Before `Reality TV' There Was Reality Video
January 21, 2001
By MICHAEL RUSH
THIRTY years before millions of Americans worried whether Gervase
would get booted off "Survivor" before Sean, or whether the
purple-haired Brittany would lose her virginity under the ever
watchful eye of "Big Brother," Frank Gillette and his cronies in
the video-art collective Raindance sat on a beach in Point Reyes,
Calif., turned on their portable video camera and passed it around
"like a joint," as Mr. Gillette remembers it.
In a setting not unlike the tranquil tropical island of
"Survivor," Mr. Gillette, Paul Ryan and Michael Shamberg taped
their youthful musings on life, television and the imposing
transmitter jutting up to the sky just across the road.
"We were na´vely idealistic," Mr. Gillette said. "We thought we
were going to revolutionize television, put it in the hands of
artists and radicalize the medium."
The earliest days of video art in the mid- to late 60's had a
motley mix of video sculptures (Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell),
feedback systems (Mr. Gillette, Ira Schneider, Peter Weibel, Valie
Export), alternative television and documentaries (Jean- Luc
Godard, Skip Blumberg) and conceptual performance tapes (Joan
Jonas, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari).
What appealed to these artists was the real-time immediacy of
video tape. Unlike film, whose lush texture required chemical
processing, video was simultaneously viewable: you saw what you
got, either right away on the monitor or later when you slipped the
tape into the Betamax machine. The term "up close and personal"
soon caught on to describe the intimate feel of the taped interview
or news report.
Today, with video cameras on every street corner, at every
automated teller and on the tie clips of tabloid television news
investigators, everyone is "up close," and our casual comings and
goings are suddenly "personal" to the nameless security experts who
scour these tapes watching for "false moves."
One of the first installations of video art was the 1969 "Wipe
Cycle," created by Mr. Gillette and Mr. Schneider for the Howard
Wise Gallery in New York and shown in the exhibition "TV as a
Creative Medium," the first show in the United States devoted to
video art. The piece featured nine video monitors, four of which
played pretaped material (some grabbed from television shows) and
five of which played live and delayed images of viewers as they
entered the gallery.
"Viewers were mystified," Mr. Gillette said. "They were seeing
themselves on television mixed in with all these other images from
TV shows, and they were shocked as well as delighted."
Recalling Andy Warhol's visit to the gallery, he said: "Andy, of
course, loved seeing himself on television, but even he was a
little confused by the multiple images and time delays. He kept
shifting his briefcase from hand to hand to see if he was really
being filmed live or not."
If anything, the current batch of "reality TV" shows clearly
demonstrates a loss of innocence in everyday folk regarding being
on television. It's as if camera culture has made professionals of
us all. The New York video artist and editor Dieter Froese, who
made video performances in the early 70's by taping visitors in a
SoHo gallery, projecting their movements onto a monitor as an
"immediate work of art" and then having a critic write an instant
review of the piece, said: "These eager participants in the current
`reality' shows become professionals fast. They learn how to hide
behind the camera while at the same time suggesting something
genuine, just like film actors."
To Mr. Gillette this "lack of reticence" on the part of the
participants is endemic in the culture at large. People seem all
too willing to tell their story to anyone at any time, and if a
camera's running, all the better. "For us, it was the ideas we
found interesting," Mr. Gillette said. "We were exploring notions
of time. For the first time, past, present and future were
`materials' for our art, just like paint and wood."
Mr. Gillette, who is now 59, bristles at the notion that what he
was doing 30 years ago has any relation to present-day television
shows. Steeped in the literature of James Joyce, the music of
Beethoven and the Latin classics learned during his Jesuit
education, Mr. Gillette's many early videotapes ("Hark! Hork!,"
"Rituals for a Still Life," "Quidditas") are charged with the life
of the mind.
Even so, he and Mr. Schneider may have had some idea what they
were unleashing. In 1969 they told the critic Gene Youngblood: "The
most important function of `Wipe Cycle' was to integrate the
audience into the information. It was an attempt to demonstrate
that you're as much a piece of information as tomorrow morning's
LITTLE did they know how many hundreds of thousands would line up
30 years later for a chance to grab those headlines (along with a
million dollars) by sequestering themselves in planned environments
where their every thought about their companions, no matter how
unflattering, would become catnip for the cameras.
The least camera shy of the early video artists was Vito Acconci,
now 60, who put the lens close-up on his face and other body parts,
using it as a mirror in which he could see what was usually hidden.
In his first tape, "Corrections," 1970, he focused on a perceived
imperfection, a tuft of hair on the back of his neck. "I used video
as a way of exploring myself," Mr. Acconci said. "As an artist, my
most basic instrument was myself, and the camera was a way inside."
If critics of "reality TV" lament the collapse of distinctions
between public and private in these shows, Mr. Acconci blasted
private domains 30 years ago in his live performances and
videotapes. The difference is when he did it he was pointing to the
futility of suggesting that television or even art could offer real
intimacy or real personal revelation.
In "Theme Song," 1973, we see Mr. Acconci lying on the floor in
front of a striped couch, cigarette in hand, his face only inches
>from the camera. Chain smoking and listening to songs by the Doors,
Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and others, he implores the viewer to "Come
in close to me . . . come on . . . I'm all alone . . . wrap your
legs around me . . . I'll be honest with you . . . really . . .
come on . . . ." His blatant manipulations exposed the covert
inducements of commercially sponsored television. (If you wear
these jeans you, too, will be thin, blond and desirable.)
"Video is always `as if,' " Mr. Acconci said. " `As if' we had a
relationship, `as if' we are really there. That's part of why I
gave it up." Interestingly, `as if' is a type of personality
disorder psychologists diagnose in people who lack a sense of self.
