In the Beginning
Media Art and History
In the Beginning: Media Art and History is a thematic online exhibition that explores how video, sound, and performance artists use new technologies and formats to imagine history now. From its start, time-based media art has embraced liveness, immediacy, and a propulsive drive toward the future. But these forces coexist with a countervailing desire to approach the past—to mine it for material to remix and recode, to challenge traditional narratives, or to investigate how stories are remembered or forgotten. The artists in this series exhibit this simultaneous pull toward past and present, asking a series of vital questions: How do today’s tools and technologies make history available in new ways? What does our relationship to historical events say about our present? And how can we live with history without living in the past?
The series unfolds over three chapters. The first features video and sound works that incorporate found footage and archival material to approach the past in new ways. The second highlights performance-based works that transcend reenactment to imagine how we represent the past through live action. The final chapter centers on videos that use hand-drawn animation or computer-generated imagery to reflect on the modes through which history is constructed.
Each chapter includes a program with one featured artist. Tune in to hear Hirshhorn curators in conversation with Camille Henrot and Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh on October 28, Kiyan Williams on November 18, and Kota Ezawa on December 16.
Organized by Marina Isgro, Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art
Oct 1–31, 2020
Recycled images have formed part of media art’s DNA from the beginning, as early practitioners appropriated existing footage and placed it in new contexts to radically alter its meaning. Artists today, equipped with digital tools and resources, are imagining new ways to work with found material. The four featured in this chapter choose, edit, and recombine materials from physical repositories, web searches, and digital databases to reflect on personal and collective histories. Camille Henrot mixes video captured in Smithsonian storage with the results of Google Images searches, considering how humans have organized and narrated history through time. Jennie C. Jones uses digital tools to sample and reorganize sound, drawing from archival recordings of Black experimental music—not simply to recuperate historical figures, but to put them into new conversations. Mark Leckey makes a personal film without picking up a camera at all: he crafts his autobiography from YouTube footage, considering what happens when our most personal memories reside in the shared space of the Internet. By contrast, Cyprien Gaillard turns expectations of the archival on their head, using contemporary images to address a past event with ongoing reverberations.
French, b. Paris, 1978
Single-channel video; color; sound; 13:46 min.
Gift of Kamel Mennour and Camille Henrot, 2013 (13.9)
“In the beginning there was no earth, no water—nothing. There was a single hill called Nunne Chaha. In the beginning everything was dead. In the beginning there was nothing; nothing at all. No light, no life, no movement, no breath. In the beginning there was an immense unit of energy. In the beginning there was nothing but shadow and only darkness and water and the great god Bumba. In the beginning were quantum fluctuations.”
During a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in 2012, Camille Henrot set out to understand the systems humans have created to organize our knowledge about the world and its origins. The resulting video, Grosse Fatigue, critiques the human ambition to represent the totality of the world, an aspiration that underpins many museum collections. Windows rapidly multiply on a computer desktop, crowding the screen with glimpses of the Smithsonian’s holdings—including scenes filmed at the National Museum of Natural History—and the frenetic results of Google Images searches. The accompanying soundtrack, composed by Joakim Bouaziz, written by Henrot and poet Jacob Bromberg and voiced by artist Akwetey Orraca-Tetteh, melds creation myths from Navajo, Jewish, Dogon, and Hindu cultures, among others. Assembling an alluring yet overwhelming cascade of images, Henrot questions the possibility that we can ever synthesize vast, ever-increasing amounts of human knowledge into a totalizing whole.
American, b. Cincinnati, Ohio, 1968
Four-channel sound installation, realized as two-channel audio; 5:30 min., looped
Museum Purchase, 2014 (14.8)
Jennie C. Jones works at the intersection of art history, music history, and Black history. In her visual and sound work, she connects the Minimalist language used by artists in the 1960s to the conceptual strategies employed by Black musicians in the same period, drawing attention to the unsung affinities between these two traditions. To create Higher Resonance, Jones mined archival recordings of African American avant-garde jazz and experimental music, including the work of composers and performers Alice Coltrane, Olly Wilson, Alvin Singleton, Wendell Logan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Jones reworked them through a digital editing technique called micro-sampling, in which she extracts and manipulates single notes or phrases. The result is a rich audio collage that highlights moments of confluence and conversation among her disparate sources.
British, b. Birkenhead, 1964
Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD
Single-channel video; color; sound; 23:02 min.
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York
Proposed acquisition, June 2020
In Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD, the British artist Mark Leckey crafts a self-portrait from found video footage. The work originated when Leckey stumbled upon a grainy YouTube video of a 1979 Joy Division concert in Liverpool that he had attended as a teenager. The chance discovery prompted the artist to imagine the possibility of writing his autobiography from material that already existed online. Dream English Kid is a collage of what Leckey calls “found memories” from sources such as advertisements, television programs, and news reports, as well as reconstructions using props and models. Conceptual and personal in equal measure, Dream English Kid offers glimpses into Leckey’s episodic recollections of his youth and asks how we connect our individual lives to shared memory in the age of the Internet.
