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<nettime> interview with Kathy Rae Huffman, part one
Josephine Bosma on Sat, 1 Aug 1998 17:47:25 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> interview with Kathy Rae Huffman, part one


Kathy Rae Huffman has been working in the electronic arts, from video
to internet art, from the mid seventies. Her career started in
California, and she went via Boston in the early eighties to Austria,
Europe. She is a curator, writer and an artist (though she would
probably not use this last word for herself). In Europe she
collaborated with the Van Gogh TV crew on the Piazza Virtuale,
curated exhibitions and she published articles and reviews.

In '95 she decided to set up some projects of her own, together with
her friend, the artist Eva Wohlgemuth. The first of these was Siberian
Deal, the second the project Face Settings, which is currently running
as a website and as a travelling 'meeting place' at many different
locations. Together with Diana McCarty she started the mailinglist
for women in new media "Faces".

This interview concentrates on Kathy Rae Huffman's history before
her artwork mostly. It is supposed to fill a gap in knowledge about
her work, since she is now mostly known for her work with Eva
Wohlgemuth and Diana McCarty. It offers a nice atmospheric view
of video in the seventies and it approaches VanGoghTV from a different
angle.



JB: When was it you went to artschool?

Kathy Rae Huffman: I went to California State University Long Beach,
The School of Fine Art, and got an MFA in Exhibition Design (Minor
was Radio/Film/Television) in Long Beach California. I went to CSULB
from 1973 until I did my final paper in 1979.
I was in the department of fine arts. I have a BA in art and an
MFA in exhibition design. For the MFA you have to have two majors,
one in the School of Art and one outside of the department, so it
a very complicated course. I had exhibition design in the art
department and my second major outside the art department was in
Radio/Film/Television.
'Video' was very new - the name didn't mean anything to most people.
There was a new program at the Long Beach Museum, which started in
1974. David Ross came there as Deputy Director of the Museum, there
were big plans to build a new Museum that included a Cable TV
'head-in' in '74.

When David Ross came to Long Beach, he had to find video equipment
for his program, because there was none in the museum at that time.
The place were they found it (and this began a series of overlapping
coincidences for me), was the Sony Porta Pak that was stored under
my desk at the Long Beach Public Library where I worked as a the
staff artist.

For the public library, I did things like design the bookmarks and
Summer Reading Game designs, all the various things like taking
photographs of events and whatever you do to make graphic
posters, etc. in a library. The video equipment was obtained
through a grant for oral history, and there was no place to store it.
I had the space so they stored it in my studio. I didn't know what it
was, and I didn't care. I was busy drawing pictures of bunnies
reading books, you know, then dashing off to classes.

When David Ross came to town, all of a sudden my office was filled
with artists and other outside people with this equipment spread
all around, telling me to move over and make room for them. I was
somehow a little bit wondering what it was all about, to put it
nicely.  So I went to the librarian in charge, and asked: "What is
this, they are asking me questions, but I don't know what it is.."
She said:" Oh, its very very very complicated, you have to have
special classes at the university. It is very special, and you
shouldn't touch it!" I said:" Tell me who it is that can teach me"
She: "Oh..you'll never be able to blablabla..."

I looked up the woman she referred me to, who was in the educational
television department, at CSULB. She was *so* nice, she was in her
fifties. She said:"You want to learn how to do this? It's no problem,
you can't do it wrong..."
Well, that was not all true, but after that point I became more or
less in charge of this Porta Pak and the video documentation of events.
I also learned that that was a big burden, because I had to carry the
stuff around and set it up, break it down.  It took a lot of time.
That part wasn't so bad, but I hated editing.  We had no real editing,
it was just stopping and starting the tape, really terrible.
They called it 'bang editing'  because there were these glitches every
time. It was impossible to be accurate. I was part of the graphic
design program, and I was used to very precise things, so this made me
crazy. I said: "Better leave that to other people, and let's do
something else with it."

JB: What did you do editing video's?  Did you make art video's?

