An urban myth accompanied the onset of the moving image. The year was 1895, and the Lumière brothers — the pioneers of film — produced a short movie of a steam train roaring down a railroad. When it was screened for the first time in Paris, audiences were supposedly so shocked by the image of a train barrelling towards them, they stampeded out of the cinema.
But this story seems apocryphal. Historians have struggled to find evidence that it actually occurred, but the fact that it is still being shared more a than a century later speaks to the power of the moving image. These days, the ubiquity of video is such that pretty much everyone has the power to make something far more sophisticated than the Lumière brothers ever did; every owner of a smartphone has the capacity to consider themselves a video artist. Much of the mystery and wizardry surrounding video has disappeared. In their place, we have technology that enables everyone, even children, to unthinkingly create and manipulate video.
The rise of video art
Though film has been a part of life since the days of early cinema at the turn of the last century, it was only around the time of the emergence of Sony’s Portapak cameras, released to the public in 1967, that saw the moving image taken out of the studio and into everyday life. This handheld, battery-powered camera led to the rise of video art, alongside guerrilla television production and activism. The camera’s relatively low cost gave the public, raised on the pre-eminent voice of broadcast television and the increasingly formulaic fantasies of cinemas, the ability to shoot and experiment their own versions of truth, fiction, and the spaces in between. Artists were drawn to the Portapak’s playback function, and video art pioneers like Peter Campus and Joan Jonas started experimenting with what they termed “low tech tricks” that enabled them to edit and manipulate footage.
The timing of video art’s emergence, in the late 1960s and early 70s, was apt. Where art galleries were once a dominating source of entertainment, mass produced films for the mass audiences were now the major source of entertainment. Meanwhile, the role of the artist was undergoing a significant shift. Breaking away from the idea of the artist as an aloof individual, art was starting to become more socially and politically charged, with artists across disciplines, like those in the DIY-inspired Fluxus movement, striving to transform art from an object of aesthetic contemplation to gesture of political action. These artists’ work helped pave the way towards conceptual and video art.
Meanwhile, the distinctions between art and communications were beginning to blur, just as the boundaries between low and high brow art grew more porous amid pop art’s infusion of comics, advertising and mundane culture into fine art from the 1950s onwards. Concurrent movements in performance art and installation also found a new lease on life through the video lens, as artists sought to find new ways of exploring, playing with and trying to capture time and movement. Andy Warhol was among the artists who recorded performances on film, including his 1966 piece “Chelsea Girls.” Hand-held fluidity became a favoured aesthetic, and artists emphasised process over final product. The world of video art came to be a place of unfinished business, in a sense a reaction to the stultifying conventions and reductive narratives of mass produced cinema and broadcast television.
Nam June Paik in a homage to John Cage
In terms of storytelling, there was less emphasis on plots and narratives and more focus on the creation of strong impressions that interrogated the meaning of art, entertainment and record making. Video art often consists of short, disjointed and enigmatic fragments that offer novel ways of processing and reflecting on media. Artists like Korean-American Nam June Paik, who is considered the father of video art, drew on avant-garde composer John Cage’s pioneering electronic music to find ways to imitate nature and reality through technology and man made objects. Inspired by Cage’s groundbreaking compositions, Paik created participatory music and television experiences that paralleled those musical works. Throughout his career, Paik meditated on and poked fun at society’s increasingly close relationship with the television.
Like Cage, Paik’s works and artistic practise exist at threshold of the new media movement, in which interrogating the science and philosophy behind media production serves as an important layer to the art work. Paradoxically, as the technology used to record the images and sounds of our lives becomes more complex and sophisticated, their increasingly intuitive functionality makes them more accessible. With so many people producing videos and so few of them understanding exactly how they work, the conversation around science and art grows more exclusive. This is the contradiction inherent to video art and its new media entrails. As an art form, it aimed to wrest the means of documentary production away from the elite, but its success in doing so has produced an increasingly esoteric discipline.
