Interview with Kathy Rae Huffman

published: 
September, 1998

I met Kathy Rae Huffman for the first time at the Digital Chaos conference in Bath in 1996. This interview is from about two years later, and it was published on nettime and in 'Netzkunst' edited by Verena Kuni in 1998. It is a very interesting interview in that it covers a very long period of time, from the early work Kathy Rae Huffman did as a curator with Bill Viola, to her work with Van Gogh TV at documenta 92, to her online art project Siberian Deal (with Eva Wohlgemut), and her work with the mailinglist for women in new media 'Faces'.

foto: Jan Sprij for V2

 

JB: When was it you went to art school?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I went to California State University Long Beach, The School of Fine Art, and got an MFA in Exhibition Design (Minor was Radio/Film/Television) in Long Beach California. I went to CSULB from 1973 until I did my final paper in 1979. I was in the department of fine arts. I have a BA in art and an MFA in exhibition design. For the MFA you have to have two majors, one in the School of Art and one outside of the department, so it a very complicated course. I had exhibition design in the art department and my second major outside the art department was in Radio/Film/Television. 'Video' was very new - the name didn't mean anything to most people. There was a new program at the Long Beach Museum, which started in 1974. David Ross came there, as Deputy Director of the Museum; there were big plans to build a new Museum that included a Cable TV 'head-in' in '74.

 

When David Ross came to Long Beach, he had to find video equipment for his program, because there was none in the museum at that time. The place were they found it (and this began a series of overlapping coincidences for me), was the Sony Porta Pak that was stored under my desk at the Long Beach Public Library where I worked as a the staff artist.

 

For the public library, I did things like design the bookmarks and Summer Reading Game designs, all the various things like taking photographs of events and whatever you do to make graphic posters, etc. in a library. The video equipment was obtained through a grant for oral history, and there was no place to store it. I had the space so they stored it in my studio. I didn't know what it was, and I didn't care. I was busy drawing pictures of bunnies reading books, you know, and then dashing off to classes.

 

When David Ross came to town, all of a sudden my office was filled with artists and other outside people with this equipment spread all around, telling me to move over and make room for them. I was somehow a little bit wondering what it was all about, to put it nicely. So I went to the librarian in charge, and asked: "What is this, they are asking me questions, but I don't know what it is.." She said:" Oh, its very, very, very complicated, you have to have special classes at the university. It is very special, and you shouldn't touch it!" I said:" Tell me who it is that can teach me" She replied: "Oh.. you'll never be able to blablabla..."

 

I looked up the woman she referred me to, who was in the educational television department, at CSULB. She was *so* nice, she was in her fifties. She said: "You want to learn how to do this? It's no problem, you can't do it wrong..." Well, that was not all true, but after that point I became more or less in charge of this Porta Pak and the video documentation of events. I also learned that that was a big burden, because I had to carry the stuff around and set it up, break it down. It took a lot of time. That part wasn't so bad, but I hated editing. We had no real editing; it was just stopping and starting the tape, really terrible. They called it 'bang editing' because there were these glitches every time. It was impossible to be accurate. I was part of the graphic design program, and I was used to very precise things, so this made me crazy. I said: "Better leave that to other people, and let's do something else with it."

 

JB: What did you do editing videos? Did you make art videos?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: When I was at the library they would want documentation of events or festivals. By default, like I said, I was the one who would take the equipment, set it up, and make the documentation of these speeches and this and that. Of course nobody was going to watch this material. It ended up being hours and hours of half-inch tapes sitting on a shelf. So, the idea was to edit them onto smaller, twenty-minute tapes, but there was no place to do that. There was no editing facility at that time. I just said, ok, leave the tapes on the shelf, and by the way why are we even doing this? Later, when I did my internship at the Long Beach Museum for the Museum Studies course, by 1975 they had set up the first half-inch editing for artists at the museum, but not as a community service.

 

Soon after I got interested in video, I enrolled in a course in museum studies, because I realized there had to be a way for me to do something with the medium in a space. The only way I could think of to get access to the University art gallery space was get into this two year program, where I could eventually do an exhibition. I started that course in '75 I believe it was. It was a class of twelve women, and we worked together as a team over two years. This was simultaneously with the other degree course work. Each of us had to choose an artist and a medium to work with. Our topic was: Beyond the Artists Hand. It was concerned with how the audience can influence art, or how other functions or institutions change art. I was already deeply into video, by the way. I had read a lot about it, and I was a very enthusiastic supporter. I had a graduate advisor who was really great and encouraged me to put all of my energy, in all the courses I was taking, somehow in that reference, to think in terms of how it might relate to video.

