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A woman adjusts one of seven TV monitors perched on a row of classical pedestals, sculpted tree trunks, and an urn. Various landscape images are visible on the screens.

Mary Lucier installing Wilderness (1986).

Uncovering the Secret History of Video Art at the Carnegie

In many ways, the story of video at Carnegie Museum of Art is the story of curator Bill Judson. Taking over from Sally Dixon, who founded the department in 1970, Judson directed the Department of Film and Video from 1975 to 2003. While continuing to champion film as an art form, he deliberately turned the department’s attention and resources to the burgeoning field of video art. While video artists had shown work at CMOA before, the early 1980s saw the birth of three new initiatives: (1) a rash of striking large-scale sculptural video installations; (2) the display of single-channel work in a dedicated video gallery for the very first time; and (3) live performance involving video featuring artists such as Laurie Anderson, Joan Jonas, and Ulrike Rosenbach. Asked “whether performance art was part of his curatorial responsibility” along with film and video, Judson responded, “If it moves, it’s mine.”1 

The history of video art at CMOA lies housed in its extensive archive of letters, diagrams, memos, drafts, grant applications, photos, slides, films, videos, catalogues, journals, and books. From its very beginnings, the department’s key mission has been to make its holdings accessible to scholars and researchers. My time there in April 2017 revealed not only the official history of innovative video programming at CMOA but also a treasure trove of ephemera that describes its “secret history.” These documents convey excitement, the occasional controversy, and day-to-day frustration over the technological constraints of early video, sometimes with hilarious frankness.

A bearded man stands amid film equipment.
Bill Judson in 1991. Photograph: Robert Ruschak.

For example, video artist James Byrne wrote to Judson about problems with installation. Byrne planned to show a number of works at CMOA, including the elegant …This Fountain Is a Field of Fire… (1982) with its seven monitors suspended near the courtyard’s glass walls:

I hope things are going better than when I talked to you last.… I have thought over the possibility of not hanging the monitors and I prefer to do something entirely different if the monitors cannot be hung.… I [also] hope your controversy with the male genitals is resolved.2 

Letters such as this raise questions. Which artwork had sparked the problem with male genitals? Could it have something to do with concern over the public’s response to viewing said genitals on-screen? Or could it have something to do with the configuration of Byrne’s Phase (1981), which Newsweek described as a “marvelous dangling diamond of four television sets … which continually repeat each other like the angled mirrors in a kaleidoscope”?3 

A diamond composed of four video monitors dangles from the ceiling. The images displayed on each monitor combine to form a coherent picture.
James Byrne, Phase (1981), at CMOA.

A Public History of Video Art

The public history of video at CMOA is impressive. In seven short years, between 1981 and 1988, Judson and the department exhibited seven one-person video installations, and acquired many of them for its collection in an intentional gambit to raise the status of video art within the museum. In addition to Byrne’s “marvelous dangling diamond” of television sets, a visitor to the museum would have encountered video installations such as Steina Vasulka’s 360-degree mirrored Allvision globe (1982–83) in all its sculptural glory, with its circling cameras transmitting whatever they caught live onto monitors. He or she might have come across Francesc Torres’s Tough Limo (1983) video installation with its model military tank and live iguanas; Mary Lucier’s beautiful Ohio at Giverny (1983) with its lush, layered images arcing across seven monitors; Dara Birnbaum’s wall-spanning Will-o’-the Wisp (1985); and Bill Viola’s The Sleep of Reason (1988), with its images of quiet dreamers and room-filling triple projections of “burning buildings, fierce dogs, a forest at night.”4 

A pair of video cameras, mounted opposite each other, point toward a silver sphere in the center. Two video monitors stand to the right.
Steina Vasulka, Allvision (1976), at CMOA.

Between 1980 and 2003, CMOA’s Department of Film and Video, like other forward-looking programs at art institutions around the country, enthusiastically embraced both single-channel video art and installations, bringing in traveling video shows such as Video/TV: Humor/Comedy (1982), New Video: Japan (1986), and Art of Music Video (1990). Furthermore, CMOA’s first major home-grown shows of video installation, curated by Judson, made a number of important interventions in how video art should be displayed in the museum.

Video players and cassettes arranged on a wooden shelf behind a wall. A tangle of wires connects the equipment.
Equipment set-up for American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove (1988).

