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John G. Hanhardt

Hunter Braithwaite

Bill Beirne "Interstices" (2012).

John G. Hanhardt, one of the country’s foremost experts on the moving image, curated a show of the Cricket Taplin Collection in the Sagamore Hotel during Art Basel Miami Beach. The Miami Rail’s Hunter Braithwaite spoke to him during its run.

BRAITHWAITE (RAIL): Can you tell me how you ended up doing a show in this hotel?

JOHN G. HANHARDT: I was invited by Silvia Karmen Cubiñá, director of the Bass Art Museum, to give a talk on Isaac Julien’s installation Ten Thousand Waves, which was on view at the Museum in late 2010 and early 2011. It was a fantastic installation of what I consider to be one of Isaac’s major artworks. I learned about Cricket Taplin’s art collection, which features a lot of photography and video art. She asked me to advise her on adding to the collection and creating a new installation of that collection in the hotel for Art Basel Miami. I had never curated an exhibition in such a space, and I was fascinated by the opportunity to add to the collection and bring that work to Miami Beach and Art Basel Miami.

RAIL: Tell me something about your curatorial career.

HANHARDT: My career is a long one. It began at the Museum of Modern Art’s department of film, and from there I went to the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, where I established the film study collection and program. Then, for over 20 years I was at the Whitney Museum of American Art, as curator and head of the film and video department. I then became senior curator of media art at the Guggenheim Museum, developing its global media art program and its collections. After doing that for about a decade, I wanted to be more involved with archives, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which had the Joseph Cornell Archive, was interested in acquiring the Nam June Paik Archive. Betsy Broun, director of the American Art Museum, had restored two of Paik’s major installations “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” and “Megatron/Matrix.” As senior curator for film and media arts, I oversaw the opening of the Paik Archive and organized the exhibition Nam June Paik: Global Visionary. The Museum’s collection has expanded to include media art, and they have opened a gallery to feature recent acquisitions to the permanent collection.

RAIL: Last time I was at the American Art Museum, they were showing Paik’s map of the United States…

HANHARDT: Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway” was fully restored. It’s on permanent view, and it has become a centerpiece for the Smithsonian Institution.
RAIL: He is an interesting artist to be institutionalized within that branch of the Smithsonian.

HANHARDT: To have major video installations by Paik on view and to have his Archive open to scholars, students, and curators from around the world makes the Museum a center for the study and appreciation of Paik’s achievements. His life story is an extraordinary journey—from his birthplace of Korea to his music studies in Japan and his travels to Germany, where he pursued his interest in avant-garde music and performance. There he met George Macunias and became part of Fluxus, then met John Cage and Joseph Beuys. His first exhibition featuring prepared televisions was in 1963 in Germany. Then he traveled to the United States in 1964 and made New York City his home. He was a charismatic, brilliant artist—a true visionary who had a total command of the medium of video. He invented new artist tools such as the Paik-Abe Video Synthesizer, which transformed the electronic moving image. He also produced global satellite performance pieces and created videotapes, performances, compositions, video installations, and sculptures. He is called the “father of video art” because his work embraced and transformed video and television into an artist’s medium.

RAIL: You were a film-studies student at NYU, right?

HANHARDT: My advanced degree work was in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. I did not want to become a filmmaker, although I studied filmmaking at University of California, but I wanted to study film history. I wanted to see everything, and I immersed myself in the film culture of New York. I was fascinated by the power of the moving image and how the medium transformed our notions of narrative and influenced all of the arts across the 20th century.

RAIL: Going back to that word narrative, I was thinking about your involvement with the Smithsonian, and that institution’s placement within the art community, and the international community. It is a free institution with a democratic and populist mission. Does video art have the democratic potential of Hollywood cinema, or does the latter’s power lie in that sort of predictable narrative. Is it more a literary thing?

HANHARDT: The cinema has transformed our notions of narrative and how we represent time and construct space. I really think the importance of the language of film is foundational to the transformation of art and the development of video, television, and video games, and the multiple platforms we have today to fashion and distribute the moving image. Now we can create these micro-narratives of the moving image on different scales and with different levels of intimacy. The entire history of the moving image, from the classical cinema to the avant-garde, has expanded our visual languages. The avant-garde film radically reflected on the medium itself and opened it up to non-linear forms that set a precedent for media artists today.

RAIL: Avant-garde filmmakers such as…?

HANHARDT: There are many key artists but I would mention Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, and Ken Jacobs, each of whom created a self-reflective cinema that engaged the very process of filmmaking, the phenomenology of film, as a means to transform the practice of art in the late 20th century. That is why I have always seen structural film of the 1960s and ‘70s as related to conceptual art. It is a large and complex history that is getting more attention from a new generation of art historians and curators.

