Kathy Rae Huffman
Kathy Rae Huffman, Director of Visual Arts. Cornerhouse, Manchester will speak about recent curatorial work at Cornerhouse, the relationship of audiences to gallery exhibitions, and about how to (and why to) integrate digital and new media projects into a contemporary art programme.
Selected quote: “We could observe right away that, instead of the computer being something that isolated people from one another, actually what happened was fascinating – they talked to each other! They helped each other. They compared notes. I was really fascinated by that kind of cultural interaction. I didn’t expect it.”
I became Director of Visual Arts at Cornerhouse, Manchester, in May 2002. It’s a contemporary art centre, the first in the North, with a wonderful tradition of working with artists, contemporary topics and cultural issues since 1985. It also has a very, very good track record of inclusion, and has shown a lot of important work by women. I’m very proud to be part of that legacy. The Director, Dave Moutrey, was eager for the exhibition programme to become more active in media, but of course there was no equipment to speak of when I started, so that was the first hurdle. But, once we solved that issue, I could curate media focused shows. I actually don’t programme a continuous programme of media art (or digital-new media art) because I am not convinced the audience would really appreciate it or respond well. From the beginning, I decided to create a programme that builds on ideas and issues, exhibition after exhibition, and to introduce media (and new media art) whenever possible, but especially when it would have the best effect. At times, I consider a full fledged media programme, like the work I’ll show you by Blast Theory. This was my strategy when starting out at Cornerhouse, and it remains quite viable for our organisation. I believe that media art is most important when it is issue-based, and that socially concerned work is a larger remit that both academics and general audiences can consider within a wider context.
I’ve just come from Ars Electronica, a festival and conference dedicated to the newest technologies, held annually in Linz (Austria) since the 80s. It was the 25th anniversary and an awful lot of history was being told this year, especially about the 1950s and 60s. It certainly underscored the fact that ‘media art’ didn’t just start these past years, or even ten years ago. It started long before that, and it’s been in development by artists in all kinds of experimental formats for decades. It even has roots in film and sound experiments that can be found way back at the turn of the century. So, we’re following a big tradition and hopefully with that idea at the forefront, arts institutions can keep bringing challenging and important artist’s works and ideas to the wider public.
As an undergraduate I started out by being interested in any kind of “media”, I wouldn’t say in technical processes, but…for example, sculptures made with light and unusual photographically-made works. This was before I knew anything about “video”. When I started an MFA in Exhibition Design, in the mid-70s, I came at this word for the first time, but from a very practical point of view. I was quite concerned about how audiences related to exhibitions, how they got information, and how did this exchange work? I didn’t feel comfortable in museums. I didn’t feel comfortable in contemporary galleries. I felt that I didn’t know enough to really understand the works on view. So, one of the things I wanted to do was to work in a gallery setting, with an artist who could interpret that exchange in an interactive way – though I didn’t know then anything about what ‘interactive’ was. Luckily, I was attending California State University Long Beach, in California, which had one of the first post graduate Museum Studies courses (which I was enrolled in), and a municipal museum with one of the first video art programmes anywhere in the world (I later became curator there, myself). The curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art then, David Ross, was regularly commissioning, and showing important international video art.
It was really an interesting moment for me, and I remember watching Terry Allen’s Children’s Tapes, the first art videotape I saw – where the artist was walking around with the video camera pointed down looking at the floor, and other ‘experiments’. To be honest, I really couldn’t figure it out, either. So, I started reading about video in art journals, and I made an appointment to talk to David Ross about any artist he knew who might be willing to work with me for my Museum Studies course project – an exhibition in the campus gallery. That’s how the Bill Viola introduction happened. Bill, at that time, was a young artist who had been working abroad in Italy as a kind of assistant and technical advisor for other artists, so he was willing to take this opportunity to do his own show. He was happy to come up with a plan to do something that involved sound, image and interaction with the audience. I never turned back after that exhibition, where Bill created Olfaction, a sound and interactive video installation. From this time onwards, I was hooked on video and interactive possibilities between artists and the audience.
Moving on to the images I’ve brought, about my current work: This is the entrance to Cornerhouse, at the crossroads of Oxford Road and Whitworth Street in central Manchester. Until you get up to the 3rd floor there is hardly any indication that there are galleries in the building. So, one of the things I wanted to do right away was to fix at least one plasma screen in the entrance which could be a ‘window’ into the galleries. This works for us because there’s often a queue of people getting their cinema tickets, and it’s a very active social space. The plasma screen was initiated with an exhibition Lab3D, in spring of 2003. For quite a while I’d been doing research on artists working online in 3D environments, collaborating with Van Gogh TV and Karel Dudesek. It’s a quite specific area of online work of 36 artists, juried from applications. I felt after four years of selecting works for Web 3D Art, that there was actually enough good work, and the space and time to make an interesting exhibition.