For example, the thematic American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove (1988) focused on multichannel installation-based work that responded to a range of influences, including “the ‘wasteland’ of commercial television,”5  satellite views of earth from space, earthworks, and the long tradition of landscape painting. Bringing together works by Doug Hall, Mary Lucier, Bill Viola, Steina Vasulka, Frank Gillette, and Rita Myers, Judson focused on large-scale video installation in relation to the broader history of landscape art, “rather than,” as he wrote, “once again treating video as a perpetually ‘new’ medium of undifferentiated, diverse” single-channel work.6 

Video monitors stand in a circle, mounted on black poles. The dark room contrasts with the bright images on-screen.
Steina Vasulka, The West (1983). Installation view from American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove (1988).

Likewise, in Points of Departure: Origins of Video Art (1991), Judson made the considered decision to exhibit important early video works in the context of each artist’s larger art practice amid a developing set of artistic concerns, whether through painting, traditional sculpture, photography, or other vehicles of expression. Intervening in what he saw as a widespread curatorial emphasis on video’s singularity and medium specificity, Judson sought to make connections across the individual oeuvres of Beryl Korot, Peter Campus, William Wegman, and Bruce Nauman. For example, he brought together Korot’s examinations of the patterns and gaps inherent to language across her video weavings in Dachau 1974 (1974), her gridded paintings such as Etty’s Rosetta (1985–86), and her explorations of woven textiles. Similarly, the show explored Nauman’s interest in mapping language, image, and the human body through video installations such as Live-Taped Video Corridor (1969), the arresting dual-channel Good Boy Bad Boy (1985), and prints such as I Learned Helplessness from Rats (1970).

A gallery space with various artworks. To the left are two stacked monitors sandwiched between temporary walls.
Bruce Nauman, Live/Taped Video Corridor (1969). Installation view from Points of Departure: Origins in Video (1990).

A Private History of Video Art

Yet, as late as 1978, just over a decade before these important video exhibitions took place, the archives reveal that many at CMOA expressed doubt as to whether video was even an art form. There was no video equipment for exhibition in the museum throughout the 1970s, meaning that video artists visiting Pittsburgh, while advertised in the museum’s film listings, needed to show their tapes somewhere else. Some artists, such as Robert Beck (1974), exhibited at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, run by longtime director Robert Haller; others, such as Amy Greenwald (1979), used the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library. As one diligent meeting minutes-taker at CMOA reported at the time: “To a question about the use of video tape in museum programs, Mr. Judson said some museums have tried it as an art form in its own right.7 

In a darkened space, viewers sit before a row of televisions with glowing screens.
A showing of Steina Vasulka’s video work at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, 1976.

Although many historians of video art have asserted that critics and museums claimed video as a new form of art from its origins in the mid-1960s,8  CMOA’s archives suggest that in practice there might have been continued uncertainty about the artistic status of video into the 1980s. This can be seen in an anecdote from Judson’s writing about Buky Schwartz’s Summer 1981 (1981), a piece that examined human and video perspective via an assortment of mirrors, video cameras, and monitors carefully arranged amid an array of massive logs. In his 1992 book on Schwartz, Judson tells a story about their first encounter in 1981, when in preparation for installing the piece, the two men “rented a chain saw and a dump truck and set out to collect a tree. We felled a Sycamore, cut it into about two dozen logs, each roughly two to four feet long, and brought the pieces back to the museum.”9  The perplexed installation crew back at CMOA was unsure as to whether, “as art handlers, this truckload of freshly cut logs fell within their domain.”10  While the story focuses on the issue of whether logs were ultimately firewood or art, I wonder if the crew’s uncertainty might also point to the newness of this kind of video installation work for a museum staff used to setting up more traditional—and contained—works of painting and sculpture. Such a moment makes us realize how strange the now taken-for-granted installation of video and objects might have seemed, even as late as the early 1980s.

A black-and-white image, apparently on a video monitor, that shows a man adjusting a tripod while standing amid a cluster of tree stumps. The light-colored outline of a house is painted across the tops of the stumps.
A monitor view of Buky Schwartz installing Summer 1981 (1981) at CMOA.

