Media Buff: Media Art of Buffalo Being In Between

Publication Type:



Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY (1988)




texts and works by Barbara Lattanzi; Chris Hill and Hallwalls; Tony Conrad; Squeaky Wheel and Julie Zando; Richard Herskowitz catalog essay. Department of Media Study; Hallwalls; Squeaky Wheel; essay by Richard Herskowitz

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
Exhibition Dates:
9/9/88 - 11/12/88
Full Text: 


Buffalo is the fulcrum between New York and the rest of the world. It really is. We're right in the middle. It's like a case study.
--Tony Conrad

Trickster: a mythological character; breaker of taboos and violator of social authority; mediator between cultural oppositions, who teases and desecrates both sides, and fosters the creation of new discursive differences.

New York, New York
New York City is a home base of the commercial media. Entertainment conglomerates based there dispense spectacular, technically sophisticated illusions for the world's consumption.

Out in the world, spectators are seemingly contented and pacified by the emanations from New York City. The lack of opportunity for audiences to respond and contribute to the media's messages, however, produces disturbing symptoms frequently noted by critics of the "society of the spectacle".

New York City is also a center of media art. Independent producers (independent from the dictates of the commercial industry) gravitate to this receptive environment for experimentations which shatter media conventions. Alternative media organizations proliferate-producers' service organizations (like Media Alliance and Film/Video Arts) and exhibitors (The Kitchen, Collective for Living Cinema, and Millennium, among others), all funded by a supportive state arts council also based in the city.

Among the general public, few people are aware or clear about what independent media artists are doing. Tony Conrad writes: "They think that we're making music videos. It's really vague. You can't imagine what people's imaginations do to the independent media community out there." 1

Buffalo, New York
About as far away from New York City as you can get and still be in New York State, Buffalo has a thriving community of independent media and other artists that, as critic Louis Marcorelles wrote in Le Monde, is "the spearhead of experimentation in the United States." (2) Buffalo has been the creative laboratory where influential avantgarde artists such as Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Paul Sharits, and Hollis Frampton got their start or settled, and through teaching and organizing artists, inspired hundreds of others to produce not only new art, but new art movements (such as postmodernism, the roots of which lie largely in Buffalo).

New York, however, has remained, in the words of video artist and curator Chris Hill, "the significant proscenium, conferring meaning on the work and authorizing artists within the field." 3 Therefore, few are aware of Buffalo's significance, including the artists of Buffalo themselves. Conrad writes: "We're used to feeling insecure about our city. I think we're the leaders for the country in that..." 4 What makes Buffalo's media art so important? Its artists have strived, through their art and theories of artmaking, to liberate the entranced viewers of the entertainment industry. They have made their works function as therapy, both for viewers narcotized by the mass media's visual pleasure, and for other avant-garde media artists who have lost track of the social purpose of media experimentation. Buffalo artists have achieved this by developing discourses (frameworks for self-expression and argument), embodying them in institutions, and then moving creatively among them.

Discourse I: Materialist Media
In the early seventies, accomplished structural/materialist film and video artists Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, Tony Conrad, and Woody and Steina Vasulka signed on with the Center for Media Study (CMS) at SUNY Buffalo. Their common orientation was the investigation of the material properties of film and video. Rather than simply, and invisibly, employing the codes embedded in the technology and conventional practices of media production-formations normally used to structure visual and aural information and produce a realist illusion--they reflexively fumed their attention to the codes and technical materials themselves. Paul Sharits, for example, exposed and explored the nature of film as physical strip in Ray Gun Virus, and as flickering still images in T*0*U*C*H*I*N*G.