During Lab 3D, we installed active web terminals in Gallery 1 where visitors could just browse the online Web3D Art site. I brought together several online installations into the remaining galleries, all utilising 3D in a significant way. Quite a lot of people would start their gallery visit getting an overview in Gallery 1. We could observe right away that, instead of the computer being something that isolated people from one another, actually what happened was fascinating – they talked to each other! They helped each other. They compared notes. I was really fascinated by that kind of cultural interaction. I didn’t expect it.
This is work by John Klima, one of the artists in the Lab3D exhibition. He showed Earth, a piece that uses database connections to weather stations around the world. As you navigate around the globe, you can also zoom in at various points and from live data being sent directly from that weather station, see it interpreted as what the weather conditions might look like at any place on the earth, at any time. There might be foggy areas or it might be covered with snow, for example. So this was an interesting way to get people to interact, right away. We put a sign near the controls ‘left button zooms in’, ‘right button zooms out’ – and it worked well like that. People navigated immediately to their home country, or town, which I loved because it was evidence that people do really want to connect to something they know and are familiar with. They didn’t mind the technology at all.
Melinda Rackham created a world called empyre and in this world she took 3D forms and assigned theoretical issues to them, and serious (I would say) criticism and analysis of the Internet. These are largely abstract forms, and might be the kinds of images that you would expect to see in an animated 3D world. empyre is also an internationally active mailing list for digital and online topics. We have a 3D READER, compiled from the discussion over empyre about 3D, available for download from the Cornerhouse website (it’s part of the downloads section).
This is Squidsoup. They were commissioned to create a piece about sound and about people creating their own sound mix in the galleries. The software they developed meant that by manipulating these little instruments, shapes were created on the screen. So, if you wiggled the string, it came through sensors and went through the software, and another kind of image would emerge. People were playing with the instruments in the gallery; it was familiar and fun at the same time. This project is also available online.
This is Michael Pinsky’s Transit, a work that looks at the London transportation network, especially the Tube system from the A-Z point of view. You can actually navigate yourself from subway station to subway station either on foot, by bicycle, by subway or by taxi, and it plots (and compares) your course. It’s something a little bit different from some of the 3D other works that we had on view, and was a database of information visible in digital video as well as a 3D plotted course of travel.
This is documentation from a workshop where young people were learning to play and to develop computer games. For the exhibition, I invited Feng Mengbo, a Chinese artist from Beijing, and his work Q4U. He actually does augmentations of the QUAKE game --where you are allowed to make changes to the game. So, in this version of Quake, and he inserts himself into the game as all the targets. He was just speaking at Ars Electronica, where he won an honorary distinction for interactive art – and he said, ‘Well, if you’re going to do this kind of thing with games which shoot them up, you’d better put yourself in there and be shot up’. For his work in Lab3D, we partnered with Huddersfield Media Centre – they had a version of the game set up in their gallery, and
we had a terminal and an installation of the game in Cornerhouse. Huddersfield built the game-server up with their technical staff and our audiences could then challenge and play each other. There was quite a competition between Huddersfield and Manchester about who could kill more Mengbos. At Huddersfield it was only Q4U on view in their gallery; at Cornerhouse, on the other hand, the work was part of a group show and filled our Gallery 2. We rear projected for a more convincing game environment.
This is Beyond Manzanar by Tamiko Thiel. She is a German/Japanese artist and an MIT Graduate. With the Iranian/American artist Zara Houshmand, she has created a 3D world that takes you through the famous camp in California where Japanese Americans were interned during the 2nd World War. There were a number of camps all through the West Coast. The Japanese were taken out of their houses and held ‘for their own good’, their property confiscated and bank accounts frozen (probably many of you know this already). But this work also takes the issue of the camp at Manzanar and relates it with the Arab/American situation today, where this cultural group is also feeling very much under threat and very much isolated. There are memories, historical records, and layered personal stories which creates a deep and moving work.
The online Web 3D Art section was linked at five other organisations in the UK, including the ICA and the Watershed, plus shown on terminals in venues in Europe and Australia. These partners put this work up simultaneously, creating a great big rhizome of people logging into one Web site. I liked this idea and I think there could be more of these collaborative projects happening, but it’s always difficult to negotiate matching up timing, space and resources at each institution.
