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“Videotapes. Early video art (1965-1976)”

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The exhibition “Videotapes. Early video art (1965-1976)” The Zachęta National Gallery of Art.

Władysław Jagiełło, the King of Poland, once had a fantasy to listen to a nightingale at night in the middle of winter. As a result, “he got cold and suffered a disease,” as Jan Długosz put it charmingly. I am not a king, but on Tuesday, I also got cold and suffered a disease at my request. Nevertheless, I went to the Zachęta for the Friday opening of the exhibition of Videotapes. Early video art (1965-1976).

As you know, I am currently finishing to write two extensive vernissage columns about the exhibition of Christian Boltansk’s works at the Pompidou Center and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s at Grand Palais, about which I wrote in brief in December, but if I go skiing all the time, I’ll will finish them in May. There is such a risk. Therefore, I promised myself that the report on the Videotapes would be short and sweet. Here it goes: there are 4 rooms with the works of 42 artists, the photos are not suitable for Instagram, because they are out of focus (a photo of a moving picture taken on the monitor screen is like a pizza with Nutella, not the happiest combination), but you have to see it. So, GO!


Now the extended version: the works presented at the exhibition were created for 11 years (1965-1976), i.e., the earliest stage of video art, its birth, infancy period, and school age. Michał Jachuła, the exhibition curator, decided to narrow the video art to the videotape, i.e., exclude 16mm, 35mm, and Super8 film tapes. Where did the year 1965 come from? Because it was the year, Sony released the first portable (let’s say portable) video system, and since that moment, the dolce vita of creators has begun!


Typowy eksponat na wystawie “Wideotaśmy. Wczesna sztuka wideo (1965-1976)”. Na zdjęciu praca petera campusa.

The birth of video art: from the fridge to the suitcase

It turned out that they no longer had to lug large equipment, which was as heavy as a mastodon, and a mastodon on a cart because it still had to be moved somehow. There appeared an inexpensive, small, light (before that “portable” video equipment for home use by Ampex weighed ten times that!), portable, battery-powered miracle, which could (at least in principle) be operated by one person, not by the entire regiment. The Sony set from 1965, i.e., the CV-2000, weighed about 30 kg, but the next model from 1967  “only” 5 kilos and offered 20 minutes of recording. And it is this model, the Sony DV-2400 Video Rover, that went down in history under a more media name – Portapak. It consisted of a large black and white camera and a suitcase with a separate video recorder used solely for recording.

More than half a century later, it can be said that the Portapak was the model efflorescence of its time as it perfectly fitted into the 1960s revolution involving technical and moral changes in society. Suddenly, wild crowds of people, including activists or artists, could tell and show their own stories, and on the horizon loomed, tempting like a Prosecco in the summer, the vision of breaking the monopoly of clichéd, artificial and out-of-touch-with-reality television productions.

During the period focused on at the exhibition of Videotapes. Early video art, that is, the years 1965-1976, video art was unfettered testing, creative experiment, artistic training ground, creative plasticine, and so on. It was something new, not yet pressed into the rigid corset, neither of genre norms nor the ideas of critics because there had been no canon or reference point yet. These are the charms of pioneers.

At the beginning, that is, in the ancient 1960s, video art was closer to performance art, conceptual art, experimental film, “spontaneous” prank, artistic improvisation, as far as possible, by definition, from a directed television image, pastel pop culture gruel, which everyone had been already getting fed up. It was a time of relishing the form and the possibilities of a new medium of artistic expression that suddenly appeared. Image distortion due to mixing, overlaying several recorded materials, connecting several monitors… there were more options than interpretations of Kant’s thoughts or clothes on OLX [Polish online auction site]. In other words – infinitely many.

The beginnings of video art, i.e. monitors, oxen and chickens

It is not like that the artists hadn’t used the benefits of the already known medium, i.e., television, before the video camera, smaller and lighter than the fridge, appeared. In 1958, Wolf Vostell, for the first time in the history of art, placed a TV screen with a poorly reproduced signal visible in a canvas incision  we are talking about the Transmigration décollage. Some people think that video art was born then, and others – boom! In your face, because it wasn’t until a few years later.

