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:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Intermedia Arts: Bringing Many Voices to the Table, Tom Borrup

This essay is aprt of a much longer essay titled The Administration of Cultural Democracy: Three Experiments which can be found at the following address:

Intermedia Arts building in Minneapolis. View slideshow of additional images. Photo by Tom Borrup
Intermedia Arts is a multidisciplinary arts center in Minneapolis that is at the same time community-based and an advocate for artists. This is to say that it embraces a wide range of forms, styles and levels of craftsmanship by people of all ages in the surrounding neighborhoods and, at the same time, provides professional development, peer review, competitive fellowships and project commissions to artists from across the state.

While this unusual construct seems antithetical to some, cultural democracy, as Bau Graves points out, "demands, a both/and analysis, rather than either/or."

In much the same way the Center for Cultural Exchange balances traditional practices with the crossing of cultures and innovation, Intermedia Arts' dynamic combination advances artists' work while being "by-and-for the community." Professional artists are part of the community and considered leaders in the communities with whom Intermedia Arts forms partnerships. Partnerships with artists are essentially the same as those with schools, social-action organizations or any other community-based entity. At the same time, professional artists are not considered the only ones whose creative self-expression has value.

From the time Intermedia Arts was incorporated as a video access and training center in 1973, it straddled two worlds. Known until 1986 as University Community Video, for much of that time it relied on the dual support and participation of students at the University of Minnesota and activists and artists in the community.

I arrived in 1980 with my interests in and commitment to creativity and social change, and was attracted to the relatively young organization's strong reputation in social-documentary production and community-activist focus. Just like Wing Luke Museum's Ron Chew, I described my professional training and background as being in journalism and community organizing.

From its beginnings, Intermedia Arts served as the convener of communitywide dialogue, a dialogue both about culture and about issues of pressing concern to people in the community. Its 1970s origins as an activist video center saw its members or participants learning to take out a camera to express their views on a social/political condition or injustice, and, in doing so, to spark civic dialogue and social change. Through its 30 years and the many changes at Intermedia Arts during my tenure, the organization remained committed to participatory cultural practices and to dialogue driven by creative self-expression.

Intermedia Arts' mission, rearticulated in 1993, is "to serve as a catalyst that builds understanding among people through art." Squarely focused on an activist social agenda with art as the vehicle, the mission is true to its origins in the community video movement.

Expanding the Seats and the Table

The practice of engaging a large number of "guest" or "adjunct" curators grew out of the organization's desire in the 1980s to expand its discipline base from that of a media-arts organization to that of a multidisciplinary arts center.

To mark the transition from University Community Video to Intermedia Arts in 1986, it took on four discipline-specific curators on a contractual basis, each charged with devising a season and writing NEA and other grants in their respective areas of media, visual art, new music and performance art. This construct served the organization well for half a dozen years as it achieved credibility in different artistic disciplines among artists, audiences and funders, and as it developed internal capacity for presenting and exhibiting various art forms.

By the early 1990s, Intermedia Arts grew more complex. It encompassed a wider range of programs, especially in youth, education and artist services, and at the same time was focusing efforts on building relationships with more diverse audiences. From successes and failures with many community groups and artists I learned that more meaningful connections with specific audiences came from meaningful connections with artists who were members of – and leaders within – the different communities. New works of art created around themes or issues of concern to specific communities, and involving people within those communities, built even deeper relationships.

Much like the Center for Cultural Exchange, Intermedia also concluded that culturally appropriate formats and styles of presentation were required for the experience to be as true and meaningful as possible and for members of the respective communities to be comfortable participating. To put an Aztec Danza group on a formal stage might be more comfortable for middle- and upper-class white audiences, and it could be a way to sell tickets. However, its out of the context of community life and it would not represent the role these artist-activists play in their own community's cultural setting.

A successful 1992 series produced with the Native Arts Circle in a leased downtown loft space taught me valuable lessons. A packed house for the presentation of three traditional and contemporary American Indian musical performers included a vibrant mix of Natives, whites and blacks. An important discussion followed the event when some Intermedia Arts staff complained about the noisy kids who came and went, whispered and giggled throughout the performances. Partners helped us understand that kids are welcomed at cultural events in the Native community and their behavior is part of the experience. White audiences, intolerant of children's behavior, generally exclude them from many cultural events and then wonder why new generations won't adopt their traditions. This opened my eyes on a number of levels, not the least of which is that welcoming kids, and their less than subtle behaviors, is a good thing. Uptight white audiences will just have to deal with it.

A Catalyst for and a Critic of Change

In 1994, Intermedia Arts moved from the leased downtown loft space and the converted church that served as its headquarters since 1978, a building adjacent to the University of Minnesota campus, and provided at no cost by the university. It purchased and relocated to a converted auto-repair shop in a dynamic, culturally and economically diverse south Minneapolis neighborhood, an area known for decades as a stronghold of artists and social-change activists.

