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Published June 19, 2023

Video’s Past and Future at MoMA

By Zach Ngin

Zach Ngin is an art worker and writer from San Francisco. They focus on modern and contemporary art, and are currently working on a project about the prison paintings of Martin Wong.

Installation views of Signals: How Video Transformed the World, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from March 5 – July 08, 2023. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

In March, the Museum of Modern Art opened Signals: How Video Transformed the World, billed as its largest-ever exhibition of media art. Organized by a curatorial team led by Stuart Comer and Michelle Kuo, the show sprawls across the museum’s seventh floor galleries, spanning works from the 1960s through today. The exhibition skirts the edges of the medium’s canon. Instead, it emphasizes the political dimensions of video: forms of interference and protest as well as the creation of new publics and networks.

Artists’ utopian hopes for the medium of video were always connected to its formal qualities. While film and video are largely interchangeable today, early video makers experimented with the qualities that distinguished video (recorded on magnetic tape) from film (recorded on celluloid): instant playback, circuits of recording and broadcast, and the potential of continuous feedback. Video was both inextricably connected to the era’s dominant form of media – television – and a salvo against it. These artists did not harbor any illusions about the medium’s participation in regimes of control, ranging from state surveillance to the ideological conditioning of corporate media.

Signals, then, begins with artists’ attempts to deploy TV against itself. As the exhibition advances towards the present, it grapples with how artists have responded to changing media and political landscapes. In today’s digital age, video comes at us from every direction, vying for our attention: it has indeed transformed the world, but not how many artists hoped it would. As the following selection of work from the show demonstrates, Signals insists that there is still something to learn from video’s past and present dream of really reaching someone.

TVTV, Four More Years, 1972

Video art emerged in tandem with new consumer technologies like the 1967 Sony Portapak, the first portable and affordable recording device. Artists were no longer confined to the length of a film reel, nor was it necessary to develop film before viewing or broadcasting it. These qualities were put to diverse uses. Some artists experimented with recordings and distortions of their own bodies, famously leading the art historian Rosalind Krauss to describe early video as “an aesthetics of narcissism.” But others work collectively, blurring the lines between artist, journalist, and activist. They brought their cameras into public space to document the era’s political tumult and countercultural movements. A sampling of work by these “guerilla television” collectives is on view in Signals, including a newsreel from the 1972 Republican National Convention produced by Top Value Television (TVTV).

Installation views of Signals: How Video Transformed the World, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from March 5 – July 08, 2023. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

Stan VanDerBeek, Movie-Drome, 1964-65.

This landmark of expanded cinema, reconstructed for the exhibition, embodies the utopian dream of connectivity. It consists of a dome – the top of a grain silo – filled with an ever-changing field of projected images. While immersive video installations are now commonplace, VanDerBeek’s ambitions were grand: he imagined a global network of Movie-Dromes linked by orbiting satellites. This “experience machine,” as VanDerBeek described it, would “make the world audience ‘self’ conscious of itself,” promoting peace and co-existence. But as Felicity D. Scott points out in the exhibition catalog, VanDerBeek also envisioned that this network would help the “under-developed” world “catch up to the twentieth century.” His dream of connection, then, cannot be neatly separated from Cold War geopolitics and a telos of modernization. As if hinting at the project’s dark side, two “surveillance sculptures” (one by Frank Gilette and Ira Schneider; the other by Julia Scher) share a gallery with Movie-Drome, enacting the alienating and disjunctive potential of technology.

Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică. Videograms of a Revolution. 1992. 16mm film transferred to standard-definition video (color, sound). 106 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously in honor of Anna Marie Shapiro. © 2022 Harun Farocki Filmproduktion

Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujică, Videograms of a Revolution, 1992.

Videograms of a Revolution tells the story of six fateful days in December 1989, from the last speech of Nicolae Ceaușescu to the Romanian dictator’s trial and execution. Protesters occupy and defend the TV station in Bucharest: previously an organ of state propaganda, the broadcast announces the progress of the revolution. Throughout the film, Farocki and Ujică devote attention to how cameras actively shaped these events. Sometimes, for instance, statements must be repeated for the camera – they must be properly recorded to register as real. By parsing amateur footage and revolutionary broadcasts, Farocki and Ujică show how video becomes the medium of history itself, the site of its construction as well as its unfolding.

Chto Delat, The Excluded. In a Moment of Danger, 2014.

While the previous works all engage the technology of broadcast TV, the more contemporary works in Signals confront the possibilities and challenges of the digital age. The Excluded begins with performers logging onto social networks and scrolling through the tumult of the present: protests, riot police, a downed aircraft in Ukraine. The Chto Delat, (translating to “What is to be done?”) is a dissident artist collective in Russia; its members are now in exile. In The Excluded, performers respond to a series of prompts: they announce their coordinates; they listen to each other; they build a monument to their “unlucky heroes” with their bodies. Created shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and during the escalation of domestic repression, The Excluded tries to find embodied political language for a moment of despair. “Where were our mistakes? What were they? Where did we go wrong?” the collective writes in an accompanying text. “This film tests these questions in a situation that has shown all our radiant, seemingly proven intellectual constructions to be inoperative.”

Sandra Mujinga, Flo, 2019.

A spectral green figure sways, luminesces, fades. Named for the artist’s mother, Flo is a hologram produced by an illusion called Pepper’s ghost. While this technique dates back to the 19th century, Mujinga also employs 21st century tools of digital compositing and manipulation. Flo is derived from a model wearing one of Mujinga’s sculptures, but it hovers between presence and absence, fog and embodiment. In the artist’s words, Flo responds to the “contradictions of being hyper-visible and invisible at the same time, which I think is a reality for many Black bodies.” From 19th century lynching postcards to digitally circulated videos of police murders, visibility has been no guarantee of safety for Black people. Opaque and constantly in flux, Flo is an enchanting testament to the utopian potential of staying in the dark.

Tiffany Sia. Never Rest / Unrest. 2020. High-definition video (color, sound). 29 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2022 Tiffany Sia.

Tiffany Sia, Never Rest/Unrest, 2020.

Sia’s work is displayed inconspicuously in a window, framing her footage of Hong Kong with the high-rises of midtown Manhattan. Its placement accords with the video’s emphasis on the quotidian. While it was filmed during the city’s 2019 protest movement, it avoids spectacular scenes of history-in-the-making. Its focus is the daily texture of events: subway rides to demonstrations, people doing tai chi in the park. “The tactic was to show seemingly banal, insignificant scenes that suggest the relentlessness of everyday habitual resistance and the invisible spirit of the movement,” Sia explains in the exhibition catalog. Unlike the older works in the exhibition, Never Rest/Unrest has a vertical aspect ratio: Sia shot it on her cell phone. The internet, now, is the network we maneuver within: a site of censorship and repression as well as new movements and communities, ranging from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter. Resisting the panoramic sweep of a resolved narrative, Never Rest/Unrest is a work produced by and for the uncertainty of the present.

Signals is on view at the Museum of Modern Art until July 8. Many single-channel works from the show – including aforementioned pieces by TVTV, Harun Farocki, and Andrei Ujică – are available to stream for free on the museum’s website during its run.

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