On ViewMuseum Of Modern Art
Signals: How Video Transformed the World
March 5–July 8, 2023
Video art has been shaped by its DNA—new technology, real-world politics, and the persistent mutability of contemporary art. It all began in the late 1960s when the first portable video equipment reached the consumer market. The medium’s versatility accommodated a broad range of artistic approaches—from activism, to aesthetics, and interdisciplinary experimentation. As an emerging form, video attracted artists from different disciplines and different viewpoints. These energetic advocates forged new strategies for art making, spurred on by the work of earlier interdisciplinary innovators. Whether created by an individual or a collective, whether made with rudimentary tools or sophisticated equipment, what initially loomed over artists’ shoulders was broadcast television, controller of programming content on the airwaves. In the 1970s, once cable TV and the personal computer started to come along, the playing field expanded.
A lot happened in the meantime. Today we live at a moment of accelerated technological transformation, as smart phones and social media have become the means of both rapid audiovisual production and global communication. This is a good moment to look back at the video with fresh eyes.
Signals: How Video Transformed the World shines new light on video as art. Curators Stuart Comer and Michelle Kuo state in the accompanying catalog that the exhibition is not a survey but a lens, a reframing, and a revealing history of massive shifts in society up to the present day. The show examines the ways in which artists around the world have both championed and questioned video as an agent of social change—from televised revolution to electronic democracy. Signals is a timely and cogent rendering of the complicated story.
Astutely conceptualized after comprehensive research and extensive planning, Signals features a range of more than seventy works drawn primarily from MoMA’s expansive holdings. Only a large museum with a strong collection, knowledgeable curators, and an experienced technical team could pull off such an undertaking. Visiting Signals is a rewarding experience, and the show merits multiple trips. After all, video is a temporal medium and needs time to take in. Carefully developed didactic information provides a context and guides the viewer.
Encountered in the first gallery is documentation from the sophisticated Argentinian artist Marta Minujín’s Simultaneidad en Simultaneidad (Simultaneity in Simultaneity) from 1966. Made as a “new art of media,” the early work pointed its live audience as an image back onto itself, fitting for an era known for cybernetics and feedback. Minujín shaped the work as simultaneous live events in three cities—Minujín in Buenos Aires, Allan Kaprow in New York, and Wolf Vostell in Berlin.
Signals presents just over twenty audiovisual installations, most with a substantial footprint. Occupying pride of place is Movie Drome (1964-65) by the far-sighted utopian technologist Stan VanDerBeek, who envisioned his installation as a global artwork. Onto the inside of his 31-feet in diameter domed structure, he originally projected 16mm films and 35mm slides, in random sequences and continuities. Now as part of MoMA’s collection, Movie-Drome’s films and slides have been preserved and carefully transferred to high-definition video. It is worth noting that around the time the Drome was created, at New York’s Fillmore East, "The Church of Rock and Roll," capacity audiences flocked to experience light shows created with the latest technologies. Meanwhile burgeoning experimentation was going on through E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), at AT&T’s Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, where artists and engineers collaborated.
Back then, the video installation was mainly experienced in a no man’s land out on the periphery, at artist-run alternative venues that were geared towards investigation. Situated between art and cinema, video installations often were exhibited in darkened galleries, black boxes that bore a resemblance to the film theater. The form soon found its footing as video projectors improved and lowered in price, and as monitors were upgraded.
Signals has only one black box, in which four profound work are shown, each bears witness to histories of conflict and insurrection and all interweave amateur videography with archival news footage, still images, and rhythmic montage to convey the turmoil of civil unrest: Black Audio Film Collective /John Akomfrah (Handsworth Songs), Tony Cokes (Black Celebration), Harun Farocki/Andrei Ujică (Videogramme einer Revolution (Videograms of a Revolution)) and Dana Kavelina (Letter to a Turtledove). Signage is rewardingly clear, with clarifying texts programed on a small adjacent screen, a marvelous feat.
Signals is current and very international. There is Amar Kanwar’s The First Torn Pages (2004-2008), considered an ode to the thousands engaged in the struggle for democracy in Burma; the activist group now censored in Russia, Chto Delat, who are seen performing silently in their four-channel installation, In a Moment of Danger (2014), where one comes face to face with their moving situation. The more sculptural work by Cologne-based Julia Scher, Information America from 1995, draws its title from the name of a supposed Atlanta-based company that provided clients with data on relationships between corporations, individuals, and commercial transactions, the nature of surveillance being the work’s the real subject. Experienced right before exiting Signals main gallery is savvy Sondra Perry’s Double Quadruple Etcetera Etcetera I and II (2013), consisting of two large projections with a frenetically dancing individual presented in each. In postproduction as a political move, the artist dissolved the frenzied black figures into her white-walled studio.
Signals puts installation on equal footing with single-channel video, which started out in modest priced unlimited editions in the late 1960s/early 1970s, when idealistic artists wanted their work to reach as large an audience as possible, in art venues, public libraries, or art schools, where work was presented on a monitor in a one-on-one relationship with the viewer. Signals displays 38 videotapes from MoMA’s collection in the Video Platform, where viewing stations show a thematic program composed of single-channel video. Each thematic program shown on a flat screen has a short description, presented on a smaller computer screen below. There the visitor is encouraged to sit and watch work as it cycles onto an adjacent screen; these include such classics as Fujiko Nakaya’s video diary Friends of Minamata Victims (1972), the group General Idea’s Test Tube (1979) with its color bar lounge, and Song Dong’s Broken Mirror (1999), intriguing in its simplicity showing a busy Beijing street reflected in a mirror that suddenly is smashed and reveals the other side of the road.
Knowing that single-channel video needs time to absorb, curators Comer and Kuo have made all 38 of them available on MoMA’s website for the duration of the exhibition. Generous for viewer, this updates to the present how some of the earliest videomakers managed to program work on cable TV.
Rewriting history is difficult. Looking at a complex field with today’s eyes and today’s politics raises important questions, as a serious exhibition should. The Signals exhibition and its catalog, with its new texts and fresh analysis, will resonate for a long time to come.
I came away thinking about what happens when historians reevaluate visionary artists, such as Nam June Paik, the video pioneer who was the penultimate diplomat. Rather than being concerned with politics per se, he was driven by profound ideas about art and telecommunications, developed his own aesthetics, and negotiated long and hard to create and disseminate his own work. He spent years developing his complex satellite TV project Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, raising money and commandeering artist friends, public television producers, and potential funders, who engaged with him to realize the project in 1984.
In the area that has been defined as the electronic arts, nothing ever sits still, given artists’ response to the present moment and the never-ending modifications of tools. With information, the question always remains, whose point of view are we following? We watch, look, and listen. Hats are off to curators Stuart Comer and Michelle Kuo, who pulled off an extraordinary exhibition that will have an impact for years to come.