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Art Reviews: Documentary details video's birth as an art form

Saturday, June 28, 2003

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

"When Video Came" delivers the intellectual charge of good coffeehouse conversation coupled with a visual feast of images snatched from the nearly half-century history of video as an art form.

This image from Carl Wiedemann's "Illiteracy" appears in "When Video Came," a new documentary by Ralph Vituccio and Andres Tapia-Urzua that will be screened tonight at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

Described as a documentary about the history of video art in America, the 40-minute work is a consolidation of decades of thought and analysis into an idea piece that ultimately begs the question "Where from here?"

It will premiere at 7 and 9:30 p.m. today at Pittsburgh Filmmakers Melwood Screening Room, around an 8:30 reception, and will be introduced by co-producers and internationally awarded video artists Ralph Vituccio and Andres Tapia-Urzua.

Vituccio, director of Media Development in Communications Design and an adjunct professor in the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, began working on the documentary after completing one on performance artists several years ago. After five years of research, his interest was beginning to wane, he says, when Tapia-Urzua, director of Plan Z Media and a media artist at the Media Design Center, CMU, became excited about the project and began editing the hours of tapes.

The work opens with a brief text that credits the origin of video art to Sony's invention in the late 1960s of the first portable video camera, translated into action by Nam June Paik, who taped Pope Paul VI's visit to New York City and played it that night at Cafe a Go Go.

It's the only subdued moment in a work that, true to its medium, is constantly in motion, including clips from so many sources that there's no time to credit each, and interviews with many of the medium's seminal figures including William Wegman, Bill Viola, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Mary Lucier, Dara Birnbaum and Doug Hall, along with critic Gene Youngblood and writer Coco Fusco. Pittsburgh is represented by artist Paul Glabicki and one of the two curators interviewed, Bill Judson, formerly of the Film and Video Department of the Carnegie Museum of Art, which was eliminated this year due to budget cuts, an action Vituccio calls a "travesty."

Each comment on an aspect of video that, placed in loose chronology, tells its story from a medium adopted by a fringe group of artists and activists through its relationship with commercial mass media to the doorway of its expansion into the Web and virtual reality. It doesn't go through that doorway, Vituccio says, because they're recent developments and most of the interviews are with artists from the beginning of the movement.

As such it's a primer on the first decades -- allowing room for exploration of each of the issues introduced and providing a logical starting point for a sequel. As Vituccio says, while in some ways generations of development have occurred within the medium, in others -- as with art in general -- not a lot has changed. A periodic self-examination contributes to the course of any form, and this effort will surely prod more to follow.

Admission is $4. Information: 412-681-5449 or www.pghfilmmakers.org.

In Cleveland

"Points of Light: Sato Tokihiro Photographs" is a bonus for those planning to see "The History of Japanese Photography" at the Cleveland Museum of Art by July 9.

Contemporary Japanese artist Tokihiro Sato creates images such as "#275 Koto Ku-Aomi" by moving a penlight about during a long time exposure. An exhibition of his photographs is at The Cleveland Museum of Art.

He infuses landscapes and architecture with light, using a mirror or a penlight and long timed exposures. The precision of these markings, and the jumpy energy caught in the penlight works, make the ordinary mysterious and suggest subliminal layers of knowledge -- markings of time -- that are suspended just beneath consciousness of our daily surroundings.

Sato is represented by only one image in the larger, and quite fine, survey exhibition (which continues through July 20 and will be reviewed in the PG on July 6).

The opportunity to see 11 of his large, black and white photographs together expands their wondrous quality while affording comprehension of his technique through comparison. They also illustrate the interpretive range -- slow, quick, edgy, peaceful -- at his command.

Sato, who was born in 1957, was a sculpture major at the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he earned a BFA and an MFA and now teaches. He began working with photography in 1987, and in the catalog to "History" is quoted as saying that he considers himself "a sculptor whose material is space."

The poetry of the penlight works results from Sato's intimacy with his process. "I move my hands and feet, I breathe in and out, and throw light around -- all in a steady rhythm, like a long-distance runner or swimmer. In the time in which I repeat these actions, thought reverberates with non-thought, and my head fills with abstract time."

Museum admission is free. Information: 216-421-7340 or www.ClevelandArt.org. Silver Eye Center for Photography is taking a bus to the museum tomorrow, leaving the South Side at 9 a.m. and returning at 6 p.m. Cost, including lunch, is $70 first seat, $85 for two. To register: 412-431-1810.

Root seeks roots

The Society for Contemporary Craft is offering Japanese artist Keiko Miyamori's sculpture "City Root" free to a good home after her exhibition "Melody" closes today. The 2,500-pound cleansed and painted root, removed from a demolished Philadelphia housing project, must be moved by the new owner. Call 412-261-7003 for information.

Mary Thomas can be reached at mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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