Barbara London is Video and Media Curator at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The conversation took place on March 22, 2001 on the occasion of MoMA’s first website art commission, Timestream by Tony Oursler.
Sarah Cook: Let’s begin at the beginning!
Barbara London: You probably know I’ve been at MoMA a while. It all began back in 1973, when I was working with our Department of Prints and Illustrated Books. I have always been attracted by the cutting edge, and early on became interested in artists’ books. Slowly I assembled a collection of this inexpensive, mass producible form and organised a show for the Museum. Once our new Librarian, Clive Phillpot, arrived and assumed responsibility for artists’ books, I became involved with the hot potato of video. At that time, video didn’t exist in MoMA. Then in late 1973 the NEA awarded the Museum a grant to purchase a videocassette deck and two monitors. Taking advantage of the equipment, I organised shows with tapes that subsequently entered the canon - including Nam June Paik’s Global Groove (1973) and Lynda Benglis’s Now (1973). Then through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, I was able to get out from under all my Print Department responsibilities. The ongoing video exhibition program expanded, and we started Video Viewpoints, the lecture series where artists come to show and discuss their new work. I organised installation shows with such artists as Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, Terry Fox, Shigeko Kubota, Gary Hill, and Bill Viola. We also started to acquire videos by artists from North America, Japan, Latin America, and Europe.
I keep up with new technologies, so it was a natural progression to explore the "new kid on the block," the Internet. As you know, a lot of curatorial research is done out in the field. You meet with artists, curatorial colleagues, and you’re always assembling information. Artists always ask me how to get into the Museum’s collection or into the exhibition program. I always say it begins by seeing someone’s work, meeting with the artist, and by accumulating documents that go into a file folder. Once I have a context for work, it usually proceeds to inclusion in a group show. Acquisition is the next step.
Back in the 1970s and early 1980s I made several trips to Japan and organised two Japanese video shows for MoMA. Since then I have followed many Japanese artists and know their work well. I have had two sabbaticals in Tokyo, for the sole purpose of studying media art. Then in the late 1990s I received a grant to go to China. My purpose in meeting artists there was to continue doing what I had been doing for years. My original motivation for the China Internet project was to make my file folders public. Instead of squirrelling away the information for later use, I’d put my findings up on the net, for curators and for anyone else curious about art in China. Also I thought demystifying the curatorial process would be beneficial. A visitor to Stir-fry gets a chance to travel with a curator on a research quest. I don’t know whether many curators search for artists the way I do, but I think it’s useful to let people look in on the gestation phase of a museum exhibition.
Since I was going to be meeting with artists who were new to many of my peers in the West, I thought the Web would be the logical medium to create what I call my curatorial dispatches. Two weeks before I left for China, I put together the Web component of this research trip. Ada’web offered to do the design pro-bono. I rented a laptop for $300, purchased an extra air ticket for my colleague who had made documentary films in the past and is a computer engineer as well as a writer. MoMA had quickly agreed that I create a Web project out of the trip. It was all done by the seat-of-our-pants. I called the website Stir-fry. I left with all the video and audio equipment and the laptop fitting into a knapsack. I had no idea if I’d be thrown out of China for doing the project. I had no idea if I would find appropriate phone lines. As it turned out, I used the hotel business centres to send my dispatches.
SC: And at that time which department at MoMA was managing the website? Who were you sending them back to?
BL: I’ll roll back a bit. In 1995, MoMA didn’t have a website. I and two curatorial colleagues convinced the administration that the Museum needed to get its feet wet with the Web. We proposed three pilot projects related to three contemporary shows. One was my show, Video Spaces, another was Paola Antonelli’s Mutant Materials, and the third was Sheryl Conkleton’s Annette Messager retrospective. The School of Visual Arts hosted the sites, and SVA students designed them. Six months later the Museum officially launched http://www.moma.org with a Picasso show. Initially the MoMA site was first managed by committee, along with Greg van Alstyne, who came out of our Graphic Design Department. For several years Greg was the manager of the MoMA website.
SC: So often a museum’s first website arises from within the museum’s marketing department.
BL: The Museum is very different in that our website developed as a curatorial initiative. The site still has a great deal of input from the curatorial staff.
