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The transmission of art by television (and now YouTube)

By Michael Connor

Founder of The Marian Spore Contemporary Art Museum In Brooklyn

Inspired by YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video, the Guggenheim has launched a terrific blog called The Take, featuring writings by scholars, artists and other experts on topics like online video, digital content, the history of video art, and the effects of the Internet on art and culture. Naturally, some of what’s being covered has strong connections to YouTube, and so the kind folks at the Guggenheim have allowed us to cross-post here.

This post is from writer/curator Michael Connor, founder of the Marian Spore contemporary art museum in Brooklyn and co-curator of the permanent exhibition “Screen Worlds” at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. Connor also teaches at the School of Visual Arts and New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. You can read his original post here.

"The transmission of art exhibitions by television is the beginning of an era when the public will be taught to appreciate great works of art, seeing them in their homes.”

This was the prediction made in a report written by one E. Robb for the BBC way back in 1933, less than a year after their first experimental television broadcast. For Robb, art on television meant pointing a camera at a painting or sculpture.

More than three decades later, a German filmmaker named Gerry Schum had a similar idea. In those days, West Berlin was cut off from the rest of West Germany by the Iron Curtain. In 1968 Schum wrote that “not only must works of art be flown into the city, also critics and visitors from West Germany experience difficulty in reaching Berlin.” Television, he realized, could allow artworks and visitors to be connected across such long distances and closed borders.

West Berlin’s plight is partly what inspired Schum to start an art gallery on television. Fernseh-Galerie (Television Gallery), as it was called, was a pioneering series of video art commissioned by Schum, including two broadcast exhibitions in 1969 and 1970. The first exhibition, Land Art, was broadcast on the public station Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) on April 15, 1969. Many notable artists contributed films that were then transferred to videotape, including Jan Dibbets, Richard Long, Walter de Maria, Dennis Oppenheim, and Robert Smithson.

My favorite piece produced by the gallery is Jan Dibbets’s TV as Fireplace. Between December 25 and 31, 1969, public television station WDR III in Cologne rebroadcast Dibbets’s video of a burning fire every night for three minutes. The logs were lit on the first night, and the fire grew in intensity before slowly dying on the last one. Perfectly site specific, Dibbets’s piece turned the home’s cathode-ray tube into a flickering fire for just a few moments at a historical moment when the TV set had gone a long way toward replacing the hearth as the focal point of domestic space.

Watching TV as Fireplace on YouTube would of course be completely different. Online video shatters the direct link that Dibbets made between physical viewing environment and moving image. Given that audiences may now watch videos on an iPhone at the beach or a computer at the office, is it still possible for artists to create this kind of dialogue between the physical space of viewing and the space on-screen?

What do you think? Please comment below (note comments are moderated due to spam) or directly on The Take.