Series Description

 
The Electric Mirror: Reflecting on Video Art in the 1970s
Curated by Robyn Farrell | 1972 – 1978 | TRT 1:41:56

On Screen
Video Details
Lynda Benglis | 1972 | 07:52 | United States | English | B&W | 4:3

First recognized for her work in poured latex and foam, cinched metal, and dripped wax in the 1960s, Lynda Benglis later used her own body/image to layer and multiply the seduction of the screen in many of her video works. In On Screen, we first see television “snow” or static on a television screen. The camera adjusts to show the entire TV set, and moments later Benglis enters the frame of the screen. The artist pulls at the sides of her cheeks and makes a face at the camera that is also seen on the monitor. Benglis positions herself so the image repeats in an infinite manner. The repetition of image and sound creates a sequential order of information, albeit confused and muffled by the collaged feed of Benglis in a multiple layers on screen.

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On Screen
Video Details
Lynda Benglis | 1972 | 07:52 | United States | English | B&W | 4:3

First recognized for her work in poured latex and foam, cinched metal, and dripped wax in the 1960s, Lynda Benglis later used her own body/image to layer and multiply the seduction of the screen in many of her video works. In On Screen, we first see television “snow” or static on a television screen. The camera adjusts to show the entire TV set, and moments later Benglis enters the frame of the screen. The artist pulls at the sides of her cheeks and makes a face at the camera that is also seen on the monitor. Benglis positions herself so the image repeats in an infinite manner. The repetition of image and sound creates a sequential order of information, albeit confused and muffled by the collaged feed of Benglis in a multiple layers on screen.

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TV In and TV Out
Video Details
Keith Sonnier | 1972 | 12:54 | United States | English | Color | 4:3

“The measure of Sonnier’s color video tapes is not the extent to which he extends painterly values, though there is some continuity there, but the extent to which he defines the surface, space, and color of the material of video.”[1] TV In and TV Out superimposes images shot from network television and shots from a studio performance. This is a prime example of Sonnier’s experiments with the formal properties of computer-generated video by using a Scanimate computer. This video lends itself to the desire of artists to exploit feedback and manipulate TV’s technical system.


[1] Bruce Kurtz, “Video Is Being Invented,” Arts Magazine (Dec./Jan. 1973)

 

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Dressing Up
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Susan Mogul | 1973 | 07:27 | United States | English | B&W | 4:3

Susan Mogul works in photography, performance, and installation art, but is best known for her autobiographical and diaristic videos. Dressing Up is an early work by the artist, where she directly addresses the camera/audience with a monologue about her shopping conquests, while eating corn nuts. As the tape records, Mogul completes a reverse striptease, with incredible deadpan humor. The artist drew inspiration from her mother’s penchant for bargain hunting, and produced the video as a student in the feminist art program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1973. In this video, Mogul offers a wry alternative to growing trends in video art and television. Like male counterparts such as Vito Acconci, Mogul presents herself to the viewer, revealing aspects of her body and identity, but offers an additional layer of social critique. The performance itself upends the typical television talk show format, mocking the norms of female conversation.

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Massage Chair
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William Wegman | 1973 | 01:54 | United States | English | B&W | 4:3

“I thought perhaps you’d like to see a demonstration of the new massage chair that we just got in. It — the reason for its  — it looks revolutionary, it doesn’t look really like a typical massage chair, and that’s because I think Mies van der Rohe had a part, or at least he was a consultant, to the firm that designed this…”. William Wegman opens the video short titled Massage Chair with this grand statement to describe what looks like an ordinary plastic chair. At first the artist’s head is cut from the frame, but he eventually sits down to “demonstrate” the extraordinary qualities of the chair. One of the works on Selected Works: Reel 3, produced during 1972-73, and re-mastered in 2005 when several newly available titles were added. Although this work does not feature his dog and video companion Man Ray, it is a humorous example of the artist’s penchant for skit parody, poking fun at television ads and infomercials.

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Going Around in Circles
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Nancy Holt | 1973 | 15:40 | United States | English | B&W | 4:3

Although best known for her earthworks and public sculpture, Nancy Holt contributed an immense catalogue of video work beginning in 1968. In Going Around In Circles, Holt placed a board with five circular holes in front of the camera. Throughout the video, Holt covers and uncovers the holes to reveal five people performing a set of activities that includes whirling around in circles and walking between five points on the ground. Holt can be heard discussing the performed action with the actors on screen. Here Holt continues her interest in experience and perception, as controlled by the camera’s point of view. Her use of props, performance, and playback mirrors studio productions of Joan Jonas, but enacting them live outdoors brings a sense of scale and spontaneity that artists’ familiar with land art often explored.

