As opposed to film and theatrical cinema, video art is a subset of artistic works which relies on "moving pictures" and is comprised of video and/or audio data. The precise medium of storing this data is variable and at the discretion of the artist; the medium of storage is usually magnetic video tape although the data may also be stored as a computer file (or files) on a hard disk or CD-ROM, or on film. (NOTE: There is some debate about the use of film. Film is expensive and requires a certain technical expertise, both of which were reasons for the harsh criticism many early video artists aimed at that medium.)
One of the key differences between video art and theatrical cinema is that video art does not rely on many of the conventions that define theatrical cinema. Video art does not necessarily use actors, may not contain dialogue, may have no discernible narrative or plot, or adhere to any of the other comfortable conventions that construct cinema as entertainment. This distinction is important because it delineates video art not only from cinema but also from the sub-categories where those definitions may become muddy (as in the case of avant garde or short films). Perhaps the simplest, most straightforward defining distinction in this respect would then be to say that cinema's ultimate goal is to entertain (i.e., to get someone to watch the film) whereas video art's intentions are more varied -- be they to simply explore the boundaries of the medium itself (e.g., Peter Campus, "Double Vision") or to rigorously attack the viewer's expectations of video as shaped by conventional cinema (e.g., Joan Jonas, "Organic Honey's Vertical Roll").
Video art is said to have begun when Nam June Paik used his new Sony Portapak to shoot footage of Pope Paul VI's procession through New York City. That same day, across town in a Greenwich Village cafe, Paik played the tapes and (so legend goes) video art was born. Prior to the introduction of the Sony Portapak, motion picture technology was only available to the consumer (or the artist for that matter) by way of 8mm film -- which was not only more expensive but did not provide the instant playback that video tape technologies offered. Consequently, many artists found video more appealing than film -- even more so when the greater accessibility was coupled with the technologies with which it could be combined. The two examples mentioned above both made use of "low tech tricks" to produce seminal video art works. Peter Campus' "Double Vision" combined the video signals from two Sony Portapaks through an electronic mixer, resulting in a distorted and radically dissonant image. Jonas' "Organic Honey's Vertical Roll" involved recording previously recorded material as it was played back on a television -- with the vertical hold setting intentionally in error. Video art saw its heyday during the 1960s and 1970s and although it continues to be produced, it is most frequently combined with other media and is subsumed by the greater whole of an installation (see installation art) or performance (see performance art).
Notable artists that have contributed to video art include:
- Vito Acconci
- Peter Campus
- Tony Conrad
- Joan Jonas
- Paul McCarthy
- Bruce Nauman
- Nam June Paik
- Bill Viola
For more information, consult New Media in Late 20th-Century Art by Michael Rush (Thames & Hudson, 1999).