More than simply examining, the Media Study artists and students were pushing media machinery toward new expressions. The Vasulkas were engaged in "dialogues with tools," and their path-breaking experiments with image processing (colorizing, keying, and otherwise transforming the video image) were intended to discover images which their minds could not preconceive. The utopian goal was to expand the perceptual and conceptual range of viewers whose consciousness had been limited by realist codes and machinery. By foregrounding the media, the artists could therapeutically aid viewers to reflect an media and message simultaneously, helping to inure them from the manipulation of omnipresent, transparent media products. Ian Christie has noted that "in [Sharits'] preoccupation with the intensification of materiality can be read a concern equally with the emancipation of the film apparatus and the viewer tram their inherited prejudices."5

Gerald O'Grady, the Centers founder and director, regularly cited the importance of the Center's explorations for public policy making, and championed new media tools' "potential for transforming hierarchical urban structures into non-hierarchical structures of participatory communities of peers."6 O'Grady, whose Center is occasionally criticized today as a "formalist" stronghold, often situated its formal explorations in a context of support for crosscultural communication and political action (the influential presence of activist documentarian James Blue on the faculty helped define this purpose).

Tony Conrad has taught in the Center for Media Study for aver a decade. His structural filmmaking in the seventies was, to an extent, compatible with his co-professors. The project of investigating filmic materiality was nearly launched by his classic minimalist film The Flicker (1965) and, earlier, as a musician working with LaMonte Young, John Cale, and others, his playing emphasized tuning, pitch, precision, and other materials of musical performance. 7

Conrad's reflexivity was, however, slightly off, and invested with far more self-mocking humor than the other visionary materialists could muster. The artist's struggle with media equipment and codes, the effort to force them past their oppressive limitations, became an Herculean, or Chaplinesque, battle with an unyielding authority. In Film Electrocution, Conrad attempted to make an image without exposing the film to light, submitting it instead to boiling, baking, and electroshock; in Film Feedback, h e resisted film's refusal, unlike video, to provide instant feedback by instantly processing, projecting, and refilming a strip of movie film. The Vasulkas' heroic applications of the Rutt-Etra and other image processors to re-form the video image had their pathetic flip side in Conrad's early videotape Cycles of 3's and 4's scored by a calculator: "The performance," John Minkowsky writes, "is, however, an erratic one, full of faulty computations, proving the calculator to be a computer which lends itself to human error."8 In later videotapes, he would extend his comic critique of image processing's misplaced applications--in Ipso Facto, he satirizes the video "flying rectangle" by running around a dark room with a TV set, and in In Line, he ruminates on the possibility of transcending a mystifying self-presentation through video by employing "digitization."

The Center was, fairly or not, perceived by some students and critics as caught in a modernist mire," a techno-rational obsession with media forms and tools. 9 And CMS Professor Tony Conrad was, consciously or not, reaching and leading others toward a past-modern challenge to this orientation.

Discourse II: Postmodern Performances
In the late seventies, an alternative to the media-visionary discourse about "codes" and "materiality" which pervaded CMS emerged at the Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Censer, an increasingly popular haven for Buffalo artists (some CMS faculty and students inducted). For one thing, Hallwalls regulars (and visiting artists, like the "neo-underground" filmmakers Hallwalls imported from New York) assumed an ironically direct and confrontational punk sensibility, which contrasted with the intellectual and technological distance the materialist artists imposed between themselves and their audience.

New media works from Buffalo, like much of the performance art seen at Hallwalls which influenced them, exposed the artist as a confrontational figure engaged in a power relationship with the spectator. The communication of media producer and spectator, mediated by film and video, had been neglected by structural artists whose attention was fixated on the media. Like the academic film structuralists of the seventies (whose work was critically dissected and taught to CMS students by Professor Brian Henderson), collectively shifting their analytic concentration from the filmic text to its dialogic context, Buffalo's postmodern media artists remained resolutely committed to deconstructing media formations; they simply expanded the scope of their reflexivity to encompass the filmmaker/spectator relationship.

The confrontational approach can be found in the works of all three of the artists in this exhibition-Tony Conrad, Barbara Lattanzi, and Julie Zando. In Conrad's tapes, the artist directly taunts, cajoles, and manipulates the spectator's view ("I think I'll have you think about Webb Pierce," he sadistically announces in In Line, and proceeds to stuff a Pierce album cover in the lens and in our face while playing his music on the soundtrack). Concoct also combined and alternated his video productions with live performance art; this inter-arts proclivity, shared by many Hallwalls-influenced artists, can be seen as a turning away from CMS artists' careful exploration of each medium's specificity.