 

So in this Museum Studies course, we began with twelve of us sitting around a table. I happened to be the last one. I can still remember I was literally jumping up and down in my seat, because I was excited to tell everyone what I wanted to do. My project was going to be about video (the others were working with weaving, painting or printmaking, things like that). Everybody was nodding with approval at each presentation. Then finally it was my turn, and I said:" Oh yes, I want to work with a video artist." When I looked around the table there was a complete blank look on everybody's face. Nobody knew what it was... nobody in the whole class. I have to say I have seen that look many, many times since then. It was a realization: " Oh my God, how can I be interested in something so great and so many people don't know anything about." That started me off to realize there was also some work to be done.

 

I had this little bit of practice with the video equipment in the library and a little bit of understanding of how painful it was to edit something so that anybody could watch it. I was very discouraged with all of these attempts. So I thought:" Now I want to try and be in the company of an artist who would really understand this problem. I could learn from that person, and I could also see how I could go another step." I was really fortunate to be introduced to Bill Viola, who was visiting, just passing through town, a young video artist nobody had really heard about too much in California. I met him through David Ross' recommendation. At this time I had long pigtails, wore things like long Levi skirts (with big star patches), round gold rim glasses, etc. etc. It was another era. Bill was very sweet, and patient. After we had a lot of talking, we ended up working together for one and a half years on what turned out to be a very big project. He called it Olfaction, and it was an interactive installation, with sound and video. The persons who entered the gallery, and sat in a chair, had their image mixed with Bill's image. Somehow it was quite advanced for that time, and it worked for the entire exhibition. I always tried to match that level of achievement for every show. Whenever I worked with an artist after that, there were ways I had learned to make sure things work.

 

Working with Viola taught me a lot, at the very beginning. He is very much a perfectionist, and he is very concerned that his message is clear. I had a good artist teacher at the beginning, and we have remained close friends all these years.

 

JB: Is it because you were in art school that you decided to explore this medium video more through the art connection instead of with so-called other 'professionals'?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I think it was just a practical solution to this course. It was an art exhibition. Also the Long Beach Museum just started of their program. I had been to every video exhibition they presented. At first I was confused about the medium. I did not really understand what was so interesting about it, at that time, when for example somebody was walking around with a camera focused on the ground. I had a problem with that. Today I can look at it through a theoretical context and I can understand it, but when I was looking as a visitor to a museum, I was real confused. So I wanted to know something more that could happen, something that could involve people, interactively, and that would transform the space and would not just be an exercise in using up a half-inch 60-minute reel of tape. I wanted to explore live real possibilities. I had to ask a lot of artists if they were interested in doing something like that. Actually Bill was the one who responded very quickly to that concept, and got into it with a very exited response. It was a very good working situation. He gave a lot of lectures at the school too.

 

Years later, he and his wife moved to Long Beach, and Kira Perov worked as my assistant in the Museum, from 1982-84, when I was curator.

 

JB: You never related the video art to television?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I was most interested in cable TV. I spent any free time I had during these years, which wasn't a lot, going to the cable TV station, where I would volunteer in the public access studio to work the camera or work in the control booth. We did a live local news program, and different kinds of programs. I made a lot of friends at the cable station there, and also at other cable stations. I would often go to regional cable TV conferences.

 

In 1983, we co-organized a statewide conference of arts and cable television stations, that is probably not even written down there <refers to bio>, in 1983. This was a big year for me, where the Museum did a big conference on cable TV and the arts in Long Beach. I was the coordinator of that conference. We did a lot of live broadcasting during the conference, and we even wanted to do live broadcasting from the museum. We made a lot of negotiations with a cable station to install a feed line from our video studio, but that never happened. It could have, but we would have needed to invest some money, which was needed for better editing equipment.

 

JB: Looking back now, do you think there was a connection between video art and television? Was there any influence on cable television coming from video art?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: For us in Long Beach, no. It was a lot of fun for the people involved, and a lot of energy. Some really interesting projects happened, but I don't think that the cable companies in California ever really got involved with artists. They didn't see it as other than a way to fill up their daily program schedule. We would do programs on exhibitions in the museum. We would do parallel cable broadcasts which we had to produce, to these art programs. We also tried to do art series on cable TV, and would repeat the programs in Long Beach, in LA and in Santa Barbara. In the end, I had to go every week to the stations personally, pick up the tape, drive it to LA, go back the next day, pick it up and drive up to Santa Barbara and then drive back. Otherwise, they would just sit on it or play it for 24 hours over and over. The Cable programmers had no concept. The worst thing I remember was when in Santa Barbara one series was showed, which was originated at the Kitchen, NY. The series was called "Made for TV". The first tape on the series was by Vito Acconci. When that tape got to Santa Barbara, they refused to play it. They said this was not art. ...Acconci is a very important artist - I was frustrated.