RAIL: It is important to archive and preserve all of it. In a recent New York Review of Books essay, Martin Scorsese talks about how Vertigo, which is now seen as the best film in history, was almost trashed.

HANHARDT: The preservation of the cinema has a long history. Today preservation and conservation of the moving image is of critical concern to museums. A great example of the role museums have played in preserving film is the part Iris Barry, the founding film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, played in the 1930s in preserving D. W. Griffith’s films and the early history of cinema, which would have no doubt disappeared if she hadn’t had made these efforts. MoMA played a leading role in establishing the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF).

RAIL: Was there a moment in the history of the institution where everyone got together and realized that film was something worthy of being high art? I know the history of photography is spotted with doubt about its position as art versus scientific innovation, or a tool for an artist, or advertising fodder. Did a similar thing happen with film?

HANHARDT: While there has been, for a number of years, a recognition that film was a powerful medium, it has been difficult for museums to embrace and incorporate the variety of genres and styles that contribute to film as an art form, from the classical narrative cinema to independent film, documentaries, avant-garde, animation, installations, and all the forms of video, net art, interactive and video games. Museums have attempted to respond to these developments and to this variety of forms and practices in terms of exhibitions and collecting. The Whitney Museum played a role in that history by representing all forms of the moving image in exhibitions and biennials. Today it is a common practice to recognize this history and explore the current directions of the moving image.

RAIL: How have artistic processes and styles been influenced by the habits of the spectator? In the literary world there is this huge collective anxiety about everyone’s attention span shrinking from something big enough to take in a novel, to something the size of a tweet. Does the same anxiety occur in your field? Because no one has the ability to process “Empire” or “The Kiss” anymore, for instance, is it becoming a more spastic medium?

HANHARDT: “Spastic medium?” Hmmm. The artist creates his or her work, and I have always argued that the role of the museum is to support the artist, to install the work so that it can be seen, studied, and enjoyed. If a projection has a long running time, people will spend as much time as they can, and perhaps return to see more. I’m not always convinced people are looking closely at paintings. The temporal dimension of a moving-image work is a factor in its reception. I actually think that there is an interest in larger, longer films. People want to be immersed in a visual experience, even if it is a work that is cutting the narrative in different ways, or not following a familiar narrative structure.

RAIL: Time is expanded to a point that it becomes this spatial element. It is also broken down incrementally, so people can experience a minute or two of pieces like Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” or Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho,” and then return.

HANHARDT: That is what the museum permits and what it should support. I feel like what really needs to happen is that the museum has to create varieties of spaces to present [the moving image], whether it is viewed on a flat screen in relation to painting and sculpture, or whether it is presented in a smaller theater or bigger theater. These are the options that should be available in the museum as a means to represent varieties of practices. What used to be called the “short film,” which was distributed to theaters and festivals, is now screened as an installation—with artists projecting a video/film loop in a gallery. Now with the iPhone’s capabilities of capturing and being able to create moving images, the moving image is portable, personally accessible, and of all lengths. I think the virtual archive of the global cinema and video and all these moving image practices are now accessible in an unprecedented degree. I am happy to see films that I couldn’t see in the theater on my flat screen, or projected in a space.

RAIL: Hulu licensed the entire Criterion Collection. So streaming on my TV right now is whatever Criterion film I want. However, the image quality is a little bit lower than it would be on a DVD, or projected in a theater.

Sagamore 24

Ken Jacobs. “Star Spangled to Death” (1956-60/2005)

HANHARDT: I was near Amherst, Massachusetts, in a little bookstore and they were projecting something. I asked the guy, “What is this film?” It was on this big screen projection, and he says, “It’s a Romanian film.” I said, “That’s fantastic; where did you get it?” And he says, “I am streaming it right now.” We all do this, but it was just great to see this happen, this access to the global cinema. That’s why the museum is where we go to see the original—to experience the ideal screening quality of a 16-millimeter, 35-millimeter, cinemascope, widescreen film. There is nothing like seeing a nitrate print, which can only be presented in New York at MoMA. It is like seeing a silver print in photography; it is just luminous. Just like you can read stories in different formats, from hard cover or paperback to e-book, etc., so there are different viewing conditions/formats for the moving image.

RAIL: I am sure it is naïve to believe that the ideal conditions exist everywhere, or all the time. They are ideal, and come along once in awhile. We might have to make pilgrimages to MoMA to see the nitrate film.

HANHARDT: Hopefully they will be more accessible! However, it’s not unlike seeing Vermeer at the Frick. A few places give one access to the original or, as we would say in film, “the best print.”

RAIL: The Miami-Dade Public Library has a great archive of experimental cinema.

HANHARDT: The public library used to be a great site for the screening of independent film. College and university art departments have fine collections of original prints. In some cases there may only exist a few prints of a film. That’s how these collections become real resources and need to be preserved.