While anyone with a smartphone can fancy themselves a video artist, how much of the current era’s vast amount of media production is self-aware, and how much is the result of meaningless, bovine media consumption? That’s a question artists will continue to ask as new technologies and patterns of usage continue to be assimilated into our digital lives, which transform regularly with few of us even noticing.
Video art in Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s artists have a particularly strong tendency towards incorporating video along with mixed media works, like installation, performance and digital art. But, while the city has a long history of film production, the local video art scene took a while to take off. Its beginning can be traced to the establishment of non-profit video art group Videotage in 1986, which laid the groundwork for a scene that has become diverse and exciting, with a bright future.
Founded by a group of artists and intellectuals that included Ellen Pau, May Fung, Wong Chi-Fai and Comyn Mo, Videotage has become one of the leading non-profit institutions in Hong Kong’s cultural scene. When it was first launched, the only major Hong Kong group making headway with video art was experimental theatre ensemble Zuni Icosahedron, founded in 1982, which incorporated video into their performance pieces.
This is where Videotage’s four co-founders initially met, working on videos together and using the space for screenings before moving to a permanent site in Old Street Art Village in 1998. Videotage helped foster numerous budding artists wanting to incorporate new media into their works, while creating a platform for dialogue and collaboration between emerging and established artists. Since then, the scene has flourished, diversified and grown complex.
One of Videotage’s leading figures Ellen Pau is a self-taught artist who originally worked as a radiographer. She is a stalwart figure in Hong Kong’s new media landscape, thanks to her exploration of gender issues (among other subjects) in a strong body of work that has garnered international recognition. That has been especially true since 1995, when Pau’s work was shown at the Gwangiu Biennale in Korea – an event co-curated by Nam-June Paik. She now serves on the advisory board of members, while Videotage’s current chairman is Dr. Isaac Leung Hok Bun, a respected artist, curator and researcher with a new media focus.
What distinguishes Hong Kong’s video art scene is the way it crosses between disciplines. It’s a medium that straddles different disciplines, as is evidences by how many of its initial pioneers work across the city’s art sphere. The lines between video art and the commercial scene has always been blurred, with director John Woo having made experimental films in the 60s, by way of example. Other groups have emerged with focuses somewhat different to Videotage, among them Video Power – an activist group that aims to lend a voice to disadvantaged groups, and Floating Projects Collective, an experimental interdisciplinary art community lead by artist/ intellectual Linda Lai.
Zuni Icosahedron founder Danny Yung — also known for his work as a cartoonist — incorporates performance in his video art, alongside a deep understanding of classical Chinese thought. One of his seminal works draws on the classic Chinese divination text the I Ching, showing the ample opportunities the Chinese canon offers when it comes to exploring different ways of understanding the cross section of time and space. Featured in Videotage’s 2016 retrospective on Hong Kong video art called No References, Yung’s 2000 work “Video Circle” involved 32 television sets and video players arranged in a circle, screening three minute videos produced by 108 artists from across Asia-Pacific. These videos played from one set to another in a counter-clockwise sequence, forming a running wheel of image-and-sound movement.
While Hong Kong video artists have explored a diverse range of topics, recent years have seen the emergence of more up-and-coming video artists that have adopted a more slapdash, playful edge. “We see this new diversity of video artists as an advantage,” says Videotage spokesperson Joseph Chen. “I think that video art in Hong Kong is starting to get more recognition worldwide, and I think it’s great that more people are aware of it and using it in different ways, whether its through abstract works or story based video.” That diversity of output also means there’s a greater chance of engaging a broader audience – a shift in focus across art forms that will hopefully see more people enjoying art rather than feeling threatened by or excluded from it.
Explore Hong Kong’s video art with Art in the Bar, a one-day festival organised by COBO Social on September 14, 2017. Events will take place in 11 bars around town. Click here for more information.
Zolima CityMag is a proud media partner of this festival.