A few years later, a 1985 mission statement for the department written by Judson makes a case for the legitimacy of film and video at the museum, arguing that the primary purpose of the department was to “promote the understanding of film and video as art forms, and of film and video makers as artists,” on par with more traditional arts. While I initially took this to be addressing a need to educate the museum-going public, other documents made it clear that this was an ongoing problem among museum staff.

For all the department’s many accomplishments over its first decade, CMOA’s archive suggests that there was a felt struggle for its legitimacy within the museum. In 1991, a memo from Judson to various Carnegie Museum departments insisted that the Department of Film and Video was indeed an actual curatorial department, and “NOT,” as it stated, “an Audio-Visual Service Department!!” Emily Davis, senior research associate for CMOA’s Time-Based Media Collection, suggests that this was due in part to the department’s status as an early adopter of both video and computer technology.11  This meant that the department tended to be called upon for technical help just a little too often, turning Judson into, as he signed off with a wink, an “A.V. Grinch.”

From the outside, however, this uncertainty about video’s status would not have been visible. In addition to the advent of groundbreaking video installations, 1981 saw a newly established Video Exhibition Room. For the first time in its history, the museum had a dedicated gallery space for the (near) continuous display of single-channel video, mostly, as Judson described, “from the late 1960s and the 1970s, the first decade of video art.”12  Judson intended for the video gallery to place single-channel video art on par with both video installations and more traditional art forms. As he wrote in 1985, “The Video Gallery shares space with the exhibition of the permanent collection of modern painting, thereby reinforcing the museum’s position that video is an integral aspect of contemporary art.”13 

A printed sheet of directions with numbered actions for "morning start-up" and "evening shut-down." The marked-up paper includes highlighting, handwritten notes, and a labeled diagram of a video player.
Technical instructions for a Lonnie Graham work at CMOA.

Yet painting and sculpture did not have the same technical issues that video art suffered. Throughout the 1980s, video had yet to catch up to the conditions of its gallery display. In the Video Exhibition Room, single-channel work played “with only brief pauses for the tape to rewind,” as one technical memo explicitly directed. Other memos give detailed instructions to museum guards on the proper rewinding and restarting of synced multidevice video installations. As Judson wrote in a series of meticulous technical notes to the guards charged with maintaining Birnbaum’s three coordinated video decks for Will-o’-the-Wisp (A Deceitful Goal): “Every hour, after the red lights on the machines are off … Push all three ‘play’ buttons at the same time.”14  Clearly, the continuous automatic display of video, which we now take for granted, was not that continuous or automatic—to which I’m sure many a museum guard could attest.

The Ongoing History of Video Art at CMOA

As one of the many video installations that Judson acquired for CMOA’s collection, Birnbaum’s Will-o’-the-Wisp offers insights into the ongoing history of video art at the museum.

Birnbaum produced the work, a member of her expansive Damnation of Faust series, for CMOA’s sunlight-filled lobby as part of the 1985 Carnegie International, a major art exhibition held regularly in Pittsburgh since 1896. She conceived it as a triptych, with three video monitors set at varying heights and depths into a colorful floating wall constructed in front of the museum’s walls. One of the monitors would be flush with the floating wall, while the other two would protrude from the surface, held with supporting brackets. Eight transparent photo panels would fan across the floating wall, forming an enormous and somewhat abstract image of a woman’s face amid foliage. Behind the floating wall would lie the speakers and those pesky video decks, with their need for regular attendance.

A large black-and-white artwork depicting a woman's face amid foliage. This image, composed of several panels forming a curve, includes three inset monitors.
Dara Birnbaum, Will-o’-the-Wisp (1985), on display at CMOA.

Like every piece in CMOA’s collection, Will-o’-the-Wisp has an “object file,” a folder that contains all the information about how it should be set up and how it should look, as well as every bit of paper connected to it. This is the archive where curators and installers go when they want to remount a piece, often decades after it was originally exhibited. Will-o’-the-Wisp’s object file reveals the complicated nature of the original installation, much of which had to be arranged long distance via letters and phone calls; as one bewildered staffer wrote, “I do wish Bill Judson were around to hold her hand.”15  Of course, given the technical constraints and multiple parts associated with most video installation art, this situation was far from unique. Two years later, when Will-o’-the-Wisp was remounted for the American Landscape Video show, these instructions must have been fresh in memory. Then, after these two successful outings, the installation went into deep storage.