They live "as if" they were a character on television, or a person
in a perfume advertisement.
Something that Mr. Gillette and Mr. Acconci shared in their work
that distinguishes them from "reality TV" was a sense of humor. The
real friends of Raindance taping themselves on the beach in
California were obviously having a good time. Yes, they were
ranting in very 60's fashion against the big boys of corporate
television, but they were also poking fun at themselves and
laughing quite a lot.
Mr. Acconci's stream-of-consciousness monologues for the camera
are nothing short of hilarious. In "Face Off," 1973, we see him
bent over a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder, which is spewing
forth intimate details of his life. When the tape becomes a little
too personal, Mr. Acconci starts screaming at it so we won't hear
what it has to say. The only time we witness the "real TV"
personalities cracking a smile is the day after they're kicked out
of whatever hostile environment they were living in and they're
strutting onto a talk show where more cameras await.
In addition to Mr. Gillette and Mr. Acconci, several other early
video artists created installations in which the ordinary viewer
became the star. Bruce Nauman's "Performance Corridor," 1969, was a
claustrophobic enclosure consisting of two floor-to- ceiling
parallel walls that formed a tunnel. At one end, two stacked
monitors beckoned to viewers. After the wary participants inched
down the opening, they were confronted with their own image taped
>from a surveillance camera.
The critic Margaret Morse wrote at the time, "To me it was as if
my body had come unglued from my own image, as if the ground of my
orientation in space were pulled out from under me." Another
critic, Peter Schjeldahl, called the piece "ruthless" and "somber."
Mr. Nauman's work took inspiration from the confined worlds
created by the playwright Samuel Beckett, who in many works, from
"Endgame" to "Not I" to "Worstward Ho," put anonymous characters in
desolate surroundings. In a sense, most of the participants on
"Survivor" are waiting for Godot: only one will see him, and he'd
better be carrying a bagful of money.
Among other artists who used viewers as collaborators in their
installations was Peter Campus. His video installations from the
early 70's, including "Interface" and "Mem," made the audience the
artwork. In both pieces, visitors to an exhibition found their own
image projected onto large screens as they were being taped by a
camera. Placement of the projectors or discreetly planted sheets of
glass resulted in the image's appearing enlarged or skewed. In what
may seem an ironic twist from our present remove, Mr. Campus was
trying to shake viewers from their passive role as spectators. Now
passivity rules as television viewers, like the Romans in the
Colosseum, watch the "reality TV" gladiators try to survive the
psychological barbs of their supposed teammates.
Video artists are still taping ordinary people, not to make them
celebrities but to enlist them as participants in art and to warn
them about the seductions of the camera culture. The New York
artist Julia Scher, 46, has been unmasking the power games inherent
in surveillance video for the last 15 years. "I grew up in L.A. in
the 50's," she said. "Hollywood is a cult of surveillance, and I
was happily a part of it. If you were surveyed, it was a
compliment. Reality was always mixed with TV and surveillance. Of
course, it only worked for people with nice bodies."
"Security by Julia," an installation shown in several places in
the United States and Europe, uses standard security industry
equipment. When visitors enter the space they are greeted by a
woman wearing a "Security by Julia" uniform and seated in front of
a bank of seven black-and- white monitors. They are invited to make
printed copies of their own image as it is then appearing on the
monitors, or to make prints of someone else's image captured from a
half-dozen other cameras sprinkled throughout the space. Visitors
can look at themselves, spy on others and become paranoid about who
might be watching them from some unseen location in the gallery,
all at the same time.
Ms. Scher, who suggested a surveillance show to MTV in 1995, says
"reality TV" is "our attempt to come to grips with the constant
intrusions in everyday life."
"These shows play out our fears," she said.
They also offer a
mix of reality and fantasy. Unlike early video art, which was
rarely edited, these shows are heavily edited to maximize the quick
cuts audiences have become used to. If the show's limited action
sags, as it often does, there's a leap to a new game of endurance
or a hastily arranged intrusion by Big Brother, who, it turns out,
was an attractive CBS broadcaster otherwise employed on the morning
At the birth of video art, artists turned the camera on themselves
(another crucial distinction from television) or on others to
investigate new meanings of time and identity, or to create new
definitions of space and perception in a gallery setting.
Naturally, there was an innocence in all of this, but there was
also a quest for ideas, a hunger for experimentation. Audiences
were part of the action, a necessary component of the experiment.
In turn, they were offered a place in the development of an
alternative to television, an interactive art that really did need
them and really did place them center stage. (Some of these and
other early video art tapes are available through Electronic Arts
Intermix in Chelsea, www.eai.org.)
TELEVISION is a medium of desire: it creates dreams, answers
dreams, sells dreams. It promises to reflect us back to ourselves,
but it ends up bouncing back what we long to see. "Reality TV" is a
part of this mechanism of desire, more akin to the lottery than to
actual everyday life.
Perhaps this is as it should be. The images of ourselves that we
might have seen in an installation by Mr. Gillette or Mr. Nauman
can now be viewed in department store windows or on multiple
screens in electronics stores. We can "star" in a video display on
Sixth Avenue any time we want. All we have to do is walk in front
of the camera.
The artists' motivations for turning on their portable cameras
were what set them apart, however. They didn't know if anyone would
ever watch their primitive videos or venture into their
techno-installations. Much less did they think someone would
actually pay them to make these tapes or broadcast them on
television. They had a camera. They knew it had far reaching
possibilities, and they wanted to find out what they were.
Michael Rush is the author of "New Media in Late 20th-Century Art"
and the forthcoming "Video Art," both from Thames and Hudson. He is
the director of the new Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art.
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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company