Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Whitney Museum and the Shaping of Video Art: An Interview with John Hanhardt, Marita Sturken


May 1983, Afterimage

John Hanhardt is curator of film and video at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. He is responsible for the initial inclusion and further integration of video into the Whitney’s exhibition program, as well as its program in independent film. The video shown at the Whitney has comprised an internationally diverse program of narrative, performance, documentary, and image-processed work, as well as installations.

There is little doubt that Hanhardt is, at present, the most influential American curator in video. His program at the Whitney is the most visible in this country for two reasons: first, video is included in the Museum’s Biennial, providing recognition by exhibiting video with established art forms; second, Hanhardt has been successful in producing certain large exhibitions at the Whitney-most recently, the Nam June Paik retrospective which he curated last year.

The text printed here represents an edited transcript of three interviews conducted in February and March, 1983. It includes Hanhardt’s additions and corrections.

Marita Sturken: What did you do before you came to the Whitney?
John Hanhardt: I completed graduate work at New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies. Film had been a sort of hobby through college. Rochester’s my home town, and I used to spend a lot of time at the George Eastman House looking at films. George Pratt and James Card are good friends. I ran the film society at the University of Rochester and wrote reviews for the college newspaper, but my academic work as an undergraduate and graduate student was in linguistics and psychology. I later decided to transfer to film studies in graduate school because, like video, it’s an area that is open to interpretation and analysis. I was interested in applying my interests in linguistics to film. It is such a multi-disciplinary medium-moving image, recorded sound, narrative, nonnarrative-and it confronts so many issues of artmaking.
I was fortunate at NYU to receive a curatorial internship in the Museum of Modem Art’s department of film. The internship didn’t continue because of funding problems, but it was ideal in chat Willard Van Dyke (then director of MOMA’s department of film) gave me the opportunity to work in all areas of the department-the Film Study Center, the Film Stills Archive, and the film archive itself. I began the “What’s Happening” documentary series with Van Dyke, and we co-authored a report on short film production, distribution, and exhibition for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I also became active in the Flaherty Film Seminar.
Then, in 1972, I was offered a position at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as film coordinator, where I established the film department and began the film study collection. There was a precedent for a film program, but I was given the opportunity to fully develop and place the program in a larger context. I went from the Walker to the Whitney as curator and head of the department in 1974. That means I’ve been associated with three major, contemporary modern art institutions, and three very different ones-the large Museum of Modern Art, which had set the precedent of bringing photography, film, and architectural design into a museum; the Walker, which is highly innovative under its director (Martin Friedman), where I was able to learn about working within a smaller institution and developing a program; and the Whitney, where I inherited a very strong situation. David Bienstock had already established the film department here-“The New American Filmmaker Series”-and made it an important, visible, and unique program.
I came here a year after his death in 1 974 a move both both interesting and challenging. You can really focus on the history of an art form in such a situation. I introduced an emphasis on the avant-garde, documentary, and narrative programs. My goals were to integrate the department more fully, curatorially and in terms of exhibitions info the museum, to keep its identity but to develop a situation where it wouldn’t be seen as somehow separate. One of the things I could build on, which David had started, was week-long exhibitions of film that gave maximum exposure to a program as a theatrical run. When I decided to move into video, I wanted to show it in the same fashion, with appropriate seating arrangements. I realized that with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, which gave us the funding to get the initial hardware and to rewire the theater, I could bring to video what we had in film. For video to work as a medium and to show installation work, it needs in-house museum support. You need a video technician maintaining the equipment, so that the notion of technology as things that break down will be overcome. That meant convincing the museum to do for video what it did for painting and sculpture in the installation of work. The preparation of exhibitions, program notes, advertising, and payment of artists’ fees created a supportive situation. I firmly believe in a program having a point of view, being selective, and staking an interest-not making film and video conform to the other arts but changing one’s definition of art by putting new forms and ideas within a larger, historical and critical context.
MS: What was the first video exhibition at the Whitney?
