Program Notes: Stewarding Media Artworks into the Future


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Carnegie Museum of Art film and video program notes from the 1970s. Image: Film and Video Department archive at Carnegie Museum of Art.

Earlier this year, the museum began working on the second phase of an A. W. Mellon grant-funded project to preserve, and make accessible, its time-based media collection holdings and related archival materials. Time-based media is a broad term referring to film, video, audio, digital, computer-based, or installation art with a specified duration and a dependency on changing technology. As media and equipment become obsolete, the artwork is increasingly at risk. Worldwide, conservators, preservationists, and archivists are working to protect these assets. The Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) is part of this field-wide trend.

A great deal of work was accomplished in the first phase of the project, which started in 2011. We completed a thorough inventory of the collection, integrated new installation and acquisition documentation protocols into our existing procedures, and digitized key unique holdings for preservation and access. The project team also organized a three-day public symposium, A Collection of Misfits: Time-Based Media in the Museum, to address the challenges surrounding the preservation and presentation of time-based media artworks in a museum context.

Phase Two: Preservation and Access

In the second phase of the project, which will unfold over the next two-and-a-half years, we will focus more on preservation and access. The project team will be working closely with the artists, estates, and galleries to source the best possible version of the works and migrate them to digital formats. For more complex artworks, we will be enhancing the installation documentation and conducting artist interviews to help us determine if and how display equipment can be updated. We will also be following field-wide best practices to store both the physical and digital assets, as well as convening specialists from around the country to assess the feasibility and potential scope of a field-wide preservation initiative.

The Time-Based Media Project Team

We’ve assembled an exciting interdisciplinary team to carry out the project. Project co-director Amanda Donnan, the assistant curator of contemporary art, brings valuable curatorial perspective and a deep understanding of CMOA’s contemporary art collection.

Project co-director Emily Davis, the senior research associate, joined the team in April and comes to the project with over 10 years of experience handling and preserving time-based media collections.

Kate Barbera, the archival assistant and most recent addition to the team, will be processing and organizing the archival materials. Kate’s passion for archives and her eagerness to tackle the mammoth-sized collection and a new collections database makes her a wonderful addition.

Other team members include Ellen Baxter, head of conservation; Elizabeth Tufts-Brown, associate registrar; and Gerlyn Huxley and Greg Pierce, curator and assistant curator of film and video at The Andy Warhol Museum; and a group of dedicated and knowledgeable interns and volunteers.

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Letter to Sally Dixon from Carolee Schneemann. Date unknown. Image: Film and Video Department archive at Carnegie Museum of Art.

The Film and Video Department Archive

As part of our effort to preserve the museum’s time-based media artworks, the project team will be working to preserve a sizable collection of archival resources. These materials provide valuable context for the artworks and add depth and dimension to the evolution of the field. Examples include letters from filmmakers, photographs of screening events, rare books, and recordings of interviews with some of the biggest names in experimental film. Over the next year, we will be organizing and preserving these records, and in the process, uncovering the exciting history of time-based media in Pittsburgh. Our efforts will culminate in a website, book, and exhibition planned for 2017.

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George Kuchar and Sally Dixon at Mount Washington in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1971. Image: Film and Video Department archive at Carnegie Museum of Art.

A Tale of a Woman with a Vision

Most of the related archival materials were created by the Film and Video Department––also known as the Film Section––at CMOA, which was active from 1970 to the early 2000s. The department was a place for artists, filmmakers, curators, and film enthusiasts to share ideas, screen films, and see the latest and greatest in the field. It was one of the first of its kind in the country.

Sally Dixon, a Pittsburgh-based amateur filmmaker, came up with the idea for a film program at CMOA in 1969. She wanted to create a community where audiences could watch films, learn from independent filmmakers directly, and gain access to equipment necessary to produce work of their own. The program began as a limited, three-year venture but soon grew into a full-fledged, highly productive department. Filmmakers from all over North America and Europe traveled to CMOA to give lectures, screen their films, and participate in discussions––encouraged in part by Dixon’s honorarium system, which prompted other institutions to rethink their film and video policies.

