Dachau 1974Original Materials
Beryl Korot was among the first artists to recognize the power of multi-screen installations as a medium for video exhibition. In 1970, she became co-editor of Radical Software, the first publication to discuss the possibilities of the new video medium, and co-edited Video Art: An Anthology with Ira Schneider in 1976. Her works have been exhibited at the Kitchen, the Leo Castelli Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.; her four-screen video installation Dachau 1974 was exhibited at Art Basel and Tate London in 2014. In this interview, she discusses her practice, and the conservation of Dachau 1974.
This interview was conducted in November 2014 by Carolyn Faber.
Q: Do you have the original materials for all of your video works, or just some of them?
Beryl Korot: It depends on whether I cared about the projects. There were some things I just chucked. I don't save everything. I don't think everything I've done is worth saving, so I've thrown some things away. I know it's definitely not a general attitude. (Laughs) but it was definitely one that I had.
Q: Well, it's important to have some kind of self-curatorial impulse, because it's true, not everything is worth saving.
BK: I found that, oh my gosh, I don't like this. Why should I burden somebody else at some point to have to look at this?
Q: Right, but at the same time, maybe artists are not the best judges of that.
BK: I can see the other point of view. Anyway, the answer to that question is no, I have not saved everything across the board. I do not have all the original things that I have shot. And some things are lost, sitting in my early computers that I have no energy to access.
Q: And for the things where the materials do exist, those are in your possession?
Q: Had you ever thought about giving them over to an archive, or museum, or a place where they would be part of a collection?
BK: What I'd like to give over to an archive is actually my letters that I wrote in the '70s and '80s as the medium was developing. As co-editor of Radical Software, I have many correspondences. Also, I have a huge archive of interviews with very interesting people from the video operas I collaborated on with my husband, Steve Reich, from The Cave and Three Tales—-prominent archeologists, scientists.
Q: Do you have them organized in a particular way or do you just know where things are?
BK: If we were shooting somebody in particular, then a label would be on that video. But no, I definitely don't have an organized archive since the early 90's when I worked on a Mac Plus to edit The Cave. Then there was some other computers I used after that which sit in a closet in Vermont, and three more towers from the late 90's until now, also not inventoried which contains all the visual work for Three Tales and a body of work with videos important to me, Yellow Water Taxi, Pond Life, Vermont Landscape, Babel and Florence and Etty. What I have a handle on, though it needs to be restored as with Dachau, and soon, Text and Commentary, is the work from the 70's. The material between the 1990's to about 2010 is the least accounted for. It's because of the way the computer, and changing computers and hardware entered my work domain from the early 1990's when I was working on The Cave. Things stored on SyQuest drives for example were replaced by other types of hardware and put away somewhere, etc. One computer replaced another and not everything was placed together on a hard drive, or operating systems changed, on and on.
Q: Do you have the the tapes and drives organized, like numbered and shelved in any specific way?
Q: Have you preserved other of your own works, or was Dachau 1974 the first one?
BK: I do have earlier work that I have copies of. Not in the latest media format. They really haven't been preserved.
Q: So you've made- you made copies on different formats, but they weren't part of a larger preservation like you went through with Dachau.
Restoring Dachau 1974
Q: So how did this project originate? Why this work now?
BK: Actually it was originated by the Kramlich Collection. Their edition of the work was requested for loan by Tate in London, and in preparation for creating exhibition copies, they reviewed all of the materials they held and felt that a full restoration of the work was necessary to both conserve it and to make the best quality exhibition copies possible.
Q: What was your role in the preservation process? How were you involved with the other people working on it and in the decision making?
BK: Well, basically it was mostly contact with Maurice Schechter, who is the chief engineer at DuArt Film and Video in New York. And he would say, "Bring me what you have of your tapes - the closest to the original." And I would bring him something, and he would say, "This is not so good. Bring me something else." And I just kept opening more and more boxes until finally we got to - I don't really remember where it was - but finally I opened a box and he said, "Oh these are good." So it was just really a matter of digging and his persisting to make sure that I really covered every stump. Ultimately, the four channels were restored using my original 1974 1" Type EV edit masters, along with one 1/2" EIAJ High-Density copy that I had made in the 1970s.
And then in the restoration process there were a couple of hours of going into a color correction studio and making certain things more uniform. They also had as a guide Kate Lewis, the Media Conservator at the Museum of Modern Art. She came over early in the process, and we had a little conversation which I found actually useful. And that was that you don't want to go too far in the restoration process. In other words, when you go into color correction, you can clean up everything. You can take away noise and drop outs. You can go fairly far into changing the look of the piece, and that's not what the idea was. Because it was a piece created on certain equipment at a certain point in time.
