing people of all ages and genders. The Portapak, in particular, was commonly associated with representation of young women holding and therefore leading the camera. This way, Sony promoted video as an easy, cheap and therefore more democratic medium. Realistically, and unless within the past five years with the development of an audio-visual telephonic technology, video has never been democratic in that sense, as a medium used by anyone and everybody.↑
These approaches to video refer to artists such as Fred Forest, Hervé Fischer and Jean-Paul Thenot (for the Collectif d’art sociologique created in 1974), Robert Baladi and François Pain as Socio-critique artists.↑
In France, visual artists generally preferred the 16mm film format throughout most of the 1970s (Christian Boltanski, Paul-Armand Gette, Jean Le Gac, Jean-Pierre Bertrand, Gérard Fromanger, Jacques Monory, or Martial Raysse). Only very few French artists occasionally used video, most commonly in relationship with performance (Jean-Jacques Lebel, Françoise Janicot, Michel Journiac, Gina Pane, Orlan, Robert Filiou, Jean Dupuy, Ben Vautier.) An exception was an isolated piece by Raysse, Identité, maintenant vous êtes un Martial Raysse (1967, known from sketches since 1965), and the first closed-circuit video installation known in France. A significant production was also developed with early video by French film-makers Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker.↑