Madelon Hooykaas

Madelon Hooykaas interview transcript (26/03/12)

CM-A: How did you begin?

MH: I first heard about video in 1972, and although I really didn’t know much about it at that stage, I wrote an article about it in a magazine, and about the need to establish a video centre in Amsterdam. As you know, Elsa and I worked a lot in London and it was there that I first encountered the video Portapak.

CM-A: Was it being used by other artists or activists, or was it in a gallery?

MH: Well, we heard that the arts Council had a Portapack that was available to lend to artists. So Elsa borrowed that and we started experimenting with it.

CM-A: It’s interesting because none of the UK artists I have spoken to have mentioned borrowing a Portapack from the Arts Council. Do you know which department at the Arts Council owned the kit? Was it fine art, or the film dept- was David Curtis involved in some way with that?

MH: Well it could be. Elsa knew David Curtis from the Arts Lab. I think it was the arts council, but it could have been the London Arts Board. But where ever we got it, it was important, because in the Netherlands this was not possible, we would have had to rent it. So this was very important for us. To be able to work with it to find out what it was like and what we could do with it. We actually borrowed it several times.

CM-A: So did you make any work with that particular machine during that time?

MH: Yes, we made some work with it about the move of Elsa’s studio in Covent Garden to her new studio in Wapping called “Moving”, and we also made a work in the new studio space in Wapping, when it was totally empty. It was only shown once, I think, as it was just an experiment.

CM-A: So what date was this?

MH: In 1975.

CM-A: So you began to experiment with the Portapack together. So right from the start, working with the video medium had a collaborative dynamic.

MH: We had been working together with film prior to this. And I had also previously worked with Polaroid as an artist, because my background was in photography and I had been working with sequences.

Elsa and I first met at the Ealing School of Art in 1966, and then met again by chance in 1971. By then Elsa had set up a film studio in Covent Garden with a number of other people including Delia Derbyshire who had a sound studio in the same place. We made a pilot film called Daydreams, which was made as a way of promoting our idea for a more ambitious film. It was always necessary to show something before you can get any funding.

But video interested me because of the instantaneous properties- the fact that you could see the results straight away. There was also the live camera, which we worked with quite a lot.

CM-A: What about the fact that the image was in monochrome and the picture was relatively crude, low contrast, low resolution. Did this worry you, or were there compensations that made you feel that video was more suitable for some of your interests and ideas?

MH: Yes, we liked the idea that it was an electronic medium, that it was totally different from film because its not really there! We worked a lot with the lines- the 625 lines of the video image and used that aspect in combination with photography. We made our first video environment (which is what we called them then- this was before the term installation emerged- if you described the work as installation, people would have thought you were a plumber or something like that!!) and photography was a large part of it.

CM-A: So these environments were works which used video monitors to display either live or pre-recorded video in relation to or in combination with photographic images?

MH: Yes, live and pre-recorded video often in combination. The works were all site-specific- specially made for the location – but not only the space, but also the surrounding environment.  We liked this way of working because with film you had to write a script, you had to finance it all, which took ages and when you finally made it, and it was sent out on television if you were lucky and maybe a hundred thousand people saw it, but that was it-you never heard anything more.

CM-A: Yes, it just went out into the void!

MH:  Yes, that’s right! Also, however we were lucky that a lot of our films were shown in festivals, which made another possibility, but we felt that to it was very different to be within a fine art context as when you had an exhibition, when there were people around, and this is one of the reasons why we liked to do it.

The first work of this kind that we made was in Glasgow at the Third Eye Centre. At the time it was run by John McGrath, who was quite advanced at that time. He had  bought a Portapack which we could also use. We worked in Glasgow and then edited it at Fantasy Factory.

CM-A: I had assumed that the very earliest works you made were in real time- that is continuous and without any editing.

MH: We did a little editing even in the earliest work. We were working with open reel and the editing was “hit or miss” – if you were lucky you had one edit in an hour!