Jonas Mekas was the first filmmaker to visit the museum when the program officially opened in 1970. A few years earlier, he had started Anthology Film Archives in New York and was a frequent contributor to the Village Voice. He screened excerpts from Diaries, Notes, and Sketches – Vol. 1, which is a diary collage filmed over a period of 15 years. Mekas served as an important advisor to Dixon as she learned about the field and about how to run a film program. He introduced her to many artists and filmmakers when she visited New York in 1969, and over the next few years, Dixon parlayed those initial connections into a sizable network, forging long-lasting relationships that made Pittsburgh a hub of avant-garde activity during the 1970s.

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Stan Brakhage (right) films ‘eyes’ in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1970. Image: Film and Video Department archive at Carnegie Museum of Art. Photograph: Michael Chikiris.

While Dixon was curator, many important experimental filmmakers visited the museum, including Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, Hollis Frampton, George Kuchar, Ken Jacobs, James Broughton, Bruce Baillie, Paul Sharits, Joyce Wieland and Bruce Conner. Dixon welcomed these filmmakers into her home, cooked homemade meals for them, and helped them gain access to nontraditional locations throughout the city. During Brakhage’s first visit to Pittsburgh in 1970, she helped him gain access to the Pittsburgh Police Department for eyes, the first installment in his Pittsburgh Trilogy. Brakhage would become a regular visitor to Pittsburgh over the next decade.

The Film and Video Department at CMOA also helped introduce film and video artworks to a wider audience. Dixon and her crew featured several monthly series, including the History of Film Series and the Director’s Series, both of which served as introductions to the medium. She also founded the Film and Video Maker’s Travel Sheet, a monthly circular that CMOA distributed to alternative cinemas, museums, media centers, and universities across the country. It listed contact information and screening/lecture dates and locations for film and video makers. The Travel Sheet made it possible for filmmakers to book additional screenings and in-person presentations, which became primary sources of income, exposure, and dialogue for artists during this early period of new media’s institutionalization.

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Installation shot of Wilderness (1986) by Mary Lucier. American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove, 1988.

In 1975, Dixon left the department and William Judson, a film professor at the University of Pittsburgh, succeeded her as curator. During Judson’s tenure, the Film and Video Department continued to play an important role in Pittsburgh’s film community and cultural fabric. The department started screening foreign films, which became hubs for various immigrant populations throughout the city and the region. The museum also began collecting and exhibiting video artworks that were geared toward gallery presentation. One of the best known exhibitions, American Landscape Video: The Electronic Grove, opened in 1988. It featured seven video installation works by well-known artists like Rita Myers, Mary Lucier, Dara Brinbaum, Frank Gillette, Steina Vasulka, Bill Viola, and Doug Hall. It was a memorable and provocative show, playing with expectations around traditional landscape painting as well as representations of the changing cultural and physical landscape of the late 20th century.

The Film and Video Department at CMOA dissolved in the early 2000s but left behind an amazing and rich legacy. Today the collection continues to grow under the care of the contemporary art department, and over the course of the A.W. Mellon grant project, we will again be bringing in scholars and artists to share time-based media artworks.

Creating Access

Over the course of this project, one of our primary goals is to make the time-based media and related archival materials more accessible. Through exhibitions, screenings, symposia, and an online database for the archival collection, we hope to increase public visibility and help scholars, authors, students, curators, and film enthusiasts better understand the field and the art form. The time-based media artworks offer insight into a time of vibrant activity in the growing field of film and video art, and the archival materials reveal a significant moment in which that story intersected with the Carnegie Museum of Art and Pittsburgh. Together they tell the unique history of film and video as an artistic practice.

Program Notes is on ongoing series that explores the preservation work being conducted as part of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art.