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Art Vacuum

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In the 1980s when video was beginning to become popular, there was a Korean American video artist called Nam June Paik. He was one of the first to see artistic potential in this new medium that wasn’t film. Once, when asked about the difference between film and video, he was quoted as saying “Film is like the moon. It only reflects light. Video is like The Sun. It gives light.” I remember thinking this made sense but, on reflection, it’s a load of crap. It’s true a film screen uses reflected light to show images and it’s true a video monitor emits light to show them but equating those two characteristics of The Sun and The Moon to make inferences about size, centrality and importance is what’s known as Inductive Fallacy. There’s also the niggle of implying this alleged difference is more significant than any content. The new art genre of video art required video artists to make video art and accordingly, they spent much time expressing things film could not express and that video as a medium could. In reality, this often meant multiple monitors strewn around galleries, emitting nothing but audio and visual static.

Tangential I know, but there’s also the cultural niggle of implying Sun worshippers are superior to Moon worshippers. Cultures with Sun-derived religions may be more likely to have been settled farmers sensitive to the cycles of the Sun while cultures with Moon worshipping religions may be more likely to have been nomadic herders sensitive to the cycles of the Moon because they needed to keep track of their animals at all hours. This observation makes a certain kind of sense too and is probably as true as anything else but it doesn’t say rice is better than goat or wheat superior to camel.

In fairness, it was the 1980s and Paik’s response was typical for a world where the medium was being said to be the message. This championing of the medium was of course the death of content, instantly negating everything Truffaut, Antonioni, Kuraowawa, etc. had done for film since the invention of projection. It also heralded the death of narrative in the sense of telling stories. Having said that, there’s a kind of sweetness to these early examples of video art and I was surprised to find myself pleased to see them again. This is Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, from 1995,

Mostly, television sets were used in unconventional ways to show some kind of videotaped or perhaps live content as part of a sculptural installation or performance. It’s just how I see it, but the real things we see are juxtaposed with video (i.e. onscreen) content and some sort of new meaning is meant to come from that.

It’s easy to see why Paik’s best known work is his series of Buddhas contemplating themselves onscreen. The Buddha doesn’t move and neither does the image onscreen but it’s still a live video feed of (reflected light) being converted into electrical impulses and emitted onscreen to enter the eye of the virtual contemplator, whose image is being videod, etc. Film never had this recursiveness. The point of the Buddha’s is for our relationship to video being questioned, subverted, and so on as is the way of art and artists. It didn’t change how we think about our relationship to screens and live video feed. And nor does it matter because the world and technology have moved on since. In a Skype video call, the screen was only refreshed for those parts of the screen for which movement is detected. Paik’s Buddhas would make not make the same sense on Skype video feed that has only the potential for refreshing. I was curious to see what Paik did after. These are from circa 1993.

If Skype is now beginning to seem a little old fashioned, then these video monitors are quaint relics of a distant age. The idea of watching any kind of image on a cathode-ray tube powered by transistors simply never developed a cult following like listening to music on vinyl did. Is anybody still making video art? Or is it now in some late-Mannerist stage where all it can do is parody itself in the name of art?

In the 1980s video art may have been shocking because, until then, our relationship with screens was a passive one, consuming news and entertainment. We looked at printed things called television programs to find out what each channel would broadcast the following week. Until the advent of cable networks we weren’t even aware we were watching “terrestrial” television. Cable networks offered old movie channels, DIY channels, shopping channels and specialist channels such as Discovery and MTV. Most of this content could still be consumed in the same way as terrestrial content had been, but shopping channels brought a new level of interactivity and compulsiveness to the act of shopping. Shopping was presented and consumed as entertainment long before Rem Koolhaas tried to persuade us it needed buildings to be so.

Some of us would program mostly VHS but occasionally Betamax video recorders to record programs or movies we were now able to not be home to watch. This was the birth of on-demand entertainment. We could fast-forward through advertisements. Rental video stores meant we could binge watch movies all weekend. Our screen content was much the same, but there was suddenly more of it, and we would watch it at any time.