Kathy Rae Huffman:
When I was at the library they would want documentation of events
or festivals. By default, like I said, I was the one who
would take the equipment, set it up, make the documentation of these
speeches and this and that. Of course nobody was going to watch this
material. It ended up being hours and hours of half-inch tapes
sitting on a shelf. So, the idea was to edit them onto smaller, twenty
minute tapes, but there was no place to do that. There was no editing
facility at that time. I just said, ok, leave the tapes on the shelf,
and by the way why are we even doing this?
Later, when I did my internship at the Long Beach Museum for the
Museum Studies course, by 1975 they had set up the first half-inch
editing for artists at the museum, but not as a community service.

Soon after I got interested in video, I enrolled in a course in museum
studies, because I realised there had to be a way for me to do
something with the medium in a space. The only way I could think of
to get access to the University art galleryspace was get into this two
year program, where I could eventually do an exhibition.
I started that course in '75 I believe it was. It was a class of
twelve women, and we worked together as a team over two years. This
was simultaneously with the other degree course work.  Each of us
had to choose an artist and a medium to work with. Our topic was:
Beyond the Artists Hand..
It was concerned with how art can be influenced by the audience, or
how other functions or institutions change it. I was allready deeply
into video, by the way. I had read a lot about it, and I was a very
enthusiastic supporter. I had a graduate advisor who was really great
and encouraged me to put all of my energy, in all the courses I was
taking, somehow in that reference, to think in terms of how it might
relate to video.

So in this Museum Studies course, we began with twelve of us sitting
around a table. I happened to be the last one. I can still remember
I was literally jumping up and down in my seat, because I was excited
to tell everyone what I wanted to do. My project was going to be about
video (the others were working with weaving, painting or printmaking,
things like that). Everybody was nodding with approval at each
presentation. Then finally it was my turn, and I said:" Oh yes, I want
to work with a video artist."  When I looked around the table there was
a complete blank look on everybody's face. Nobody knew what it was...
nobody in the whole class. I have to say I have seen that look many
many times since then.  It was a realisation: " Oh my God, how can
I be interested in something so great and so many people don't know
anything about."
That started me off to realise there was also some work to be done.

I had this little bit of practice with the video equipment in the
library and a little bit of understanding of how painful it was
to edit something so that anybody could watch it. I was very
discouraged with all of these attempts.
So I thought:" Now I want to try and be in the company of an artist
who would really understand this problem. I could learn from that
person, and I could also see how I could go another step." I was
really fortunate to be introduced to Bill Viola, who was visiting,
just passing through town, a young video artist nobody had really
heard about too much in California.. I met him through David Ross'
recommendation. At this time I had long pigtails, wore things
like long Levi skirts (with big star patches), round gold rim glasses,
etc. etc.. It was another era.  Bill was very sweet, and patient.
After we had a lot of talking, we ended  up working together for one
and a half years on what turned out to be a very big project.  He
called it Olfaction, and it was an interactive installation, with
sound and video.
The persons who entered the gallery, and sat in a chair, had their
image mixed with Bill's image. Somehow it was quite advanced for that
time, and it worked for the entire exhibition.
I always tried to match that level of achievement for every show.
Whenever I worked with an artist after that, there were ways I had
learned to make sure things work.

Working with Viola taught me a lot, at the very beginning. He is very
much a perfectionist, and he is very concerned that his message is
clear. I had a good artist teacher at the beginning, and we have
remained close friends all these years.

JB: Is it because you were in artschool that you decided to
explore this medium video more through the art connection instead
of with so-called other 'professionals'?

Kathy Rae Huffman: I think it was just a practical solution to
this course. It was an art exhibition. Also the Long Beach Museum
just started of their program. I had been to every video exhibition
they presented.  At first I was confused about the medium. I did not
really understand what was so interesting about it, at that time, when
for example somebody waswalking around with a camera focused on the
ground. I had a problem with that. Today I can look at it through a
theoretical context and I can understand it, but when I was looking
as a visitor to a museum, I was real confused. So I wanted to know
something more that could happen, something that could involve
people, interactively, and that would transform the space and would not
just be an exercise in using up a half-inch 60 minute reel of tape. I
wanted to explore live real possibilities. I had to ask a lot of
artists if they were interested in doing something like that. Actually
Bill was the one who responded very quickly to that concept, and
got into it with a very exited response. It was a very good working
situation. He gave a lot of lectures at the school too.

Years later, he and his wife moved to Long Beach, and Kira Perov
worked as my assistant in the Museum, from 1982-84, when I was curator.

JB: You never related the video art to television?

