Before YouTube


Earlier this month, the Museum of Modern Art ran a test for Doug Aitken’s large-scale outdoor installation Sleepwalkers, a big-budget video art piece starring Tilda Swinton, Donald Sutherland, and indie rocker Chan Marshall currently running daily on multiple giant screens affixed to the Modern’s facade. During the test, a couple of artists who live next to the museum added their own editorial onto the side of the building: a huge projection of their own, reading simply “YOUR VIDEO ART HERE.” The anonymous artists called this act an “intervention” on their Flickr site, where they posted photos, presumably to call attention to the corporatization of the museum world.

No one familiar with contemporary art should be surprised at lavish commissions for video-art stars like Aitken, or at guerrilla responses from nameless pranksters enabled by relatively cheap but powerful technology and the social-media possibilities of the Internet. But MOMA’s own program “Feedback,” a tribute to Chicago’s nonprofit distributor Video Data Bank and its founders Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield, sheds light on a time when video remained, as Horsfield told the
Voice recently, “the stepchild of the artworld”—a rough new technology, proudly outside the gallery market system, inextricably bonded to political movements like feminism.

“It was really kind of an accident,” Horsfield recalls, that she and her partner Blumenthal (who passed away in 1988) began taping a series of longform interviews with women artists in 1974. “It was at the very beginning of video, and we were both very young, working artists in our twenties: She was doing sculpture and I was doing painting. We became good friends, and we ended up buying a Panasonic Portapak.” Introduced by Sony barely seven years earlier, the portable rig revolutionized mobile video production, but it remained ponderous and clunky, with a lower-quality image than contemporary studio television. “It’s an open-reel player that has a camera attached to it, and it weighs about 30 pounds,” says Horsfield. “Carrying it around was hard.”

After successfully nabbing long talks with painters Joan Mitchell and Agnes Martin and curator Marcia Tucker, the pair decided to continue the series. “We were looking for inspiration for ourselves, but we were also looking for information on what was happening. If you read art magazines in the early ’70s, it was very rare to see any real coverage of any women artists.” They eventually captured talks with Alice Neel, Lucy Lippard, Lee Krasner, and Louise Bourgeois, and later names of the ’80s like Barbara Kruger and anonymous artworld activists the Guerilla Girls, who appeared wearing their trademark gorilla masks.

Not long after starting their interview series, Horsfield and Blumenthal took over a small student tape collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, which they grew into Video Data Bank, one of the most prominent distributors of video art. Though male artists like Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman had made video legitimate, many of the earliest pioneers were women (Joan Jonas, Martha Rosler, Dara Birnbaum, all screening in the MOMA series), despite the fact that women weren’t exactly encouraged to fiddle with electronics. “In the ’70s, men did not like women touching video equipment,” Horsfield remembers. “But this also spurned [women] on. During an era of feminism, a lot of women said, well, I want to learn how to use this. And they did. So I don’t think they were excluded in the same way they’ve been excluded, for example, from film. There were also a lot of people who liked that video had no history. It was perfect for experimentation, because nobody really knew anything about it.”

In the 1980s, experimental video flourished within nonprofit art centers, until the early-’90s’ Culture Wars led to defunding. Not long after, video art re-emerged as more commercial—and less political—when galleries promulgated the limited-edition model. At the same time, a new generation of feminist videomakers like Sadie Benning, Miranda July, and Elisabeth Subrin (all represented in “Feedback”) came of age within the burgeoning independent-film scene, as the boundaries of television and cinema began to blur. Though the Video Data Bank has survived, “there’s tremendous amounts of pressure on that system right now,” says Horsfield, since galleries, indie film, and Internet distribution mean “artists have better choices—and we are all happy about that.” Now, the Data Bank has shifted to archival mode—making older video available for the era of YouTube and DVD. After all, Horsfield says, “we are the holders of an alternative history.”