Wolf Vostell
Juan Downey
Joan Logue filming Nam June Paik going down the elevator
Ana Mendieta

First Generation: Art and the moving image, 1963-1986

Curated by Berta Sichel at MNCARS, Madrid, Spain

Submitted by: VideoArtWorld

Written by: Susana Salinas

Start date: 07-11-2006
End date: 02-04-2007
Location: 01-01-1970
Web URL: http://

Madrid hosts from the 7 of November of 2006 to 2 of April 2007 at the National Museum Center of Art Reina Sofia an extensive retrospective exhibition of the first 25 years of video art. First Generation. Art and the moving image, 1963-1986 is an exhibition curated by Berta Sichel, director of the new media department at the museum, and includes 32 installations, 14 video projections and 80 works of video in single channel.

Viewers can individually research through the work of some of the most important pioneers of video art in history. It covers the period from 1963, the year that the first installations with T.V. monitors where made by Wolf Vostell in the Smolin Gallery, New York and by Nam June Paik in the Parnass de Wuppertal Gallery, Germany, until 1986, the year that some of the most important artists from this first generation gain international recognition.

The two main purposes of this exhibition are to present to the public the new video art collection of the Reina Sofia which was initiated in 2005 and to recover a history of video that has not always been well taken care of. Apart from rescuing some of the most meaningful and interesting work from the first pioneers of video art, First Generation aims to bring to light why and how this medium has played such a relevant role in the artistic scene.

Despite video and T.V. being a medium conceived to store and reproduce moving images and sound, video art’s diffusion and preservation is very fragile. The work of many remarkable innovators of video art has often been lost, mainly because video technology has changed so quickly and the work that wasn’t transferred from outdated systems to a more modern ones was unrecoverable. Also, museums and galleries have paid less attention to video art than to other more traditional forms of art and have not adapted to the specific needs of displaying this new art form.

The National Museum Centre of Art Reina Sofia, as a centre for art responsible for spreading and promoting art and culture, recognizes the very important need of providing a proper space to view video art, as well as the unique and relevant role of video art has had in changing and shaping the history of art and humans during its short, but intense existence. As Martha Rosler said in 1986 in her article included in the catalogue of this exhibition, “There is already a history of Video but it must still be written and soon...”

At First generation you can not only view installations the way they were first conceived and enjoy a number of well-known video projections that haven’t seen the light for decades, but you can also watch individually in a single channel monitor different types of work as you please. The initiative of having an exhibition of this kind responds to the new political agenda of the Reina Sofia to create in their space a coherent exhibition context within a very precise conceptual frame.

Video since its birth has attracted artists, critics and activists non-stop. The possibilities and uses that artists and others saw in this new electromagnetic device differs and varies; it especially allows and elicits all sorts of contradictions and paradoxes to coexist without excluding each other. In First generation one can try to explore and understand some of those contradictions by walking through the exhibition, viewing videos and reading some of the most enlightening articles by some of the most important art connoisseurs and critics like Rosalind Krauss or Peter Frank; essays and personal testimonies of the people who lived closely those first years of video.

At first video and television were seen as electronic reproduction devices that were supposed to reach the masses. Paradoxically video became an ally of those artists who tried to respond to the mass production and consumption of art and were already working on alternatives forms of art such as Land Art, Performance art, Body art, Happening, Conceptual Art, etc....

This exhibition pays special attention to some of the most significant groups of the moment like Fluxus or Happening. Their members like Nam June Paik who is considered the father of video, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys, Alan Kaprov or Takahiko Iimura have a very special place at this show.

Other performance artists like Carolee Scheemann or Rebecca Horn who explore in their performances their body and the space around it or conceptual artist like David Lamelas or John Baldessari are showing some of their most memorable pieces.

A lot of the work at this exhibition was produced during the seventies; this was a period in history when social and political movements dealing with minority rights, feminism, poverty, environmental issues, etc, organized themselves and took place in most societies around the world. Often video was there where the action was happening; it was used to document events, as well as to inform and educate.

Soon artists and activists decided to use these new portable video cameras, not only to document and record events, performances or happenings that otherwise would not have been seen or known, but also as a tool to change and challenge the way we think and see the world.

