Landmark advances in video-projection technology led to 'the new painting'

By Blake Gopnik
Sunday, September 5, 2010; E01


Around 1425, in Flanders, oil paint came on the scene. Within 50 years, there was Leonardo da Vinci and his amazing effects of light and space.

On Sept. 11, 1841, in Washington, John Goffe Rand patented squeezable tubes that made oil paints portable. By the 1870s, we had Claude Monet and his outdoor "impressions."

On Sept. 27, 1988, Kodak introduced its LC500, the first compact video projector. Two decades later, we're seeing the apotheosis of video art. Some of today's most adventurous artists -- Douglas Gordon, Gillian Wearing, Stan Douglas -- could not be who they are if they could not project their art.

It's not a huge stretch to say that projected video is the one great art form that is truly of our time.

Right now, in an art center called Site Santa Fe, one of the country's few biennials of international contemporary art is completely devoted to video, almost all of it projected.

In Washington, the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum is trumpeting the fifth anniversary of its basement Black Box space, which is dedicated to video projections. Celebrations include the announcement of an upcoming move to bigger, posher quarters that will have room for multi-screen works. Pending that move, Black Box just launched a riveting projection of a McDonald's as it floods, by the Danish collective known as Superflex; upstairs, one of the Hirshhorn's permanent-collection galleries is featuring a projection of a day at the North Pole, by Dutchman Guido van der Werve. Down the Mall at the Sackler Gallery, part of the national museum of Asian art, curators are about to launch a major show of Fiona Tan, a Dutch Indonesian who works in projection. And up in Bethesda on Wednesday night, the city's Trawick Prize was, for the first time, awarded for projected art.

At the back of my daybook, I keep an ever-changing list of the contemporary artists I'm most interested in. Right now, two-thirds of them use projectors.

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The standard Genesis myth for video art centers on the arrival of Sony's lightweight "Portapak" recorder, in 1967, and the monitors it filled with art. Bill Viola, a 59-year-old Californian who counts as the Godfather of Video, describes first getting his hands on a Portapak in 1970, on an icy pavement in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was in college: "I dropped it, actually."

But I believe that 20 years later, when video made the switch from monitors to projection, the form was reborn. Its rebirth brought new life to all contemporary art.

With the older, more static mediastill used by today's artists , I always have a nagging feeling that a lot of what I like today recycles older work I also like. I admire the clothes-hanger sculpture of Dan Steinhilber, one of Washington's best artists. But I can't help notice that Man Ray conceived something pretty close back in 1920. When it comes to my favorite video art, however, the precedents are barely there.

Viola recalls that there were video projectors as early as the 1960s, but they were huge and ornery machines, sometimes dangerous and certainly expensive, meant mostly for stadium rock. Only the bravest artists used them.

Large-scale video took off, he says, only in the 1990s, after business executives started moving from overhead transparencies to computer presentations, and a market developed for projectors that could put those presentations on-screen. Who'd have thought that PowerPoint would change the game for moving-image art?

Gallery-goers who had become used to the poky, lo-fi, TV-scaled world of early video art can remember their jaws dropping when they first saw the spectacle of huge forms dancing on a gallery wall. Even in today's world of giant plasma screens, the biggest monitor can't come close to achieving the scale and impact of a projection.

It's true that the moving image hit its stride long before that moment. There's a convincing argument that the feature film, as projected in theaters for more than a century now, is the great art form of the modern world, easily out-signifying paintings and sculptures and installations.

But if we narrow our scope to the fine art we find in museums, then projected film has never had much luck.

Experimental cinema has always been "quarantined" from other museum-worthy artworks, Viola says. Early on, it was mostly seen in sit-down auditoriums where visitors were expected to stay from beginning to end. Even in the 1960s, when some films migrated to gallery spaces, it was often for short-term festivals or scheduled screenings.

Barbara London, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York who was an early adopter of media art, remembers how painful it was to assemble and run the equipment needed for a film-based show: "People would have [to stand] on their heads to do the tech. Where video lets you turn on a player and projector and walk away for the day, "with film, it had to be turned on and turned off," recalls Kerry Brougher, the Hirshhorn's chief curator. At most, a handful of films might be on view at once, since film projectors needed projectionists to work them.

Brougher, who is 57, had his first training in film, not fine art, so in 2008 he launched a two-part Hirshhorn show called "The Cinema Effect" that explored the intersection of the two. Ironically, his film show is typical of the kind of exhibition that video projection made possible.

In shows like Brougher's, we now get dozens of moving images shown almost shoulder-to-shoulder, in a display that feels more like a traditional art exhibition than like a bunch of screenings at your local cineplex.

You wander from space to space, from projection to projection, taking in each piece for as long as you want, going back to those you've seen to get more out of them, barely glancing at others. The video projector, that is, has changed the art of the moving image from being about events, on a schedule, to being about works, in a setting. It has made artistic moving pictures migrate from the world of film to the world of painting and sculpture.

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Seemingly trivial facts about video projection have had profound implications for its success as a museum-based art form.

