A tale of power, technology and media culture

This paper examines, under the prism of media and communication studies, the heretic argument that video art should attempt to become accessible to wider audiences. Therefore, it considers the probability of video art facing the challenge to address a critical mass via its popularization. On the one hand, the paper focuses on the relationship between the video medium and those of television and cinema as communication outlets in the contemporary digitalized landscape, which is deemed crucial for sustaining the above-mentioned argument. On the other, the paper analyses the qualities of video art as a cultural artefact. Thus, one of the essential elements of video art becomes the relationship with the associations of power it introduces in the life-world of its public. They prescribe the safeguarding of the creative element in the video artists’ culture of content production as a sine qua non for the successful popularization of the medium. This safeguarding should be attained by the deployment of the appropriate art policies and the upholding of the universal right to the freedom of expression.

1. Video art, popular culture and the mass media

Video art can be theoretically defined in general as the ‘art of seeing and knowing’ (Weibel, 1977 in Frieling 1997) However, the task of more specifically defining video art necessitates both the analysis of its communicative properties and the ideological preconceptions surrounding its function. This task closely relates with the difficulty of theorizing ‘video art’, due to the fact that the term is used to describe both a medium and an art form. (Wilson, 2005: 1) In the ensuing relationship of the artist with its public, which is always mediated by the artist’s texts in the form of cultural artefacts, technology is being used as the main vehicle for the creation and delivery of art forms. Thus, in the case of the popularization of the video art medium a main issue raising controversy becomes the scale of diffusion of aesthetics via the use of technology. At the same time, as the above-mentioned dual meaning of the term belies, this controversy is also created by the role assigned to art-making in video production. It is an issue marred by the extremes of projecting an art body which is simultaneously personal and social/political, i.e. one that is at the same time erotic and democratic. An evaluation of the nature of the relationship among the different types of media communication (‘one-to-many’, ‘one-to-one’ and interactive) reveals that this is an issue creating false dichotomies. After an examination of the similarities and differences among the media of television, cinema and video in the contemporary process of digitization, the above-mentioned extremes will be shown to be rather complimentary than antagonistic in character in relation to the production of art.

The main reason to which TV broadcasting owes its popularity has historically been the simulation of contexts of interpersonal interaction when addressing absent audiences.

The medium of TV uses forms of one-to-one intimacy by avoiding addressing its audiences as a mass. On the contrary, it resorts to techniques with a semblance of interpersonal communication in order to achieve this feat. The medium of cinema owes its popularity to the unique ability to deal with the ‘domain of illusion’ and in order to achieve this depiction it also needs to become interpersonal in character – albeit, by using a ‘machine system’ instead of cinema’s ‘projection system’. (Ardin, 1976/1975: 153; Frieling, 1977) Therefore, interpersonal (i.e. ‘one-to-one’) communication provides the link in the form of a standard that offers the missing semblance of authenticity to measure the success of communication in TV and cinema.

In particular the medium of TV has functioned for long as video art’s alter ego by providing ‘a species of unlikeness’ which inspires the production of the video art content. The latter has long focused on criticizing the combination of personalization and ambiguity that characterizes TV forms. (Ardin, ibid: 154) As far as the contemporary ascent of digital media in everyday life is concerned, TV’s main aspect of interactivity remains a characteristic of interpersonal communication which is responsible for the success of digital media with their audiences. The same characteristic has given rise to celebrations of participatory audience culture in interactive communication (Livingstone: 2006/2003: 348, 355) by suggesting that in the contemporary digital landscapes the TV medium starts evade the role of a bête noir for the evolution of video art.

The fact remains that, in addition to becoming a common trait in broadcasting and digital media, the interpersonal character of induced communication remains a main reason for their popularity. As a result, the ‘technological bias’ that usually separates one-to-many from interactive forms of communication seems to be cancelled out by the mass attraction of the latter. This happens for obvious reasons: in the case of digital media, interactivity becomes the main cause of their mass appeal which, in turn, is due to their interpersonal character. This relationship between interactivity, mass appeal and interpersonal communication will be shown to set a new paradigm for the popularization of video art.

