Video Art | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Video Art

Twentieth-century video art is rooted in 19th-century science. It was the discovery of the cathode ray tube and the electron in 1897 which provided the basis for the electronic reproduction and transmission of images.

Video Art

Twentieth-century video art is rooted in 19th-century science. It was the discovery of the cathode ray tube and the electron in 1897 which provided the basis for the electronic reproduction and transmission of images. By 1951 it was possible to record images as well as sounds on magnetic tape (the Ampex 2´ tape). As early as 1963 Nam June Paik used television sets as elements of an installation, thus signalling the importance of television as symbol and as a means of shaping culture.

Video art was developed after the appearance on the market of the Sony Portapak around 1965. This allowed artists outside the commercial television industry to electronically produce, manipulate and record images and sounds. This low-cost, portable, easy to use equipment (camera and recorder, with almost no editing capability) was taken-up by artists and community organizers. Both groups were then able to produce "television" outside the ideological and format restrictions which applied to broadcast programs. Video activists, who used the medium as a tool for social and political consciousness raising, and video artists shared certain attitudes which flourished in the 1960s and 70s. They thought of themselves as contributing to the counter-culture - defined by left-wing political views and by adherence to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. For McLuhan electronic media were extensions of the human nervous system and, as such, shapers of collective ideas and attitudes. Video tapes produced by artists in the late 60s and early 70s reflected a new concern with process over product in conceptual art and performance.

From the beginning, the major centres for video art - Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, Halifax - have had different characteristics. Vancouver turned to video about 1969 to record performances and events associated with Intermedia (1967-71). In 1973 the Satellite Video Exchange Society was brought into being by the Matrix International Video conference held that year. It still operates as an artist-run video production and distribution organization, along with a sister organization known as the Western Front. Since 1976 the Western Front has operated an artist-in-residence program that has helped to produce some of the best work in video by Canadian and foreign artists.

In Toronto, video was introduced in 1970 through workshops for artists at A Space, the first Canadian artist-run video facility. This was followed by the establishment of Trinity Square Video in 1973. A Space video was separately incorporated as Charles Street Video in 1976 and has since tried to offer artists access to current video technology, first ¾´ colour shooting and editing capability, now sophisticated betacam recording with computerized editing and computer graphics.

In Montréal, video started at the National Film Board, where filmmakers experimented with it as a tool for social observation and reflection. In 1971, the first video centre in Canada was established, Le Vidéographe, as a project of the NFB's "Challenge for Change" program. By 1973, Le Vidéographe was incorporated as an independent video production, distribution and diffusion centre. In 1972 Vidéographe introduced a technical improvement by modifying a video tape recorder, thus allowing rudimentary editing capability. Also in 1972, Vehicule Art gallery started a program in video, buying some equipment to record performances and programming video art works. The gallery operated its video facility until 1980, when it became incorporated as Productions et réalisations indépendantes de Montréal (PRIM).

Video art in Halifax began in the late 1960s with the structuralist and formal works created at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The peak period of NSCAD's productions, both by teachers and students, was from 1971 to 1973. Although video continued to be produced at the college, supported by the work of artist and professor Jan Peacock, video art activities gradually came to centre around the Centre for Art Tapes established in 1978.

The Canada Council began to recognize video production in its granting program in the early 1970s. In 1982, the council established the Media Arts Section to develop and administer its program for video art productions, audio art, and computer electronic-media, as well as an assistance program for artist-run media production and distribution centres across Canada. It was also in the 1970s that many museums and art galleries started to exhibit videotapes by artists and video installations: the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal were among the first to consider video as an art medium. The National Gallery of Canada began a video collection in 1977 which has become the most important collection in Canada and among the important ones in the world today.


Video art defies attempts at definition because of its essential eclecticism. It draws from diverse art media as well as from communication and information theory. It has been associated with social movements and has evolved in relation to the increased access of artists to the state-of-the-art technologies. Any definition of video art must take into account the complex and creative tensions between video artist and video activist.

Video art in Vancouver has always blended artistic approaches with social radicalism, feminism, and minority politics to produce a unique documentary style. Works by Paul Wong, Kate Craig and Sara Diamond differ from one another but share an interest in documenting events, behaviors and social movements. Paul Wong, who with Kate Craig is among the first vidéo practitioners in Vancouver, produced Murder Research (co-directed by Kenneth Fletcher) in 1977, and Confused: Sexual Views in 1984. In the first he documented and reconstructed a murder through photographic images. In the second he dealt with sexual behaviour through confessions and life stories told by his own friends and acquaintances. Both were produced as single channel videotapes as well as multi-channel video and photo installations.

