video

All round were chellovecks well away on milk plus vellocet and synthemesc and drencrom and other veshches which take you far far far away from this wicked and real world into the land to viddy Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left sabog with lights bursting and spurting all over your mozg.
— Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

The word ‘video’ was first used in the 1930s to describe the visual channel, as opposed to the auditory channel, in early television experiments (Barbash). A ‘video’ track was first recorded in 1927 by John Logie Baird. He created a system called Phonovision that used discs to hold images. This was accomplished in a way similar to recording audio on a phonograph. By tracing a path in a disc with a rapidly moving needle a low quality image was reproduced by a cathode ray tube. Thus the medium ‘video’ has two connotations. It can be used to describe a visual channel of information or to describe a  recording medium that stores electromagnetic information.

Video comes from the latin verb videre ‘to see’ (OED). Burgess undoubtedly uses this etymology to coin the word ‘viddy’ in the vocabulary of ultra-violent London teens in A Clockwork Orange. ‘Seeing’ is often used interchangeably with ‘knowing’ in highly visual Western society. Yet seeing and knowing are completely different acts. Burgess’s dystopia arises from the confused notion that the two are synonyms. This is encapsulated by the word ‘viddy.’

The phenomena of ‘medium nesting’ can be used to separate video from film and television which previously nested older media- most notably photography and radio (“Video Killed the Radio Star”). Videos unique qualities can be discerned from an examination of its origin, comparison, and divergence from these older media. The myth of the ‘real’ in video and its predecessors reaches back to the phonograph’s tendency to capture ‘noise’ (Kittler). The video camera captures visual noise. When coupled with technological mysticism and complacent trust in science there is a danger of grafting a false ‘realness’ onto the medium. This ‘realistic effect’ occurs because “the ‘real’ is never more than an unformulated signified, sheltering behind the apparently all-powerful referent” (Barthes). Surveillance videos, pornographic videos, and documentary videos are all exploitation of this false objectivity. None would need much rhetorically induced credibility if brought in front of a jury. This is hubristic for two reasons. First, video is often of very low quality. The resolutions of photography and film have always surpassed video. Video is constructed of three colors (red, green, blue/magenta, yellow, cyan) which are displayed at different brightnesses. Video currently is most often recorded onto magnetic tape which can degrade after time or be erased (due to magnetization) altogether. It can stretch and induce ‘vertical rolling’ during playback. All of these can influence what we ‘see’ and then ‘know’ upon a later viewing. Second, video can be edited quite easily. If the time/date appears in the corner of a video it is assumed to be accurate. Other temporal ellipses are as easy (or easier) to create in video as in film. The time qualities of video, television, and film separate them as mediums. Television consists of previously recorded video and film and live broadcasting. A live television broadcast (the nightly news) is ‘immediate.’ But television is always ‘being broadcast’ so even recordings become ‘immediate’ in that there is little control of the receiver in what is mediated. Commercials capitalize on this quality in order to incite desires for food, clothing, information, sex, etc. The television medium prescribes immediate capitalistic pharmakon in order to visually manifest what the viewer should be.

Film is the opposite of television’s immediateness. It is not accessible in the normal home. Much like a play, the film creates a spectacle meant (usually) to entertain an audience in a theater. The fictionality of film and its ability to trick through montage is well known and accepted by its audience that uses it to construct cohesive visual narratives. Commercial films are created from screenplays demonstrating nesting of theater and writing media. The film then becomes a timeless entity crystalized within the confines of celluloid like carving writing into a clay tablet. The theatricality of film is regulated by time. One knows that a film will be projected whether one is there or not, and that the film will be projected at some later time. Aside from showing up in the first place film is about lack of control to the normal spectator. One goes to a theater, watches a film (and in so doing forgets reality) but at its conclusion is left back in the theater/reality. Film as media allows a timeless spectacle to exist while simultaneously refuting this as a future experience- it shows what one can never be.

