NCAS Professor and Video Pioneer Edin Velez Takes the New York Scene by Storm

Lawrence Lerner

Edin Velez is professor and coordinator of the Video Production Program at Rutgers-Newark, where he teaches introductory and advanced video production courses. A pioneer in the field of experimental video art, Velez has been producing documentaries, art videos, installations and digital photography since the 1970s and has received Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships in support of his work. Some of his video pieces reside as part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, while his body of work has been shown in museums and forums across the globe.

Last week, Velez premiered his new video “Re/Action Part 1” at the Moving Image Art Fair in New York. The piece was singled out by as “hypnotic” and one of this year’s most technically ambitious works. Another of Velez’ video works, titled “Foolish ReMix Box,” is being shown at El Museo del Barrio in New York through May 19 as part of the “Super-Real, Invented Realities in Photography and Video” show. We caught up with Velez recently for a discussion about his career and his latest work.



You’ve been producing videos since the 1970s. Your work spans straight-ahead documentaries as well as experimental video art and installations. What drew you to video in the first place?
I originally studied painting at the ICPR's School of Fine Arts in Puerto Rico, where I grew up. After a year, I realized there was little I could do in painting that had not been done before, and I stopped painting. Around the same time I was reading Marshall McLuhan, who said that artists in various fields are always the first to discover how to enable one medium or to release the power of another. He also said that art is always one technology behind. By that he meant that television, the most powerful communications medium of the time, would no longer be the primary mode one day. It would be superceded by something else—and then would be released from its perameters and turned into an art form.

And video was that next medium?
Yes. This intrigued me. Television had been tightly controlled by an older generation. I decided to move to New York and explore the then new field of portable video, made possible at first by the introduction of the Sony Portapak. I joined a small community of artists and social activists who were exploring the possibilities of video as an alternative form of art and a community-based tool for social change. I had found my medium.

You’re known for your ethnographic and interpretive films of different cultures, whether it’s the Cuna Indians of Panama, the Mayans of Guatemala, the tensions inherent in Japanese culture, or the many facets of your hometown of New York City. What interests you most about cultural identity and cultures in transition?
Being born in Puerto Rico in the 1950s and living there through the ’60s meant I had to question issues of national identity constantly, because PR had an undefined political status. It was a de facto colony living in shadow of U.S., which no one could quite acknowledge. In some ways, we identified with U.S. more than Spanish culture because most of our TV, radio and consumer items came from U.S. This created a mindset: We’re not exactly North American and not an independent nation either. That’s why I set out to explore other Latin American communities—those who felt certainty in their identity because they were rooted and indigenous, though they themselves had issues of encroachment.

And your early work on the Cuna and Mayans also broke ground aesthetically, right?
Well, the documentary on the Cuna was a verité documentary. It had no narrator but was structured traditionally. It was actually the first video documentary ever shown at The American Museum of Natural History. Prior to that, only film documentaries had been shown there. It was then broadcast on PBS, Channel 13.

So, was it the Mayan documentary where you experimented more?
That’s right. There was a big shift in my aesthetic approach. It was more poetic and lyrical, not literal. In fact, I stopped calling it a documentary and used the term “video essay.” I experimented with slow-motion, using impressionistic images—swooshes of color—in large parts but was still concerned with social issues. It was 1981, the beginning of the genocide in Guatemala, and so that was central. But one can write a poem on a political issue—think Picasso’s “Guernica.” There’s a long tradition or artists taking a lyrical approach to something most would treat literally, in this case in a straight-ahead documentary format.

And this video still has legs today, doesn’t it.
I’m happy to say yes. A few years ago, MOMA included it in a Tokyo show on artists who defined contemporary art from 19th century to the present, and Harvard has it on its list of the 100 films you must see.

You also shun linearity in your videos, opting instead to use visual and aural metaphors to create film collages with interesting sound effects. How did you come to approach video this way, and who or what were your influences?
In a nutshell, quantum mechanics, the paintings of James Rosenquist, and the fiction of James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges, especially the latter’s story “The Garden of the Forking Paths."

Can you explain?
Sure. In most fiction, the character chooses one alternative at each decision point and thereby eliminates all the others. But Borge’s story attempted to describe a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously, each one itself leading to further proliferations of possibilities. These constantly diverging paths do sometimes converge again, though as the result of a different chain of causes.

Sounds like contrafactual fiction, where you explore what didn’t or is unlikely to happen.
Right. This is where quantum mechanics comes in: It’s all about the collapsing of the probability curve. Anything can happen until that collapses and takes over—and the possibilities are narrowed.

So, how does this manifest itself in your work?
Well, in 1980-’81 I was working with analog equipment and tried to break away from the  linearity of most film, where you have scene A first, then scene B next, then scene C, and so on. Even flashbacks, which broke up the linearity, usually happened linearly. But when we look at painting, we see differently. We look at portions, then figure it in our mind. I wanted to try to simulate that experience with video. You can never do it entirely, but I wanted to make a dent in it by presenting simultaneous images on a single screen and break up the narrative—go from scene A1, A2, etc., instead of from scene A to B to C. I tried for simultaneous scenes within a scene, which let viewers watch and edit the videos as they wish. The key was to not use so many images as to overwhelm but instead to make people feel comfortable viewing this way.

Tell us about your video “Re/Action Part 1,” which just premiered at the Moving Image Art Fair in New York.
I’m fascinated by the human face, and this video is about the gaze. The content is quite simple: It’s a long, very slow-motion tracking shot of dozens and dozens of people who are watching an event and photographing it, but we never see what that event is, just their reaction to the event. The setting is never revealed either, because that’s irrelevant as well.

I like decontextualizing it: Where are they? What are they looking at? It doesn’t matter. What matters is the intensity of the subjects’ reaction and the wildly varying ideas viewers have on how it was made. Viewers read it differently. Many think the video is composited still photos. But that’s not the case. It’s all video, just extremely slow-motion—3 percent of normal speed. If it were composited stills, I would need thousands of photos to mimic their movement.

What would happen if viewers knew more?
Talking about the nuts and bolts is far less interesting to me than what the video is bringing to the viewer. A very interesting avenue would be shut off if I reveal where it was taken, because once viewers know, they form a meaning that is not entirely their own now. This way they can create their own reality and complete the work themselves.

Your video titled “Foolish ReMix Box” is currently up at El Museo del Barrio in New York in a show called “Superreal, Invented Realities in Photography and Video.” Can you describe that work?
It’s a three-channel multilayered piece—three screens embedded in a special box hanging on the wall, with multiple layers on each screen. The story is a fragmented, nonlinear dramatic narrative following a character named Molly and her day in NYC as she gets ready for a date in the evening. Originally, it was 80 minutes long and premiered at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center back in 2007. I cut it down and reworked it for this installation.

And this was inspired by James Joyce?
Yes. I’d read two books about how James Joyce wrote Ulysses, and I wanted to follow his strategies. I used his writing structure to make my narrative, and my character, Molly, is an homage to his character Molly Bloom.

How are viewers supposed to watch three screens at once?
There’s 15 minutes’ viewing time in each screen, and viewers can watch them one at a time or simultaneously, moving back and forth. Either way, the idea is that you make your own narrative as you watch—make your own sense of it. Whatever way the viewer wants to watch it, they should do it that way.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
It was my pleasure. Thank you.