In 1988 Wong turned to minority politics, exploring his own identity as Chinese-Canadian with Ordinary Shadows, Chinese Shade, a documentary in direct cinema style which traces his journey to the People's Republic of China to visit his ancestorss village. Perhaps his most compelling work to date is a video installation, Chinaman's Peak, Walking the Mountain (1992). Set in a funerary room devoted to the death of his father and two friends who committed suicide, it deals with the themes of memory and history. References to the work and death of Chinese railway workers in Canada emerge through the Chinese ceremonies based on ancestor worship.

Kate Craig, who founded the artist-in-residence program in video at the Western Front in 1976, documented herself in Delicate Issue (1979) by filming her body in extreme close-up. In this work she explored notions of self and body, of the limit between the public and the private, while implicitly referring to the way in which women are objectified through media. Her more recent works, following travel to Japan and India, employ minimal video effects, such as matting and repetition, to suggest that we observe foreign cultures through a process of abstraction.

Sara Diamond's first video was inspired by the death of her mother. The Influences of my Mother (1982) was followed by the installation Heroics (1984), the video Ten Dollars or Nothing (1989) and the television production The Lull Before the Storm (1991). Her work is marked by a more formal approach to history and documentary than the others, probably due to her academic background in history. Her most achieved work to date is the multi-channel and 8 monitor installation Patternity (1990), in which she uses confessions to explore her father's memories as a New York Jew involved in the union movements of the early parts of this century. This complex installation, combining photographic and textual elements with video, is like the earlier works in that it relies on story telling to detect the patterns in the past. The double t in the title is intentional.

As video centres, Toronto and Halifax were both dominated in the 1970s by formal issues pertaining to modernism in the visual arts, particularly self-reflexiveness and structuralism. But in the 1980s artists who had been concerned with self-exploration and self-representation began to turn towards social issues such as minority politics and censorship. The work of Lisa Steele illustrates this transformation. Her early works, like A Very Personal Story (1974) or Facing South (1975), employ narrative forms and first-person story-telling to explore the relationship between the internal world of perceptions and the external world of nature and society. In her later works the point of view of the artist is either stereotyped to achieve a particular effect or downplayed. The Gloria Tapes (1979-1980) represents disenfranchised women in a soap-opera format while Legal Memory (1991) is a fairly traditional fiction based on the facts of a court case involving the Canadian military and gay men.

Colin Campbell's work also illustrates many video artists' use of their medium to look inwards. In his "Woman from Malibu" series (1976), he explores notions of truth and falseness and the influences of media culture and artificiality on the self.

In her video art, Vera Frenkel constantly searches out the border between reality and fiction, facts and fantasies. She questions notions of authenticity and falseness. In works like The Secret Life of Cornelia Lumsden (1979) or Her Room in Paris (1979), Frenkel addresses issues of mythic constructions in media and culture. ...from the Transit Bar, first presented at the Documenta in Kassel, Germany in 1992, fuses documentary and aesthetic concerns. While documenting the late 20th-century problem of minorities and migrant culture, she employs confession and story-telling to open up timeless issues having to do with the transitory nature of memory and the persistent problem of the outsider in society.

Television makes use of many techniques which have been appropriated by video artists - addressing viewers directly, for example, or restricting the image to a talking head. Video artists employ these techniques to highlight the fact that meaning in language is always mediated. Television formats devised for the news, documentary, soap operas and for the "téléroman " in Québec have all been employed in video. General Idea, a group of 3 multi-media artists who publish File magazine, have been the most astute in using television formats to question the place of art and artists in society. Starting with Pilot (1977), produced for TVOntario, and followed by Test Tube (1979), Loco (1982) and Shut the F--k up (1985), all their important tapes were produced to be broadcast. General Idea uses video as a tool for cultural criticsm, challenging society's mediatized constructions of art and artist.

