“The history of time-based art and technology are entwined,” notes Henriette Huldisch, director of exhibitions and curator for the MIT List Visual Arts Center, in her catalogue for “Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995.” Yet, we rarely pause to consider how the physical attributes of our sleek, flat, and increasingly portable screens change our relationship to the content they deliver to us.
In “Before Projection,” Huldisch examines a time period when artists used the sculptural qualities of the cubic monitor for video installations of various scale and complexity. Now that the strong association between these boxy monitors and broadcast television has receded into media history, Huldisch feels the aesthetic qualities of these works can be newly appreciated. “Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974-1995” presents and reappraises a largely overlooked body of media art — monitor-based sculptures created before large-scale, cinematic installation dramatically transformed video art. This tightly focused exhibition includes rarely seen works by artists Dara Birnbaum, Ernst Caramelle, Takahiko Iimura, Shigeko Kubota, Mary Lucier, Muntadas, Tony Oursler, Nam June Paik, Friederike Pezold, Adrian Piper, Diana Thater, and Maria Vedder, several of whom were MIT artist fellows or faculty.
The exhibit is on view at the MIT List Visual Art Center from Feb. 7 to April 15. The show is part of a region-wide collaboration, with 14 partner institutions, focused on art and technology, which was spearheaded by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.
In this Q&A, Huldisch discusses the works in the List exhibition, MIT’s role in creating and presenting new media works, and how monitor-based video sculpture can illuminate our current relationship to screens.
Q: How did the idea for the exhibition come about? And, importantly, the collaboration with so many other local institutions?
A: The idea for this show has percolated for a long time. At the risk of going back a little too far, I have a background in film and video art. I started as assistant curator of film and video at the Whitney Museum and then later worked at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin where I was in charge of all the time-based media in the permanent collection.
When I entered the art world in the early 2000s, large scale projected cinematic installation was everywhere. Over the years, I became more and more interested in those works and collections that nobody seemed to be paying attention to — works made between the late '70s and mid-'90s employing loads of monitors, whether those were stacks of video monitors, monitor walls, or large environments. It seemed like these works had instantly gone out of favor once cinematic projection developed. I've wanted to bring some of those works out again for years. I’ve joked that this exhibition is partly based on my love for unfashionable video art.
When the ICA announced their “Art in the Age of the Internet” show, Eva Respini and Jill Medvedow initiated a city-wide conversation to invite people to do related projects under the larger umbrella of art and technology. I thought the List show — despite being both analogue, in the original presentations, and largely pre-internet — would be an interesting counterpoint for two reasons. One, because, it also looks at the relationships between the availability and development of technology and equipment in relationship to certain artistic, aesthetic, and formal concerns. Secondly, it suddenly seems timely because after more than a decade of large-scale projections in the museum, in our daily lives we've returned to looking at quite small screens and having flat screens all around us. So this was an opportune moment to think about an earlier time when artists were using boxy CRT monitors as sculptural material.
Q: How did you narrow your focus to decide what to include in the show?
A: Our galleries are 5,000 square feet, so clearly this show had to be quite focused rather than aiming for comprehensiveness. Rather than show a paternalistic lineage of iconic firsts, I wanted to highlight certain figures who have been rarely shown in the United States. And I included a majority of female artists, to bring out the fact that women were on the forefront of picking up the video camera in the '70s, and in fact throughout the medium's history.
I started mid-1970s because I wanted to separate the show from very early experimentation in video and the discourse around what were at one time considered these essential properties of film and video, live feedback, and duration. The endpoint is when video projection equipment becomes more widely available and starts to replace monitor presentations in art exhibitions. To be clear, video projection was used sporadically as early as the 1970s, but the projectors were very cumbersome, very heavy, very expensive and simply not the norm.
When the technology became more accessible — whether cheaper, more geared toward the consumer market, or easier to handle — that's the moment in the early mid-'90s when video projection comes in. And hand-in-hand with projection, actually comes the switch to digital video.
Q: You mentioned this type of work falling out of favor in the mid-’90s. Why did that happen?
A: I believe one reason was the monitor’s intractable association with broadcast television, which many considered to be vapid commercial entertainment and ideological instrument. Video sculpture, and video art in general, had to define themselves in relation to or in critical opposition against broadcast TV. Now that a cube monitor or a boxy television set is difficult to find and practically a nostalgic object, it's easier for people to see the sculptural engagements that people were involved with from the beginning.
Q: There are several works by the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) Fellows included in the show. Could you talk about those works?
A: There are several direct connections to CAVS. We have on view an Ernst Caramelle work, “Video-Ping-Pong, 1974.” He was a fellow in CAVS and made this piece at MIT using video technology available here. It's a very funny work, playing on the relationship between the human figure and the monitor, and the recorded image versus the live image.
It records a ping pong match between two people, which is then played back on two monitors on AV carts positioned in front of a “real” ping pong table. At times people can actually play, so you have this juxtaposition. This work premiered in the Hayden Gallery, the current List Center’s predecessor, in 1975.
We are also showing a sculpture called “Charlotte Moorman II” (1995), one of Nam June Paik’s video robots, from the collection of the Rose Art Museum. This piece employs small vintage monitors to form a sculptural portrait of Paik's longtime collaborator and friend, Moorman. Moorman and Paik were both fellows in CAVS in 1986 and 1982, respectively.
Muntadas taught here for many years, and he had a solo show at the List Center in 1995. We're showing his piece “Credits,” presented on a wall-mounted monitor that you encounter toward the end of the exhibition.
Q: What would you say has been MIT’s influence on time-based work more generally?
A: One of the interesting points about early video history is that it wasn't necessarily art institutions who were its main champions. Even though there were some museums that exhibited it quite early, experimental producing centers, like CAVS, played a major role. Also places like Electronic Arts Intermix in New York, Bay Area Video Coalition or WGBH in Boston were instrumental in providing artists access to equipment and resources. Of course, CAVS did that too, and so played a critical role in facilitating artists’ engagement with that medium.
Q: Is the collaboration with the ICA, Harvard, and all the other institutions, a novel thing for the List? What would you like the audience to gain from this type of citywide survey?
A: I am not aware that art institutions in Boston have come together under a thematic umbrella like this before, so I think it is really exciting. It will function differently for different audiences. For people in Boston, it will provide very rich and diverse number of shows that allow you to think about how technology is used in art in general.
We're also hoping that this critical mass of exhibitions will attract an art audience from out of town. People might not come for one good show, but if there are five or six to see, there's a greater chance that people will actually make the trip.