A successful $1.5-million fundraising campaign gave the organization a well-designed, 10,000-square-foot, flexible arts and community center. It includes galleries, a social space with a kitchen, 125-seat theater, office, classroom, working spaces and a semi-boxed-in outdoor area behind the building for parking and events.

Lyndale Avenue, on which Intermedia purchased the building, now looks like a page out of Richard Florida's "Rise of the Creative Class." During the decade since the purchase, the street evolved into a two-mile bohemian strip. It's anchored at one end by the Walker Art Center/Guthrie Theater complex, and moves south into commercial and residential neighborhoods.

When Intermedia Arts relocated there, it was a mixed area of light industry, retail and residential. One could count a couple dozen auto-related repair and supply businesses, electrical, plumbing and roofing contractors and woodworking shops. Less than 10 years later, all are gone save two auto-repair shops. One vacant store front has converted twice, first to a cyber café and then to a tapas and wine bar.

The two-mile strip now includes a dozen espresso cafés, over a dozen ethnic restaurants, three or four yoga/martial-arts studios, a huge upscale food co-op, a dozen new- and used-clothing stores, a dozen hair salons and the usual assortment of pet, tea, bicycle, art framing, photo-copy, graphic design, vitamin and hydroponic gardening shops. Besides Intermedia Arts, the two-mile stretch is now home to half a dozen other nonprofit arts organizations. Less than a block either side of Lyndale Avenue are 20 more arts groups, largely housed in a seven-story converted office building owned by the nonprofit developer Artspace Projects, and more bars, cafes, restaurants and shops. Upscale housing developments are now rising on blocks previously occupied by parking lots and industrial supply yards.

The eagerly awaited 2000 census confirmed that the population on the east side of Lyndale Avenue had increased dramatically in diversity (comprising no majority group), and at the same time an upper-income, 90+ percent white majority remained virtually unchanged on the west side of the street. Housing values had risen for several straight years at a rate faster than any other neighborhood in the City.

These rapidly changing neighborhoods, and the myriad gentrification issues arising through that process, became one of the focal points for Intermedia Arts programming and topics for sometimes heated civic dialogue.

A multiyear program supported by numerous local and national foundations put artists to work as catalysts to build relationships between youth, seniors, growing Latino, African and Asian immigrant communities, and urban planning and development entities. Supplemented by an Animating Democracy Initiative grant through Americans for the Arts, Intermedia Arts tackled issues of gentrification and displacement through art projects that asked the diverse residents the question: What makes you feel safe in your community?

Possibly the largest continuous audience attraction at Intermedia Arts – and certainly the biggest publicity attraction – are the 320-feet of exterior walls designated for graffiti artists. A 24-hour stream of mostly young people could be observed perusing the walls that faced the parking and back lots. These exterior gallery visitors brought and used cameras, sketch pads, markers or spray cans to document or explore their own aesthetics, or to leave behind their signature. The front and visible end of the building facing Lyndale Avenue included three discreet surfaces on which spray can murals were commissioned and rotated annually. Walls on the side and rear were a bit more free-form, some rotating twice annually, some repainted almost daily.

Early to embrace all the elements of the Hip Hop culture, Intermedia Arts endured years of criticism from police, a few pro-gentrification public officials and a handful of neighborhood real-estate speculators – ironically the very people benefiting from Intermedia Arts' presence. The problematic work with the graffiti walls may have been Intermedia Arts' most risky but ultimately successful foray into the complex practice of cultural democracy and arts-based civic dialogue.

My publicly defended stance in support of sanctioned areas for this aerosol art form cost me a mayoral appointment to the City Arts Commission in 2000. After a four-year battle over graffiti played out in the media had all but faded, the pro-gentrification city councilmember, who happened to represent Intermedia Arts' district, renewed her attacks on my support of Hip Hop art. The mayor was forced to withdraw my appointment for fear of being cast as soft on graffiti taggers as an election year approached.

Weaving Diverse Strands

"Culture," writes Roadside Theater director Dudley Cocke (in Vega and Greene's "Appalachia, Democracy and Cultural Equity"), "carries a peoples' profound expression of their self-hood. Only when people can meet as equals, without the threat of domination, can they risk their art and culture. Cultural equity, then, is integral to democracy and the making of an American people from our many diverse strands."

In order to have at the table more and more of the many voices in the community, Intermedia Arts experimented with an expanded rotating slate of "curators." For instance, bringing the Native American community to the table required partnerships with Native cultural and community groups, with Native artists, and with a Native "curator." Creating a GLBT film festival required engaging a queer-identified filmmaker who had a demonstrated passion for bringing new queer-made media to queer and non-queer audiences alike. Intermedia Arts' origins in the media arts, and the vision of the artist as a community leader or "animator," made this approach second nature.

