Video/Art: The First Fifty Years
Barbara London in conversation with Kim Machan
Screenshots of the live talk
Guests: Barbara London, Kim Machan
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I think we can now go through some of the slides from the exhibition. You might be able to comment, that will also bring things back to your networks in New York and also how you view the works in the exhibition. The first work is a live projection that is coming from 3000 miles away, when you were talking earlier about the notion of what is a live image, and what is a recorded image, the projection at the beginning of the show starts to raise those questions, and then ups the ante a little more. What is the time difference in that？
OCAT foyer, entrance to Refocusing on the Medium: The Rise of East Asian Video Art
I think this is a brilliant way to present Paik's TV Buddha. Today it is very costly to ship artwork from country to country. You dove right into the germ of the show's ideas with this artwork, which, as you said, is "live" video and is about "now". I think it's really a wonderful first work that the visitor encounters. The installation encourages the visitor to read, and really think about the ideas behind the works in the show. And initially, someone maybe isn't going to realize that the image is live.
We tell them. But there is also doubt whether this really is live or recorded. At the first moment of the exhibition questions are raised about the medium and what we are really seeing.
The original iteration of the TV Buddha was acquired by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. If and when the visitor experiences the actual sculptural work, the only way they know that the Buddha is looking at a live image is by putting their hand in front of the camera. Then their hand would appear "live" on the monitor.
But I think this reflects very much on today's visual language through the internet and through technology. This idea of what is real and what is invented, and there is always that unstable notion that we really don't know. But I can seriously vouch to say that this at most times is live, and the thing is that this image is then beamed back to the Nam June Paik Art Center in Korea. So it's possible for somebody in Korea to watch the image projected here in Shanghai, and perhaps even see themselves in the projection in Shanghai that is redirected back to Korea. And in that projection, you can also watch somebody that might be in Korea looking at the work in real time. So, there are a lot of twists and convoluted ways of thinking about what that image really is.
I actually think this is something philosophical that Nam June and other pioneering video artists were addressing: What is now, the present moment? It was very important back then. As you note, this is important now, as COVID has slowed the world down. We will be seeing many changes in artwork and in how museums move forward. During the lockdown, that versatile little smart phone everyone carries has connected us, but maybe drives us crazy. The artist Rachel Rosen recently told me that being home during COVID, she became sick and tired of staring at the screen all day. It was her social life, it was her work life, it was everything, and she couldn't go outdoors. We love our devices and we hate them. It's great that we can do things like this conversation, which is pretty remarkable.
It is an interesting progression in how exhibitions might be made into the future. In reality when we make these big international exhibitions, it's only a very small amount of people that can actually travel all around the world to see them in the first instance. In the past we always acknowledge those shows as being totally accessible, that you could see that project in Shanghai or in New York. But in fact, it was a very cost driven exercise. If you could afford to fly, can you also afford the time? But then on the other hand, what COVID has done is make us really think about how we can experience exhibitions? How it can be experienced in a very much deeper and slower way. For instance, working on this discussion with you, we've met probably five hours in total in our preliminary discussions. That might not be necessarily acknowledged in this conversation but those earlier conversations were so rich and somehow, I think if the world was 'pre Covid' it would not have happened that way. I think it would have been wonderful to do a streaming ongoing discussion! The knowledge that you have is really just a treasure. Fortunately, you've written a book about some of it!
Katsuhiro Yamaguchi, Las Meninas, 1974-1975, CCTV video installation. Installation view of Refocusing on the Medium: The Rise of East Asia Video Art, 2020-2021, OCAT Shanghai
I feel very fortunate that I'm of an age where I actually met Mr. Yamaguchi. I met him in New York in 1974, when he was there for the "Open Circuits" conference at MoMA. Then I went to Japan a few years later to research my show, which featured his work, Video from Tokyo to Fukui and Kyoto. Sadly, he and several other artists of his generation in that show passed away a few years ago. I was fortunate to visit him in his nursing home a year before he passed, when he was excitedly still making artwork. He always read and studied about art, design, and technology. He knew so much, and thought so deeply. His work in your show is a brilliant play on Las Meninas, the famous Velasquez's painting of 1656. It's a portrait of the royal family, and the portrait painter is right there in the painting, along with viewers shown in a mirror. The perspective is very complex. For Mr. Yamaguchi to play on this and the live image early, he was ahead of the pack.
