– Summer 2011

Letter to the Editor: Disobedient Video

Dear Editor:

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

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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.'

    $1,500 for a single video kit in the 1970s isn’t that cheap, but sure, it is when divided between 'twenty or thirty people.'

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.