Online Essay, 1999

Originally installations

Most people connect video - and with that video art - with something, you show on a television-set, but video might also exist in space: As installations relating to space, where the sculptural dimension is added to the the dimension of time.

Historically video art in fact started as video installations. Perhaps you today won’t characterize César’s "sculpture" on the exhibition "Antagonisms II - l'objet" in Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris 1962 as a video installation (it consisted of a turned-on tv-set, where the wooden cabinet was substituted with a transparent one and the set was placed on a base of compresses iron scrap), and the dating of Wolf Vostell’s assemblages with tv-sets are very much uncertain (1), but it is definite/absolute clear that at the exhibitions "Exposition of Music Electronic Television" at Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal in March 1963 and "Television Decollage" at Smolin Gallery in New York in May the same year Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell respectively showed video installations.

Nam June Paik had placed 10 tv-sets strayed in all directions and edges all around in the gallery and he had manipulated the tv-sets to influence the pictures on the screens. Wolf Vostell had placed 6 tv-sets on plinths, filing cabinets and the floor and had with help of the technique "decollaged" the screenpictures..

Manipulation of space

Video exists, then, not only in time but also in space:
"Video is commonly regarded as a temporal medium. The technological nature of video, however, gives it relevance not only in time but in space. Due to the nature(s) of its representation, video exists spatially as well as temporally"
notes Peter Frank in a comment in the anthology "Video Art" (2).

He calls the attention to the fact that
"A whole area of video art has capitalized on the spatial factor, permitting the manipulation of video not only as image but as object,"
and he even claims and insists that
"The medium of video ... permits, even provokes, the manipulation of space as well as of time."

Assemblage, environment, installation, sculpture …?
"Installations as a generic term, covers a large area of practice and enquiry within contemporary art. It is suggestive of the notion of    "exhibition", or "display", and of an actual activity which is today as widespread as any way of making art"
maintain Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley and Michael Petry in the Preface of their book "Installation Art" (3).

They continue to state that
"Installation, as a hybrid discipline, is made up of multiple histories; it includes architecture and Performance Art in its parentage, and the many directions within contemporary visual arts have also exerted their influence. By crossing the frontiers between different disciplines, installation is able to question their individual autonomy,authority and, ultimately, their history and relevance to the contemporary context "

In the Foreword they say that installation is a relatively new term:
"It is really only in the last decade or so that it has been used to describe a kind of art making which rejects concentration on one object in favor of a consideration of the relationships between a number of elements or of the interaction between things and their  contexts." (4)
but they also point out that
"Perhaps because installation is of such recent pedigree, it seems to enjoy a certain mobility of meaning"
and they notice / draw the attention to that
"In the early 1960s the terms "assemblage" and "environment" were most commonly employed to describe work in which the artist brought together a host of materials in order to fill a given space, At that time, installation referred to nothing more than how an exhibition had been hang." (5)
and they continue:
"During the sixties, the idea of an artwork as "environment" was elaborated beyond the basic fact that the spectator should, rather than looking at it, inhabit it as he or she inhabits the world." (6)

Assemblages, environments or installations - also when talking about video art there has been some uncertainty about the term to use. The two video artists Madelon Hooykaas and Elsa Stansfield use the term environment in their exhibition catalogue "5 video environments" from 1979 (7) and they give a definition of what they mean by this term (se later). Wulf Herzogenrath curated two influential German exhibitions with video art. In the catalogue to the first one (8), which also included tapes and performances he talks about Videoinstallationen - but for the next exhibition of video installations he uses the term Video-Skulptur (9). The attempt to distinguish between video installation and video sculpture by Vittorio Fagone in the exhibition book (10) seems very superficial and not very convincing to me. Today though the term video installation has been commonly and universally accepted.

Another kind of attention
There must be something about the claim/assertion by Peter Frank that the medium of video provokes manipulation of space as well as time (2) because many video artists have been "provoked" to work also with the spatial dimension through video installations.

In the catalogue "5 video environments" Madelon Hooykass and Elsa Stansfield try to amplify what is special by working in this way. they write:
"We could briefly define video environments in the following way: video: a light sensitive electronic process through which one can create a flow of images. These can be relayed via a prerecorded tape or live via a camera to a video monitor or television set. Sound can also be carried through this same system synchronously with the picture, or added later".