In 1972, he was doing his first interactive video performances in Tokyo, so he was he was right up there with Dan Graham and maybe a tiny bit after Bruce Nauman. But I think that it's fascinating to think that this was happening in a simultaneous way as soon as the technology was available, the artists started playing with it, and trying to work out what they can do, what do you do with it. I think that is something that happened across the world. What I found really fascinating with this work is that he's taken western painting, and made his approach to Las Meninas. He talked specifically about making the work about a video version of the Las Meninas, so all of the sight lines he re-complicates them with CCTV. This work hasn't hit the video art history books at all up until now – I hope this exhibition will change that. I think it is because the single channel video was very easy to present, very portable, and it was moving around the world in a relatively easy way. But video installation was something that took a lot more money and presence. The artist had to be present to direct it, and so those types of installations that were difficult to install and difficult to photograph weren't collected. As I must say, you need a moving image to really get the sense of what the work is doing. Would you like to comment on that idea of how artworks are left behind?
For artists working with video in the 1970s, I think the single-channel videos were made with some spontaneity and were easier to exhibit than the multi-channel installation, which needed more equipment and space. You maybe could think about them in light of how when Henri Matisse created his paintings, these works were quite formal. Whereas when he created his small, human-scale sculptures, these were formed from soft clay and made with his hands, the work had a tactile, intimate feel. In terms of video, history is a conundrum. Some of the earliest video work was briefly in the limelight and then forgotten. I think that's where this research that went into your show is so important. I hope that many people will visit the show, walk through your insightfully arranged exhibition, watch the videos, read the text and documentation, and think about all of these artists who were working in a very original way.
Back in the 1970s, there were a handful of "survey" shows. One was organized by the outstanding director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia, Suzanne Delahanty. The show presented work made internationally, both installation and single-channel videos. The work that came from Japan was all single-channel video, partly for economic reasons. It’s simple to put a 3/4-inch video cassette in an envelope and to be mailed. That was the economics of the situation. The ICA published a catalog, and every artist with work in the show was given the same amount of bio space, so they were all treated equally. One hopes that early work like Mr. Yamaguchi's will be collected by a major museum in Japan.
I was thinking about all of the exhibitions that have been happening in really just the last decade, some excellent research going into the early video art. And a recent work by Sing Song-Yong, and his research into the beginnings of Taiwanese video art, and the most interesting point of that when I looked into his research, I mean I have the catalog of the exhibition that he created with co-curator Wang Po Wei. The installation art was really exciting and interesting to see, but those installation pieces are just not as circulated, so it again always comes back to the single-channel which tends to have a natural bias to a narrative.
I was just thinking, installations are very complicated entities. They are complex technically, require space, and generate sound. When a work is lent to an exhibition, at least the sculptural components need to be shipped. And perhaps the exhibitor borrowing a work needs to assemble the necessary equipment, always considering the artist's intention and their aesthetics. Scholarship around the work is an important part of the archival process. When I talk about how I worked at MoMA, I used to say I saved every piece of paper an artist ever gave me, whether that was a CV, articles, catalogs, or magazine articles. Everything is there at MoMA, now in the Library for future scholars. Of course, it is very organized, which was the job of interns working with me. There's a lot of important material sitting there waiting for scholars. In fact, I'm advising two young art historians working on their Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and one is about to deep dive into the history of the video program at MoMA.
