Primary Information

Douglas Davis, Images from the Present Tense, 1971, black-and-white TV, 16 x 22 x 12”. From “Video Art,” Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1975. (Photograph: Will Brown)

Primary Information was formed by James Hoff and Miriam Katzeff in 2006 and has since published a range of artists’ books and writings by artists, in addition to reissuing seminal magazines such as Avalanche and REAL LIFE. Hoff and Katzeff recently curated the final entry of the Excursus series, organized by Alex Klein, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. The show runs March 20—June 16, 2013, and leads into the fiftieth anniversary of the ICA this fall.

THE ICA ASKED US to go through their archive and let the process determine the show, and we began by searching for artists and exhibitions that we thought would be of interest to us, an approach that was later coupled with the idea of—in keeping with what we already do—taking ten catalogues out of their fifty years of publishing them, and then digitizing and putting these projects online. We knew we wanted to canvass a large area and then focus on a few important people and shows. We also knew that we wanted to show work by artists that we’ve had past relationships with or material we’ve already worked with, which complements the archival material we’ve pulled from the ICA’s archive. Curtains (Vidas Perfectas), a large hanging canvas by Sarah Crowner, will be a framing device for the show.

It got interesting when we came across thirteen folders for a video art exhibition that happened at the ICA in 1975. Suzanne Delehanty, the director and curator at the time, started working on it in 1973, and it seems that she wasn’t afraid to embrace all the different ways that people were working with video in the ’70s—a lot of radical installations. From the ample documentation in the archive, it looks like the exhibition was exciting—something you’d want to see then, or even now. In 1973 there had only been a handful of ambitious video shows at museums, so it was great to see all the different requests to so many people trying to figure out how to preview and exhibit this medium—everyone was comparing notes or trying to get sponsorship for the equipment, which was incredibly expensive. An artist who came up repeatedly in the archive in a number of different ways is Douglas Davis, who was the art critic for Newsweek for a long time. It seems as though he was constantly connecting people while at the same time making amazing work himself. Meanwhile, all these video art distribution channels or microdistributors were springing up. For the most part it seems like a bunch of people having to figure out how to do video art shows, let alone make video art, because everything is really impractical. We’ll present a good deal of this correspondence—fascinating diagrams from artists about their installations, for instance Vito Acconci’s drawings, and instructions from Robert Morris.

It was compelling to us to get a sense of the political and social issues surrounding those networks, not only because the issue of distribution is so fundamental to what we do but also since this was such a new model in the mid-’70s. It was really a moment when people were beginning to think about how to produce and show videos and artists’ books on an institutional level—from Art Metropole in Canada to Printed Matter in New York to Bill Viola’s work at Art/Tapes/22. These kinds of discussions provide a nice background for what we’re talking about with regard to putting something out in an exhibition space versus publishing it in book form or putting it online. We hope this show provides an opportunity to highlight or think about those conversations, which are really important to us as an organization.

We were also thinking hard about our work after Hurricane Sandy basically threw it into relief. We lost about a quarter of our inventory in our storage space in Lower Manhattan, and about three quarters of our annual budget was wiped out by that storm. After that, all of our efforts went into hurricane recovery, which meant talking to insurance companies and corresponding with individual supporters. It was heartening to see all these organizations, individuals, and galleries sending out e-mails on our behalf for support, and it was incredible to receive this help—Artists Space gave us a humidifier, and librarians from New York Public Library and MoMA came down to help us when we were cleaning out the storage unit to see what could be saved. Later, White Columns, Triple Canopy, Light Industry, and others organized a benefit for us and other organizations. Sandy pushed everything back three or four months, but we are now able to focus on our new projects again. In addition to the ICA exhibition, we have a new artists’ book with Florian Hecker. We’ve also been working with Andrew Lampert and Haden Guest on a George Kuchar reader, which we’re really looking forward to. It should be out later this year.