Video art is named after the video tape, which was most commonly used in the form's early years, but before that artists had already been working on film, and with changes in technology Hard Disk, CD-ROM, DVD, and solid state are superseding the video tape as the carrier. Despite obvious parallels and relationships, video art is not film.
One of the key differences between video art and theatrical cinema is that video art does not necessarily rely on many of the conventions that define theatrical cinema. Video art may not employ the use of actors, may contain no dialogue, may have no discernible narrative or plot, or adhere to any of the other conventions that generally define motion pictures as entertainment. This distinction is important, because it delineates video art not only from cinema but also from the subcategories where those definitions may become muddy (as in the case of avant garde cinema or short films). Perhaps the simplest, most straightforward defining distinction in this respect would then be to say that (perhaps) cinema's ultimate goal is to entertain, whereas video art's intentions are more varied, be they to simply explore the boundaries of the medium itself (e.g., Peter Campus, Double Vision) or to rigorously attack the viewer's expectations of video as shaped by conventional cinema (e.g., Joan Jonas, Organic Honey's Vertical Roll).
Prior to the introduction of the Sony Portapak, "moving image" technology was only available to the consumer (or the artist for that matter) by way of eight or sixteen millimeter film, but did not provide the instant playback that video tape technologies offered. Consequently, many artists found video more appealing than film, even more so when the greater accessibility was coupled with technologies which could edit or modify the video image.
The two examples mentioned above both made use of "low tech tricks" to produce seminal video art works. Peter Campus' Double Vision combined the video signals from two Sony Portapaks through an electronic mixer, resulting in a distorted and radically dissonant image. Jonas' Organic Honey's Vertical Roll involved recording previously recorded material as it was played back on a television — with the vertical hold setting intentionally in error.
The first multi-channel video art (using several monitors or screens) was Wipe Cycle by Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette. An installation of nine television screens, Wipe Cycle for the first time combined live images of gallery visitors, found footage from commercial television, and shots from pre-recorded tapes. The material was alternated from one monitor to the next in an elaborate choreography.
At the San Jose State TV studios in 1970, Willoughby Sharp began the “Videoviews” series of videotaped dialogues with artists. The “Videoviews” series consists of Sharps’ dialogues with Bruce Nauman (1970), Joseph Beuys (1972), Vito Acconci (1973), Chris Burden (1973), Lowell Darling (1974), and Dennis Oppenheim (1974). Also in 1970, Sharp curated “Body Works,” an exhibition of video works by Vito Acconci, Terry Fox, Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, Dennis Oppenheim and William Wegman which was presented at Tom Marioni's Museum of Conceptual Art, San Francisco, California.
Many of the early prominent video artists were those involved with concurrent movements in conceptual art, performance, and experimental film. These include Americans Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Peter Campus, Doris Totten Chase, Dan Graham, Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, Martha Rosler, William Wegman, and many others. There were also those such as Steina and Woody Vasulka who were interested in the formal qualities of video and employed video synthesizers to create abstract works.
Notable pioneering video artists also emerged more or less simultaneously in Europe and elsewhere with work by Pascal Auger (France), Domingo Sarrey (Spain), Wolf Vostell (Germany), Dieter Froese (Germany), Wojciech Bruszewski (Poland), Wolf Kahlen (Germany), Peter Weibel (Austria), David Hall (UK), Lisa Steele (Canada), Miroslaw Rogala (Poland), Rodney Werden (Canada), Colin Campbell (Canada) and others.
Although it continues to be produced, it is represented by two varieties: single-channel and installation. Single-channel works are much closer to the conventional idea of television: a video is screened, projected or shown as a single image, Installation works involve either an environment, several distinct pieces of video presented separately, or any combination of video with traditional media such as sculpture. Installation video is the most common form of video art today. Sometimes it is combined with other media and is often subsumed by the greater whole of an installation or performance. Contemporary contributions are being produced at the crossroads of other disciplines such as installation, architecture, design, sculpture, electronic art, VJ (video performance artist) and digital art or other documentative aspects of artistic practice.
The digital video "revolution" of the 1990s has given wide access to sophisticated editing and control technology, allowing many artists to work with video and to create interactive installations based on video. Some examples of recent trends in video art include entirely digitally rendered environments created with no camera and video that responds to the movements of the viewer or other elements of the environment. The internet has also been used to allow control of video in installations from the world wide web or from remote locations.
Emerging in the 1970s, Bill Viola (USA) continues as one of the world's most celebrated video artists. Matthew Barney, the creator of the Cremaster Cycle, is another well-known American video artist. Other contemporary video artists of note include Americans Gary Hill, Tony Oursler, Mary Lucier, Paul Pfeiffer, Sadie Benning, Paul Chan, Eve Sussman and Miranda July; Pipilotti Rist (Switzerland); Shaun Wilson (Australia); Stan Douglas (Canada); Douglas Gordon (Scotland); Martin Arnold (Austria); Matthias Müller (Germany), Gillian Wearing (UK); Stefano Cagol (Italy); Helene Black (Cyprus); Shirin Neshat(Iran/USA)and Walid Raad (Lebanon/USA).
There is also a movement against the medium in that artists are working with traditional painting techniques or sculpture to express things about television. Artist Trigo Piula created a work in 1988 "Ta Tele", oil on canvas that illustrated televisions control and influence. Mike Retter made a series of paintings about television between 2005 and 2008. This included Videodrome hands and The Audience which were exhibited in a television station in Adelaide, Australia.