[Fig. 01] Un soleil difficile, 2017.

Video and its time or video art challenged by time

France Choinière


Dear Vidéographe,

Your fifty years have hit me. Suddenly the hundreds of video works that have made me who I am, that have contributed to my ways of thinking – and feeling – flash by, some colliding. I would have liked, with more space and time, to write about each and every one. My loves will remain secret, but my recognition of the artists who contribute to the still-fragile language that is video is immense.     

[Fig. 02] portait d'un artiste dans l'Europe des oubliés, 1987.

Since its beginnings, video art has maintained a complex relationship with time. Of course, this is unavoidable in a time-based medium. But there is more to it than that. On the one hand, there is the time that is specific to it, to its duration and, increasingly perhaps, to its immediacy, indeed its conditions of reception; on the other hand, there is the time in which it is situated, within which it is inscribed – a time period, an era, largely shaped within technological as well as societal parameters, which has the potential to influence the work’s circulation and impact. And these timeframes, being so intertwined, contribute significantly to the unique, even spectacular, evolution of video art. They may also represent, insidiously, its most persistent challenges – its power and its shortcomings.

[Fig. 03] Again and again we ask these questions, 2018.

Video quickly became a rather simple medium to master technically. The equipment is light yet increasingly high-performance and processing the recorded image has become relatively accessible. The medium has been further democratized by distribution networks that are independent of traditional dissemination channels and, often, also by the collaborative sharing of expertise and ideas. All of these combined factors and a near-instantaneous meshing with the technological innovations that are now part of an almost unexpected evolution of our day-to-day has helped to make video a powerful medium, a communication tool so of its time that it can be found everywhere and in many aspects of our lives. Our exposure to images is so great, so immediate and so much a part of our daily lives, that we confound them with reality. In a recent census held by Artforum about the exhibition Signals at MoMA, the term ‘colonising’ was used to describe the invasion of the medium in all spheres of our lives.1 This is a fair analogy to describe our relationship to video: a constant presence, a way of infiltrating everywhere in an intangible yet influential manner, absently, and practically without trace.

[Fig. 04] Camouflage, 2017.
[Fig. 05] Les amis de l'angoisse, 1995.

In its initial manifestations, video art skilfully explored different ways of defying time and influencing our perception of what we were being shown. Be this in the ‘material’ itself, through the editing and manipulation, indeed deconstruction, of the image or, more conceptually, by using, for example, the ‘off-screen’ as space-time, to represent the passage of time, even to stretch or concentrate it. Video art quickly moved on from an almost obligatory stage of prioritizing experimentation with the medium itself, to focusing predominantly on representation in order to show it had the potential to be the ultimate extension of reality, if not – more recently – what should be received as the truth, whether the image is drawn from reality or entirely digitally constructed. It should be said that the medium is immediately predisposed to enter into a dialogue with its time, as it borrows tools, symbols, language, and often even its practices from popular culture to translate the complexity of the issues of the day. For many artists, because it makes the capturing and sharing of events in real time possible, video offers a practically flawless capacity to react, and without filters. The possibility of an almost instantaneous response to current affairs and societal issues has stimulated the production of socially engaged works. Since the end of the 1980s, video art has contributed to significant changes to certain paradigms in the art milieu. This transition from an often cynical culture of resignation to a culture of – sometimes radical – engagement is largely driven by this immediacy and the increased potential for dissemination

[Fig. 06] The Coldest Day of the Year, 2020.

