Only the entirely catatonic amongst us can fail to have noticed that video has arrived. Currently hitting its mainstream stride, “Big Video” is this year's must have accessory for the fashion conscious pop star, or chat show, or shopping mall for that matter. “Video reinforcement,” as it used to be known, began its evolution toward becoming a rock show staple in the early ‘80s, when the band Journey founded Nocturne Video in San Francisco, arguably the first recognizable video vendor. The aim was simple: provide camera pictures of the pop star for the benefit of people in the cheap seats. This was known as image magnification, or “I-Mag,” as the buzzword had it.

When the initial thrill died down, it became apparent that, after an hour, a large image of a person singing into a microphone was really only marginally more interesting than the small image, so came the notion of additional video “content.” Not having been entirely uninvolved in the rise of this phenomenon, it might seem churlish for me to complain — but what a monster we have spawned.

Video screens are not something that can simply be added to a show like a new red drape — a fact that is the downfall of many otherwise potentially interesting stage productions. We are conditioned to look at television to the point where a moving camera picture automatically becomes the focus of attention, as evidenced by the experience of sitting in a bar with a television set on. You may be with friends, you may have no interest in what's on the box, but somehow your eyes keep drifting back to TV. In the context of a rock show, there is an assumption that the image on screen must be the most important event taking place at that moment. In reality, the touring video director makes this decision, which can be little more than a random choice or, at very least, a choice entirely divorced from the overall stage picture. Astonishingly, it has become industry standard to place the video director in a place where he cannot see the live show at all (a backstage corridor being a favorite), so it is, perhaps, not surprising how often the stage and the video screens produce two competing shows.

Even a basic touring video package is expensive to rent and, of course, requires additional working personnel. Most of the larger tours can shoehorn this into the budget, but it may be a squeeze, which is why the notion of spending further money on video content seems highly unreasonable. Tour managers the world over must have been thrilled at the invention of a brand new half million dollar line item.

Ironically, video content invariably comes as an afterthought, despite the fact that it will receive more attention than any other part of the production. I always imagine the moment in a meeting shortly before the start of a tour. There's a nice stage being fabricated, a lighting system being prepared, and then someone says, “So, what is it we were going to show on these screens again?”

Fear not, for we have the technology, and now, you can become a video artist in a few easy and painless steps. All you need is a DVcam, some DVDs of royalty-free video clips, HES Catalyst®, Mbox, and a Mac loaded up with Adobe® After Effects®, and you, too, can produce…well, pretty much the same stuff as everybody else. This is the flaw in the plan: these machines are capable of wonderful things, but they are available to everybody, so the easy effects soon become clichéd. In short, video visuals have already hit the same impasse that moving lights hit in the mid ‘80s. Much as any LD worth his salt can recognize standard gobos at a glance, it's now practically possible to name the source DVD or computer program of some video sequences, the current ubiquity of After Effects prompting a video-savvy friend of mine to comment after one big rock show, “Nice plug-ins.”

If the advent of video has given designers the chance to increase potential costs exponentially, it has also given canny vendors a window of opportunity to solve the financial crisis. At least one UK video vendor is now offering cut-price deals on touring systems in exchange for being able to sell advertising space on the video screens prior to the show. Deals have even been made where the vendor includes the video content free of charge — needless to say, an arrangement that fills me with horror beyond imagining.

Beyond the confines of concert touring, an advertising-led assault is seeing video colonize all public visual space, from architecture and billboards right down to elevators and taxis. The content is directed toward an extremely transient audience, so subtlety is not the favored approach. Any artistic aspirations are drowned in the tempest of plug-ins and cheesy video moves that have, until now, been confined to sports television.

Even though, in the legitimate art world, much video installation work is wretchedly uninspired, the real geniuses of the genre have shown how extraordinarily powerful video can be (I am forever citing Laurie Anderson, Bill Viola, Jennifer Steinkamp, and Nam Jun Paik). The potential for video to create wonderful environments is with us, but in the absence of a strong idea, it's just visual pollution, even with a machine capable of supplying weeks of video content at the push of a button.

© Willie Williams 2004
Willie Williams designs and directs multi-media events. His work has included rock tours with R.E.M., U2, and The Rolling Stones; performance pieces with Kronos Quartet and La La La Human Steps; the stage musicals
Barbarella and We Will Rock You, plus installations at Experience Music Project, Seattle, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, Cleveland, and Canterbury Cathedral, UK.