 

We were just banging our heads at cement walls at some points. Either it had to happen on a much higher level then anybody in the art business was willing to go, none of the people at directors level could continue making this kind of push, or we were just a little bit off of our timing.

 

But, I did a lot of television in the rest of the years that I worked with video. I always had this feeling that television was kind of the perfect way to show this work. It should be there. It's the medium it's created in, and it should be shown there. Somehow it was never the interest of television to have art there. There were only a few visionary people in television stations that would stick their neck out, and they started to disappear at some point and then it became almost impossible.

 

JB: Of course video art has not only had problems with television stations, having work shown, but it had also a lot of trouble getting recognized in art circles. Could you tell us something about that?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: It never had any trouble getting recognized in my art circles...but it's true. I think it was this double-edged problem with the medium itself. The audiences for museums and galleries don't go to museums or galleries to watch television, they go to see what they call art. They want to see pictures. It took a long time before the audiences were developed who care about this kind of work and who understood it. That's ten years or more work on audience development. So, if video art was starting to be seen in Museums widely in the late seventies, it's twenty years, that not long. Now it's a fairly included medium. Look at documenta X. It's included everywhere. It's included in all the major biennales. There was a time when it was a real struggle to get this medium included, when it was ghettoized in some little corner, in the back. The list of the tapes would also be in the back of the catalogue, with no pictures. It was very discouraging for artists as well. I think that is why a number of artists, like Bill Viola, like Gary Hill, Dara Birnbaum and Joan Jonas, had to start demanding bigger forums for their work. That is the only way it got appreciated, because then it became BIG. Major museums want BIG things, they want to attract big audiences, and they want big, impressive works.

 

Video was never this kind of impressive medium; it was often a very personal thing. Watching TV is somehow associated with familiar places. In my mind it never was necessary to be this 'impressive' thing, but obviously artists can make impressive media installations and they do. And, it is impressive! If you see the installations of Bill Viola... they touch parts of you that are somehow conditioned already by TV. He knows how to play against those things that you have in your memory. He plays with your perception, not in the wrong sense, but by knowing how to use your visual knowledge, how you understand moving images in time. We've learned a lot of those things by watching TV or film all our lives, most of us. Artists study this. They analyze reactions. That’s another side of artists who use video.

 

I am very committed to this work still, but I think I did my part in that mediums' development.

 

JB: Besides the situation in the museum and television there is also the situation in the art school, where video is taught. There used to be a big gap between people studying video and other arts students. It seems as though all electronic media are separated very much from 'old media-art', in every sense.

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I have not had such a close relationship with schools to be so informed about this 'now'. Some of the best programs are integrated programs, where there is computer graphics; there is also video, performance, architecture. Where all those students can cross over and take other courses, they do fabulous work. If it's a school where people are isolated into compartments that's a real pity, both for the students and the teachers, who are missing out on their chance to learn something from the interpolation.

 

JB: What else did you do before you came to Europe?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: Long Beach was one thing. I worked there as a curator of the museum. We had a video editing studio, and a very big collection of art videotapes. We had programs going all the time, we had artists in residence, and we had computer equipment already in 1980, when we bought an Apple II plus, with a graphics tablet. I demanded that we do this. We gave workshops for artists, but nobody could figure out how they could use this in their work. We did use it a little bit ourselves, but it was really underutilized, completely. It was a start. We tried to do an exhibition program that overlapped with the studio productions in some areas. I curated an exhibition in '83 called The Artist and the Computer. We made a cable TV program about that. We had workshops in the video studio, which was in a former fire station in another part of town. Our equipment was always going back and forth across town --all the time. It was very active, very work-intensive, a very fun and exiting time.

 

I got an offer to move to Boston in 1984, so I went. It was to take the position of curator/producer of the Contemporary Art Television (CAT) Fund. I was also adjunct curator at The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston. This special project was in collaboration with the WGBH New Television Workshop to produce artists works for television, to try to expand this field in some way, with artists who were not necessarily using video so much, and also to give video artists a chance to expand their goals to TV. I tried to raise money to make it a self-sustaining operation, which of course never really worked. I worked in Boston as long as I worked at the Long Beach Museum of Art - six years. For me when I look back they are kind of equal sections of my professional life. Six years in Long Beach and the six years in Boston.