While Intermedia Arts regularly worked with specific ethnic communities in assembling arts presentations or programs, the mix was typically more complex. Being a multidisciplinary center as well as a multicultural one, required curatorial constructs that could engage artists in one or more medium around a theme, or that could bring a group of social-issue-based organizations together with artists making new work addressing the topic. It was still important to maintain relationships through programming and through artists with specific communities, yet it was the recombinant or new creative activity that was most in keeping with Intermedia Arts mission, and what I found most satisfying in the work

Different from the Center for Cultural Exchange, Intermedia Arts focuses primarily on local artists, and on the creation of new work, with presentation a necessary part of the process but not an end. Intermedia Arts is often a beginning point, or a stop along the way, for artists developing or testing new work. Bau Graves' ethnomusicology orientation attracts him to recreating authentic experiences that ground citizens in their cultural identity and be shared with others. My satisfaction came more in fostering new cross-cultural artist and community relationships that result in new creative work and new common ground on which people can act together in both a social and a civic context.

Keeping a trim core staff while finding the right expertise and community connections to pull off its wide-ranging mandate was best addressed by building on the eclectic range – and sometimes significant number – of independent contractors to take the helm of projects. And, sometimes they used formal or informal committees to guide a project.

One recurring guest curator proposed a series of activities around gender in 1997 named "The Genders That Be." Her process was one that set a standard and was emulated for years to come. Identifying as a butch lesbian herself, she was well connected in the GLBT community. The advisory group she assembled took on the assignment with vigor. A remarkably diverse group of community activists and transgendered committee participants took on many roles that included shaping the series' concept, building connections with various subculture and "mainstream" organizations, making arrangements for speakers, bringing food to receptions and contributing materials for the resource room built into the gallery. One group member was a cross-dressing Sears salesman from the suburbs, who dutifully showed up for meetings and later brought his wife to programs.

The ambitious seven-week series included a photography exhibition, paintings by local artists, a film series, several local performance artists, a well-known performer from the West Coast and a series of panel discussions. It relied on a strong coalition of community organizations and volunteers to raise money and pull together the programs. Audiences were strong and consistent, press coverage was extensive and surprisingly positive. The St. Paul daily newspaper, in addition to a feature story, devoted considerable space to a listing of educational resources, Web sites, books and service organizations for those wanting to know more or needing assistance.

The fact that an established arts center would fully embrace and celebrate the creativity of a culture often discriminated against, or at best shoved aside, built relationships that will last a long time. The sensitive and respectful process used by the guest curator was an inspirational model.

Building on the Network of "Curators"

The Genders That Be curator was one of the many Intermedia Arts relied upon to build relationships and bring specific technical or aesthetic experience to the table. These are individuals Malcolm Gladwell, in "The Tipping Point," would call "connectors."

Bau Graves, in his "Cultural Democracy" manuscript, writes, "Culture advances because of the dedication of the handful of individuals who care enough to make it happen. They know lots of people… (and) organizing their fellows is built into their nature. Every community has a core group of participators whose level of dedication is extremely high. They are the motivators who sustain community over the long haul."

Developing this network of curators was also a way to broaden and deepen the capacity of the community – the various communities – over the long term to develop and implement cultural programs, democratizing the role of programmer, much like the work of the Center for Cultural Exchange.

As an audience-development strategy, connectors and people Gladwell calls "mavens," bring people to cultural experiences they might not otherwise venture to. Mavens are trend-setters, people with wide social circles who are relied upon for advice and recommendations pertaining to restaurants, films, museums or other cultural activities.

Intermedia Arts' programming-development and management strategy was based on building a wide network of these connectors and mavens, essentially having them on contract to pull together events and programs that they have a passionate interest in and to invite their social circles to partake.

Each of these independent contractors brought their expertise in art and cultural forms and connections within their communities, and they generally had an agenda of creating change, making an impact in their own or the broader community. They came to Intermedia Arts with project proposals of their invention, or they were contacted and recruited to carry out projects developed by staff or advisory committees.

As this approach began to evolve, I found it necessary to get this group of people together and organized an annual day-long meeting of the entire slate of adjunct curators with key staff. In the early 1990s this included about a dozen people, mostly artists with large and small, ongoing and intermittent "curator" contracts. The meeting was called the "programming summit" and had several purposes. On the practical level, it was a way of roughing out an annual schedule across all programs and disciplines. It was also intended to help find and forge synergies and internal partnerships. The gathering presented opportunities for new ideas to bubble up, and served as the beginning of curatorial-skill development or capacity building for this growing roster of adjunct curators.

In the mid-'90s, as the new building was completed, program planning was gearing up. Fueled by a multiyear Wallace Readers' Digest Fund grant, I invited a broader group to the table, under the name "Food & Dreams." Its participants were treated to a buffet meal before open-ended "what would you like to see" conversations. Its members included neighborhood and social-issue activists, partner organizations, artists and adjunct curators, all with an eye toward diverse cultural inclusion. I had learned much earlier that honoring people's presence and ideas by providing food was essential, as well as another opportunity, through an eclectic menu, to share in a cultural experience.