The same fact also reveals a major pre-requisite for the popularization of video art in the form of the inextricable connection between the time of media audiences and the time introduced by the media content. Not only in broadcasting, but also in interactive media and video art alike, the properties of time that characterize media content can be introduced in the daily practices of their audience/public. This phenomenon makes the consumption/use of telling art forms an inextricable part of their daily life due to the fact that at these precise moments the distinction between life and art can become unsustainable. The additional magical qualities of video art lie on the fact that it can use, or even revert, the qualities of video as a time-based medium in order to completely overcome well-established space boundaries. (Frieling, 1997 referring to video artists P. Weibel and N. J. Paik)

Another concomitant issue to be discussed is the absence of simultaneity of reception a once dominant characteristic of broadcasting that now is absent of the consumption/use of digital media forms. What characterizes contemporary interactive media when they acquire mass appeal is their exclusively personal use. (Castells, 2010/2006: 42-3)

The degree of participation of media audiences becomes an issue for media research. The main question to ask, though, is an essentially old one. Do notions of a virtual community replace the absence of physical contact among media users/consumers? In this sense the ‘individualization’ of traditional mass media seems to go hand in hand with the ‘individualization’ of the interactive ones. Not only does this feat reveal that the technological bias which opposes ‘one-to-many’ with interactive communication media is not entirely true, but makes a convincing case for the formulation of ‘one-to-many’ strategies for the popularization of video art that make good use of the participatory benefits of interactivity (Shanken, 2008)

A final stumbling block for deciphering the notion of video art becomes the highly ideological conception of the medium and its subsequent conveyance of art forms by video artists ever since the 1960s. This very conception is illustrated by the video artists’ disdain of mass media culture. (Wilson, ibid; Vanouse, 2003: 2; Charitos, 2008)

It brings to the fore the tendency to assimilate the notions of ‘the popular’ and ‘the mass’ in media culture, with the latter having overtly negative connotations. It also indicates the equation of popularity with profitability in the operation logic of mainstream commercial broadcast channels.3

The main argument behind the above-mentioned distrust stems once more from conceptions about the nature of human communication at a distance via the use of media technology. Small publics are believed to be prone to interpersonal communication effects and therefore contribute in the creation of more ‘authentic’ art forms. In reality, however, social and economic priorities in media production and use cannot be easily separated. In this sense the use of the terms ‘popular’ and ‘popularity’ in relation to media culture can be read to simply reveal that the latter cannot operate independently from the medium responsible for its dissemination. It is for this very reason that the audiences/public of a media culture become(s) its ultimate raison d’ être.4

This only happens for the simple reason that, if a culture is deemed unpopular and looses its audience/public, it ceases to exist. This reading indicates that the relationship between a medium with its audiences/public can never operate one way. On the one hand, the word ‘popular’ can be seen as a rich source of response to and interaction with what is widely held as the dominant trends, the current societal flow. On the other, the cultivation of different knowledge, tastes and standpoints via public exposure to art forms remains always a major task of culture. By doing so it always strives to involve participation by media audiences.

2. Cultural capital, power, video art and its communicative affordances

Due to the fact that, as explained earlier, video art wishes to remain unspoiled by the nefarious influences of mass culture, the notions of cultural capital and power are deemed essential for unveiling its ideological status. The above-mentioned ‘cultivation theory’ brings to the fore older work by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. (Bourdieu, 1984; Ibid, 1993) An individual’s conscious and unconscious dispositions influence his/her tastes and personal communication behaviour by forming a ‘cultural capital’. This notion, however, has proven untenable to criticism for introducing too overtly a class-oriented distinction. For different reasons each, but both probed by the impetus of technological change Mac Quail (ibid: 120) and Livingstone (2006/2003: 338), seem to suggest that in this particular case the use of the concept of lifestyles seems more appropriate as an object of study for the investigation of the way the audiences become engaged with cultural art forms. Thus, in this relationship the ensuing reification of media output results in the simultaneous dispersing of art as an object and art as knowledge in the life-world of its public.

