Michael Scroggins traces his fascination with form, color and music to a kindergarten teacher who used stirring classical music as a background for finger-painting classes. Scroggins continued that interest through the late '60s, working on psychedelic light shows. Now Scroggins teaches at Cal Arts and makes video art--creating shifting images from geometrical shapes in a process he likens to a musician jamming.
Kathy Tanney was a childhood TV fanatic with dreams of working in the film business. But Tanney never felt she could actively pursue that goal until an art school class introduced her to video. Tanney is currently "scamming my way through Hollywood" to make enough money to produce the personalized stories she creates as a video artist--including editing porno films for five months in order to have access to the equipment she needed to finish a recent tape.
Fu-Ding Cheng never had a TV set when he was growing up in Van Nuys during the late '50s. He began making experimental films in the late '60s as an aesthetic outlet from his career in architecture. But Cheng recently moved more towards video as the vehicle to realize his goal of re-creating, in pristine form, the spiritual world he's experienced through dreams and meditation.
Scroggins, Tanney and Cheng are three Los Angeles artists pursuing a video vision. Their local contemporaries include such internationally prominent artists as Ed Emshwiller, Max Almy, Bill Viola, Ilene Segalove and Bruce and Norman Yonemoto. To these artists, the art of working in video entails much more than what we're accustomed to seeing on MTV or in the images of Max Headroom. What's more, the only thread that links these artists' work is their use of video technology.
Video artists can combine music with images, program computer-generated montages of abstract imagery, document events, incorporate dance and other elements of live performance, tell simple stories, satirize or comment on the mass media by utilizing the same techniques and images, create "installations" involving multiple screens . . . or any combination of those elements.
Artists approach video from a wide variety of disciplines--from painting and sculpture to film and dance--and their long-term goals range just as widely. Some foresee a commercial market for video art akin to that for jazz or new classical composers--others couldn't care less about a mass audience. Some want their work exposed through cable TV, video store rentals or underground clubs--others feel the only proper vehicle for exhibition is the formal museum structure. Some seek to match the technical quality of film or network television images--others try to steer clear of that high-tech sheen.
"What we have now is a classical period of video," declared Patti Podesta. "People have a body of work and you can see their thought processes changing. The great white hope of cable (television) isn't there any more and people are just finding the money and doing their work."
The wide appeal of performance artist Laurie Anderson and rocker David Byrne may have opened up a wider audience to genres like video art which blur boundaries between serious and popular art. "Video," declares intermedia artist/critic Jacki Apple, "has created another art world, a place between network television and the world of dealers selling paintings."
But that unique position presents unique problems too. While video art has recently won some belated respect in the art world, MTV music videos and pop culture icons like Max Headroom, utilizing techniques pioneered by video artists, have permeated mass culture.
Most video artists reject music videos (most of which are actually shot on film) as commercials selling a band, but the general public now equates "video" with the techniques and look of music videos. That makes it difficult for artists intent on forging an alternative, creative use for the television medium, although some consider the cliche-riddled formula of MTV to be an unwitting ally.
"MTV helps because it opens the door to the short, 3-5 minute form of video," said artist Marsha Mann, who collaborates with Radames Para in her work. "They're creating a short form language and it's also good because they've blown it.
"People have had it with MTV, the fact that you have to sit through 10 bad music videos to see a decent one. It's serving us in a sense, because we're saying, 'OK, you liked the idea and it went sour. Here's what it should be.' "
Others are not as sanguine about the future. With video art techniques popping up everywhere from commercials to "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on network television, young artists are being snapped up by commercial production companies. Whether those artists will pursue more aesthetic projects in their spare time is an open question.
"There's got to be some carrot dangled in front of these people to make them want to stay in the art world," said Arlene Zeichner, who has been a video art critic for the Village Voice and L.A. Weekly. "There's just so much locomotion you get from saying to people, 'Yes, you're making art and it's a noble thing to do.' But I'm not sure what that carrot is."
More money and easier access to equipment would do for starters. Most video artists scramble for grant money or tie themselves to academic institutions which have the equipment they need for their work. Some work in the commercial video industry by day and on their own work by night.
The support system for video artists from local institutions is improving. The Long Beach Museum of Art is an internationally recognized video art center, with an archive of 900 works and a full-service production facility.
Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, in downtown's loft district, inaugurated an "on-line" program to provide access to top-notch production facilities to artists at substantially reduced hourly rates and just started renting artists' tapes. Modern Visual Communications, a video art "label" founded by Richard Kennedy, is attempting to generate income for artists by selling their tapes through regular video retail outlets as well as galleries and museum shops.
One obstacle to bigger sales is that most people who view video art will expect the glossy, high-tech sheen of network television. That maybe be the biggest obstacle video art has to hurdle.
"Video art is the most problematic art expression to work in because of the ambiguity it has," contends Ray Zone, who has produced 29 half-hour editions of "The Zone Show" on "cutting edge artists" for public access television.
"You're taking a medium that's probably the most low-brow of all, the medium that people are least likely to think of as art, and trying to create an art experience with it. You could make a pointed, fine art piece for video and people will still just see it as television."
