Martin Rediscovers His Art On Video….

December 9, 2007
New York Times
The Getty Gets Serious About Video

EARLY this year the artist Martin von Haselberg, better known as one-half of the Kipper Kids performance duo, made a pilgrimage to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles to view a video he hadn’t seen since he created it in 1976. The institute had just rediscovered it in the Long Beach Museum of Art video archives, a trove of early work that the institute acquired in December 2005.

In many ways the tape is typical of the years when video was an exciting new art form, ripe for cheap experimentation, as well as a novel way to document another relatively new medium, performance art. The tape’s first half shows Mr. von Haselberg playing around with technology as he mugs behind a magnifying lens that grotesquely enlarges and distorts his features.

In the second half Mr. von Haselberg and the other Kipper Kid, Brian Routh, send up macho camaraderie by grunting and singing in cockney-accented gibberish while roughing each other up, urinating in tandem and stripping to the buff.

It also seems typical that until last summer Mr. von Haselberg (who later became a commodities broker and married Bette Midler) had forgotten the tape’s existence. Back then, as he noted, most artists weren’t too careful about keeping track of their video output.

“I don’t know if people were less obsessed by documenting, or if they were taking video less seriously,” he said in a telephone interview from his studio in Harlem. Many of the videos in the Long Beach archives, he added, were most likely “done on a lark.”

Today, however, the Getty is treating that archive, larks and all, with the seriousness that befits a significant slice of art history. Though the research institute has been slowly building its video holdings since it opened in 1982, the Long Beach acquisition suddenly transformed its collection into one of the world’s largest.

And since then, as a tiny team of institute staff members carefully catalog and conserve these holdings, they have in several cases rediscovered and reunited artists with long-lost work.

In March a fraction of the institute’s vast video holdings will go on view in three major shows: “Making It Together,” about early feminist art collaborations, opening on March 2 at the Bronx Museum of Art; the retrospective “Allan Kaprow: Art as Life,” opening on March 23 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; and the Getty’s own “California Video,” a joint project of the research institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, opening on March 15, that will offer video made in California between 1968 and 2008.

Yet as Glenn Phillips, the institute’s video curator, noted, even three shows can’t really convey the collection’s true riches. “When you have 6,000 tapes, you can only show a tiny selection,” he said. “That’s why something like the research institute makes so much sense.”

Unlike the handful of other museums in this country known for collecting video – including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Pacific Film Archive – the Getty does not have a strong contemporary-art reputation. But where video is concerned, its resources and scholarly perspective seem a surprisingly good fit.

Because the J. Paul Getty Trust administers the Getty Conservation Institute as well as the research institute, it is well equipped to carry out video conservation, a daunting task because it requires continual upgrades, copying and reformatting to cope with constantly changing technology. It can also provide public access to the collection via the institute’s library.

“We already have a system in place so that someone can walk in and look at things,” Mr. Phillips said. “It’s very easy to adapt that for video.”

The institute arrived at its video focus almost by accident. Where most museums typically acquire single artworks, its brief is to acquire collections; and many of those collections, Mr. Phillips noted, happened to include video.

The first major acquisitions arrived in 1994, along with the archives of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), a 1960s collaborative of artists and scientists founded by Billy Kluver, an engineer at Bell Labs. Included were videos of the 1966 New York performance series “9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering.”

Among them is Robert Rauschenberg’s performance piece “Open Score,” in which Frank Stella plays tennis with a pro on an indoor court. The rackets are wired with transmitters that gradually switch the lights off; a crowd then walks onto the court and its members perform a series of actions in darkness while Mr. Rauschenberg records them with an infrared video camera.

Through the years more videos trickled in, some via the archives of the composer David Tudor. But the “transformative moment,” Mr. Phillips said, was in 1998, when the institute acquired the archives of Kaprow, the father of “the happening” and “the environment,” precursors of today’s performance and installation art.

Today, Mr. Phillips said, Kaprow’s work generally survives as sketches, notes and audiovisual material. “What that’s meant for Kaprow is that museums rarely collect his work,” he said. “It’s an archive, but what’s contained within it is really the essence of the artwork itself.” And that archive also added almost 100 videos to the research institute’s collection, the earliest being “Hello,” an interactive happening produced at WGBH, the Boston public-television outpost, in 1968.