Video often nests within television immediacy (previously recorded broadcast) and film timelessness (film transfers to video). Video that is broadcast is simply television as previously discussed. Video and film are much more difficult to separate (see bibliography). Video can be projected with an LCD projector in a cinema causing it to become theatrical. However, video is more often viewed alone in an intimate home setting. One has much control over when and how video is played. Furthermore there is an obvious physical difference between film and video- one is celluloid and the other is not. Video can be trapped on tape or digitized. Both can be readily copied (even with anti-copy protections) and are much more freely accessible than film. Video can be played on many different types of monitors. Lastly video is much more ‘ethereal’ than film. It is stored digitally as binary code or directly through magnetism. Video is self-reflexive (through both recording and playback characteristics) and has the ability to show one as they are.

Moving images were able to be recorded for quite some time by either filming them or using novel devices like Phonovision. The first use of tape as a recording medium was in 1956. The Ampex VRX-1000 was the first commercial videotape recorder. Its quality was very poor. The first  consumer video tape recorder was 9-feet long and weighed 900 pounds. It was not portable (obviously), but offered for sale at $30,000 in 1963. Once recording could take place the format of television radically changed. Images could be seen again and again. The consumer had to wait until 1975 when Sony released the Sony Betamax Combination TV/VCR. The next year the stand alone Betamax VCR was released and sold fairly well. In 1977 RCA introduced the VHS VCR. This was much cheaper and allowed twice as much recording time compared to the Betamax (4 vs. 2 hours). Essentially it was due to economics and good timing that VHS is now synonymous with ‘video’ tape (Betamax tapes had much better image quality). DVD has been the only recent contender to VHS (ignoring all computer video formats) having sold readily since its release in 1997. It would be difficult to create a comprehensive list of ‘dead’ video technologies (such as pixelvision). Regardless of the specific storage mechanism (so long as it is autonomous from film) video is important because of its massconsumer appeal. Video has changed television and film as each strives to become separate from each other and fill a niche market. Video is cheap and can be left recording for much longer times than film. Surveillance cameras and amateur videos tend to do just that.

Historically it was much easier to edit film than video; instead of video’s anonymous magnetic strip (although one form of early video actually consisted of small, film-like images) film has little ‘photographs’ that run through the projector at 24 frames per second. To change the film one physically ‘cut’ it and ‘spliced’ this series of photographs in somewhere else. Video could be recorded over easily. Recently there has been an explosion of new digital editing techniques that allow editing of video to be done much like that of film (frame by frame at 29.97 frames per second) on computers. Now it is actually easier and much less expensive to manipulate video than film. Film is even ‘going digital.’ It is altogether likely that video tape (VHS) will become a ‘dead medium’ in the near future and give way to digital video. Digital video, which is stored as binary code, will not loose quality if stored on a computer. Furthermore, video is increasingly striving towards the picture quality and speed of film. Commercial video cameras are now available that record at 24 frames per second. As film and video tape are digitalized they become digital video and, subsequently, fit video’s first definition again the ‘image track’ as opposed to the ‘audio track.’

The best recent example of video’s accessibility is the spectacle of the 9/11 footage. The footage was stored on video and re-broadcast over and over again until the entire country felt as though they had actually experienced the tragedy. They were in truth “far far far away from this wicked and real world” and “into the land to viddy .” Video can not perfectly replicate experience. Rather, it constitutes a different experience of fantasy and pseudo-reality [see reality/hyperreality, (2)].