Like Music for the Deaf
That fateful finger-painting class wasn't the only unusual experience for Michael Scroggins while he was growing up in Manhattan Beach and the San Fernando Valley. Conflicts with his parents during high school drove him to Mexico in the summer of 1963 at 17.
"I was going to spend a couple of weeks in Mazatlan swimming and surfing and then go to Guadalajara and get a job as a sculptor," recalled Scroggins, 41, in a Cal Arts studio. "I spent three weeks on the beach, had my job in Guadalajara for two weeks and got deported for working without a work permit--an undocumented alien."
Scroggins discovered his medium when he was exposed to video as a CalArts student in the early '70s. "Video was much more plastic than other mediums," he remembered. "I kept being pulled into working with form and color in a way that was more visceral and less cerebral.
"My work reminds people of painting because it's dealing with form and color. I find these basic shapes--a square, circle and triangle together--have certain archetypal meanings that resonate in the work. I think you could have shown this stuff 5,000 years ago and people could relate to it."
He spontaneously creates images with a video synthesizer, an instrument like a music synthesizer except that turning a dial or pushing a fader changes the color, shape or movement of a visual image. He then "jams on top of myself," adding "tracks" like a musician over dubbing in a recording studio to create a multilayered effect.
Scroggins doesn't create his images to already prepared music--the sound track, usually by another artist/composer, is added after the visual piece is complete. One future project Scroggins envisions would test his work's validity as pure visual music.
"I've long been interested in presenting the pieces as a kind of music for the deaf," he explained. "I haven't gotten around to arranging screenings but it would be interesting because there are musical relationships in the forms.
"I often work in silence because not having any sound available forces me to make sure the image is moving through a series of changes. I like improvising because whenever I make a change and see the image on the screen, it changes the way I feel and that causes me to make another change a different way. It gives the work a certain juiciness only a live performance can have."
Saying 'Eureka' to Video
"I never considered for a minute that I was capable or allowed to do that," said Kathy Tanney, 27, of her teen-age dreams of being in film. "It's like denying yourself from what you know you should be doing. The reason I said, 'Eureka,' with video in art school is that suddenly I found myself face to face with the closest thing I had come to film making."
Tanney specializes in weaving personalized stories that often incorporate footage taped from broadcast television. A recent piece, "Spin Off," created a hypothetical romance between two famous TV series characters filtered through the perceptions of a young woman watching them.
"I'm really interested in the dual attraction and revulsion to the stuff I'm dealing with," explained Tanney in her Fairfax district apartment. "I really love those things and still do. The art I love is by people who totally immerse themselves in something and make fun of themselves at the same time."
Like many video artists, Tanney often barters her technical skills to get access to equipment. The job of editing porno films gave Tanney the opportunity to work on advanced new equipment that expanded her technical ability. She left the day she completed "Spin Off," which is scheduled to be screened during the AFI Video Festival this week.
Raising money is a major problem. Tanney pooled resources with fellow video artists John Goss and Erika Suderburg to purchase camera, lighting and sound equipment that drastically cut down on their production costs. Now they only have to shoulder the editing expenses.
"There should be a co-op," Tanney said flatly. "There's a couple of places here where people can get equipment and the cost is reasonable but still expensive. Cheap in video is still a lot of money compared to someone who's painting."
Compared to Movies . . .
John Dorr of EZTV is filling that low-cost technical vacuum . . . but he's not exactly thrilled about it.
Dorr, 43, initially brainstormed EZTV as a theater operation--modeled on the film society he ran at Yale in the mid-'60s--showcasing independent productions.
"The facility aspect--doing editing and making copies of tapes, which has become our bread and butter--was not the way I planned it," he acknowledged at EZTV's West Hollywood offices. "I hadn't planned to become an administrator or basically do day labor for other people, which is the reality of this."
The Massachusetts-born Dorr, who recently started shooting his first feature-length video since EZTV opened, began his career in time-honored Hollywood fashion. He worked as a house painter and carpenter and fruitlessly peddled screenplays. Dorr stumbled on to a video camera in the late '70s.
Unlike artists who come to video from a fine arts background, Dorr was enthralled by the medium's lack of expense . . . especially since he didn't realize video tape could be edited, and shot his initial, full-length feature in sequence.
When Dorr discovered that none of the museums that show work by video artists were willing to screen his early tapes, he and a few friends rented the West Hollywood Community Center to show their works in 1982. A small inheritance enabled him to buy editing equipment and lease the first EZTV office in 1983.
According to Dorr, EZTV is the only organization presenting regular weekend programs of independent video work that isn't support by grants or under the wing of an art institution. The most popular have been documentaries on underground literary figures like Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac or pieces by big-name directors like Jean-Luc Godard. Dorr feels a major breakthrough will only come when a program of fictional works draw turn-away crowds.
Ah, the Lonely Artist
Reaching large numbers of people plays no part in Patti Podesta's video plans.
