The California State of Mind: an interview with Glenn Phillips

Glenn Phillips is Principal Project Specialist and Consulting Curator in the Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.  His exhibition California Video won the International Association of Art Critics award for best exhibition of digital media, video, or film in 2008. His other exhibitions include Time/Space, Gravity and Light; Marking Time; Evidence of Movement; Reckless Behavior; Pioneers of Brazilian Video Art 1973-1983; Surveying the Border: Three Decades of Video Art about the United States and Mexico; and Radical Communication: Japanese Video Art 1968-88. He is currently a member of the curatorial team for Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A.1945-1980, a series of more than sixty concurrent exhibitions that will open across Southern California beginning in Fall 2011. Anne Colvin spoke to him about Pacific Standard Time and its relationship to his previous exhibitions.

Anne Colvin: You are in town for a lecture at Krowswork in Oakland, what are you planning to talk about?

Glenn Philips: Depending on who is in the audience and how things go, I want to ask them some things as well and structure it as more of a conversation with the main question being “why do you make video?” It’s a question I have started asking artists lately because for many artists working now a lot of conflicted things go into producing video. I spend a lot of time looking at the history of video particularly in the ’70s and ’80s where if you found yourself making video as art there probably were a relatively clear set of circumstances that brought you there and a relatively clear set of reasons you could give as to why, different reasons not all the same in every situation. I am not saying that it’s not true today but I am wondering to what degree it is true today because people are making video for very, very different reasons.

AC: You curated the California Video show in 2008, the first major survey of California video art spanning about forty years. You mentioned artists’ motivations – could you talk more about this in the context of that show?

GP: That show came out of an earlier series that we had been doing at the Getty where every couple of years we would look at a different part of the world and at the birth of video art in that part of the world. The original idea was that we would over time chronicle the birth of video art which is so interesting because video didn’t come to every part of the world at the same time. There are parts of the world where video as an art form is just beginning to happen today and there are parts where it hasn’t happened yet. That was very interesting to me this sort of idea that in your lifetime you could track the progress of a brand new medium as it spread around the world. The first area we looked at was Brazil during the military dictatorship and then Japan where the portable video camera was invented. Then we looked at California, right around 1970 – although in the Bay Area as early as 1967 –  where there was this complete explosion of work and here you see that there was no technique that you don’t see an artist apply, artists were really trying every imaginable thing you can think of whether that was image processing work, whether that was experimental documentary work or whether that was installation work, performance work, feedback work and scripted work. There was this incredible freedom that’s almost impossible to wrap your mind around. We retroactively sort of identify trends by surpassing other artists that we don’t want to think about but if you really go back and look you see that everything you can think of was happening and maybe that is the defining characteristic of art in California because I see the exact same thing now. So when someone says to me what’s the state of video I panic because it’s maybe the exact same state that it’s always been. There are still artists producing image process work for example that almost could have been made in 1969 or 1970.

AC: It seems that artists really are looking back at this point in time, so do you think that this is a possible explanation?

GP: I think that’s a partial explanation, definitely, and I think it’s a characteristic that you have seen in the major art schools both in San Francisco, in LA and San Diego that many of the best faculty members there have always prioritised history and in a strange way I don’t see this in New York as often. There’s this amazing oral history on the West Coast of the sort of alternate history of art that teachers have passed down to their students that are all crazy stories – except that they are not just crazy stories, they are parables, parables about art-making that are I think this hallmark of an artist’s education that you see on the West Coast. I think that gets a lot of artists interested in that work. At the same time when I try to show early work to students now and particularly undergraduate students, they are often so uninterested in it without even realising that they are working in the same vein. Some of it may even happen through osmosis without artists knowing that they are making a direct reference, there’s something in the air maybe.

AC: Jumping ahead, can you talk a bit about Pacific Standard Time ART IN L.A. 1945-1980 which runs from October 2011 through April 2012. I believe you are organising part of this with Lauri Firstenberg, Director of LAXART?

GP: There are over 100 curators working on Pacific Standard Time. The part that Lauri Firstenberg and I are doing is a performance and public art festival that will be happening around Los Angeles. Lauri and I are directing it but in fact most of the projects are being organised by partner organisations, so even the festival has a huge number of curators. Pacific Standard Time itself is I believe now 72 exhibitions happening at museums and non-profit art spaces all over Southern California. I think there is even another 70 related exhibitions at commercial art galleries, so it’s a huge, huge team of people that are working on it and the Getty has payed a role in overseeing some of the overall logistics.

AC: A pretty major endeavour and obviously it’s the first of its kind, I mean this is an unprecedented level of collaboration. There seems to be a trend towards more of a collaborative approach in the contemporary art landscape between institutions and art spaces, do you think this scale of collaboration is something we are going to see more of?

