Artists discovered low-end, small-format, portable video recorders almost immediately after their invention in the mid-1960s; New York-based Korean artist and musician Nam June Paik is credited with acquiring the very first Portapak as it arrived in America in 1965 and using it to record a papal visit that chanced to pass in the street. Portapaks-portable video recorders-were revolutionary then, though unwieldy and very primitive by today's standards. Unlike film, video requires no laboratory developing-he showed his recording that same evening at a local bar.
The time was right for this new medium. In the early 1970s, idea-driven conceptual art and performance works were in the forefront of contemporary art activity. Traditional painting and sculpture were being overshadowed by a new emphasis on actions outside gallery and museum locations, taking place in the landscape, in studios and artist-run centres, and in the streets. At the same time, there was a desire to bypass the influence of power and money and avoid the classic hierarchies of dealer/collector. With the then-simple new technology, "anyone" could make video. Similarly, there was no "right way" to proceed. There were no rules for this medium, and no stars. At a moment of cultural ferment, video's openness and novelty encouraged originality and new ideas.
Decades having passed, much has changed. Video is no longer "a new medium," as it was called in its early days. Early reel-to-reel analogue recording has evolved into the fully digital. Editing-once almost non-existent in artists' video-is now non-linear, allowing artists to use complex computerized software to produce digital layers and effects. With equipment and software becoming relatively affordable, more and more artists are experimenting with the medium and continue to develop video in pure and hybrid forms. Now, their works are seen on single and multiple monitors, in darkened rooms as projections, as part of complex and elegant installations, and online. Video has permeated public and private spaces as well as visual art exhibition venues. Now there is a history of video art, its future open to all sorts of new developments.
This Website considers that history through the lens of the fourteen winners to date of the Bell Canada Award in Video Art. Their works are emblematic in form and in their variety: an amplitude of visual languages and artistic concerns. Three themes focus discussion of the works in this exhibition: narrative and storytelling; identity and the body; technology and machine language.
The Online Exhibition
Each of the artists included here has a history of innovation and has produced a variety of works. Through their eyes, Canadian heritage, identity, community, and cultural experience may all be considered. Each is also a unique voice, their nomination and selection for the Bell Canada Award in Video Art a mark of the respect and applause of their peers. A brief selection from the work of the fourteen winners is available here: a glimpse into the bigger picture.
Peggy Gale is the author and curator of the Video Art in Canada online exhibition and texts.