By Anna Gurton Wachter
The artist Cynthia Maughan made around three hundred works on video in her lifetime. I had the opportunity recently to watch a sampling of them, when New York University screened them as part of October’s Archiving the Arts conference. In introducing the work, conservator Jonathon Furmanski offered an observation that has stuck with me. He described how, in the development of her video-making sensibility, Maughan at some point began tailoring her pieces to the precise length of her tape. This small gesture, eliminating the unavoidable shot of Maughan turning off her equipment that had theretofore ended almost every video, was significant, perhaps integral, to the artist’s work. But its significance, as Furmanski noted, was linked to the original medium in which the work had been made; digitization of the videos would flatten the relationship between artist, procedure, and medium. Furmanski framed the dilemma as commonplace for the guardians of work which, like Maughan’s, threatens to vanish into disregard and oblivion. How to preserve the original contexts, intentions, and formal realities of such work, without sacrificing the accessibility that digitization can provide? Furmanski’s own poetic suggestion was that he hoped to do so precisely by sharing his own curatorial narrative, as a way of preserving through storytelling.
When I came home from the conference, electrified by Maughan’s work, my first impulse was to share my discovery with colleagues and friends. I was frustrated to discover that, outside the environment of the conference, Maughan had no work for me to share online, and, besides a brief blurb provided by Electronic Arts Intermix, there was virtually no information to be found on her. The paucity of information and absence of work accessible on the internet highlights the ways in which digitization must often precede discussion.
I was reminded of an experience I had months earlier, returning home from Columbia, Missouri’s 2012 True/False documentary film festival. My mind had been blown by Viktor Kossakovsky’s 1994 feature The Belovs, about elderly siblings who live together in the Russian countryside, enduring poverty, boredom, and the characteristically Russian brand of melancholy known as toska. The film was beautifully constructed and an emotional powerhouse—again I wanted to share it with the world and could not.
These frustrations will be familiar to many. In an age in which Ubuweb, Kenneth Goldsmith’s immensely valuable free online arts archive, makes a huge and brilliantly curated selection of audio and video works available to anyone with a web browser, the financial and temporal burdens of large-scale digitization continue nonetheless to thwart access to much vital work that deserves a wider audience. These thoughts were occupying me on a recent visit to the new MoMa Media Lounge, essentially a hallway lined with rows of viewing booths leading to the education center cum cafe. The booths contain ipad interfaces through which guests can browse the available videos with wonderfully intuitive displays: one can search by artist’s name, curator’s highlights from the collection, or affiliations among artists. The curator’s statement not only included information placing the works in context, but also explained the stages of the lengthy digitization process—an additional formulation close to that offered by Furmanski. Interacting with the display, I was pleased to find that I could jump from a film by David Wojnarowicz to one by Patty Chang to one by Ardele Lister. I thought about how these disparate performance pieces, single channel videos, and documentary styles were being aggregated under one vast umbrella. Undoubtedly, it was a joy to see some works from the beginning that I had only previously walked by halfway through in the museum. Did this new shape-shifting space of the gallery change the meaning of the works?
Another provocative example of the changes happening in the viewing of video works was a Q & A I witnessed with the artist Hennessy Youngman at Electronic Arts Intermix. I was intrigued from the start: Youngman’s videos, including those he had just screened, circulate widely on YouTube. What, then, was the significance of screening them before an audience in a gallery setting? Were the comments left by YouTube users on Youngman’s page a part of the piece? Criticism of it? How did the piece change when taken out of the interactive online forum and did it challenge the accepted place of the work in a broader arts discourse? The answers, of course, are subject to debate and presently in flux. The formal, curated exhibition was not the primary locus of encounter with the work, and accordingly its legitimacy and value descended from the dual space the artist inhabits as both populist and art world insider.
While this may sound like a ringing endorsement of Youngman’s exhibition practices, those practices raise questions as urgent (and as unanswered) as any. In which method of viewing is the piece being shown in line with the original intentions of its creator? It is clear that along the road to easier video access there is much contextual information that will need to be retrieved as well. If the MOMA Media Lounge is the direction large institutions are heading in, we must also take a moment to stop and think about what these new contexts for video mean, and acknowledge how the location and method of viewing might also serve to change what is seen.