Lattanzi, who did structuralist filmmaking (such as the film Skins, which experimented with film emulsion) while influenced by Hollis Frampton and others at CMS, turned to inter-art (photography, audio, and video) installations in the early '80s. Within Lattanzi's spaces, cinematic effects are achieved through the flashing of lights and sounds upon images and words. The sequence of events, however, is less evident than in a typical narrative film. The viewer's attention oscillates, the usually darkened room unlike a comfortable movie theater) provokes feelings of both "claustrophobia and undeterminable expansiveness," and I is this "anxiety on the part of the spectator that creates the work."10 In Life of the Party, Lattanzi's installation in our exhibition, written texts describe a dream and then quiz the viewer with impossible questions. Lattanzi turns the benign, but latently manipulative, experience of media viewing into an evident "skirmish."11

Zando's videotapes submit the audience to a instant reminder o! the camera's analytic privilege and directly address spectators in a disturbing, discomfiting fashion. Of I Like Girls for Friends, Zando writes, the "audience is seduced by the female narrator, while at the same time repelled by the seductress' desperate need for love and approval' Hey Bud's tile first seems to can out to an anonymous viewer from the screen but then turns to address Bud Dwyer, a government official who killed himself before a television audience, and who Zando harshly regards as a pornographer. The tape eventually turns its shifting address to Zando herself and other women, who "must seek power via exhibitionism and exploitationthey gain power only through death-of-self." This recognition, of herself and ourselves in Bud Dwyer seems to permit the compassionate expression that quietly ends the tape: "Bud, don't.'

Zando's tapes instigate and investigate spectator voyeurism, then apply psychoanalytic frameworks to expose the pathological systems which parallel our viewing conditions. Hey Bud explores the exhibitionism of girls (lovers?) in party dresses and a politician on television, while Let's Play Prisoners examines masochistic relations between mother and child, lesbian lovers, and spectator and director. Similarly, within Lattanzi's unsettling environments, the artist tells stories which manifest the passive aggression of sex roles, repressed energies being channeled into neuroses and ecstatic release, exhibitionistic and voyeuristic behavior-in order to reveal to the spectator the underlying complexes upon which "normal" viewing is constructed.

The psychoanalytic terminology has been applied by other poststructuralist academics and postmodernist artists in recent years. Yet Zando's tapes and Lattanzi's installations display more than trendy Lacanian jargon; their psychoanalysis is applied with a commitment to feminist and social liberation. Psychoanalysis is being used the way it was intended- therapeutically, on behalf of emancipating spectators from the specular traps in which patriarchal culture embroils them. Similarly, eighties feminist criticism of the "white male" structuralist establishment at CMS and its fixation on "tools" may also have freed some Buffalo artists from their unreflected voyeurism.l2

Chris Hill, video curator at Hallwalls, has highlighted the emancipatory, therapeutic purpose of postmodern video art in her caroled program called Media and Medicine, which creatively juxtaposes medical and art videos. 13 While most doctors and media producers share the habit of mystifying their practices in order to perpetuate their authority, certain practitioners can paradoxically bring out the "dis-ease" behind the seeming ease, and help empower the receiver. Tony Contact's tapes, for example, disrupt the spectator's state of willing submissiveness with disturbing assertions of the maker's manipulative power. Works such as Contact's, which when "appropriating" conventional media images and forms do so to exacerbate their latent pathologies, can help us recognize the potential paradoxicality of our presumed state of ease (in front of our television sets, as late 20th century consumers)-a condition that can be read, symptomatically, as either contentment or narcosis. 14

Appreciation of postmodernism's liberating creations should not lead us to forget the movement's less glorious aspects. Many of the artists Hallwalls has fostered or brought to Buffalo have become "stars" by following the designated paths of postmodern artmaking-simulation, appropriation, deconstruction, etc. But these words, as Tony Conrad points out in Infermental 7 (while obstinately glancing away from the lens), have been used to foster an "impersonal spirit" in the world of art. If their original function was to emancipate spectators, that function is buried, repeatedly in New York and often in Buffalo, by visions of fame and fortune. Postmodernism suffers, as J. Hoberman has pointed out, from being rooted in an art rather than a social movement, unlike its historical foreparent, situationism. Appropriation of media images will be done in a more distinctive way by one artist, for example, to claim the art world's attention. !n Conrad's Ipso Facto, an artist appropriates his own image "to be different," while a frustrated Contact attempts to explain to him "You can't appropriate to be different."