JH: David Bienstock did a program in 1971 called “A Special Videotape Show.” It was very important for the Whitney, and also for New York museums.
MS: The first Biennial to include video was in 1975?
JH: That was the first to include a comprehensive selection of video, but in the 1973 Biennial there were seven videotapes and one installation, selected by the curators of painting and sculpture. It was important that video was represented in the 1973 Biennial-certainly very important for my efforts-but it wasn’t recognized fully until 1975. In the 1977 Biennial we had video, and then in 1979 we showed both film and video.
MS: How was it that video was accepted into the Biennial before film?
JH: Video, as it emerged, had particular ties to the art world - with Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, and other artists. There was a perception of video as a medium that conceptual artists and performance artists used. Film, of course, had a much longer history-not that it didn’t touch the other arts, but it wasn’t as easily placed in that context. I think that one of my most important moves here was to bring both video and film into the Biennial.
MS: After the Biennial, your first big show was “Projected Video,” in June 1975.
JH: That was actually a project that my predecessor, David Bienstock, and his associate curator, Bruce Rubin, had been thinking about. In the selection of tapes and the program notes I tried to address the issue of the projected format and its relationship to the monitor, the feeling being that any projected system changed the perception of a work created for the monitor. I chose work that would be suitable for projection. I wanted to raise the issue of the limitations of projection.
MS: I suppose there weren’t many projection systems around in 1975.
JH: It was not that common. We used the Advent projection system. There was a lot of interest in it-Newsweek wrote an article on it. Now we use projection only when it’s the artist’s intention that the work be shown that way. For instance, we presented Vito Acconci’s The Red Tapes in projection because it was created for that format.
MS: What were the other big shows you did before the Paik retrospective?
JH: A very important show was “Re-Vision: Projects and Proposals in Film and Video” in 1979, when we organized for the first time-I believe it was the first time in New York-a large museum exhibition devoted to film and video as installation forms. It took up the entire third floor of the museum. Though the film/video gallery is a flexible space where we can present all different types of video and film; we propose installations and exhibitions for the other spaces in the museum.
MS: Subject to approval by whom?
JH: It is presented for general curatorial review, in our weekly meetings.
MS: You must have a receptive situation.
JH: The staff has been supportive. I should add that for the museum, which was founded for and has remained committed to contemporary art, the film and video department does represent a commitment to vanguard developments in the visual arts. One lays the groundwork for that. Video has been supported by Tom Armstrong, the director. Mrs. Flora Biddle, the president of the Whitney, was very active in the establishment of the film department in 1970, as was Marcia Tucker, who was painting and sculpture curator here before she became the director of the New Museum.
MS: So the “Re-Visions” show was the first exhibition, beside the Biennials, where video was presented outside its regular gallery space?
JH: Yes. It was a serious show. I’m proud of if because it looked at the issue of representation-how the recording medium of film works as opposed to that of video. The film installations were by Michael Snow, Morgan Fisher, and William Anastasi. All the video was closed circuit. Except for Snow’s installation, all the pieces were site-specific. Buky Schwartz did Videoconstruction, in which the camera was positioned near the ceiling and pointed into a gallery space where there was a painted area you could walk on. What you saw on the monitor was a yellow triangle, so from the point of view of the camera-closed-circuit, real-time-the two-dimensional properties of the medium flattened the three-dimensional space of the gallery into an object visible only on the monitor. Only when you were in the gallery could you see what was happening.
Another video piece was Rumored Innuendo, by Bill Bierne, which used four closed-circuit surveillance cameras in different locations in the museum. There was one in the restaurant, one in a curator’s office, one in the lobby, and one on the stairway. All-of these were non-exhibition, public spaces. The camera was not visible, but the area that the camera covered was marked, and there was a label. There were also four microphones-in the lobby, in a stairwell, in my office, and near the phones. The area picked up by each microphone was marked out and labeled. You could see and hear this on the second floor, but you could never see yourself because the camera was always somewhere else. Bierne had performers regularly come in and act like the public. One camera was above an associate curator’s desk, and every now and then Bierne would mail a photograph or something which the curator would put in his IN box. Who was performing or what was performed was at issue, as well as how an area became visible as a performance space by the placement of a camera and microphone.
