Kathy Rae Huffman is the director of Hull Time Based Arts. Julie Lazar was a founding curator of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and now works independently. The conversation was prompted and transcribed by Sarah Cook, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, 30 November, 2000.
Part One: The Problem with Museums Today.
We began by discussing the shifts in curatorial practice brought about by the advent of new media art, and that both Kathy and Julie had begun their careers in institutions and then had moved to do work independently (Kathy in 1991, Julie in 2000).
Kathy Rae Huffman: It must be really frightening to you if you think you know your work and you know your job and someone says to you, 'you've got to find out about THAT.'
Julie Lazar: In 1997, I was instructed by the museum's director to conduct research for a year to ascertain how The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles should approach new media art regarding its programs, collections, staff, buildings, audiences and so forth. That's all of the guidance or direction that was provided. I was to deliver a white paper to the Trustees and the staff on the subject. On the one hand, it was an exciting assignment, and on the other, a very daunting one. Keep in mind that the curatorial department only acquired word processors to do their normal work approximately four years ago, and the full staff went on-line about two years ago (with the exception of a few people: two of us in the department of experimental programs, the publications editor and a couple of people in the fund raising department, as I recall).
Sarah Cook: I worked at the Walker Art Center in the visual arts department but was really interested to see what was happening upstairs in New Media Initiatives and I would run up and down the stairs telling each department what the other was doing. There was no infrastructure to create that kind of position permanently though.
JL: Unfortunately, most museums in the US have hierarchically differentiated departments whose staff members don't regularly communicate early enough in the planning stages of their operations (capital improvement initiatives, for example, exhibitions and education programs, or collection, marketing, fund raising, and administrative management). As a result, in-depth conversations about artistic or other developments that impact the entire organization - like those in new technology - are rarely debated or considered in an intra-departmental, interdisciplinary way. New technology and media art impact each of these functions within a museum. In US museums, you will usually find one maverick whose interests have led him or her to, in essence, appoint themselves as advocates for, or curators of new media art. Steve Dietz, at the Walker Art Center, and Jon Ippolito at the Guggenheim Museum are two examples of people charting this territory within larger museums. A few contemporary museum directors have taken up the charge as well. Small artist-run spaces are another matter. Even with very few financial resources, they lead the way because of their direct, supportive relationships with young and developing artists.
KRH: It's very interesting to me that the whole thing - if we're talking about new media art being art on the Internet, and multimedia - it happened despite the fact that museums and galleries couldn't get it. One of the reasons that it was so exciting was that it happened at all. Artists took it into their own hands, they just did it and they created their own spaces, their own structures. They built up the centres - it happened - outside the system in Europe, at first. And, despite it seeming logical, it didn't necessarily come out of a media tradition. It's not necessarily people who worked with video. Some net_artists were in the music scene. Some of them were in publishing. Some of them in performance. But very few in video. In fact I think video artists have been most resistant to working with new media. In part because they lose control. They spent so many years taking control and making their medium do exactly what they wanted, and coming to terms with how to edit so the medium did exactly what they wanted. When you put your work on the Internet, like TV, you lose control.
JL: Advancements in this field are very speedy. Curators have to assume a very brisk pace in order to stay in tune with what new media artists are doing. The time required to become familiar with individual art works, and the large number of artists in the field pressurizes the situation by sheer volume.
When curators who exhibit new media art have no formal art historical background, or at least experience with, other media like photography, film, video, radio, sound, graphic design, or performance, etc., connections to the progressions of artists' ideas risk getting overlooked or lost. The situation is further complicated because new media art creation, and conceptual strategies are also being derived from a much wider arena including engineering, biology, behavioral science, politics and so forth. No art is made in a vacuum. Curatorial practice in new media art - especially at such a critical time - shouldn't depend upon only a curator's immediate response, reaction, intuition, and guesswork. To be more responsible curators need to be better informed of - and better versed in - these diverse histories, theories and converging practices. Think of the kind of time that involves!
KRH: I experienced net_artists, working in new media early on, to be opposed to the kind of hierarchical structures of museums. That opposition is one of the things that attracted artists to the medium in the first place. They're opposed to somebody saying this is good and that's bad.
JL: Recognition from museums is still desirable to most artists in my opinion, if not immediately in their careers, then later on down the road.