The insularity of postmodern artists and audiences, generally white and middle class in composition, has recently sparked rumblings of disaffection from a Hallwalls curator.l5 Tony Conrad, CMS professor and a member of the Hallwalls board of directors, again helped, with his chidings of postmodernists and increased organizing of media producers, to shape the new discourse and institution that would address the others' exclusions.

Discourse III: Accessibility and Active Audiences
Squeaky Wheel was created in 1985 by a collective of media artists. They were responding to the crisis caused by the collapse of the Media Study/Buffalo equipment access facility (a center that was loosely affiliated with CMS). In rebuilding a media access facility, however, Conrad, Zando, and other local artists reevaluated the idea of accessibility, and devised an organization that would actively cultivate producers and audiences among a broader public.

Squeaky Wheel has had limited resources with which to collect film and video equipment. The organization has one Sony camcorder which is usually booked for a month in advance. According to Squeaky Wheel director Julie Zando, "If this one camera is put out of operation, the entire Buffalo region enters into a state of desperation."16 Low-tech, however, is the group's ambition-Super 8 film and Video 8 provide the cheapest opportunities for people to cross the threshold from viewer to producer. Codirector Armin Heurich has even been shooting with and singing the praises of the Fisher-Price "Pixelvislon" a black-and-white toy video camera available for around $250.

Squeaky Wheel attracts new spectators and producers of independent work by extending beyond the university and gallery environments. Its statement of purpose includes the goal of reaching audiences in "under-served and ethnic neighborhoods with outstanding programming relevant to their interests and concerns' The visit of black independent filmmaker Reginald Hudlin to the St. Augustine Center in Buffalo was sponsored by Squeaky Wheel, for example, and the Polish Community Center has been the site of other screenings. Axlegrease is a weekly cable broadcast of local work sponsored by the organization.

The most significant program seated by Squeaky Wheel for cultivating producers is the regular "work-in-progress" gathering in the group's storefront space. Hallwalls curator Ed Cardoni described it as "a sort of public living room with homemade TV" composed on the night of his visit of "black, white, South American, Native American, Asian, working people, students, gays, lesbians, straights, etc...people from different walks of life than just the thriving but relatively small circle of art-video makers." 17 The sessions run late into the night (Cardoni saw the works of twenty-seven makers in the three hours he attended) and comments are technical, aesthetic, political--and almost always helpful to the producer (criticisms are more gentle with beginners than with old hands).

Tony Conrad has been delivering polemical presentations lately-to the annual meeting of the Media Alliance in New York City in 1987, and in an extensive insert in Squeaky Wheel's Spring 1988 Squealer. In these, he adopts the role of the rube from Upstate New York confronting downstate city slickness. A professional gloss is what many NYC video artists have been opting for lately, helped by the OnLine program of Media Alliance which gains them access to commercial production houses. Many have left beckoned by the allure of broadcasting on PBS's Alive from Off Center.

You know that the kind of thing that they're looking for in Alive from Off Center is not stuff that is not impressive, they're looking for stuff that is extremely impressive. They want quality work. The quality work means, by definition, something that not everybody could do.18

Yet from his vantage point in Buffalo, between New York City and the rest of the world, Conrad sees the amazing proliferation of home video recorders and cameras in an "onrushing tidal wave of home production." Many still lack access to cameras,and more lack the capacity to edit, which would create an enormous potential for independent, alternative media production on a scale unimagined by the small independent media community. Media access centers could provide home video owners with cameras and editing equipment, independent media organizations tike Media Alliance could dramatically increase their membership to include a broad amateur constituency, and media artists could provide leadership in demonstrating how to creatively and even illegally experiment with visual and cultural images. However, the high-tech dazzle of Alive from Off Center "doesn't look like you could have done it at's no model for anybody." 19