It comes as no surprise that the evaluation of the relationship between the transmission and reception/use of content gives rise to questions related to the exercise of power. The use of technology as an instrument of power (Antin, ibid: 150-2) needs to be re-configured in relation to the ready availability of art forms by digital media. In his study of power elites in the American society, C. Wright Milles (Milles, 1963) distinguishes among economic, political, military elites. Today it becomes obvious that the latter represent interests that are interconnected in the organization and operation of media in contemporary societies. (Barboutis, 2010) As far as the popularization of media art is concerned, the role played by cultural elites in this nexus is still open to investigation. Given the above-mentioned interconnection a huge task goes begging for cultural policy making. Cultural elites should be assigned the role of re-inversing the power structure in digital art media. This role essentially involves the act of giving power to the artists and the public alike by reinforcing the processes of creation and participation in the production and consumption/use, respectively.

The observations related to the workings of the creation and unidirectional dissemination of power culture hold especially true in media production from the moment they start reaching a critical mass. The functioning of private and state – or PSB – media in the international communication system, reveals that this phenomenon can be the result of the sheer populism and/or elitism of a one-way approach by media producers. This ascertainment can only result in recommendations, if ever video art is to be popularized. A reconfiguration of power has to take place within the contemporary context of ‘individual mass communication’ while simultaneously retaining from the traditional mass media two characteristics. Firstly, the one of being directed toward large audiences (i.e. forming a heterogeneous aggregate of individuals composed more by communities of interest than communities of place) and, secondly, the one of having a public character (i.e. its content is open to all and its distribution remains unstructured and informal)

But, which finally need to be the essential characteristics of video art in this process of popularization? The latter are defined by the video artists endeavour to aesthetically carve out their identities in time and space according to the possibilities offered by ‘one-to-one’, ‘one-to-many’ and ‘interactive’ forms of communication. This is because, according to Hutchby (2001: 5-8, 192), communication technologies, the main vehicles for the propagation of culture, currently go through a phase of ‘technologized interaction’. Whereas the social use of technologies and technological influences on social practice interact with one another, neither technology (technological determinism) nor society (social constructivism) can be hold as an independent variable, Hutchby (ibid: 29-33, 193-5, 199) coins the term ‘communicative affordances’ by which he means the range of possibilities technological forms offer for action and, inadvertently, the relevant constraints for action the same forms create.

‘Communicative affordances’ are seen as the unique possibilities the users of technological artefacts are offered to. But crucially it is all about some possibilities for action and not any others. In the case of interactive technologies the main point to be avoided in the designation of the popularization process involves the over idealization of the possibility of participatory interaction on a ‘one-to-one’ as opposed to a mass basis. (Livingstone, ibid: 354; Peters, ibid) The affordances of video art are defined by the types of interaction the latter does afford. It is about the intimacy of mediated one-to-one interaction via the use of image and sound by opening a window to the personal world of the artist.

The feat of the popularization of video art via the use of interactive technologies is even more clarified by the asymmetries of the latter with one-to-many communication. They are too also characterized by the affordances of the medium which becomes the means for the transmission of video art culture. These affordances prescribe the lack of simultaneous repetition and interpersonal communication effects on a day by day basis. This electronic media ‘dailiness’ (Scannell, 1996: 5, 161-8) has to be seen as crucial for defining the process of the popularization of video art. Despite the fact that ‘one-to-many’ is no less authentic than ‘one-to-one’ as a form of communication, interactive communication in video art can be more measurable in terms of the participation encouraged. (Shanken, ibid)

In the case of the use of interactive technologies for the transmission of video art culture, one-of artistic events cannot easily become an inextricable part of the everyday life of their audience/public. In the same way, due to the absence of simultaneous transmission to an unknown public, the sense of living co-existence with an art community during the video art content consumption/use is diminished.5 This should become the main aim of the popularization of video art, which is understood to entail the wide accessibility of video art content without, however, making its simplification a prerequisite for success.