The third video piece was Cloud Music, by Bob Watts, David Behrman, and Bob Diamond. The camera was pointed at the sky through the window on the third floor, and there was a video synthesizer and audio analyzer. There were black marks -sensitizers-on the screen, which could be moved by the artist, and became a score. As the light intensity changed at these marks, it set off an harmonic change that filled the room with sound. The clouds and the sky composed and generated the sound. People would sit there for hours.
Between the “Re-Visions” show and the Paik show, there was one other installation-the large Walt Disney animation show, “Disney Animations and Animators.”
MS: Was the impetus for the Paik show his work or the desire to have a major retrospective?
JH: The desire was to represent Paik’s work and the only way to do so comprehensively and effectively was in a large exhibition.
MS: So it had to be a show of that magnitude?
JH: I felt that was in order. I felt what was central to his work was the full range of his objects, from the Fluxus robot to the large installation pieces, and that we would be uniquely suited to do it on our fourth floor.
MS: Did you think of the show as establishing a new historical perspective for video, in that it had reached the stage where a major retrospective of one artist was possible?
JH: Well, we’d already demonstrated that video art was a serious art form and that we could organize exhibitions. So it was time for a major show. My argument was that Paik was clearly the artist whose achievement deserved such an exhibition. One of the gratifying things about the show was that a lot of people who didn’t know his work or didn’t know video art came out enjoying it. It also demonstrated how influential Paik is and what extraordinary range his work has.
MS: Wasn’t it supposed to travel?
JH: It traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and we were hoping that it would travel to Europe and to other sites in the U.S., but we ran into problems. The dates for Europe fell through at the last minute and it affected our whole schedule.
MS: Is it an expensive show to travel?
JH: Yes. So when it fell apart in Europe it was difficult to reassemble a tour in the U.S. But we’re very pleased with the way it turned out in Chicago.
MS: If we look at the work that has been shown at the Whitney as reflecting the major issues video has been concerned with, could you define what those issues were and have become? For instance, what were the major issues in the 1975 Biennial as compared to the 1983 Biennial?
JH: The 1975 Biennial was one of the first major showings of Bill Viola’s work, a piece called Information which dealt with a destruction of the image-a pure snow image which was disintegrating. We also showed James Byrne and Terry Fox. There were a couple of things going on then-the kind of work that is almost epistemological in terms of dealing with the nature of the medium, and the performance-oriented, stripped-down narrative work, like the John Baldessari, Ed Henderson, and William Wegman work I showed in 1976. There’s also the work which responded to television itself, like the Telethon tapes by Billy Adler and John Margolies. Their work was very important then, and it’s historically important now. There were political works, such as performance oriented works by Allan Sekula, Francesc Torres, and Brian Connell. There was also narrative work, such as Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim’s Untitled.
In 1977, the stated purpose of the Biennial was to review the art of the 70s and to identify some of its leading participants. That selection goes from Acconci to Paik, to Nancy Holt, Joan Jonas, and Alan Kaprow. It was an interesting survey. In our tenth anniversary we had a Peter Campus retrospective, selections from Paik, Mitchell Kriegman’s Telephone Stories-which was the department’s first audio piece-Chris Burden, and Bruce Nauman. We showed Beryl Korot’s Dachau and Text and Commentary, which was a historical show to bring back two important earlier works. You can chart all kinds of shifts, and many issues stay right through. This year we had Joan Jonas, who was shown very early on, coming back with her latest performance work, He Saw Her Burning.
One of the major changes between 1973 and 1975 was how the individual artist changed. Barbara Buckner, Shalom Gorewitz, and Bob Snyder’s image-processing work now is both affected by technology and also responsive to a setting where one can be at ease with the technology as one is exploring imagemaking. Early work was very conscious of that technology.
But I don’t look at this history in a linear way. I don’t look back at these early programs and say “Wow, that’s what they thought video was.” I think that work was important then and is important now. I don’t see growth in the field as a linear progression of improvement. What has grown is that there are more people working in video.