Kathy Rae Huffman: I was most interested in cable TV. I spent any free
time I had during these years, which wasn't a lot, going to the cable TV
station, where I would volunteer in the public access studio to work
the camera or work in the control booth.  We did a live local news
program, and different kinds of programs. I made a lot of friends at the
cable station there, and also at other cable stations.  I would often go
to regional cable TV conferences.

In 1983, we co-organized a statewide conference of arts and cable
television stations, that is probably not even written down there
<refers to bio>, in 1983. This was a big year for me, where the Museum
did a big conference on cable TV and the arts in Long Beach. I was the
coordinator of that conference. We did a lot of live broadcasting during
the conference, and we even wanted to do live broadcasting from the
museum. We made a lot of negotiations with a cable station to install a
feedline from our video studio, but that never happened. It could have,
but we would have needed to invest some money, which was needed for
better editing equipment.

JB: Looking back now, do you think there was a connection between
video art and television?  Was there any influence on cable
television coming from video art?

Kathy Rae Huffman:  For us in Long Beach, no. It was a lot of fun for
the people involved, and a lot of energy. Some really interesting
projects happened, but I don't think that the cable companies in
California ever really got involved with artists. They didn't see it as
other than a way to fill up their daily program schedule. We would
do programs on exhibitions in the museum. We would do parallel cable
broadcasts which we had to produce, to these art programs.
We also tried to do art series on cable TV, and would repeat the
programs in Long Beach, in LA and in Santa Barbara. In the end, I
had to go every week to the stations personally,  pick up the tape,
drive it to LA, go back the next day, pick it up and drive up to
Santa Barbara and then drive back. Otherwise, they would just sit on
it or play it for 24 hours over and over.  The Cable programmers had
no concept. The worst thing I remember was when in Santa Barbara one
series was showed, which was originated at the Kitchen, NY. The series
was called "Made for TV". The first tape on the series was by Vito
Acconci. When that tape got to Santa Barbara, they refused to play it.
They said this was not art. ...Acconci is a very important artist -
I was frustrated.

We were just banging our heads at cement walls at some points. Either
it had to happen on a much higher level then anybody in the art
business was willing to go, none of the people at directors level
could continue making this kind of push, or we were just a little
bit off of our timing.

But, I did a lot of television in the rest of the years that I worked
with video. I always had this feeling that television was kind
of the perfect way to show this work. It should be there. It's the
medium it's created in, and it should be shown there. Somehow it was
never the interest of television to have art there. There were only
a few visionary people in television stations that would stick their
neck out, and they started to disappear at some point and then it
became almost impossible.

JB: Of course video art has not only had problems with television
stations, having work shown, but it had also a lot of trouble getting
recognized in art circles. Could you tell us something about that?

Kahy Rae Huffman: It never had any trouble getting recognized in
my art circles...but it's true. I think it was this double edged
problem with the medium itself. The audiences for museums and
galleries don't go to museums or galleries to watch television, they
go to see what they call art. They want to see pictures. It took a
long time before the audiences were developed who care about this
kind of work and who understood it. That's ten years or more work
on audience development. So, if video art was starting to be seen
in Museums widely in the late seventies, it's twenty years, that not
long. Now it's a fairly included medium. Look at documenta x. It's
included everywhere. It's included in all the major biennales. There
was a time when it was a real struggle to get this medium included,
when it was ghettoised in some little corner, in the back. The list
of the tapes would also be in in the back of the catalogue, with no
pictures. It was very discouraging for artists as well.  I think
that is why a number of artists, like Bill Viola, like Gary Hill,
Dara Birnbaum and Joan Jonas, had to start demanding bigger forums
for their work. That is the only way it got appreciated, because then
it became BIG. Major museums want BIG things, they want to attract big
audiences, they want big, impressive works.

Video was never this kind of impressive medium, it was often a very
personal thing.  Watching TV is somehow associated with familiar places.
In my mind it never was necessary to be this 'impressive' thing, but
obviously artists can make impressive media installations and they do.
And, it is impressive! If you see the installations of Bill Viola...
they touch parts of you that are somehow conditioned allready by TV.
He knows how to play against those things that you have in your memory.
He plays with your perception, not in the wrong sense, but by knowing
how to use your visual knowledge, how you understand moving images in
time. We've learned a lot of those things by watching TV or film all
our lives, most of us. Artists study this. They analyse reactions.
Thats another side of artists who use video.

