The origins and history of video art

The origins and history of video art is a fascinating subject. Up until a few weeks ago, it was a subject about which I knew very little, if anything, of any substance. Rather than rewrite my notes, I thought it might be more interesting to share a few pages from my research journals, and let the ideas speak for themselves.









Rush, Michael (2007) Video Art London: Thames & Hudson

Salisbury, Peter (n.d.) Research Journals, 2017

Reading: Video Art (2007), Michael Rush

Video Art (2007), Michael Rush

‘The story of video art embraces all the significant art ideas and forms of recent times – Abstract, Conceptual, Minimal, Performance and Pop art, photography, and digital art. The story also departs from art-historical categories into a new domain, that of the technological, which has its own referents and language’

(Rush, 2007, p8).





Video art is an all embracing art form

  • multiple ways of constructing a history of the medium of video art
  • history of video art so far concerns three generations of artists
  • video artists ‘spontaneously adopted a massive communications medium for their own purposes, turning an implement of commerce…into a material for art’ (Rush, 2007, p.8)
  • two difficulties for critics: (1) the language used for video art is borrowed from film; (2) there are no convenient ‘themes’ or ‘schools’ of artists to help organise critical discussion

Blurring the boundaries

  • video art emerged when boundaries between traditional art forms were becoming blurred
  • painting, performance, dance, music, film, writing, sculpture combined in single works of art
  • early video art emerged from or reacted to post-Abstract Expressionism
  • the physical and the conceptual were linked from the start in video art – remain linked today
  • performance – principle material in the medium

A hybrid art form

  • video used in combination with film, computer art, graphics, animation, virtual reality, all types of digital applications
  • video is rarely the ‘pure’ medium of a work – more often a mix
  • is video art obsolete?
  • ‘We live in a time when ideas – and not specific media – are central to artists’ (Rush, p.11)

Key points for me

There are no obvious ‘themes’ or ‘schools’ of video artists. Today’s video artists are interested in the manipulation of time and breaking the boundaries between the material used and the medium of its creation. I don’t know how I plan to use what I have learned here. Though I do have one question: how do you create something new through the medium of video in a world so saturated with moving images?


Rush, M. (2007) Video Art London: Thames & Hudson

Dad's Stick (2012), John Smith

Dad’s Stick features three well-used objects that were shown to the artist by his father shortly before he died. Two of these were so steeped in history that their original forms and functions were almost completely obscured. The third object seemed to be instantly recognizable, but it turned out to be something else entirely. Focusing on these ambiguous artifacts and events relating to their history, 'Dad’s Stick' creates a dialogue between abstraction and literal meaning, exploring the contradictions of memory to hint at the character of “a perfectionist with a steady hand” (John Smith).


‘Dad’s Stick’ is a tribute to the artist’s father. It opens with what appears to be an abstract multicoloured image of colours layered like stratified rock. It is then superimposed by the text: ‘My dad did a lot of painting.’ In the background we can hear the sound of knocking; wood on wood, maybe. The film goes silent for a few seconds as see some more frames of the abstract multicoloured layers, superimposed with texts. Then we cut to a series of plain coloured frames (beige, green, brown, off-white, black) superimposed with further captions, starting with ‘Dad’s colour preferences changed over the years.’ Eventually, we cut to an image of a stick, superimposed with the text ‘Shortly before he died he showed me one of the sticks that he used for stirring paint.’ It’s at this point we realise that we are looking something completely different; the cross-section of his father’s painting stick. It’s a wonderful moment.

Smith’s ‘Dad’s Stick’ is a delightful film. It’s a playful game with images, words and meanings. What at first seems like an abstract painting is in fact the cross-section of a wooden stick his father used to mix household paint before applying it to the walls of his house. What appeared to be an abstract multicoloured image is in fact the layers of paint that became encrusted on the stick over decades of painting the house. Our expectations are completely overturned by the insertion of one image, the stick.

What I like about this film is its simplicity. There are only a handful of static shots, a few superimposed captions, a couple of sound effects of knocking on wood and stirring in a teacup, and the artist’s voice in the background, singing. Yet, it’s within so few images and sounds that our perceptions are challenged and, more importantly, we are drawn into the film space and asked to recall memories of our own parents.

As I was watching the film it got me thinking about my own father and an item that once belonged to him; his large, brown tape measure, that travelled all over Cheshire with him whenever he went on site as a Cheshire County Council architect.


‘Dad’s Stick’ (2012), Smith, J. At: (Accessed on: 6 April 2017)

Smith, J. ‘Dad’s Stick’ At: (Accessed on: 11 April 2017)

Video art by Lucy Purrington

I look at the work of Lucy Purrington, in particular at the way in which she uses humans within the landscape.

I began by looking at her video MVI 1893. The video opens with an outdoor shot of a grey, concrete surface. After a few seconds, a hand slowly crawls into shot from the right of the frame. The fingers move across the surface of the concrete, dipping momentarily behind a ridge in the ground, before slowly crawling back out of shot leaving an empty frame.

Fig. 1. Lucy Purrington (2017)

At first, I wasn’t sure what this video was trying to do. So I watched it again, looking for any distinctive patterns or ideas within the video. This time I saw what appears to be quite a clear ‘narrative’ in the way in which the hand moves across the surface of the ground. The hand crawls into shot, finger tips feeling the concrete surface; the hand rolls over on its back, again feeling the surface of the ground; the hand briefly claws at the ground, before forming a fist and thumping at the hard surface. It’s as though there is a change of emotion here. From benign and inquisitive to anger. The hand then spreads out its fingers, its palm slapping the concrete surface. Another change of emotion, perhaps frustration. The hand claws at the surface again, before dropping out of sight behind a ridge in the ground, leaving an empty frame.