The next exhibition project I will show you is MIR: Art in Variable Gravity, a very special exhibition that Arts Catalyst, London, developed. They worked with a number of artists and took them onto weightless flights from the Star City Cosmonaut Training Centre outside of Moscow. The artists realised their proposed works with the material from this experience or their experiments during the flight. They realised these works in Cornerhouse for the first time. This is Stefan Gec’s piece. He used the giant centrifuge at Star City. It’s the largest centrifuge in the world and he didn’t choose to go up on the flight, he said it looked ‘too rickety’ to him. So, what he did was put this globe into the centrifuge which had the solar system dotted on it; it’s a perfect sphere and it’s the strongest physical shape that we know of. In the centrifuge, it was under about 10 G’s pressure, until it finally collapsed (a bit), and that was the result of the experiment, which was videotaped and the globe exhibited as it resulted from the experiment. What was phenomenal to Gec, was the fact that the scientific team at the giant centrifuge were totally serious about his project, so he also exhibited the complete transcript of the control room dialogue, recorded during the process. Every detail was down to the second was perfectly timed, and they were very happy to be part of it. They didn’t see art as anything bizarre or silly.
This is the detail from Vadim Fishkin’s work. He’s a Russian artist who lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia. He took a globe of water into the weightlessness and when he brought it back, it was in this device that he built, called a callograph. He placed in the gallery it so that water circulated through tubes. It operated to the music of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, and the drips responded to the music. So for 6 weeks in our office, which is just on the other side of this wall, we were all (Kathy hums the Blue Danube Waltz) and then the drips went (dum dum dum de dum, drip drip, drip drip). Part of a curating new media, is the knowledge that sometimes you just have to immerse yourself, and for us, the bowls weren’t big enough to catch the water, so there were also huge puddles of water on the floor all day and every day, necessitating a bucket and mop in the gallery, as well.
This is Ewen Chardronnet. He is a French artist, mostly working with video and very active in Internet activist and social discourse. He came to us as an artist-in-residence during MIR. He has also worked a lot with Marco Peljhan on the Macrolab and he developed a new video work with us that involved Jodrell Bank and the radio telescope as a political information receptor. It was all about radio telescopes, networked around the world. So there’s a very nice DVD that was eventually produced from that project, which he subsequently completed during an EMARE residency at Hull Time Based Arts.
An example of exhibitions coming up: we will have three one-person shows dealing with reconstructed events as both political and theoretical devices. This particular work called Capitulation Project, is by a duo of artists, Frédéric Moser and Philippe Schwinger, who are Swiss artists living in Berlin. Their project is a re-enactment of the Mai Lai Massacre, and it’s actually a re-enactment of a re-enactment. It’s was originally performed by the Experimental Theatre Group in New York City in 1971, but it had never been documented on film. So, with a more or less ‘script’ (it wasn’t a real itemised script but a plan for the performance), they brought together actors and students with a group of video/film people and reconstructed the set. Performers had to wear clothes that were from the 70s and they re-constructed this work as a videotaped performance. It was an experimental piece where the audience had to act out parts – on the spot – or the play just didn’t go on. So, it’s the actors and the audience working together, playing the parts of the victims of the Mai Lai Massacre as well as the military guys on trial. You can see it was quite a big production.
This is Peter Richards and he’s an artist living in Belfast. He’s going to be showing Live, live art histories, at the same time in Gallery 1. His work is also documentation of performance, and he uses a pinhole camera in various ways. We are building an enormous pinhole camera in our gallery that will allow for a 20 metre long photographic work made on the opening night of the exhibition (also part of the Live Art Weekend in Manchester) and the public is invited to come dressed – or undressed – as their favourite performance artist and for this enormous group photograph. He has done this before and it seems they turn out a bit like this. This one was done in strips, as you can see, but the one he’s going to do in the Cornerhouse is going to be one long piece and it comes out as a positive -- and they’re really quite gorgeous. This was another pinhole work he did of monuments in Belfast, and this is what the work looks like in his studio.
Okay, now we’re back to the Cornerhouse. I have a DVD to show you documenting a public project that we just hosted in May: Uncle Roy All Around You by the British group Blast Theory. They originally did this piece at The ICA London, the year before. It’s a project that involves the creation of a 3D model of a city, and with special PDA’s, the public become game players who use the 3D map to find Uncle Roy’s office, as you’ll see in the documentation. People play online or IRL on the street. They moved five servers into our gallery 2, to create an HQ where 23 of their team of people worked in our building for 3 weeks, creating the backend for the work. These videos were created to be shown on the Big Screen in Exchange Square, which is a 25 square metre BBC television screen outdoors. We had updates going on regularly to connect audiences that were also logging in from URBIS. We also played this video on the plasma screen that we still have in our lobby. So it was a way in for people, who might not want to play, to know about it. This tape is also an example of the ways that an audience outside of the gallery can be engaged [video of Uncle Roy all Around You plays].
We hope to do many more projects like this in the future. Thank you.
A searchable database of the exhibitions at Cornerhouse since 1985.