Also, when they were working to restore Dachau, somebody came up with a single-channel version of it that had been shot for a program that Russell Connor was doing for PBS called Video Gallery. They arranged the four monitors in a quadrant, and shot it with a single camera. Anthology Film Archive had a copy of that, and when Maurice took a look at it, he was very impressed with the quality. He could tell by looking at that, the level of quality of the original tapes. So that was a little bit of a green light to everybody to feel comfortable with fixing things. Because time had left its mark, and the original stuff was clearly higher quality. And I was very concerned with the technical quality when I originally made this work.
So when I went into the color correction suite, it was more just getting certain things uniform. In the old days when we presented something, we would sit and tune the monitors like crazy, and what kind of monitor you had was really important. So at that time, there was an interaction with the original 1/2" material in the tuning of the monitors. Nowadays you can get a computer monitor for installations and you can't do much. You can hardly tweak it at all, and we spent a lot of time tweaking the CRT monitors in the 1970s. So the work in the color correction suite was the equivalent of the tweaking that we used to do on the monitors, that we couldn't do anymore. I would say that it was in the color correction that I kind of put my stamp on it, but also kept in mind what Kate Lewis had said, which was, "Let's not make this into a different work," which some people go in and do. So I was very careful. It looks like it looked, to the extent that one can remember.
Q: It was fortunate to have that piece from Anthology where you really had some evidence of how it originally looked.
BK: Oh yeah, it was amazing to have that. It was fantastic.
Q: How did the technological alteration of the work through this process impact other aspects of it? Do you think it changes how viewers will see it now versus how they would have seen it when you first showed it?
BK: I don't think it's changed that much. I didn't mean to imply that it has. I don't think it has.
Q: Dachau 1974 was created in a moment where the division between video art and documentary didn't really exist as rigidly as it does now, or maybe not even at all. And it's a great example of how the work being created at that time existed between the two categories. It was hard to pin down as one or the other. And that seems like a really important part of the work, the moment in which it was created. And that can be difficult to preserve. Would you agree with that, or do you feel like it doesn't matter at this point?
BK: Well, I took documentary material—in the sense that it's a document of what I chose to select, of people moving through that space in 1974—but the intention wasn't to make a work that simply showed the concentration camp in 1974. So it's not documentary in that sense. It drew on an interest in structure. And maybe a more minimal aesthetic. And then it drew on the loom, in terms of organizing information in multiples. It was coming out of my interest in creating new formats for people perceiving information. I wasn't thinking documentary at all actually.
Q: That makes a lot of sense because, I think a lot of people who were using portable video equipment at that time were coming to that format from so many disciplines, of documentary and video art and all that sort of came afterwards. And that urgency of wanting to use the new technology and find new ways to put work out in the world and present ideas, that urgency of that moment sometimes gets lost. I'm not sure how that can really be preserved.
BK: Some people were very concerned with just content in a new way and in new hands, from their own perspectives. I was interested in that to an extent, but I was tremendously interested in changing the way people looked at television in a physical sense. Not so much by doing a take-off from a different political or personal point of view. In other words, what was interesting about the multiple channel format for me is it broke the relationship between viewer and broadcaster in the home. That was a one-to-one relationship, broadcaster-to-person sitting in their living room. Multiple channel works said, "Wait a minute. You don't even have to sit in the living room. We're going to use this new format of multiple channel to get out of the living room, get out of that relationship." And at the same time it was taking these little modules and saying, "Hey, you can place this kind of information in a room so that time plays against itself. You can make the image seem bigger because it's a number of monitors." It was the legacy of my involvement with Radical Software, which was all about that. Radical Software was providing a venue for all kinds of thinking about video. But for the people I particularly was involved with, the Raindance people, they were involved in new ways to convey information. And that was definitely something I was thinking about at the time and was involved with. That was particularly interesting to me. So Dachau 1974 comes out of that. And 1974 was an important year for me. In 1974 while working on Radical Software which I co-edited I became interested in the hand loom as the first computer on earth and I realized that in all 3 media I was working with at the time— video, weaving, print— the information was encrypted in lines. And that was really my epiphany at that time. Human beings create technologies that organize information in this way. And so, when I brought back my material from Dachau I decided to work in a multiple-channel format and turned to the ancient technology of the loom for clues of how to work with this new genre. The loom was the best precedent on the face of the earth for understanding how to program multiples. With the loom you have multiple threads building up a pattern in time. And that's essentially what Dachau 1974 does in its relationships to the first and third channels, the second and fourth channels, and how the images are organized and relate to one another in time to move the viewer through the space. But then it was also relating the ancient to the new, and that really interested me. That there was this connection of multiple channels to something that came before, and that also related to what was to come, to the computer. And so the old and new came together in this work in formal terms. That was what I was thinking about. But not documentary as it's usually thought about.
