Abstract Video: The Moving Image in Contemporary Art

Abstract Video: The Moving Image in Contemporary Art


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Offering historical and theoretical positions from a variety of art historians, artists, curators, and writers, this groundbreaking collection is the first substantive sourcebook on abstraction in moving-image media. With a particular focus on art since 2000, Abstract Video addresses a longer history of experimentation in video, net art, installation, new media, expanded cinema, visual music, and experimental film. Editor Gabrielle Jennings—a video artist herself—reveals as never before how works of abstract video are not merely, as the renowned curator Kirk Varnedoe once put it, “pictures of nothing,” but rather amorphous, ungovernable spaces that encourage contemplation and innovation.
In explorations of the work of celebrated artists such as Jeremy Blake, Mona Hatoum, Pierre Huyghe, Ryoji Ikeda, Takeshi Murata, Diana Thater, and Jennifer West, alongside emerging artists, this volume presents fresh and vigorous perspectives on a burgeoning and ever-changing arena of contemporary art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282483
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Gabrielle Jennings is Associate Professor, Graduate Art, at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

Kate Mondloch is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Director of the New Media and Culture certificate program at the University of Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

Abstract Video

The Moving Image in Contemporary Art

By Gabrielle Jennings


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95813-5



On the Horizon


Abstract art is propelled by ... hope and hunger. It reflects the urge to push toward the limit, to colonize the borderland around the openings onto nothingness, where the land has not been settled, where the new can emerge.


Video art has rarely been analyzed through the lens of abstraction; it is often amorphous, ungovernable, and disembodied with spaces that confound Renaissance perspective and encourage contemplation. As the late art historian Kirk Varnedoe put it, "pictures of nothing." And of everything. In light of scholarship on abstraction in other mediums, it is useful to consider this history because video has transformed from an essentially narrative analog form (TV) to a pervasive digital art medium. This collection examines abstraction in video art after 2000 — moving image artworks that were made just after analog video nearly went extinct and bytes and pixels became dominant.

Video Art has had film and television, the twin hounds of narrative, nipping at its heels for decades now, referencing these forms while distinguishing itself through various means — reflexivity, nonlinear narrative, and medium specificity, to name just a few. The title for this volume, Abstract Video: The Moving Image in Contemporary Art, illustrates its own problematic: it carries a history of video art proper that points towards both its predecessor (film) and its offspring (new media art). Like the horizon, abstract video is visible but unattainable, an idea as much as an image, looking left and right, an interrupted and a continuous line, movement and stillness embodied.

This volume examines the term abstract in traditional ways that modernism embraced but also in the ways that film historians discuss Structuralist and experimental film, according to perception and duration, and in ways media historians use the term in referring to the digital. It looks at how we think through abstraction and tracks changes as the medium itself continues to evolve. Though video emerged with the advent of videotape, the term video now encompasses all moving image media.

The closest Varnedoe comes to discussing moving image works in Pictures of Nothing is his consideration of James Turrell's light installations, Afrum-Proto (1966), and Wedgework (1974). These works exemplify important formal qualities of abstract art: they don't exist in the natural world, and like architecture and film, they reference things outside themselves. These phenomenological events are a useful place to begin a consideration of abstraction in video art because, like video, they are made of light and are best experienced through prolonged viewing. Crucially, movement over time is not a quality of either piece, but it is an essential aspect of this book.

The only mention of the moving image in Pictures of Nothing is in the discussion of two feature films: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). It seems no coincidence that these masterpieces of modern cinema contain the peculiar sense of the abstract often found in science fiction: the unknowable colliding with the familiar. Varnedoe reminds readers of the "great, grey, forbidding slab that first appears to a group of apes at the beginning of [2001] and later reappears on the moon, sending out a piercing signal in the direction of Mars" and connects modernist sculptor John McCracken's "planks" to the monolith. The sculptures are very much about presence and in this context pose an important question in regard to the moving image: can an image — which is not a thing, which may be fleeting, and is always moving — have the same kind of gravity and presence as an actual object? Varnedoe refers to Blade Runner in the context of an android's expiration, thereby illustrating his inability to be comprehensive in the span of six lectures and hinting at the heartache of his terminal illness. It is tempting to think that, had Varnedoe had more time, more lectures ahead of him, that he would have wanted to consider new forms of abstraction — experimental film, video, and new media practices among them.

Aesthetic dialogues used to occur in parallel worlds — painting, sculpture, and film each on fairly separate tracks. This has changed. Previously concurrent discussions now intersect regularly, requiring greater elasticity and new definitions. For this book, I asked a diverse set of writers and practitioners to attend to the abstract in the contemporary moving image, to contextualize, and to guide the reader through the countless streams of light.

* * *

Ecstatic Resistance is an inquiry into the temporality of change. Time, the time of transformation, the duration and physicality of the experience of change. And drama — the arc of history. The temporality of the ecstatic opens a non-linear experience in which connections are made at breakneck pace and a moment later time appears to stop us in the dynamism of one challenging thought.


