In the technological sphere numerous inventions have had to be made several times before they finally land on fertile soil. For not only do inventions have to be made, they often have to be made at the right time and sometimes by the right people.
What is already a problem in the field of technology inevitably appears as something quite impossible in the field of art. Patent law stipulates that, Inventions in the intellectual sphere (scientific theories, literature, art) cannot be protected. Nonetheless, a linear interpretation of historical development is still commonplace in art history and has not even disappeared in the face of post-modernism. Even purely technical innovations are awarded the status of inventions: for example, Picasso is regarded as the inventor of collage and Max Ernst is said to have discovered frottage. Both are techniques which had previously existed in popular art. Another example is the thoroughly absurd dispute which raged on for decades between Tzara and Huelsenbeck as to who should lay greatest claim to inventing the word Dada.
All this is now history, but more recently similar claims have been made about the origins of video-art. (On this, see the refreshingly objective piece of research by Edith Decker on the first use of television for artistic purposes, in Paik, Video, Cologne 1988.)
It is widely thought that Paik’s 1963 Exposition of Music in Wuppertal marks the beginning of the artistic use of TV sets. Long before this, however, the demand had been voiced that television be conceived as a task for art. In 1952, for example, this was explicitly formulated by Lucio Fontana in his Manifesto del Movimento Spaziale per la Televisione.
In connection with this pre-history of artistic work with television a previously unknown project has come to light in the notebooks of George Brecht. From 1958, mainly during his period as a student of John Cage, Brecht used these notebooks to record concepts, ideas, musical scores and sketches. Some of them were later published under the title Water Tam (1963) as a collection of simple printed cards in a box. Others w'ere realized in the form of individual works. Many, how'ever, have remained mere plans and schemes documented in the notebooks.
It is generally difficult to decide when one of George Brecht’s w'orks can be considered as existing. Many of the cards in Water Tam arc only proposals for realization. In the case of an instruction such as Arrange to observe a NO SMOKING sign * smoking * no smoking, the performer and the prevailing conditions have at least as great a share in creating die final result as the artist himself. And for Brecht, it makes no difference at all w hether one of his pieces is realized by him personally or someone else.
In the case of the TV-wall, sketched 30 years ago on June 25, 1959, we know for certain, however, that it was never constructed in the intended form.
As George Brecht says, an important obstacle was already presented by the problem of obtaining the required number of TV-sets, w'hich at that time were extremely expensive items. The whole affair then fell into oblivion and until now has remained no more than a note on a piece of paper.
It is interesting to compare Brecht’s conception with that of Fontana from the year 1952. Fontana’s demand is intended to be utopian from the outset.Its maximalist approach goes all out, seeking to reshape television into an artistic medium and turning it into an instrument in the hands of artists. As early as 1948 Fontana declared in the first Manifesto of Spazialismo: Via radio and television we will transmit new forms of artistic expression. In 1952, on the occasion of the first and only TV-broadcast dedicated to Spazialismo, he stated: For us television is a long-awaited medium that is integral to our conceptions... As Spazialists we feel we are the artists of today, for the conquest of technology now serves the art to which we are committed. However, the project did not get beyond this one experiment in the early years of Italian television.
In contrast, seven years later in the United States - the land of TV’ par excellence - every utopian expectation has disappeared as far as George Brecht is concerned. He finds himself in the same situation in which video-art has been since its beginnings: Brecht confronts television as a pre-existing and unalterable institution. Television is now something one encounters as a fait accompli, as raw material. As such the constantly broadcasted flow of information remains as it is: such a TV wall w'ould be the only place where the perception of television is transformed.
Fontana starts with a traditional concept of a work of visual art and argues that it should be extended into new forms of technical expression - a demand that goes back to Futurism. Just like Paik, Brecht moves from musical concepts to the idea of using television. That is why, for Brecht, the process takes priority over the pictorial: sequence and transformation are more important than a fixed result. Until today this factor has often been overlooked in Paik’s video work.
George Brecht well knows the legal status of inventions. There are six US patents and one copatent held under his name as a result of his earlier work as a chemist. Certainly there is no way to claim that George Brecht invented video-art way back in 1959. But as far as we know, his plans and outlines constitute the first practical concept for the realization of artistic, indeed even plastic, work with the medium of television.
These observations are not intended to prove anything, but to stimulate thought on what it means to try to establish ‘inventions’ in the sphere of art. As I said, some things have to be invented several times before they take place. Others - and the beginnings of video-art are a good example of this - don’t really have to be invented at all; they just happen. (1)
(1) Having finished the article I have come across another example of the pre-history of video-art; a television object front the year 1962 by Isidore Isou, the founder of Lettrism, entitled La television dechiquetée on Tanti-erctinisation. Until now there was only a brief reference made in a catalogue which drew attention to this example: Uttrism and Hypergrafics - The Unknown Avant- Garde. 1949-198S( Jean Paul Curtay (ed.), Franklin Furnace, New York 1985) referred to a Reconstitution of a video art work that was shown at the Paris Museum of Modem Art in March 1962 and destroyed. In the context of rediscovering Lettrism a reconstructed picture of the object has now been published in Flash Art no.145, March/April 1989
translation Stephen Cox
Note: My thanks go to George Brecht for taking the trouble to recall things that happened long ago. I also wash to thank the collector and owner of Brecht’s notebooks for his support and his permission to publish extracts.