However, it is usually assumed that the first artist who introduced the video to art was Nam June Paik in AD 1965, although both he and Vostell had experimented with monitors two years earlier. Nam June Paik as part of the Exposition of Music – Electronic Television, his highly Dadaist exhibition organized in the house of his architect friend in Rhineland, installed a head of a freshly killed ox (sic!) at the entrance, and the guests  as you can guess – went from electronic music to electronic image. There were, among other things, specially crafted pianos, various disc players, and 12 televisions, with a deliberately distorted picture of the program that was broadcast during the exhibition.


Nam June Paik, Exposition of Music – Electronic Television (fot. ZKM)
Wolf Vostell, 6 TV Dé-coll/age (fot. Muzeum Reina Sofia)

In turn, Wolf Vostell almost simultaneously, but in New York, also used TV sets, but broadcasting various programs, in his installation of 6 TV Dé-coll / age. The installation also consisted of office cabinets, pots with plastic model planes melting due to heat, and six chickens. I’m not going to write what happened to them, though, because it is even more disgusting than the ox in the Rhineland. I have graciously uploaded a photo of an updated, “civilized” version of Vostrell’s work from the collection of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.

Man is wolf to man, and video is video to video

Both Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik didn’t use video, but monitors, in their installations. Nevertheless, it is usually assumed that the latter artist is a pioneer of video art. I don’t know if this is fair, especially when you think about the Sun in your head – a décollage film created in the same year. Vostell modified subsequent frames in such a way that the sequence reflected the typical problem of television broadcast from the 1930s, i.e., with synchronization. The lack of smooth frame transition means many interpretations, the whole is extremely defragmented, and the poor viewer must find (or impose) sense him-/herself because it is unlike television and (s)he won’t be presented with a warm and comfortable bourgeois well-groomed plot. It is not easy, even more so because the rapidly flickering shots of women, men, or vehicles are combined with illegible subtitles, and Television décollage in Cologne 1963 finally appears. However, Sun in your head was first recorded on film; it was recorded on the videotape only four years later, so after the legendary ride in his friend’s taxi.

In 1965 in New York, Nam June Paik was driving with a brand new Sony camera, and he recorded the passing procession of Pope Paul VI from the taxi window. On the same day, he played his film at Cafe Au Go Go, a cafe in Greenwich Village, and this is how video art was born. I always say that, somehow, it is easier to create something in a Manhattan cafe or on the beach on the Caribbean Sea (verified by me).

Nevertheless, I have no idea how come Nam June Paik could film from the inside of a taxi, especially hanging out of the window, since the only portable Sony camera model available in 1965 weighed about 30 kilos (sic!). Remember that the DV-2400 Video Rover, which was six times lighter, would be available in two years. Regardless of what the artist recorded, the film was made, and thus Nam June Paik became acknowledged as the pope and father of video art.

You ignorant, the best you can do is to be glued to the screen, I’ll warrant.


Tak wszyscy wyglądaliśmy na wystawie “Wideotaśmy. Wczesna sztuka wideo”. Każdy z nosem w ekranie. Tak trzeba.

At the Videotapes exhibition, this artist’s and 41other artists’ works were presented. They were mainly American artists, although, of course, our Józef Robakowski was among them. The other names included: Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Dara Birnbaum, Don Burgy, James Byrne, Peter Campus, Douglas Davis, Cara DeVito, Valie Export, Terry Fox, Anna Bella Geiger, Frank Gillette, Tina Girouard, Julie Gustafson, Hermine Freed, Nancy Holt, Joan Jonas, Beryl Korot, Marlene Kos, Paul Kos, Shigeko Kubota, Suzanne Lacy, Richard Landry, Mary Lucier, Ivens Machado, Andy Mann, Cynthia Maughan, Susan Mogul, Antoni Muntadas, Bruce Nauman, Letícia Parente, Martha Rosler, Dan Sandin, Ira Schneider, Ilene Segalove, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Videofreex, William Wegman, Lawrence Weiner.

The range of the videos was enormous – there were very serious works, socially engaged, there were conceptual works, personal and intimate works, but there were also ironic works; some of them were created outdoors, some in the studio, the vast majority of the videos was black and white, but color ones also appeared.