 

JB: When you say this, does this also mean both these six years had a special meaning? So the six years in Boston added something new to your work?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I think yes. The East Coast is very different from the West Coast. The East Coast is much more theoretical, much more involved with reading and texts. I was working with colleagues at the ICA who were much more intellectual then the people I was working with in Long Beach. I started reading more, and I started discussing ideas more. It was less physical activity and public relations, as was the idea of culture in California. We had to compete with Disneyland in California. In Boston it was another mentality. We competed with New York. I think it was very important to be part of this very studious environment. There was a lot of new information coming out of MIT, coming out of Harvard, coming out of the whole New York scene.. So yes, it was very different. I got much more involved with artists working with digital processes. I commissioned one of Bill Seaman's early works, an interactive computer work. I did a lot of shows using computers in the museum. It was still a little bit tough to interest audiences, but easier than Long Beach. We introduced Jeron Lanier to the art audience. After Siggraph 89 (which was held in Boston) he returned to make a presentation of Virtual Reality at The ICA. We had 400 people lined up outside the door, with a front-page story on the Christian Science Monitor. This was cool.

 

JB: This new theoretical approach, how did it change your thoughts about how you were working, on what you should be doing?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I don't know if I know what I am doing (laughs) I started spending more time reading about television, analytical approaches to television. I started to be more conscious about television and how it affects society. I became more interested in international approaches that artists have towards television. In California we were quite removed from the art dialogue that was concerned with an International discourse...we had other concerns, like most local or regional areas (even in Europe)...we were a small institution, could not afford to bring big names from Europe, and most of the critique seemed very remote to us.

 

Boston, on the other hand, was in the crossroad of the Europe traveler...and The ICA was an extremely high visibility institution, prominent artists were always dropping in to visit us, and our shows were regularly reviewed in the most important art journals. It was a different league from the Long Beach regional scene, even though we worked hard and did important work in California, especially to give artists the basic postproduction tools and often their first exhibition experience. Boston was the most interesting area in the US during this time, mainly because of a high level interest in new media. The Arts Council was wealthy, there was lots of private support and the public was amazing -- educated, alive and responsive. Nothing stays the same forever.

 

I did a big exhibition, with the MOCA in Los Angeles and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in '87, and worked closely with Dorine Mignot and Julie Lazar. We worked out the dominant issues of international responses by artists to the television medium. I was really starting to travel more to Europe then, realizing: "O my God, everybody in Europe is looking forward to private TV", because they thought it was going to open up the channels to the public. We Americans were saying: "No, no, you have it perfect. Private TV will close down everything." The changes in Europe didn't really open things. A little bit, some new channels like Arte have developed, but not for experimental work. We were hoping we could share some experiences of what it was like to work in America. I worked with European artists regularly in Boston and we had a heavy theoretical discourse about the whole medium and its social aspects.

 

JB: From Boston you moved to Europe…

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: To Austria, in '91. That was a purely personal choice. It was not for a job. I had a friend and just decided it was an interesting time for change. There were big changes going on at The ICA. David Ross had accepted a job at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, as a director. The Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities had changed focus; there would be many changes in the whole art structure of the city soon. Most of the curators I enjoyed working with at The ICA were leaving for other jobs. With the bottom falling out of the funding, I thought: maybe all these things point to something else happening, so let's take a chance on yourself. I had no idea how I could survive. I had never had to worry about a paycheck, since I had positions in the museum. I had no idea how to present myself. I had to learn all these things. I still don't think I do a very good job of it, but I am not so worried about it any more.

 

JB: What did you do in Europe; did you start writing there?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I had saved a little bit of money; I did not have many expenses. I basically wanted to go around and see things in a detached a way as I could. I was not there for a purpose, I was just there to observe. I wanted to start to see things as an insider, not as a person from America, coming for three days and then leaving. I started to get the sense of how things were very different then most Americans perceive them to be.

 

Even today, Americans ask me, 'what's happening in Europe' - like it is one country. That is just an American misperception, they often think that everyone here is somehow connected, much like it is in the states...where institutions are associated in professional organizations, individuals in professional organizations, where networking works strongly to share resources and reduce costs of Institutions. Also, most Americans don't understand the hierarchy and how it operates here in Europe, nor the lack of power that women have in the art world here (where they have a major lack of influence). In America, the process, budget, advance schedules etc. are all very transparent and public. Here, things are kept hidden until the last possible moment when it must be revealed. As an example: Catherine David kept many of her selections for documenta X secret until the last minute.

