Reductive Video Art is Easier to Interpret than Complex Video Art

by Derek P. Rucas


Video and performance artwork has come a long way since its naissance in the mid 1960s with the Sony Portapak.  The first portable video recording device was a clunky reel-to-reel mini system that recorded video and audio on the same strip of magnetic tape.  Suffice it to say, the quality of mini video recording systems has vastly improved.  Prior to the mid 1980s, video artists such as Vito Acconci and John Baldessari were restricted to using video equipment that was poor in both video and audio quality.  Moreover, after the video was shot, it could not be edited.  Nevertheless, the first wave of video artists were successful in making comprehensive and mildly entertaining—if not exciting—performance video artwork. 


As the 1980s progressed, technological advancements followed and new forms of video art was being produced.  Videos such as Tony Oursler’s Evol (1984), Gary Hill’s Incidence of Catastrophe (1987-8) and Cathy Sisler’s Lullaby for the Almost Falling Woman (1996) were a new wave of video art that resulted from innovative technological advancements.  Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby’s Being Fucked Up (2001) is the product of the newest wave of video making.  This generation of video makers are exposed to the newest technological advancements such as mini DV cameras and home editing suites on personal computers (not to mention the decreasing costs of video production.)  Nevertheless, it is apparent that the latest innovations of modern technology have allowed for video productions to become less reductive and more sophisticated in nature.  Needless to say, it was easier to interpret and scrutinize video art from the first wave, rather than the complicated intertextualized video art pieces of the new generation.


Let us begin with the notion “the work” and “the text” and the classifications that make these separate terms stand apart.  In Roland Barthes’ essay “From Work to Text” he explains that:


“The Text is plural.  Which is not simply to say that it has several meanings, but that it accomplishes the very plural of meaning: an irreducible (and not merely an acceptable plural…The plural of the Text depends, that is, not on the ambiguity of its contents but on what might be called the stereographic plurality of its weave of signifiers (etymologically, the text is a tissue, a woven fabric.” (Barthes 111)


In contrast to the notion of “the work”, Barthes clearly explains that the text is in no way restricted to one single interpretation.  He suggests that, “The author is reputed the father and the owner of his work.” (Barthes 112) Furthermore, Barthes comes to the conclusion that the “work” and the “text” are purportedly two entirely separate things.


Since works from the first wave of video art come from a tradition of performance art, the video maker would stereotypically sit his/her camera down on a tripod and perform a piece in front of it.  This minimal technique allows the audience to focus exclusively on the performative aspects of the piece, while treating the video as a liaison between the artist and the audience.  Examples of this include Vito Acconci’s Theme Song (1973) and John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art (1971).


Theme Song depicts Acconci lying cozily on the ground, his face taking up about half of the frame as he faces the camera.  By his side (off screen) is a tape recorder playing various tunes by artists such as The Doors, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison.  As he chain smokes cigarettes, Acconci makes semi-sincere attempts to seduce the viewer by spewing out bouts of tawdry dialogue.  The video was produced using one single long take.  There are no cuts throughout the piece.  Even the soundtrack is played from within the scene making it non-diagetic.  This enables the audience to acknowledge the amateurish qualities of the work.


Theme Song can be classified as a minimalist piece, thus allowing for a comprehensible interpretation without the need for a second viewing.  One can discuss many aspects of Acconci’s video.  For instance, one could argue that Acconci appropriates the male gaze and recontextualizing it in a homosexual context.  As he stares directly at the audience, lying on the ground, caressing his body, he purportedly adopts the role of the “object of desire.”  His unslick image and sleazy demeanor insinuate that he is of a lower class.  Even the striped couch in the background might have some significance.  In a class lecture, Gary Kibbins stated that, “Maybe the couch is a reference to Daniel Brunet?” (Kibbins. 2004. Jan. 20) Because of its minimalist aspects, it is easier to formulate a comprehensive interpretation of Theme Song rather than a newer video piece such as Evol.


Tony Oursler’s Evol is a frustratingly ambiguous piece that depicts Mike Kelley in a strange, surrealist setting of makeshift set designs painted black and fluorescent green.  Oursler jumps from event to event without any interrelating elements fusing the scenes together.  There are some sexual metaphors in this piece, however, they never seem to relate to a grand narrative.  One sexual metaphor includes Kelley’s stark naked body standing behind a green x-ray-type screen.  We hear several electronic sound effects that punctuate the visual accompaniment of bones being placed through the hollow machine as Kelley’s body convulses unconvincingly.  One bone represents the phallus, as it is placed near Kelley’s groin area and proceeds to “pop up” as soon as it is placed down.


