Installation photographs of The Big Video Chair, 1987. Image courtesy of the Estate of Buky Schwartz.
As the media archivist and co-director of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art, I am responsible for ensuring the long-term accessibility and usability of the museum’s time-based media artworks. Time-based media is a broad term that refers to film, video, audio, digital, and computer-based artworks or installation art with a specified duration and a dependency on changing technology. Collecting, preserving, and exhibiting artwork with technological dependencies can present unique challenges for museums. By nature, they are unstable, they don’t exist until they are installed, and they generally require additional documentation to support installation and preservation efforts.
CMOA’s collection is comprised of nearly 1,000 time-based media works, including numerous complex artworks that have dependencies on obsolete technology such as a cathode ray tub (CRT) monitor or a slide projector. Since I started working on this project last year, I’ve been drawn to Buky Schwartz’s The Big Video Chair (1987), a sculpture comprised of wooden beams, mirrors, and a closed-circuit television (CCTV) system. From a conservation perspective, it’s an interesting piece that poses several unique challenges: it is dependent on obsolete technology; the condition of the technical components are unknown; it was defaced the last time it was on display in 1988, leaving the condition of the affected parts unknown; and there is very little documentation available.
BEST Products’ Tilt Showroom in Eudowood Plaza in Towson, Maryland, c. 1970. Image via Need Supply Co.
In architecture, the 20th century in America was the era of the suburban tract house, the anonymous office tower, the strip mall, and the big box store. Crank ‘em out, rake it in. Though today we’re moving back to city centers in droves, the big-box typology in particular remains as powerful as ever—even in the age of Amazon, one-stop discount shopping flanked by ample parking remains among the most fortuitous retail innovations of all time. From the explosive growth of companies like K-Mart in the 1960s, it didn’t take long before the US—and later most every industrialized country—was covered with them. By the 1970s, though, it had become abundantly clear that these non-places were a scourge on the urban landscape and an affront to intangibles like beauty, urban vibrancy, and quality of life.
Charles “Teenie” Harris, Protesters, including Rev. Bill Powell, James McCoy, Mal Goode, Byrd Brown, possibly Jim Scott, and Rev. LeRoy Patrick with signs reading: “Job opportunities for us too,” “We just want our God-given rights,” and “The soundness of our cause should prick your conscience,” outside Civic Arena, Lower Hill District, October 1961. Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz Family Fund.
There’s a spirit of resilience that runs through the streets of the Hill District. A hardness that outsiders shy away from but residents embrace. An undeniable mask of determination that don our elders faces from decades of being overlooked and fighting back. One need only glance at the images in Teenie Harris Photographs: Civil Rights Perspectives to understand the magnitude of this grit. Look closer at the crowds holding picket signs in front of a newly built Civic Arena or the protesters marching down Centre Avenue and you can almost hear the faint cadence of a “We Shall Overcome” chant. A call to action that some during that time didn’t hear but others, like community activist Sala Udin, couldn’t seem to ignore.
“Then, all you had to do was walk out the door and the movement swept you up like a wave and carried you down the street with it,” said Udin, who caught the wave at 19, and rode it to the capital to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the March on Washington. At a time when young people were listening to Malcolm X and SNCC and Dr. King to decide where they stood, Udin was trying to figure out who he was relative to this growing movement. “When I heard King talk about the bravery and the sacrifice of the civil rights workers in the Deep South, he answered that question by saying, come do this with your life. And I said yes.” Shortly after, Udin rode the wave further south to Mississippi and joined the effort of attacking legal segregation.
Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Domestic), 2002, cast plaster on various armatures; Owned jointly by Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; George B. and Jenny R. Mathews Fund and Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; The Henry L. Hillman Fund.
Like most museums, CMOA often has multiple artworks from a single artist in its permanent collection. Rachel Whiteread, one of the Young British Artists and the first woman to receive the prestigious Turner Prize in 1993, is a perfect example. While Untitled (Yellow Bath) is one of nine featured objects in the exhibition Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks, CMOA has another monumental work from the British-born artist that boasts a substantially larger footprint in the galleries. It’s also an artwork that reveals a somewhat uncommon shared arrangement between two museums.
Richard Armstrong, director of CMOA from from 1996 to 2008, with Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Yellow Bath) when it was on view in the Scaife Galleries. This photograph, taken by Cornelia Karaffa, originally appeared in the September/October 1998 issue of Carnegie magazine.
In the fall 1998 issue of Carnegie magazine, Richard Armstrong, director of CMOA from 1996 to 2008, walked through the galleries with editor R. Jay Gangewere while discussing some of his favorite works in the museum’s permanent collection. Though Armstrong highlighted a number of artworks that day—Pierre Bonnard, Nude in a Bathtub; Edgar Degas, The Bath (Le bain); Joan Mitchell, Wet Orange (Triptych); Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Afternoon; Willem de Kooning, Woman VI; and Mel Bochner, Measurement: Plant (Palm)—he saved his praise for Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Yellow Bath) until last: