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Analog Video

Laura U. Marks

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Before both “film” and “video” came to designate digital movies, artists’ video was analog, with an aesthetics and a technological basis that digital video would never replace. Vancouver was a Canadian and world hub for experiments in analog video from the early 1970s to the mid-’90s. Analog video’s continuous electronic signals—evanescent yet physical, indexical yet shimmering shy of a representational image—are an apt metaphor for the nascent artist collectives that would establish Vancouver as a media-art city.

Like television, analog video is fundamentally a broadcast medium, whether its electronic signal is sent out to an orbiting satellite or just as far as the playback monitor. The electronic stream indexes—is physically bound to—the image that it creates and the one into which it eventually resolves, almost immediately but somewhere else. Yet unlike film before it and digital video after it, analog video is a process image, never fully present or complete. The image resides in a flow of electrons rather than on the receiving screen. Analog video draws itself on the screen in lines of photons. Existing on a liquid flow of electrons, analog video has a living quality: watching analog video is like being in the room with a small, modest creature, a lizard or a shrub. Dismissed at the time as an unserious medium for its softness and imprecision—the RGB haloes that blur the boundaries of figures—analog video now invites nostalgia, when the default high resolution of digital video scrapes your eyeballs with its crisp, overly separated forms.

Analog is what Marshall McLuhan called a “cool” medium: it pulls back, waiting for you to come towards it and involve yourself with it. Analog video requires the viewer to complete it and lacks the distance and apparent objectivity of film: both are pluses for the intimacy of artists’ works and the spontaneity of activism. As Peggy Gale wrote in 1977, “Watching light define form, the eyes are in constant motion. And as mind and eyes work to complete the pictures, the whole body is attentive, pinned to that glowing screen.”1

Analog video is instantaneous, which was a huge thing in the 1970s when the alternative, film, took days to be developed. Artists and activists loved the portable cameras that captured any event and played it back immediately. Analog video became available beyond the television industry thanks to the Sony Portapak. The Portapak cost $1,200, with another 1/2” reel to do minimal editing bringing the price to $3,000, the cost of a small car. So those who wished to experiment with video relied on public funders. In Vancouver a thicket of collectives and artist-run centres sprang up. The Intermedia Artists’ Co-Operative, Canada’s first artist-run centre, was the first in Vancouver to acquire a PortaPak. The Satellite Video Exchange Society, founded in 1973, established the video library and resource centre Video Inn (now VIVO). The New Era Social Club, which became the Western Front, was a centre for video production and cable TV broadcast. Analog experiments also developed at Women in Focus and the women’s collective Reel Feelings.

In its early days analog was easy to shoot (compared to film) but cumbersome to edit, so the length of a work was determined by the length of event or of tape. This enforced duration allowed video artists to critique the rhythm of television—packaged time, time commodified—and instead focus on the experience of duration. Many early tapes are documents of demonstrations, performance art and performance for the camera, carefully planned and then executed in a single take. 

Analog video is notoriously fragile, as it relies on charged magnetic oxide particles continuing to adhere to magnetic tape. Demagnetizing with each playback and suffering from fluctuations in temperature, it is a volatile medium that documents a volatile period. “Choosing to preserve the ephemeral with the ephemeral,” as Karen Knights writes, creates practical and philosophical problems for successive generations about what constitutes an archive and what merits being remembered and what is allowed to lapse back into the ether—questions that have since been monetized by the proprietary online archives of social media corporations.2 The tender politics of preservation are on display at VIVO’s 8,000-tape Christa Dahl Media Library & Archive and Western Front’s 2,000-tape archive, as well as other more sporadic and ad hoc local collections—possibly including your own storage locker.

Laura U. Marks

Laura U. Marks works on media art and philosophy with an intercultural focus, and on small-footprint media. She programs experimental media for venues around the world. As Grant Strate University Professor, she teaches in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. Her latest book, The Fold: From Your Body to the Cosmos, will be published in 2024 by Duke University Press.


1 Peggy Gale, “Video Has Captured Our Imagination,” Video Re/View: The (Best) Source for Critical Writings on Canadian Artists’ Video, eds. Peggy Gale and Lisa Steele, Art Metropole and V Tape, Toronto, 1996, p. 116. Originally published in 1977.

2 Karen Knights, “The Legacy of Our Polymeric Progeny,” Whispered Art History: Twenty Years at the Western Front, ed. Keith Wallace, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 1993, p. 164.