Environment: the space which surrounds you or a situation which surrounds something else. There is no "one" perspective or vantage point from which you can see the "Whole"; each view reveals another facet. An experience of texture, sound, light and time can be felt by being in or moving through the space." (11)

This underline the space dimension of video installation. You can not see/experience the installation at a glance. The installation demand, as David Gigliotti points out in "Video Art" (12), another kind of attention from the spectator than just to look at a tape on one monitor - this adds new dimensions to the observation/experience, because the video installation
"... cause us to distribute our attention over an array of monitors, making the perception of the relationships among them important"

Davidson Gigliotti goes on: This put the spectator
"... into the position of being invited to widen his or her perceptual focus. As focus widens to include the whole work, it loses intensity but gains extensity. Single-channel work demands strict attention to the screen, since it is the sole visual manifestation of the program. To take one's eyes away from it for a moment interrupts the program substantially. Multi-channel work demands a different kind of attention. As our perceptual focus widens, we begin to ask ourselves: How is this work to be viewed? Do these channels carry information of the same value? Are we to view them all at once, or in some kind of order? Does the nature of the programming provide provide some kind of clue, or perhaps the nature of the system? Where are we supposed to stand?

In single-channel work these questions hardly arise. As viewers, we have a handy and convenient mode for watching single-channel information. Our focus is on the content; we take the form for granted. In multi-channel work these questions are as much a part of the artist's problem as the program material."

(By single-channel work Gigliotti means video art shown on one monitor, by multi-channel work video art, where you use more monitors and tapedecks, that is: video installations).

For me it is just these special characteristics, which are emphasized in the quotations, that/which are the most interesting and exiting factors in working with video and the very reason why I prefer to work with video installations.

...would prefer, because it is of course far easier "only" to produce a tape to be screened with one tapedeck on one monitor - or perhaps rather: far less economically demanding.

Vague and not definite borderlines
In this discussion of video installations I have not talked about the relation to especially video performances. Both in "Installation Art" and in "Video-Skulptur retrospektive und aktuell 1963 - 1989" are referred to the close relationship between these two art forms (13) - to quote Peter Frank once again:
"Then, too, those factors defining, a video "installation" from other kinds of video work are debatable; perhaps I should have considered simple multimonitor arrangements or perhaps I should not have considered video performances. Where image ends and environment begins, where environments ends and performance begins - these boundaries are tenuous, if they exist at all" (14)

Site, nonsite … or site-specific
Robert Smithson, one of the key figures of the development of artworks as environments in the sixties, formulated the distinction between Site and Nonsite (15). The Site was the particular place or location in the world at large where the artwork, the environment, was created and the Nonsite was the representation, the exhibition (you might say: the documentation), in a gallery/museum of the Site in form of photos, maps, sketches, prints, material from the site, etc. (a very illustrating example of this is the way Christo works).

In the book "Installation Art" the authors point out that "nowadays, artists find it possible to use the gallery itself as a site" (16) and this is at least the case with most video installations. Of course the artist often supplements the video installation with "nonsite"-material (a good example is Fabrizio Plessi). More important I find - as they also state - that
"… an enlargement upon the idea of the site can be seen in the growing use of the related term, "site-specific" over the past decade. Site-specificity implies neither simply that a work is to be found in a particular place, nor, quite, that it is that place. It  means, rather, that what the work looks like and what it means is dependent in large part on the configuration of the space in which it is realized." (17).

I find the term "site-specific" important, but I don’t know if I will go so far as they do to say that
"… if the same objects were arranged in the same way in another location, they would constitute a different work".

I would rather call it a variation. A good examples from my own work is the video installation "A Song in the Brook". This installation has been exhibited at three different locations and each time "site-specific": adapted to the specific location, but in idea and essence it was the same installation. But of course they are right when they point out that
"Because installation works may be created on one site and later recreated elsewhere, dates and titling can sometimes be   variable. The same work, or a slightly altered work, may appear with different dates and titles" (18)

(… and this, I have to admit, also applies to the above mentioned installation which at Gallery Sub Bau, Gothenburg 1997, was called "The Song in the Brook", at Gallery Balderskilde, Copenhagen 1988, "A Song in the Brook" and at Haslev College Exhibition, Haslev 19xx, "A Song is Running in the Brook").