 

I spent a lot of time going around to different festivals, just looking at different museums. I was able to give some talks, which helped me a bit. I didn't want to just jump in and start being this American coming to tell everybody what to do. I wanted to learn something. I think I probably wanted to make a personal shift. I brought stacks and stacks of books with me that I hadn't read. I started reading more and I did start writing, a bit. I started writing because I needed to earn some money. Of course everybody who writes knows that you don't earn much money by doing that, but every little bit helps.

 

I also did some organizing for Ars Electronica. Some video shows, some festival organizations.

 

JB: Was there a need for your knowledge?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I don't know. I didn't push myself very strong. It was a conscious thing on my part. I wanted to make a more natural integration. I wanted to see what it was that I could really do, what it was I could offer. People were pretty well informed in Europe. Also when you live some place… nobody wants to loose their position. Everybody fights very hard for his or her position everywhere. I just kept moving around seeing things, and it was great, because now I have a lot of places where I can find information from many sources. If I would have jumped right in, and would have started working in an institution in Austria, I think I would have been in the same spot as I was in Boston or Long Beach, where you get focused in on one place and the problems of that one place. I wanted to get a bigger picture somehow.

 

JB: So you could say that your phase in Europe is like the third phase in your development. First you concentrate on video art, then you get into the theoretical side of electronic art in general and an international perspective comes to be and then it's video art, technological art and independence. You even create artworks yourself now...

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: Independence comes with a price, and I hope that I am not finished with the phases in my life, but can have several additional lives. I've learned to live in a very modest way in Europe. It's not always so easy, coming from another reality. But anyway: I enjoy it a great deal and wouldn't change my past decisions if given the opportunity.

 

I relocated to Austria in spring of '91. In '92, I started to work with Mike Hentz from Van Gogh TV. I first had met these guys in '84, and had seen them at various festivals in Europe. They were involved in a very different kind of work then what was going on in America at the time. They were developing technical processes to integrate communications, computer graphics, and TV, with a strong performance element. It was intriguing. I had spent a lot of time with them in '90, in Linz, with their television piece 'Hotel Pompino.' I invited the group to Boston in early '91. It turned out to be the last show I did in at The ICA, a Van Gogh TV live project with Continental Cable Television. We were able to access the program at MIT, The ICA and at The Computer Museum, and they had an audience that responded to their 4-hour live show. That was a lot of fun. I also organized their All America tour, which Mike Hentz and Benjamin Heidersburger made together, and Van Gogh TV visited several cities in the USA.

 

JB: You were asked to do the Piazzetta part of Van Gogh TV?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: Yes. In late '91, they invited me to work together to develop different partners for the Piazza Virtuale. This was pretty much a hard years work. I had to work from the early part of '92 to the long summer of '93 in Kassel for 100 days of broadcasting. I worked directly with Mike Hentz on this aspect of the VGTV documenta project. For me that was a great opportunity, because it meant working on a longer term project and I was fascinated with their group dynamics, their ability to bring performance and television and this whole new network concept of internet and chats and hackers and coding, a world where I had always felt a bit of an outsider. I was very enthusiastic to jump in and work on this project that actually happened at the Documenta 9, in '92, where I spent the whole summer in Kassel.

 

JB: You said for this you had to travel the eastern block a lot.

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: Mike had a pretty clear idea of what it would take to work in the different countries, he was no stranger to this kind of organization. It was very late, it was February and Documenta would start in June. Our travel to each country was to give the local groups support and training, and to meet with officials for possible funding and access. We traveled in Poland, Russia, Slovenia, Latvia, Finland, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Austria, and various places in Germany and Austria. This was a great development scheme. Also we had a connection in Japan, which I made during a trip there in January, right after we first talked about the project. There wasn't time to initiate many brand new working relationships, so we had to look at the people we had worked with before, the groups who could be trusted to do something under stress, and who could pull it together in their country. The commitments had to be put into place very fast. Often when it's a concentrated effort like this, you naturally rely on those groups of people who are familiar. We encouraged each group to bring in new people to sort of add to the next generation of experience but there is a level of organization where you need people who can do the job. There was a lot at stake here. VGTV had one hundred days of programming to do - and an unbelievable low budget to do it with.

 

The piazetta program actually worked very well. It was very intensive and exiting part of the whole hundred days of television broadcasting.

