Video Poiesis

Video Poiesis

Sabine Hänsgen
Soviet Union; Moscow Conceptualism; media technology; politics of memory; videotheque; video art.

At a time when the Soviet state strictly controlled all access to media technology, working with video was regarded as a subversive act, because it could produce a communicative space of its own. In spite of these restrictions, in 1984 I managed to bring a Blaupunkt video camera with me from Germany to the Soviet Union and began my video-related activities in the Moscow Conceptualist circle. My main aim was to document what seemed to me in danger of being destroyed, repressed, or forgotten.

I wanted to use video to explore the processes of communication within a certain artistic milieu. Here, traditional works of art (pictures, texts, objects, etc.) would serve as a background to give visibility to aesthetic events by using the technical possibilities of the camera. It is in this sense that I would characterise my videos as “conceptual.” Poetry readings, picture shows, discussions, and especially performances led to the self-staging of the subcultural milieu as a kind of gesamtkunstwerk.

In terms of historical development and in comparison with Western art, video documentation appeared rather late in the aesthetic practice of Moscow Conceptualism.When I began to work with video in the mid-1980s, I was quite familiar with the video-art of the 1960s and 1970s from Fluxus, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, and others. Many events took place in the Rhein-Ruhrregion: “24 hours” in the Wuppertal Gallery Parnass, exhibitions of Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell in Cologne and Dusseldorf.

Thus, in an aesthetic sense, my Moscow videos were done reflexively, even if the recordings look quite ordinary at first glance. I used a simple amateur technique, available to anybody. The video recordings are not characterised by a particular authorial style, they seem to be almost anonymous, but in this anonymity, a style of purely automatic recordings manifests itself.

It is worth mentioning that the first editions of these Moscow video recordings even formally stress their historical lateness, since the colour was subsequently taken out to produce the hyperbolic effect of “outdatedness” through purely black and white images.1

Postcard, announcing the publication of Günter Hirt / Sascha Wonders: Moskau Moskau. Videostücke, Wuppertal: Edition S-Press 1987. © Günter Hirt & Sascha Wonders, Edition S-Press Wuppertal. Video pieces with the group Collective Actions, Andrei Monastyrski, Nikita Alexeev, Dmitri Prigov, Joseph Backstein, Ilya Kabakov, Vadim Zakharov et al.

In the video images one can find a series of references to the avant-garde tradition, not only to the black and white documentations of the 1960s (for instance in the US), but also to the classical cinema of the avant-garde, to German expressionism (through the composition of shadows) and to Russian avant-garde cinema, especially to the use of the camera in Chelovek s kino-apparatom / The Man with a Movie Camera, (Dziga Vertov, 1929, Soviet Union).

In the case of Vertov, who judged the possibilities of technical optics to be much higher than those of the human eye, the camera served to produce an optical unconscious. In this tradition, I tried to explore video as a technical instrument to open up another horizon of perception, knowledge, and behaviour. As a device, video could at that time stimulate new experiences and attitudes because it had not yet become commonplace.

From my point of view, the media potential of video is characterised by the fact that the creation of a certain situation and the process of its reproduction are very closely intertwined – they influence one another. Because the person recording is at the same time behind the camera and within the real situation, an interactive relationship is achieved. Moreover, all participants in the situation can immediately see what has been recorded. They are subjects as well as objects, and those who record and those who are recorded have the ability to change their positions.

The video camera can not only provoke a situation, but also open up a horizon of dialogue within this situation. I regard video as a dialogic medium and for me, therein lies its main political function. So, it was not only important to work independently of the state censorship apparatus but, from the point of view of political aesthetics, the way the video camera was actually used was just as crucial. And here, one can observe a certain critique of mass media culture on an international scale: both of Western commercial and Eastern ideological mass culture.

