Pixels And Places

“Actually we know nothing about video art in public space.” That’s how art historian Catrien Schreuder introduces her book ‘Pixels and Places’ during the book presentation at Tent in Rotterdam. Video art in general is hardly investigated, although the discipline itself is already 40 years old. It’s time for a critical perspective, an interpretation that places video art in public space into a broad societal and cultural context. The book ‘Pixels and Places’ has become this overview. It’s an art-historical investigation towards the role, function and cultural meaning of video art in the public domain.

Video art is a fast emerging phenomenon in public space. Over the last years its development took a giant jump into a serious form of permanent or temporary expression. Since 1967 (as I learned while reading the book) video art plays its game in the urban landscape. There’s an incredible number of projects with different approaches and quality — too much, in fact, to mention in one book. Last years its presence and therefore importance has been rising fast. Therefore a question is put forward: which aspect of video art is relevant? The discipline of video art in the urban context varies from temporary spectacular manifestations, comparable with a firework show (and with a lot of “Whoow!” and “Ooahh!” sounds produced by a massive audience), to the hardly understandable artistic and extremely exclusive contributions on LCD panels hidden in a forest of commercial expressions. In regard to the first category, the recent work of Seeper and the Graffiti Research Lab have been mentioned on this blog before. These examples are mainly based on a technological frontier in light technology. Examples in the second category are Pipilotti Rist’s ‘Open My Glade’ and William Kentridge’s ‘Shadow Procession’. In this case, video art is about an artistic frontier — a new medium at a new place.

More than 80 video works, initiatives, organizations and artists from The Netherlands and abroad are described in this book. The moving images enrich, transform or mask the public space and inject the city with a healthy dose of imagination.

But is video art great because it’s video art? As concluded in the book, still a lot of video projects focus on the medium itself. The interactive and innovative status of video art makes companies and governments interested. Using video in public space, these institutions try to lift up their creative and innovative image, which sometimes turns video art into a gadget. Or as Allan Kaprow said in 1974, “until video is used as indifferently as the telephone, it will remain a pretentious curiosity”.

This point emphasizes the need of the publication ‘Pixels and Places’ as a thorough investigation separating projects with a real cultural significance from the hopeless efforts. Video art in general has been suffering from its freedom and status of being a form of avant-garde art, which generally means that criticizing its output is swept away with arguments about conceptual understanding.

With the new works that were mentioned above, video art has developed beyond this avant-garde status. As Schreuder explains, new reasons for using video art in public space are emerging. For instance creating a wonderful experience, or facilitating community understanding. Which means that video art as a discipline has reached a critical point. Therefore I believe it’s not a coincidence that this book is published right at this moment in history. There’s a lot more to discover in the field of video and the technical possibilities and affordability will rise. According to Schreuder, this discipline will develop even more into a natural component of regular urban spaces.

The book tells us in the first place what video art was meant to be by its makers by reconstructing the initial ideas behind it. Here, Schreuder distinguishes three different varieties of context and meaning. First, video art as a museum activity. Public space here is seen a a new platform for artisticly autonomous art. Second, a street art-based discourse in which video art connects critically with its surrounding. Third, video art as a modern form of a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ — a close collaboration between artists, architects and urbanists exists.

Speculating on the position of the built environment, it’s realistic to state that architecture is slowly changing into a canvas. Buildings get dressed up with a flexible layer of images and information, and facades in contemporary architecture become changeable and interactive, being a platform for cultural exploration and exposition. Video is used to comment on architecture and to reveal inconsequences, ugliness and boringness in the built environment. Above all, it sets great experiences and will develop even more.

Pixels and Places: Video Art in Public Space (2009)
Catrien Schreuder, Jorinde Seijdel, Noud Heerkens
NAi Publishers
Design: Kummer en Herrman
Hardback, 160 pages, 16.7 x 23 cm.