As I've been based in the U.S., I know the work of American artists the best. But I always tried very hard to learn about art being made in other countries. Some artists active early on have been overlooked. Perhaps they had difficult personalities or their politics were contrarian. But now some of their work is being re-examined, and we are starting to see retrospectives of their work. One only hopes that their work is archived properly. There's a wonderful organization out of Philadelphia now, called Collaborative Cataloging Japan, and is focused on the conservation and presentation of very early experimental video and film from Japan. We need that for China, for Korea. I hope there are energetic young scholars taking that on. The Asian Art Archives is trying hard to assemble ephemera (flyers, magazines, etc.) from the region, and they are doing interviews, especially with older artists. It's important to interview these artists while they are still alive.
Interviews with artists are so important. At MoMA, with the acquisition of every media art installation, an in-depth interview with the artist was a must. A team from the registrar, conservation, and curatorial departments would sit down together with an artist and ask very specific questions about the aesthetics of the newly acquired artwork during the artist interview. The conversation with the artist was documented by recording with a video camera. It was important to document for future reference what the artist's aesthetic and technical considerations about the work are, as well as to understand what the artist's personality was. All of this is related to the work. Sometime off in future, a curator will be able to look at the documentation and make good decisions about how to handle any technical upgrades, keeping foremost in mind the artist's aesthetics. Years from now if you have to do conservation work, how are you going to do it? Actually, understanding fully what an artwork was about began before a work was acquired. An institution or a private collector needs to understand what an artwork is about, and what the responsibility of owning the work is.
Yoko Ono, SKY TV, 1966-2020, CCTV video installation. Installation view of Refocusing on the Medium: The Rise of East Asia Video Art, 2020-2021, OCAT Shanghai
We'll now move on to the Yoko Ono work in the exhibition, Sky TV1966. What a wonderful hijacking of technology and change of function of television as broadcast entertainment and CCTV as surveillance.
There's something also very magical about this, and very metaphysical. She installs the camera up on the roof, and so the viewer is looking at a monitor of the sky. What is nature? Nature is changing, nature has cycles. Usually we think of technology as cold or as being neutral. But it's not neutral if it's in the hands of an artist, or if it's a political tool. This is quite interesting.
What I love about this work is when you look at the screen, when you look at the monitor, and you know that the camera is pointing into the sky, but that monitor is flat, and it's a representation of space in the sky. But if you really think about what you're looking at, it's the infinite sky, because the sky doesn't stop, it goes off into space. So, you're looking at the entire universe through this skinny electrical cord that connects to a camera on the roof. To me, that's just so sublime, and the intelligence of being able to turn something that was for mass communication and spectacle entertainment suddenly becomes this incredible philosophical spiritual experience.
Park Hyunki, Untitled (TV Stone Tower), 1979-1982, single-channel video installation. Installation view of Refocusing on the Medium: The Rise of East Asia Video Art, 2020-2021, OCAT Shanghai
Park Hyunki's work is beautiful. This reflects Korean aesthetics, and is, as you've said, different from Yoko Ono's work. There's the juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made object, which is the TV monitor. I see here that you've maintained the original aesthetics by using an old analog TV in the gallery. The work is from 1979-1982, its aesthetics call for the physicality and bulk of a monitor. It would not be correct to present the video component on a contemporary thin, flat screen. So it is important to present the installation the way it was originally intended to be seen.
The sculptural space of the monitor recurs throughout the exhibition. It becomes very evident, a flat screen is not the same as a CRT cube image, and the expanded physical space it takes up is intrinsic to the artwork. The technology is medium specific to the artwork and most authentic when presented with that particular original type of monitor, model and style. In the artworks throughout this exhibition, the choice of technology tries to stay close to the original and aims to be able to present the works as they were originally intended. Rather than a generic projection or screen, I wanted the works to have the same sculptural presence as the original work.
Looking at Music 3.0. MoMA. February 16-June 6, 2011
When I was at MoMA, a number of years ago we stockpiled about fifty or so of the cube monitors with 4:3 aspect ratio. This means if you were to go to MoMA today, you would most likely see quite a few early video works presented on cube monitors on view in the galleries.
I wanted to show a couple of slides that give an idea about what I've done during my curatorial career, I've always been very interested in music. I organized three exhibitions that explored the interconnection between music and visual practice: Looking at Music; Looking at Music Side 2, and Looking at Music 3.0. Each was a mixed media show and focused on a decade—the seventies, the eighties, and the nineties. There's too much to talk about!