Video art in the digital world remains a form of para-social interaction in which, according to existing theories of communication, the provision of an imaging stimulus, or stimuli, remains cardinal for the initiation of the communication model. If video art culture is to be propagated on a mass basis, the effects on its public should be valued, not by reference to a ‘cultural capital’, but, instead, by using media art culture as a socialization vehicle directly related to contemporary life styles. In this way, the ability to develop ‘self-concepts’ or ‘self-schemas’ (Perse, 2001: 173-6, 196) as well as the one of using media literacy tools is of major importance, due to the fact that the capacity of the public to analyse and translate the content it is exposed to remains cardinal for the popularization of the medium.

3. The popularization of video art: Introducing video art policies for the future

This paper attempted to unveil the falsehood of distinctions among different forms of communication media, either in terns of ‘authenticity’ or ‘technological bias’, as far as their perceived function of communication is concerned, be it one-to-one Vs one-to-many, or interactive Vs one-to-many. This finding shows that the necessary steps for the popularization of video art should be embodied by the development of interpersonal communication merits in all types of media, old and new. The popularization of video art culture should be advanced by national and international art policy measures to support the development of the medium and enable the deployment of private strategies envisaging the popularization of video art use.6

The above-mentioned policy initiatives need to advance creativity with various incentives and not stifle it down with subsidies. In sum the exercise of an ‘imperative’, high-handed, top-to-bottom regulation approach should be avoided in this case. The distrust of the original video artists of the mass media function reveals the ideological preconceptions of the popular, which need to be integrated in the video art culture for video art practice to finally elude their influence.7

The particular form of the interactive communication characteristics that video art culture needs to employ should not, however, curtail the expression of aesthetics.

This is the main issue at stake in the popularization of video art. The idea of presenting video art, for example, as a performance of one sort or another, which is characterized by sociability in order to attract bigger audiences, needs not necessarily result in an unobtrusiveness of aesthetics in the production of video art culture.8 This is a role assigned to cultural elites for its successful implementation and primarily deals with making possible the expression of the identity of the video artist. It is the only way available for the latter to introduce to the art public forms of exploring and understanding art’s own essence, i.e. the artists ‘narrative possibility’ (Eisemberg, 2001)

Accordingly the ‘normal disempowerment of the public’ in the process of art making and use becomes the main aspect of video art policy research and its formulation. (Downing, 2006/2003: 505) This aspect, in turn, brings to the fore issues of video art literacy within a more pervasive concept of access. According to this concept, video art literacy becomes ‘a social, locally situated process’ that enables its public to overcome ‘different sets of barriers with regard to [the individual’s] ability to develop the skills and competencies required to use different types of electronic services’. (Sourbati, 2009: 250) Another corollary of this concept is the ascertainment that the flipside of this concept of access demands diversity of content to be realized. It requires ‘exposure diversity’ as the most appropriate direction of contemporary digital content abundance. This ‘exposure diversity’ of video art content needs to be understood not only in terms of the needs of its users, but, essentially, the needs of artistic expression of its producers.

One should not forget, however, that, whereas artistic creativity thrives on upholding the right to the freedom of expression in all possible forms, the advance of new communication technologies has been historically used as a means to curtail this universal right. New forms of technology will continue to appear for the exposure and commercial, yet always limited, exploitation because of the peculiar nature of the art form as video content (Deliyiannis, Karydis and Karydi: 2011; Le Monde , 2011b: 22). In the case of the New Media content as a vehicle for the expression of video art, the main issue to be resolved is if artists and public could be interested in its popularization via an extension of the general press freedoms to New Media.

