REWINDItalia edited by Stephen Partridge and Laura Leuzzi

Jon Blackwood

 

Video art is dead in the post-digital age. It’s not quite historically remote enough to escape our jaundiced view of digital positivism, nor does it attract much by way of the post-digital nostalgia, surrounding obsolete technologies and methods of working. A student attracted by a super eight camera is still likely to look askance at the chance of working with video technologies of the 1970s and early 1980s. But if “video art” as a discrete technology and set of aesthetics is now a historical phenomenon, then the writing of that history, if this volume is anything to go by, is just entering its richest phase.

REWINDItalia edited by Stephen Partridge and Laura Leuzzi, is a development of the research team that previously produced REWIND : British Video Art in the 1970s and 1980s (John Libbey Publishing, New Barnet, 2012). The approach to the subject taken by the editors is admirable. They eschew the opportunity to set themselves up as “gatekeepers” to what, for many, will be unfamiliar terrain; rather, they seek to open out that terrain through a mixture of interview, criticism and first hand account from key figures involved in the development of video art in its early growth in Italy. The text, in eighteen interlinked but independent chapters, gives the reader a comprehensive overview not just of key works and actors, but a real understanding of the ecology of Italian video art from this time. The interaction of curators, galleries, funders and publics, a complex mesh of interactions, is developed subtly.

One of the real strengths of this text is the way in which it challenges platitudinous half-truths about the history of video art, that have almost become true through frequent repeating. The discovery of some evidence of John Cage’s appearance on Italian television in 1959, with a performance of Water Walk amongst his contributions to the Lascia o Raddoppia (Double or Nothing) quiz show, is amongst the delightful new insights that can be found throughout the text.

The book moves ably between broad contextual themes and the roles played by individuals. One of the most compelling chapters is the interview with the pioneer of video art in Italy and the founder of art/tapes/22, Maria Gloria Bicocchi. art/tapes/22 was a video production and distribution company that was founded in 1972, and folded five years later for lack of funding. However, in the short years of its existence, as the interview shows, this organisation provided a vital link between emerging video production in the United States, and Europe.

Bicocchi, from a very well connected intellectual family, was able to work with the likes of Vito Acconci in production, as well as to distribute key early works, by individuals such as Lucio Pozzi and Gino de Dominicis. Bicocchi’s insights are compelling, in terms of the ways in which video was used differently; she states that Europeans regarded early video art as drawing, whilst American artists perhaps had a more professional approach to the medium. There is perhaps some frustration for the reader in the lack of foresight to invest in these projects, and an interesting take, late in the interview, on the present status of these early video works;

“Students look at them like something historical. We represent the last past they can still look at. Now they look at us with veneration.” [1]
Paolo Cardazzo’s discussion of the introduction of video art into the space of the Galleria del Cavallino is instructive, in terms of the international links that the embryonic video art scene in Italy was making at the time. This gallery introduced Italian audiences to the works of Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol and other key American artists; the discussion of the famous meeting in Motovun, Croatia, opens out some insights into the relationships that were developed with emerging Croatian artists working in what was called “New Art Practices” (performance, video) at the time in ex-Yugoslavia, and the exchanges that were promoted between figures such as Sanja Iveković and Dalibor Martinis, and their Italian counterparts.

Simonetta Fadda’s contribution, on the reception and understanding of video art in 1970s Italy, offers insights into the medium beyond the scope of the essay. She observes that:

“Video revealed itself to be a problematic medium, able to introduce new revolution- ary factors in the artistic creation, bearer of a work economy in sharp contrast with the ‘individualistic’ one of the artist-hero on which the art market is based.” [2]
Fadda shows that video was initially understood in Italy as a means of promotion, as a secondary activity in an artist’s overall oeuvre; also, reveals the status of video as linked to revolutionary political thought and ideas, shown in trade union meetings, universities and hyper-active cinema and film clubs throughout the 1970s. Nonetheless, as Fadda shows, video struggled in this early period of enthusiasm and interest to really identify a particular niche or role for itself within contemporary art, instead occupying a problematic status. Video’s potential was felt to be latent and unrealised, by the end of the decade.

This volume is also very strong on the technical aspects of video art, focusing adroitly both on the problems of pioneers and the on-going difficulties of maintaining and recovering early video pieces from the fragile and decaying medium in which they were originally recorded. Sean Cubitt’s essay on Glitch Aesthetics is perhaps the best example of this, focusing on accident and unwitting technical interventions, and the semiotic significances that they have come to assume.

Even for the dedicated student of early video art, there is a great deal to learn. Personally, I knew very little about the relationship between early UK video art and it’s counterpart in Italy, this very useful formal and contextual comparison opens out both scenes in an engaging comparative study, and suggests possibilities for future studies, in the relationships between video art and television history.

Historians will appreciate the last two chapters in this volume; a re-printing of a seminal classificatory essay by Vittorio Fagone, first published in 1988, and Laura Leuzzi and Valentino Catricalà’s excellent chronology of Italian video art, starting with Lucio Fontana’s televisual experiments at the beginning of the 1950s, right through to canonical late exhibitions of video in the early 1990s. The chronology enables the reader to understand the events mentioned by many of the contributors in an engaging context and this functions as an unusual summary and conclusion to the book, as a whole.

“We may mourn the ageing of our videos, but we should also praise the fine antennae with which they catch the signals from a living electromagnetic universe and integrate them into themselves as living artworks of the living order of time.” [3]
Sean Cubitt’s pungent observation on the ageing of video, and the historical quality of early iterations of the art form, functions also as a summation of the value of this excellent addition to scholarship on video art. This book is a significant contribution, based on a long and profound research journey, and an impressive network of actors. The cataloguing of their memories and observations, allow the reader to completely re-think not only Italian video art from the period in consideration, but broader trends in European and American video. We must be very grateful for the fine antennae of Partridge, Leuzzi and colleagues who have put together such a compelling and engaging portrait of Italian video art practice.

References

  1. Maria Gloria Bicocchi interviewed by Laura Leuzzi and Stephen Partridge, Rewind Italia, Chapter 5, p. 129.
  2. Simonetta Fadda, “Italian Reaction to Video”, Leuzzi & Partridge, Loc. Cit., Chapter 7, p. 145.
  3. Sean Cubitt, “Glitch Aesthetics and Impossible Flights”, Leuzzi & Partridge, Chapter 11, p. 219

Bio

Jon Blackwood is a lecturer in Critical and Contextual studies at Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. He is a specialist in modern and contemporary art from the former Yugoslavia.