Four rooms corresponded to four themes (spoiler: my favorites are the last two). In the first room, the videos showing possibilities offered by the image recorded with a mobile camera and the general admiration of the moving image were shown. In the second – the videos dealing with existential issues (whatever it means), in the third – the videos exploring the idea of Conceptualism and extreme plays with two languages, vision and audio/video and sound, and in the fourth, to make a long story short, – the videos involving the body and physicality.


James Byrne i jego monitor w monitorze

Monitors, screens, headphones and all that stuff

In the first room, I was particularly delighted with two videos: James Byrne and his mise en abyme effect, a monitor recorded on a video, a moving monitor image on a stationary monitor, and Lynda Benglis’s Now. Because I came late, I did not have to queue for headphones, but also the verbal recording of the sound layer on the screen and written on the plaques under the monitors meant that you did not have to pull out the headphones from each other’s hands like the last ripe avocado in a Carrefour.

During the exhibition, we all must have looked funny – with headphones on, like the hypnotised staring at the monitors. It’s probably the only moment in life when alienation made sense and it’s good to be glued to the screen, it’s even a must!


Lynda Bengli, “Teraz”

This very ironic work of Benglis’s, playing with the “now” convention, is just terrific. By the way, I’ve always been amused by the fact that although the “now” is “now”, the moment we finish pronouncing the word “now”, the “now” belongs already to the past.  I thought about this while watching Benglis’s video. Her “now,” thanks to its immortalization on the tape, continues a few decades later, and the moment of recording (every now and then the question is asked in the film whether the recording has already started) is stretched in the eternal now. And the viewer is waiting impatiently if the recording has “already” started, since he sees the recording, which, on the one hand, has already been made, but on the other, each time it is recorded again and again at the moment of playback.

Another film that fascinated me was Dan Sandin’s Triangle in Front of Square in Front of Circle in Front of Triangle playing – literally – with the possibilities of a moving image because the video based on moving figures. I immediately recall the Mire d’essai de fixité video installation by Alexandre Estrela from the„Points de rencontres” exhibition at the Pompidou Center, about which I have recently blogged on the Wernisażeria.


Dan Sandin, “Trójkąt przed kwadratem, przed kołem, przed trójkątem”

During the exhibition at the Zachęta, my unchallenged favorite video was “THE rEVOLUTION. Notes on the invasion: Mar Mar March” by Paul Kos, ideally using the possibilities offered by video as a medium. The sound of typing sounds like a march; hence the marching character appears above the typed words of „mar mar march.”


Paul Kos, “rEWOLUCJA. Uwagi do inwazji mar mar marsz”.
Jedynie robiąc zdjęcie pod kątem, nie łapałam tego dziwnego zielonego refleksu.


You don’t have a problem with Heidegger, it’s Heidegger who has a problem with you

In the same (third) room, there was also a great video with a meaningful title of The visual text – a poem of fingers. Valie Export shows, or rather flashes letter after letter, the text of “Ich sage die zeige mit zeichen im zeigen der sage,” followed by a text record of the sentence referring to Martin Heidegger, and finally, the name of the philosopher appears.

There is a joke: „Why is the German language so interesting? If you want to know, stand at attention in front of the mirror and quickly and loudly say: “schöner Schmetterling ist zwischen den zarten Blüten von Lilien verschwunden,” which means “the beautiful butterfly has disappeared between the delicate flowers of lily.” The same situation is with Heidegger; he is like a beautiful butterfly in the flower of Phenomenology, only it is difficult to grow such flowers on any, even Polish, land. Hence, the eternal embarrassment with the translation of his works, not only into Polish.

I have always told my students that if they want to be called philologists, they should read Heidegger in the original. And if they want to be called real philologists, they should also do reading comprehension of Heidegger’s works in the original. And if they dislike someone, then they should make them read Heidegger in a terrible translation, then they surely won’t understand anything at all. I can’t think of worse torments (well, except for putting a barefoot on a Lego brick).

Show in a flash, flash the show

Valie Export’s text of “ich sage die zeige mit zeichen im zeigen der sage – frei nach Heidegger” in the Zachęta has been translated into “co wieść niesie wypowiadam ukazując jej znakami” on the plaque, which means “what the news carries I say by showing its signs” in English. As usual, I regret terribly in such moments that the original sentence is not adequately conveyed in the Polish or English language and the resemblance between the stems in “sagen” (“to speak,” “to say” in Heidegger’s works) and “die Sage” (“a legend,” hence a saga, a kind of story, something that is said [about], but Heidegger meant it also as “a language” is lost. Likewise, the stem in “die Zeige” (“a show”) and “zeigen” (“to show”) dies in the same way.