Interactive installations
Video art started with installations by Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell in 1963 and in the remainder part of the 60’ties and in the 70’ties video art most often was just video installations - and when the artists got the possibility to use video camera/-taperecorder by themselves very often installations, where the spectator was part of / interacted with / became an integrated part of the installation. You exploited partly the possibilities of instant reply through one or more video cameras, partly the technical easy possibility of the old open reel tapedecks to delayed/time displaced reply of the instant camera picture - a "time delay" under "normal" conditions up to 8 seconds (in Denmark especially William Louis Soerensen worked with these possibilities).

"Video Corridor"
An example of the first type of installation is Bruce Nauman’s "Video Corridor" from 1969. Nauman forced the spectators to move along through a narrow "corridor". A video camera up above and behind the spectators recorded and reproduced the spectator on one of the two monitors at the end of the corridor. On the other monitor, connected to a hidden taperecorder you saw only the empty corridor.

Through the closed-circuit installation the spectator was consequently involved actively and directly into the installation. It was, as Nauman expressed it (19), a sort of performance, but on the artist’s conditions.

Frank Gilette perfected the use of "time delay in the installation "Track/Trace" from 1973. The installation existed of 15 monitors in a pyramid. A video camera above the pyramid was aimed at the spectators and showed them directly in real time on the bottom 5 monitors and then time-delayed 3 seconds on the next 4 monitors, 6 seconds delayed on the next 3, and so on.

Two more cameras recorded the room from other visual angles. By help of a sequential switching devise switched every 8th second between replay of the pictures from the 3 other cameras. David Ross described the installation as
"A heuristic work, the piece had the effect of a kind of choreography imposed upon the viewer who wrestled with the appearance of  the simultaneously presented view of time and space." (20)

Frank Gilette himself pointed out, that to him, you enter by video into another form of reality: recorded reality, which you look at/contemplate in a very special way, and only video gives you this possibility: there are no more any eternal truths because the truth itself has become an infra-structure (21) - and in this way he anticipated at postmodernist way of thinking. He also stated that he believes in context and not in content.

An existence in obscurity

The "time-delay" possibility became with the development from open reel to videotape in cassettes technically so complicated and expensive (unless you "simulate" the time-delay), that the cassette-recorders (among other things) lead to that video installations over a period became more rare - unless you were one of the "chosen few": one of the "safe/established/acknowledged" like for instance Nam June Paik. Video art became apparently, as Dieter Daniels stated in "Kunstforum"
"... in der 80er Jahren zunächst und von allem das künstlerische Video Tape." (22)

Art on single video tape/monitor and not as installation.

A new breakthrough? The Stedelijk-exhibition
It has been maintained the the big exhibition with video-installations "Het lumineuze beeld" at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in the autumn of 1984 became like a new breakthrough for video installations:
"... ein Veranstaltung, de für den Durchbruch dieser anfänglich ein Schattendasein fristenden Kunstreichtung ausschlaggebend war",  (23)
to quote from Jürg Zutter’s essay in the catalogue to Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s exhibition in Basel in 1988.

It was, to be sure, an impressive exhibition with no less than 22 installations. The biggest manifestation for a long time with fascinating installations not least /especially by Marie-Jo Lafontaine ("A las cinco de la tarde"), but also I think by Bill Viola ("Room for St. John of the Cross"), Shigeko Kubota ("Three Mountains") and after all also by Marina Abramovic/Ulay ("Terra degli Dea Madre"),

... and I think it is right to say that this exhibition in a way lead to a "re-discovery" of the possibilities installations add to video art,

...but you have to say (and therefore non the less important) a "re-discovery" among museum people/curators/gallery owners/exhibition organizers, because the artists had not forgotten the video installation.

documenta 8
You could say that documenta 8 in 1987 followed up the Amsterdam-exhibition quite good with a long line of video installations. Not least especially Marie-Jo Lafontaine’s "Les larmes d'acier" was very fascinating and sinister. Technically perfect and the most ambitious of Marie-Jo Lafontain’s installations. Alarming in its theme/topic with clear allusions to the fascist worship of body and Arian. The extremes meet and unite: body and machine, emotion and production, but also pleasure/stimulation and suffering/pains, sensitive and death.

