Figures: EAI website an database.

On March 17, Professor Hanna Hölling’s In Focus: Revisions—Art, Materiality, and Continuity in Fluxus (1960s-70s) class met in Chelsea at the offices of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI) for a fascinating discussion with Executive Director Lori Zippay about the history of the organization and its unique approach to the conservation of video and media art. Founded by Howard Wise in 1971, EAI is one of the first nonprofit organizations in the United States dedicated to the preservation and distribution of video art. Prior to founding EAI, Wise directed the Howard Wise Gallery on 57th Street, which exhibited kinetic art and intermedia works, including many artists’ earliest experiments with video technology.

To give us an idea of the kind of works being exhibited at Wise’s gallery, Zippay showed us a film clip taken by the BBC of Tony Martin’s Game Room (1968), a highly interactive and experiential work utilizing multiple electronic technologies. Visitors were encouraged to participate in the piece in a variety of ways, including changing effect sequences and altering light and sound. Visitor collaboration was important to the meaning of many kinetic and multimedia artworks, which aimed to create communal experiences that moved beyond a traditional transmitter/receiver or artist/viewer relationship.

Undoubtedly the gallery’s most important exhibition for the emerging field of video art was “TV as a Creative Medium” in 1969, dedicated entirely to video and television art. While the notion of promoting electronic media art may not faze us today, Howard Wise’s early support of the ephemeral medium, which was not only difficult to make without TV studio equipment until the introduction of portable video recorders in the late 60s, but also difficult to commodify, was highly exceptional. EAI grew organically out of artist need, becoming steward to thousands of electronic media projects that neither fit into conventional gallery systems nor into conventional TV broadcasting networks.

In 1972, EAI opened a facility for manual video editing, and in 1973 the organization founded its distribution service. Preservation and restoration of video works are also key services at EAI, and promote renewed access to rare and delicate early video works. According to Zippay, making video art accessible to the public is a crucial component of EAI’s mission. Reading about a video piece is not the same as viewing it in real time; thus conservation activities involve both material manipulation and the creation of copies through data migration. Works are retained in both their original format—typically in an offsite storage facility—and in lossless or digital data formats. All migratory embodiments of the work over its history (sometimes many and sometimes very few, depending on when the work arrived at EAI) are also retained, which allows a work’s migration process to be tracked.

Figures: EAI website an database.

Virtually all of EAI’s video works are now digitally distributed. It was interesting to learn how artists are often involved in the digital migrations/mutations of their works. Chance events, such as scratches or “noise” sometimes occur during the digital transfer of these works. Sometimes artists like these changes and decide to keep them as part of the “authentic” work. In class we have discussed the ramifications of transferring a 16mm film to a digital rendering, which include the loss of the auditory rattling of the film being looped through the projector. Certain artists, such as Bruce Nauman, indicated to EAI that they would like the soundtrack of a 16mm film to be played over a work that has been moved to the digital.

One of the highlights of our visit was being able to watch Nam June Paik’s video Button Happening. Filmed in 1965, this work is considered Paik’s earliest extant tape made on his Sony Portapak camera. Zippay explained that EAI only discovered it around the time of Paik’s retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2000. The two-minute video consists of Paik buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket, but the resolution of the film is quite fuzzy. Paik, however, liked the “error” and decided not to have it edited out. This approach to the video certainly aligns with the spirit of Fluxus; not only does the act of repeatedly buttoning and unbuttoning a jacket evoke humor (or, perhaps boredom), but the film also highlights the materiality of the medium of video, not unlike some of the structuralist films we discuss in the digital interactive for the upcoming In Focus exhibition Revisons-Zen for Film. We also had the opportunity to watch Paik’s 1986 Butterfly, a two-minute video-collage of digital image and music. The last ten seconds of this video are “noise,” which occurred by mistake in the editing process. Paik ended up liking this element and decided to not have it fixed; the error became the piece.

Additionally, Zippay addressed some of the issues involved in authoring/dating these processual video works. She acknowledged the importance of the video editor, who often collaborated with the artists in the EAI studio, but are frequently ignored. This issue directly relates to Paik’s filmic work Zen for Film, in focus of our exhibition. Fluxus impresario George Maciunas created and disseminated certain iterations of Paik’s work, challenging the idea of singular authorship. While we certainly attribute Zen for Film to Paik, how much authorial agency might actually be ascribed to Maciunas? An issue that goes in tandem with authorship is the dating of these video works. As Zippay noted, the artists sometimes decided to change their works as they undergo digital mutation. It can, therefore, be complicated to assign a particular date to a given work, seeing as video and film works inherently undergo changes in their ongoing lives, which is an issue we have grappled with in our conversations on Zen for Film.

Post by Linden Hill and Lara Schilling.