 

JB: Can you tell me which countries it worked best in and in which countries it was hard and what made the difference?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: There were a lot of technical problems always. Even with Van Gogh TV, who are quite excellent in solving technical problems. They were a bit in advance of standards being set for ISDN lines and various ways to connect with pictures and modems and whatever. For example the ISDN lines between Paris and Kassel had extreme problems getting conformed, the software was not available to modify the different connectivity standards. They were eventually solved. But listening to the post didn’t solve them. They were solved by these guys who sat down and recoded things. That was a very important thing to observe. There were rules there, but there were also ways to solve problems around these rules. They actually did a lot of research and development for the Deutsche Telekom.

 

It worked well where there was a group of people who wanted to work together and who were willing to jump in and have fun, as well as try some new ideas. It worked least well when there was some feeling of competition with the program in Kassel. So, if the artists felt like they were somehow being used as filler or something like this, that energy was clear. Sometimes when you're far away, and you don't get the relationship, these kinds of feelings can develop. So, in every case, artists were invited to come to Kassel. There was money that came from the Soros foundation, and we were given support from Suzanne Meszoly directly from the first exchange projects she organized. This money allowed artists from the east to actually visit Kassel and to provide for translation. This was a very important support for the piazzetta project. Switzerland gave money for coordination costs, so that we could travel and not have to sleep on floors everywhere. We did a lot of that anyway. It was a very low budget international effort.

 

JB: So you had no trouble with bureaucracies of governments?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: This was the problem of the groups in various countries to organize. I think the idea was that we represented the international program. We tried to answer all the questions to make it clear what they needed to do. We provided them with Picture Phones, which allowed the program to take place without using television transmission - it was early live video transmitted by phone lines, on TV. In the various places we visited, Mike held workshops. We kept copious notes of who all the different people involved were, how to contact them, how to inform them with all the facts and ongoing operation.

 

Remember, this was still the time when you had to phone the international operator and make an appointment to send a fax to Russia. It's not like today, where you can just send an email and ok, they might have some problems getting a dialup phone connection from time to time, but then, there were very severe communication difficulties. You would make an appointment and then sit at the telephone the whole day and wait for the operator to call you. And, if for some reason you were in the toilet, you missed your connection possibility for the day. That is a very difficult pressure to be under, especially when the program schedule is dense.

 

JB: There hasn't been much visibility or publications about Van Gogh TV's Kassel project in Holland for example, do you know why?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I don't think there has been a lot of research into the VGTV projects in general. Of course, they won the Deutsche Medienkunst prize in 1993, which was awarded at the ZKM. As far as I know, there were lectures and presentations at The Next Five Minutes, too. Maybe after 100 days, not everybody wants to keep hearing about it. Also, perhaps because of the technical programming aspects of their work, and the hybrid nature of their interface to the public, it is not the cool technology that media theoreticians are interested in. Meanwhile, in Holland, there was Rabotnik TV, where Menno Grootveld and Maarten Ploeg made a lot of actions. The VPRO had a lot of live interesting program events that happened very early. Most of the people with any history in interactive experimental TV works were invited to participate in the Piazza Virtuale events in Kassel, and they often came to the social gatherings.

 

I think that VGTV had to be very strong and clear to keep their position, because everybody wanted to have some credit for the project. They worked very hard on this project, and made an extreme energy output. In fact, shortly after Documenta the group, which had worked together for 5 years, began to break apart. It was such extreme energy that went into the development of this major, long-term project. Piazza Virtuale was created with very little money and had very little support from the Documenta. This was a labor of love. Maybe it looks like it was a high priced thing, but it wasn't.

 

What always impressed me is that they also wanted to make it fun, constantly, for the people who visited. There were fan clubs that self-organized. They would come to Kassel in groups! And, there were the satellite user groups, who were connected via BBS and electronic mail, who would connect with each other at Piazza Virtuale. They would come and have their meetings in the Piazza. It was amazing, the kinds of new audiences this project developed.

 

JB: What happened with these new audiences, because after this it seems that a long silence set in.

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: It's funny how these things work. You never know immediately who was this audience, especially if it was a television audience. In television, when the program is over, it is over -- it is yesterday's newspaper. It was always a big problem for us working in the eighties to know who was the audience, what effect did any of this artwork on television have. Nobody really knew immediately. It's quite fascinating to me that I am meeting people now, in very strange places, like in Glasgow, or in Spain, people who watched Piazza Virtuale when they were teenagers, and it changed their life.

 

So it does make a difference, it really does. These people are now very active and organizing around issues on the topic. They have no direct contact with this VGTV, but they knew them. In some conversations, when I mentioned what my part was, they say:" Owhaaaaaaoooww, I remember watching that and jumping up and down and thinking this is great! Calling everybody I knew and telling them about it..." Nobody knows these things in the art world, but it must have been going on in various places around the whole European scene.