The critique aims at the one-way communication in mass media culture, in other words, at the fact that the dominant use of mass media, especially television, presents the spectator models of perception, knowledge, and behaviour without giving the possibility to respond. In the Brechtian tradition of the “media utopia” which wanted to transform the radio from an “apparatus of distribution” into an “apparatus of communication”, video can be regarded as a medium of the dialogic opening up of a situation. It is a question of creating a space of exchange and agreement which is at the same time the prerequisite for developing a ramified, reversible net structure (Vilém Flusser).

Video possesses the ability to record and to save the recordings, and therefore can be regarded as a form of cultural memory. Here, various aspects concerning “archives” could be discussed. I would like to focus on one aspect: from my point of view, video is an excellent medium for archiving situations which normally are excluded from official memory. Regarding the politics of memory, of crucial importance are the criteria which determine the order of the archives. The videotheque can take on an organising function for the recordings. It not only questions the traditional understanding of a work of art as a clearly distinguishable, singular work, but in its serial composition, it makes perceptible the structures of poetic repetition that surpass a linear story and produce in the spectator an aesthetic sensibility for form-building processes.

So, to me, the best method of presenting video recordings is through the videotheque, i.e. the space in which not only the video recordings, but also accompanying materials, texts, and images are collected and preserved. In the videotheque, the visitors can stay as long as they want and watch the videos, and read or study the different materials. The rather meditative recordings where almost nothing happens send the spectators on a “secondary” journey through the multiple layers of documentation. During this journey the spectators can reconstruct the events and explore their own attitudes towards them.

In the tradition of the textualised image, we are not dealing with a mimetic representation of the visible, but with a reference to the sphere of invisible meanings. Such a practice of documentation turns the attention to something beyond its own limits. An open series of references to the “other” is created.

The term “video poiesis” presumably came to my mind as an alternative for the term “video art” which to me is too much connected with a traditional understanding of the work of art. This new term does not so much stress the completedness of a work of art, but on the contrary emphasises the process, the aesthetic practice. In this context, the video monitor appears less as a mirror, but much more as a window. It does not reflect light, but instead emanates it, and thus creates a new type of image that aims at transcending the given reality.

Sabine Hänsgen
Slavic scholar, cultural and media historian


1 Günter Hirt / Sascha Wonders: Moskau. Moskau. Videostücke, Wuppertal: Edition S-Press 1987 and Günter Hirt / Sascha Wonders: Konzept – Moskau – 1985. Eine Videodokumentation in drei Teilen. Band 1: Poesie. Band 2: Aktion. Band 3: Ateliers, Wuppertal: Edition S-Press 1991 (Digital Re-edition upcoming 2020). Individual video pieces were also published in the international video magazine Infermental, no. 5 (1986), no. 6 (1987), no. 8 (1988). In the 1990s the work was continued by creating a videotheque within the Moscow Archive of New Art (M.A.N.I.). A selection in the form of the videotheque was shown for the first time in the exhibition M.A.N.I. Museum Video Archive at the Gallery Obscuri Viri, Moscow, 1996, and is now part of the collection of the National Centre for Contemporary Arts (NCCA) in Moscow.


As Sascha Wonders, ed. with Günter Hirt: Lianosowo. Gedichte und Bilder aus Moskau (1992); Kulturpalast. Neue Moskauer Poesie und Aktionskunst (1984), Moskau Moskau (1987), Präprintium. Moskauer Bücher aus dem Samizdat (Bremen: Edition Temmen 1998); Sovetskaya vlast i media (ed. with Hans Günther, 2006), Der gewöhnliche Faschismus. Ein Werkbuch zum Film von Michail Romm (ed. with Wolfgang Beilenhoff, 2009), Yuri Albert. Elitär-demokratische Kunst (ed. with Sandra Frimmel, Köln: Snoeck 2018), Poetry & Performance. Die osteuropäische Perspektive (ed. with Tomáš Glanc, Dresden: Motorenhalle 2019).

Suggested Citation

Hänsgen, Sabine. 2020. “Video Poiesis.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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