The Atlantic Gets Video Art Wrong
The Atlantic just published an essay that says early video art is like YouTube. Yeah, well, this video art historian says, “Not quite,” all the time to statements like these, making me realize it’s time for a video art handbook.
Video art has a short history and internet-informed art’s is even shorter. It’s no surprise that when the two are compared it’s a big, untruthful mess. “Early video art was just like the internet!” comes up all the time in articles that seek to historicize new media. I don’t have any problems with historicizing digital work now by pulling up early video art as a precursor; it’s important to create give weight to the lightness of the present by grounding it in history.
My issue concerns the flimsy comparisons that are brought up time and again about why the two are similar: they’re both cheap and everyone can use them. There’s some things that are still historical fact and historical fiction.
Video Art Handbook: Early Video Art Wasn’t Cheap
Claim: “Unlike film, which had to be developed and was expensive, video could be fast, cheap, and on-the-go. This change allowed video collectives to experiment with new ways of producing *and* consuming moving pictures.”
Truth: Early video art was expensive and clunky. Video collectives were formed not because video was cheap, but because sharing resources to buy or rent equipment helped alleviate part of the labor and cost. Like film productions, many collectives functioned as mini-film crews; thus needing a ton of people to be involved.
The Sony Portapak, the first hand-held camera, came out in 1965 with a listing price of $1,250 and by 1971, it cost almost $1,500. Taking inflation into account, that comes out to over $8,500 today. Not even the most tricked-out MacBook is going to cost you that much. That price just includes the camera: not the cost of videotape and not the cost of video editing equipment. Even if you go into the price comparisons of the 1970s, that’s about the average amount paid on rent once you include the costs of video editing equipment and videotape.