Injections of art Video works in semi-public places

Catrien Schreuder


Chris Doyle, Leap (2000). Building Projection & Subway Posters. Commissioned and presented By Creative Time. Installation at 2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan. Courtesy of the artist.


The aim to bridge the gap between art and everyday life has been present on the foreground of much of the art production in the twentieth century. Artistic developments ranging from cubist collage, Dadaist ready-mades, surrealist bricolage, interdisciplinary happenings and Fluxus events up to postmodernist appropriation of the visual languages of mass media, can be related to this quest to rescue art from its elitist bourgeois position in society. The increased presence of video art works in public space in the last decennia of the twentieth century can be understood within this historical development quite easily. From a historical perspective, these pieces of art, placed deliberately within the forces of governmental power, commerce and urban planning seem to actively liberate themselves from the elitist reserves of the white cubes and black boxes that came to isolate avant-garde art from reality within the art institution. The strategies artists are employing seem to originate directly from the avant-garde aims of the 1960s from which video art as an artistic medium originated. I will describe three video works in public space, focussing primarily on their discursive strategies. How do these works relate to their environment? Which visual, historic or spatial strategies do these works use to mark their place in the urban environment?

In 1989 Dara Birnbaum created the Rio VideoWall, which counts as the first large-scale permanent interactive video artwork in the public space of the Rio Shopping and Entertainment Centre in Atlanta, Georgia. Being interactive, site-specific and using – in part – mass media imagery from CNN news, it seems to respond directly to Allan Kaprow’s understanding of the true transgressive possibilities of the new medium of video. In 1974, some ten years after the first experiments with video, Allan Kaprow evaluated the state of affairs in an essay with the revealing title: ‘Video Art: Old Wine, New Bottle’.[1] Although he distinguished various directions in which video art seemed to be developing as an autonomous medium, he questioned its actual avant-garde power. Following upon the happenings, events and performances of the 1960s, he observed how many artists were registering their live performances or technological image-transforming experiments with a video camera. A second category that Kaprow distinguished also did not utilise the radical possibilities of the new medium. Many artists used video in order to show and expose political standpoints or social problems. In this manner, standpoints that did not receive coverage in the mass media gained a platform in art. This type of video art, no matter how meaningful in Kaprow’s eyes, did not contribute to the rapprochement between art and life through its form. A step further in this respect was taken by the artists who worked with ‘environmental closed circuit video’ in installations and performances. Kaprow describes installations in which artists carried out an extensive self-investigation with video, works in which television broadcasts and telephone connections were used in order to let an unknown audience participate, and large installations with stacked monitors and life-size projections of images. He was referring to multimedia installations that explore the relation between the space, the experience of time and the viewer. This type of video installation would develop further in the 1970s. Dara Birnbaum, who in 1989 was already recognised for her deconstructive video art pieces using existing television footage, seemed to meet Kaprow’s criteria for true transgressive video with her work Rio VideoWall. This was an interactive installation of twenty-five stacked monitors thus comprising the first digital video wall in the United States. On this wall Birnbaum showed images of the original natural landscape, which was all razed in order to provide a site for the new shopping mall. Using a system of closed-circuit cameras, these images were interrupted by live shots of the shopping public. The silhouette of passers-by functioned as a ‘keyhole’ through which one could see then see the live downfeed of news broadcast segments later to be edited and aired on CNN News, Turner Broadcast Network, which is based in Atlanta. Dara Birnbaum thus made a video installation as an oasis of natural peace and quiet in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the shopping mall. The spot formed a collective memory of the site, but also a modern ‘newspaper stand’ where people could apprise themselves of current events and information via the live broadcasts of the news networks. Birnbaum purposely made a video work without a beginning or an end, a constant stream of juxtaposed information that was directly dependent upon the activities of pedestrians within the confines of the shopping mall.

Using closed-circuit video and combining interactivity with high levels of abstraction, Birnbaum truly aimed at creating a counterbalance of individuality and historic specificity in a completely commercialised and in a way a depersonalised area. Nevertheless, the story did not turn out to meet the avant-garde goals, as described and predicted by Kaprow. Being commissioned by a commercial real estate developer, the artwork would have to contribute to the commercial targets of the mall. Instantly conflicting goals came up, and the Rio VideoWall was built with big concessions on both sides. After heavy negotiations both parties agreed that the installation would be on display for 24 hours over the course of six days a week during the mall’s normal business hours, for a period of seven years. The rest of the time, the commissioning party could use the installation as a software package that could fit any need, for example for the public broadcasting of events such as the Academy Awards, VJ performances and commercials for the shopping centre itself.[2] ‘Can commercial money and sponsorship give to the artist involved with video art – a culturally loaded and complex form, given its contemporary historical context and its immediate cultural and industrial usages – the ability to create independent and critically responsive statements that work and function differently in terms of their goals from the limitations imposed on them by commercial ventures alone?’ wondered Dara Birnbaum despairingly at the end of the trajectory.[3]

How did times change in the decennia following Birnbaums slight disappointment? Did artists generally temper their avant-garde expectations? Did they loosen their aim to bridge a gap between art and life?

Chris Doyle’s Leap (2000) does not seem to have a less idealist concept to transform a commercially driven location. On a blind façade at Columbus Circus in New York City, he created a six-meter high projection of people jumping towards an open sky. Featured are some 420 New Yorkers, residents of districts at the end of the subway lines that meet at Columbus Circle. They were asked to make a high leap in front of the camera. In the projection, their leaps start at ground level and reach the complete height of the 12-storey building. Through computer manipulation of their movements, the anonymous passers-by on Columbus Circle seem to literally and metaphorically go up in the clouds to their hundreds of personal dreams. With his work, Chris Doyle aims to ‘give people their dreams back’ in the public domain.[4] As a reaction to the dominance of mass communication and the ‘everybody for themselves’ mentality of the twenty-first-century individual, he wants to give the streets back to a new collective with his work. In response to Kaprow’s criteria, Doyle actively involved his public in the creation of his work. By doing it, he seems to refuse the static meaning of public space. He is a place-maker, adding his layer of works onto the existing power structures of Columbus Circle. Just as in the 1960s and 1970s, Doyle attempted to bridge the gap between art and daily life, and between the artist and the public.