So far I’ve done three curatorial dispatches. After Stir-fry, I knew there was a fair amount of video and web activity in Russia and Ukraine. I obtained a grant to investigate media art between St. Petersburg, Moscow, Novosibirsk, Kiev and Odessa. For this project I was better prepared and I upped the ante a bit. Vivian Selbo, who had designed Stir-fry pro-bono while working with ada’web, became the paid designer for InterNyet. I went with a top-of-the-line computer, a digital video camera, and a DAT tape recorder. I wouldn’t claim the site is technically advanced, because all the work is still being done by just my associate and me, but InterNyet includes many video and movie clips, and the sound quality is reasonably good. In Novosibirsk I discovered a group of very sophisticated Web and media artists. Out of my Stir-fry and InterNyet research, I selected several videotapes and multi-channel works which the Museum acquired for the collection.
The third dispatch project was dot.jp. Since I’ve been going to Japan for twenty years, this was a little different. Also, Japan is more known in the West than Russia and Ukraine are. I met with some of the really young artists in Yokohama and Tokyo, such as exonemo, and in out of the way places like Kyushu. I always put younger artists’ work into a context. I spent a day with Studio Ghibli. Mr. Hayao Miyazaki and Mr. Isao Takahata are the venerated artists who created the extraordinary animation films, "Princess Monontoke" and "My Neighbors the Yamadas." They were gracious and our conversations provided an historical context for the site.
SC: Which brings us up to now.
BL: The latest project I produced for the web is a work by Tony Oursler called Timestream, and it is the first in a series of MoMA web commissions. In some ways it was logical that we start with Oursler, because the Museum has shown his videotapes and installations since the early 1980s, and his work is in the collection. I paired him with a young New York designer, Eric Rosevear, whom I have been following. The two of them aren’t peas in a pod, but have similar aesthetics in that both work in a seat-of-the-pants, low-end way. Tony has a longstanding interest in the history of technology. He saw his Web piece as being a biography of technology, starting with Archimedes’ use of a lens and coming all the way up to the "jenny cam." Part of Tony’s point is that as new technologies are developed, they work their way through society in quirky ways. Sometimes there is a curious spiritual element to the applications. If you look at early cinema, it evolved out of magic show halls. The special effects for the magic shows became the first special effects in cinema. Tony has made other links, as well. When you had the telegraph you also had the Ouija board. The Fox sisters lived in New York in the mid 19th century, and they had all kinds of knock-knock communications with their and others’ deceased relatives.
Eric’s Timestream layout is a bit of history, an aggregate of buttons and frames and simple HTML routines that were popular in the early days of the Web. The site has a wonderful tangible quality, as if one were browsing an old worn book in search of an arcane reference. Many designers look to Eric, because he’s working with this low-end thing and making something very beautiful and strange, similar to Tony Oursler’s aesthetic.
Every time I create a Web project for MoMA, I ask myself ‘what are the particulars of the Web? How can we expand upon a kiosk?’ You not only have to have a terminal and give the user/viewer here in MoMA access to the new web work, but you also have to add something and make it a little different. So Tony bit the bullet and we installed Timestream downstairs in our Café Etc. space - which has been our incubator for the expanded MoMA, which will reopen in late 2004.
Café Etc. has been open for a year and a half, and we have explored different kiosk situations. For example, Tony put up some of his research for Timestream, which includes slides from early TV experiments, and all kinds of cockamamie gizmos. Every experiment isn’t always flawless or polished when it rolls out of somebody’s garage, so that’s what some of Tony’s Café Etc. material represents.
SC: A lot of institutions have been working on the web for a while but haven’t made it evident in the real estate of the museum itself. Do you see a continuum developing between the video programming you’ve done and the projects in the galleries and now where you’re going on the web? You’ve brought a gallery-based artist, Tony Oursler to the web. Do you see yourself working in reverse as well so that you might bring artists on the web to the galleries?
BL: Certainly. I would imagine that sooner rather than later the Museum will present a few Web-based works that will also have an installation component. I always wake up and say this is a great moment to be alive. Artists are just starting to address what the Web really is. We’ve had amazing works like Shredder, Netomat, and Jodi, but I still think, ‘what really is it? What’s the ‘it’? And what’s the content?’ In my mind it doesn’t have to be sale-able - I don’t really care about that, because those were the issues for early video too. But what are the ideas? What makes the work specific to this medium?
When I started to work with video in the 1970s, a senior MoMA curator said, ‘watch out! When you are older, how will you speak with the younger generation?’ So I ask myself what are the particulars of the Web, and I try to stay in tune with what the issues are for artists who are 19 and in their 20s.
SC: A number of video curators have had new media dumped on their desks or have gone out in search of it as a logical extension, whereas in other museums new media departments have sprung up completely on their own. Have you felt pressure within the institution that there be a separate department for new media yet?