MS: It is interesting to note that many of those artists are no longer working in video.
JH: Those artists produced a body of work which we still haven’t fully dealt with. I feel that Nauman’s and Acconci’s work is of great importance. I don’t think it means anything that many of them are no longer actively engaged in video. When we look back we often see artists move into different media and materials. Serra will still occasionally produce a tape, as will Nancy Holt and Vito Acconci. I think we should recognize that video is here to stay.
MS: Do you feel like you’re straddling a fence between video and film?
JH: I really want both to share the program and I have always maintained that there’s a basic, ontological distinction between the two-how they function, and their history. There are limitations, in terms of time, in how much one can present in an exhibition year. Both film and video represent an enormous range of styles and genres in installation/sculpture/performance/telecast, single-channel, and theatrical film forms. I do see lots of changes happening in the moving-image media-how film is going to function, what both film and video are going to become. They’re going to change dramatically; the question is how. It’s very complex in terms of distribution. It’s not just a utopian idea that things are going to be better. The changes in film and video are not isolated from other social, economic, and cultural changes.
MS: Because you’re in a museum setting, do you feel an obligation to show installation work in order to integrate video with other art forms?
JH: I try to balance single-channel and installation work, because I think they inform each other. Artists do both, and some of the principles that are involved in a single-channel work are expanded in an installation. Even a documentary idea can be expanded in a multi-media installation, like Bill Stephen’s Fire Walls Four. One of the most important roles that museums have played in video is showing single-channel videotapes in a quality presentation. The home viewer was never really made aware of how to control color, sound, and other variables on the TV set. The quality of the presentation of a videotape, and the context, changes the viewer’s relationship to the television, and indicates that it might be different.
MS: Do you receive a lot of unsolicited proposals and work, or do you solicit work?
JH: Both. Work comes in, proposals are submitted. Work is recommended. I jury and I’m on panels a lot, so I see work that way. If I lecture at a school, I look at what the students are doing. But there’s a tremendous backlog of work to review. That’s why Callie Angell is now the assistant curator; she looks at work too. I try to be responsible to the field as a whole by speaking out on what it is and by being on panels. I am also writing a book on film and video installation forms, called Expanded Form in Film and Video, which ought to be done late this spring.
MS: Do you have specific criteria for the work you select?
JH: When I look at a piece-if it’s by an artist with a body of work behind him or her-one set of criteria comes into play. How does it work? Does it explore an area that X hasn’t done before? If it’s a new artist, I see the work against a larger context. Does it repeat what I’ve seen someone else do? Is it redoing what Nauman did 10 years ago-which is often the case. What puts this work on the edge? If it’s a narrative film, an animation, a synthesized videotape or whatever, I see it against the history of those genres. What is it borrowing? - though that doesn’t mean everything has to be different. Work can enrich a tradition as much as expanding it. I like to think that there are a lot of factors impacting on the decision process. I’m looking for work that isn’t just conforming to a tradition that’s already exhausted itself. That has been a problem with documentary in recent years. It was more exciting in the past. It’s a problem with some narrative and synthesizer work.
MS: There seems to be about a two-year period before you show the same artist again.
JH: That’s true. I am not going to keep showing the same person after they’ve had a few shows, but if they have a powerful new work I will. I’ve shown Frank Gillette before-he has been in a Biennial and he did an installation-but he has this extraordinary new work that is really advancing his ideas and the idea of installations, so I am going to show it this spring. The same with the two telecast pieces that Doug Davis developed.
It’s very important that a museum have a point of view in terms of history. I think we’ll be doing a lot more historical shows.
MS: What kind of historical shows?
JH: Showing artists’ earlier work in one-artist and group show formats, like I showed Beryl Korot’s Dachau and Text and Commentary two years ago. They’d been shown before, at Castelli, but they hadn’t been seen in years. There is a lot of interesting installation work in video that one refers to and sees illustrated but that hasn’t been seen in years. I plan to do at least one historical view every season.
