(the essay for catalogue f the exhibition " videologue, a brief report on Japanese video art" in ZeroStation space, HCMC, Vietnam, May 2011 )
A brief outline of video art history
There have been two ways in tracing of the birth of video art. The first is to consider it as a sudden event, an invention that was carried out by some individual artists. This way takes the role of artist to so high a position that makes them the original Fathers of video art, and these fathers so far have been often considered as Nam Jun Paik, an American artist, and Wolf Vorstel, a German artist. Consequently, the historical moment of the birth of video art has also often been considered as the year of1963, when Nam Jun Paik and Wolf Vorstel had a first video show in Gallery Parnasse at Wuppertal, as well as the year of 1964, when the first television show aiming to experimenting images was broadcasted by WGBH-TV in the program “Broadcast Jazz Workshop” (1)
Nam June Paik in 1963
The other view sees the birth of video art not as a (sort of) sudden event happening incidentally in history of art. This view bases upon a thorough study on political and social contexts of times and proposes a perspective that the birth of video art is a necessary event that does not depend at all on any individual “genius” artist. The birth of video art, for this view, is only a consequence of a particular social, cultural and political context. A typical opinion for this view may be presented clearly and fully in what Hermin has said in the essay “Where Do We Come From? Where Are We? We Are We Going?” in Video Art: An Anthology, edited by Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot (2)
“The Portapak would seem to have been invented specifically for use by artists. Just when pure formalism had run its course; just when it became politically embarrassing to make objects, but ludicrous to make nothing; just when many artists were doing performance works but had nowhere to perform, or felt the need to keep a record of their performance; just when it began to seem silly to ask the same old Berkleean question, “If you build a sculpture in the desert where no one can see it, does it exist ?; just when it became clear that TV communicates more information to more people that large walls do; just when we understood that in order to define space it is necessary to encompass time; just when many established ideas in other disciplines were being questioned and new models were proposed-just then the portapak became available”
As a reader, to me, both views do not conflict each other, but can be the supplements for each other. Here, the latter is a contextual interpretation while the former is a study on fact. The point here is that, a fact can only become a historical moment if and only if it arrives its raison d’être in reality, which means it is completely secured by the full acceptance of the context where it emerges. The philosopher Arthur C. Danto has interestingly analyzed the relationship between context and fact in his essay “Master Narratives and Critical Principles” where he had raised a hypothesis of the “Chinese artists living in Qing who knew about the perspective from the missionary painter Father Castiglione, but who felt that there was no room in their artistic agenda for its assimilation” (3). This, I think, is the typical case of a fact that could not become a historical moment
The exhibition "Videologue, a brief report on Japanese video art" in ZeroStation
The quote from Hermin’s essay may also show us very well that one of the most important motivations for the birth of video art was the deconstructionist enforcement spreading all over society and presented very well in the practices of all artists who at that time lost all of their illusions of an isolated land of art where art objects are supposed containing only aesthetic and formalist messages. These artists, who “in early of 1960s had believed in the promise of America” (4), now “lost their faith and became increasingly contemptuous of conventional society” (5). They found in themselves “a disgust with the past, coupled with a loss of faith in the future” (6). It was these artists who saw in video art a useful device which can help them “to participate in media culture in a way previously impossible to single artists and to counter the power of commercial television” (7), which to them are only the lies with only a purpose to “manipulate, exploit, control collective public mind” (8)
In other words, video art, from its birth, contained in its very Being the power of de-constructing all modern mythologies, which is the most essential power of art practice in the critical era of postmodern time
Another point should be noticed here is that, for Rosaline Krauss, video art “proclaimed the end of medium-specificity” (9). The video recording device is not a medium in terms of what we have understood of art medium so far. It is not a substance such as oil paint, earth, or even a body of artists to which the artists, by their talent, manipulate physically in order to form the objects. Oppositely, all of what the camera does is to only record objectively reality. Because of that, it is possible to speak that video art is the form of art where the very concept of artist will be highly valuable. And this is another reason for the importance of video art in contemporary art
An art form without medium-specificity also means that video art will be impossible to be categorized in formalist styles or periods. However, along with its practical development it has been separated by Frank Popper into some different practical and conceptual domains as below.