In an approach slightly different from the Center for Cultural Exchange, Intermedia Arts was more issue-focused in consulting its community, asking questions about social issues and concerns – and looking for metaphors that could be transformed into multidisciplinary art series.

One series resulting from those conversations inspired by a similar program coordinated in Chicago by an artist there, came to be known alternately as "Red and Black" and "Fry Bread and Chitlins." It was conceived as a prolonged program to explore the dynamic 500-year relationship between Native Americans and African Americans, and their many cultural connections. (It's estimated that at least 80 percent of African Americans whose ancestors were brought to America as slaves have some Native American heritage, in spite of the fact that 400 years of documented public policy to prevent alliances between the two peoples.)

A series of educational and "bonding" partnership meetings continued over nearly a three-year period, before and during two seasons of public programs that were presented. Most events included food and ritual, a cultural sharing, extended to all comers. Work was shared in visual art, dance, music and spoken word. A number of cross-cultural artist projects resulted from relationships formed by the process.

The Food & Dreams planning group was put on hold after three years primarily because it was generating too many good ideas, and the organization's staff and programming capacity was being overtaxed.

Making Sense of Complexity

By 2002, I counted 39 independent contractors in various capacities on Intermedia Arts' roster. They were most often artists, sometimes teachers, parents, community organizers or all of the above. They were not employees expected to adapt to and work within an institutional culture. They had various communication styles and ways of relating to their tasks, including deadlines.

An adjunct curator, for example, would be engaged to coordinate a presentation of work by students from three nearby elementary schools, all of which had worked with Intermedia Arts to host artist residencies in various media and various grade levels. The curator had to interface on the one end with teachers, school administration, parents and kids. On the other she had to work with Intermedia Arts staff to design the format of the exhibition, schedule musical and spoken-word events in the theater, and plan a parent/teacher/community reception. In addition to the education staff, this included working with personnel in marketing, production, exhibition and sometimes development.

At the same time, the number of organizations with which Intermedia Arts partnered – and planned to partner on one of many programs and events – during an 18-month planning widow, was nearly double the number of curators -- over 60. Partners included social-service, environmental, advocacy, education or other arts organizations. Sometimes their staffs also served as the adjunct curator on a project. This was a way to begin to expand the thinking and capacity within those groups to work with the arts as a vehicle to advance a social agenda, and it was a way to secure a resource commitment from the partner group.

Education, artist support and community programs were sometimes interwoven. Events might include an exhibition, a series of adult or youth workshops, public performances (indoor or out), receptions or parties. Each of these contractors would be required to work with half a dozen Intermedia Arts staff in producing, in the aggregate, a constant stream of programs, often seven days a week. In fact, with meetings of teachers or other community leaders beginning at 7 a.m., and performances or rehearsals sometimes going past midnight, the building was abuzz 18 or more hours a day.

The organization struggled with making sense of the way it administratively structured its programs, as definitions were a moving target. Clusters labeled Presenting, Education or Artist Support were often arbitrary (yet necessary for budgeting, staff responsibility, grantwriting, promotion, etc.). Most of the so-called education and artist-support programs had presentational aspects, which sometimes comprised their primary identity; the presenting programs had elements stressing education and artist/community partnerships, which sometimes required the lion's share of resources or time. Lines were pretty soft between program categories.

As a community arts center and incubator of new work, Intermedia Arts chose not to construct a "mainstage" series or season so as not to privilege some work over others, indicating it was of higher caliber or somehow superior. This is an important value in cultural democracy, yet antithetical to the notion that cultural institutions are arbiters of quality. Mixing work by students with that of emerging artists, with commissioned or relatively high-budget work by accomplished artists, with work by members of cultural groups who don't typically put their creative work in a space defined for art was, to say the least, messy. Or was it a picture of cultural democracy in action?

As we evolved into this way of working during more than a decade, structures and systems emerged to prepare the guest curators and the staff for what to expect. Contracts were signed with specific deliverables and schedules. So-called "pre-production" and "production" meetings were held with each contractor and key staff members around each presentation or event.

However, with so many cooks in the kitchen, so many different recipes in the works, and such a relentless pace of activity, chaos was constantly poised to break out.

While trying to achieve some level of consistency in what audiences encountered, a careful dance was always performed to keep staff from telling curators and partners, "This is how we do things here," instead leaning towards "How would you like to do this?" The important challenge was to allow each program or event to find its own voice relative to the culture from which it was emanating.

Taking All Creative Expression Seriously

An enormous creative explosion was underway at Intermedia Arts in spaces defined as galleries and a theater, not to mention the outside walls or spaces around the building. Staff, board, neighbors, funders and peers who were traditionally trained in the arts didn't always consider all of it appropriate. It was difficult for the public – and sometimes even staff – to appreciate.

