In our brand new series ‘i-Curate’, i-D talk to the people who make art happen. Starting with New York and the big gun, MoMA, we meet Barbara London, Associate Curator specialising in Media and Performance Art; aka the future.
Among the key shows Barbara London has curated are a series of three exhibitions called ‘Looking at Music’, which ran from 2008 – 2011 and explored the relationships between music (or musicians) and the other medias. The idea behind the first exhibition was to illustrate how music became, in the 60s, the forefront of interdisciplinary experimentation through the works of artists such as David Bowie, The Beatles, Devo, Jack Smith, John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono and more. ‘Looking at Music side 2′ took place the following year and focused on the cross-fertilizations between art and music in NYC during the 70s through the works of Basquiat, Beth B, Suicide, Sonic Youth, Glenn O’Brien and more. The last episode ‘Looking at Music 3.0′ happened in 2011 and focused on the influences of music on contemporary art practices in NYC during the 80s and 90s through the works of Run DMC, Le Tigre, Steven Parrino, Christian Marclay, Miranda July and more. The series has become a reference.
Inspired and impressed, i-D met with Barbara to talk about music, music media and how the great art filmmakers started.
How long have you been at the MoMA? I came right after graduate school, so since the 70s. I started the video exhibition program and collection and early on I dealt a lot with Asia.
What was the status of media art when you started? When I started, very little was written. I would go to little ad-hoc screenings… SoHo was not pretty, it was very dirty… My mother said: “why are you going there it’s dangerous”. So I went and went up a really grungy set of stairs and there were artists coming down with new tapes under their arms. There was this sense of discovery, and a do-it-yourself kind of approach. There’s always a discovery.
Where does your interest for media come from? I did Islamic art in graduate school, studying the art of Iran. The Korean artist Nam June Paik used to say: “communication on the back of camels, are they airwaves?” I was interested in the trade route between China and the Middle East. It’s about motifs on textiles that went across Central Asia, got picked up and modified, almost like the telephone where a story starts, is repeated, and every time it’s repeated it gets diluted and changes. And that was what I was interested in. Media artists in the 70s didn’t just emerge as media artists, many of them went to graduate schools, art schools, or maybe were in rock bands… Artists don’t pigeonhole themselves, they work with whatever medium is appropriate. When I started here in the early-70s, I was young and worked on a show that had to do with minimalism. Artists like Richard Serra, Lynda Benglis, Bob Morris, Vito Acconci were all picking up video. Some of them worked in super 8 film first.
Looking At Music wasn’t about synesthesia, but more about the history of mixed-media… Yes, it is really about the influence of music on contemporary music. I focused only on New York. I had to work with the MoMA collection. It could be a poster that an artist designed, it could be put into architecture, design or whatever. For the first show from our circulating film library I selected Yoko Ono’s films where John Lennon looks with his adoring eyes at her behind the camera. It was really a silent piece, but you look at it and you know it’s Yoko, you know she did her scream… it’s a moving image in time, very beautiful because it’s shot outdoors. So I liked that as an introduction where the visiteur had to think what is art, what is music, and what are the people who are in-between.
Wasn’t the first music video a Beatles’ video - Paperback Writer in 1966 – is it true? It’s very hard to say who did the first music video. I got music videos into the MoMA collection in 1984-85 because we had just done our renovation in 84, and MTV started in 81. But of course the form was older. So, thinking and knowing that the industry doesn’t take care of its materials, I selected about 40 music videos from the Beatles, David Bowie, Captain Beefheart, The Residents, DEVO, through to Laurie Andeson, David Byrne and some of the Hip Hop guys. So we got archival copies of these works into the collection. It’s kind of unique.
What pushed you to put the show together, what was the motivation? I was trying to make connections, that’s part of a curator or writer’s research, to go back and read what was in the magazines at the time of the show. Many people obviously know Paik and Cage have connections. Michael Snow, the film maker and artist, lived in New York in the 60s and he knew people like Richard Serra and Joan Jonas. Joan was then very minimal and very uncomfortable. So Michael said to her: “go see Jack Smith events”. And so she goes and then she discovers it’s an aesthetic that was close to hers, so then her own practice evolved. So what I did was I put a photo in our collection of Jack Smith’s with Joan Jonas’ video. So people can make the link.
Jack Smith! Jack Smith did these performances in New York. You’d go at midnight, it was an all-night thing. So you’d go at midnight, he had heaps and heaps of clothing. He would put something on, pass around a joint, you know slowly, so everything like unfolds. Did it start, is it starting, is it about to start? He influenced a lot of people. He influenced Bob Wilson, he influenced Joan. It was about duration, it was about the body, it was about performance, and about the hybridity.