Hip artists love video, and so do hip galleries. It's the medium of the moment, despite recent press about painting's hot comeback. Video artists Douglas Gordon and Matthew Barney have won the past two Hugo Boss Prizes, Doug Aitken's video installation at 303 Gallery was reviewed in four of New York's major publications -- the New York Times, Time Out, the Village Voice and ArtNet Magazine, and the Whitney Museum is currently constructing a video library.
But there's a downside. Videotape deteriorates fairly rapidly and depends on technology that may soon be superseded. And it can easily be duplicated, especially if it's a "pure" single-channel tape rather than part of a sculptural installation. So what's a collector to do? In search of answers, ArtTable, a nonprofit organization for women in the arts, sponsored "Buying Time: Collecting Video," a round-table discussion at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York on Jan. 26, 1999.
Sharing the floor were artists Mary Lucier and Martha Rosler, New York dealers Barbara Gladstone and David Zwirner, collectors Eileen Cohen and Barbara Foshay-Miller, and two women from nonprofit video distributors, Lori Zippay of Electronic Arts Intermix and Kate Horsfield of Video Data Bank. Museum of Modern Art curator Barbara London and independent curator Dara Meyers-Kingsley moderated.
London opened by bluntly asking what it means to "commit to a material that falls apart after 10 years." Though the artists seemed interested in her question, the dealers and collectors ignored it and proceeded to use their allotted five minutes to describe their personal experiences with video art.
Mary Lucier, who has been making video art since the early 1970s, said that a basic problem for collectors is the complex, expensive technology that most pieces require. Collectors tend to balk at forking out a lot of cash for equipment that they don't know how to use.
Eileen Cohen said she installs her video art like she would a painting or sculpture. But she mentioned that she wouldn't be able to view her works without the hired help of a techno-wizard. "There's much too much video art," she griped. (To which video artist Alix Pearlstein, who was in the audience, remarked, "And too much painting, and sculpture and drawing and photography and installation and performance and ...").
Lucier and London both proposed that artists supply a manual with their video work, so that the piece will always operate "correctly," even in the absence of the artist and curator. That's what Lucier does, anyway, creating complex blueprints for all of her museum-bound works, along with a dense manual on how to operate them.
A manual doesn't always help. Lucier was particularly perturbed by one collector's treatment of her Wilderness (1986) piece. It's been kept in storage since it was purchased in 1990, and Lucier fears that the tape may be ruined by now.
Martha Rosler, who has been making highly politicized work since the 1970s, belted out a series of provocative questions about the relationship between video and prints or photographs, and in particular, the notion of the limited edition. Dara Meyers-Kingsley asked if there was a pricing structure for video based on that of photos and prints, to which David Zwirner responded, "No, it's arbitrary."
At the same time Zwirner admitted that the only way to keep video work marketable was to limit the edition size. But who keeps the master copy and decides how many copies to make? No one really had an answer for that. So far, it seems that few art videos have been popular enough to be pirated.
What about video preservation? The panelists were all definitely for it. But as it turns out, video changes when migrated to more stable digital mediums, like Laser Discs, Betacam or DVD -- "digital versatile disc." A certain analog quality may be lost in the transfer, and color and texture may vary with more technologically advanced viewing methods.
Self-proclaimed technophobe Barbara Gladstone, who represents such video-art maestros as Matthew Barney and Gary Hill, added a bit of controversy to the discussion by claiming that with video the work is always the same, no matter how many times it changes formats. A few people in the audience felt differently.
Barbara London's final question was "who is responsible for preserving video art -- the artists, dealers, distributors or owners?" Technology is advancing so rapidly that VCRs and Laser Disc players may soon be obsolete. So is it worth preserving the tapes? And if so, who makes sure that it happens? The gallerists were speechless, while London joked that we should all put our VCRs in safety deposit boxes, and Martha Rosler suggested that a percentage of all sales of video art should automatically go to a nonprofit organization dedicated to its continuing preservation and dissemination.
At the end of the panel the audience was rather silent. A few video pros dryly commented on the technicalities of video preservation, then everyone went home to watch…TV.
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is associate editor of ArtNet Magazine.