THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART
by Karen Archey
Dorine, Barbara, Kathy
Before working at a large art institution, like many people I thought of museums as slow-moving machines that are slightly out of place in history; anachronistic titans that are too big to fail. As an Enlightenment-era project originally built to serve the elite, the institution has radically transformed its mission, democratizing its core audience and welcoming new fields of expertise over the centuries since the dawn of the museum. Museums are not juggernauts but rather living organisms that evolve through the advocacy of the individuals who comprise them—and the very composition of museum staff, and thus the subject positions the institution reflect—is still an upward hill institutions must climb. But what happens to an institution when its structures and priorities change, curators and collection personnel are forced into other roles or let go entirely? In short, who advocates for the advocates?
Among my first tasks as Curator of Contemporary Art, Time-based Media at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam was to make sense of the museum’s history and holdings, which after nearly 143 years of collecting totals around 90,000 objects, with its time-based media works scattered among various collections. Though my position had no precedent, I soon began to notice traces of a like-minded individual in decades past: the foresight in 1979 to collect U-Matic tapes from Castelli/Sonnabend Tapes and Films featuring works by Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, and Richard Serra from for inconceivably low prices, some for under $100. It was rumored that these were brought from New York back to Amsterdam in a particularly enterprising curator’s carry-on luggage. Some weeks later, during my first trip to the Stedelijk’s audio visual department, which moonlights as its media lab and is located in the museum’s off-site storage facility, I noticed above some old VHS transfer decks an exquisitely designed poster for a 1984 exhibition titled Het Lumineuze Beeld [The Luminous Image], one of the first exhibitions to use video projectors and highlight video installations as an important crossover between performance, video and installation.
Someone had come before me. After some inquiry, I get a name: Dorine Mignot.
Many women time-based media curators came before me, and in fact one could argue that it was primarily women who stewarded the field within the world’s most important institutions. This is because video and media were entirely new fields in the late 1960s and ‘70s, and according to many, men busied themselves with film. “It was a wide-open field,” said curator Barbara London in a recent phone interview, “And in a way, we were pioneers. We were equals. I was interested in what didn’t already have heaps of writing on it. It’s much more interesting to work with something that’s evolving.”
Like many first-generation video and media curators, London, who worked as Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art from 1977 to 2013, came to her field in a roundabout way, as time-based media departments didn’t yet exist. (The title of the Stedelijk’s Dorine Mignot, for example, was “Curator at the Department of Painting, Sculpture & Video” even in the 1980s). London began at MoMA within the International Exhibitions and Print departments, the latter headed by Riva Castleman, who encouraged London to work with artists books, another, perhaps “lesser,” overlooked medium meant to reach a wide audience, similar to video. “To me, the way artists such as Ed Ruscha, Adrian Piper, and John Baldessari work with inexpensive mimeographs or offset, which cost a few dollars, was the same utopian view artists had to get their work out cheaply to the people who were interested in it,” said London. “At the same time as Richard Serra was making large sculpture, he also made videos, which come from a similar motivation.”
Within the International program, London worked on the 1970 traveling exhibition Spaces, organized by Jennifer Licht, which featured artists such as Michael Asher, Robert Morris and Richard Serra, and contained very early video works. After MoMA received a modest grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to buy its first video equipment, London launched a video program called “Video Viewpoints.” “At the time, artists thought both MoMA and broadcast television were the big, bad, ugly,” said Barbara to me. “I ran that program by encouraging artists to come uptown, to come into the building, to show their work and talk about it.”
London made it clear to me that the departmental organization was the business of directors, and her position was solely that of expert and advocate. MoMA’s erstwhile director Dick Oldenburg thought administratively that video must leave the print department and head into something more befitting a time-based medium. After receiving a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, London left her print responsibilities, “I went out on a limb for a year,” she said. When video was added to the departmental heading of MoMA in 1974, it was the first new medium to be added to the museum since its founding.
And while advocating for the exhibition of video, and the erstwhile expensive equipment needed to show video, creating institutional policies to preserve time-based media work such as video is another time-intensive, resource-draining task. The field of video and media preservation had to be invented during London’s time, and for many museums it is still a constantly evolving process. “What it means to own a limited-edition artwork, and how you write and conduct the artist’s questionnaire, is a challenge. You don’t just want to know about the content, but also about the cameras used, the editing equipment, the production, and you want to know what the aesthetics are. When things have to be upgraded, how do you do that?” Until London left her post at MoMA in 2013, she continued to develop the institution’s collection of video and media, including the institution’s policies for acquiring and preserving time-based media.
In 2017, nearly 45 years later, I’m asking the same questions and creating the same questionnaire process for the Stedelijk. But it’s not the first time someone at the museum has done this.
Researching the collection this fall led me to realize that the Stedelijk has a massive amount of television-related works in its collection. Not just video work that critiques and appropriates television, such as Dara Birnbaum, or sculpture that comprises a physical television, such as Nam Jun Paik, but also artwork made to be broadcast on television. Researching artists in the collection such as Jaap Drupsteen led me to an online 1989 press release for The Arts for Television at MoMA, which has digitized their paper press releases and hosts them online. The press release states that the exhibition was a collaboration between none other than Dorine Mignot of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Kathy Rae Huffman, a curator on freelance assignment from LA MoCA, and executed for MoMA by Barbara London.