After decades out of commission, there would undoubtedly be a number of challenges to remounting Will-o’-the-Wisp, as notes from both 2006 and 2015 reveal. First, any effort to reinstall the piece would involve rebuilding the special floating wall, a task that would add both expense and labor. Related to this is the issue of converting the bulky monitors set within the floating wall to modern flat-screens; this would radically alter the aspect ratio, and flat-screens would not protrude into the space as initially intended. In addition, as CMOA archivist Davis notes in her 2015 report, while the photo panels were found to be in pretty good shape despite their time in storage, they would need to be reprinted before any remount.16  This would prove a difficult task given that the copy negatives for the image were nowhere to be found! There was, however, an answer: digital scans could be made from documentation of the original installation, enlarged, and reprinted.

A close-up view of curved panels and two video monitors.
Detail of Dara Birnbaum, Will-o’-the-Wisp (1985).

Technically, many other things had changed in those twenty-five-plus years during which Will-o’-the-Wisp lay disassembled. While most of the original equipment was found in storage, including speakers, monitors, and playback equipment, much of it was outdated. Thankfully, as Davis writes, technicians were able to migrate the original content of the video to three new sixty-minute master loops with video documentation about how they should be synced. This was a big job, but one that CMOA accomplished without too much trouble. Instead, it was the loss of a seemingly insignificant series of hardware-store components that would prove surprisingly inconvenient. Namely, the L brackets used to hold the original protruding monitors away from the wall were nowhere to be found and would likely have to be manufactured artisanally—by hand—from scratch.

Birnbaum’s Will-o’-the-Wisp has yet to be re-mounted at CMOA. This narrative of what it takes to reinstall the piece is just one history of a singular video installation. But it speaks to a set of important concerns as video art reaches its thirty-seventh year at CMOA. Each and every historical video installation we see today has its own secret history.


Endnotes

  1. William Judson, “Performance Art at the Carnegie,” Carnegie Magazine, September–October 1986, 26.
  2. James Byrne to Bill Judson, June 2, 1982. Series fv001/001/003/001, Box B005, Department of Film and Video Archive, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA (hereafter cited as Film and Video Archive).
  3. Newsweek, February 23, 1981, cited in an undated document on Byrne’s Phase. Series fv001/001/003/001, Box B005, Film and Video Archive.
  4. The Sleep of Reason: Narrative,” http://collection.cmoa.org/CollectionDetail.aspx?item=1026526.
  5. John Hanhardt, “The Discourse of Landscape Video Art: From Fluxus to Post-Modernism,” in American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 1988), 61.
  6. William Judson, “Introduction,” in American Landscape Video, 22.
  7. Minutes for December 7, 1978, meeting from Nancy Meyers to Bill Judson, December 21, 1978. Series fv001/001/001/001, Box B001, Film and Video Archive. Emphasis mine.
  8. For example, see Dierdre Boyle, “A Brief History of American Documentary Video,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture Foundation/Bay Area Video Coalition, 1990), 51-70. Also, Marita Sturken, “Paradox in the Evolution of an Art Form: Great Expectations and the Making of a History,” in Hall and Fifer, Illuminating Video, 101-21.
  9. Bill Judson, “Foreword,” in Buky Schwartz: Videoconstructions, ed. Bill Judson (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 1992), 9.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Conversation with Emily Davis at Carnegie Museum of Art, April 13, 2017.
  12. Bill Judson, “Video Gallery for Single-Channel Works,” 1985. Series fv001/001/007, Box B004, Film and Video Archive.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Memo from Bill Judson to Tim Wilkinson, July 25, 1986. Object file for Damnation of Faust: Will-o’-the-Wisp (A Deceitful Goal), 86.7.A–.D, Film and Video Archive.
  15. Staff memo regarding August 30, 1985, conversation with Dara Birnbaum to Barbara L. Phillips, Marcia L. Thompson, Geralyn Huxley, and Bill Judson, September 6, 1985. Artist file for Dara Birnbaum, Series fv001/001/003/001, Box B002, Film and Video Archive.
  16. The information in this paragraph and the next comes from Emily Davis’s 2015 Preservation Notes on Dara Birnbaum’s Will-o’-the Wisp (1985). Object file for Damnation of Faust: Will-o’-the-Wisp (A Deceitful Goal), 86.7.A–.D, Film and Video Archive.