Michael Scroggins traces his fascination with form, color and music to a kindergarten teacher who used stirring classical music as a background for finger-painting classes. Scroggins continued that interest through the late '60s, working on psychedelic light shows. Now Scroggins teaches at Cal Arts and makes video art--creating shifting images from geometrical shapes in a process he likens to a musician jamming.
Kathy Tanney was a childhood TV fanatic with dreams of working in the film business. But Tanney never felt she could actively pursue that goal until an art school class introduced her to video. Tanney is currently "scamming my way through Hollywood" to make enough money to produce the personalized stories she creates as a video artist--including editing porno films for five months in order to have access to the equipment she needed to finish a recent tape.
Fu-Ding Cheng never had a TV set when he was growing up in Van Nuys during the late '50s. He began making experimental films in the late '60s as an aesthetic outlet from his career in architecture. But Cheng recently moved more towards video as the vehicle to realize his goal of re-creating, in pristine form, the spiritual world he's experienced through dreams and meditation.
Scroggins, Tanney and Cheng are three Los Angeles artists pursuing a video vision. Their local contemporaries include such internationally prominent artists as Ed Emshwiller, Max Almy, Bill Viola, Ilene Segalove and Bruce and Norman Yonemoto. To these artists, the art of working in video entails much more than what we're accustomed to seeing on MTV or in the images of Max Headroom. What's more, the only thread that links these artists' work is their use of video technology.
Video artists can combine music with images, program computer-generated montages of abstract imagery, document events, incorporate dance and other elements of live performance, tell simple stories, satirize or comment on the mass media by utilizing the same techniques and images, create "installations" involving multiple screens . . . or any combination of those elements.
Artists approach video from a wide variety of disciplines--from painting and sculpture to film and dance--and their long-term goals range just as widely. Some foresee a commercial market for video art akin to that for jazz or new classical composers--others couldn't care less about a mass audience. Some want their work exposed through cable TV, video store rentals or underground clubs--others feel the only proper vehicle for exhibition is the formal museum structure. Some seek to match the technical quality of film or network television images--others try to steer clear of that high-tech sheen.
"What we have now is a classical period of video," declared Patti Podesta. "People have a body of work and you can see their thought processes changing. The great white hope of cable (television) isn't there any more and people are just finding the money and doing their work."
The wide appeal of performance artist Laurie Anderson and rocker David Byrne may have opened up a wider audience to genres like video art which blur boundaries between serious and popular art. "Video," declares intermedia artist/critic Jacki Apple, "has created another art world, a place between network television and the world of dealers selling paintings."
But that unique position presents unique problems too. While video art has recently won some belated respect in the art world, MTV music videos and pop culture icons like Max Headroom, utilizing techniques pioneered by video artists, have permeated mass culture.
Most video artists reject music videos (most of which are actually shot on film) as commercials selling a band, but the general public now equates "video" with the techniques and look of music videos. That makes it difficult for artists intent on forging an alternative, creative use for the television medium, although some consider the cliche-riddled formula of MTV to be an unwitting ally.
"MTV helps because it opens the door to the short, 3-5 minute form of video," said artist Marsha Mann, who collaborates with Radames Para in her work. "They're creating a short form language and it's also good because they've blown it.
"People have had it with MTV, the fact that you have to sit through 10 bad music videos to see a decent one. It's serving us in a sense, because we're saying, 'OK, you liked the idea and it went sour. Here's what it should be.' "
Others are not as sanguine about the future. With video art techniques popping up everywhere from commercials to "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on network television, young artists are being snapped up by commercial production companies. Whether those artists will pursue more aesthetic projects in their spare time is an open question.