RAIL: In a 2011 interview you did with the Washington City Paper, you said, “I really do feel like 20th-century art history is going to be rewritten through the moving image. From film to video to television, to video games, to interactive platforms, the internet…” I wanted to go back to this word rewritten. Do you think it is going to be rewritten through the moving image or has it already have been written through the moving image?

HANHARDT: Fine point. It has definitely been written through the moving image— the way we see and receive things. We often describe them in cinematic terms, in the language we use: a scene, or a look, or a moment. What I find interesting, too, is that public intellectuals, like in the New York Review of Books, where they used to cite a particular work of theater, or literature, will now cite a scene from a film. It is a subtle change, but I think it is a profound one. It is bringing the cinematic text and experience into the intellectual sphere of ideas. Essentially our practices have been influenced by the presence of the moving image, and I use the term moving image to capture all of this. When I think about how it is going to be rewritten, it is that the moving image will be brought forward even more into the art-historical narrative and into the theoretical enterprise of understanding art, and the nature of the way images are fashioned, and how experiences are created through performance, and so forth. I think that there is still a tendency to isolate the cinematic text, not to fully accommodate it into the art-historical enterprise, not see the history of the moving image as complex and various as it’s been. I mean, there were more than six artists who worked with video! Many museums, critics, and art historians present a reductive and simplistic history. I really think that illustrates how that history needs to be opened up.

RAIL: Last month at the movies I saw a weird behind-the-scenes trailer for “The Hunger Games” sequel. All the actors were talking about how you need to see this on the big screen, you just have to see this on the big screen. The producers realized that for the first time in history, most people are not going to see this blockbuster release in the theater, most of them will see it on their computer screen because they downloaded a pirated copy from Russia, or they bought it off iTunes or something. This movie, which was made for the theater, is having to come to terms with the fact that it won’t be seen in the theater to begin with.

HANHARDT: But that is acknowledging the fact that there is this immersive environment of this spectacular projection of the digitized moving image, of sound that envelops you. It’s pretty fantastic. I was at lunch with Ken Jacobs, and he was all excited about 3D and what you can do with these little 3D cameras, because he has explored 3D in a lot of his films and performance pieces. I saw “Gravity,” and I was really taken by it. The way his space was shaped and the sound was controlled. I should add that a large installation such as Bill Viola’s “Going Forth By Day” is immersive, as you’re in a space surrounded by moving images.

RAIL: Did you see it in IMAX, or did you see it in a traditional theater?

HANHARDT: I saw “Gravity” in a traditional theater with 3D. The two most recent films that I have seen in the more popular cinema were “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave,” both of which were phenomenal and extraordinary.

RAIL: McQueen is an interesting case, since he moved towards popular cinema from art.

HANHARDT: Exactly. I always felt that was one of the great strengths of Isaac Julien’s work, because Isaac began as a filmmaker and then moved into installation. So you can see in his early multi-projection pieces, like “Paradise Omeros,”(2002) the way he would edit three screens. There was a real sense of control, because you just don’t set up the camera and shoot it. You can edit across the images and compose within space and time. Isaac brought the language of editing into the installation, and it made a lot of his work very compelling.
You can say the same of Steve McQueen, the way he has moved from these very powerful installation pieces such as “Five Easy Pieces” (1995), which I always thought were so physical, with a sense of the moving image’s relationship to you the viewer, that covered a wall, this space, and the rope and the bodies moving. Now he brings another sensibility to the cinematic in terms of the narrative cinema. The way he holds the shot, the way he frames the actor, the way he will cut to an atmospheric moment makes it all that much more compelling and riveting as a narrative. What really interests me is this movement between these different forms and formats. People will make things for the iPhone, they will make things for YouTube, and they will make things for the theater. All options open and expanding!

RAIL: Another example would be Katherine Bigelow and these intensely physical films that she is doing now.

HANHARDT: I showed her first film “Set-Up,” a 16-millimeter film, at the Whitney Museum in 1978. It was a very interesting piece. I showed it along with the work of Manuel DeLanda, who has done some very interesting films where he would fracture and break the moving image.

RAIL: Any thoughts towards the future?

HANHARDT: I do see the moving image being absorbed into what we call literature, in terms of being able to read and see the moving image in various combinations and platforms. I feel that the cinema will change and morph into different practices. People are now going back to looking at phonograph records, typewriters, to filmmaking equipment and projectors because there is a sense that these different platforms offer different experiences, and we can redevelop them, or reinvigorate them. Ultimately, it isn’t the medium but the idea, the creative impulse, the desire to say something, show something, challenge and conserve. Art gives us new ways to see ourselves and the world around us. So the artist chooses the medium that best expresses her vision.