The question arises: why doesn’t anybody speak of avant-garde art when speaking of these video art works, although they seem to be an answer to many of the avant-garde aims? Since many artists seem to share the ideals of blurring boundaries between art and life, to what extent can you actually assume that the avant-garde is dead? From its inception, video art has focused on looking across the borders of other disciplines. In this context, art historian Rosalind Krauss spoke of a ‘post medium condition’[5]. With the appearance of the first portapak cameras, video created a ‘chaos in the modernist discourse’ of art, she argued. For after all, what is determinative for video is an interplay of aspects such as the incidence of light and the projection or the technology of the equipment, and because of this inherent heterogeneity the medium could not be reduced to something that would define its essence or core. In Krauss’s view, video had thus determined the end of the modernist medium-specific approach to art.

Pipilotti Rist’s Open My Glade (2000), which was restaged in 2017, was created as an artistic ‘break’ within the content of commercial urban screens and illustrated how this inherent transgressiveness of the medium in video opens new fields of play. In this work, Rist herself is shown in close-up as she presses her heavily made-up face against the camera lens. Her face contorts, her makeup becomes a mess. The strange grimaces make the video simultaneously comical and distorted. Not without reason did Open My Glade, which was made in 2000 for presentation on Times Square in New York City, elicit critical reactions. The video has the seductiveness of an advertising billboard, sets you off-track at a single glance and within a fraction of a second you are caught up in it. Open My Glade was to be shown after New York in Moscow, Liverpool, Rotterdam and Vancouver, among other places, and in January 2017 it took over the complete image of Times Square each night from 23.57 until midnight, when it was presented on all screens of the famous video walls simultaneously. The video sketches a penetrating picture of femininity in the media, film and the advertising industry. The woman in the film is trapped behind the screen, as it were, in a world where everything seems to revolve around her beauty. In such urban locations, the video directly relates to the ads on the street that are part of our contemporary beauty cult and gives a powerful comment on the influence of commercial visual culture on our perception of the female body. The true value of Rists work is not in the image as such, but in its ability to respond to a place and act upon its generally accepted power systems. As Marcel Duchamps created awareness of the system of art by placing an urinoir in an art exhibition, Rist turns the commercial messages overflowing our streets against themselves through remediation and culture jamming in her art.

When Rist’s video work was restaged in January 2017, the injection of critical reflection seems to have been completely embraced by the commercial powers themselves. In close collaboration with the Times Square Advertising Coalition, the organisation Times Square Art managed to present the work in a multi-screen variant taking over all commercial content of the screens each day for the last three minutes before midnight. It seems that the autonomous power of the work is no longer considered to be conflicting with the commercial needs and targets of the area.

Has Dara Birnbaum’s struggle for autonomy within the powers of commercial space been overcome in the early twenty-first century? Or has video art in public space become a ‘plaything’ of commerce and government: artists have been given space because of an economic role attributed to the place-making role artists like Birnbaum, Doyle and Rist have taken? The answer can perhaps be found in Kraus’s post medium condition. Embracing the transgressive nature of the medium, video instantly means eliminating the quest for autonomy of art. Video art in public space is an expression of an avant-garde trajectory that started in the 1960s. In the midst of the many forces at play in urban space, boundaries are being explored right now within the institutions themselves in order to create a place for art in everyday reality. The fact that interests other than artistic ones also play a role in public locations does not mean that art is at the mercy of economic forces by definition. Video art can take a critical position by directly reacting against the forces within which it operates, injecting multiple viewpoints and allowing alternative perspectives in public space.



[1] Allan Kaprow, ‘Video Art: Old Wine, New Bottle’, Art Forum (June 1974), 46-49.

[2] Agreement as described in R. Cornwall, ‘Art in the Agora’, Art in America 79 (1991) 2, 137.

[3] Dara Birnbaum, ‘The Rio Experience’, in: Hall and Fifer, Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art (New York, 1990), 202.

[4] Interview with Chris Doyle, 6 December 2008.

[5] Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea (London, 1999), 24-32.



CATRIEN SCHREUDER is an art historian, specialised in post 1960 arts. She is currently head of the Education and interpretation department of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, being responsible for all school programmes, adult programmes, interpretation and online education. She is also working as an independent art history researcher and writer, specialised in new media art and art criticism. Catrien Schreuder is general board member of the Art Match Foundation, that aims to innovate museum education, enhance public engagement, stimulate and initiate interdisciplinary programmes and cooperation between museums in the Netherlands and abroad. Art Match is responsible for ARTtube and Art Rocks.


‘What’s Happening? De neo-avant-garde en de Nederlandse kunstkritiek 1958-1975’ (met Jonneke Jobse), Rotterdam (NAi Uitgevers) 2015. Part of an anthology-series of Dutch art criticism since 1880 initiated and edited by Peter de Ruiter (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) and Jonneke Jobse.

‘Pixels and Places. Video Art in Public Space’, Rotterdam (Nai Publishers) 2010.

‘Pour your body out:immersed in an installation by Pipilotti Rist’, in: Elixir. the video organism of Pipilotti Rist, Rotterdam / Helsinki (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen / Kiasma Art Center) 2009.