MS: Do you plan to do more audio?
JH: Sound is something that I’m very interested in. I selected the Max Neuhaus piece for the Biennial, and Alvin Lucier is working on a proposal for a sound piece for next season. I’m not changing the title of the program to “Film, Video, and Sound,” but I definitely want to address sound because it works in the context of the department. Sound pieces are nothing new to the museum, but I think there are areas of sound sculpture and environments that we could do more with. We could also explore records, recordings, and distribution. The future also holds that we will do more with the idea of distributing video.
This year, we’ll circulate the Biennial selection for both film and video through the AFA (the American Federation for the Arts). They’ve distributed our film program before, and now they will include the videotapes, though not the installations. I’m very interested in the ides of opening up another institution to video. We could probably handle the distribution, but why not have the AFA begin to handle it? Then maybe through our own resources we can do it, as we did with the Paik show. However, I am curating a touring show of video and films installation forms for the AFA.
MS: I noticed that your program notes and announcements have changed drastically over the years. Is that a reflection of changes in the program?
JH: When this program began, announcements, flyers, and calendars were very important. They had to identify the department, since independent film and video weren’t showcased much. The past 10 years have seen an incredible change; independent film is now opening in theaters. Now our program notes are a permanent publication. We’re going to produce a birder so that they will constitute an ever-expanding catalogue.
MS: How are things going to change with the Whitney’s new expansion?
JH: The Whitney wants to provide more exhibition space for its permanent collection and for temporary exhibitions. Right now we’ve given over the entire third floor to the permanent collection, so it’s not available for the Biennial this year. There’s a major fund-raising effort to expand. Michael Graves is the architect who will be drawing up a proposal for expansion next door. This museum, when it was designed, didn’t have a film department and a lot of the other departments that it has now. It outgrew itself very quickly. Ideally, we will have a better situation theatrically for viewing film, and a gallery for film/video installations.
MS: You would have one space for single-channel work and one for installations?
JH: Yes. However, single-channel work is going to change. I wouldn’t want to rely on projection, because I don’t know what projection is going to be. You can’t show a lot of earlier work that way. It has to be shown on monitors, and that will probably become an historic function of a museum, like showing nitrate film. Showing videotapes on a television set wilt probably become the most important thing that we’ll do, because the cathode ray tube as we know it is going to change. If the resolution of the image improves, it could mean that the work will be seen differently than when it was made; we are going to have to preserve the way it was originally made and shown. That will fall on the museum in its function as a preserver and interpreter of our cultural history.
I am trying to get the Whitney to establish a collection in film and video and a study center, which I consider very important. We don’t now collect, except for installations. We acquired Paik’s Vyramid and there are other installations that we are going to collect, but I would like to be involved in the preservation of American film and video. We should realize our full function and not only be an exhibition department. It is going to take some convincing.
MS: Will it be similar to the film study center at the Museum of Modern Art?
JH: Yes, but it will be American work. I don’t expect it to be as large but I think we can do something important that is not being done in other institutions like Anthology Film Archives or the Modern. Exhibition facilities are less an issue to me than the collecting and the study center. It would deal with the issues of preserving film and video, integrating those art forms further within the Museum’s programs by making them part of a collecting program. It would also preserve secondary print material on artists-their notes, sketches, and plans which exist for the most part in artists’ lofts and which could be lost or destroyed. The trustees have to decide, and I am hoping their decision will be favorable, but it’s a new medium, and even with the expansion our space will be limited. For instance, the Whitney doesn’t collect photography. Our offices will be better, and we will have a screening room, but the issue is arguing the expansion of the department in a philosophical way. It would strengthen the department, I think, and make it more viable in terms of fundraising. The Whitney has to decide that it can physically and economically support film and video because the traditional sources of support that exist for painting and sculpture don’t exist yet for film and video. Witness any film and video department’s deficit problems.
MS: I know that the museum absorbs a lot of costs of this department, but what are your other sources of funding?