At First generation you can see a number of works with social and political content. Some examples are "The Ant Farm´s Cadillac Ranch Show" in which two artists, Chip Lord and Doug Michels make and document a gigantic installation, commissioned by a Texan millionaire, where they buried 10 Cadillacs in the middle of the desert land in Amarillo, U.S.A. and Max Almy´s piece "The perfect Leader" which was produced to coincide with the electoral campaign in U.S.A. in 1984.

Others critiqued the medium itself and the way the media controls information and manipulates the masses. Some of these artists are represented at this exhibition, for instance the catalonian artist, Antoni Muntadas whose four videos deconstruct the language of the media to detect its hidden mechanisms and criticize the domination of T.V. over society.

The same interests guide the work of other artists such as Eugenia Balcells, Dara Birnbaum, Roger Welch or Joan Rabascall. All of them use images from the news or commercials, films etc… to expose their internal codes and their real content and power.

In 1965 a portable video camera, Portapack, became accessible to the general public. The first to try it were mainly painters, musicians and performance artists, who quickly found a good use for these cameras. Groups that had historically been oppressed and marginalized from the mechanisms of production, such as women, had also a chance to access a technology that could potentially reach the masses.

Women, who were at the time incubating the first women’s liberation movements and gaining for the first time a very important place in the art scene, started to use video often in very subversive and surprising ways. At First Generation there is a strong presence of work by women. Many of them are feminists that try to give a voice to the female experience and empower it from a critical point of view; they use and show their body, they tell their stories and they make art. This kind of content is approached in the work of Ulrike Rosenbach, VALIE EXPORT, Martha Rosler, Linda Benglis or by other women involved in social and artistic contemporary issues like the Argentinean artist Marta Minujin with her nonconformist, political and social happenings.

If Video and the new technology was seen at first by many as a threat to art, soon this technology became more human and allowed artists to create a very intimate space for very personal and private confessions. One of the paradoxes of video as a medium is that it can be so public, but so private at the same time. It also was used to document daily life and as in Duchamp`s ready-mades where an ordinary object became art. Jaques-Louis Nyst documents objects such as a coffee maker or an egg providing them with a new poetic and almost transcendental meaning. In his piece "Le voyage de Christophe Colomb" an egg becomes the earth that we travel to discover a new world, all without leaving Nyst´s living room. Joan Logue captures a moment in Nam June Paik´s life as he goes up and down an old industrial elevator. Ana Mendieta takes us to some remote caves in Cuba where she makes us part of some obscure rituals. We follow Juan Downey in his personal journey through the American continent in a search of identity in his piece "Trans Americans".

Not until now have the presence of the artist, their body and their psychology been so central in a work of art as in these recorded performances and video works; nor has the presence of the spectator as part of the work of art been so relevant. In Peter Campus´installations at this exhibition the camera instantly feeds us back like a mirror with a projection of our own futile and evasive image; an image that escapes us. At "nem" and "dor", two of Campus´ video projections on the wall, the spectator moves around the space in a futile search for its own image; absent when it is present and present when it is absent. Campus here and now reminds the viewers of our own presence, he does not offer you anything but your own consciousness of your own existence as a natural reflection of Art.

One could look at this initiative by the media department of the National Museum Center of Art Reina Sofia of starting this video art collection of the dawn of video, as a kind of archeological endeavor, where what has been found are fragments of a history of outsiders, painters of light, the visionaries and the crazy; fragments of a civilization full of contradictions.

Looking at this work you may think that what these social activists, art lovers and cultural revolutionaries saw was that video could not easily become a commodity that could be bought or sold in a time when everything can be consumed. On the other hand at the same time we see a need to write its history, video has already written its own type of history. Using a medium that praises itself for the masses, video has written a new history; a history of the personal, of the individual that is not inscribed within the dominant discourse.

It is a non-written history that allows you to document and record very ephemeral events of groups like Fluxus and Happening or share very personal and intimate private rituals for instance such as Ana Mendieta´s work. Hopefully by creating a video art collection as this one the National Museum Center of Art Reina Sofia can remind us of the unlimited possibilities that we once saw in video and inspire us to continue creating a work as fresh and new.