There were also videos by Kaprow’s friends, including Wolfgang Stoerchle and Nam June Paik. “Suddenly it wasn’t just a couple of tapes here and there,” Mr. Phillips said. “It was a really significant collection.”

The Kaprow acquisition helped propel the research institute in a more current direction. In 2002 Mr. Phillips was hired to handle contemporary programming; he began with a video series. From the start each program drew several hundred people, he said. “I think it’s because there’s a huge number of art schools here, and a huge number of artists.”

In 2003 the institute set up a contemporary research department and began looking at the early history of video around the world. The department’s director, Andrew Perchuk, started negotiations to acquire the Long Beach video archive, a legendary collection that had languished in storage since 1997 at the Long Beach Museum, barely a half-hour drive away.

“It was so tantalizing to hear of this extensive collection, which was so inaccessible,” Mr. Perchuk said.

That video program began in 1974 under the direction of David Ross, who later became the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Arriving in Long Beach, “I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven,” Mr. Ross said. “I was living in L.A., where there were all these fantastic artists who were trying to explore video, from John Baldessari and Bruce Nauman down to David Salle, down to people you’ve never heard of.”

The museum soon became a creative locus, showing early work by the likes of Mr. Baldessari and Mr. Nauman as well as Paik, William Wegman, Bill Viola and Martha Rosler, a recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego. Its regular programming included the Southland Video Anthology, an annual group cattle call that served as a showcase for just about everything watchable being made in the area. Because videotapes could be cheaply shipped around the world, Mr. Ross also showed programs by European artists like Jannis Kounellis and Joseph Beuys. Many artists today still refer to him as Captain Video.

In 1976 Mr. Ross, working with a Rockefeller Foundation grant, opened a postproduction art video studio – the first in Southern California – and invited artists to work with its cameras, equipment and editors, initially free of charge. Over the years, and long after Mr. Ross’s departure in 1978, a striking roster of videos was produced there, including Ms. Rosler’s “Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained” (1977), a critique of the objectification of women; Jim Shaw’s psychedelic fantasy “Billy Goes to a Party #4″ (1987); “Family Tyranny” and “Cultural Soup,” hilariously disturbing familial dramas enacted in 1987 by Paul McCarthy with Mike Kelley; and the Kipper Kids video.

A copy of almost everything that was ever shown, produced or edited at Long Beach went into its archives. Along the way it also absorbed the video holdings of the storied Woman’s Building, a feminist arts center in Los Angeles that closed in 1991.

But by 1995 the demise of public financing and the advent of digital technology had shuttered video programs all over the country. Rather than transfer all its holdings to digital formats, a highly costly undertaking, the Long Beach museum closed down the program.

The Research Institute is now carrying out that long-delayed task after acquiring the equipment needed to clean, play back and restore video formats that have become obsolete. Jonathan Furmanski, the institute’s conservator in charge of all media involving magnetic tape, works from a laboratory that can now handle numerous video formats, both modern and ancient.

Although several decks came with the archives, including those on which some of the tapes were created, Mr. Furmanski has also been acquiring extras on eBay. “Ideally you want at least two of everything,” he said. “It’s kind of like fixing up a car. You have one for parts.” Meanwhile maintaining the machinery can be as important as maintaining the tapes.

As works are cleaned and restored, Mr. Furmanski creates an analog copy that accompanies the original into cold storage and a digital tape used to generate DVD “use copies” that can be screened and lent. “When you’re dealing with this kind of material, you have to think less of the original than you do with other kinds of art,” Mr. Furmanski said. “You’re thinking of the best achievable copy.”

Because the collection is so vast and still not fully cataloged, he cannot say precisely how much of it he has restored so far, but he guesses about 5 to 10 percent.

Every artist whose work is conserved at the Getty is eligible to receive a copy, gratis. And any member of the public who wants to view the resulting DVDs can do so through the research institute’s library. “It’s our mission to preserve it and make it available,” Mr. Furmanski said.

As for Mr. von Haselberg, his trip to the Getty to see his long-lost video ended up being a pleasant surprise. “I was actually a little afraid of what my reaction would be,” he said, but he ended up finding it interesting.

He said the Getty’s restoration effort also changed his perspective on the Long Beach legacy.

“They’re taking care of them the way you’re supposed to,” he said of the videos. “It just made me think that I’d better take art a bit more seriously.”

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