Being so of its time – like few other means of artistic expression, as it is so anchored in a given moment by its aesthetic and technological parameters, and by the currentness of the subjects addressed – has made video art something of a disruptor. Rarely has a medium simultaneously benefitted and suffered from such an adherence to the era that produced it. Because of the continuous stream of images in which we are surrounded, and all the free associations that encourage the sharing of sources, the usual organization or categorization of representation is blurred. The status given to images is unclear and finding ways in which artistic practices can stand out is challenging. Many contemporary video works situate themselves at the border between fiction and documentary. This in-between space, which simultaneously appeals to the imagination and nourishes different fields of knowledge, places viewers at the center of the work and invites them to adopt an active, more than contemplative, position, to weave the threads and make connections to draw out meaning. Other works that flirt with popular culture or with the current technical limitations of the medium sometimes leave the viewer undecided as to how to understand the work, uncertain whether the subject is the methodology or a critique of this. Though it may appear familiar at first glance, given the references used or the narrative, aesthetic, or technological cues, video art remains challenging to its audiences. Added to the constant attention required so that meaning can be constructed, is the equation of the work’s duration. This complex modus operandi greatly influences the work’s reception and lends a certain self-sufficiency to it, as each video is received individually, avoiding the direct confrontation or dialogue that might occur between works in an exhibition outside of the realms of moving image.  

[Fig. 07] How to explain performance art to my teenage daughter, 2018.

Although video art has enjoyed a certain amount of attention in all types of dissemination circuits and is an artistic practice that benefits from numerous and varied formal models, there are few precedents for its presentation that stand out. Time is intrinsic to this medium: the time to which the work belongs, which provides bait to seduce or solicit interest, and the time of its duration. These relationships to time frequently coexist in a sort of anti-synchronism that already individually encloses the work and renders its inscription in the larger field of the exhibition – or video programme – difficult. Often, the selection of videos must be rethought, so that they work in harmony for the viewer, with temporalities that allow images to coexist and captivate within the timeframe, and durations that fit with the time of the exhibition or programme, both individually and as a group. To have this close proximity, the union of respective times for each image space – and accompanying sounds – surpasses the diversity and contributes to the overall temporality of what is presented.

For many, the recent seclusion imposed by the pandemic changed our relationship to time and forced us to think about duration, triggered by the sense of slowness that confinement and isolation can bring. Inevitably, such moments invite us to think about time, as there is a before, an end, and an afterwards. For the cultural milieu in general, this situation served as an interesting prompt to measure the value that society puts on art. Suddenly we began to reflect on our engagement with contemporary art and how we relate with it. For video art practices, the suspension of activities in galleries, screening rooms and other venues revealed the medium’s malleability and capacity to adapt, and the ease with which audiences could engage with this means of expression. This self-sufficiency, which, in the exhibition context, sometimes goes against the work, enabled it to captivate and erase the duration, by calling on our real as well as virtual connections.

[Fig. 08] Liabilities, 1994.

It is not insignificant that in this period of crisis, for the first time, the World Health Organization affirmed the benefits of art on humankind, recognizing that it serves as an important stimulus for relating to others, multiplying our human and intellectual experiences.2 It is recognized that art solicits both sides of our brain, which registers new information and compares that to information already known, giving us a sense of belonging, and allowing us to re-question certain propositions or diverging visions. At the same time, it appeals to our sensitivity, offering us pleasure, even seducing us. In so doing, art stimulates our desire to act as well as to live.

We can interrogate video art in many ways and argue that video has colonized everything. Although the term fairly portrays an image of persistent infiltration, it casts a shadow over the practice, excessively banalizing the gesture. Certainly, the use, accessibility and potential distribution networks of digital tools have had an influence on art-making, lending a certain immateriality to it and requiring it to be of its time, while presenting a challenge in terms of temporality. Technical evolution has transformed – facilitated? – the way in which works are created and received. Countless possibilities have opened up that might depend less on gesture but that can spark unique and engaging narrative, sensorial and conceptual experiences. Perhaps the immateriality of an artistic practice that has moved away from gesture can bring us a little closer to our two brains, to unite intelligence and pleasure and recognize our eagerness to satisfy the two existential poles that make us human.

Sometimes, it takes time for a work to be of its time. Heidegger could join the conversation to remind us that, not only do we exist in a time, a temporal space, but we also identify with time – time is inextricably linked with being.

[Fig. 09] Liabilities, 1994.
  1. THE SCREEN AGE: VIDEO’S PAST AND FUTURE. Artforum 61, no 9 (mai 2023).
  2. Nations Unies. (2019, novembre).L’art peut être bénéfique pour la santé, tant physique que mentale (OMS). https://news.un.org/fr/story/2019/11/1055841