Video artists are a troubled breed; nobody knows how to sell or collect their work. But heck, even MoMA has a ton of video in their collection, so maybe there’s a model out there that works. I sat down with Dara Birnbaum, the rare video artist who has both a gallery (Marian Goodman Gallery) and a distributor (Electronic Arts Intermix). That double life hasn’t deterred museums and collectors from taking an interest in her work. But, as I gleaned from a lengthy interview with Birnbaum, institutions don’t have a clue about fair compensation—not when MoMA only needs to pay $1,200 for one of her videos.
What follows are parts taken from a longer interview with Birnbaum. She’s grand in her ambitions, which include a steadfast commitment to unlimited editions, sticking with EAI, and stealing images. Oh, and we talk about Hennessy Youngman.
Corinna Kirsch: I wanted to ask you about when you first started getting collected. There’s still a fair number of museums that show new media art, but don’t collect it. That only does so much if you’re an artist.
Dara Birnbaum: The first works were so anti-television, in a way dealing with the language of television, that I felt very committed to doing them, but I didn’t think about [people] collecting them. I was surprised when they started being collected.
CK: When were you first represented by a gallery?
DB: I think with galleries I started to show in 1980 with Electronic Arts Intermix as a distributor. And the galleries really weren’t that interested. Castelli and Sonnabend had their tape collection, but they would internally talk kind of against it, like, “We’ve got these artists, but we don’t know how to profit from it, create a market from it, or anything like it.”
I didn’t have a gallery for a long time. A gallery called Josh Baer [was the first]. It disappeared after several years. And then, Rhona Hoffman in Chicago. Then I had a gallery out in California.
But little by little, it didn’t work out. It was difficult for galleries to deal with video.
CK: They didn’t really have a model for it. Did anyone see your distribution with EAI at the same time as an issue?
That issue’s coming up again, now [for instance with Hennessy Youngman]. He’s at this point where he’s showing with a couple different galleries. Most of his art is up on YouTube, you can watch it online, but it’s still difficult to convince people, “Why should I buy this when I can watch it anytime I want online in this seemingly limitless edition? And then I can also rent it from EAI.” People are still figuring these things out right now.
DB: Well, the gallery now that I’m with, Marian Goodman Gallery, was saying at one point, “Well, why don’t we combine everything here?” And basically, what had happened is that Marian will take care of the installation works, and then the works that are single-channel that are unlimited edition will go to Electronic Arts Intermix.
I just felt that EAI picked me up around 1980 when nobody else was even interested. I have a very strong loyalty.
CK: And you should!
DB: Then we get into the issues now that were not as prevalent as before, where all my materials have been appropriated. And that’s another whole issue. Now, we’re in a very conservative time, so it’s very hard with appropriation. And the gallery wanted to make sure that even though it was YouTube, we got all the rights. Where before I wouldn’t have cared, like with Wonder Woman. [Appropriation] was part of the landscape.
CK: With EAI, you can’t watch any of your work online in their entirety, work that’s an appropriation. How do you feel about letting people view your work online?
DB: I kind of stole the imagery from Wonder Woman as an example in a whole purposeful, I thought, political act of piracy at the time.
My feeling was I have a right to speak back against the media. But Wonder Woman’s been ripped off of me now, so if you go on YouTube there’s editions.
CK: And your gallery never complained?
CK: MoMA bought Wonder Woman from EAI?
DB: Yes. And they have to buy, as a museum, the highest quality that exists today. That’s a stipulation.
CK: It’s probably not that expensive from EAI?
DB: It’s not expensive when you look at it compared to artwork sold through galleries. Someone said to me, “You realize how ridiculous it is that is that something like MoMA could buy this for the permanent collection as an artwork and show it, as it should be, as an artwork, and get paid $1,200.” But I didn’t want to make limited editions.
It becomes ludicrous in a sense.
[But] there were the Kramlichs. In the 80s, they started collecting video and new media work, and probably started the world’s largest collection. That was an example of the first time that my work was being sold. And that was a whole different thing.
But many of the younger artists now are trying to do limited editions. I’m against limited editions. I’m hugely against limited editions for single-channel video works because when I went into it, we thought of it as a populist medium where it should just get out. And at that time we wanted it to be in video stores. They were in Kim’s for awhile.
CK: I think the equivalent with what a lot of younger artists are trying to do is showing all or most of their work online. But people are still concerned with how to make money. Do you remember when MoMA bought your work? How did you find out if it was through EAI?
DB: Well, actually they bought it many years ago through Barbara London. And that’s another crazy thing, to be honest with you. They bought it, put it in, at that time, their video library and they treated things like that more like an archive. And that was at less of a resolution, not as good quality.
CK: When was that?
DB: Maybe the 80s. But they re-bought the piece, actually, at a higher quality through the Media Art [and Performance] Department only a few years ago. When that was bought, all of a sudden, I was issued a letter from Glenn Lowry and given a permanent pass for entrance into the museum.
CK: Is that what happens if they buy one of your artworks? You get into the museum for free!
DB: And a congratulations letter for being part of MoMA. It was such a different feeling. It was if they really did buy an artwork and before, it wasn’t treated that way at all.
But they still bought it for the $1,200, which is unheard of.
CK: You know, I’m rolling my eyes right now. What else do you even sell for $1,200? You personally? There’s nothing Marian Goodman would sell for $1,200. A bench [for watching video]?
DB: But I don’t know what people are going to do with web art.
CK: Obviously, the situation is different in terms of figuring out who’s going to collect what. Who’s going to step up to become a collector?