I am very committed to this work still, but I think I did my part in
that mediums' development.

JB: Besides the situation in the museum and television there is also
the situation in the art school, where video is taught. There
used to be a big gap between people studying video and other
arts students. It seems as though all electronic
media are seperated very much from 'old media-art', in every sense.

Kathy Rae Huffman: I have not had such a close relationship with
schools to be so informed about this 'now'. Some of the best programs
are integrated programs, where there is computer graphics, there is also
video, performance, architecture.  Where all those students can cross
over and take other courses, they do fabulous work. If it's
a school where people are isolated into compartments that's a real
pity, both for the students and the teachers, who are missing out on
their chance to learn something from the interpolation.

JB: What else did you do before you came to Europe?

Kathy Rae Huffman: Long Beach was one thing. I worked there as a
curator of the museum.  We had a video editing studio, and a very big
collection of art video tapes. We had programs going all
the time, we had artists in residence, we had computer equipment
allready in 1980, when we bought an Apple II plus, with a graphics
tablet. I demanded that we do this. We gave workshops for artists,
but nobody could figure out how they could use this in their work.
We did use it a little bit ourselves, but it was really underutilized,
completely. It was a start. We tried to do an exhibition program
that overlapped with the studio productions in some area's. I curated
an exhibition in '83 called The Artist and the Computer.
We made a cable tv program about that. We had workshops in the video
studio, which was in a former Firestation in another part of town.
Our equipment was always going back and forth across town --all the
time. It was very active, very work-intensive, a very fun and exiting
time.

I got an offer to move to Boston in 1984, so I went. It was to take
the position of curator/producer of the Contemporary Art Television
(CAT) Fund.
I was also adjunct curator at The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)
in Boston. This special project was in collaboration with the WGBH New
Television Workshop to produce artists works for television, to try to
expand this field in some way, with artists who were not necessarely
using video so much, and also to give video artists a chance to expand
their goals to TV. I tried to raise money to make it a self sustaining
operation, which of course never really worked. I worked in Boston as
long as I worked at the Long Beach Museum of Art - six years. For me
when I look back they are kind of equal sections of my professional
life. Six years in Long Beach and the six years in Boston.

JB: When you say this, does this also mean both these six years had
a special meaning? So the six years in Boston added something new
to your work?

Kathy Rae Huffman: I think yes. The eastcoast is very different from
the westcoast. The eastcoast is much more theoretical, much more
involved with reading and texts. I was working with collegues at
the ICA who were much more intellectual then the people I was working
with in Long Beach. I started reading more, I started discussing ideas
more. It was less physical activity and public relations, as was the
idea of culture in California. We had to compete with Disneyland in
California. In Boston it was another mentality. We competed with
New York.
I think it was very important to be part of this very studious
environment. There was a lot of new information coming out of MIT,
coming out of Harvard, coming out of the whole NewYork scene..so yes,
it was very different.
I got much more involved with artists working with digital processes.
I commissioned one of Bill Seaman's early works, an interactive
computer work. I did a lot of shows using computers in the museum.
It was still a little bit tough to interest audiences, but easier
than Long Beach.  We introduced Jeron Lanier to the art audience.
After Siggraph 89 (which was held in Boston) he returned to make a
presentation of Virtual Reality at The ICA.  We had 400 people lined
up outside the door, with a frontpage story on the Christian Science
Monitor. This was cool.

JB: This new theoretical approach, how did it change your thoughts
about how you were working, on what you should be doing?

Kathy Rae Huffman: I don't know if I know what I am doing (laughs)
I started spending more time reading about television, analytical
approaches to television. I started to be more conscious about
television and how it affects society. I became more interested
in international approaches that artists have towards television.
In California we were quite removed from the art dialogue that was
concerned with an International discourse...we had other concerns,
like most local or regional areas (even in Europe)...we were a small
institution, could not afford to bring big names from Europe, and
most of the critique seemed very very remote to us.