Attempts to "administer" cultural democracy had no end of frustrations and challenges. The crush of time, money and the demands of connecting with audiences and funders was ever present. Confronting marketing experts or funders who expected a singular curatorial voice or "brand identity" from the organization was rarely satisfying. They couldn't get their hands around the eclectic mix, or what they sometimes perceived as "lack of leadership."

Orienting staff members to see their roles as both teachers and learners was also a challenge. A theater production manager wanting his work to reflect professionalism and high standards felt thwarted by artists and curators whose experience varied widely, but who also had different values and concerns about how work was presented. And, yes, cultural philosophies aside, there were adjunct curators who simply lacked presentational skills or any concern for presentational style, leaving some audiences confused or unsatisfied. Finding the time and temperament for this internal dialogue and learning process was challenging, but was very much the next level to be addressed in building more capacity among the growing ranks of participants and leaders in advancing cultural democracy.

Understanding an arts center that is a place to help artists develop skills and create work is commonplace. Smaller arts organizations are pigeon-holed to serve artists or find their niche in presenting high-quality work in a limited cultural framework in dance, visual art, music, performance art or media. Community arts organizations are pigeon-holed as places to train kids and adult amateurs, and where resulting work is not taken seriously. Beginning to comprehend a professional arts organization's role as that of a cultural incubator, a place for all the community's voices and a training ground for all levels of cultural workers is very hard for most people in the arts.

As an unusual hybrid, fostering the diverse forms and styles of voices found in its urban neighborhood, Intermedia Arts was foremost trying to nurture a healthy, creative, and interactive community by taking everyone's creative expression seriously and by engaging in community concerns as an active institutional citizen.

Tom Borrup is a community activist, writer and consultant based in Minneapolis. He was executive director of Intermedia Arts from 1980 to 2003, and now works as a consultant to arts organizations, foundations and public agencies in several cities around the U.S.

Original CAN/API publication: September 2003

above copied from:

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Collaboration - 7 notes on new ways of learning and working together, Florian Schneider

If one principle could be seen to inform the opaque surface of what in the 1990s was called a "new economy" -- the shifts and changes, the dynamics and blockades, the emergencies and habit formations taking place within the realm of immaterial production -- it would certainly be: "Work together".

Facing the challenges of digital technologies, global communications, and networking environments, as well as the inherant ignorance of traditional systems towards these, 'working together' has emerged as an unsystematic mode of collective learning processes.

Slowly and almost unnoticeably, a new word came into vogue. At first sight it might seem the least significant common denominator for describing new modes of working together, yet "collaboration" has become one of the leading terms of an emergent contemporary political sensibility.

Often collapsed into the most utilitarian understanding, 'collaboration' is far more than acting together, as it extends towards a network of interconnected approaches and efforts. Literally meaning working together with others, especially in an intellectual endeavor, the term is nowadays widely used to describe new forms of labour relations within the realm of immaterial production in various fields; yet despite its significant presence there is very little research and theoretical reflection on it. This might be due to a wide range of partly contradictory factors that are interestingly intertwined.

As a pejorative term, collaboration stands for willingly assisting an enemy of one's country, especially an occupying force or malevolent power. It means working together with an agency with which one is not immediately connected. Most prominently, "collaboration" became the slogan of the French Vichy regime after the meeting of Hitler and Marshall Petain in Lontoire-sur-le-Loir in October 1940. In a radio speech Petain officially enlisted the French population to "collaborate" with the German occupiers, while the French resistance movement later branded those who cooperated with the German forces as "collaborators".

Despite these negative origins, the term collaboration is mostly used today as a synonym for cooperation. Dictionary definitions and vernacular uses are generally more or less equivalent; but etymologically, historically and politically it seems to make more sense to elaborate on the actual differences between various coexisting layers of meaning.

Is it in principle, possible to make a relevant distinction between cooperation and collaboration and to what end? If so, what characterizes the constellations, social assemblages and relationships in which people collaborate? And last but not least: Does this have any impact for the current debate on education?

What follows are seven notes and propositions in which I try do adress these questions in a very preliminary, eclectic and sketchy way.


In pedagogical discourse, both cooperation and collaboration are relatively new terms. They emerged in the 1970s in the context of "joint learning activities" and "project-based learning", which were supposed to break with an authoritarian teacher-centred style of guiding the thinking of the student.

What might be defined as "educational teamwork" corresponds to an idea promoted at the same time by management theory; that is, in a teamwork environment, people are supposed to understand and believe that thinking, planning, decisions and actions are better when done in cooperation.

At the beginning of the last century and well ahead of his time, Andrew Carnegie, steel-tycoon and founder of Carnegie Technical Schools, said: "Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision, the ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results."

To this day, this famous quote has probably featured prominently in a myriad powerpoint presentations by human resource managers across the globe, but its central argument only became a reality in the early 1980s, when the crisis in the car manufacturing industries triggered the first large scale proliferation of the concept of teamwork in the realm of industrial production.