McLuhan and Krauss compare video as a medium to narcissism. In a sense the obsessive rewatching of 9/11 videos makes the violence pornographic and serves as a type of auto-eroticism upon reviewing. McLuhan would say that the American public has through a real but, as a whole, distant amputation (of buildings and human life), amputated itself still further through the numbness and closure that the video medium as ‘extension’ grants. America looks into its ‘pool’ of video footage in order to counter the irritant of emotional amputation, until through increasing numbness it is unable to recognize itself anymore. Almost all Americans actually think that they were in New York/Washington DC on 9/11 when in truth they were staring into their narcissistic pools. Soon they could not even recognize themselves. That is, they thought that they were actually witnesses to the events when in truth they were just sitting and watching what they were to become through false experience. America was viddy-ing. Krauss claims narcissism as the main distinguishing factor of video art. She observed that through the ‘feedback coil of video’ “consciousness of temporality and of separation between subject and object are simultaneously submerged. The result of this submergence is, for the maker and the viewer of most video art, a kind of weightless fall through the suspended space of narcissism.” The music video is an excellent example of video art creating a fantasy pool. A music video beseeches autoerotic participation. One becomes sexually aroused, violent, and wants to buy something. The music video unrealistically presents desires that can be fulfilled in a realistic manner. One gets up and dances with Dionysian bliss, turning up the volume, while being overcome by the rapid succession of visual stimuli. The music video has the potential to replicate a similar experience every time it is played (either by the spectator on tape or by MTV).

Video art has had to overcome both this narcissistic and film/television/video medium identity crisis. What distinguishes a video artist from a film artist or a photographer? Is their work any different from what you see on television? The first video artists worked in the 1965 alongside the availability of commercial camcorders. Nam June Paik is widely cited as being the first. He experimented with the physical medium of video tape by manipulating it with magnets. This work was an attempt to demonstrate how to ‘see’ video. Many claim that video art was just another outlet for artists resisting the materiality of painting and merely served a theatrical role. This is exemplified by Dan Graham’s more conceptual/idea oriented work that contained non-manipulated timescales. Bill Viola in the 1970s stood for less self-referential work and dealt primarily with content (his work also tended to be theatrical). Video art began to get less exclusive in the 1980s and leave the museum context altogether. Documentary videographers and video artists constitute the current tendency to create concept driven work that explores editing technique or allows grass-roots political activism. This sort of work is described as a sort of moebius strip by Ryan a formula for self video taping. When you watch it back again you will declare, “wow, it’s like making it with yourself.” Perhaps this is the sort of narcissism that Krauss and McLuhan had in mind for video. Because it is so self-reflexive video art has the potential/tendency to be both ‘boring’ (Ryan) and self-reflexive and thus narcissistic. (see mirror)

Video as being a visual electromagnetically recorded channel is an incredibly broad definition of the medium. Perhaps this is why it has been going through a continual identity crisis with film and television. The work of video artists frequently takes advantage of video’s characteristics as a medium. Some of these are realism, cheapness, accessibility, fantasy, and dreamlike temporal disruption. It must be remembered that every different type of video storage medium allows more specific characteristics. Perhaps the most dramatic effect of video is its ability to distort what is ‘seen’ in a visual-centric society into what is ‘known.’ Though their blending they allow ‘viddying’ to occur – a massively replicated sociological pseudo-experience intrinsically tied to narcissism.

Justin Cassidy
Winter 2003

WORKS CITED

Antin, D. “Video: The Distinctive Features of the M edium.” Video Culture: A Critical Investigation. Ed. Hanhardt. New York, 1986.

Barbash, I and Taylor, L. Cross Cultural Filmmaking. University of California Press, 1997.

Barthes, R. “The Discourse of History.” Comparative Criticism, 3 (1981). p. 7-20.

Berger, R. “L’art video.” Art Actuel, 75 (Skira, Geneva, 1975). p. 131-137.

Fagone, V. “Video in Contemporary Art.” Artistic Creation and Video Art. (Cultural Development Documentary Dossier). 1982. p. 25-26.

Kittler, F. Grammophon Film Typewriter. Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin, 1986.

Krauss, R. “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” October, 1, no. 1 (Spring 1976).

McLuhan, M. Understanding Media. McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Roscoe, J and Hight, C. Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester University Press, 2000.

Ryan, P. Birth and Death and Cybernation: Cybernetics of the Sacred. Gordon and Breach, 1973.

Video Data Bank

Wood, P. “Television as Dream.” Television as a Cultural Force. Ed. Adler and Cater. New York: Praeger, 1976.