Q: In Mark Godfrey's book Abstraction and the Holocaust the author discusses your interest in weaving, and referencing the old technology with new technology. And I was thinking about how the preservation process introduces another layer of weaving. In a different sense you are weaving together different generations of tapes and -
BK: Yeah. I didn't think of it in that way, but I definitely was impressed with how we could substantially improve what was deteriorating and really make it look closer to the original. It was really exciting to see that kind of plasticity within the medium right now, in terms of what is possible with technology. And actually that might be an interesting piece sometime, to take something old and pull it through a color correction lab and fool around with the work where both aspects would be evident, the old and the new, to create a whole new image. That really was interesting. But I don't know that it really is analogous.
Q: Did working through the preservation process reveal anything new about the work to you that you hadn't considered before? Did you see it in a new way at all?
BK: No, not really. Not really, it was just gratifying to see it looking good again. That was really gratifying.
Exhibiting Dachau 1974
Q: When Dachau 1974 has been exhibited, has it always been presented in the exact same way or have there been any alterations to it, apart from the example you gave from Anthology Film Archives?
BK: The only difference really—for example when it showed at The Kitchen or the Whitney, it was always in a white room with a white wall. And recently at the Tate, the room was darker and the monitor wall was a little bit lighter. So that was a change. That was different. The main thing is that the wall itself is almost like a small stele or monument. It's also to me a film screen in which four holes were punctured. That was also, by the way, a little bit of my thinking at the time—that this eight-foot by ten-foot wall that was constructed for the monitors was also an allusion to the film screen, and that we were now in a new place historically. But aside from the quality of the image being restored the work is pretty much presented the way it was originally seen.
Q: So maybe there might be some small alterations depending on the gallery that it's in, but—
BK: Exactly. In other words, the Tate—they have a room. It's dark grey and they didn't want to change that. So I said, "Okay, as long as the wall that's constructed for the monitors is a lighter grey, so that it has its own presence, so it's not just like walking into a dark room and you're just seeing the monitors." It was important that the wall itself have a presence. Therefore it was made a lighter grey. But was the biggest difference there.
Caring for artist's materials
Q: What would you advise other artists to do who are caring for their own materials? What would you advise based on what you've learned through this process or through caring for your works all of these years?
BK: I guess I laugh because I think, oh my gosh, what—where is the work? I guess everything I have right now is on hard drives. I don't know. I could give them advice that I don't keep myself, which is keep updating the hard drives.
Q: I don't think anybody keeps that advice, even some preservationists. (Laughs) We all know we're supposed to do that, but who is actually doing it is another matter.
BK: I know. Somebody sent me that question before. I don't have that much to say about that. Try and keep everything together.
Q: Okay. Well, in some of the other interviews, like with BAVC, when I talked with them, they said one of the problems they run into a lot is people don't even know what they have. They either can't find the most original copy or they don't recognize the formats that they have, or they're not sure what generation things are—that sort of thing. And they're not sure they can even find everything. They thought they had something and maybe somebody else had a copy, some other organization or individual. So just getting their arms around a collection is very often the biggest challenge. But it sounds like you have pretty good control over your stuff.
BK: Yes. Partly because there were a bunch of small works that I did prior to 1974. And I shouldn't say I didn't care about them, but I really viewed them as my learning to work with the medium and to finding myself within it. And it wasn't until Dachau 1974 and then a couple of years later with Text and Commentary that I felt that these were really the works I wanted to make. So, I have the other stuff, and I guess it's interesting. There's one work in particular from then that I think about, but I think it's been lost. And I'm not somebody who's terribly prolific. It's more like, what I do have I hope matters. I hope there is a good ratio for what people are going to want to see in ten, fifteen, twenty years.
Since the early 1970s, Beryl Korot has been recognized as a pioneer of video art and of multiple channel work in particular. She was co-editor of Radical Software, the first publication to discuss the possibilities of the new video medium in 1970, and co-edited Video Art: An Anthology with Ira Schneider in 1976. Her study of the technology of the loom, in 1974, marks a critical shift in her own investigations and played a significant role as a thinking tool in her subsequent video work.
Her first multiple-channel works, "Text and Commentary" and "Dachau 74", are groundbreaking efforts that moved the video medium beyond the television's frame and into a vocabulary of installation. By 1980, these and earlier works were featured at Dokumenta 6, The Kitchen, Leo Castelli Gallery, The Everson Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, among others and was featured in Video Viewpoints at the Museum of Modern Art. Later interested in painting and language development, Korot exhibited text based hand-woven canvases at the John Weber Gallery in 1986, and at the Carnegie Museum in 1990.
Past exhibitions and screenings of Korot's work also include the Reina Sofia, Madrid; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Dusseldorf Kunstverein; ICC Galleries, Tokyo; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Musee D'Ascq, Lille, France; Kolnischer Kunstverein, Cologne; Musée des Beaux Arts, Montréal; San Francisco Art Institute; Long Beach Museum; the Sao Paulo Bienial; Stedlijk van Abbemuseum, Eindoven; Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Henry Gallery, Seattle; Los Angeles County Museum; ZKM, Karlsruhe; Centro de Arte y Naturaleza in Spain; Apex Gallery, New York; and Jack Tilton Gallery, New York.