In Québec, video art has developed differently from its English Canadian counterpart. In the 1970s it was concerned with social activism. Since the 1980s video artists' works have rather been concerned with personal and formal issues relating to contemporary literature, new narratives, and new figuration in painting. Direct cinema, a technique employed in the 60s by filmmakers such as Perreault and Groulx from the French unit of the National Film Board, has been an important influence on video artists. Two works from Vidéographe which came out in the early 70s represent this influence. Continuons le combat (1971), by Pierre Falardeau, is an ironic documentary in which the commentary accompanying a professional wrestling match analyses the match as a social ritual. The real subject of this documentary is Québec society. Falardeau's voice, which shifts from theoretical discourse to humorous or sarcastic comment, accompanies images shot in "direct cinema" style.

Hitch-Hiking (1972), by Frank Vitale, explores the notion of "real time" by shooting 20 minimally edited minutes of sound and images. In it, Vitale documents his hitch-hiking trip across New York State - getting picked up on the road, jumping a train and being given a ticket by the police. This last scene is rendered as a hilarious discourse on art and the law.

The work of Robert Morin and Lorraine Dufour, who participated in founding the Coop Vidéo de Montréal in 1976, represents the acme of direct cinema. Along with their Co-op colleague Jean-Pierre St Louis, Morin and Dufour demonstrate through their work that direct cinema is still just a reading or a construction of reality. But their work is also ironic in that it formally undermines its own narrative content. For example, Fait divers: Elle remplace son mari par une TV (1982), by St-Louis and Linda Craig, generate doubts in the viewers' minds as to whether their narrative is fiction or documentary, thus illustrating the ambiguous status of mediated events.

In Le voleur vit en enfer (1982), Robert Morin employs heavy irony in his false documentary about an alienated filmmaker who phones a help line. The protagonist narrates the story in the first person while the images point towards the poverty of his environment and the degree to which his reality is shaped by imagination and fantasies. Morin's preference for portraying marginal characters and misfits is most powerfully realized in La Reception (1989), based on Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. In this tape Morin questions our ability to comprehend any reality outside ourselves. The tape ends with the "death" of the cameraman and the shutting off of the camera by the last character about to commit suicide.

A minor trend in the evolution of video art is that which deals with the aesthetic qualities of the electronic image. Two Canadians who have explored the electronic nature of video - producing what has been labelled "image synthesis" or "image processed video" - are Jean-Pierre Boyer of Montréal and Calgary-born Ernest Gusella. Between 1972 and 1975 Boyer produced a series of videotapes in which the electronic music of Pierre Henry and Jean-Claude Risset was made to generate the forms which made up the visual content of the tape. Gusella worked between 1970 and 1974 on the relationship between electronic sound and image, using electronic devices such as audio and video synthesizers. These abstract video works have not yet attracted a great following.

Montréal's Neam Cathod and the Département d'entraînement à l'insanite constitute a group of multimedia artists with a strong background in electronic music and an interest in generating and manipulating sound and image. In Blind Light (1982), the sounds and images of television are treated as noise, becoming more and more annoying as they are layered to a point of loud cacophony. In Danlkû (1989) noise is built up by layering found images of many sorts, resulting in an information overload that has violent effects on the viewer. These works constitute a critique of the media and of the information age. Using the technique of collage, they portray the world as one where the media encourages images to proliferate and sounds to become mere noise.

New Directions

The 1980s and 1990s were marked by the influence of the computer on video art. Computer editing, image manipulation and graphics are only some of the techniques that have influenced video. Most video centres in Canada now consider themselves electronic media centres. For example, Western Front in Vancouver and PRIM in Montréal have become multimedia organizations with state-of-the-art technologies in audio, video and computer media. Nowadays, centres for artists in media arts - audio, video and information media - are found in cities as dissimilar as Québec City, Igloolik, Calgary and Winnipeg.

Video art now has to be approached within the broader context of what is known as media art; ie, art that uses modern communication technologies. Today, artists produce their works with the help of digital technology. New avenues of artistic exploration open up with each new technical invention. Among the most important information-media artists are Luc Courchesne, who creates interactive portraits and landscapes; David Rokeby, known for his "Very Nervous System" from the 1980s and, more recently, his "Giver of Name"; Catherine Richards, whose works rely on electromagnetic devices, notably the cathode tube and its variants; and finally, Char Davies, who invites the viewer to put on a visualization cap and a jacket with sensors for a trip to the virtual and poetic world.