With videos, high art meets high-tech

By Mark Guarino

Aging formats and rights agreements ensnarl the growing video art genre.

Jefferson Godard starts his morning like anyone else. He turns on the radio. He turns on the
coffeemaker. He turns on “Stealing Beauty,” a limited-edition video installation that continually loops images of a family shopping at Ikea.

“Having these saturated sounds and images surrounding you all the time, it never becomes dull,” he says. “It’s like I’m living in a machine. A machine of video art.”

The Chicago architect is among a growing segment of serious art collectors who are helping elevate the commercial value and cultural currency of video art. The medium arrived in the early 1970s with the advent of home recording and since then has evolved to become the vanguard art medium of the digital era.

But video art faces challenges that position it less with traditional art forms and more with advances in new media, which have greatly disrupted the recording and film industries and sent their traditional business models in a tailspin.

Unlike with painting or sculpture, video art has a far less tangible value. It’s sold on technology that can quickly become obsolete, and even masterpieces can be copied almost infinitely onto new video cassettes or DVDs.

Because of these quirks, exclusivity and copyright have become serious negotiating issues among video artists, galleries, and collectors. With new media constantly evolving and top works fetching up to $500,000, the stakes are high, which makes addressing these issues a continuing process.

“If you go to major art shows, there’s often more video art than painting,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews, a leading fine arts magazine. “Most of them are done in editions, so [the dilemma is] not necessarily about exclusivity for collectors. The issue is: What is going to happen when technology evolves so you can’t project video anymore?”

Although experimental film took root starting in the 1920s, the advent of video 50 years later allowed early pioneer artists like Bruce Nauman and Gary Hill to trap and manipulate images for developing themes that weren’t before possible in the world of abstract art.

“Nobody thought of it as a marketable product to start with,” says Donald Young, whose namesake gallery in Chicago became one of the first in the United States to show video art. “Early videos were all unlimited editions because no one thought they could sell.”

Easing collectors into it took rising art stars such as Mr. Nauman and Mr. Hill, who started playing with video after establishing their names in other media.

As technology became more sophisticated, creativity grew. Video artists played sound and installations began to incorporate multiple screens that, depending on how they were choreographed, turned into a powerful way to either distort perspectives or create cohesion.

Over the years, museums and foundations afforded the space and money to mount elaborate video installations, but bringing the art into the living room became more difficult for collectors.

“A lot of them realized they buy these things and never look at them,” say Mr. Young. That’s because “some of the best work is very installation specific,” demanding certain wall heights and monitor sizes. Today, collecting video art is the domain of a small but obsessive group of collectors who say living with video is an expression of their identity.

“Nobody should buy art as a an investment,” says Curt Alan Conklin, a software designer whose Chicago home is decorated with up to 15 pieces mounted on different size DVD and computer monitors. “I think it’s always a losing proposition. That’s not to say the stuff isn’t valuable.”

Home installation can be a challenge. Mr. Conklin, who bought his first piece in 2001, was forced to run wires behind walls and test bearings for his monitors. In his house today, video runs either continually or upon request. Special pieces, such as Jeremy Blake’s “Liquid Villa,” will receive showings mostly at dinner parties when Conklin pops in the DVD on the dining room’s flat screen.

Since the artwork is intangible, Conklin says he is “concerned about the longevity.” DVDs will wear and fail over time. His solution is to insist on two copies – a master copy that he locks up and never plays, and an exhibition copy for home use.

There is no standard contract between galleries and collectors. Video art is typically sold in very limited editions at the discretion of the artist and the DVDs are often watermarked with coding that can trace any copies back to the original owner. In case new formats overtake the DVD or computer hard drives used in installations burn out, galleries often say that they will replace the artwork in whatever new platform dominates the marketplace.

All of which makes ownership a concept with many gray areas. “It’s not the object itself that’s valuable, it’s the right to own it,” said Conklin.

To Godard, the only tangible part of his collection is the paperwork. “It’s hilarious – when I have people over, I’ll open a drawer and say, ‘here’s my artwork’ and it’s a stack of papers,” he says.

Younger artists are happy to sign those rights agreements in greater numbers than ever. Digital animation is driving the latest wave of art school graduates. They are more experimental than past generations, interested in combining media instead of focusing on just one.

For New York City artist Stephania Gambaroff, video carries a single advantage over competing media: control – artistic control at least. “When you shoot the footage, it documents reality, but then you can do all sorts of things with it,” she says. “Video contains everything within itself. The freedom it allows for expression is endless.”

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