It is difficult to explain the essence of what Oursler is trying to convey in this piece.  Throughout the video, several different allusions are made to sexuality, notions of love and technology.  The audience can derive fragmented interpretations from these signifiers, however, it is impossible to formulate a metanarrative.  Oursler explains that Evol is, “…a charming narrative which becomes self-sustaining, a deadly black hole that attracts and mirrors our deepest fears.” (“Evol,” pars. 1) Nevertheless, we must analyze the video maker’s interpretation in a different context, since he is the creator of the piece.  By contrasting Acconci’s Theme Song with Oursler’s Evol, it is evident that a clearer interpretation can be derived from the minimalist work rather than the complex work.


The first wave of video artists were limited in the degree of complexity presentable through the discourse of a video.  Artists were restricted to in-camera editing techniques, preventing them from shooting events and rearranging sequences.  During the late 1990s, more sophisticated technology allowed more amateur video artists the accessibility of producing video art at lower costs and in the privacy of their own homes.  Advancements such as the mini DV camera and programs such as Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere have allowed for video production values to increase.  As an implication, video production has become more popular within independent art circles.


Technological advancements have also augmented the opportunity for young artists to create video art.  These advancements have contributed to the notion that anyone can create a piece of video art, regardless of his or her ability.  The ramifications are that, the more video art is created, the more artists attempt to utilize innovative techniques to allow their videos to be noticed.  Moreover, this results in obscure, concept videos in which a coherent interpretation is barely made possible.


Let us first examine John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art from 1971.  This straightforward piece depicts Baldessari sitting at a table attempting not to make any more “boring art”.  All we see in the frame are his hands, several sheets of lined paper and the table.  He begins by picking up a pen and writing, “I will not make any more boring art” on the first piece of paper.  The long shot continues while Baldessari fills up page after page of the repetitive text.


On the one hand, Baldessari makes an ironic statement.  He is in fact creating “more boring art” although the title of the video suggests otherwise.  Marcia Tucker explains that Baldessari created this piece as a response to his, “…dissatisfaction with the ‘fallout of minimalism’…” (“I Will Not,” pars. 1) She continues by explaining that I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art is, “…is typical of Baldessari's work, for not only is it extremely funny, but it is also a strategy, a set of conditions, a directive, a paradoxical statement, and a commentary on the art world with which it is involved.” (“I Will Not,” pars. 1) Although simplistic, Baldessari’s style of video making is effective at getting the theme across by using one long take and no cuts.


On the other hand, Emily Vey Duke’s and Cooper Battersby’s Being Fucked Up is a complex discourse that incorporates notions of cynicism and humour. As a result, they produce a piece that makes one singular interpretation impossible.  There are too many incoherent elements to this video.  Duke and Battersby use several techniques in their video to convey meaning, some of which include nonsense-babbling cartoon animals, eerie robotic-like voiceovers and quick-jiggling buttocks, dancing to folk songs played on a lone acoustic guitar.  On Gene Siskel’s Film Center website, it is noted that Duke and Battersby:


“…put themselves at the center of their collage-like explorations, which, nevertheless, are only marginally autobiographical. Speaking shifty aphorisms, singing doleful folk songs, and mingling with psychobabbling and straight-talking cartoon animals, this self-described ‘sexually compatible collaborative duo’ make a sly joke out of their own alienation.” (“Gene Siskel,” pars. 4)


It is apparent that one may be able to derive some meaning from the text, however, a full interpretation is problematic because of the stylistically different techniques Duke and Battersby use throughout the video.  The statement above notes that Duke and Battersby speak in “shifty aphorisms” and that they “make a sly joke out of their own alienation.”  However, how do we interpret claims like “I don’t believe in art, or socialism…” or “I hate myself and pity the others…?”  We notice that there is the reoccurring symbol of the “dog” throughout Being Fucked Up, however, no obvious metaphoric or symbolic interpretation can be derived from this obscure symbol.  Being Fucked Up takes advantage of the technological innovations that have been available to amateur video makers since the late 1990s.  Nevertheless, the high degree of arbitrariness throughout Being Fucked Up disables the viewer from comprehending the entirety of the video.