I also noticed that the shot had been carefully framed so that the hand appeared in close-up, moving roughly in proportion to the rule of thirds. Which produced a satisfying composition. I was also more aware of the audio track, which is simply an ambient recording of the landscape in which the camera is set. We hear birdsong and the sound of the hand as it moves across and interacts with the landscape.

Fig. 2. Lucy Purrington (2017)

I then found another video, 29 03 17 1 overlay, in which she overlays several different ‘hand’ videos, including MVI 1893, over a shot of an empty area of ground. Interestingly, having just seen the previous video, this one made more sense on first viewing it.

What I find particularly interesting about her approach in these two videos is the way in which she has set up the camera to record a single, static shot, in much the same way a photographer would capture a still image. This is not something that would immediately occur to me as a videographer used to capturing a narrative through action and movement. It has certainly opened my eyes to the possibility of using the video camera in a different way than I have been used to so far.

What these videos have also shown me is that video art requires a different way of interacting with the moving image. Watching Lucy Purrington’s videos required me to find a way of observing her moving images that was different to that of watching a film in the cinema, for instance. It also required several viewings in order for me to appreciate the full picture. In some ways it was like watching a play by Samuel Beckett. This was quite an eye-opening experience.


MVI 1893, Lucy Purrington (2017). (Accessed on 10 April 2017)

29 03 17 1 overlay, Lucy Purrington (2017) (Accessed on 10 April 2017)


List of Illustrations

Figure 1. MV 1893 (2017) Lucy Purrington

Figure 2. 29 03 17 1 overlay (2017) Lucy Purrington

Cindy Sherman, Roman Signer & the Stanford Prison Experiment

The clothes people wear have a specific character and they say something about roles and purposes. They tell us about age, class, culture, profession and history. They also inform creative ideas and influence artistic choices. Here are three contrasting representations of clothes, and the roles that are attached with them.

‘Doll Clothes’, Cindy Sherman (1975) 

Short black and white animated silent film by American artist Cindy Sherman.

Doll Clothes presents a photograph of the artist – Cindy Sherman – as a paper doll that has come to life, trying on multiple outfits before a mirror. After each costume change a hand intrudes from the corner of the screen, putting the doll and her dress back in their plastic album sleeves. The repetition of posing followed by powerlessness reflects Sherman’s ongoing fascination with the politics of identity and representation, particularly in relation to women.’

(Tate Gallery label, 2011)


Roman Signer, performance works

Performance related work using hats and sheets by Swiss artist Roman Signer.


A black hat and a pink sheet are fired into the air using small rockets and explosives. Taken out of their original context and used within a performance context, they are seen as abstract objects rather than items of clothing and bedding.


Stanford Prison Experiment

A simulation of prison life conducted in 1971 at Stanford University. The experiment was terminated after only two weeks because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated.

“In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.” (Professor Philio G. Zimbardo,

“I began to feel I was losing my identity […] I was 416. I was really my number.” (Prisoner 416,


In her short film 'Doll Clothes', Cindy Sherman uses paper cut-outs of various blouses, jeans, jumpers and dresses, organised in several plastic album sleeves. Through a repeating animated sequence, a paper doll (a photographic representation of the artist) comes to life, dresses in the cut-out clothes and poses in front of a mirror on a dressing table, before being stripped of her clothes by a disembodied pair of hands and replaced along with her clothes back into the plastic album sleeves.

In Roman Signer’s performance works, hats and sheets are used as objects to be propelled into the sky. In one work, rows of yellow hard hats are fired simultaneously into the sky, creating a random scattering of colour before falling back to the ground. In another work, a man standing wears a black woollen hat covering his head and eyes. The hat, attached to a small rocket by a length of string, is fired into the sky. The man looks up, following its upward trajectory. In a third work, one end of a pink sheet is fired into the sky, its full length spreading out, before falling back to the ground in a crumpled heap. In each example, it is less about the original functional purpose of the clothing than about the action of the artist firing them into the sky and an audience watching the random movement created by their trajectory.

By far the most extreme of the three representations of clothing, the Stanford Prison Experiment shows two groups of student volunteers participating in the simulation of prison life. One group of students were given uniforms and took on the role of prison guards. The second group of students, systematically searched and stripped off their clothes, complied with the role of prisoners. Each prisoner was given a prison uniform with their respective ID number printed on the front and back to make them feel anonymous, and an ankle chain. The consequence of which was the rapid erosion of personal individuality and a passive compliance with institutional rules.

The representation of clothes and gender in Cindy Sherman’s Doll Clothes, the abstract representation of clothes in Roman Signer’s performance work and the role of clothes in defining behaviour in the Stanford Prison Experiment offer three very distinct notions of identity and the use to which clothes are given within the artistic representation of these notions of identity.



Doll Clothes (1975) Cindy Sherman. At: (Accessed on: 10 March 2017) Revised: (Accessed on: 7 November 2023)

Installations by Roman Signer (s.d.) At: (Accessed on: 10 March 2017)

Stanford Prison Experiment, (Accessed on: 10 March 2017)