BL: I think the good thing about MoMA is that we have a 70-year history. Our first director, Alfred Barr, was a visionary and created curatorial departments of painting and sculpture, as well as architecture and design, photography and film. Alfred Barr also said it doesn’t matter which curatorial department acquires a work of art, as long as it enters the Museum. We can define the work later. And I think that’s what Projects, our series of small shows devoted to contemporary art, has been about. Exhibit work as it is emerging; you can’t wait around. They’re all hot potatoes that don’t fit into a department. You worry about category later (or never.) Institutions don’t have to be so tidy with the housekeeping. If an artist is working on a statement and it is really relevant, and it’s really a good statement I think you work very hard to figure out a way to show it. Whether its on a website or not, you create some kind of an ongoing program that’s devoted to artists who are using these tools. I know a couple of years ago the debate for Olia Lialina and others was ‘we don’t need a museum, as long as it’s out there.’ But being out there, yes we can link, but keep the url that exists for the work that gives it a framework.
SC: This is an ongoing question for curators I think. As you know, Vuk Cosic has just been named for the Venice Biennale. He’s curating a separate exhibition of net.art which will take place in Venice at the same time in order to put his presentation in context. In putting together the a catalogue to accompany that show we have had many discussions about the museumification and the museology of net.art and what it means that it is now at the Venice Biennale. So often it is about providing the right context. When you did your dispatches from Russia you were giving other people access to artists like Alexi Shulgin through the links, even if MoMA wasn’t commissioning new work from them.
BL: This is probably my background, but I’m in favour of all approaches. I’m in favour of work being seen differently in different contexts by different people depending upon their backgrounds. I think it’s terrific that we’re all going to have different interpretations. Each context offers a slightly different interpretation. I think we all help each other and it helps the work and there’s not one right way as far as I’m concerned. What I am concerned about at times is what I call the ‘novelty hustle’. I was fortunate to be able to attend the opening of the Havana Biennale. Over 1000 Americans went to the opening because we all know the embargo will be lifted at some point. We all were tripping over the same people we see at the other biennales.
Big is fine, but you don’t need big all the time. The Venice Biennale serves its purpose but it’s not the only thing. I think its great that Vuk is using the opportunity in the way he should. We are all networking and helping to define and share information. If somebody is more interested in a Jasper Johns or Bob Ryman or Eve Hesse, if they’re there and for a few minutes have exposure to net art then that’s terrific. It means that the next time they see net art, they will have a little bit of a context. But if people only dance the novelty hustle, then that’s a problem. You’ve got to see works more than once to understand a context. It takes reflection to figure out what something is.
SC: One argument is that the museum has institutionalised net.art at the moment that it is no longer avant-garde - net.art is in Venice long after Vuk Cosic declared it dead. It’s the same as what has been happening all century long.
BL: But I think it is up to the institution, to Vuk, and to all of us to keep it from becoming television. Maybe it is dead, but we have to be on the ball to create the next situation and to make sure there are different situations. We don’t want the Internet to be homogenised and equalised. I want Alexi Shulgin to keep doing his work with his 386-DX computer.
SC: The same is the case with Olia Lialina’s gallery for instance. Previous collections of net art can continue to exist on the web, with museums or not. I was talking with Kathy Rae Huffman about the history of video and how complicit galleries were in the creation of video art - Leo Castelli went out and bought video cameras for the artists. We were discussing whether or not that is the case with new media art, that the institutions of the art world are as complicit in the creation of the art - through commissioning, say.
BL: But it’s not that simple even with video. In the early days the dealers couldn’t care less about the medium. Exceptions were Howard Wise, the visionary who had a kinetic art gallery on 57th Street, and a woman by the name of Mrs. Bonino who had a gallery down the block. The two gallerists gave Juan Downey, Nam June Paik, and many others an opportunity to show some of their first video works in the late 1960s. For the most part museums scorned video, and few bought it. The Soho dealers Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend became involved with video because Richard Serra, Lynda Benglis, and Vito Acconci were working with video. Maybe the dealers even gave the artists a stipend, maybe not. Then Leo dropped video. Why? Perhaps because these unlimited tapes sold for only $200 and distribution was an economic drain. (Video distributors like Electronic Arts Intermix, Video Data Bank, and V/Tape have done well. They have published regular catalogues, and now have the information on the Web. They work with the library, school, and museum markets.) Also, during the 1980s when paintings had become bigger and bigger, then there was a problem on Wall Street and dealers were unable to sell the high priced traditional art mediums. At that point, some put video in their galleries because they had nothing to lose. They weren’t selling anyway. It’s a more complex history.