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Video and the Afterlife: 

Millennial Thoughts on a New Medium

Deirdre Boyle

From Millennium Film Journal No. 35/36 (Fall 2000): The Millennium


We’ve been asked to consider the question “Is Video Art Dead?” and given three clues to help us: Magic, Memory, and Melancholy. I will pursue all three to arrive at my own roundabout answer. But I think I should explain something about myself: I became involved with video in the early ‘70s as a grad student in the first media studies program in this country, which also happens to be the one I still teach in today. I experimented with video feedback and documentary when video art embraced both impulses equally. I opted to become a video critic since all it would require in terms of technology was a typewriter. Little did I know what the future would hold! Roughly thirty years—and three computers—later, I find that my self-appointed role as critic of an avant-garde art movement has metamorphosed into that of a video historian—endurance and personal predilection has turned my gaze backwards to make sense of the fast-moving changes that have so powerfully altered the video landscape and twentieth-century life. My last book, Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited, began with a need to understand what had happened to the video documentary movement of the ‘70s, and I spent years researching, writing, and mostly agonizing over the story of video pioneers who challenged the monolithic hold of television and failed. Some managed to reinvent themselves and move on, but for many others—”when the music stopped,”   as TVTV’s Allen Rucker told me, “ it took a long time to recover.” So, I’m an old hand at observing the “death” of video art in some of its various guises.

When I began to think about what to say for this panel, I started wondering how artists and critics in the past have handled the demise of a technologically-driven medium that was superceded by newer technology. I thought of the Magic Lantern and went searching for information. I learned that the magic lantern dates back to the seventeenth century and the ideas of scholars like Athanasius Kircher, who wrote about it in his book, The Great Art of Light and Shadow . Samuel Pepys noted his first exposure to the magic lantern in his diary of 1666: "by and by comes by agreement Mr. Reeves [an optician and telescope maker]...He did also bring a lantern with pictures in glass, to make strange things to appear on a wall, very pretty. "(Barnouw, p.17) 1

However, the heyday of the magic lantern was the nineteenth century. The most celebrated magic lantern program was devised in 1790 by the Belgian experimenter Etienne Gaspard Robertson, who brought his “Fantasmagorie” to Paris, where it played for six years, later travelling to New York, among other foreign cities. Robertson’s “Fantasmagorie” spawned numerous imitations and variations that spanned the century; it also appears to have foreshadowed both the video installation and the fun house.

Sited in an abandoned chapel on the grounds of an old Capuchin monastery in Paris, surrounded by ancient tombs, “Fantasmagorie” was an adventure into the eerie unknown. Robertson led his audiences through an extraordinary simulation, which cinema historian Erik Barnouw describes thus:

Audiences entered through cavernous corridors, marked with strange symbols, and came on a dimly lit chamber decorated with skulls; effects of thunder, sepulchral music, and tolling bells helped set the mood. Coal burned in braziers. Robertson gave a preliminary discourse...tossed some chemicals on the braziers, causing columns of smoke to rise. The single lamp flickered out, putting the audience in total darkness. Then, onto the smoke arising from the braziers, images were projected from concealed magic lanterns. They included human forms and unearthly spectral shapes. The images came from glass slides, but the movements of the smoke gave them a goulish kind of life. Among these apparitions were men and women who had died in the French Revolution, such as Danton, Marat, Robespierre.Their faces, with inscrutably changing expressions, would suddenly appear in the spirals of smoke. Some spectators sank to their knees, convinced they were in the presence of the supernatural. Robertson climaxed his performance with the projected image of a skeleton, “the fate that awaits us all.” (Barnouw, p. 19)

Robertson developed a technique for projecting onto layers of gauze, which he soaked in wax and ironed to achieve the right translucency for rear projection. Robertson treated his slides so that the area around the image was totally blacked out, the figure seeming to hang in air. By moving the lantern forward on a sliding arrangement, adjusting the focus, Robertson could make the
image grow overwhelmingly large or shrink to disappearance. His effects had considerable dramatic possibilities.

When I read this description of “Fantasmagorie” I was immediately reminded of a number of recent video installations like Gary Hill’s Tall Ships (1992), Teiji Furuhashi’s Lovers (1994), or Bill Viola’s Tiny Deaths (1993), Hall of Whispers, and The Veiling (1996). Like magicians of the past, video artists have been concerned with the scientific principles of perception and the technical means of constructing haunting images.What is more striking to me, though, is not the physical similarities of such “attractions” but the abiding fascination of their substance or content—human preoccupation with the unknown, the penumbral, the other worldly. Regardless of which technology dominates, the landscape of art, the issues that stir artists’ souls—such as our deepest, inevitable, inescapable fear of death—seem to remain constant.

As variations of “Fantasmagorie” continued to delight audiences throughout the century, the invention of numerous visual novelties and enchantments, including photography, quietly announced the beginning of the end of the magic lantern era.The best known device for creating moving images, perhaps, was the Zoetrope or “wheel of life,” which was popular for decades in homes, country fairs, and arcades. My favorite such device is the Electrotachyscope or “electric rapid vision,” which seems to have anticipated television. It had photographs mounted on a whirling disk.These images were not projected; rather the viewer looked through a rectangular slot where the illusion of motion was created without the aid of a shutter by electric sparks that lit each photo as it spun round. Of course, it was the invention of Edison’s Kinetoscope in 1893 and the Lumière brothers’Cinematographe in 1895 that boldly heralded the magic lantern’s demise.

