When video-recording equipment became commercially available in the 1960s, a new art medium was born. Perhaps television and cinema are the best and most interesting expressions of recorded imagery, with screenwriters and directors being some of the most compelling, if not the most popular, artists of the twentieth century, but other artists—those who went to art school and showed their work in galleries—adopted film and video with equal energy. In 1973 Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman’s bought some airtime and broadcast “Television Delivers People,” a scrolling set of truisms that derided the viewing public as a bunch of complacent nitwits. “You are the product of t.v.” ran one criticism, coupled with ironically chipper public-service-announcement music. Such reactionary work ran counter to the massively popular dramas and sitcoms broadcast each evening, but it’s no wonder since contemporary academic art of the time was in the throes of being challenging, critical and “conceptual.” Video was quickly folded into the avant-garde regime at a time when painting was deemed too conventional.
While Serra and Schoolman’s “Television Delivers People” thought it was working to upset its viewers, and Martha Rosler thought she was invigorating the political dialogue with her ultra-serious odes to feminism, they both failed to do anything except find a home in the academic library—the furthest place from the site they wished to challenge—the middle-class living room. It was Vito Acconci who took the challenge to truly upset audiences to heart—and today his videos still succeed at making squeamish graduate students uncomfortable in their seminar class seats. In one sixteen-minute shot his fingers try to pry open a woman’s closed eyelids. Sometimes he is seen pointing and staring at the (implied) viewer, or mumbling a sexual encounter as his hands do something near his lap, hidden under a table.
That these artists didn’t reach mainstream success seems a missed opportunity since film and video was made for mass consumption. Many artists preferred to use video as a performance-art prosthetic, or treated its black-and-white aesthetic as a formal concern, or played with it as a high-tech extension of the eye. Such early experiments obsessed over the technical intricacies of the medium in spite of its inherent capacity to tell a story.
In the 1970s, recording a video meant using a camera in addition to a VCR and accompanying television. All this equipment was necessary, but it was also considered mobile. In 1976 Charlemagne Palestine celebrated the medium’s (relative) mobility by strapping it all to his motorcycle and recording a joy ride around an island. Whereas today a camera with a built-in monitor is a luxury feature, in the early decades the television monitor was a necessity, a closed-circuit. So when we see Vito Acconci staring menacingly into our eyes, remember that he’s also staring at his own live reflection. (Jason Foumberg)