CM-A: But I suppose you didn’t find that particularly restricting because you were interested in the “liveness” of video.

MH: Yes, and because also we were already using several screens. And so in that way you could edit- it was another way of looking at things. We also used the relative size of the screens- using large and small monitors and also we re-recorded and panned to the left or right. We wanted to produce an awareness that we were working with images that were not projected.

CM-A: This is interesting because it is very different from cinema. I would like to ask you about influences- if there were other artists who were influential on your approach or way of thinking.

MH: Yes, there was a very important show at the Stedelijk Museum by Nam June Paik. I very much liked his work- especially his installations.

CM-A: So you were working in London and Edinburgh and Glasgow, but you were also going back to the Netherlands and Amsterdam in particular.

Were you showing work in all those places?

MH: Yes, but we were lucky to be able to work in Britain because they were far more advanced than what was going on at the time in the Netherlands. After the Third Eye show in Glasgow and because of that, we got a show at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

CM-A: So aside from the work of Paik, were there any UK artists who you found inspiring?

MH: David Hall, and later on we had contact with London Video Arts, Steve Partridge.

CM-A: The impact and attraction to Paik’s work, was that connected to his approach to the medium, or to his influence from Fluxus?

MH: Yes, the Fluxus influence was one thing, but also I could see that he was very influenced by Buddhism.

CM-A: Yes, of course. So even then, Buddhism was part of your own thinking and sensibility?

MH: Yes. I had been in Japan for three months in 1970.  I was very interested in this way of looking at things, and it is also what I liked about Fluxus works.  But Paik became a personal friend, and when we showed in New York or Germany, we always went to see him. Also his wife Shigeko Kubota was quite influential.

CM-A: That is very interesting, and brings me on to my next question, which is about the Zen influence. Did you see the video medium as quite compatible with that way of looking at the world- that kind of spiritual and transcendental attitude. Did you feel that video as a medium seemed to be compatible with that way of thinking?

MH: Yes, but not only video, but also Polaroid. For me the Buddhist philosophy is very much about the “now”, which is something that I wanted to show in my personal work. Working with sequences, using texts and also making work about the experience of time.

CM-A: So for you and in your collaborative work with Elsa there was a sense of video being a part of something- not just the medium, but video in relation to space, to photography, and in relation to your notions about working collaboratively.

MH: Yes, and how to make people aware of time- using the live image in relationship to the pre-recorded.

CM-A: And you were also bringing in other objects- other elements.

MH: Yes.

CM-A: Were there other artists doing similar things, or do you felt that this was your own contribution and had developed out of yours and Elsa’s sensibilities?

MH: Yes, well we didn’t see much work like that at the time.

CM-A: Let me ask you a bit about the gender issue then. Here are two women artists working together in a new medium that didn’t have a history. This factor was a particularly attractive aspect for many people, particularly women. Were there any gender-related aspects to your work?

MH:  No, there weren’t. This was often difficult because fist of all in the fine arts at the time, very few people were working together, so this already presented difficulties, for example if you applied for a grant, they couldn’t understand the concept of working together – they didn’t think it was possible for artists to work together. Secondly that was a time when the feminists were very influential and we were not particularly engaged with that. We were of course sympathetic to the cause, but our work wasn’t particularly about that. The content of our work was not at all related to those issues.

CM-A: Did that have any repercussions for you? Did that mean that some people were less interested in what you were doing?

MH: They always wanted us to have a feminist perspective, and didn’t like the fact that we didn’t.

CM-A: I’m also very interested in the issue of your collaborative approach. Do you think that video was a particularly appropriate medium for a collaborative approach?

