Stephen Near


Canadian Independent Art Video the Next Frontier?
February 2001

The True North Strong and Free - and we’ve got it all on tape

At a time when survivor and Temptation Island dominate television screens, it is easy to forget that video can also be art. But, as long as the medium has existed, there have been artists who have used it as an expressive tool. Against the onslaught of commercial television, video as art may be seen as peripheral, but that has not kept artists from exploring its potential as an art form.

Not concerned with the then, poor image quality, artists’ use of video appeared alongside, and under the influence of, conceptual art of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Video’s placement as accessible technology and the immediacy of the cultural product it generated made it especially attractive to artists. In the years that followed the form underwent considerable change and was further influenced by concerns of personal narrative, drama, and social activism. In Canada, the network of artist-run centers has been the primary source of production and training for video artists. The existence of these centres has allowed for intense experimentation as well as access to expensive technologies. Unfortunately, for much of the last thirty years, artist-run centres were also the only places in which to see video art. In the last decade though, with the rise in popularity of film/video festivals, and increased participation of video within the wider art and cultural milieu, access to video art has increased.

What makes working with video unique as an art form is that video artists deal with imagery taken from real life. Artists mediate this experience by interpreting and manipulating it. But at its core, it is a reflection of our world and our selves. A melding of the imaginative with the real gives video its intimacy, its power. Boundaries between high art and popular culture are rendered almost unrecognizable by the medium. It’s one of the reasons so many people have trouble seeing video as art. This clash of medium and message, so well hypothesized by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, continues to inform the interaction of video art and its viewers. “Any one of our new media,” he wrote, “is in a sense a new language, a new codification of experience.” Artists mediate this experience by interpreting and manipulating it, but at its core is a reflection of our world and our selves.

Never before has memory and identity been so accessible in public domain. Video art, as opposed to the commercial nature of mainstream broadcast television, takes as its starting point the artists’ desire to create. Video tends to be an incredibly self-reflective medium, giving artists a previously unknown ability to direct their gaze at themselves. As well, the artist/machine relationship has also given cause for artists to turn their gaze toward our relationship with technology. This ironic, often sardonic treatment of television and mass media culture provides much of its humor.

Identity too is played out visually and aesthetically. It is this personal and public gaze that characterizes much contemporary video art. It is also willing to take risks. And this includes risks for the artists personally, as they reveal intimate secrets about themselves, or politically, as they often risk offending or being censored. Ultimately, video art refuses to simply entertain.

Compared to television, video is an ubiquitous presence in our lives. But the dominance of commercial network television has acted as a barrier to the viewing of video work as art. We have become so numbed to the formulas of commercial television production that is is hard for us to see beyond the narrow parameters of the mainstream broadcast format. Commercial broadcast television is seductive. We imagine that through television we can be anywhere, do anything and live vicariously through the lives portrayed there. Television is, despite many cultural critics’ statements to the contrary, an imaginative place. It does reside in a creative space, but it does so without respect to authorship or artistic intent. It becomes generic and homogenized. It is ‘memory-light’. Taste-less and less filling.

Video art, however, forces the viewer to think and form opinions,  all without leaving room for commercials.


Loft, Steve. “Canadian Independent Art Video The Next Frontier?” Arts Beat, vol. 13 , no. 5, February - March 2001, p. 9.