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PHILADELPHIA — With each new technological innovation, artists have taken the opportunity to manipulate and speak back to modes of mass communication. Broadcasting: EAI at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) highlights this tradition by focusing on the legacy of the nonprofit Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI). Since its founding in 1971, EAI has promoted video art and other moving image work while also providing resources for production and distribution. The works included in the exhibition all come from EAI’s archive and range from broadcast television to software-based website projects, emphasizing the ways in which “artists exploit the act of broadcasting as a subject, as a means of intervention, and as a form of participation.” The works on view range from 1973 to today, and include many videos produced with EAI.
The nonprofit was founded by Howard Wise, who had run a gallery on 57th street in Manhattan that presented kinetic and multimedia artworks; in 1969 he mounted an exhibition, TV as a Creative Medium, devoted to what would eventually become known as “video art.” Two years later, he closed the gallery to focus on helping artists to distribute and produce their moving image work. The ICA, in turn, also has a history of mounting exhibitions of media-based art; as early as 1975 the institution held the exhibition Video Art, one of the earliest museum surveys of moving image art.
As the curatorial statement describes, to “broadcast” was a term that generated from agricultural business, specifically describing spreading seeds widely. Later, the term became associated with communication technologies with the advent of radio and then television. In the 1960s, when personal video equipment entered the market, artists were some of the first to take advantage of the new technology, which had previously only been accessible to large corporations. Some of the earliest work in the show is particularly focused on personal, intimate expression. For instance, Shigeko Kubota’s “Video Girls and Video Songs for Navajo Skies” (1973) and “My Father” (1973-1975) present surreal diaristic videos in which the monitor becomes a way to interface with one’s inner self.
When entering the gallery at the ICA, you pass through a curtain and enter into a large “black box” occupied by several monitors and projections. Not every screen plays at the same time, as the curators chose to compose the videos into a series of timed loops. Displaying moving image work continues to present challenges for institutions of all sizes, often appearing in separate viewing rooms, or being placed in brightly lit galleries with a pair of headphones one has to wait to use or pass up. Klein and Cleman took these issues into careful consideration while designing the exhibition space, opting for timed loops, projections, and only a couple of monitors with headphones so as to give viewers more accessibility and options for consuming the videos presented. As with any moving image-based exhibition, it is at first overwhelming to decide where to start, but the orchestration of the timed loops does makes the decision-making somewhat easier, with a new screen suddenly lighting up and drawing you to it.
There are also lesser-known works on display, some of which had not previously been included in museum exhibitions. Since the ICA partnered with EAI, the curators were able to take advantage of the nonprofit’s insider knowledge of its vast holdings and hidden gems. For example, Robert Beck’s The Space Program, a series of half-hour long videos developed specifically for cable access, highlights a particular trend among artists who have used public access television to present their work outside of an art world context as a political and conceptual project. Beck produced 20 programs, regularly broadcasted on Manhattan Cable Television, that showcased durational performances and appropriated material from television shows and commercials that would interrupt viewers’ expected televisual experience because of the bizarre and unfamiliar content.
The ICA in Philadelphia is a fitting location to probe the rich history of video art in the United States. Philadelphia was actually where television was first demonstrated to the public, at the Franklin Institute. Though previously demonstrated to press, in 1934 the inventor and television pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth filmed and simultaneously broadcast a football game to visitors at the institution. Broadcast reminds us of how relatively recent the history of television is, but how artists have already found a multitude of ways of speaking back to media. This historical context especially resonates in a moment in which networks and their credibility are being questioned and probed by the larger public.