JH: The National Endowment for the Art and the New York State Council on the Arts, of course. Through the development office of the museum we do fundraising from private individuals. For specific exhibitions there may be corporate or other foundation funding. We organize benefits-for instance we had the world premiere of Manhattan as a benefit for the department. I work with trustees who seek out funding and projects to raise funds.
MS: Will you have to deal with decreased public funding?
JH: The ballgame is definitely changing. It affects this department in the sense that we always have to seek out new sources of support. There aren’t that many sources of support for new media and new art forms. It is very important to stress the importance of funding like the NEA, NYSCA, and the Rockefeller Foundation. That’s why video is so strong in this state. And that’s what these agencies should be doing funding work that doesn’t have other sources of support. Television wouldn’t be changing the way ii is now, and video wouldn’t be what it is now without those forms of support.
MS: How do you think the role of the museum is going to change?
JH: It will depend on the technology, but it also depends on the direction of museums. There is a lot of museum construction going on now in America, but are they constructing something open to the future or are they celebrating what’s already happened? That’s the question. Are they going to use channels of distribution effectively as artists increasingly turn to new technology for imagery?
MS: In light of the contemporary outlets that we have-galleries, museums, cable, alternative spaces, low-power broadcasting, public television-what is the museum’s real function?
JH: ft’s an institution that is there to select and pass judgments of quality. It is a non-profit, non-commercial role. It’s not a box-office mentality. What’s important about a museum is recognizing that art can be defined by other criteria than the unique object, that a museum is not only one which recognizes the Fairfield Porters and the Edward Hoppers but also critically and seriously interprets and studies all of the traditions of American art. Video art is part of what a museum is recognizing as a vital and unique part of our culture and society. That perception, an institution which defines itself as traditionally as the Whitney does, is very important to the field.
MS: Do you have a sense of your audience at the Whitney?
JH: It’s broad because it combines the audience of the museum as a whole and the people who specifically follow our program, who read reviews and articles and follow what we are doing.
MS: I’d like to know what kind of impact it has for an artist to be shown in this program. My impression is that it carries more weight to be shown in this program-at least in the Biennial-compared to the Modern or the Walker or at Long Beach. Do you see yourself as a spokesman?
JH: I think we’ve achieved a particularly strong position in terms of video because we’ve committed resources to it and have a permanent, well equipped and maintained gallery space. In exhibitions like the Biennial, work is under consideration with other developments in contemporary art. It expresses a commitment of the Institution as a whole, by locating video not as peripheral but as an integral part of its exhibition program. I think that perception, both on the part of the artist and on the part of the public, is important in terms of public recognition and understanding. I don’t want to be the only show in town, because video’s success will be that it’s incorporated into as many institutions as possible. That’s why I welcome what may be developing at the Modern in terms of Barbara London’s (London is curator of video at MOMA) efforts to give video a larger place. By a larger place, I mean what is appropriate to the medium in terms of viewing space, lighting conditions, soundproofing, and everything else that’s what I mean by support and recognition. It’s important for the field that it’s happening all over. I’m looking to the efforts of David Ross, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. I’m interested to see what Kathy Huffman, in a smaller institution, is doing at the Long Beach Museum of Art to set up a model of what video can be with cable in a museum.
I am very concerned about how museums in general are going to affect the work in the future, about whether the museum is going to serve the function it has shown itself capable of in terms of presenting new media. If it is going to function as an on-going, cultural institution, it has to respond to cultural changes. If it is only going to define itself as a modernist institution up until the’80s, closing around film and video at a certain point, then it’s not going to be a vital institution in terms of an intellectual engagement within the culture as a whole. Otherwise, it will only be a historical institution.
MS: Do you mean changes in the way art is made?
JH: ... and what art is, the way it’s exhibited. If you look at the major collections of American art around the country, they’re all very much the same, except that some have more masterpieces by certain artists than others. They should incorporate film and video. Institutions of this kind should be doing what the Modern did for film in the ‘30s, preserving its early history and showing it. The organizers of exhibitions have a responsibility to identify what creative work is, what the idea of the artist is, and to be in an active dialogue with artists. You have to go out on the line, saying what you think-that you don’t like the work or you do like it. There has to be a real selection process going on that fits into the point of view that an institution, and a department, can have. I like to think that this exhibition program is deliberately providing a point of view of the history of contemporary work in video.
