The Autobiography of Video: The Life and Times of a Memory Technology Ina Blom Sternberg Press, 2016

From the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, a scattered array of artists and art collectives greeted the potential offered up by broadcast television with an enthusiasm that was both undiluted by any actual experience of the medium, and displayed a prescient grasp of its defining characteristics. Looking back on this period (as well as efforts that took place in the 1960s and 1970s to realize this potential), a well-rehearsed position in art history can be summarized in Dieter Daniels’ pronouncement that “no form of high television culture…[formed] a lasting cultural asset to be preserved for future generations.”1 Both high television culture and video art have been over-celebrated and undervalued for their ability to provide “a current of simultaneous event reception:” the former through broadcasts, the latter through feedback.2 As Ina Blom demonstrates in her important and groundbreaking book, nevertheless, analog video’s capacity to provide instantaneous feedback has had a transformative effect on modern and contemporary art and, more broadly, sociality. This effect remains poorly understood and undertheorized.

By making video’s “autobiography” the center of her argument, Blom moves beyond Walter Benjamin’s or Dziga Vertov’s notions of the optical unconscious (produced out of photography and film respectively), without producing a technophilic narrative. Rather, she builds on scholarship decentering the unified human subject by, among others, Martin Heidegger’s discussion of technology, as well as Donna Haraway’s extension of subjectivity into both the machinic and animal realms.3 Especially in “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger characterizes the world as more than a collection of merely inert material. Indeed, any interactions with the world are in part a response to a “challenging forth” issued by the world.4 Technology, therefore, is not just a revealing and an ordering orchestrated by human beings; it is a “granting” received rather than a something made. What is at stake in technology in general and analog video in particular, therefore, is in part the horizons of possibility for a now-decentered human experience: what will we feel, what might we become that was not otherwise possible? Analog video’s capacities are revealed and ordered in Blom’s case studies, including work by Paul Ryan and the Raindance Corporation; Bill Viola as well as Nam June Paik, and an infamous performance staged live on television by Otto Piene and Aldo Tambellini. And yet, as Blom forcefully asserts, these artists do not occupy the center of this story. Like Haraway’s cyborg, The Autobiography of Video calls attention to aspects of subjectivity that historically have been seen to separate humans from machines—autonomy, for example, or memory—and in fact have never been exclusively ours.

The value of signal-based technologies or the array of communication systems including radar and radio, and broadcast television, that use electromagnetic waves to detect objects (radar), transmit and receive sounds (radio), or transmit and receive images and sound (television) never resided in their ability to produce an enduring archive. In particular, videotape—an electro-magnetized tape originally developed to record television broadcasts—proved to be both unstable and malleable, and therefore undermined the very concept of storage, safekeeping, and the archive more generally. This in contrast to photochemically-based technologies such as analog photography and film—and indeed, material culture more broadly—that simultaneously embodies both an archive and its presentation. As a storage mechanism that doesn’t really store anything, videotape’s failure to provide lasting material assets for future generations should instead be read as a defining characteristic that has been, up to now, both poorly understood and incompletely applied. Since video cannot remember, it cannot be an archive out of which social memory is formed. Blom draws on the work of Emile Durkheim and Maurice Halbwachs to demonstrate how consequential this failure is. For Halbwachs, memory is both an outcome of and consequential to the interrelationship between a mind’s operations and broader social arrangements.5 Communities are formed out of and provide the materials for memory. They shape what moments an individual remembers, or forgets. More germane to Blom’s consideration, communities provide memories to individuals of events that were only indirectly experienced through the formation and the archiving of culture. Language, institutions, works of art, material culture, habits, and rituals bring the past forward into the present when they are mobilized by everyday practices. If society is memory, as Durkheim and Halbwachs assert, then changes in the structure, function and location of memory through the emergence of analog video bring about a change to society.

Absent a reliable past, Blom instead posits that a “limitless present” becomes analog video’s defining temporal characteristic, through its capacity to provide instantaneous feedback. “Video feedback” originally referred to the process set in motion when a video camera is pointed at the playback monitor. The loop delay produced a seemingly infinite regress of the ongoing action onto the monitor. “Feedback” has since gone on to become one of analog video’s defining parameters for its critics as well as its proponents. Dan Graham was, perhaps, its most eloquent spokesperson. About his 1974 installation, Time Delay Room—in which two rooms are connected by an opening and are under surveillance by CCTV, which in turn displays the live behavior of the audience in the other room with an eight second delay—Graham emphasizes its expansion of the experiences of the present:

The time-lag of eight seconds is the outer limit of the neurophysiological short-term memory that forms an immediate part of our present perception… If you see your behavior eight seconds ago presented on a video monitor “from outside” you will probably therefore not recognize the distance in time but tend to identify your current perception and current behavior with the state eight seconds earlier.…You get caught up in a feedback loop…In this manner, you as the viewer experience yourself as part of a social group of observed observers.

Feedback’s role in the expansion and enrichment of social situations is also pivotal to Vito Acconci’s Centers (1971). Acconci faces the camera. His head and arm fill the screen. Over the twenty-odd minutes of the work, Acconci points at his own image on the video monitor, as well as the viewer looking at the monitor. The only changes that take place in the work are slight adjustments in Acconci’s wavering finger, as his endurance flags. About the work, Acconci observed, “The result (the TV image) turns the activity around: a pointing away from myself, at an outside viewer—I end up widening my focus onto passing viewers (I'm looking straight out by looking straight in).” Centers became the most notorious piece from this period, because Rosalind Krauss used it as evidence for a blanket condemnation of video as an aesthetic predicated on narcissism.6 In revisiting feedback as a potentially limitless expansion of the present, Blom instead establishes analog video as a node existing within a diagram of forces that radiate outward, rather than an image that maintains an indexical relationship—and in the instance of Centers, a narcissistic one—to an otherwise-inaccessible reality.

The scope of Blom’s insight regarding the dramatic changes to social memory brought about by so-called real-time technologies extends well beyond the purview of her book’s case studies. If analog video’s failings as an archive have become pivotal to how we interact now, at the very least The Autobiography of Video should prompt a broader reconsideration of the performative operations and interventionist strategies first found in movements contemporaneous to analog video’s emergence, such as Land Art and Performance Art. It could, and should extend to a review of the general condition for event-based artwork that orchestrates social feedback situations, up to and including the audience engagement elicited by works as recent as Taryn Simon’s Occupation of Loss (2016).

Margot Bouman

Assistant Professor of Visual Culture, The New School