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Inventory
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John Baldessari | 1972 | 24:28 | United States | English | Color | 4:3

John Baldessari has demonstrated a lasting interest in language and semantics, articulating these concerns through the use of puns, or the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images and words. He has defied formalist categories by working in a variety of media — films, video, print, photography, text, drawing — most commonly associated with Conceptual or Minimalist art. “In Baldessari’s wonderful Inventory, the artist presents to the camera for thirty minutes an accumulation of indiscriminate and not easily legible objects arranged in order of increasing size and accompanied by a deadpan description — only to have the sense of their relative size destroyed by the continual readjustment of the camera [in order to] keep them within the frame. Who can forget Adlai Stevenson’s solemn television demonstration of the ‘conclusive photographic evidence’ of the Cuban missile sites, discernible over the TV screen as only gray blurs?”[1]


[1] David Antin, “Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium"

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Three Grizzlies
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Simone Forti | 1974 | 17:05 | United States | English | B&W | 4:3

In this rare video, Forti remains behind the camera as she observes three grizzly bears in their cage at the Brooklyn Zoo. The bears roam around anxiously within their confined space while we hear children’s squeals and tourists talking in the background. This juxtaposition presents simultaneous restriction and freedom provided by the camera frame. Forti first began watching animals in zoos while living abroad in Italy; she recorded them on videotape and later adopted their movements in her performances. This work not only shows an artist using the camera as a research tool, but plays on the genres of documentary and nature programs. The collected visual information becomes part of the basis for Forti's movements in Solo No. 1.

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Lightning
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Paul & Marlene Kos | 1976 | 01:40 | United States | English | B&W | 4:3

One of the founders of the Bay Area Conceptual Art movement in California, Paul Kos is recognized as a conceptual artist and early innovator of video art. Since the 1970s, Kos has produced a significant catalogue of video work; many of the works from his early period were made in collaboration with his then-wife, Marlene. In Lightning, we see Marlene inside a car with her back to the windshield and open road. She continually looks behind her, saying, "When I look for the lightning, it never strikes. When I look away, it does." Like Kos’s other works from this period, this video focuses on observation of natural phenomena. This work and others ask if observation changes the course of events, or if they would happen anyway.

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Arbitrary Fragments
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Barbara Aronofsky Latham | 1978 | 12:56 | United States | English | Color | 4:3

Barbara Aronofsky Latham was a Chicago-based experimental video artist whose work traversed across autobiographical, narrative, and political content. Latham was on the board of directors at Chicago's Center for New Television, and was head of the video department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1978 until her untimely death in 1984. With an interest in storytelling, female identity, and technological experiment, Latham worked against the standard role for video and television production. In Arbitrary Fragments, Latham suggests that video itself is inherently fragmented. To produce an effect of fabricated stories or “lies”, the artist layered manipulated and over-processed imagery, including an image of herself —what Latham referred to as “the construction of her video personality,” as an identity outside of herself.

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In 1978, artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson wrote that, “Much of the urgency and inspiration of art video emanates from various types of commercial television broadcasting.” Included in Gregory Battock’s critical anthology, New Artists Video, Hershman Leeson’s essay “Reflections on the Electric Mirror” identified TV genres that influenced video artists, and declared video as “a manifestation of contemporary art.” She went on to describe video as “the extracted film of television,” and pointed to the relations between the nascent medium and television as inextricably linked, citing former CBS news executive Sig Mickelson’s view that “television mirrors reality” to illustrate video’s simultaneous tie to and revolt against “the electric mirror.” If mid-Century American television mirrored reality, then American video artists obscured and abstracted it. Taking inspiration from Hershman Leeson’s essay, this program concentrates on work from the first decade of American video art and focuses on artists that were influenced by and who pushed against the televisual impulse. The works in this program — by Lynda Benglis, Joan Jonas, Keith Sonnier, Susan Mogul, William Wegman, Nancy Holt, John Baldessari, Simone Forti, Paul and Marlene Kos, and Barbara Aronofsky Latham — derive from television both technologically and culturally, and serve as a catalogue of early experimentation with and in the closed circuit system. This is not to say that television was the sole antecedent of video art, but rather a critical relative to the developing medium. Representing the first generation that grew up with television, the artists included in this program were keenly aware of a viewer’s social and psychological experience while watching TV. Their collective works encompass the interests of this “TV generation,” and at the same time, the post-war, post-pop proclivities of a changing art landscape that ranged from minimal representation and captured action, to technophilic inquiry and appropriation. Together these videos represent artistic efforts that rechanneled a medium and its vapid promise of normative reality or neutral viewing.