GP: As more recent history becomes interesting to us we start trying to chronicle [it]. I mean, I think the ’60s have been chronicled in some depth but now we are starting to really move into chronicling the ’70s, the ’80s and maybe even the ’90s in more depth. In Los Angeles for instance the number of artists had exploded by 1970  because the number of graduate art school programs had exploded, and I think in part that enrolment was driven by cultural factors and in part by strategies of resisting the draft. This explosion makes the density of the history more and more complicated. If you look at how the scholarship happening in many other cities like New York has played out then you have seen a lot of exhibitions or books that are really going into depth in specific areas, but Los Angeles for whatever reason never really had that and nor was Los Angeles seen as a city that merited it. It was felt that the few major artists we knew about from LA were the ones that were needed to be known about, but then once you start looking at the history it just expands and expands and it is amazing to see everything that was going on there. Each of these 72 exhibitions is about a completely different thing, they overlap less than you would imagine and there’s still people in a state of panic because of what’s been left out.

So I think that’s not unique to Los Angeles – there are so many other times and areas and developments, not necessarily local developments they could be international or cross-cultural developments that we are just realising can be looked at in more depth than has maybe been typical for shows. One way to do that is to have these sort of collaborative projects where you might have multiple venues taking on different facets of the story. Pacific Standard Time grew like crazy in a way that would not be necessary to the success of another project that wanted to be collaborative, it doesn’t need to be that huge. But it could be an interesting model especially for taking in different points of view.

AC: I think it’s really exciting for that reason and it will be interesting to see the kind of life after this in Los Angeles. Pertaining to video and film I see that there are quite a few venues that are participating, LACE and Los Angeles Film Forum, UCLA Film and TV Archive and of course The Long Beach Museum of Art which is a seminal place for video art in California. What is their contribution to Pacific Standard Time?

GP: Long Beach opened one of the first museum video art departments in the country which I think was officially founded in 1974 and in 1976 they founded the first video post-production facility based within a museum in the country. They had an incredible very active, very generous encompassing program of screenings and exhibitions that went on for decades. Their collection grew in a phenomenal way because anyone who used the post-production facility always deposited a copy of the work there and they also have a study library where any work that was ever shown there was also deposited in the collection. By the end of the ’90s the Museum had gone through a lot of changes and the video program was shut down so that video archive was transferred to the Getty in 2005 and we have been working on preserving and digitising the collection ever since. Altogether it’s almost 5,000 works of video art so it’s a really huge collection and that collection was a foundational core of the California Video show. So for Pacific Standard Time, Long Beach Museum is going back to that history and they are taking a great perspective on it. The curator for the show will be Kathy Rae Huffman (who was curator from 1976-1983) and she is looking at the international exchanges that happened because of the Long Beach program, which is a really important facet of the story because artists were coming in from all over the world to use the post-production facility. The Museum became one of the primary ways that artists in LA were finding out about and getting to interact with artists from other parts of the world. So almost nothing in that show is by a California artist but everything in that show plays a role in the history of Southern California art in a way that’s really important.

AC. I  see that there is one show which is happening outside of Southern California, State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970 at Berkeley Art Museum/PFA – does this focus on Northern California artists?

GP: A couple of the shows do look at Northern California artists. The major one is the show that the Museum of Contemporary Art is doing called Under the Big Black Sun and that’s looking at art all over California between 1974 and 1981. The State of Mind show is absolutely one of the shows that I am most excited about and I think that from talking to the curators Karen Moss and Connie Lewallen, the show is going to be a complete revelation for people. If you had to pick one thing, I guess you could say it’s chronicling the birth and development of conceptual art on the West Coast but that’s probably a little too narrow – it branches out to video, it branches out to performance. You know one of the great discoveries of Pacific Standard Time – it is something that a lot of scholars have known or hinted at for a long time – is that what was identified and named postmodernism as a set of developments that happened in New York towards the end of the 1970s is really something that happened in miniature or began in a really interesting way in California at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s. That was alluded to in the recent Pictures Generation at the Metropolitan Museum where the influence of John Baldessari and the students that he produced at CalArts who then moved to New York was sort of a starting point for the exhibition. So there are these amazing connections happening across all different types of media but which video and performance play this central role in so I think in The State of Mind show you’ll really be able to see that moment happening and there will be so many artists that most people have never heard of and you will be very surprised by their work.

AC: I’m really looking forward to it, in particular the soundtrack to Allen Ruppersberg’s Grand Hotel – and I think on that note we can end here, in Northern California!

Anne Colvin is a Scottish artist based in San Francisco. Most recently she was included in Long Play: Bruce Conner and The Singles Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and was programmer-in-residence at Berkeley Art Museum. Anne ran TART, a project space devoted to time-based media in San Francisco from 2004-2008 and produces ‘Skank Bloc Bologna‘, an experimental publication. Anne is included in Maurizio Cattelan’s book “No Soul for Sale” published this year.



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