“Thus there appear to be at least six different kinds of practices in video art: 1) the use of technological means in order to generate visual imagery, including formal research into plastic elements; 2) the considerable range of recording Conceptual Art actions or happenings, often concentrated on the artist’s body itself; 3) “guerilla video”; 4) the combination of video cameras and monitors in sculptures, environments and installation; 5) live performances and communication works involving the use of video; 6) and lastly, combinations of advanced technological research, most often of video with computer.(10)
Similar with Frank Popper in categorizing video art not in terms of formalist styles but in terms of its practical characteristics, Michael Rush, in seeing video art as the art of time, has pointed one of its vital characteristic; the characteristic of creating “new ways of telling story”. For him:
“In its early days, it was the “real time” that interested artists; video, unprocessed and unedited, could capture time as it was being experienced, right here and now, indoors or outdoors. Today’s artists are interested in manipulating time, breaking the barriers between past, present and future”. This endeavor of breaking time is often aided by using “large-scale installation” with many screens in order to establish at the same time “ multiple layers of time” in the same space. (11)
Video art in Vietnam
In his book, “Video art”, Michael Rush, in analyzing of the popular status of video art in Western world, has stressed several elements. But the most important condition for him is the cheap price for a portable camcorder in Germany and America, only around 1000-3000USD compared with 10.000-20.000 USD for a professional one (his book was published in 2007). (12)
In reality, the price of 1000-3000USD might be reasonable for a Western artist but seems unaffordable for many Vietnamese artists who are living and working in a country where the average GDP for a person in 2010 is only 1.160 USD (the information is from electric financial website) (13). This is not to take into account the cost of other supplement device for making a video work such as computer (laptop) or professional editing sound and moving image software.
In my essay “Video Art in Vietnam: A brief report” for the catalogue of the exhibition “A Video, An Art, A History”, co-organized and co-curated by Centre Pompidou, Paris and Singapore Art Museum in the this year, 2011 (14), in explaining the absence of Vietnam’s video art in the international contemporary art stages, especially in comparison with other forms of art such as performance and/or installation art, the financial reason is one of my points.
The exhibition "Videologue, a brief report on Japanese video art" in ZeroStation
However, the financial reason is something that an artist can still (somehow) overcome once s/he really wants.. In 1998, one Vietnamese artist, Tran Luong, still found the way to make his first video work “Flow” by asking for help from his friends who work in Vietnam Television Station. Hence, the more profound reason to me is that in a long period, since the early of 1990s (the birthday of Vietnamese new media art) up to recent days (around 2007), Vietnamese artists had very few opportunites to watch and then, learn from good video works from international artists
It is in the circumstance of, on the one hand, in all universities in Vietnam responsible for educating art there are not any educational program designed for teaching contemporary art in general and video art in particular; on the other hand there is very few opportunities for local artists to watch good video works from international artists, - that even though since 2002-2004, in Hanoi there were some projects or workshops on video art (15), and, as mentioned above, there was a video work (by Tran Luong) was made in 1998, the emergence, both quantity and quality, of Vietnam video artists has been more than weak, both in Vietnam and in international stage.