However, it is not so rosy and sweet, because Heidegger’s “sagen” sometimes means “zeigen,” in the sense of “to show,” “to portray” (including showing orally or in writing) / “to allow sb to see and hear.” It is the essence of the language for the philosopher, and the language in the broadest possible meaning. Because “saying” is always “showing” / „portraying” something.

All these Germanic subtleties of speaking, saying, showing, and portraying dissolve in Polish and English. It is a pity because this is how the pun on language is killed in the Polish/English version. Furthermore, the language should be understood in any meaning: verbal language, visual language, and verbal-visual language, which is the quintessence of this video and the video as such. This fascinating circulation between text and image, between adaptation, or translation, and meaning, is also murdered.

And Valie Export, in her “poem of the fingers” – the visual text, “translates” the language of gesture or sign language (“visual,” “showing” one) into oral language (“verbal,” “speaking” / “telling” one). And, nomen omen, you can see how imperfect this translation is. Nevertheless, when you try to transfer meanings from one system to another, something is always lost. It’s more or less like cleaning the wardrobe – if I move clothes from the wardrobe to the dresser, I’ll gain a place to hang the dresses, but the dresses will crease in the dresser. Quid pro quo, my dear. Both in the wardrobe and semiotics.

Valie Export’s video enchants me; I love plays with words and pictures, sound and vision, combinations of two languages, two codes or both verbal and visual media; if I didn’t love them, then four years ago I would not have published a book on this subject, where I presented my theories and analyses.

Button, chair, stereo – this is the art of the video


The fourth, and the last room, with tables and monitors arranged in a circle, is the most expansive one. While the previous rooms were quiet, because the videos required the use of headphones, there was the shrill and absorbing music of the 1960s and 1970s interrupted by radio commercials and the sounds of domestic chores. All that made up the sound layer of a slightly psychedelic, colorful video of The Care III. Sewing, washing, wringing, rinsing, and folding Solomon’s things by Tina Girouard. Fastening a coat, which is even a more prosaic activity, was the basis of The happening with buttons by Nam June Paik.

Nam June Paik Happening z guzikami wideotaśmy

There I found another brilliant video: Chaired Anxieties: Slewed. It’s the second episode from the six making up the Chaired Anxieties series, in which Dara Birnbaum is moving the chair, squeezing it by her legs, pushing it, fighting with it more and more, getting excited more and more, jumping around the piece of furniture like some wild animal, and then she’s gradually calming down, although she is still dangling her legs vigorously. While watching the video, what came to my mind was Andrzej Wróblewski’s Chairing (1956) series, which is much younger than Birnbaum’s. However, Wróblewski’s “chairing,” like Gombrowicz’s “making an arse of oneself,” is something negative, a state in which characters become objects, passive individuals deprived of will. Élan vital of an amoeba, entropy as in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. In contrast, in Dara Birnbaum’s video, there is no stagnation or passivity, quite the opposite.


Walentynki Wernisażerii, czyli siedzę w Zachęcie pod tekstem kuratorskim wystawy “Wideotaśmy. Wczesna sztuka wideo”


The opening of the Videotapes. Early video art (1965–1976) exhibition took place three days ago, and I’m still processing some videos in my head. It gives the best possible impression of it. Of the exhibition, not of my head, although I think of both.

When it comes to strictly vernissage issues, this time, I must disappoint you. But with myself. Due to my health condition à la Jagiełło, I virtually wasn’t sure until p.m. if I would appear at the Zachęta at all. However, as it was Valentine’s Day, and I love art, so I made use of all my strength and left home. Nevertheless, when I was leaving the house, many of my friends were also leaving, but… the Zachęta. Many others remained in the gallery; only later, it turned out that I hadn’t noticed some of them. I registered, only briefly, the presence of wine (shame on me), and immediately ran upstairs, because I knew that the Videotapes. Early video art (1965-1976) would be very time-consuming, and I was going to another vernissage after that one.

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