Factories that had hitherto been characterized by a highly specialized division of labour usually coupled with a strong self-organization of the workers in labour unions were turned upside down: teamwork started being considered as a prerequisite for breaking the power of the unions, dropping labour costs and moving towards so-called 'lean' production, which was seen at the time as a response to global competition and the success of Japanese exports to the US and Europe in particular.

In late industrial capitalism the notion of teamwork represented the subjugation of workers' subjectivity to an omnipresent and individualized control regime. The concept of group replaced the classical one of "foremanship" as the disciplining force. Rather than through repression, cost efficiency was increased by means of peer-pressure and the collective identification of relatively small groups of multi-skilled co-workers.

The model of teamwork soon spread across different industries and branches, yet without any great success. Meanwhile, various research studies showed that teams often make the wrong decisions, especially when the task involves solving rather complex problems. Teamwork frequently fails for the simple fact that internalized modes of cooperation are characterized by "hoarding" or stockpiling, quite the opposite of knowledge sharing: in the pursuit of a career, relevant information must be hidden from others. Joining forces in a group or team also increases the likelihood of failure rather than success; awkward group dynamics, unforeseeable external pressures and bad management practices are responsible for the rest.

This overall failure is even more staggering if we consider that rapid technological development and the availability of global intellectual resources were supposed to have increased the pressure on individuals to exchange knowledge within and between groups. Yet as knowledge became the main productive force, neither the free wheeling and well-meaning strategies of anti-authoritarianism nor the brutal force of coercing cooperation seemed capable of establishing any new dimensions of the dynamics of 'working together'.


Increasing evidence shows that 'working together' actually occurs in rather unpredictable and unexpected ways. Rather than through the exertion of the alleged generosity of a group made up of individuals in the pursuit of solidarity, it often works as a brusque and even ungenerous practice, where individuals rely on one another the more they chase their own interests, their mutual dependence arising through the pursuit of their own agendas. Exchange then becomes an effect of necessity rather than one of mutuality, identification or desire.

This entails an initial level of differentiation between cooperation and collaboration: in contrast to cooperation, collaboration is driven by complex realities rather than romantic notions of common grounds or commonality. It is an ambivalent process constituted by a set of paradoxical relationships between co-producers who affect one another.

In "Le Maître ignorant", published in 1983, Jacques Rancière indicates that ignorance is the first virtue of the master or teacher. He gives the example of Joseph Jacotot, an exiled French revolutionary, professor of French literature at the University of Louvain in Belgium from 1815. Jacotot taught French to his Dutch-speaking students in the absence of a shared language, through what appears to be an entirely collaborative method: without setting up a common agenda, identifying a common ground or communicating through a shared set of tools, he "placed himself in his students' hands and told them, through an interpreter, to read half of the book with the aid of the translation, to repeat constantly what they had learned, to quickly read the other half and then to write in French what they thought about it." This "teaching without transmitting knowledge", as Rancière defines it, seemed to be incredibly successful, because it granted a level of autonomy to the students who acquired their own knowledge as they deemed useful and independently from their teacher.

Rancière's example is particularly enlightening in the context of collaboration and its relation to notions of hierarchy which so much of collaborative disoiurse deems to have vanquished. It exposes the hypocrisy of the supposed anti-authoritarianism that essentially underlies many notions of cooperation. This misconception might be seen as the practice of liberally weakening the position of power, yet ignoring the inherent paradox of doing so, so that in an infinite line of regression power reappears even stronger than before. The more it tries to explain, mediate, communicate or teach, the more it reaffirms the distance, inequality and dependency of those who lack knowledge on those who seem to possess it. The same applies to cooperation and teamwork: a presumption of equality actually extends both discrimination and exploitation while seemingly providing continuous evidence in support of such an illusion, as if there were no radically different modes of working together.


The work of Jacotot's students can be seen as a form of collaboration with their teacher that flattens the hierarchies and does away with the teacher-student relationship altogether, without romanticising it. Through collaboration hierarchies are neither criticised nor morally disapproved of and hypocritically discarded. This way of working together is capable of ignoring the ignorance of the ignorant and of pauperizing the poverty of the pauper precisely because collaborators are neither questioning obvious authority nor pretending to be equal. Instead they have worked out a system not of exchange but of flow in which these positions are avoided altogether.

Collaborations are the black holes of knowledge regimes. They willingly produce nothingness, opulence and ill-behaviour. And it is their very vacuity which is their strength. Unlike cooperation, collaboration does not take place for sentimental reasons, for philanthropical impulses or for the sake of efficiency; it arises out of pure self interest. Collaborations could reveal the amazing potential whereby an ignorant, poor or otherwise property-less person can enable another ignorant, poor or otherwise property-less person to know what he or she did not know and to access what he or she did not access. It does not entail the transmission of something from those who have to those who do not , but rather the setting in motion of a chain of unforseen accesses.

