In preparing to teach a class on video art I had my students read Rosalind Krauss’ “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” The essay is a key historical text in the study of video art. When it first appeared in print in 1976, video had not gained full acceptance in the art establishment. Despite being used for over a decade at this point, scholars and curators were apprehensive to garnering this new medium full access to the art historical canon.
Video art emerged when the boundaries separating art practices like sculpture, painting, dance, etc. were blurring, as the stylistic tradition of high modernism (abstraction) gave way to conceptual art – best exemplified by Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades from earlier in the century. Video was directly influenced by the early performance practices of Allan Kaprow and George Brecht, who had attended John Cage’s course in experimental composition at the New School in New York. Video and performance art is concerned with the presence of the artist and, more importantly, could be easily created without expensive supplies or studio assistants. This was hugely important as many of the early practitioners had no gallery representation or funding, all they needed to do was simply turn the camera on and off.
Krauss writes that video art cannot be pinned to a specific, stable set of material conditions. Rather, she proposes “psychology” as its medium, a proposition derived by eliminating everything open to variation (recording and playback technologies) and focusing on what remains (“instant feedback” capacity, new dynamics of moving-image time). Her central idea that the medium of video is narcissistic: “In that image of self-regard is configured a narcissism so endemic to works of video that I find myself wanting to generalize it as the condition of the entire genre.” She focuses on Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, almost avoiding entirely Freudian theory that narcissism is related to a fear of death and not so much a discovery of one self. Lacan suggests that in the mirror stage one comes to terms with that realization that they are a construction or object of their own. In regards to video art, like in the mirror stage, the performer is able to see themselves as an object and can lead to a narcissistic obsession. Krauss provides two riveting examples of this, Vito Acconci’s Centers and Lynda Benglis’ Now. It is important to note that this self-obsession does not imply videos solely concerned with the artist’s autobiography, rather video merely provides a self satisfying means that is without criticism or evaluation. As such, video cuts the self (object) away from external objects, it is a lonely medium based on the art of time: extended time, repeated time, fast forward time, speeded up time, and frozen time.
In relation to our present day condition, we need look no further then You Tube. As a phenomenon of the virtual age, YouTube allows endless access to upload and watch videos. As a mean of self-broadcasting, unlike video art, it is concerned with narrative. Broadcasters create an image of themselves that they want others to see, to create themselves as minor celebrities and live up to Andy Warhol’s proclamation that everyone in the future will have at least fifteen-minutes of fame. The virtual age is about networking and access, there are no intimacy and point for reflection as the image is constantly changing. What would Krauss write on the narcissism of You Tube and Facebook? Does it garner reflection/theorizing or is the “Hey, look its me!” quality self evident? Regardless, when we encounter the work of artists like Ryan Trecartin, it is evident that video art is destined to make a celebrity of just about anyone.