I wonder how many of the spectators (especially the "yogging generation". the exercise- and health worshipping young postmodernists) did understand the reference/allusion, the warning, which to me was underlined further by the fact that she this time desisted from color: the video pictures were black and white and the installation construction black in an almost dark room. A strong installation - the very best on documenta 8. It deserves to be seen again - and again.

Not to disparage Nam June Paik, the nestor video art. His documenta-tribute "Beys/Boise" to Joseph Beuys was I admit very dashing/splashing: a so-called "video wall" with 16 monitors with 13 more monitors on each side. The video wall technically permits you to for example to "blow up" a single screen picture on all the screens (1/16 of the picture on each screen). On this wall a performance by Beys was repeated, and the other 26 monitor showed on every second two tapes with very strong electronic manipulated pictures of Beys and Paik.

Just dashing/splashing, because I feel, that the fascination by the computer-directed electronic manipulations of the video pictures took over: Paik as "techno-fantast" (this goes also I feel for his gigantic installation at the Olympiad in Seoul).

... water, water, water
Since water has been an important element in my own installations (Wave Motion, Nature Morte, Harbor Front, A Song in the Brook, the fairytale of the Little Mermaid, L’eternité cet age spatial, The Echo of the Sea in the Burning Forest) it was interesting to see water as part in more of the documenta-installations: Shigeko Kubota’s "Niagara Falls" - as so many of her installations inspired by / a tribute to / a new interpretation of Marcel Duchamp - Ulrikke Rosenbach’s "Orphelia" - in one or another way she always succeed in saying something about feminine creativity and self-knowledge, and as so often before she takes a mythological point of departure (Hamlet and Ophelia, but also the legend about Orfeus) - and last but not least Fabrizio Plessi’s "Roma" with the river Tibern staged as "total theatre" - interesting because I myself in the installation "Wave Motion" at Charlottenborg in 1985 worked with water, flowing "down through" a long raw of monitors. The difference I think is - among other things - the Southern-dramatic staging of "Roma" and the the cool Nordic reflection in "Wave Motion".

There were more interesting installations at documenta 8, for instance Klaus vom Bruch’s serious intended but theatrical staged "Coventry", which did not absorb me, and which is not one of his best. Finally Marcel Odenbach’s simple installation "Dem Augenzeugen im Bildwinkel stehen", about the position of the individual in history, about the past and the future for the past, but if this installation "succeeded" I can’t make out. It has to be seen once more.

Same people as last time …
The newest development is the extensive use of computers in video installations - both when it comes to manipulating the digital video pictures but also to manage and control the installations and making them much more interactive than you would have thought possible just a few years ago. You could give many examples on this but let me just mention two video artists among others working in this direction: Gary Hill and Simon Biggs.

Video installations with perhaps many monitors and video tapedecks and other important/necessary technical equipment are very expensive to stage and the use of complicated digital equipment and computers makes it even more expensive and complicated to set up. You feel that very much in a small country like Denmark, and you have - with badly concealed envy - to look at the many installations at big international exhibitions... and at the same time, as referred to above, become a bit annoyed by the fact, that it most often is the same few internationally well known and "safe" artists on these exhibitions - even in Denmark.

On at the same time having a cake and eating it
It has been maintained that the most common video installation is the one, most people create when they place the tv-set in a corner of the living-room.

You might however I suppose say as Dorine Mignot points out in the catalogue "Het lumineuze beeld", that in contrast to look at the tv "at home",
"... when the space is entirely determined by the viewer, one steps inside a video installation, where both the image and the space are determined by the artist." (24)

This is probably an important trait/characteristics of video installations, and as Mignot says, this reduce the associations to the act of looking at tv and in this way also to the established patterns of expectations and blocks against new enlightments/experiences - something that is exactly a well known drawback when looking at video art on tapes.

In connection with this Peggy Gale emphasize in the American catalogue "Luminous Sites. 10 Video Installations" as an essential difference between a single tape and an installation, that
... while a single tape develops (moves forward) in time, a video installation work continues. It is cyclical in form rather than directional, repeating pre-recorded material ... or generating constantly-new live images in response to its programming or its environment ..."

