door Tom Sherman, 2005 (ed. 2008)

Technological evolution, the repeated near-death of video art, and the life force of vernacular video…

The medium of video continues to be revitalized by advances in technology. Video art, as a genre of activity by artists, has been pushed around and roughed up by technological evolution from the earliest days. In video’s short forty-year history, things have been turned inside out by the digital revolution. Everything analog is now digital. Camcorder evolution and proliferation has been incredible. Industry studies indicate there are over 150 million digital camcorders worldwide. Computer-based non-linear editing is easily accessible, having become a standard feature of nearly every computer. Recent advances in display technologies have been phenomenal. LCD (liquid crystal displays) and DLP (digital light processing) projectors are bright and sharp and coming down in price. Plasma screens offer new degrees of sensuality. LED (light-emitting diode) and OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technologies promise the continued spread of paper-thin, energy efficient screens from laptops and cell phones onto virtually any surface, including clothing and walls. The medium of video, now practically everywhere, is about to explode into hyper-saturation. The energy and scope of the digital video revolution cannot be exaggerated. Prepare to be overwhelmed by video data.

Video is now the primary node of the publishing industry. The DVD, a transitional form of video memory, distributes motion pictures and every other form of AV information. The entertainment and educational sectors rely on the DVD for the secure distribution of their products. Web streaming is coming on fast as broadband networks open up to more and more traffic and text communications begins to yield to Web-AV. Video-capable cell phones will push video-clip transmissions to an unprecedented commonness.

Video’s evolutionary benchmarks are clear. There has been a complete transformation from analog to digital, linear to non-linear. Videotape is being replaced by disk and hard-drive, and this will continue to solid state. There have been vast improvements in capture and display. Web streaming and file sharing have transformed distribution and exhibition. Transmission, once the exclusive function of television (a centralized, one-to-many wireless video-based medium for the delivery of cinema, live performance, and video), will soon be completely decentralized (one-to-one, many-to-many) through videophones.

Prosumer technologies

Sony’s early 1980s strategy to develop prosumer (PROfessional conSUMER) electronics has been largely realized. Today’s consumer electronics are sophisticated enough to satisfy the needs of a wide spectrum of users. HD (high definition) camcorders are now affordable to the professional amateur (ProAm). Any individual with a top-of-the-line, consumer-level camcorder, can work with images and sounds compatible with professional, corporate and institutional standards. High fidelity gear is accessible to an increasingly broad spectrum of information providers and the quality of image and sound reproduction continues to advance.

With all this talk about technology, one might ask if video is a tool or an art medium? The answer is video is both. Until the video medium actually obsolesces, or evolves into something else, video art will remain an obscure footnote to the far more extensive and pervasive phenomenon of video as tool. Video is not an obsolete communications medium like painting. Nobody would consider running a political campaign using oil painting as his or her primary medium. Oil paint is for making art, and art alone. Video, on the other hand, is a multi-purpose medium. Video art is a small niche of activity when considered in the context of music video, video gaming, video conferencing, video surveillance, video dating, video-assisted kinesthetics, video real estate, video instruction, etc. Video is first and foremost a tool, a medium for making messages in video with synchronous audio. Artists also use video as a medium for making art. This practice of using video to make art is constantly challenged by all other uses of the medium. The medium’s ubiquity and utility both enrich and continuously undermine its suitability as an art medium.

Semantic erosion

Many of the challenges to video art are semantic in nature. For instance, “digital cinema” describes video used by filmmakers. Filmmakers are practitioners of cinema. Technological evolution has dictated that they must work primarily in video. Rather than adopt video as a description of what they do, filmmakers choose to call video something more akin to what they wish to do (i.e. “digital cinema”). That is, they are seeking ways to describe their attempts to advance cinematic practice in video. Video, as a term, fails to adequately describe their history and current intent. “Video cinema” or “video film” doesn’t work for them, although it might be more a more accurate description of their current activity. ‘Cinematic video’ would probably suit the filmmakers better. The problem with the word video is its emptiness, its imprecision. Video is an empty word like information or art. It describes a particular ‘species’ of technology, but this technology is liquid and ubiquitous and it has attached itself to practically everything. The term video is spread way too thin. When a single word like video can be used to describe so many different things, semantic inflation occurs.

Pushing semantic inflation aside for a moment, video, the technology, continues to spread. Video art, as a practice, as an idea, will continue to be undermined as video, the medium, proliferates, and is used effectively for everything under the sun. A wide spectrum of diverse video applications dwarfs video as an art form. With this said, it is always preferable to work with media alive with possibilities and potential. Video is white hot in the 21st century. It is the peoples’ medium. Artists must pay attention to the vernacular use of video technology. Audiences will come to video art with their own video experience and literacy. Personal communications and media technologies based on video in its material, electronic, digital form, will determine how people make and relate to video messages in the future. Vernacular video will determine a complex set of expectations for video.

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