MH: Well of course we had worked together in film, and in film this is a very normal approach. In terms of video, first of all the medium itself wasn’t accepted as an art form and so people saw it as a kind of passing fad. We worked very hard to get video accepted as an art medium in the Netherlands. In the 1980’s Elsa became a professor at the Jan van Eyck Academy (Maastricht) and started a time-based media studio and that meant that she was on some arts councils. In 1982 we started the association of video artists. In terms of funding, it was either through fine art or through film, but it was not possible to getting funding directly through artists’ video. The fiilmpanels didn’t like the work because they thought it was not edited properly and was not “professional”, and the fine art panel had very small budgets. However we preferred this because we were free to work the way we wanted to, and this was so different from the film world, you had to have a producer and a crew, etc.

CM-A: I’m interested to talk a little about the TV angle. One of the things about artist’s video is the often oppositional relationship to TV. It was seen as something outside of broadcast TV, and perhaps often talking up a critical position, and there was an implication that video had the potential for other possibilities beyond the traditional TV broadcast approach. I understand that the work that you and Elsa were doing in the gallery and in other spaces was very different from TV, but did you think about or were you interested in making things for TV that were exploring and or expanding the way that TV might be used. Thinking for example of David Hall and his TV interventions. Is this something that you were interested in?

MH: Well of many artists had never shown their work on TV and of course we started with film and were lucky to be able to show our work on TV, which was quite experimental. So because of this, we didn’t have a feeling that we needed to get our work shown on TV, because we already knew what kind of response it would get. We wanted much more to take the environmental approach and work with space. Once cable came along, we made quite a lot of work for cable TV. In Amsterdam we had an art channel on Sundays. We showed a lot of single channel work, such as Split Seconds (1979) and later works Solstice (1989) In the Eye of the Storm (1992) Vanishing Point (1993) Relocation (1999) among others.

CM-A: So did you ever make any works especially for cable TV?

MH: Yes, we made In the Eye of the Storm especially for cable, but we also made other single channel pieces, because most of our work was of course installation. So this was one difficulty, if you made only multi-channel and installation, you could never show your work., except for documentation. For a long time we refused to make documentation, because it was already so difficult to show that video was an art medium, so that if you also used the medium to make documentation, people would say “well, that’s just documentation”!!

CM-A: Because you wanted to make things that were specifically video, but were not simply support for art work.

CM-A: Was there any work by artists that were broadcast on TV that affected the way you thought about the medium.

MH: Well first of all I didn’t have a TV!  I got my first TV when we had our film broadcast in 1973.

CM-A: OK, so that was not really relevant.  Here is another issue I want to raise. Across the time you have been working with the medium, video has changed a lot. It has evolved technically from very crude Portapaks, then to a medium you could edit, however difficult and inaccurate, through to colour, frame accurate editing, and then to very sophisticated visual effects and image transitions, etc, and I’m wondering if any of those changes (or all of them) affected the way you’ve thought about video and they way you’ve used it. Has your work changed in relation to these technological shifts and changes?

MH: Yes, at the beginning of working with it, it was very new, and people were interested and they wanted to see it. Whereas nowadays, everybody makes video and everybody uses projection and they call it film, and I did think initially that once the medium was more accepted we would show more, but this is not the case at all. That was quite strange. I don’t often see much interesting work.

CM-A: Well for example, when you began with video as you told me that you were hardly able to edit at all, and then once it because much easier to edit with the introduction of the u-matic format, did this have an effect on the content of your work in any way?

MH: Yes, well at first we worked with black and white and with the lines of the image, and then we began to use colour, and we explored the use of complimentary colours and the work was broadcast, and we heard people say that they had watched it in black and white! So we soon realised that when you had work broadcast on TV you had no control over how people saw it. We saw this as a very important issue and still when I give a workshop at the art academy, and I tell people that they can change the colour settings off the monitor or of the projector- they have no idea! Also you have to think about the size, and those kinds of considerations, and we were always very aware of that. We used some effects, particularly for video, like showing the oscilloscope display of the image, reversing the image from negative to positive- those kinds of effects we tried to use.

CM-A: Did you use them as away of making reference to other more important ideas- it wasn’t just for the pure effect of doing it, it was because they were symbolic or metaphoric of a state of being.

