Ulrike Rosenbach, Die Einsame Spaziergängerin [The lonely stroller], 1979, performance, photograph, © ADAGP, Paris
Before becoming a full-fledged medium, video was intrinsically linked to television. It wasn’t until the early 1960s – notably with the invention of the Sony Portapak, the first portable video camera – that video became independent of television shows and sets. It thus became possible to film everywhere, and artists appropriated the technique in their practices.
The first uses of the electronic image as an artistic medium appeared within the Fluxus movement. In March 1963 Nam June Paik (1932-2006) realised a distorted image of a television by putting a magnet close to the cathode-ray tube. This work marked the birth of video art and from then on numerous women took on the medium and participated in its development. VALIE EXPORT (b. 1940) infiltrated the television world in her 1971 work Facing a Family by questioning the links between watching and being watched. Ulrike Rosenbach (b. 1943) was one of the first video artists to produce closed-circuit pieces, filming and projecting images at the same time. Performers Marina Abramović (b. 1946) and Leda Papaconstantinou (b. 1945) immortalised their actions in the late 1960s, changing the ephemeral nature of their work. From 1972 to 1980 the Women’s Video Festival took place at The Kitchen in New York highlighting video artists who were still under-represented such as the Japanese artist Shigeko Kubota (1937-2015), a member of the Fluxus group.
Video art opened up a new universe of experimentation; the image could now be shaped, manipulated and erased with or without archiving. Nan Hoover (1931-2008) was interested in the potentialities of transparency, producing pieces between painting and film. Dóra Maurer (b. 1937) has worked on repetition and variation, creating complex compositions of images and sounds.
At once a tool of creation and protest, video became a way to react to the dominate artistic movements of the 1960s. Joan Jonas (b. 1936) realised her works in an introspective, narrative and symbolic approach, breaking away from minimal art. In Up to and Including Her Limits (1973), Carolee Schneemann (b. 1938) created drawings following the movements of her body, suspended during a performance that was filmed and broadcast on monitors. The artist staged a gesture close to that of action painting but distanced herself from it by considering the drawings obtained as secondary, raising the question of the relationship between the creative process and the final work.
As with photography, the video camera in turn imposed itself as a privileged medium of visibility and denunciation of oppression. Martine Barrat (b. 1937) directed a series of videos on the lives of gang members in South Bronx. In the installation La Roquette, Prisons de Femmes, Nil Yalter (b. 1938), in collaboration with Judy Blum (b. 1943) and Nicole Croiset, denounced prison conditions. Howardena Pindell (b. 1943) addresses race and gender issues, while Anna Maria Maiolino (b. 1942) denounces the repression of women in Brazil. As for the filmmaking duo Maria Klonaris (1947-2014) and Katerina Thomadaki (b. 1947), they theorised what they called body cinema by making the female body and identity a place for visual and political exploration. At the service of various militant causes, video became a subversive instrument of patriarchy. As early as 1976 the French video collective Les Insoumuses proclaimed in the video Maso et Miso vont en bateau that, “No image from television can embody us; it is with video that we will tell ourselves”.
Female artists invested strongly in video art. Numerous writings still recall their place in art history and the convergences between the medium and political and feminist struggles. The joint publications Black Women Film and Video Artists (1998), edited by Jacqueline Bobo, and Women Artists, Feminism and the Moving Image: Contexts and Practices (2019), edited by Lucy Reynolds, are important milestones in research on women video artists.