Tools and Contemporary Art

por: By Barbara London

Barbara London is a writer and curator. She is the author of Video/Art, the First Fifty Years (Phaidon, 2020). She is the curator of the exhibition «Seeing Sound» (2020). She lectures internationally.

From the get-go, Manhattan was the center of my universe. My curatorial career began at MoMA in the early 1970s, when international phone calls were expensive and audio cassettes cheap. New York City was bankrupt, the art world small, no one had money, yet energy and ideas soared.

The counter-culture and revolution that radicalized the 1960s compelled privileged modern art institutions like MoMA to accommodate “alternative” forms generated by a broad range of artists. Pursuing boundary-breaking practices, some revolving around music in new kinds of permutations, artists picked up the first portable video cameras and recording decks, and in modernist fashion explored the specifics of the newly accessible medium. Their time-based (and therefore intangible and difficult to collect) art grew, nurtured by a seat-of-the-pants style, artist-run, rough-and-ready venues that were sprouting up in metropolises everywhere. Turning away from the past and stridently debunking everything, warring camps conducted ideological battles: minimalists versus expressionists, videomakers versus filmmakers, punkers versus heady theorists.

As a young contemporary curator I focused on the hot potato of video, about which little was written beyond the prescient alternative magazines Radical Software and Avalanche. Artists crisscrossed disciplines to experiment with the medium’s protean forms. Video unfolded in two tiers as technology advanced rapidly. At the top stood the professional broadcast industry, closed for decades to the nonunion “amateur” until Public Television held the studio door ajar for a select few. At the “low” end, artists pooled resources and shared new-to-the-market consumer video gear, inventively forging creative possibilities for raw, performative narratives.

Curatorial research meant seeking out artists. I doggedly wanted to know the how and why someone made a work. I was curious about related projects, be it someone’s artist books or their part in an evolving punk band’s LP. I asked locals what had they seen on recent travels while doing gigs in London, Berlin, or Tokyo. If they taught, I asked to see videos by their best students. More than fonts of information, artists were important collaborators as I developed video art’s position at MoMA. Museum-goers became participants and engaged in a more active relationship with image and sound.

I climbed musty staircases in derelict buildings way downtown. I made studio visits with artists like Nam June Paik, who thrived on experimentation and surprise. Recycling was a fundamental aspect of Paik’s work for practical (economic) and aesthetic reasons, with the TV set as a core building block. Dropping by his studio meant crawling over and through a maze of electrical wires, tubes, and old circuitry to reach the artist standing in rubber boots, so as not to be electrocuted.

Most nights I attended ad hoc screenings. Artists arrived with their latest tape tucked under their arms, having spent days torqueing clunky portable video gear and switchers to tweak images of themselves carrying out an action alone in the studio. I sat on a tinny folding chair upstairs at Artists Space and watched Laurie Anderson do a live vocal track to a just-back-from-the-developing-lab Super 8 film. I sent far-away artists letters asking about their latest work and waited patiently, often weeks or months, for replies.

Back then time was a stretched-out, tangible material that swallowed you up. Jack Smith would start his soirées by passing around a joint. The performance really began as he put on and took off different garments grabbed out of a mound of clothes piled up on the floor at the center of his loft. Events lasted long into the night. At 5 a.m., Michael Snow or Joan Jonas or Robert Wilson might be the only audience left.

My own sense of cultural possibilities opened up in 1974, when Nam June Paik introduced me to John Cage and Merce Cunningham. I often think about their approach to life—the center of the world is where you stand. These artists shared an unusual openness to culture from non-Western parts of the world, to new forms, and respect for the visions of young collaborators. Towards the end of his life, Merce learned new computer software to choreograph his company’s dances.

Jump Cut Forward

Computers entered the broadcast television studios in the early 1980s. It made frame-accurate nonlinear editing possible, an advance that seduced videomakers. They abandoned rough edges and thought “high-end” production values were essential to their work. Giving a video installation a polished look required access to specialist editing suites and skilled programmer-engineers. Production costs went through the roof. Some artists left independent video for the “pot of gold” in broadcast television.

The launch of MTV in 1981, with its slick promotional agenda and record industry financing, popularized short-form video and spawned inventive image-sound collaborations. Attention spans started to shrink.

As the personal computer permeated the consumer market of the early 1990s and the economy turned sour, artists turned again to funky homespun styles. Newfound accessibility to technology initiated a surge of innovative personal work—often interactive. Video and audio gradually morphed into media, as artists developed programming skills. Media moved in from the periphery and became mainstream contemporary practice. Sound emerged as a wide-open frontier. Super-sensitive microphones made possible the capture of previously unheard, underwater creature communication. Artists edited their digital sound files, which they projected through precision directional speakers. Audiences became careful listeners as they experienced inspiringly profound acoustic compositions in spatial installations.

Today camera-equipped smartphones saturate the globe. Tools are accessible to all and the do-it-yourself spirit rules. Artists and ordinary users alike are producer-communicators, and viewer-receivers. They ply their apps and share data at lightning speed, as image and sound supersede words.

The pace is radically accelerated. Artists work with the latest technologies as readily as they sip water. Contemplating contemporary art’s changing genres and formats, definitions are useful handles that quickly fray. Sooner rather than later they need an upgrade, or maybe the boot. Here are a few of the most salient changes.

Once upon a time the term curator had highbrow associations. It denoted a keeper of physical objects, engaged in the acquisition, conservation, exhibition, research, funding, and education of art and its history. In today’s world a museum curator is as much a conceptualizer and spectacle producer as all the above. Curator has become fashionably mainstream and we now have curators of social events and curators of cosmetic store window displays.

The world has changed so inexorably that technology is close to being a user’s co-equal partner. The relationship between body, experience, and cognition is vastly different.

A new two-tiered distinction has come into play. The center is drifting away from New York, London, and Tokyo, away from galleries towards sales at art fairs and on the Internet. A small group of collector elites sets the pace in the art world, which is tarnished by higher and higher sales prices. At the other end of the scale, the young generation that grew up with media is going way out on a limb to take heterodox positions. They can be expected to appear out of left field with creative breakthroughs made through experimentation on a laptop at home or in novel shared workspaces that combine art, technology, social utilities, and science. 

Unlike at the start of my career, I am older and artists are younger. Still I am as driven as ever to find out what artists are thinking and making. I want to better understand how artists are using tools, especially at a time when ideas and content matter more than material formats. Post 9/11 and Fukushima, some artists do not feel bound by global identity and they focus on the particulars of local experience.

I welcomed the invitation to “curate” the Brooklyn Rail’s March Critics Page. It gave me the opportunity to invite 16 artists and writers from different parts of the world to join me in ruminating about the relationship of people to their technologies. The artists are highly respected and ground-breaking in different ways. I asked them to answer three questions:

1. What new or old tools are you attached to in your art practice?

2 . What tools have you rejected?

3. What have the tools done to your art?

The artists, writers, and musicians who have joined me here straddle different worlds and reflect the range of my own interests. I avidly follow their boundary-breaking practices.