I look critically at the field. I think a lot more institutions should be dealing with video. Technology is changing in our lives and way of living. The idea of how people go to movies, how people watch TV, how people go to museums, how people use their living space, how people shop, how people get information, how people transmit information-it’s all going to change. Artists’ ideas are also going to change. Just as it was a vanguard thing for the Modern to be dealing with film in the ‘30s and ‘40s, we find ourselves in a vanguard situation dealing with video, because we’re giving time and space to it, and we’re a leading New York institution. That doesn’t mean that exciting things aren’t being done around the country, but there is a certain visibility here. It’s a gradual process because the press is extremely conservative and hardly equipped to respond to this work successfully. We need more critical response in the press. We are living in a time when neo-conservative institutions like The New York Times, enjoy extraordinary power. A lot of people tie success to how that newspaper responds. It’s preposterous. When in the past would one look to a major newspaper of the time as being the place to reflect on the major art work of the period? New York is increasingly becoming a place for the rich, though it’s still a vital center. It could very well become like Paris in terms of living in the past.
MS: I know that the Paik show attracted an enormous amount of press, but in terms of the work that you show on a regular basis, how important is that press? How much do you get?
JH: We get a fair amount, and it is important. It’s important to the artist, so it’s important to us. I think that the general condition of the art press is not very strong and that this is reflected in video criticism. The problem with criticism is not so much a question of whether somebody likes a particular exhibition, but how they respond critically. That’s why an important part of our program is the lecture series. I am less interested in anecdotal kinds of presentations-artists talking about their work-than situations where people are invited to present papers and to focus on a particular issue.
We’re going to be doing more of that. I want to do a conference on feminist media criticism and theory, in both film and video, because I think it has been the most important body of theory that has emerged in the past 10 years, and so much good work has been done in this country.
MS: Has your programming of women and minority artists been conscious? Do you seek out that work?
JH: It’s a conscious effort on my part, and I’m still not doing enough. I feel I should be showing more women, and more minorities. It’s a problem. I can show Bill Stephens, who did that remarkable Fire Walls Four installation, but there are fewer minority artists working in the vanguard in film. I think we’ll see more in video, because it’s less expensive. I do feel that I’ve been consciously trying to represent it, and by no means is that work anything but as good as anything else. But we should do more. We should have a black curator here. It’s a tough issue. I think we should look to what’s being done around the issues of neighborhood-oriented programs, and the films and videotapes that they’re showing. I probably should be giving more attention .to that.
MS: How do you see the role of alternative spaces in relation to museums?
JH: I think an alternative space can, in a certain sense, do more, because it’s much more flexible. Any exhibition we organize is a long process of working it out with the artist, identifying the artists we want to show, what they’re going to do, and how they’re going to do it. That’s what an establishment institution is about. I go to alternative spaces to see work. They are a resource, so we go to Artists Space or The Kitchen, Franklin Furnace, or P.S. 1. I first saw many of the works I’ve shown here in one of those spaces.
You know, when we talk about the possibilities as the field changes, we have to be realistic. We’re in a time of tremendous federal cutbacks. We need more grass roots organization. We need more people in the field responding to and cooperating with each other. I’m concerned about those vital smaller institutions, like alternative spaces. We have to support each other, and set up mechanisms to do that.
MS: How does a museum support smaller institutions?
JH: It can’t support them financially, but we can-and we do-support legislation and decisions that affect the entire field. We also have to nurture individuals in the field. We have to find new sources of support. We’re going to have to be vigilant for the kinds of censorship that have been occurring in Washington, both from funders and from the government as a whole in terms of legislation. Actions like the Justice Department calling some Canadian films “propaganda”, bizarre as that may seem, can indicate larger issues. I’m optimistic but I also want to be realistic.
MS: Do you think it’s too early to start dealing with video historically?