Even as he rakes New York City artists over the coals, Conrad appreciates their contribution to his argument:

It's important that we have this sort of dead head approach available, in New York City people who want to--you know--get their work on TV; and who believe that more sophisticated work should be more like television, and so forth--so that the Upstate people can counter that, and there can be a discourse that can really excite people, rather than turn them off because there's nothing going on. 20

For the trickster, discourses and institutions are not rigid formations, but rather fluctuating, arguing positions in a perpetual discussion. In Buffalo, the Department (formerly Center) of Media Study, Hallwalls, and Squeaky Wheel remain active and restive in a constant debate, permitting artists like Conrad, Zando, Lattanzi, and others to float between their facilities and positions to suit their evolving needs. I can't think where else such a dynamic ecology of institutions and artists exists.

1 Tony Conrad, "The 'Upstate Issue' Primer. Buffalo, The Media Alliance, and the Emergence of a Surprising New Decentralized Media Discourse" The Squealer, June 1988, insert.
2 Louis Marcorelles, Le Monde, January 2,1975.
3 Chris Hill, "Hallwalls Media," The Squealer, April 1988, p.8
4 Tony Conrad, "The 'Upstate Issue' Primer," insert.
5 Ian Christie, 'Paul Sharitis,' in Beau Fleuve (Buffalo: Media Study/ Buffalo), p.7.
6 Gerald O'Grady, "Sound-Track for a Television," in The New Television: A Public/Private Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977)
7."Virtuosity is seduction," Conrad later said in explanation of his choice to resist expressive, non-reflexive use of the elements of music. The comment illuminates Conrad's consistent refusal to submit to the conventional power relation between artist and spectator masked by transparent form.
8 John Minkowsky, "Tony Conrad: Films," in Beau Fleuve, p.30.
9 Steve Gallagher, "Hallwalls Film," The Squealer, April 1988, p.13.
10.Barbara Lattanzi, "Notes," Life of the Party
11 ibid.
12 Stere Gallagher, "Hallwalls Film," p.13.
12 Curated programs are themselves artworks at Hallwalls, where the curators are practicing artists. The film and video series accompanying the exhibition at the Johnson Museum features two programmed series from Hallwalls, including Media and Medicine
14 Chris Hill, "Program Notes," Media and Medicine.
15 Steve Gallagher, "Hallwalls Film," p.13.
16 Julie Zando, "Squeaky Wheel," The Squealer, April 1988, p.7.
17 Ed Cardoni, "Work -in-Progress 5/18/88," The Squealer, June 1988, p.7.
18 Tony Conrad, "The 'Upstate Issue' Primer," insert.

My conversations with the three artists featured in this exhibition-Toby Conrad, Barbara Lattanzi and Julie Zando-inspired me tremendously while organizing this exhibition. Hallwalls video curator Chris Hill was extremely helpful in making suggestions and useful criticisms throughout every stage of planning, and film curator Steve Gallagher also gave me useful leads. Media Study director Gerald O'Grady, Alfred University Professor Peer Bode, and Howard University Professor Phil Jones all helped steer me in the right direction early in the planning process.

The New York State Council on the Arts helped launch the "New York State Artists" series that continues with this exhibition, and their generous grant through the Media Program convinced me to mount the most ambitious media installation show ever attempted at the Johnson Museum. Director Thomas W. Leavitt has supported me throughout the past six years in raising the visibility of film and video art at the Johnson Museum, and even the risks involved in this major exhibition did not make him waiver. Exhibitions coordinator Leslie Schwartz, chief preparator Don Feint, business manager Rob Paratley, preparator Wil Millard, and, especially, community relations coordinator Jill Hartz helped me in countless ways. At Cornell Cinema, cinema manager Mary Fessenden and accounts assistant Luciana Berry have been the most supportive, and I am deeply grateful to them.