 

JB: Was there much reflection afterwards, reports or talks?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman:

 

Well yes. They have made dozens of lectures and follow up reports. A documentary was made. There exists a website with a lot of information. Theoretically I think all this area of live TV by artists is still quite open for analyses. Very open. The fact that they were bridging a gap between the program and audience, a direct television connection, actually a live two-way television, nobody knows how to handle this really, even though there have been experiments going on since the late 1960s. Now that we have web-TV, now that we have the whole multi-user online environment, (which by the way the Van Gogh TV energy has morphed into very nicely), it might be easier to take the early experiences and relate back. It is a special topic. I like to look back over from the early examples, the sixties, seventies and eighties all have instances when live TV interventions were taking place. It has gradually started to build into a topic that is open for analysis.

 

JB: Can you maybe lift one piece of the curtain and tell us what your conclusion could be or what from your point of view is the most interesting about it?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: First of all, it is the kind of event that makes much more impact if you can experience it first hand, yourself. Watching a documentary is a bit voyeuristic and it doesn't translate well. It is really something where the more people who can be involved in a first hand way, the better. The problem often is that there aren't enough ways to establish nodes for public contact. VGTV set up Public Entry Points in Kassel, they set up points in different countries, they lent the Picture Phones, and set-up modems, but it was a bit early for the general audience to get involved in it. Therefore, the main players were technically orientated, often hackers and programmers. As the summer went along, and the sections of the program became technically more reliable, consistent, and comfortable for everyone, then poets, performance artists, and live actions were easier for VGTV to incorporate.

 

Now what has happened is that they have the experience from this situation, as well as other programs that they made. Other groups have done live TV, but nobody has the major experience of combining Network communication with graphic interfaces, and for such a long period of time. Now, they can take that experience into the Web world of multi-user environments with knowledge. They are aware, and do not treat the Internet like it was something brand new. They go into it with some authority of experience. I think we have to accept that as a very serious attempt to go on and continue to build. This work is important to follow through with.

 

JB: Did you follow it through?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: I have very good contact with VGTV, yes. I am keeping up on their new projects since documenta XI, and I am thinking about doing more research myself into this area. Because I have changed my own way of working, you know.

 

JB: Exactly, did you follow it through in your own work? What did you do after Van Gogh TV?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: After Van Gogh TV I went to German school, to (and I still try) to learn German. Then, I went back to Austria then and I started to get online. I had a number of personal changes and challenges. I worked with the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art as a regional consultant for two years, and finished up with the NewMediaLogia symposium in Moscow, in November 1994. I was introduced to many artists who were already discussing connectivity, and setting up personal Internet connections in Russia. The SCCA was then only partially online, and in Moscow Alexei Shulgin was already at hand to assist with connectivity. It was all pre-browser work for the most part. I saw the Mosaic browser for the first time in Moscow at Relcom, it was an exciting breakthrough to contemplate.

 

It was a kind of big cloud of time. I was moving a lot in the east, getting to feel what artists were thinking about. What was fascinating to me was that they wanted to jump over the whole video thing, for the most part. They didn't see any value to deal so much with video or radio, they wanted to go right straight to the Internet. They saw it as their direct link to the world and they could take all the information and just jump right there. Now, I think they are creating some excellent examples of what can be done in the medium.

 

Then, in 1995 I moved to Vienna to work with Hilus intermediale Projektforschung. This was a group of between 6-9 persons, who had organized the event Unit N in Vienna in 1992. I had participated in that program, as did VGTV. Hilus was connected, they were technical, but they were also artists. I joined the group, and contributed my history of media library and tape collection as a resource, as I had no equipment to bring to their studio. There, I was able to work online, in a nice office space. That was in the very beginning of '95. Before that time, I could only get access here and there, or read about it. But all of a sudden, I could really jump in full force.

 

This is also when Eva Wohlgemuth and I.., well, I just got completely captivated by the Internet. I got my email account and all of a sudden within a couple of months I was mailing with friends in America and all over the world. I had fifty to sixty emails a day, then. It just has not stopped since then.

 

JB: You said you immediately got very involved online. I know that the first big project you did was the Siberian Deal. Was that at that moment what you concentrated on most, or was it like most of your work: one of the many projects you did at the same time? You do always many overlapping projects.