This involves the difficult task of resolving the oxymoron of being able to uphold, on the one hand, the liberty of expression principle and, on the other, to impose restrictions that make this principle viable. This ‘paradox of freedom’ necessitates the imposition of negative content obligations relating to the respect of human dignity (i.e. children protection and hate speech) It also makes an important case for the imposition of ‘positive’ content-biased obligations that further develop the right to freedom of expression. (i.e. obligations and/or incentives related to the quality and type of content)

It essentially results in the readjustment of the relations of power between video artists and their public. The liberty given to video artists by safeguarding their creativity needs to be translated in the ability of video art to address its users by playing a first fiddle to their identity encounters. For this to become possible the artists’ ‘narrative possibilities’ need to become part of the life-world of their public. This is the only way that a form of ‘notation’, resting upon the continuous operation of a language laboratory that vies for the establishment of a ‘high’ video art lingua franca among this public, will be established.9

Do art policy-makers, cultural elites, video artists, and the art public itself find valuable this type of relationship? More detailed research is needed to answer this question. But, first things first, let this tale to be told!


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  1. The historical development of electronic media reveals that TV broadcasting refers to a one-to-many form of media communication characterized by a unique historical situation developed within a particular socio-technological and scientific context in the western world that is long gone. ( Barboutis, 2001)^
  2. For example, in the United States Hulu, the internet site for video webcasting of, among others, popular TV series, had 42 million visitors in March 2009, revealing that the patterns of media consumption and use have irrevocably changed. As a result, Netflix, the distribution service of DVD and Blu-ray content via videostreaming, is ready to dominate the US and Canadian markets since November 2011. (Courrier International, 2009: 60; Le Monde, 2011: 19)^
  3. These two observations most probably unveil the reasons behind the distaste of video artists for mainstream media exposure. No matter how USA-centric this conception may seem at a first reading, the globalization of media policy, in which privatization trends make possible the dominance of commercial ventures in communication systems world-wide, makes extremely difficult the above-mentioned observations to discard. As Briggs and Burke note (2005: 241-42), the overt commercial orientations in the launching of the video medium which started to antagonise, and eventually displace, that of cinema, seem to enhance this distrust.^
  4. In this case, however, Mc Quail (2005: 119-20) points out that the relationship between technology and culture – in terms of the perceived effects to its audience – remains significantly blurred. It is an issue that unavoidably remains alive and kicking in the popularization of video art. However the question of audience reception and reaction to the content it is exposed to still remains very much alive and kicking. Historically, the attempts of audience evaluation have led media research in extremes which have to be avoided in the study of video art: audiences are seen either as dupes or active producers decoding this very content.^
  5. On the one hand, the limited penetration of digital communication media world-wide means that a critical mass is not reached (See, for example, the inequalities in the evolution of the TV and Internet media in the developing economies of China and India in comparison to the western world in Thussu, 2006) On the other hand, as the contemporary case of Wikileaks reveals, content popularization seems unavoidably to be dependent on its insertion in the traditional western mass media structure (Eudes, 2010: 19)^
  6. This could take the form of TV broadcasts or TV-like web-casts (for example, the creation of a sit com about ‘amateur’ video artists attempting to intercept all CCTV in Philadelphia in order to promote their work. Its combined exposure on the same time schedules along with the introduction of the presence and/or participation of a live studio or exhibition hall audience during relevant art programming. Moreover, given the acute financial crises characterizing the state of electronic media in both sides of the Atlantic and Europe, the ideas of, for example, of ‘micro television’ and other alternative media practices led by the artists H. Schuchmacher and W. Herzogenrath in Germany during the 1970s are well worth exploring at the local, regional and national/international level.^
  7. A relevant example is demonstrated in the case of radio art. It is yet another case in which the need to foster some kind of a connection with the mainstream broadcast media remains cardinal for not making the use of the word ‘popular’ redundant. In fact, Thorlington (2008) touches for a moment the issue of the intimate relationship between popular and specialized art that needs to access wider audiences, but then gets carried away by the absence of power relationships (in the form of ‘gatekeeping’) in new media technologies and does not develop more this idea.^
  8. See Scannell (ibid: 73-4) for the development of exactly the opposite argument in the case of radio and television.^
  9. Frieling, 1997 citing the words of the artists P. Weibel and N. J. Paik^


Dr Christos Barboutis is a researcher at the Institute of Applied Communication, University of Athens.


ID: 1327
Posted: 01 July 2011
Short URL: http://neme.org/1327
TEXT: Christos Barboutis


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