With a fair bit of excitement, I opened Abstraction (2013), the latest anthology in the Whitechapel: Documents in Contemporary Art series. The collection runs the gamut from social and political utopias to a more Greenbergian "focus on medium-specificity and self-reflexiveness" and opens up the field in expansive ways though not specifically in terms of moving image practices. Similarly, most of the essays in Abstract Video shrug off the enticing conveniences of formal abstraction in favor of examining the topic by looking through the lens of film and video art itself — imagery that literally moves over time; "the medium is the message" and "the medium is the medium." Nevertheless, it still seems appropriate to begin again, with a look at the differences between the abstract, the nonrepresentational, the nonfigurative, the nonobjective, and the slightly different but useful term abstracted. To be abstract is, according to Webster's dictionary, to be "disassociated from any specific instance [or] ... having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content." To be nonrepresentational or nonobjective means "representing ... no natural or actual object, figure, or scene." It is my hope that Abstract Video will widen these definitions since, as we will see, abstract video works include much more than nonrepresentation. Abstraction in the moving image is, and has always been, an artistic strategy (or result) used in a myriad of ways towards infinite ends.

Hans Richter's classic avant-garde film from 1921, Rhythmus 21, is an early experiment in moving image abstraction. The piece, which evolved from the artist's painting and graphic design practice, is derived from geometric abstraction and has been called an "absolute film." Squares and rectangles of black, white, and gray appear and disappear in various configurations, expanding, contracting, mutating. In the first issue of G: Material zur elementaren Gestaltung (1923), a magazine Richter edited, he wrote this of Rhythmus 21: "An attempt has been made to organize the film such that the individual parts stand in active tension to one another and to the whole, such that the whole remains intellectually [geistig] mobile within itself." Even here, in the context of a nascent film practice, the filmmaker exhorts an active reading of the piece. We will see, in Abstract Video, that the writers have engaged the subject with this same kind of "geistige Mobilität."

Since we are well into the cybernetic, digital age — what Michael Sanchez calls our "liminal media-historical moment" — where the moving image is already an abstraction (as opposed to celluloid and electronic tape, which have a physical reality), the abstract is all around us. Abstract painting is, for the most part, handmade, whereas film and video — unless you are a Structural or experimental practitioner like Len Lye, Stan Brakhage, or Jennifer West — are not. And in the case of the moving image, a one-to-one, physical relationship with the medium never existed. Film and video already contain the idea of abstraction in their very ability to hold images that are not immediately visible or tangible: Film is a photographic medium and therefore has to be developed, and video can be seen as it is being recorded. However, unless it is closed circuit or webcam, video requires replay and, in the case of the digital, cannot ever be literally grasped: the data that make up the digital image are, as Boris Groys writes, "invisible." Here we can start to talk about the differences between being in the presence of a painting or a sculpture, where we can physically identify with a gesture, and being in the presence of electronic light and movement, where there is an extreme acceleration — usually the still frames that constitute a moving image are moving so fast that we can't see them individually (works like Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho being the exception).

Video then is not about a bodily relationship with a thing, but instead about the speed of thinking. This of course becomes more complex with video installations, where often the most critical thing is the viewer's body in relation to the work. A body moving in space perceiving is very different from a body sitting and watching: a sense of the overwhelming sublime, for instance, is achieved very differently in video than in an abstract painting like a Rothko. There is a perceptual difference between looking at a surface and into an electronic moving image. The space of a painting requires a leap of imagination, a sensorial looking that is felt differently than when virtual movement is in play. Movement is understood on different levels depending on the medium: In painting, we can sense movement as gestural, narrative, or a compositional pointing from one place to another through such factors as color, form and location. In the moving image, movement can be understood both inside and outside the frame, through the actual speed of recording or playback, through montage and editing, as well as through the narrative unfolding. Time functions differently in a painting than in the moving image, primarily because in one it is imagined, and in the other, temporal-spatial relations are brought to the fore and put into question. These are but a few ways in which we might begin to discuss abstraction from painting through to moving image artworks.

Abstraction is unruly. As a culture, we have become savvy image consumers. We are fluent in the language of the moving image; we take for granted conventional filmic techniques that create a sense of continuity as well as the "mixed-up" narrative — most notably in the films of Mike Figgis, David Lynch, and Tom Tykwer. In the medium formerly known as video art, there are so many differing strategies today in regard to narrative that it is impossible to list the artists representing them all — Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Stan Douglas, Cao Fei, Mark Lewis, Pipilotti Rist, and Mark Tribe are only a small start. Elliptical storytelling à la early Pierre Huyghe and the essayistic or narrative montage have also become commonplace in wider cultural production. The Structural, the pseudo-documentary, the performative, the rhetorical, the activist, the abject, and the textual/linguistic — these approaches, which almost constitute a catalogue of the history of video art, make their appearance in this collection. There have also been many important advances in thinking about time as material in film and video. Related and important ideas that are not explicitly discussed in this volume are (1) presence — as in Simon Payne's color field videos, where the viewer is immersed in pure color and form (much like the early Turrells) but with the added perception of movement over time — and (2) the abstract as enabling the representation of memory (or its incomprehensibility) — as in a piece like Stan Douglas's Win, Place or Show (1998). Abstraction alone is all but absent from the video art canon. Even now, after a century of nonrepresentation in painting, entering the world of abstraction in video is like venturing out of the house alone for the first time, at once thrilling and frightening, the sublime might be met along the way.