Today's video projectors, for example, are much brighter than the ones typically used for film, allowing videos to be shown in rooms that are light enough for nearby paintings or photos, says Al Masino, who's in charge of mounting exhibitions at the Hirshhorn. Moving images no longer have to be hived off from older art forms; they've broken out of the cinema ghetto.

Film projectors, already noisy and mechanical and clunky, have to be set down right among the people watching a piece, because their lenses need to point straight toward the middle of the screen. Visitors become acutely aware of how an image is produced, and are even likely to cast their shadows onto it by accident. Tacita Dean, a wonderful British artist who works exclusively with film, recently showed a multi-image piece at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Visitors were so intrigued by the projectors in their midst that they used them to dance shadow puppets across the poor artist's screens.

With current video, on the other hand, the compact, lightweight, mostly solid-state machinery is designed so it can be mounted high up near the ceiling, where it's so out of the way it almost vanishes. The image can appear on the wall or in an installation almost as an apparition, without much evidence of how it got there. Contrast that to videos shown on monitors: Whatever the images they carry, they always also register as high-tech objects -- as lame sculptures made of shiny metal and black plastic with the words "SONY" or "PANASONIC" on their fronts.

With the advent of high-definition projections, which are just now taking over, scan lines and pixels and other classic "artifacts" of the technology are on their way to disappearing. Viola says that at long last he finds himself satisfied with "the amount of visual information they can cram in there" -- as much as there is on 35mm film, he believes. A video projection barely even reads as video anymore. It comes off as a free-floating, medium-free image -- "a moving stream of consciousness that connects with yours," as Viola puts it.

Video has finally started to achieve the kind of cultural transparency that painting once had. Before photography, when the world appeared to us in images, we simply assumed that it came clothed in paint. We didn't remark on the medium itself. It was simply the carrier for its subject matter.

That's where video may be today. "Ultimately, it now comes down to content," says Viola.

Today's projected art can be about almost anything. It can be about a fictional society in chaos, as in the wonderful show that MoMA gave last year to Dutchman Aernout Mik, whose projections touched down in spaces across the museum. Or it can be about time and light at the North Pole or the drowning of a fast-food joint, as in the Hirshhorn's projections.

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Video projections are so much not about themselves that they can even channel and revive older media. The latest Site Santa Fe biennial, titled "The Dissolve," is all about how low-tech, handmade art forms -- especially as used in early cinema -- have been reanimated as video. The African American artist Kara Walker has a powerful new video that presents straight, almost documentary footage of a shadow-puppet play set in the Jim Crow South. A compelling video by Ezra Johnson, a young New Yorker, tells the story of an Old Master art theft and a fire, using a handful of crude oil paintings that are painted and repainted for each new frame of animation. Thanks to video, coarse modern painting gets to talk about the value of fine old painting, and how it plays out in a cops-and-robbers world.

The German artist Thomas Demand, best known for photos of cardboard reconstructions of real scenes, presents cellophane candy wrappers animated as raindrops. (The piece was shot on 35mm film, but curators persuaded Demand to let it join their show as a work in high-def video.)

The very first piece you encounter in the biennial, almost its talisman, is an old-fashioned flip book of flying planes by Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa -- presented wall-size, as a projected video of the book's pages being flipped.

Site Santa Fe is full of nostalgia for obsolete technologies, because video manages to let the old feel new again. A silly flip book, a coarse puppet show, the crudest oil paintings -- all these media and others can boost their currency by passing through the projector's lens. Once projection was perfected, video became the new normal in art. "It actually did start to take on the aura of being the new painting in gallery spaces," says Brougher. "It held the wall like a big history painting. It moved -- but history paintings had always seemed to move."

It's almost as though, in our TV-addicted culture, the static three dimensions of traditional art -- of actual sculpture or of painted perspective -- barely cut it anymore. A work of art needs to engage the fourth dimension, time, even if it started life painted or drawn. "I really like to be called a time artist," says Viola, because time is what his video adds to the mix.

The art work's time breeds viewing time as well. One recent morning, a half-dozen people were visiting the Hirshhorn's Black Box to watch that flooded McDonald's: Most of them stayed five, ten, fifteen or the full 21 minutes the projection lasted. They wouldn't have spent close to that long with most photos or paintings or sculptures. With video, the simple possibility that something new might come on screen helps keep viewers engaged. Even the plainest, slowest video has storytelling potential.

Compared with most earlier art, projected video also adds a subtle element of magic, of escape from the material. There's something about the projector's image, not even microns thick and disappearing at the flick of a switch, that helps keep it feeling pure. Works in painting or sculpture or even installation art can feel like baubles for the rich; videos, no matter the cash they sometimes fetch, always feel a touch removed from such pedestrian consumption.

Even priced at a few hundred thousand dollars, videos are still far cheaper -- and far, far harder to sell -- than paintings or sculptures by equivalent artists. And video always encourages the transgressive, radically populist thought that, somewhere out there in the ether, there is a pirated copy to be had for a few dollars or free.

But then, thanks to our museums, you may not even have to hunt for a bootleg. That video you've heard so much about may be coming soon, to an exhibition near you.

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