JH: No. It has to be written about and challenged, and whatever is written will be changed. Issues that Walter Benjamin raised in the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in the 1930s about photography in the nineteenth century have not yet been fully dealt with, so why should video suddenly have a full-blown critical discourse and historiography? It doesn’t, but it will. Video is an important ingredient for museums and art history courses to be dealing with, because it’s making us rethink painting and sculpture. Video isn’t just coming of age. It isn’t like it’s suddenly growing up. There are mature, serious works that I don’t think we have come to grips with, like Nauman’s work, or Acconci’s. I like to think of it as a constant process of evaluation.
MS: Like the way early film is now being reevaluated?
JH: The same thing is going to happen in video. That’s a point of contention for me-to look at early video as being imitative of the other visual arts. It was feeding back imagery to those other arts, too. It’s wrong to call that work boring, uninteresting, or amateurish. Sure, a lot of it now looks unsophisticated, but you have to look at it as a whole. There are strengths and weaknesses at any particular point in history. We have to identify what the strengths were and not jump at the weaknesses. There were a lot of bad tapes made, but there were a hell of a lot of bad paintings made, and lousy books and plays.
You know, the situation in criticism in all of the visual arts is not very developed. There is a lot of interesting work going on in philosophy and literature, which is what I read, and in linguistics and communications, that hasn’t penetrated the visual arts in terms of art history or criticism. Foucault, Lacan, Althusser, and many areas of philosophy that are emerging from feminism are things that artists refer to when they are making their work. That’s the critics’ and the art historians’ job, too, if they are going to deal with this art. They’ll have to know this material because it is shaping a lot of new video, image-painting, and all art forms. When you look at the teaching of art history in America today, there are very few schools that teach art past the ‘30s and ‘40s.
MS: When you think about the acceptance of the camera arts in general in art history, it’s worse.
JH: Well, it’s the precious, unique object. Duchamp challenged a lot of that, and we still haven’t fully digested his work, which was central to the ‘60s in terms of land art and installation art. One can collect videotapes and installations. There are reasons for doing it, because they are going to deteriorate, but one shouldn’t try to make video conform to a concept of what an art object is. One of the problems of traditional kinds of support, like those in painting and sculpture, is that they are based on the whole dialectic of investment and value. That doesn’t invalidate video-look at haw things changed with the invention of the printing press. I think that video technology is analogous to the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution. One of the big changes that has taken place from the early days of art technology is that artists’ ideas then were in advance of what the technology could do. There used to be all kinds of difficulties for artists in realizing their ideas through those early technologies. Now the technology is moving ahead quickly and the artist has to keep up. It’s an important change, and the support should come from those industries and those businesses that produce that technology.
MS: When people talk about new outlets and new technology there is a real tendency to make analogies-that tapes are going to be distributed like books, or records. I wonder if we aren’t being a little simplistic.
JH: I agree. Such models ignore how pervasive and profound the charges are going to be with new technologies. We are always going to have books, but clearly the printed text is also going to be part of television and the home computer. How we distribute music and how we use radio will both be tied to the ways television develops and how new forms of records (by laser) are introduced. Video is very important in the music industry now. That’s a huge shift. Radio is going to change dramatically.
I’ve been speaking with David Bermont, who is an owner of shopping malls. He’s tried to introduce kinetic sculpture into the public awareness, so he collects work to show in his shopping malls. Paik’s Participation TV has been part of a shopping mall in upstate New York for years. One of Bermont’s basic arguments is that such works have increased business in his shopping centers: He’s done studies of what the impact has been on the shops, and the retailers renting his space, who were dubious at first, are now very excited.
What is mass distribution of art anyway? How many people consciously select fine art for their homes, or even inexpensive art? It’s a small number. What I keep saying is that video will be seen as taking on from film the issues of how art can change. For the first time since the industrial revolution, there’s an art which is changing the very premises of society. That’s the big picture we should address.

above copied from: http://www.experimentaltvcenter.org/history/people/pview.php3?id=31&page=1

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