Reverse zoom out through the evolution from the photographic to the electronic, from film through video to the digital, from analog to digital and linear to rhizomatic, to this moment where an abbreviated history of the horizon and the spiral in the moving image proves useful. A line is an abstract form, while the spiral is a line made figurative. First consider the horizon: a line that stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions, separating sea or land from sky. It has been made to mean any number of things: limitlessness, stability, flatness, the edge of the world, a place from which sailors plunged to their demise. How we see comes into play here — the perception of something that is at once there and not there. The horizon, like the abstract, is the representation of an unreachable place. The horizon has always signaled a certain kind of looking beyond, a looking towards and away at once. Morning after the Deluge by Paul Pfeiffer (fig. 1.1) is a video projection of a wavering horizon. The piece merges two film images of the sky over the ocean on Cape Cod, one of sunrise, the other sunset, one inverted so that the two half suns become one, with the horizon line joining the two. The effect is a certain kind of timelessness, at once a literalization and an abstraction of what we know to be scientifically true. Pfeiffer has said that around the time he made this piece, he began working in Manila, and one can begin to see this doppelganger sunrise/sunset as a looking both towards and away from the artist's homeland. The artist's newer works tend to be collaborative and sculptural, and embedded in them is a sense of a cultural past and present colliding. This notion of the eternal, or the infinite, is essential to the digital in a way that analog, a linear form, was not. Video can be thought of as moving horizontally, whereas film is a vertical medium, having, until recently, moved downwards, snaking through the film projector, propelled by parallel sprocket holes. In the digital age, the two have combined to form an ever-present-now wherein there is neither up nor down, left nor right, here nor there — an abstraction to be sure.

Enter the spiral: a line made representational and a symbol for the sun, the hypnotic, dizziness, and a movement from the inner to the outer and back again. A spiral has an implied depth or perspective and indicates a movement from one place to another. This undulating target, pulsating vortex, swirling sign for the unconscious, comes to visit the filmic avant-garde early on in Oskar Fischinger's and Marcel Duchamp's works from the 1920s, in Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1930), and in Richter's Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), for which Duchamp and John Cage collaborated to make the famed Discs sequence — one of seven surreal dream sequences inserted into a more traditional narrative and crafted by a who's who of avant-garde artists. Alongside these corkscrews are appearances of the spiral in mainstream Hollywood films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Vertigo (1958). In the art realm, there is, of course, the legendary film Spiral Jetty (1970), written and directed by Robert Smithson and shot by Smithson and Nancy Holt. Besides documenting the building of the jetty, the film stands as a record of Smithson's philosophical ideas as well as providing what the artist called a "cosmic rupture" — a state of disorientation that frees the viewer from the dialectic of history.


Excerpted from Abstract Video by Gabrielle Jennings. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword (Kate Mondloch)

Preface: Abstract Video Art (Gabrielle Jennings)

Introduction: On the Horizon (Gabrielle Jennings)

2. Film Image / Electronic Image: The Construction of Abstraction, 1960– 1990 (John G. Hanhardt)
3. Joseph Kosuth’s The Second
Investigation in Vancouver (1969): Art on TV (John C. Welchman)
4. Abstract Transmissions: Other Trajectories for Feminist Video (Siona Wilson)
5. Abstract Video (Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe)

6. Visual Music’s
Influence on Contemporary Abstraction (Cindy Keefer)
7. Getting Messy: Chance and Glitch in Contemporary Video Art (Gregory Zinman)
8. Delirious Architectures: Notes on Jeremy Blake, Liquid Crystal Palace, and Digital Materialism (Michael Connor and Johanna Gosse)
9. Abstract Video: net.video.abstraction (Tilman Baumgärtel, Sarah Cook, Charlotte Frost, and Caitlin Jones)
Interactive Abstractions: Between Embodied Exploration and
Instrumental Control “Underneath Your Fingertips” (Katja Kwastek)

11. Real Time, Screen Time (Lumi Tan)
12. The Spreadability of Video (Christine Ross)
13. Spectral Projections: Color, Race, and Abstraction in the Moving Image (Maria-Christina Villaseñor)
14. Go with the (Unregulated) Flow: Fluidity, Abjection, and Abstraction (Trinie Dalton and Stanya Kahn)
15. Sine Qua Son: Considering the Sine Wave Tone in Electronic Art (Philip Brophy)

List of Illustrations


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