Sergei Tcherepnin. Motor-Matter Bench, 2013. Wood bench, amplifier, transducers. Soundings: A Contemporary Score. August 10-November 3, 2013. MoMA
This was the last exhibition I organized at MoMA, before I stepped down after forty years as curator. The title was Soundings: A Contemporary Score. Here you see the entrance to the show, where I placed Sergei Tcherepnin's Motor-Matter Bench. In organizing the show, like you I thought a lot about how do you engage an audience make them feel comfortable in seeing and hearing work they are unfamiliar with? As curator, in your selection of work to feature, you try to have a variety of sensibilities and aesthetics. I selected several installations that required a dark room in which to be experienced, but other, more sculptural sound works were presented in gallies with light. Tcherepnin's piece was situated on a landing, right before the visitor entered the galleries where most of the show was installed. It is an actual New York subway bench, positioned where usually there were soft benches. Visitors would sit down on Tcherepnin's subway bench, and through bone conduction would hear his sound composition.
Phaidon published my book, Video/Art, the First Fifty Years, in January 2020. I had embarked on a book tour, when the COVID happened it ended the tour. I thought, what am I going to do now? I can't sit on my hands at home. So, with a wonderful small production team called Bower Blue I launched "Barbara London Calling". I engaged 12 media artists in conversation. The last question I asked each one was, did they consider themselves a media artist? Each one said no. They work across disciplines and prefer to be labeled first and foremost with the simple term, artist. What we always have to remember is an artist's ideas and their practice comes first, the medium is second.
Thank you Barbara for sharing your knowledge and experiences, actually what you've described as a first-hand account of how certain aspects of East Asia video art were integrated into western art history, and how the artist networks weave and overlap in what is a first global contemporary medium. And we can also see the huge influence that East Asia has had on artists in the west by their international presence in New York for instance and elsewhere. And by western artists and academics visiting the region, so the aesthetic language of the video medium belongs to the contemporary world, a global art world. By looking at the medium and refocusing on the medium, we're strengthening and reconsidering the aesthetic language of video art as a foothold to reconsider both historical and contemporary art. Thank you very much Barbara, and I hope we can continue this conversation.
What characteristics of Chinese video does Barbara appreciate the most?
I have to say that I appreciate the wit. By this I don't mean the humor, but the wry intelligence. There's a dedication and a drive, and I appreciate that spirit.
When I'm doing research in China or elsewhere, I believe it's important to look and try to understand what's inherent, what is integral to the culture. I respond to things that are coming from somewhere deep, to understand how an artwork could be shaped by the culture, what the artist grew up with and in which they're living.
The interesting thing about video is that when any artist comes to that medium, those really deep characteristics, I would argue are more transparent in video art because video as an artistic medium doesn't have a particular national characteristic. The actual medium of video is transparent, not attached to hundreds of years of traditions or conventions. As a newly invented medium it was accessed in a relatively short time, just twenty years or so, where everyone was experimenting and exploring the medium. Perhaps more than any other artistic medium you can look at video art as a measure of contemporary cultural attitudes and characteristics.
There are a couple of words, I could say about the work of Chen Shaoxiong when he was making his ink drawings, and turning the drawings into animations based on what was happening in the news. He was taking local events or national events, and turning them into something else. What drew me to the work was his wit and drive. Actually, we acquired one of the animations for the MoMA collection. Then we acquired Peili's Eating, which is simply three stacked monitors. It's as if he's asking what is culture, as we see a Chinese man who is eating Western food using Western utensils.
How would Barbara interpret the repetition in early video art in China such as Zhang Peili's works?