Thus far, I had only tangential anecdotes about Dorine from colleagues who were fortunate enough to work with her, reading traces about her in notes within the museum’s collection management software. I am beginning to intuit and absorb her taste by getting to know the Stedelijk’s video collection. As she is retired and not available to interview, I have taken to exploring the legacies and traces she left at the museum as a project in its own right.
Searching for a connection with Dorine, I started with the Stedelijk’s archive, which for decades has been managed (and remarkably mostly digitized) by a delightfully obsessive librarian, Michiel Nijhoff. Starting with the Arts for Television Archive, Michiel warned me that “some curators are great at archiving, and others… well, they have a different approach,” and proceeded to give me nearly ten archive boxes, each filled with five to six folders, which in turn contain a few hundred pages each. The next two weeks I spent every available moment combing through Dorine’s notes, budgets, floor plans, correspondence in various languages, artist’s lists, contracts, proposals—everything. Dorine had even been working on a questionnaire for the acquisition, preservation and presentation of video work, a protocol I have been developing this year. Through the archive I realized several things; that “analog” curatorial practice on paper, via post, pre-Skype, is inconceivable to me; that museum policies (such as Dorine’s questionnaire) take the presence of an advocate to ensure their lasting effect; and lastly, that some things—like sending a telegram to Japan to remind an artist to send their tapes double-express or else they won’t meet a shipping deadline—never change. Further, through Arts for Television’s floor plans, I witnessed how Dorine dealt with the idiosyncratic layout of the Stedelijk’s “cabinets,” a row of small rooms at the back of the museum with which I’ve never been overjoyed to work, in a way that made me reconsider the architecture of the museum that I had already begun to internalize.
The archive for Arts for Television is particularly outsized because of its remarkable success, touring widely throughout the United States and Europe—according to curator Kathy Rae Huffman the touring exhibition actually made money. A collateral television broadcast program, TIME CODE, was organized in tandem with the exhibition and premiered at various cities throughout the world. The exhibition debuted at the Stedelijk in October 1984 and continued its tour through the rest of the ‘80s. It was a charged moment: MTV’s launch in 1981 was changing the scope of television, the support for artists working with public broadcast TV at stations such as Boston’s WGBH and New York’s WNET was drying up as cable debuted and television was becoming increasingly corporatized. London describes those years, “It was a utopian moment. Everybody dreamed this would be a real Renaissance. But the Renaissance didn’t become MTV.”
We’re still weathering the effects of new booms and the 2008 bust. Public broadcast television seems like a 20th century experiment. MTV is better known for its reality television programming than its avant-garde collaborations with musicians and artists. Netflix and the dawn of cinematic, “bingeable,” multi-part television series is considered an artistic zenith. The artistic politics present in Arts for Television seems to forewarn a late-capitalist television hellscape, disguised as an escapist utopia, at which we have already arrived in 2017.
Kathy Rae Huffman was perhaps the most tireless advocate for the collaboration of broadcast television and fine art. As a pilot project of the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, she initiated the Contemporary Art Television Fund, or CAT Fund, with the Boston public television station WGBH. Speaking about the pioneering nature of Arts for Television with me in a phone interview, Huffman said, “I was very deep into TV dialog because I was in Boston, working collaboratively with WGBH TV, which had been working with artists since the late ‘60s. Then, Fred Barzak, a young producer at the station, had a lot of energy for experimentation, and connected with artists at the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. He established The WGBH TV New Television Workshop.”
Huffman’s career path is similar to London’s roundabout arrival at time-based media curating as she began her career working part-time as Staff Artist at the Long Beach Public Library, a civil service clerical position while she was a full-time student at California State University Long Beach. In 1974, after a fire at the library’s main building, Huffman worked in tight quarters at a temporary building, where the library stored Sony Portapaks bought with an oral history grant under her desk. When David Ross, Deputy Director of the Long Beach Museum of Art learned that the public library owned a Sony Portapak, he began sending artists over to tinker with the equipment—though no one at the library knew how to use it. Huffman recalls, “The librarian said ‘Oh, it’s so complicated, you have to be trained at university to understand how to use it.’ They never could figure out how to do it. They had rows of blank video tapes that were supposed to be interviews.”
After getting frustrated with the lack of knowledge surrounding the Portapaks, and the constant stream of artists seeking to use them, Huffman contacted California State Long Beach University, which had an instructional television program. Her contact Alice Christ at ITV (Instructional TV) was erstwhile also an advisor to Long Beach Museum of Art, helping facilitate David Ross’s new video program. Christ taught Huffman how to use the Portapak, which actually did not require a university degree, and Huffman became the point of contact at the library for their film equipment. It was through this combination of extreme pragmatism and a lust for uncharted territory that both London and Huffman came to video and media.