MH: Yes, it was very much to do with the concept of the work.

CM-A: So there were ideas about a recognition that some technical possibilities could be used or explored as away of expanding the repertoire of your language in some way.

MH: Yes.

CM-A: I’d like to ask you which of your works you think are the most important or significant. Could you say which you think are the three “key works”?

MH: Three only?? Well there is a series of works called the “From the Museum of Memory” (1985-88). Memory was always a very important subject in our work. I think I would say number one and number two of Museum of Memory.  Shadow Pictures is the second work and they are both to do with the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first installation is in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum and last year they bought the second one as well. They showed it in the temporary space, and then they decided to buy it. So that is very good news because they will take care of it. The other work that I would include as a key work is “Table of Orientation” (1995). Which is an interactive work and at the time we made it, it was technically very advanced- it used a video disc.

I know you are interested mainly in video but we also made public art works that used sound and light.

CM-A: Yes, I’m aware that you have a wide-ranging approach. I’m very narrowly focused because of the topic of the book.

Let me ask you two more final questions. Do you think that artists’ video is still a distinct practice in the Netherlands or do you feel it has been absorbed into a wider, less specific moving image culture?

MH: Well first of all it isn’t called “artists’ video”. That is partly because the medium is used so much. The term video artist is passé. I think that is fine, because we never really liked it.

CM-A: The term is defunct really.

MH: Yes. As you know yourself, artists use lots of different media all the time. The whole idea of distinct media is no longer relevant any more.

CM-A: Yes, of course, but there was a time when it was. Would you say that the approach and the concepts from the time when it was still relevant is restricted to a certain period in art history

MH: Yes, I think so. It was in the 1970’s and 1980’s. There was an important show here in the Stedelijk – “The Luminous Image”, which had a big impact in the Netherlands, and in Western Europe.

CM-A: Do you feel there is a particular curator or gallery that has been instrumental in the establishing of artists’ video in the Netherlands?

MH: De Appel.  Wies Smals, started the de Appel Foundation. (Unfortunately she died in 1983.)

Our first show of video in the Netherlands was at the De Appel Foundation in 1977.

CM-A: I am sure that it was very important to your development as artists working with a new medium to have that recognition and acceptance.

MH: Yes, De Appel started in 1975 and showed a lot of performance work. We showed a piece called Memory Window. They took a group of eight artists to New York in 1980, and we showed at the Kitchen and made a sound installation at Franklin Furnace.  This helped us to make connections wit the US art scene and MOMA bough one of our works, and we later had an evening event at MOMA.

CM-A: I suppose that kind of exposure helped to improve your standing in the Netherlands.

MH: Yes, but we would not have had a show at De Appel if we had not shown at the Whitechapel in London!

I also would also mention Dorine Mignot from the Stedelijk Museum. After they showed the work of Nam June Paik they started the Video Stairs and they showed our work there in 1981 as the first artists. We made a work called “Two Sides of the Story”, which combined photography, video and live work.

CM-A: It sounds as if the beginning of the 1980’s was a very important period in your career.

MH: Elsa moved from London to Maastricht in 1981. In 1982 we started the association of video artists. 1984 there was the Luminous Image. There were of course other things too, but these were highlights.

CM-A: What about other Dutch video artists. Were there some who were particularly important, or you would mention in relation to their impact on your own work?

MH: Most of the artists working with video were not that formed. I think this was because video was not accepted as a legitimate art form at that stage, so artists could not sell their works to the state. Although I am of course Dutch myself, I had been showing in New York and Paris and London and I had already been to Japan so my view was much wider.

I think one artist living in Amsterdam who was influential on me was Nan Hoover, although her work was more video performances, but we had a good rapport with her and she had an editing machine, and sometimes we edited work at her place. However most of the work we were able to do at Fantasy Factory because there weren’t any possibilities to edit in the Netherlands at that stage.