Boston, on the other hand, was in the cross-road of the Europe
traveller...and The ICA was an extrememly high visibility insitution,
prominent artists were always dropping in to visit us, and our shows
were regularly reviewed in the most important art journals.  It was a
different league from the Long Beach regional scene, even though we
worked hard and did important work in California, especially to give
artists the basic postproduction tools and often their first exhibition
experience.
Boston was the most interesting area in the US during this time, mainly
because of a high level interest in new media. The Arts Council was
wealthy, there was lots of private support and the public was amazing --
educated, alive and responsive. Nothing stays the same forever.

I did a big exhibition, with the MOCA in Los Angeles and the Stedelijk
Museum in Amsterdam in '87, and worked closely with Dorine Mignot and
Julie Lazar. We worked out the dominant issues of international
responses by artists to the television medium. I was really starting
to travel more to Europe then, realising: "O my God, everybody in
Europe is looking forward to private TV", because they thought it
was going to open up the channels to the public.  We Americans were
saying: "No no, you have it perfect. Private TV will close down
everything."
The changes in Europe didn't really open things.  A little bit, some
new channels like Arte have developed, but not for experimental work.
We were hoping we could share some experiences of what it was like to
work in America. I worked with European artists regularly
in Boston and we had a heavy theoretical discourse about the
whole medium and its social aspects.

JB: From Boston you moved to Europe..

Kathy Rae Huffman: To Austria, in '91. That was a purely personal
choice. It was not for a job. I had a friend and just decided it was
an interesting time for change. There were big changes going on at
The ICA. David Ross had accepted a job at the Whitney Museum of
American Art in NewYork, as a director. The Massachusetts Council on
the Arts and Humanities had changed focus, there would be many changes
in the whole art structure of the city soon. Most of the curators I
enjoyed working with at The ICA were leaving for other jobs. With the
bottom falling out of the funding, I thought: maybe all these things
point to something else happening, so let's take a chance on yourself.
I had no idea how I could survive. I had never had to worry about
a paycheck, since I had positions in the museum. I had no idea how to
present myself. I had to learn all these things. I still don't think
I do a very good job of it, but I am not so worried about it any more.

JB: What did you do in Europe, did you start writing there?

Kathy Rae Huffman: I had saved a little bit of money, I did not have
many expences. I basically wanted to go around and see things in a
detached a way as I could. I was not there for a purpose, I was just
there to observe. I wanted to start to see things as an insider, not
as a person from America, coming for three days and then leaving. I
started to get the sense of how things were very very different then
most Americans perceive them to be.

Even today, Americans ask me, 'what's happening in Europe' -
like it is one country.  That is just an American misperception,
they often think that everyone here is somehow connected, much like
it is in the states...where institutions are associated in
professional organizations, individiuals in professional organizations,
where networking works strongly to share resources and reduce costs of
Institutions.
Also, most Americans don't understand the hierarchy and how it operates
here in Europe, nor the lack of power that women have in the art world
here (where they have a major lack of influence). In America, the
process, budget, advance schedules etc. are all very transparent and
public. Here, things are kept hidden until the last possible moment
when it must be revealed....as an example: Catherine David
kept many of her selections for Documenta X secret until the
last minute.

I spent a lot of time going around to different festivals, just
looking at different museums. I was able to give some talks, which
helped me a bit. I didn't want to just jump in and start being this
American coming to tell everybody what to do. I wanted to learn
something. I think I probably wanted to make a personal shift.
I brought stacks and stacks of books with me that I hadn't read.
I started reading more and I did start writing, a bit. I started
writing because I needed to earn some money. Of course everybody who
writes knows that you don't earn much money by doing that, but every
little bit helps.

I also did some organizing for Ars Elctronica. Some video shows,
some festival organisations.

JB: Was there a need for your knowledge?

Kathy Rae Huffman: I don't know. I didn't push myself very strong.
It was a conscious thing on my part. I wanted to make a more natural
integration. I wanted to see what it was that I could really do, what
it was I could offer. People were pretty well informed in Europe. Also
when you live some place..nobody wants to loose their position.
Everybody fights very hard for their position everywhere.
I just kept moving around seeing things, and it was great, because
now I have a lot of places where I can find information from many many
sources.  If I would have jumped right in, and would have started
working in an institution in Austria, I think I would have been in
the same spot as I was in Boston or Long Beach, where you get focussed
in on one place and the problems of that one place. I wanted to get a
bigger picture somehow.


end of part one

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