KRH: Some people want status, yes, but more likely net_artists want to change the system. When they change the system, their position as interventionist is recognized. But status for status sake is by and large irrelevant to most of the people working in new media and net_art.
JL: I don't know anyone who wouldn't say yes to having a show in a museum.
SC: Well that was the issue that came up in regards to the Whitney Biennial regarding their exhibition of net art - some artists did say no. And this came up again at the Sins of Change conference: Chrissie Illes said what we have to remember is that galleries bought artists video camera recorders, and that there was some complicity between the artists and the gallery in the production of that work, which hasn't happened as much with new media.
KRH: Right. It is also happening now with new media art: commissions, access, hosting of projects and big bandwidth is being promised.
JL: New media art is attracting people's attention. With so much hype about technology, dot com businesses, get-rich-quick schemes and the stock market (even with the recession), people seem less threatened by the 'lingo' of new media art and the world wide web. People find it 'sexy.' They can find out about the work unguided, on their own. It also helps that over the years, audiences have gotten more familiar with video art and media installations available in galleries and large international festivals. New media doesn't seem as threatening to general audiences as video art once did when it was first emerging onto the scene.
As with anything 'new' in art, there are curators who see themselves as trendsetters. And with US museums requiring so much public financial underwriting, arts administrators have visions of attracting 'big bucks' from technology business. Funding potential becomes quite alluring to museum directors charged with keeping their institutions doors open, and increasing the numbers of 'patrons,' (visitors). Curators are being pushed to create exhibitions that are more accessible (read: commercial), so that marketing schemes; packages and products are devised to increase income from all sources (corporate underwriters, gift shop sales, restaurants, box office revenue, parking, memberships, symposia, screenings, performances, openings, tours, etc.). The recent Armani show at the Guggenheim Museum is illustrative of this phenomenon.
On the brighter side of this equation, some very interesting work is being commissioned or acquired by museums for their websites. Even so, most museums in the States don't value their virtual spaces as much as their on site galleries, thus web supervision rarely falls within the purview of the curatorial domain. Planning and programming museum websites should be handled intramurally between departments, and curators should care for electronic galleries as seriously as they do their tangible real estate.
At this point in time the greatest amount of theoretical activity and historical analysis of 'new media art' is being conducted mostly by artists and writers in arts schools and universities, and not within curatorial departments of museums. Curators with the greatest expertise in media and performance arts are not being tapped well enough, and are sometimes being replaced by very young, trend setting 'streaming media' curators, for example. An intergenerational mix of media curators within major art museums would be more useful and productive team.
KRH: If we learned anything in the 1980s, it is that the media business is interested in only the most high profile projects, artists and institutions. At the same time, costs in institutions are rising constantly, and the demand for accessible work that pleases the public is obvious. That is one reason that freelance curators are better positioned to move around and organize the more aggressive exhibitions, curate those research-heavy shows.
SC: So you're advocating more communication between what you see as essentially two generations of curators?
JL: Yes. I am also advocating that curators update their training (and that museums support their re-education) to include media art and technical studies (which will aid staff in developing up-dated collections and conservation policies, as well as in communicating with artists and the public). I am hopeful that the newest media and visual arts organizations will encourage cross and inter-disciplinary practice between the arts, sciences, and the humanities.
KRH: Don't you remember when any artist you were interested in, or any topic involving media, was research? Curating was learning about something, making discoveries, learning through art about things.
JL: Yes, of course.
KRH: It should be about coming to new understandings which you then want to share or take into a public context, a dialogue with artists who have enough confidence in the work to speak to these larger ideas.
Part Two: The Pitfalls of Curating in an Institution.
KRH: I don't think that curating is limited to museums. I think the museum takes just the very tip of what curating is. And I say that ten years after leaving the museum. I realize now what a small amount any museum can contribute to the big picture of curating.
JL: And why do you think that is?
KRH: Because you have to take a lot of things into consideration in a museum that you don't have to take into consideration in other situations. You work with marketing people, sponsors, the director's goals, and with other curator's interests. You have to build up power in your institution in order to get your ideas approved. You can be the most intelligent and sensitive curator in the world but if you don't have power in your own institution - and that's something most artists don't understand; it's not power in the world, it's power in the institution - you don't get a damn thing. You don't get a cent of the budget, you don't get good space, you don't get money for your artist's catalogues, and you don't get the PR attention.
