Television is video, video is television; they are part of the same technological dispositif. What is a video artist, if not a television producer without a channel at his disposal? The formal characteristics of much video art are hardly compatible with the dominant regime in tv programming; video art has developed its own modes of distribution, mostly based on tapes or dvds sold in limited editions. In the 1970s, René Berger distinguished between macro-tv (broadcast television), meso-tv (local cable) and micro-tv (video); at most, some artists managed to infiltrate and utilize the meso level of local cable tv, whose democratic potential was never fully realized.footnote1 While in general it failed to penetrate even this level, video art at its best pushed the logic of television to a point where the medium’s potential and its failings, its complexity and its contradictions, were illuminated.
Television was the first medium that transmitted a potentially uninterrupted flow of images into people’s homes, penetrating daily life much more thoroughly than film had done. The formats developed to fill this flow also created new forms of performance. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol’s pop prophecy that everybody would be famous for fifteen minutes both articulated a fundamental transformation and belied its complexity. If it emphasized the element of acceleration—fame becoming ephemeral—it failed to note that time has also been dilated through the creation of what one might term ‘general performance’, a performance no longer bound by the conventional duration of plays or films. If Warhol’s menagerie of ‘superstars’ was in many ways prophetic of the emergence of new forms of self-acting, of the reality tv of recent decades with its disposable celebrities, the role of performance in 1960s art was more complex than overly linear narratives of the co-optation or appropriation of the avant-garde suggest.
During the 1960s, performance art was not yet a common term for denoting the new forms of live art. The new theatricality was conceptualized in different ways: as event, as happening or, in Germany, as Aktion. Nonetheless, at the beginnings—in John Cage’s work, for example—there was the question of performance: performance for television. The scores for Cage’s pieces Water Walk and Sounds of Venice, both dated 1959, are subtitled ‘for solo television performer’. In 1960, Water Walk was actually performed by Cage himself on a popular tv game show. But what are the specific properties of a television performer and of television performance? How has televisual performance infiltrated and shaped art since the early 1960s? And how do video and performance art intervene in the temporality of tv and the new, televisual modes of acting?
In contrast to most of Warhol’s 1970s video projects, Water (1971) was not intended for television, but it shares an important characteristic with those other works: the role of the human voice, of conversation.footnote2 When Warhol tv pilots such as Phoney or Fight show people on the phone or fighting, the dialogue is clearly audible; by contrast, the conversation in Water consists of mumbled small talk from off-screen; what one sees is a detail of the office water-cooler, around which the speakers have supposedly gathered, perhaps discussing last night’s tv. The cooler fills the screen and becomes its double—a plastic surface with bubbles rising behind it, functioning as pure light waves, a kind of empty yet oddly pregnant televisual time. The voices articulate this time, albeit informally, through a gentle swelling and ebbing of conversation. But as video performance, the water-cooler conversation stops being a ‘break’ and becomes a new form of labour.
In his philosophy of video, Maurizio Lazzarato states that ‘capitalism and its technologies introduce movement and time into images, and vice versa’. But in contrast to Gilles Deleuze, he does not consider the cinema to be the primary agent of the technological liberation of the ‘flow of becoming’ from traditional Western representation. Film and photography are both machines that crystallize time: photography does so by freezing it, while film creates an illusion of movement; only video captures movement itself by transmitting the vibrations of light. Film stays too close to a model of representation as impression on a medium, whereas video images are not representations or reproductions of reality, but oscillations of light, contractions and expansions of light waves—and thus of time itself. For the Bergsonian philosophical lineage, matter already consists of light in time; it is not so much that the brain perceives matter and transforms it into representations; rather, the brain is an interface between received movements (excitations) and executed movements (responses). Like our brain/body, Lazzarato emphasizes, media technologies are interfaces that modulate time.footnote3
The point is an important one for historical-cultural analysis. Like Deleuze, Lazzarato to some extent ontologizes and ‘naturalizes’ history; yet the work still retains a potential for historical analysis. In fact, with its attempts to infuse history with becoming, opposing teleological and dialectical schematizations with paeans to unbound duration, neo-Bergsonian philosophy itself mirrors the increasing integration of history and subjective duration since the mid-20th century. As daily life is increasingly infiltrated by media that shape our time, the temporality of daily life is synchronized or syncopated with historical events in ever more complex ways.
Lazzarato’s video philosophy could be read as a montage of Henri Bergson’s thought and the writings of the video artist Nam June Paik. Crucially, in the 1960s Paik came to realize that Cage’s reduction of music to one of its basic elements, time—most radically in 4’33”—made sense in televisual terms: what is tv but a potentially permanent flow of time-signals that needs to be articulated in some way, as Cage did with his compositions? Decades before his manifold appearances in Paik’s work during the 1970s and 1980s, Cage had appeared on the popular tv quiz show, I’ve Got a Secret, in 1960. Here, he performed his piece Water Walk, based on his earlier Water Music, with the overlaid sheets from Fontana Mix used as compositional tool.footnote4 Asked by the show’s host if it was okay if the audience laughed, Cage responded that he preferred laughter to tears—and proceeded to drop items in a bathtub, boil water and push radios off tables (the latter a stand-in for turning them on and off, which was not possible due to a union dispute at the tv station)—all with meticulous precision.