Who lamented the end of the magic lantern era? Magicians—the master showmen of the nineteenth century—suffered the most, although at first the Lumières’ new Cinematographe seemed to offer them even better opportunities for creating their illusions. But the travelling magic shows, which were a magician’s bread-and-butter, were quickly replaced by films. When Houdini toured Europe in 1901 and visited the temple of magic, the Théatre Robert-Houdin, by now owned by Georges Méliès, he discovered that stage magic had vanished from the evening hours, replaced by film. Houdini, like many lesser magicians, determined to conquer film, but despite a notable film career, he lost vast sums of money making them and became embittered— films with their trick aspects had rendered magic easy and ubiquitous for jaded audiences no longer impressed by otherworldly feats performed live on a stage.

What does the plight of displaced magicians at the turn of the last century have to do with video art at the beginning of the twenty-first? As James Glieck reminds us in Faster, cycles of change are occuring at ever faster rates.The Now generation came of age handed a Now technology—video was immediate, affording instant feedback and image quality that telegraphed the present moment not the recorded, time-delayed past of film. Forty years later, video is no longer Now or New—unless you think of it as the latest fashion accessory from Alain Mikli, designer of a pair of millennial glasses that records exactly what the wearer sees through its panoramic lens. Priced at only $8,000, it may become the palm corder or cellular phone of the teens or twenties. You’ve come a long way, baby boomer!

Video artists have a history of adjusting to technological change and its implications.When television briefly opened its arms to video art in the ‘80s and new broadcast formats demanded more sophisticated recording and editing rigs, some video artists began calling themselves television artists, happy to find a new outlet and an audience for their work. But broadcast and cable TV absorbed many of video art’s innovations without offering sufficient opportunities for artists’ works to be made or seen. Video art shifted in emphasis away from single channel tapes to video installations, often monumental works for museums, galleries and festivals that stressed spectacle and visual and audio pyrotechnics—not unlike the earlier “Fantasmagorie.” Major museum retrospectives of artists like Paik and Viola bear witness to this.

Frankly, I am less afraid for the future of video art to come than I am for the future of video art past. This past is tenuously present because the universe of existing tapes and installations remains at risk due to complex issues of video preservation. And the past is tenuously present because my own memory seems to be as vulnerable as CV half-inch videotapes after a flood, a condition no amount of Gingko Biloba seems to help. I worry that I am no longer equal to the task of witnessing this past; I know I have not written enough to capture the diversity and richness and contradictions of that small corner of video art history that I staked out for my own. In the absence of more histories, memoirs, and critical studies, the complexity of video’s past becomes reduced to the “usual suspects”—the same three or four artists or video collectives—invariably from New York—who represent a decade or a style or an innovation. With the passage of time, the past collapses into a few names and tapes and historic events as time erases the nuances and contradictions and controversies that kept a movement alive and growing. What is one to do?

My sense of personal melancholy arises out of such thoughts. My passion to preserve and document a rather brief period has ebbed over time. In part it has been a self-serving quest because this is a time period and a body of work in which I sunk my own life and fortune, such as they are. But it has also come from a sense of duty, a need to honor a history that seems increasingly vulnerable to omission, denial, misinterpretation, trivialization, and neglect. But sometimes I worry that, in the grand scheme of things, there are far more important events demanding that “attention should be paid.” So much of contemporary discourse about history, memory and representation has focused on issues of witnessing the holocaust. And I wonder, sometimes, if my sense of purpose has been misplaced: Just how important is it that the future knows, for example, that video documentaries were often just as experimental in the early ‘70s as any other form of video art, involving multiple channels, live cameras, and spectacular installation formats?

My melancholy also arises out of a growing sense of time passing—not just for video art—but for myself. We cannot contemplate the death of anything without eventually returning to the self. And, as video artists, critics, and historians arrive at midlife and its necessary revaluing, the answer to the question, “is video art dead?,” lies not so much in the encroaching new technologies that threaten—or promise (your choice)—to revolutionize the face of visual art and information. The answer lies within each participant—artist, historian, critic, teacher, student—who may or may not choose to keep video art alive.

The phenomenon of watching streamed video images over the net reminds me of those stuttering motion picture experiments like the Zoopraxinoscope, Phenakistoscope, and the Electrotachyscope. On the cusp of the twenty-first century, we can only imagine what new visual forms will arise and then prevail; all we can say is that we are in transition. Whether video art as we know it will survive as the magic lantern survived into the twentieth century remains to be seen.

Yes, the magic lantern did survive. Ingmar Bergman, the great Swedish cinéaste whose life work has been preoccupied with issues of life and death, with the struggle between devils and saints, played with a magic lantern in early childhood. He wrote:

This is where my magic lantern came in. It consisted of a small metal box with a carbide lamp—I can still remember the smell of hot metal—and colored glass slides: Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and all the others. And the Wolf was the Devil, without horns but a tail and a gaping red mouth, strangely real yet incomprehensible, a picture of wickedness and temptation on the flowered wall of the nursery. (Barnouw, p.112)

As video art, like the magic lantern, metamorphoses—regardless of whether it lives or dies—what will remain, I am convinced, is not the tool or even the history but the same impulses to make art—the same human preoccupations with devils and saints, death and the unknown. And maybe believing that is all that really matters.

Deirdre Boyle is the author of Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (Oxford, 1997), among other books.  She teaches in the Graduate Media Studies Program at the New School University.

This essay was a contribution to "Magic, Memory, and Melancholy: Is Video Art Dead?" College Art Association Panel, organized by Melinda Barlow, February 22, 2000.

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this article was printed in: Millennium Film Journal No. 35/36 (Fall 2000): The Millennium