JL: As long as museums are so heavily influenced by their weighty financial needs, time-based art and its curators will probably suffer. Collectors and corporate executives (who are on the boards of governors for U.S. museums and whose bank accounts are tapped for support) are confused by, or are less interested in, things that can't be collected or are readily reproducible. Most are scared off by the technology (What part is the art? The computers? The playback equipment? How do I turn this stuff on?). They often don't see what a museum's role is in collecting such temporal art. Of course there are notable exceptions to what I'm saying. Collectors are interested in video sculptures and media installations. Until the 'value' (in every sense of the word) of non-object media art increases in their minds, support for new media curators and acquisitions will be meted out sparingly. There is progress on these fronts within museums but not as significant as I believe the field requires. The change is too organic and not strategic enough at present.
KRH: This started very early in the video movement. One of the very first video installations to gain merit was Bruce Nauman's corridor, in his one man show at the LA County Museum of Art, an institution which also showed Bill Wegman's video work in the same period. The Everson Museum in Syracuse, and the Long Beach Museum of Art in Southern California, began video programs during this initial phase of media art - this strong experimentation phase started in the early seventies. It started off with widespread critical response (not all positive), too.
JL: My question to you Kathy is, do the artists you have been in contact with the most over the past ten years care much about museums?
KRH: Generally no. They see the relationship museums have to those important artists and recognize that they might get a chance one day, but they basically don't have the same relationship to the power system as those artists do who have things to sell ...
JL: What role, if any, do you think museums should play for new media art and artists?
KRH: To deliver a new audience, a different kind of audience to the work, rather than just people who are already interested in it, who know where to find it, is important. A museum can do this. But it is bringing a critical audience who brings some sort of informed understanding of what the new art is capable of ... that puts the art to the test!
JL: I'd venture to guess that new media artists who shun museums now will want to see their work put into a context there in the future. When MOCA mounted Out of Actions, a large and somewhat controversial exhibition about performance art around the world, so many 'anti-institutional' artists from the 1960s and 1970s were almost falling over themselves to be in that show. Even being represented by only fragments, basic documentary videos or photographs of their performance, there were only a couple of exceptions that withdrew their work for aesthetic, conceptual or ethical reasons. To the rest, being included in some kind of art historical museum framework was important even though the curatorial perspective was a little myopic and particular (in my opinion).
KRH: Well there are those artists who feel bitter and left out because they've seen people, maybe even who theythink are charlatans, get really big reputations and bought by collectors. But when you have nothing to sell, there is a different issue, issues are at stake.
JL: I agree with that.
KRH: But there are other people who still are laughing at the whole thing and say 'pfftt, you lose your integrity completely when you jump into this pot.'
JL: Often artists make the most interesting and lively curators. Their initiatives have a kind of zealous energy to them. I'm thinking of what happened in artists' spaces in the 1970s and early 1980s. It's discouraging to see the 'disconnect' between the current and earlier generations of media artists today. The historical continuum seems like it is being interrupted, or brushed aside.
Even an exchange of technical and conceptual knowledge would be great. Woody and Steina Vasulka are taking time now to put a lot of their art on the Internet as well as to catalogue tapes of artists of their generation as an accessible resource. Most museums in the States have failed to collect media art in depth, with rare exceptions. Those omissions hinder curators and artists' ability to formulate historical exhibitions because they lack the tools (art) necessary for retrospection and introspection. And I think that preservation of art works may continue to be the key role for museums.
SC: The idea that museums are just the very tip of the curating world and of what curators are doing - is that a recent development or do you think that was the case in the 60s as well?
JL: Museums are only now catching up with the work that so-called artists spaces accomplished. If only the larger institutions valued those efforts more, and acknowledged their contribution to the stream of activities in their communities. Artists spaces gave so many people their first place to show and begin establishing their relationships directly with the public.
KRH: They are where people of colour got their first shows, women, radical artists....
JL: Exactly. Now that early work gets shown in big international festivals, then museums and some winds up in their permanent collections.
KRH: And artists have a lot more fun in artists' spaces than in museums. The biggest complaint I would hear was from artists working in museums, who couldn't touch their work because of union contracts. They just have to stand there; they can't even touch their own work in the exhibition space! So that can't be too much fun for people who are tinkering and tw