October 17, 2010
LITTLE HISTORY OF VIDEO PAINTING
Video painting was created by Wendy Clarke. Charged with the task of drawing a self-portrait by only looking at monitors, participants would stare at their image on one monitor, and their “in progress” drawings on another. Wendy would reproduce this method later in her career as an interactive game titled “Self-Portrait,” which was exhibited a number of times alongside her other video toys. For this later incarnation of video painting, Wendy’s instructions were as follows:
Hang the drawing pen around your neck. Take a marking pen and stand on the platform the right height for you. You will see your profile on one screen and the drawing pad on the other. Now, draw your profile on the pad, but only while watching the video screens. Try signing your name when you finish. Take your portrait home or hang it up in the Whitney.
The above instructions come from Wendy’s exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1977, where museum-goers were able to hang their completed portraits up in the Whitney as their contribution to the exhibition. This practice interestingly prefigured more recent relational art practices where audience participation within the space of the gallery becomes an intrinsic aspect of the work. As Ann Sargent-Wooster noted in her review of the Whitney show, “In the hallowed halls of a major museum, it was a democratization of art.”
Wendy’s “video game” was not without some precedent, although it is unclear whether she was aware of it. In the early 1950s an interactive television show called “Winky Dink and You” asked children to complete images on their T.V. screen by drawing directly onto the screen, via a transparent veneer stuck over it. Children at home were assisting a cartoon boy named Winky Dink in his adventures, and the kit they used could be purchased for fifty cents and sent by mail order.
There is an interesting correlation between “Winky Dink and You” and Wendy’s video painting and drawing exercises. As Andrew Gurian notes in the Millennium Film Journal,
After the initial drawing was made, translucent paper was sometimes placed over the monitor display and ink tracings of the portraits were made. These tracings, still in place on the monitor screen, were fed through a camera to another monitor and layer upon layer was built up. The paintings existed on the monitor and on the paper; either or both could be evanescent, but some were saved (on paper, videotape, or both) for playback later.
In an (undated) review for Video City Star of a Wendy Clarke show at Women’s Interart Center, Marie Lurie makes a connection between the show and another of Wendy’s works. She describes a work in which a three monitors were embedded into a fish sculpture made out of plywood. She writes,
- The tail end of the monitor was the site of the main attraction. The player would follow a dot on the screen, via crayon and a thin piece of drawing paper (Remember Winky Dink?) The other TV’s played tapes of fish which kids were encouraged to draw with chalk on the fish’s great black hulk.
However, the show at the Interart Center was specifically devised for an audience of children, and therefore many of the works in the show functioned differently to the workshops of the Tee Pee Video Space Troupe, or the “Self-Portrait” game as exhibited in the Whitney, and elsewhere. In the context of the Tee Pee workshops the differences between Wendy’s painting game and “Winky Dink and You” are perhaps greater than the similarities. First, the core activity of the video painting game involved participants trying to render their image on paper from looking at two monitors: one showing their own image, and another showing their drawing as it progressed. This exercise was thus a test of their ability to correct the altered perception of their image and drawing as mediated through video, as opposed to simply asking them to complete a flat image on a screen.
In short, this game was more of a reflection on the new perceptual possibilities offered by video, than an interactive game where the user felt like he/she was in some way affecting the fantasy world depicted on the screen. Participants were propelled into a perpetual present where they were asked to reflect on their own actions, the possibilities afforded them by the movements of their bodies, and the act of representation itself, both on television and in painting. Gurian explains:
The painter’s work was to draw a realistic portrait for the monitor display, while “correcting” the distorted proportions created by the camera’s angle. The painter did not align his eyes and head with his arm and brush in a traditional posture. He might be literally painting behind his back. He was testing new skills of connecting his perceptions to his actions. The paper version usually had exaggerated lengthenings, especially in comparison to the version on the monitor.
Although this exercise was challenging as an exercise, it also clearly was not one undertaken in order to be mastered. As Gurian recently noted in an email correspondence, “If someone were truly skillful enough to perfectly “correct” the shape (no one really can), he/she would produce a portrait far less interesting than someone who couldn’t/didn’t. Such a person would only be showing off a masterful drawing technique. There was a tension between the subject, who almost always attempted to make the “correction,” and the same subject who was, in effect, drawing an abstracted, more free-form image.”
The notion of video feedback, in the conceptual rather than technical sense, was also central to this exercise, so that most of the time participants were not just interacting with any image on a screen, but rather with their own image. The relative importance of the outcomes of the tasks is perhaps the fundamental difference between the video painting game and “Winky Dink and You.” The latter assumes a uniformity of response among children who desire to help the character out of a fix, while the former oscillates between a challenge one is trying to master and the narcissistic contemplation of one’s own image on a T.V. screen. As Rosalind Krauss writes in her seminal essay, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” “Video’s real medium is a psychological situation, the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object – an Other – and invest it in the Self.” The video painting exercise served to challenge participant’s abilities and to force them to actively spend time with their own image, which occupied the place usually reserved for television characters fictionalized for consumption.
The game also operated as a microcosm for the pedagogical intentions of the Tee Pee Troupe. Gurian describes the ways in which the presence of video cameras created a challenge for the differing skills of the artists present, depending on their background:
Painters and photographers instinctively pointed the camera behind their heads. Dancers felt a constriction by having to keep their eyes focused on a monitor, limiting some movement, but also inspiring a fundamentally new movement vocabulary.
The learning outcomes of the games were not specific, but rather depended on where the participants were coming from as creative subjects. The environments that Wendy would later create in the space of the gallery were an attempt to mirror the amalgamation between workshop, playground and process art that the workshops in the Chelsea provided. The seeming lack of seriousness of these games was also often surprisingly profound and affective, so that, as Barbara Noah notes in a review of Wendy Clarke’s work at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1978, “play tempered by contemplation and revelation [was like] laughing and crying at the same time.”
All images © Peter Angelo Simon 1973/2010. www.PeterAngeloSimon.com.