Shifting the focus away from its components and outcomes, collaboration is a performative and transformative process: the sudden need to cross the familiar boundaries of one's own experiences, skills and intellectual resources to enter nameless and foreign territories where abilities that had been considered "individual" marvellously merge with those of others. In this sequence, outcomes and processes follow an inverse relation as do the relations of power. For what comes about is not the 'granting' of access but a recognition across the board of those involved in the process, that it is the unexpected multiplicity and uncertain location of the points of access that is at stake in the exchange.


Translating the concept of collaboration back to the context of education also points to a reverse-engineering of the teacher's role. Etymologically, in Greek and Latin "pedagogue" or "educator" means "drawing out" or "pulling out" and refers to an ancient Greek practice: a family slave called "pedagogue" used to walk the child from the private house to a place of learning. Rather than the teacher, who was supposed to have and transmit knowledge, the pedagogue was the person who accompanied the student to the place where the teacher imparted it.

This rather spatial notion of bringing somebody across a specific border evokes striking associations with human trafficking. The escape agent or "coyote" - as it is named at the US-Mexican border - supports undocumented border crossers who want to make it from one nation state to another without the demanded paperwork. Permanently on the move, only temporarily employed, nameless, anonymous and constantly changing faces and sides, the coyote is, in an ironic way, the perfect role-model for both education and collaboration. As a metaphor it serves the purpose of destabalising the idea of 'knowledge in movement' away from its always assumed progressive direction. Instead it allows for a certain degree of illegitimacy inherent in all forms of collaboration and distinguishes it from the always perfectly sanctioned and legitimate nature of cooperation. By extracting a principle of mobility and perceiving the lack of legitimacy as enabling as opposed to criminally inhuman and disabling, the 'coyote' who may or may not be motivated by self gain without ideological committment, produces a possibility whose parameters cannot be gaged.

The "coyote's" motivations remain unclear or, shall we say, do not matter at all. The "coyote" is the postmodern service provider par excellence. The fact that there is no trust whatsoever between those engaging in the transcation, does not actually play any part in the unfolding of its play. Here , we might say, conceptual insecurity overrides the financial aspects of the collaboration and triggers a redundancy of affects and perceptions, feelings and reactions. Those who do not need the coyote's support hunt and demonize it; those who rely on the coyote's secret knowledge and skills appreciate it all the more. The extreme polarities of these responses instantiate the range of the collaborative field and the impossibility of navigating it through moralising vectors.

Ultimately, collaboration with a coyote generates pure potential: ranging from the dream of a better life to the reality of pure living labour power ready to be over-exploited in the informal labour market. If it wasn't for its totally deregulated character, this practice would bear similar results to that of traditional educational systems; we might say that in this exchange nothing can be claimed for material existence, let alone possession, but neverthelss something very precious and entirely precarious comes into being; pure imagination, yet potentially powerful beyond measure.


Against the background of postmodern control society, collaboration is about secretly exchanging knowledge independently of borders. It stands for the attempt to regain autonomy and get hold of immaterial resources in a knowledge-driven economy. It no longer matters who has knowledge and who owns the resources; what matters is access: not a generously granted accessibility but a direct, immediate and instant access, often gained illegally or illegitimately.

While cooperation involves identifiable individuals within and between organizations, collaboration expresses a differentiated relationship made up of heterogeneous elements that are defined as singularities. As such they are not identifiable or subject to easy categories of identity, but defined out of an emergent relation between themselves. As such collaboration is extra-ordinary in so far as it produces a discontinuity and marks a point of unpredictability, however deterministic. Its unpredicatbility takes the form of not being able to entirely categorise the components of the collaborative process, even when its general aim or drive may be steering it in a particular direction.

Rationality has here been replaced by a kind of relationality that constantly decomposes and recomposes information in order to make temporary use of unexpected dynamics and contingencies: from stock market speculation to the development of network protocols, from the production of new forms of aesthetics in art and culture to a generation of political activism with global aspirations.

People meet and work together under circumstances where their efficiency, performance and labour power cannot be singled out and individually measured; everyone's work points to someone else's. Making and maintaining connections seems more important than trying to capture and store ideas. One's own production is very peculiar yet it is generated and often multiplied in networks composed of countless distinct dependencies and constituted by the power to affect and be affected. At no point in the process can this be arrested and ascertained, for it gains its power by not having explicit points of entry or exit as a normative work scenario might.

This excess is essentially beyond measure; collaboration relates to the mathematical definition of singularity as the point where a function goes to infinity or is somehow ill-behaved. The concept of singularity distinguishes collaboration from cooperation and refers to an emerging notion of precariousness, a systemic instability. this in turn can be seen as the crisis associated with the shift and transition from cooperation to collaboration in modes of working together.