Computing changed our relationship to screens once again when office and all manner of work-related tasks began to be conducted on screens. Spreadsheets replaced ledgers and, at first, dedicated word processors replaced typewriters and, as soon as anything could be done on a personal computer with the appropriate software package, Internet access meant we could watch the news, write a few personal emails, book holidays and generally goof off anytime. Social media was to take the science of distraction to a whole new level.

Cellphones are now indisputably the screen we look at the most. My daily and weekly averages are down from last week, but then I do spend a lot of time on my laptop.

Since the mid-1970s we’ve had all these screens enter our lives but I’ve yet to see any cellphone art beyond a wallpaper or decorated protective cover. We use our cellphones to draw things, and people like David Hockney can produce wonderful iPad “paintings” but the cellphone has no identity as a new medium as video once did. It might just be that we’re so busy using our phones to purchase things and keep ourselves amused or informed of whatever we think we need to know, that we’ve simply no time for art that isn’t an image, video or music – the only three formats that, other than text, a cellphone screen can reproduce with any degree of fidelity. In other words, our preferences are being shaped by the limitations of technology. And we are being led by those limitations.

The only time art gets a mention of late is with respect to NFTs. This type of art is generally some kind of digital content that can be viewed onscreen. Anyone can visually consume it but the satisfaction that comes from being identified as the owner of it belongs to (and, in a sense, consumed by) the person who paid to have that satisfaction. This has always been the essence of the artistic economy. The aesthetics of the product matter little. The only downside is that the products to which this value is attached and traded tend to be resolutely two-dimensional.

You may have seen this in Architectural Digest in March last year. It’s a virtual house for Mars – of course it is. Video artist Krista Kim declares “Everyone should install an LED wall in their house for NFT art,” says the artist. “This is the future, and Mars House demonstrates the beauty of that possibility.” 

It’s a future. Questions of ownership aside, these digital representations of alternate pseudo-architectural realities do, on some level, allow us to project ourselves into that space and imagine ourselves in it, but no more than we’d do by looking at a photograph or fly-through or some interactive click-through on some estate agents’ website.

The single room in Black Mirror S01E02 “15 Million Credits” at least exists in three dimensions even if the space it implies is a virtual one. A room like this could have its uses in the same way a sauna is a specialized room with only one main function. Also, and again much like a sauna, it’s possible for two people to be in this space and have a conversation, for example. The implied spatial experience isn’t the sole reason for human existence.

This of course, brings us to the Zuckerverse. If we’re all going to be wearing VR headsets then it’s not going to be necessary to have a real space in order to magic up a pseudo-reality like in the image above. With headsets, any opportunity for social interaction not via VR headset is eliminated. Preventing people from getting together and talking amongst themselves is an idea loved by oppressors throughout history. Who stands to gain what from an environment where all human interaction is monitored? What do we get in return and will it ever be worth it?

The idea of virtual architectural spaces isn’t new but the idea of a virtual representation of an architectural space being an end in itself is. They already exist in computer games so it’s not such a big leap. It will all develop in its own way and in line with what can be monetized. This won’t necessarily be in line with what we want or might like. I don’t see this ending well for architecture. An increased online presence might reduce our spatial footprint in the here and now and this might have know-on benefits for resource allocation. It hasn’t happened yet. After all, it never took that much space to read a book and be transported to a different time and place but, as anyone who reads books knows, they do take up a lot of space.

• • • 

Today, I was saddened to learn of Ricardo Bofill’s death. When I remember how Bofill was never included in the past 40 or 50 years of architectural chatter, it’s infuriating to read some of the things that have been written about him so far, and to imagine those that will be. For now though, this post from July 2019 still stands as a tribute to a wonderful life in architecture, and to some wonderfully humane architecture.