The narrowing gap between video art and film

Film and video began to be understood as art in the '60s, with artists such as Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik incorporating television sets into their artworks. At this year's Sharjah Biennale, the video art was almost filmic in structure, with pieces from artists like Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla blurring the lines between cinema and art. Should we still distinguish between film and video art – and are the lines blurring between the two? Georgina Lavers explores

“To me it was as if I my body had come unglued from my own image, as if the ground of my orientation in space were pulled out from under me,” wrote Margaret Morse after viewing Bruce Nauman's Video Corridor in 1968. 

Nauman installed two television monitors at the end of a narrow, dark corridor. One monitor showed the space as if it were empty, while the second caught the live feed of the visitor shuffling up and down the space. When experiencing the space, visitors were trapped between their first video perception, whereby no-one was in the space at all, and the second, where a wide screen gave the impression that they were moving at a quicker pace than they realised. The end result was one of ultimate displacement, throwing up themes of realism and identity that have punctuated the medium throughout the decade. 

Nearly forty years later, at Sharjah Biennale in the UAE, it was clear how far the art form had expanded. Using three screens – two image-led and one with text – the audience continually shifted between them to watch as The Great Silence, a film about the human relation to sound, identity and 'otherness', played out.

kaufman corridor
Kaufman's video corridor (1968) played with audience perception using television screens

The artists, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, used a filmic structure to great effect, interspersing the words of science-fiction writer Ted Chiang with moving images of the world's largest radio telescope in Puerto Rico, as well as shots of the forest. 

The viewer watched as a protagonist – in this case a flock of endangered Puerto Rican parrots – lamented the human obsession with finding alien life, when they already had a species living among them whose language they had not bothered to comprehend. 

With a protagonist and a somewhat recognisable beginning, middle and end, the piece threw up the question of when video art becomes a 'film'. 

Video art burst onto the creative scene as a reaction against the television set, the ubiquitous entertainment medium that featured in nearly every middle-class household. Nam June Paik, a Korean artist living in Germany, was one of the first recognised 'video artists', whose Exposition of Music – Electronic Television in 1963 featured 12 television monitors whose reception could be disrupted by the radio or a tape recorder, or most interestingly, the audience. One of the sets was connected to a microphone which, when the audience spoke into it, threw up a mass of dots on the screen. 

mothlight brakhage
The ultimate materialist imperative: 'Mothlight'. Stan Brakhage used moth wings, flowers and blades of grass to embody the desparation he felt as a struggling filmmaker

German artist Wolf Vostell took a more provocative route, desecrating television sets with pies, burying them, even shooting at them. 

As time went on, pieces still reflected the medium in which they were created, but also gave a chance for artists to play within that medium more freely. In Measures of Distance (1988), British-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum interwove images of her mother showering with letters to her daughter, to play on themes of exile and identity. 

Motherhood was also explored by Gilian Wearing's 2 into 1 (1997), which transposed two sons' voices onto their mother speaking to camera, and vice versa. Here, the dislocation of seeing a small boy talk in a woman's voice is compounded with realisation of the casual cruelty a family inflicts on one-another. 

Through the next few decades, video art passed into public consciousness, to ubiquity and then almost a campness. But one constant was the separation between film and video art. 

kevin spacey
Since 1937, film has regularly been breaking the fourth wall: here, in 'House of Cards', Frank Underwood picks up the mantle

A film was a deliberately constructed piece that existed in its own regard, without reference to the place in which it was seen, or the fact it was always seen by a viewer. Careful editing spliced different scenes shot on different days together, with the intention being to create one seamless product. 

Video art, however, was constantly engaging with its audience in a 'white box' of a gallery, rather than the 'black box' of the theatre. The tangible element of celluloid is often incorporated into the art; consider 1963's Mothlight where Stan Brakhage taped moth wings onto clear film, and the viewer found themselves continually engaging and re-engaging with the piece from different visual perspectives and within different moments, a feature often played upon by artists such as Nauman. 

The benefits of this materialism – examining and using the film as its own self, rather than creating a narrative on top of it, was a topic of fierce debate in the 1980s, said Terry Flaxton in Lux.  

“The film materialists rejected narrative; that which the shot lengths, styles, cuts dissolves encompassed – in effect the grammar – was already occupied by the dominant form of its delivery, entertainment,” he wrote.

“Narrative was what ‘Hollywood’ used, therefore it was theirs and to be avoided. For me this was a head-in-the-sand attitude and needed challenging. Why give up such a powerful mechanism?”

As the nature of film has again started to change, and television has become more of an art-form than ever before, the lines may be blurring. The fourth wall, broken as early as 1937's Make Way for Tomorrow, was a staple of ‘90s classics such as Fight Club and High Fidelity, and has given way to even more referential features such as The Arbor (2010), which used real dialogue with non-actors, lip-synched by actors. 

Perhaps the conclusion to the ‘film/art’ argument simply lies in how the piece is viewed. We are told – and our brains allow us to understand – one piece as video art and the other as film, simply by virtue of geography.

Stepping into a warm Sharjah courtyard after viewing the piece by Allora and Calzadilla, there is a sudden awareness of one’s surroundings in a way that perhaps could not be realised just half an hour before. The highway roared in the distance. A bird called. And just like that, there was art.