I don't know how many people remember when video art was first making its presence felt in galleries. It was in the days prior to the proliferation of home computers and DVD players in every house; in fact in the early eighties even CD players were only just becoming de rigeur if you wanted to be a cutting edge audiophile.
In order for video art to be seen, artists would have to set up viewing booths in art galleries where the viewer could stand in front of a television set and watch about as much as they could stand and leave. This type of set-up of course led to various connections being made between peep-show pornography and video art, and some of the more intelligent and humorous creators had a lot of fun with that when they created their installations.
Unfortunately, not many of them had such good senses of humour and took themselves far too seriously. A great deal of the content that was being produced at that time was of such a self-indulgent quality that the parallels to porn were also being born out in other ways aside from presentation. Masturbation is masturbation no matter what the medium, and there seemed far more of that on display than any serious attempts to use the technology for artistic purposes.
One of the problems was that because it took no real talent or creative skill to turn on a video camera, anybody and everybody was able to call themselves a "video artist". There was also a singular lack of real critical thought about the work as well, which meant that it took a long time for the genre to evolve. Thankfully most of the dilettantes faded away after their one and only Arts Council grant; one was, after all, required to turn in a finished product in order to apply for a second grant, leaving the way open for serious artists to continue without embarrassment.
More then twenty years later the work being done has gone light years beyond what was being accomplished by people whose only tools were point-and-shoot video cameras. With the advances in computerized audio and video technology, artists are able to marry the best qualities of sculpture, paint, film, and audio into presentations that are as emotionally powerful as anything hung on the walls of any gallery.
A case in point is the forthcoming release on DVD of Silence by the German duo known as Rechenzentrum. Mark Weiser, a member of the German New Music ensemble Zeitkratzer, handles the audio composition, while video artist and illustrator, Lillevan, takes care of the visual side of things. As individuals, their talents are obvious, but their real genius comes in the way they are able to work as a single entity to produce spine-tingling and emotionally powerful work.
Watching elements of Silence I was reminded forcibly of the emotional power of the best abstract art. Form and shape come together to stimulate an emotional response in the viewer; now imagine a continual shifting of form accompanied by complementary audio and you will have some idea of the impact of this work.
The first piece on Silence, "Terra Incognita" begins with an overexposed photograph of a path through a rather pleasant woodlands. Then Lillevan gets to work on manipulating the scene. At first, the effects look like they are too obviously effects for them to have any appreciable impact. However, as the scene continues to evolve, with first one part of the image changing and then another with the fluid grace of a dance, I began to get the feeling in the pit of my stomach I associate with fear.
Somehow, they had managed with the changing of imagery and music to turn what had started out as a nice pastoral scene into something that triggered a gut reaction of fear of the primordial forest. The hidden earth, alright — that race memory that our genes carry of being afraid of what lurks in the dark woods at night because we know it could damn well have us for supper if we're not careful.
What I appreciated even more was that I didn't once feel like I had been manipulated into feeling like this. They had simply created the imagery and atmosphere necessary to trigger that reaction in a natural and organic fashion. It was brilliant.
Not all the pieces on this DVD appealed to me as much as that one and some others did. But, if you visit their website you will find that they are continually experimenting with modes of expression to try and be as inclusive as possible. They perform these pieces everywhere from art gallery installations to dance clubs in Hong Kong and Berlin. Instead of playing it safe and finding a middle ground that will appeal to everyone and excite no one, they find ways in which they can communicate to each specific audience.
If the pieces they created for the dance club people are as effective as the ones on Silence that worked for me, this is an incredible accomplishment. Silence is like having an exhibit of thirteen separate paintings you can put into your DVD player at home any time you want. Like in any art gallery, you only have to look at what works for you, but now it's in the comfort of your own home – what more could you ask for?