French, b. Paris, 1980
Single-channel video; color; silent; 6:55 min.
© Cyprien Gaillard. Courtesy of the artist and Sprüth Magers
Proposed acquisition, March 2019
The Pruitt-Igoe public housing projects in St. Louis were demolished in 1972, not even two decades after their construction. Gaillard’s video reflects on this infamous historical event, which has become synonymous with the failure of Modernist architecture’s progressive aspirations. (More precisely, city authorities neglected to maintain the projects or to build sufficient connections with the communities living there.) Where archival documentation of the incident itself might be expected, however, Gaillard instead records the destruction of another building—this one belonging to the Sighthill housing project in Glasgow, Scotland, razed in 2008. As the building collapses and a cloud of dust rises, Gaillard cuts to the rushing waters of Niagara Falls, illuminated by colored lights. The video links these two kinds of “falls”—connecting the visual marvel of the waterfall to the spectacle of architectural ruin. Gaillard’s linkage of Pruitt-Igoe and Sighthill suggests that history repeats itself and points to the ongoing failure of governments to fulfill their social promises.
Nov 1–30, 2020
One way to perform the past is through historical reenactment, with the repetition of events reiterating their importance or preserving them in memory. Yet performance art also offers more abstract, indirect ways to address history. The artists in this chapter take circuitous routes, using performance to craft allegories about past events or staging events in particular sites to recount local and global histories.Kiyan Williams practices a highly physical kind of action painting to think about violence against Black bodies and land in US history. Dana Awartani creates and then destroys an intricate sand installation to consider the losses wrought by urban development in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Rainer Ganahl stages a performance in a Harlem discount store on the brink of closing to reflect on its past life as a theater and to trace the continued economic and cultural shifts that flow from rapid development and gentrification. C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, too, work with site-specific performance, staging a Polish opera in a Haitian town populated with descendants of Polish soldiers. A dissenting approach is taken by Héctor Zamora, whose liberatory performance in a defunct Brazilian hospital warns of the potentially paralyzing danger of overinvestment in history.
American, b. Newark, New Jersey, 1991
Meditation on the Making of America
Single-channel video; color; sound; 26:31 min.
Gift of Dr. Michael I. Jacobs, 2020 (2020.006)
Austrian, b. Bludenz, 1961
Two-channel video; color; sound; 55:00 min.
Gift of Aaron and Barbara Levine, 2015 (15.1)
Polish, b. Gdansk, 1971
Polish, b. Gdynia, 1972
HALKA/HAITI 18°48’05″N 72°23’01″W
Multi-channel video, realized as single-channel video; color; sound. 1 hour, 22:58 min.
Gift of Joleen and Mitchell R. Julis, 2016 (16.15)
Palestinian–Saudi Arabian, b. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1987
I went away and forgot you. A while ago I remembered. I remembered I’d forgotten you. I was dreaming
Single-channel video; color; sound; 24:47 min.
Courtesy of the artist and Athr gallery
Mexican, b. Mexico City, 1974
O Abuso da História (The Abuse of History)
Single-channel video; color; sound; 1:52 min.
Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2017 (2017.009)
Dec 1–31, 2020
History and the past, scholars have argued, are not the same: the past refers to all that has occurred, while history is the story we tell about it. The four artists in this chapter use animation and computer-generated imagery to accentuate history’s constructed nature or to tell stories in ways that exceed the possibilities of live action.Kota Ezawa examines the role of filmic images in fashioning our understanding of history. He creates minimalist animations of familiar media events that strip away all but the most basic forms and colors, asking us to look at these recordings with fresh eyes. William Kentridge creates hand-drawn films that use incomplete erasure as a metaphor for the way the past continues to inform the present in post-apartheid South Africa. Terence Gower employs computer-generated imagery to imagine an alternative timeline, giving palpable form to a history that never came to pass. Finally, through a monologue delivered by a computer-generated avatar, Sondra Perry critiques the idea that the virtual landscapes of today are free of history’s weight: instead, she asks us to consider how the structures of racism carry over into these ostensibly disembodied worlds.
German, b. Cologne, 1969
Single-channel video; color; silent; 1:34 min.
Gift of Elizabeth Miller and Daniel Sallick, 2017 (2017.028).
German, b. Cologne, 1969
The Simpson Verdict
Single-channel video; color; sound; 3:00 min.
Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco
German, b. Cologne, 1969
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
16mm film transferred to video; color; silent; 2:00 min.
Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco
South African, b. Johannesburg, 1955
Film transferred to video; color; sound; 8:22 min.
Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1999 (99.17)
Canadian, b. Vernon, British Columbia, 1965
Digital animation; color; sound; 3:32 min., looped
Museum purchase in honor of Olga Hirshhorn, 2009 (09.2)
American, b. Perth Amboy, New Jersey, 1986
Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation
Video; color; sound; 9:05 min. (as realized)
Courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, NYC