Finally, I would like to discuss the notion of “reductiveness” in video art, and the interpretive significance it may have on viewers who are “satisficers” according to James Peterson.  In Peterson’s book Dreams of Chaos, Visions of Order: Understanding the American Avant-Garde Cinema he explains that there are three categories of people who interpret avant-garde films, (or in this case, video art.) Peterson defines these categories as 1) Maximizing, 2) Satisficing and 3) Optimizing strategies.  He describes each strategy as follows:


Maximizing strategies are generally appropriate for well-formed problems for which there are clear-cut solutions…The maximizing strategy aims to produce the best possible solution regardless of the cost…satisficing strategies minimize problem-solving effort and aim to produce only ‘good enough’ solutions…[These strategies] tend to be ill-formed, and…often must be solved quickly and with incomplete information.  Optimizing strategies produce better solutions than satisficing strategies.  The optimizer weighs the cost of additional effort against the benefit of the improved solution, and, unlike the maximizer, at a certain point decides that the extra effort no longer pays enough.” (Peterson 21-22)


Suffice it to say, the maximizing strategy is an appropriate strategy for interpreting reductive pieces such as I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art.  Viewers are more likely to use the satisficing strategy to comprehend complex pieces such as Evol.


Peterson’s notion of the maximizing strategy insinuates that there are “clear-cut solutions” to a problem (interpreting the video artwork) and that this “strategy aims to produce the best possible solution regardless of the cost.”  The reductive quality of I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art enables the viewer to become a maximizer.  For instance, one can analyze the title in accordance with the mis-en-scene.  Baldessari is in fact creating more boring art although he states in the title that he will not.  As a maximizer, I will come to the conclusion that Baldessari is being ironic and commenting on the art world during the 1970s.  He acknowledges that art has become boring and that he refuses to conform to this trend.  He states this by writing “I will not make any more boring art” numerous times on several sheets of paper, ironically making his video “boring.”


With regards to Tony Oursler’s video Evol—a video that may be too rich with textual information—the viewer will use a satisficing strategy in order to derive meaning.  According to Peterson the satisficer will, “minimize problem-solving effort and aim to produce only ‘good enough’ solutions…” Evol is not a reductive piece of video art, thus, making a completely comprehensive interpretation virtually impossible.  The satisficing viewer may see Mike Kelley’s naked body behind the makeshift x-ray machine and assume that the bones placed inside are representative of the phallus, thus examining male sexuality.  Another satisficer may interpret the interaction between the dolls and clay figures as an inner conflict Oursler wishes to convey onscreen.  Some may describe the surrealist setting as nightmare-like, while others may describe it as a cheap alternative to a sci-fi set that Oursler could not afford.  Regardless of what Oursler is actually trying to convey through Evol, satisficers will be content with a limited interpretation of the text.


There are several stylistic elements that allow the viewer to interpret reductive video art more easily and efficiently, whereas it is more difficult to interpret the complex video structures of the new wave.  This is representative of technological advancements in video equipment and the psychological aspects of the human mind.  In reductive pieces such as earlier video art, a viewer is more likely to derive a complete interpretation of a video, whereas later pieces of video art are too complicated in structure to derive a full meaning.  It may be acknowledged that later video pieces capitalize on the advent of modern technology to produce video art, consequently denying the viewer the ability of comprehending their experimental structure.  During the early era of video art, artists were limited to primitive techniques of creating video, thus enabling the viewer to grasp a more coherent interpretation of their video performance.  Lastly, the reductive nature of earlier video art makes it more difficult for a viewer to misinterpret the text.  Viewers of videos such as I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art may be inclined to adopt a maximizing strategy whereas viewers of more complex pieces such as Evol will be inclined to use satisficing strategies in order to derive a “good enough” interpretation of the piece.  It is evident that both reductive and complex video art pieces have the ability to stimulate the viewer’s mind regarding the political, social and cultural realms of North American societies.  It must be understood that no matter how complicated a video piece may be, there is always the potential for at least some interpretation to be derived from the video in question.


Bibliographic Information


Rucas, Derek P. "Reductive Video Art is Easier to Interpret than Complex Video Art." Film Articles and Critiques. 29 Feb. 2004 <>.

transcribed by Derek P. Rucas