The Paradox of media art popularization
The distribution of media art is in a paradoxical situation: Works of art created in electronic-media formats make only limited use of the extraordinary potential for dissemination that is inherent to those media. It appears that the very mediality of such works is a handicap when it comes to conventional channels for promoting, evaluating and distributing art. Media art is difficult to disseminate through the classic text-plus-illustration format of books and magazines, since experiencing the multi-mediality of such works is essential to grasping their meaning. This means (among other things) that in print publications, a reviewer’s subjective impressions of a work of media art take on an exaggerated role: When an author describes a painting, every reader can compare the text with the illustration and form his or her own opinion, but this is impossible in the case of a time-based, process-oriented and/or interactive work of media art. A printed description with a still photograph to illustrate it simply cannot substitute for actually experiencing the work.
At the same time, experiencing a work directly is no simple matter: When Nam June Paik — undoubtedly the most renowned of video artists — is to be the subject of a lecture or seminar, where can art historians, instructors or students actually see Paik’s video works? If funding permits — which it usually doesn’t — they might rent or buy them from the distributors (Electronic Arts Intermix). Paik’s works are also available in some public collections — but how many of us find it convenient to make a trip to the Karlsruhe Centre for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in order to spend two days watching videos there? And what if repeated viewings are often needed for closer analysis of specific aspects of the work?
The Advantages of a DVD Publications
In the case of classic linear video works, we face problems of distribution and availability that can be overcome — for example, by publishing a national history of video art in DVD format, as is now being done in Poland, and as has already been done in Germany, Spain and Slovenia. These national works are praiseworthy indeed, and perhaps one day an international project will arise; something of this sort already exists in the Internet, but it offers only excerpts of video works (www.mediaartnet.org). On the other hand, DVD publications have their limitations: While they serve nicely for the dissemination of linear video works, they are less suited to the distribution of video installations; and in the case of interactive works, they can serve only as documentation.
A Dual Context: Theory and Technology
Understanding media art requires two areas of expertise: A given work should be considered in relation to the general artistic trends of its time as well as in the context of developments in the media, in terms of both content and technology. For example, most of the video works of Nam June Paik were created for and shown on television — and their proper place is in that mass medium, not a museum. This is evident not only from the playful way most of his works are structured, but also from the advanced technology of the production (which was partially funded by television), and above all from their message: Such works as Global Groove or Good Morning Mr Orwell offer utopian visions of television of the future, comparable in many ways to the media theories of Marshall McLuhan.
The Medium vs the Market
Along with technology and theory, there’s a third factor — one that’s becoming more and more crucial to the recognition of media art: the art market. And here the commercialization and privatization of institutions that have traditionally engaged in the evaluation of art — private museums, sposored exhibitions, art journals, etc. — is playing a decisive role. One influential current trend is for a form that falls somewhere between a video tape and a video installation: a linear work screened on a wall, using projectors that work in daylight conditions, which puts video art on an equal footing with painting or photography displayed on the wall. In the past video tapes were treated as a cross between art books and multiple art — something to be kept on the shelf, to be taken out and played back as the occasion arose. But now that technological advances permit this new “single-channel installation” format, video art is much more extensively displayed in museums, and has thus achieved remarkable success in the art market: A video work by one of the current stars, issued as a limited-edition DVD, can easily fetch from 30,000 to 50,000 euros.
This is forcing classic video artists to ponder the mistakes they made in the 1970s and ’80s, when — believing in the democratic promise of a mechanically reproducible art form — they offered their videos at affordable prices, in large or even unlimited editions that (to add insult to injury) didn’t sell particularly well. But these new improved marketing strategies pose a barrier to the dissemination of art: Works issued on DVD and treated as installations are now considered orginals, and as such are no longer freely available for screenings; they are treated as exhibit items with their own insurance and borrowers’ tickets — even though digital technology would allow for their unlimited reproduction.
The publication of an anthology of historic video works on DVD shows that this medium allows for a different strategy — a non-elitist, democratic approach that’s consistent with the nature of the medium — but it will certainly not turn the artists involved into commercial success stories. For that to happen, large editions are needed — larger than video art will ever achieve. We’re a long way from mainstream Hollywood, whose productions generate more profits from DVD sales than they do in the cinema.
Exclusivity vs Mass Production
The evaluation of art has always been based on its market value — especially when there’s a widespread shortage of other criteria. The fundamental principle of market value is exclusivity: The rarer a given item is, the higher its price will be. In the realm of visual arts, the time-honored definition of an original has withstood all kinds of technological and media revolutions, as well as every media theory that’s arisen since Walter Benjamin. Due to dramatic changes in the media the term even gained radicalism and power: An original no longer needs to be handmade; no one engages any more in dramatic debates over whether a work is Rembrandt’s own or merely Rembrandt’s school. Ever since Duchamp’s ready-mades, the notion of an original has had a purely conceptual meaning. That awareness put conceptual artists in the 1970s way ahead of their counterparts in video art, who still had faith in the material authenticity of an image, even when it took the ephemeral form of an electronic signal. The notion of an original turned the visual arts, in spite of all their conceptualism, into an island of archaism, full of rare objects, kept exclusive by artificial means in a sea of mass-produced culture. This is a contrast to the mechanisms of value-creation in literature, music and film, where the mass principle has already taken over: the number of CDs, books or cinema tickets sold.
Of course, a number of interesting fringe phenomena also arise – for example, the distribution of millions of copies of a Björk video clip. Its commercial function, though, is to promote the record; the video itself is not the product. When the art world discovers video-clip directors (such as Chris Cunningham, who has worked repeatedly with Björk), museums heap laurels on their work. It should be interesting to watch a new marketing strategy emerge that will turn these clips back into originals so that they’re salable on the art market.
Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, like Salvador Dali and Amanda Lear, have already tried out this peculiar cross of art with popular culture, with its remarkable ability to rev the motor of the so-called entertainment economy. It doesn’t, however, serve to create value for works of art, unless they are reduced to the status of relics for fans — in which case it doesn’t matter whether the blond wig belonged to Andy Warhol or to Marilyn Monroe.
But when an art form treats its own mediality seriously, it is shut off from the eternal triangle that links the artist, the gallery and the collector. This is illustrated just as well by the current example of net art as it was thirty years ago by Gerry Schum’s television gallery. Schum tried to overcome that eternal triangle by putting art on TV, making its televised transmission more important than owning it. But the attempt resulted in his downfall as an art dealer: Despite his initial success, television chose not to prolong the collaboration.
At least in terms of access to history, the publication of a set of historic video works on DVD provides solution to a problem that Schum and artists of the 1960s and ’70s stuggled with in vain. It can even be said that this publication is — despite the increasing commercialization of our times — a belated vindication of history.
Leipzig, August 23th, 2004
(translated by Sherill Howard Pociecha)