Continue reading Robyn Farrell's essay The Electric Mirror: Reflecting on Video Art in the 1970s


Robyn Farrell is a Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Previously, Farrell was Assistant Director at Donald Young Gallery (Chicago) and Program Assistant for Conversations at the Edge (CATE), a weekly screening series organized by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in collaboration with the Video Data Bank, and the Gene Siskel Film Center. Farrell has spoken widely on contemporary art and time-based media at institutions and conferences, including the University of Chicago, New York University, and the College Art Association Annual Conference. She has curated exhibitions and screenings locally and nationally, in 2014 Farrell presented the first program of work by television and video art pioneer Gerry Schum at the Graham Foundation in Chicago and Electronic Arts Intermix in New York.

Featured titles

On Screen

"Benglis manipulates generations of video footage to confound our sense of time; she implies an infinite regression of time and space — Benglis making faces in front of a monitor of her making faces in front of a monitor of her... ad infinitum. The viewer retains a sense of the images sequentiality, although the sequence of creation is not revealed in a logical, orderly fashion, and is heavily obscured by the random layering and continual repetition of aural and visual components."

TV In and TV Out

In Sonnier’s video tape TV In and TV Out, two images are superimposed, one shot off network television and the other shot from a studio performance situation involving some of the materials and visual qualities of his sculptures. This live image is colorized by a device which adds color to a black and white image and in turn manipulates the color. Colorized color is more opaque and less three-dimensionally tactile than synthesized color, but it is tactile in its video scan-line texture.

Dressing Up

A reverse striptease, non-stop comedic monologue about shopping for clothes, while eating corn nuts. Dressing Up was inspired by the artist’s mother’s penchant for bargain hunting. Mogul produced Dressing Up as a student in the feminist art program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1973.

Massage Chair

“I thought perhaps you’d like to see a demonstration of the new massage chair that we just got in. It — the reason for its — it looks revolutionary, it doesn’t look really like a typical massage chair, and that’s because I think Mies van der Rohe had a part, or at least he was a consultant, to the firm that designed this…”. William Wegman opens the video short titled Massage Chair with this grand statement to describe what looks like an ordinary plastic chair. At first the artist’s head is cut from the frame, but he eventually sits down to “demonstrate” the extraordinary qualities of the chair. 

Going Around in Circles

Going Around In Circles continues Holt's interest in perception and point of view. A board with five circular holes is placed in front of the camera. The holes are covered and uncovered to reveal five people enacting a set of activities that involves walking between five spots and turning in circles. A discussion takes place between the artist and several of the "performers" which addresses the various physicalities of the action: the experience of being on the ground, watching the actions take place through the prop, and through the playback monitor, as well as notions of scale, and the chance happenings that take place within any system.

Inventory

“In Baldessari’s wonderful Inventory, the artist presents to the camera for thirty minutes an accumulation of indiscriminate and not easily legible objects arranged in order of increasing size and accompanied by a deadpan description — only to have the sense of their relative size destroyed by the continual readjustment of the camera [in order to] keep them within the frame. Who can forget Adlai Stevenson’s solemn television demonstration of the ‘conclusive photographic evidence’ of the Cuban missile sites, discernible over the TV screen as only gray blurs?”

Three Grizzlies

Forti uses the camera as a research tool to record the movements of three grizzly bears pacing anxiously behind the bars of their cage in the Brooklyn Zoo. The collected visual information becomes part of the basis for Forti's movements in Solo No. 1.

Paul Kos & Marlene Kos, Lightning

When I look for the lightning, it never strikes. When I look away, it does. Filmed inside a car, this tape focuses on observation of natural phenomena, presenting the obverse of the, "If a tree falls in the woods..." conundrum. Does observation change the course of events? Can you believe in things you don't see? In this experiment, the camera occupies a privileged position — showing the woman and what she sees, as well as what she cannot see.

Arbitrary Fragments

Using highly-manipulated and over-processed images, Latham investigates the process of video as inherently fragmented. Weaving together various people’s impressions of the artist and her work, the work demonstrates important parallels between video, storytelling, and the formation of identity — all processes of active fabrication that blend “lies” and truth in the construction of a certain reality, history, or past. Labeling an image of herself talking as “her most recent explanation,” Latham addresses “the construction of her video personality” as an identity outside of herself.

Resources

Electric Mirror Essay