The nets of voluntariness, enthusiasm, creativity, immense pressure, ever increasing self-doubt and desperation are temporary and fluid; they take on multiple forms but always refer to a permanent state of insecurity and precariousness, the blue print for widespread forms of occupation and employment within society. They reveal the other side of immaterial labour, hidden in the rhetoric of 'working together'.


Today it is tremendously urgent to learn how to deal with such excess. This is not simply the realm of an exclusive minority of geeks, nerds, drop-outs and neurotic freelancers; it invests a rapidly growing global immaterial labour force that is confronted with the prospect of life-long learning witout the complimentary prospect of there ever having a teacher or a schoolbook in store, because knowledge emerges as useless as soon as it can be commodified and reproduced as such.

The crucial question is how a form of education to collaboration is possible that is not reduced ad absurdum to become the application of truism after truism. Certainly this would not mean the staging of a collaborative process within the classroom or other spaces of learning. This debate can take place at a meta-level or around the issue of "un-organizing" oneself in order to be aware and ready for the future challenges of collaborative working environments. It can takle place in the fragementation of the components of bodies of knowledge and their re-alignemnt with one another according to other principles. Or it can take place in the removing of pre-determined directions around the flows of knowledge.

Cooperation necessarily takes place in client-server architectures. It follows a metaphorical narrative structure, where the coherent assignment of each part and its relation to the others gets reproduced over and over again. The current educational system mirrors this structure and is therefore essentially incapable of responding to contemporary challenges, let alone future ones. Even worse, the more the system attempts to re-modernize itself, the more it sinks in the swamp of commodification, homogenization and hierarchization. Obviously the problem lies with the educational system's understanding of what contemporary imperatives are and its insistance that these must have an 'applicable' function. If a model of collaboration were to be applied to educational cultures , then it would have to accept an inabilty to predetermine outcomes even while sharing a set of aspirations or directives or being anchored in a set of recognised probelamtics.


Collaboration entails rhizomatic structures where knowledge grows exuberantly and proliferates in unforeseeable ways. In contrast to cooperation, which always implies an organic model and a transcendent function, collaboration is a strictly immanent and wild praxis. Every collaborative activity begins and ends within the framework of the collaboration. It has no external goal and cannot be decreed; it is strict intransitivity, it takes place, so to speak, for its own sake.

Collaborations are voracious. Once they are set into motion they can rapidly beset and affect entire modes of production. "Free" or "open source" software development is probably the most prominent example for the transformative power of collaboration to "un-define" the relationships between authors and producers on one side and users and consumers on the other side. It imposes a paradigm that treats every user as a potential collaborator who could effectively join the development of the code regardless of their actual interests and capacities. Participation becomes virtual: It is enough that one could contribute a patch or file an issue, one does not necessarily have to do it in order to enjoy the dynamics, the efficacy and the essential openess of a collaboration.

In the last instance, the democratic or egalitarian ambition has migrated into the realm of virtuality: Open source developer groups usually do not follow the patterns and rules of representative democracy, the radical notion of equality reveals in the general condition that everyone has instant and unrestricted access to the entire set of resources that form a development. The result is as simple as it is convincing: Those who disagree may "fork" and start their own development branch without loosing access to the means of production.

On the internet, distributed non-hierarchical information architectures are characterized as "peer-to-peer" (P2P) networks. They emerged in the 1990s and triggered a revolution of the conventional distribution model. These networks were first designed to exchange immaterial resources such as computing time or bandwidth, mainly in scientific academic contexts. Their aim was to overcome technological limits, incapacities and shortages by combining the existing free resources.

Since the late 1990s the same network architecture has been used to exchange relevant content: music and movies were distributed amongst ordinary personal computers that worked as both downstream and upstream nodes in mushrooming networks.

The enormous success of these projects, from "Napster" to "BitTorrent" - currently estimated to account for nearly half of the total of internet traffic - enabled people who do not know each other and probably prefer to not know each other to actually "share" their hard drives. In fact, their anonymous relationships are based on the irony of sharing, even in a strictly mathematical sense: due to lossless and cost free digital copying the object of desire is indeed multiplied rather than divided.

In the last instance collaborations are driven by the desire to create difference and refuse the absolutistic power of organization. Collaboration entails overcoming scarcity and inequality and struggling for the freedom to produce. It carries an immense social potential, as it is a form of realisation and experience of the unlimited creativity of a multiplicity of all productive practices.

The possibility of relating these notions of collaboration to contemporary education and pedagogy, have less to do with emulating their operating modes and more to do with their ability to inspire a realignment of the relations in the field. Not limited to the seeming good intentions and democratising impulses of the 'working together' dimension of collaboration,in education this might mean rethinking both the direction and flow of its activities. For example the shifting of the focus of attention away from the exclusive direction of instructor to instructed, or shifting the directions of the exchanges that take place towards a circulation that values everything that is already within it. It might also mean thinking education's outcomes away from previously established criteria and towards the ability to constantly affect and restructure its own field.

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