With the introduction of digital film and video, DVDs, the Internet, and multimedia, video may become, retrospectively, an intermediary stage between cinema and digital media. But as a medium with its own properties, it plays an important role in the history of media institutions and aesthetics. The key difference between video and film is that videotape is magnetically coated and contains codes that trigger electronic signals to the projection apparatus, whether it be a TV monitor or a projector. Although several different formats of videotape exist, in general the information that can be stored in this system is substantially less than that which is photographically printed on a strip of celluloid. Video images are immediately recorded and accessible, whereas film, like photography, needs to be chemically "developed" to release images created by exposure to light. Both film and video can now be produced digitally, but videotape, like film, is an analog medium, which means that images are captured and stored as continuously variable forms, with gradations produced by the reflection of light.

Some of the techniques that video artists have used include long takes, loops, low-definition imagery, surveillance techniques, and multiple monitors. Shot durations are significantly increased with video, which can run for hours without the need to change reels of tape. Video is a medium that lends itself to gallery installation, where viewers are not expected to watch pieces from beginning to end as they would a film, but to move in and out of the ongoing temporality of the work. The video artist Bill Viola (b. 1951), for example, uses very long takes to capture the rhythms of nature, but also inserts special effects to create a sense of magic or hyperrealism ( I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like [1986], The Reflecting Pool [1977–1979]). The special effects available to the video artist include electronic distortions of sound and image. Viola records sound simultaneously with the image, but he frequently slows both tracks down to create slightly distorted soundscapes. Sadie Benning (b. 1973) is one of many artists who uses a children's video format (Pixelvision) to capture low-definition images with a very shallow depth of field to create intimate, personal effects. In the 1970s the technology lent itself to a minimalist aesthetic, using real time to record performances, but as the technology evolved so did the range of subjects, styles, and effects.

Video art in gallery installations can involve components such as closed-circuit connections in which performers or gallery-goers appear live onscreen. Monitors can be placed within sculptural spaces such as Nam June Paik's (1932–2006) jungle installation TV Garden (1974–1978), in which monitors of various sizes are scattered among plants and running water, ironically interrupting nature with technology. One of the specific properties of video is sometimes described as the "flow" of information, images, and sound; akin to the flow of electricity that generates the image, and the ongoing flow of TV that never really ends, the flow of video is a transmission process. The image is continually being made anew by the electronic circuitry of the tape and the monitor. In video art the production of images is often privileged over narrative information, although many video artists, such as Lisa Steele in Birthday Suit (1974), also work in a narrative mode, experimenting with the codes of storytelling and performance.

Videotape's detractors are concerned about the loss of information and reduced image quality of video. Poor quality tape and "panned and scanned" movies on TV are in many ways distortions of original films. Moreover, video viewing typically takes place in less "controlled" situations than film screenings. Whether it is located in the home or in the gallery, in public spaces such as bars, airports, or sides of buildings, video addresses its viewer very differently than does cinema. Film theorists of the 1970s understood the film spectator as a fixed point in a darkened auditorium, a paradigm that is fundamentally altered with the video and television monitor. Thus it is not only the electronic image that defines video, but the apparatus of spectatorship it entails. The video spectator is said to be more "mobile," more "empowered" than the cinema spectator, who is glued to his or her seat and supposedly gripped by the narrative unfolding on the screen. When that same narrative is viewed on home video, the spectator may leave the room, fast-forward through the tape, or carry on a conversation while it plays. This is precisely anathema to the experimental filmmaker who has attempted to create a total aesthetic viewing experience; at the same time, it has entailed a shift in film theory away from narrative and toward issues of spectatorship.

Because video is technologically so closely connected to the cultural institutions of broadcast television, many video artists engage not only with the formal properties of the medium, but also with its affinities with TV. The tapes made by the director Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) with Anne-Marie Miéville (b. 1945), Six fois deux/Sur et sous la communication (1976) and France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977), are modeled on the TV-interview documentary form, as is the work of Steve Fagin ( The Machine that Killed Bad People , 1990). The low costs of video production have also made it possible for more constituencies, outside the mainstream of corporate TV, to produce for television. Paper Tiger Television, for example, produced a series of activist, alternative critiques of the media in the 1980s and 1990s. Igloolik Isuma productions in Northern Canada, from which the film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (which was shot on digital video) emerged in 2002, produced dramatic and news videos for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation as early as 1983.

The documentary potential of the medium, together with its accessibility, has been among its chief contributions to global image culture, giving rise to the cheap programming potential of reality TV, among other things. Because of the low costs of shooting and editing, filmmakers can collect more material more cheaply, and with much less training. It has become a key tool for activists and journalists, as well as for the multiple surveillance activities of security and police. Perhaps the most notorious instance of the documentary potential of video was the amateur footage captured in 1992 of Rodney King's beating by the Los Angeles police.

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