In my opinion, this reason leads to the fact that many local Vietnamese artists still have so a vague knowledge of video art until recent that they either imagine it to be very difficult in terms of a technology, or too simple in terms of a medium to be manipulated hand-madely. This was demonstrated clearly in my interviews (with the purpose to write the above essay) with many local Vietnamese artists who had participated in some video workshops and projects in Hanoi in the period 2002-2004, but now stop working on video works. About the reason, one artist said that after visiting Europe, he felt he should stop working video work because he saw many “sublime” video works there. By the word “sublime”, he meant both the technologically complicated process of manipulating moving images and the physical large-scales of many video works. He thinks, even if trying his best, his works still can not arrive at the same quality as those works he saw in Europe.(16)
Reason for “Videologue, a bried report from Japanese video Art”
I have been obsessed with many question for a long time by this artist’s way of thinking on video art. Is the “technology” the true barrier that blocks local Vietnamese artists to make video works? On one hand, the answer could be “yes”. It is so true that in Vietnam, there is not a good “technological environment” for artists who want to work in the domain of moving images in comparison with that of Western artists. And it is even more true that in Vietnam the expectation of an artist will full education on video art in an art school is sort of impossible one. To take an example, even at present, if an artist wants to have license to exhibit her video work, s/he will face with a confusing situation of not knowing where is the exact place that her application for that license should go, either Cinema department which is responsible for giving or not giving license for all cinema products to be screened, or Culture and Sports and Tourism department, which is responsible for giving or not giving license for all artistic products to be shown. This situation signifies very well the fact that, in Vietnam now, video art has still not been accepted administratively and institutionally yet. And this fact explains well the reason why, even until recent days, in all Vietnamese art universities, there has been not any official departments of video art in particular, and contemporary art in general because its essence lies at its very inter-and/or trans-discipline.
However, on the other hand, the answer could be “no”. With the rapid growth of internet users in recent years [according to Asia Digital Marketing website, up to 2007, the population using internet in Vietnam went high enough to make Vietnam number 17th on the top 20 nations of highest internet users (they account for 80% of the world’s internet users) (17), and with the fact that Vietnam now (and China, of course) is still considered as one of the “heavens” for cheap DVDs of computer software, the argument that “technology” is sort of a barrier blocking video art practice of local Vietnamese artist seems not so stable. In reality, with only around 50 USD, in Vietnam, we can buy a full version of some professional computer software for editing moving images, such as Final Cut Pro (The original price of a full final cut pro software is 1700USD!). Besides, the market for used cameras or camcorders in Vietnam is more than well developed, so if not being affordable for a new camcorder, an artist could buy the used one with more acceptable prices. All these facts seem to be very convincing proofs to defend the arguments that the “technology” is the obstacle for local Vietnamese artists in working with video art.
a discussion on contemporary art in general with students from Social sciences and humanity University in ZeroStation after they visit the exhibition "Videologue, a brief report on Japanese video art"
So what is the reason? Besides other grounds such as the lack of professional screening spaces or the difficulty in having license for exhibiting video work, which I think artists can overcome by many alternative ways, I still think that the main reason for the un-readiness of local Vietnamese artists in working with video art is the lack of information about contemporary art in general and about video art in particular. Someone may ask the question that, if there is a lack of contemporary art information on the part of local Vietnamese artists, why so far there are still many of them practicing other forms of contemporary art, such as performance or installation art inside, and sometime outside Vietnam? In a sense, such questions are understandable. However, if we focus more to the essence of video art, in comparison with other art forms such as painting, sculptures, performance art, or installation art, we will find that the argument that local Vietnamese artist is in need of information is not so untrue.
As having been mentioned in the first part of this essay, different with other forms of art, video art is a no-medium-specificity form of art, which locates its essence at the very concept of artists. Because of that, to “perceive/acquire” fully a video work in terms of being able acquiring and learning from it, there is only one way: to participate physically “in” its image, sound, and physical space. This, in a sense, is very similar with the highly different perceiving situations between watching movie in theater or at home with a computer. However, to me, the different perceiving situations between participating physically in a video art space with watching it in a small screen of a computer is even more extreme. For this reason, to have a general perception of a video work, one could watch it in a computer screen. However, to be able to acquire completely artistic, conceptual, and practical information of a video work, by which one can learn productively and creatively from that video work, it is no way if one can not have an opportunity to participate physically in its total space.
In my official art residency this year in Ruangrupa (18), a very active independent art space in Jakarta, Indonesia, I was introduced of the workshops on video art that Ruangrupa organized so far in accompanying with its biannual Jakarta International Video Festival, O.K., since 2003. In one of these international video workshops, Video Art center Tokyo participated with some video art pieces by Japanese young video artists.
