I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Transforming California Video: A Change of Address (re: Getty Exhibition)

On Thursday night I attended the opening of California Video at the Getty Center, a lavish refuge nestled in the mountains overlooking L.A. After a tram ride up to the museum, I passed through a festive courtyard where hundreds of guests sampled a variety of international cuisines and schmoozed on their ways to and from the exhibition upstairs. Ascending once more, I paused to take in the spectacular view before entering the exhibition space and embarking on a journey into the past, an excursion—I would discover—with both cultural and personal dimensions.

While impressed by Glenn Phillips’s curatorial imagination, and delighted to see so many historically significant single-channel videos and video installations together in this stunning venue, I inadvertently flashed on the very different spatial conditions under which I first viewed much of the showcased work: For two years in the mid-1990s I was the video archivist at the Long Beach Museum of Art (LBMA), which donated its celebrated collection to the Getty and in this way provided the impetus for this show. (About half the tapes are from the LBMA collection and the rest are from other sources.) My impressions of California Video were colored by my experiences at LBMA shortly before the video program was phased out.

During the two years that I worked at LBMA, I spent most of my weekdays at the museum’s Video Annex on Second Street in Belmont Shore, where both the video archive and the video production studio were housed in a no-frills space adjoining the fire department. Previously a police station, LBMA’s half of the building retained tangible reminders of its past; one alcove, I seem to recall, had been a jail cell. Sharing the second floor with the legendary production studio, a tiny, windowless “office” with black walls served as my home base (subtly echoing the jailhouse décor). Across the hall, next to the sunny guest room for visiting artists, was the storage room where a few thousand artists’ videos (3/4 inch, 1/2 inch, and reel-to-reel) were kept in a makeshift archive.

Working with the National Moving Image Database (NAMID) at the American Film Institute, I organized and cataloged the collection, a long-term project that allowed me to watch most of the videos and to situate them within the robust history of LBMA. Loyal volunteers, particularly docents and student interns, truly made this a collective effort. Over time, scholars occasionally stopped by to watch selected tapes in a small viewing area and to peruse the informative exhibition catalogs and supportive documents that I had retrieved from a storage site at the main museum, a few miles away on Ocean Boulevard.

At a time when the Internet was emerging as an exciting, new medium to explore and digital technologies were gaining prominence, my colleagues and I envisioned ways to share the world-renowned video collection with audiences online and, in general, to make the work more accessible to the public than it had ever been. In this way we hoped to reach video enthusiasts and new viewers alike. More than a decade later, as one version of California Video opens at the Getty Center and another premieres on the Net, the mediascape has become more “video-friendly” than I could have imagined when I was watching archival tapes at the Video Annex in Belmont Shore. With all kinds of videos omnipresent on the Web and accessible on novel platforms, opportunities abound not only for achieving the goals we set in the mid-1990s but for surpassing those goals and addressing new audiences both in cyberspace and in real life.

The 24/7 DIY Video Summit that I attended at the University of Southern California last month, which focused on new media, made me realize that independent video movements of the past—such as those featured in California Video—have more in common with current trends than one might think. While listening to discussions about democratizing modes of new media production, distribution, and exhibition; inventing novel discursive styles and formats; and empowering underrepresented populations by allowing them to speak for themselves and tell their own stories, I was reminded of those earlier video pioneers who in many respects paved the way for the new media makers of today. Screenings at the DIY Video Summit of fan videos, remixes with personal and political commentary, and various first-person pieces brought to mind some of the work that artists and activists were experimenting with in the period before the advent of the Internet, especially as post-production editing facilities became accessible and affordable.

Although social contexts have changed and communications technologies have evolved, I believe that relationships do persist between media artists and activists of the late twentieth century and DIY video makers at the beginning of the twenty-first century who are introducing theories and practices of their own. California Video expands the scope of that discussion and at the same time transforms the tapes once housed at the Video Annex into productions capable of engaging contemporary audiences, while also inspiring new generations of media makers. I’m looking forward to discovering further the “second life” of LBMA’s collection, including the thousands of videos archived at the Getty Research Institute that are not in the exhibition. I plan to stay tuned to the ongoing saga of transformations and renewals that the Getty has set in motion.

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