"Most people are not going to be interested in the kind of work I want to make and that doesn't bother me," maintained Podesta, 32, in the video viewing room at L.A.C.E. "Galleries and museums are good for me. I don't ever expect to make a fabulous living off my video work."
Podesta, whose "A Glory" piece is due to premiere at the AFI Video Festival this week, was focusing on performance art when she graduated from Pitzer College in 1978. The Los Angeles native began using video to document her performances but moved towards the medium's montage possibilities during graduate studies at Claremont.
"I realized that video is the closest thing to the thought process of the art forms," Podesta explained. "The thought process is usually thought of as sensation/image/memory and those things resonate into a new idea. Those are the things you can represent in video."
Podesta now makes her living as a free-lance graphic designer but she has worked at the Long Beach Museum of Art and lectured at colleges on video art. She also edited "Resolutions: A Critique of Video Art," a book which sprang from a 1986 symposium at L.A.C.E.
Video may fulfill Podesta's desire to create abstract work but she maintains an irreverent, self-deprecatory sense of humor. She characterized one segment of her "Triptych" piece, which featured a reclining man clad only in white briefs, as "my Calvin Klein underwear ad."
Drawing From Dreams
Fu-Ding Cheng is using video to illuminate a different kind of thought process.
"I draw from my dreams and meditation practices and try to put it right on film undiluted by normal rational logic, don't try to explain it away," explained Cheng, 44, in his Venice home/studio. "I'm also interested in the human drama of what a guy goes through as he's going into unexplored territory--the frustration and the ecstasy.
Cheng cites as a major influence growing up Chinese American. His early lack of exposure to television--"I fell into looking at television as an art medium rather than opium to fill up the leisure time," he said--facilitated a shift from film to video for his "How To Become a Fascinating Speaker" tape.
"There's a certain, two-dimension abstraction that video has that makes those worlds come together and evens everything out. A lot of the thing with dreams is nuance. And video, with just a twist of the dial, can capture that."
Cheng has gradually phased out his architectural career in favor of free-lance jobs as a graphic artist and working on music videos. His long-term labor of love is a film script based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead but he's already made his peace with anyone who scoffs at the spiritual slant of his work.
"When I went to Berkeley in the early '60s to study architecture, art and politics was in the air," he recalled. "If I wanted to enter the political arena as my life work, the bottom line was I would have to be prepared to stand up all the way down the line and die for it.
"If I was an artist and wanted to explore new territories, I would have to be prepared to be completely ignored for the rest of my life. You do great work, you do so-so work, nobody knows and nobody cares. I just want to put this vision out there so I picked my path."
Is It Going to Work Out?
"Video just came up as one material that I wanted to play with, based on a certain idea," said sculptor Denise Marika in her home on the Venice canals. "It became a challenge to me in that I felt it could bring sculpture something that sculpture didn't have.
"When I brought video in to the piece, I could bring in day-to-day life. I felt that the sculpture I was doing until then wasn't of this century because it wasn't relating to our day-to-day life."
Marika, 32, has used video in all her work since taking the plunge with "Rammer Tube" three years ago. She incorporates monitors showing tapes of private rituals--someone bathing, rocking in a chair or pacing--into the context of her sculptures.
Marika, who just moved to Boston while her husband attends graduate school there, often uses several screens in one work. She differs from most video artists doing multiple monitor "installations" in that her tapes aren't edited and don't use any effects. But developing her "video sculptures" has introduced a whole new set of occupational hazards.
"When you're setting up three or four of these pieces in a show, it's absolute hell because you never know whether it's going to work. You get all the cables strung and the physical pieces set up and the video doesn't go on so you have to go back and check all the cables.
"You're going, 'What's wrong with this? This is supposed to be the world of high technology and everything is supposed to work in that world.' "
Video's Still Art's Stepchild
Ten years ago, Peter Kirby founded Video Transitions, one of the first full-service video companies in Hollywood. He worked on scores of music videos as producer, director or editor and helped set up L.A.C.E's on-line program.
"For the last 12 or 13 years, I've been going back and forth from the multimillion dollar world to the multihundred dollar world," said Kirby in an office adjacent to his Santa Monica bungalow. "I had been the informal on-line program for years, just because I knew people and liked working with artists."
But Kirby, 42, left Video Transitions two years ago to form his own production company. His recent focus has been on "Viewpoints on Video," an hour-long show of video art carried by cable systems with 6-700,000 subscribers around the state, according to Kirby.
The series is the outgrowth of a Long Beach Museum of Art program (supported by a California Arts Council grant) that gave five video artists $1,000 and access to production facilities at some local cable stations. Kirby served as the producer on those pieces.
"I'm trying to do a show that has the feel of a classical music program," said Kirby. "This is a very calm show, just simple graphics and voice-over with no razzle-dazzle.
"Video is still the stepchild of the art world," he noted. "There's not a critical discourse in Los Angeles and that makes it hard for artists to develop. They're operating in a vacuum.
"That's partly my role with the pieces we're producing: pushing people to re-examine what they're doing and make sure they're doing what they intend. There's a long way to go before there's a large body of high quality work."