Right after watching this series of video works, I know by my heart that this series of video works could be a very helpful answer for the way of thinking on video art by the Vietnamese artist I interviewed before. In a sense, this series of video wok by Japanese artists is not “sublime” in terms of the complication of technological or of displaying process. In fact, on the technological aspects, all of these works only use a more than simple technique of editing. However, what totally impressed me here is the sharply profound concepts of artists, which are conveyed successfully, and economically by the image world of all video works. It is clear that with these video works, the idea that video art must be something “sublime” and complication in process of displaying or making images, is even not so wrong, but not only one way to define video art (19)
All five video works together demonstrated very well that, with a video artist, the most vital part of the process of making a video work is to build a concept strong enough. After having a strong concept, there will be multiple ways to visualized it by manipulating moving images, but not necessary the way that makes it “sublime”
As artistic director of ZeroStation, an independent art space locating in HCMC with its main mission is to create more opportunities to work and to reflect critically for local Vietnamese young artists, I see that the exhibition of these video works by Japanese artists in our space in HCMC with purpose of sharing art materials will be a good idea. This exhibition will definitely introduce to local audience and artists a very smart and “cool” way to make a video work, which I guess accords very much to existing poor infrastructures for contemporary art in Vietnam
With this thinking in mind, I decided to ask artistic directors of Ruangrupa to borrow this series of video works to exhibit in our space, ZeroStation as a collaborating project between two spaces. It was more than lucky that artist friends running Ruangrupa, especially, Reaza, one of its artistic directors shared the same lines of thinking with me and help me very much to have these five video works exhibited in ZeroStation. I myself really hope that this exhibition with purpose to share art material with local audience and artists will be helpful, and if there is lucky enough, it could give local young artists the inspiration to make their own works.
Lastly, I would love to say thanks to Japan Foundation, Center for Culture Exchanging in Vietnam for the financial sponsor for this project.
(1) Frank Popper, Art in electric age, tr.54, Thames and Hudson, United States of America, 1997. However, seen from this view, German critic Friedeman Malsh, in the essay “Video and Art”, 1995, even traced back of the real father of video art in 1919, when Fedele Azari, in one of his manifesto, demanded of a “teatro totale” (total theater) where many large-scale screens are displayed together (quoted from Michael Rush, video art, p.14, Thames and Hudson, London, 2007)
(2) Quoted from Michael Rush, Video Art, p.13, Thames and Hudson, London, 2007.
(3) Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art, the pale of history, p.42, Princeton university press, princeton, New Jersey, 1997.
(4), (5),(6) Iving Sandler, The art of postmodern era, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, p.14, Westview press, United States of America, 1998).
(7) Michael Rush, Video Art, p.14, Thames and Hudson, London 2007.
(8) Quoted from Michael Rush, Video Art, p.16, Thames and Hudson, London, 2007.
(9) Rosaline Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (1999), p.31, Thames & Hudson,London, 2000.
(10) Frank Popper, Art in electric age, p.55, Thames and Hudson, United States of America, 1997.
(11) Michael Rush, Video Art, p.10, Thames and Hudson, London, 2007.
(12) Michael Rush, Video Art, p.7, Thames and Hudson, London, 2007.
(14) from 10 June to 18 September 2011 at Singapore Museum of Art, Singapore.
(15) For example the workshops between Vietnamese and Swiss artists in 2002 at Hanoi Center of Contemporary Art, or The Fairy Tales’ Soup Project, a video project organized in 2003 under the sponsor of British Council on the occasion of 30 year relation between the two nations and 10th anniversary of British Council in Vietnam.
(16) Unpublished interviews
(18) Ruangrupa website: www.ruangrupa.org
(19) There are many “sublime” video works up to now, especially those works are made by mixing video and cinema by which the boundaries between video art and cinema is broken. Typical here are Cremaster by Matthew Barney, 1999, or Zidane, a portrait of 21th century, 2006, by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno where both artists used 17 professional camera to follow all moves by Zidane in all 90 minutes of the soccer game between Real Madrid and Villareal, 2005.