Repetition was used as a structural element in many early works of video art, for a range of different reasons. To repeat an action was straightforward, elegant, or perhaps challenging to the viewer. In Zhang Peili's case, the repetition of a particular, generally familiar action was often disorienting. His use of repetition tended to raise questions of power and subversion. In one example of what Peili did: he is seated in a chair, and the camera is directed at a chicken that he is holding at his feet. The chicken is in a basin of water, and he is washing the chicken with soap and water, over and over again. The disgruntled chicken survives this cleansing, which isn't something usual, and in fact it's disturbing. So, one can think about different subtleties in the metaphor or the symbolism. The man washing the chicken is in control, and he repeats the action over and over, so it's very unsettling. Then there's another video in which he breaks and reglues a mirror again and again, and that action becomes tortuous. We might say that it's a bit like what Yoko Ono did in regarding the sky and the infinity of the universe. Daily life can seen as somewhat boring, but in another light it's interesting. We have certain daily rituals and daily patterns: We brush our teeth the same way every day, we drink our tea from the same cup in the morning. I know that the mirror Peili breaks and puts back together was a standard size mirror that everybody in China had back then. So, the mirror he breaks is rooted in the everyday. Repetition is something that is part of contemporary music, too.
Looking really specifically at those early works that Zhang Peili was making, it is interesting to consider what he was doing with the video medium. There are things that just couldn't be done with film. Video could be taken into private spaces where it could be operated alone or just one other person if necessary. Standard VHS tapes were 180 minutes. In “30 × 30” the original version continued the smashing and gluing repetition for the entire 180 minutes. Likewise, with his next work “Hygiene No.3” 1993 the hypnotic action of washing a chicken continued for the duration of the video tape. Zhang Peili was working with conceptual rules and instruction pieces across his practice and these early videos were 'work to rule' endurance pieces that just weren't possible to do in film. The reason being firstly the cost involved. Could an artist really commit to such a boring experiment on expensive film? It is only with the freedom that if the footage was not worth keeping, it could be simply taped over and used again. It is an exploration into the medium of video, and a very specific use of the medium. Unfortunately, a lot of the original footage in those tapes was lost because deterioration occurred before it was properly archived, and why we see a shortened version now. This kind of experimentation with the long single take happened across the world. I think it's really interesting that when someone first gets that video camera, how do they arrive at an idea to make something? They have to consider what the medium can do.
I think your ideas, and what you're doing with this great exhibition is to examine the use of repetition. Some of the first artists to explore video, like the American Bruce Nauman, repeated actions they performed alone in their studio over and over and over, and recorded the actions until the videotape ran out. Actually, years ago when I taught a history of video at NYU, I made the students watch all sixty minutes of Bruce Nauman's 1969 Lip Sync video, in which his head, rather his face from chin to nose is shown upside down and fills the screen. He wears big earmuff-like headphones. He repeats the phrase “lip sync” over and over. Actually, he's hearing what he just said in a few second delay, so he's trying to repeat, perfectly matched to what he hears that he just said. It's very monotonous, but after a while you start to recognize subtle differences in his action of saying what he just heard over and over: lip sync, lip sync… for 60 minutes. My students nearly went up the wall. I explained that they had to give themselves over to it, and that the work was like meditation. There inevitably were going to be differences in the way he said the words. So, the viewer can look for the subtle differences, as they dream or zone out while watching.
I think he had a few more devious ideas about what was doing than pure meditation.
Images selected from the speakers' slides
Text proofread by the speakers
Barbara London is a New York-based curator and writer, who founded the video-media exhibition and collection programs at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where she worked between 1973 and 2013. Her current projects include the book, Video Art/The First Fifty Years (Phaidon: 2020), and the podcast series "Barbara London Calling". (barbaralondon.net)
Kim Machan is founding director of MAAP (Media Art Asia Pacific) developing curatorial projects in Australia and the Asia regions through this organization since 1998. In 2014-15 LANDSEASKY: Revisiting Spatiality in Video Art toured major museums and galleries in Shanghai, Guangzhou in China; Seoul, South Korea, Brisbane and Sydney. Machan has curated solo exhibitions of major artists including Zhang Peili, Wang Gongxin, Shilpa Gupta, Yeondoo Jung, Patty Chang and David Kelley. She is currently writing a PhD exploring the rise of East Asian video art at the University of Queensland.
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