She continues to say, that the addition of a third dimension to a video art work,
"... which in any case already contains the fourth, extension in time - through the addition of further monitors, structures, mises en scene, open the work to a new response. This experience takes place in OUR space, not "over there" in a two dimensional world of pictures. Video, with its glow-from-within, already suggests the sculptural HERE (as opposed to film's pictorial "there"), and video's  "furniture" existence (a a tv set) gives a mundaneness that is also "here", in every way". (25)

As yet another characteristics of video installations I will stop by referring to Vito Acconci in the catalogue of "Het lumineuze beeld". He points out, that video installations is a combination of contrasts/differences - or to put it in another way:
"Video installations is like having your cake and eating it too: On the one hand, "installation" places an art-work in a specific site, for a specific time (a specific duration and also, possibly, a specific historic time). On the other hand, "video" ... is placeless: at   least, its place can't be determined ... video installation, then places placelessness." (26)

Whether a video installation is like having a a cake and at the same time eating it, well, it is up to the individual to experience - and I will close this essay by asking/inviting everyone to experience this (also when it comes to my own video installations).

Torben Soeborg

See also Essay 20: Torben Søborg: SHIFT from Exhibition to Reflection: Some Personal Viewpoints on Video Art Installations,2003

Confer for instance the discussion in Edith Decker: Paik Video, Dumont, Cologne, 1988, p. 42 ff
2. Peter Frank: "Video Art Installations: the TV-environment" in Ira Schneider & Beryl Korot (edit): Video Art. An anthology, Harcourt          Brace Jonanovich, N.Y. 1978, p. 204
3. Nicolas de Oliveira, Nicola Oxley, Michael Petry: Installation Art, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1994, page 7
4. ibid, page 8
5. ibid., page 11
6. ibid., page 33
7. Madelon Hooykaas & Elsa Stansfield: 5 video environments, Argo Studio, Maastricht, 1979
8. Wulf Herzogenrath (Hrsg.): Videokunst in Deutschland 1963 - 1982, Verlag Gerd Hatje, Stuttgart, 1982
9. Wulf Herzogenrath und Edit Decker (Hrsg.): Video-Skulptur retrospektiv und aktuel 1963 - 1989, DuMont, Köln, 1989
10. Vittorio Fagone: "Licht, Materie und Zeit: Zwischen Videoinstallationen und Videoskulpturen" , in Herzogewnrathh und Decker,                                     op.cit., page 35ff
11. Hooykaas & Stansfield, op.cit., p. 3
12. Davidson Gigliotti: "Observations on the Scope of Multi-channel Video Work" in Schneider and Korot, op.cit., p. 24
13. See for instance Friedemann Malsch: "Das Verschwinden des Künstlers? Überlegungen zum Verhältnis von Performance und    
videoinstallation" in Herzogenrath und Decker, op.cit., p. 25ff
14. Peter Frank, op.cit., p. 209
15. See for instance an interview with Robert Smithson in Lucy Lippard: Six Years: The dematerialization of the Art Object, Studio
Vista, London 1973
16. Nicolas de Oliveira … o.m. page 35
17. ibid., page 35
18. ibid., page 7
19. Willoughby Sharp: "Nauman Interview" in Arts Magazine, USA, March 1970, p. 23
20. David Ross: "The Personal Attitude" in Ira Schneider & Beryl Korot (edit): Video Art. An anthology", N.Y. 1975, p. 247
21. Bettina Gruber & Maria Vedder (edit): Kunst und Video, Köln 1983, p. 116
22. Dieter Daniels: "Bildende Kunst und laufende Bilde" in Kunstforum, Bd. 77/78, Köln 1985, p. 39
23. Jörg Zutter: "Marie-Jo Lafontaine" in Marie-Jo Lafontaine. Les larmes d'acier, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel 1988
24. Dorine Mignot: "Inleiding/Introduction" in Dorine Mignot (edit): Het lumineuze beeld, Amsterdam u.å., p. 10
25. Peggy Gale: "ON/OFF" in Dania Augaitis & Karen Henry (edit): Luminous Sites. 10 Video Installations, Vancouver 1986, p. 14
26. Vito Acconci: "Television, furniture & sculpture: The room with the American View" in Dorine Mignot, op.cit., p. 20