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: At the time Eva and I started to work together, as always, I needed to earn money to live, so I was writing a little bit for some magazines. I started to organize a video program that dealt with how artists conceived virtual spaces. I worked on this with Carol Anne Klonarides for the '94 Ars Electronica. This was really research into visualized virtual spaces, how could these spaces look and be. It was quite fascinating. I moved on to do another video show, in Luxemburg, which Armin Medosch invited me to curate for Telepolis. I called this show CyberSpaces. Then I made an exchange programs called Ost/West Political Video for the Landesmuseum in Linz. They sponsored the invitation to Tatiana Didenko to come from Russia, to present her video programs made for television, and at the same program, I invited Marty Lucas from Paper Tiger Television, who also presented a program of American political television programs. That is when Eva and I started talking about Siberia. This was in spring of  '95. Eva and I made a dinner for these guests. We found out then that Siberia is a pretty cool place. We had always thought Siberia was a terrible place. So we all agreed --around the table-- that we would go there and find out. We would check our propaganda input, how we had been brainwashed. Eva, being very practical and conscientious, applied for some money from the Austrian ministry. She got a very small grant, I didn't know if I would have time to go. At a certain point I started saying:" Eva, where are you going to go?" "Let's check it on the Internet". So I started to get involved directly by mailing different sysops at institutes and finding out that you can make friends very fast, you don't even have to know the people. We set up an itinerary, where the best places to go might be, talked to people in Austria from Russia, figured out what it might cost, where could we find connectivity. It was so exiting we did not really think about pitfalls or not being able to do it.

 

JB: It seemed like a natural way to do to get the Internet involved in all this...

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: It seemed like the only way we would be able to connect. I knew the telephone lines were really bad, but we could connect to these institutes, then we would also be able to connect from them, because they seemed to be always connected. They are on different kind of lines then regular people. We did it and I must admit it was hard work.

 

Looking back, for me it was not a very different process from organizing, the same way I did as a curator, because there is a lot of details that have to be done in this kind of work, as an artists work. There are a lot the same kinds of processes. I did it together with Eva. We divided the work, she did the Web space, and I made all the negotiations for our plan, the schedules and the connections with the people, which is the same thing as I have done all along. So for me it was not jumping into a really new way of working, it was just re-orientating the focus of where I put this energy. That was a very new experience for me.

 

JB: Maybe we can make a big leap, due to lack of time, and jump to Face Settings.

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: That is not such a big leap actually. We finished the Siberian Deal, and we collapsed a little bit. Then we started to sit together and reflect on the experience. To organize the materials and talk about how it affected us, what we wanted to do next. It was a really great way to wrap it up. We looked at the project carefully. After we decided we wanted to work together again, on another project, we went over the kinds of things that worked best for us in Siberian Deal, what were the things we liked to do together, what were the area's of interest we shared, and wanted to find out more about. We took a very methodical way of going forward. We also wanted to try not to get a fixed idea of an end point, but let whatever we did become an open project, where a lot of people could join in, and we would try to guide it in a certain way.

 

Therefore in FACE SETTINGS, we don't aim at some definite artistic goal, like getting a series of portraits made, or something like that. We aim our energy in a certain direction. So now, our travels are devoted towards getting women together in non-central European and East European countries, and to learn more about female connectivity and how that might relate to cooking and communication.

 

JB: The decision to make it a project around women, did that come also out of your experiences with Siberian Deal?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: Neither one of us has worked or been identified as working in a feminist tradition. Neither one of us has ever been recognized in this way, but we wanted to narrow down our scope of working. We knew we couldn't tackle the entire topic of communication, for example. We thought it could be very interesting to take this female topic with women and invite women to deal with it. We knew it would offer a lot of different responses. It was a way of focusing ourselves. We work a lot with men and it's not a thing about men...it really has nothing to do with men. This is a project that we wanted to find out about our female connectivity. We realized we had had a lot of help from women. When we needed information we got it readily from women (and to be honest also with men, but there was a difference). There was a lot of sharing, a lot of community that we felt with women, and we wanted to examine that. We also wanted to bring our experiences to other women who we knew were trying to find out about Internet. Then, we started to read, and to get more aware of all the research being done, and theoretical positions on the topic.

 

JB: In the period that Face Settings now works, can you say that there is a difference in the way men and women use the Internet?

 

Kathy Rae Huffman: Most definitely. I think, more in general, women are really caring about their online community. Actually, it is interesting, that the open aspect of Internet, the vast possibilities to meet new people every day online, often is not very satisfying. What we find are pockets of communities built up on common goals, common interests, and shared realities. Women might go about the organization of these communities differently than men do, but that is for someone else to study. We are interested to learn more about our own reactions, and the reactions of our remote groups in the Face Settings project. We hope others can benefit from these communication experiences, and have some good meals at the same time!