From the Horses Mouth
As someone who’s worked in the realms of media and contemporary art throughout my career, I’ve realized the importance of capturing primary-source material from living artists while they are still with us, rather than addressing documentation after the fact. I guess it’s my hybrid nature of being a videomaker and a curator/producer of other artists’ work that made me realize the importance of this. There is nothing like getting it from “the horse’s mouth,” and with digital technologies it’s become much easier. It wasn’t always that way.
Back in the mid-1980s, when I was project director of Capp Street Project in San Francisco—a unique artist-in-residency project where artists created site-specific installations in an unusual architectural house redesigned by artist David Ireland—we were still in the analog world. Even then it was clear to me that capturing the installations and processes of artists strictly through photos and print, especially those that incorporated video and performative elements, missed out on dynamic aspects of the work. So, guerrilla-style, I coaxed volunteers to videotape work along with conversations with the artists. Nothing was ever done officially. There wasn’t the budget or infrastructure.
Upon moving back to New York in 1994, I worked for two seasons for City Arts, the Emmy award-winning weekly magazine program that ran for several seasons on Channel 13/WNET. The immediacy of interviewing artists and creating short pieces on digital video for broadcast was liberating, and it was something that would continue to be part of my ongoing work. Soon after, I became the first director of Thundergulch, the new media arts initiative of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. Thundergulch showcased artists working with new technologies—“new media” that was dynamic and often interactive—to the public on a large video wall in a downtown building, the New York Information Technology Center, as well as in other spaces throughout the city. We videotaped the presentations and interviewed the artists. Unfortunately, due to the events of 9/11, this material was forever lost, as our offices were in Building 5 at the World Trade Center. We learned a huge lesson about having back-ups of archives housed in more than one location. In fact, shortly after 9/11, I was a presenter and became kind of a poster girl for this issue at an archival conference in Boston.
In 2000, the year of the human genome mapping, there was an exhibition at Exit Art called “Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution.” Initially, the show did not have a catalogue, so the curators—Carol Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman—contacted me and my partner, Roberto Guerra, knowing that we focused on video projects about artists. We interviewed artists in their studios but also interviewed major scientists—Stephen Jay Gould, James Watson, Eric Lander and others—to create a kind of video catalogue/documentary where there was cross-talk between artists and scientists and the issues triggered by this watershed scientific historical moment.
In 2007, Roberto and I began a documentary about the Italian-born, New York-based duo Lella and Massimo Vignelli, two of the world’s most influential designers. Earlier, Roberto had made a six-part series on designers, By Design, where the Vignellis were featured. The motivation for doing the new film was the fact that their archive was going to the Rochester Institute of Technology, and RIT was going to build a center in their name. Other institutions had been interested in the Vignelli archive, but, as Massimo stated, “Any archive in a basement is basically a dead archive.” The Vignellis had a long-standing relationship with RIT and liked the idea that their work would be in an active and accessible archive, available to students and scholars interested in design.
As with many independent documentaries, the process of making the film took some years. Part of the challenge was that, since most of the Vignellis’ work had already been created, we didn’t have many possibilities for capturing their process. Instead, we conducted many different interview sessions with them about their varied projects, and supplemented these conversations with interviews with many others from the world of design—Richard Meier, Milton Glaser, Michael Bierut, Paola Antonelli, Jessica Helfand, and Peter Eisenman, among others. The final result is Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli, a feature-length film that is currently in distribution. (www.designisonefilm.com). Once the film was completed and released, it made sense to ship the source material from our filming (over forty digital videotapes) to Rochester to be part of the Vignelli archive at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies. This way, someone interested in learning more of what the participants had to say can listen in depth. As Peter Eisenman asks at the end of the film, “Will it matter 100 years from now? Yes, and that’s what’s important.”
Sadly, my partner in life and work, Roberto, passed away in January 2014 from cancer, so recently I have spent a good deal of time going through his materials. He had made films on artists and other creative people when he lived in Europe, including one on Oskar Kokoschka and Frida Kahlo “before she was canonized.” Given that we had established a good association with the Vignelli Center, I asked if RIT might be interested in some of this earlier media in different formats of Roberto’s. I’m happy to report that RIT is interested. Between their design and film departments, the material will also be accessible to students and scholars. So, as Roberto would say, “happy endings.”
KATHY BREW is an independent filmmaker, artist, writer, curator, and educator. She teaches in graduate programs at The New School and The School of Visual Arts.