While Huffman spent many years working with video and television, in subsequent decades she also worked with media, and was also instrumental in feminist circles. When I asked whether her interests in video, media and feminism coalesced in some way, she said, “I think video was an instrumental medium for feminism, because it helped women to speak personally, without anyone shutting them down. It allowed them to tell their stories without necessitating any kind of crew, as film would, that would dominate them. It allowed women to work together in cooperations where they helped each other and could manage this medium. Whereas film was quite heavily a male activity. Women artists found video to be a very important personal medium.”
After working as a curator at the Long Beach Art Museum from 1979–1984, and at ICA Boston (Curator/Producer the Contemporary Art Television Fund 1984–1989, Curator ICA Boston, 1988–1991), Huffman moved to Austria in 1991, where she worked as a freelance curator until late 1998, and continued her interest in the work of Central and Eastern European media artists, and especially the Balkan region’s art landscape, split dramatically amid the former Yugoslavia’s political unrest. She regularly organized screening programs and special projects for festivals and exhibitions ranging from Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria to the Piazza Virtuale project by Van Gogh TV at Documenta X in Kassel, Germany. She has also been instrumental in creating early internet-based projects and media conferences, organizing the first international media art symposium in Moscow, titled “New Media Logia,” for the Soros Center of Contemporary Art, in 1994. Huffman’s proto-blog collaboration “Siberian Deal” with artist Eva Wohlgemuth chronicled their travels throughout Siberia in 1995, and won a prize for interactive art as Transmediale (erstwhile VideoFest Berlin) in 1996. Similarly, also in 1995, London created the online travel diary “Stir-Fry” to log her artistic discoveries while traveling through China as a curator. At this time MoMA didn’t even have a website, and internal support came through Greg van Alstyne of MoMA’s Graphic Design department.
Both curators were also ambitious travelers in search of new artists. London traveled extensively in Asia, where she researched how artists in the countries producing video technology were using it; and Huffman in Russia and the former Yugoslavia, which played a vanguard role in the evolution of the internet, and which, according to Huffman, sent its TV cameramen to film and art school for formal training. When I asked Huffman why she thought she and London had such similar approaches to discovering under-recognized artists, locales and mediums, she said “Well, I just think we have a very short time in our lives that we can do something to make a difference and if we don’t use the opportunities that we’re given, we’ve blown it. Personally, I want to support artists that are trying to make a difference in a positive way. I think artists have a lot to say and I think their voice is not given a strong enough position in the world at large.”
While the moral imperative that Huffman refers to is still alive in a younger generation, it seems our media landscape, and our relationship as cultural producers to it, is quite different. In the cultural field we now have an affirmative, rather than critical relationship to television—an artist today is more likely to eagerly offer their take on the latest season of an HBO show than hold television in disdain as an abstract entity. This first generation of video advocates was, according to Huffman, ultimately interested in the power of media literacy. Whereas television was formerly a benchmark against which artists defined themselves, today television has inevitably subsumed our criticality as creative producers in this regard—and with the popular acceptance of high fantasy, as seen in the success of Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, and the recent Star Trek reboot, television offers itself to us as a last refuge in the vast precarity endemic to professional creative work. In short, corporate television seems to have won.
For this and many more reasons, the task today of a time-based media curator is different from that of Dorine, Barbara and Kathy’s generation. There is no imperative to fight for video and performance as legitimate fine art mediums; they’ve been departmentalized in museums and are taught in art school foundation courses—in short, video has been canonized. There are many collectors and galleries, such as the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin and Düsseldorf and Aspect Ratio Gallery in Chicago, which specialize in the medium’s collection. Urgent today are the ongoing collection preservation concerns of video and particularly media that are resource-intensive, requiring frequent versioning in order to keep up with our continually changing technology. These preservation needs clearly do not dovetail with the cash-strapped nature of museums going through funding structure upheavals, even in relatively well-off nations such as the Netherlands. And advocacy is certainly still needed for internet-based and media work, which is still seen as niche and rarely appears within higher profile cross-media surveys and group exhibitions.
Within the context of the Stedelijk, Dorine’s legacy lives on through the museum’s collection, but many of her traces, including her policies, for example her intake questionnaire, have been lost in the transition from analog to digital that was finalized at the time of her retirement, when the Stedelijk was closed from 2004–2012. As a second-generation media curator who is just starting out in the institution, it’s difficult to witness how a curator’s advocacy waxes and wanes depending on environmental factors, including arts funding, general public interest, and the actual physical presence of the advocate within the building. Further, it is difficult to stomach that the contributions and accomplishments of Dorine, Barbara and Kathy aren’t acknowledged in the annals of curatorial and art history like that of male greats Walter Hopps, Arnold Bode, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Harald Szeemann. These pioneering female time-based media curators no longer work in their institutional positions, and are now either freelance or retired. While as curators we seek to leave a trace, it is through the horizontal loyalty of our peers, predecessors, and progeny that we can assure our advocacy, and by extension the work of artists, lives on.
KAREN ARCHEY is Curator of Contemporary Art, Time-based Media at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.