Interview with Kathy Rae Huffman, 18.06.2018
Interviewer: All right. So, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview. This is a preliminary interview maybe you know if we have more questions I might get in touch with you again. But, to get things started, I would like to ask before we talk about Van Gogh TV, you did a lot of other television projects with artists.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah.
Interviewer: Do you like this was such a worthwhile subject, you know why we’re interested in…
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, you know when I – before I worked with Van Gogh TV I had already been working with artists in television for almost 14 years. So, I didn’t come there you know to learn, I came to work with them to bring some of my experiences to the show. And I did spend a lot of time with Van Gogh TV. I had the guys come to Boston when I was there. I was a curator/producer of a project called The Contemporary Art Television Fund. And they, Benjie and Mike came for about a week and did a live cable TV show. So, that was quite fun. So, again I got to know. And I hang out with them in 1990 at Ars Electronica. Carl invited me to come and stay with their crew and you know embed myself in the Hotel Pompino Programme.
Interviewer: Ja. So, there was this, you know in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there was video art movement that produced its own stars but television, art on television was still a different subject. So, what you got you interested in this? Why? Did you think it was important for artists to work on television?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, you know I mean I started with video toward the end of the ‘70s when I was still a student. And I was in Long Beach, California and Long Beach also had a museum, the Long Beach Art Museum which had a program, project in design to build cable television in the museum in a new museum. So, you know it wasn’t my idea to do that. It was the idea of Jon Adelman who was a German who was a Director at the Long Beach Museum at the time and David Ross, who was the Deputy Director at the Museum at the time.
So, I got interested in video while I was a student. And I guess it was not so much about television, it was more about how video could, I don’t know bring another aspect of information into an art museum exhibition because I was interested in exhibition design. I didn’t study art history or theory. I studied practical exhibition design course in MFA. So, I entered a museum studies course which was another three years on to my graduate program but it gave me the opportunity to work with an artist and do an interactive installation in the gallery at the Long Beach State University and do my internship at the Long Beach Museum (laughs). So, that’s how I got involved in the whole thing. And cable TV and artists interest in TV in general at that time was my reason for getting involved. I listen to artists so they were interested in television, so was I, yeah.
Interviewer: But originally the idea was to bring more video art on regular television, not to have art projects that are specifically designed for television.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Not necessarily. We – both things were of interest to us. We did do some programming on cable TV and we also commissioned works for cable TV. So, it wasn’t just putting programmes that already existed on TV, it was also commissioning. With the specific remit that the works would be broadcast.
Interviewer: And they were broadcast on an open access channel or on what kind of…
Kathy Rae Huffman: In Long Beach, it was on the – yes, they were, because that’s all that was possible at the time. You know it wasn’t like today where there are 100 channels. It was really your main network channels, a PBS Channel was starting up but it wasn’t very successful and a public access channel. And the public access channel was a regulation for the cable provider. They had to agree to allow so many hours for the public in order to get the franchise for that neighbourhood.
Interviewer: Could you talk about one or two projects from the period that were very successful?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. One was – okay, so at one I was in Long Beach let’s say in 1978, we commissioned a series of artists to produce 30 and 60 second TV spots. And I think there were about ten different artists who produced spots and they were programmed on the cable station and we circulated them to other cable stations. They were also shown in the museum and they were also shown by the artist in a number of other venues that the artists were showing. I mean and just this last month, Nancy Buchanan is asked to talk about the TV spot that she made for this programme. And so, there’s going to be a big exhibition of her work in Pasadena, that she’ll show this work. So, you know they’re still kind of out there, these works are still out there, they’re still in distribution, people are still watching them.
And then when I moved to Boston, you know the whole remit of The Contemporary Art Television Fund was specifically to produce works for public television, which meant broadcast nationally. So, and there were other you know things that artists were doing. Peter D’Agostino did a number of cable TV experiments. Jaime Davidovich who died last year or the year before also did a number of cable TV. And so, there was a lot going on all over the country. And I know there were also things going on in Europe but America was quite, you know the artists were quite energetic with television.
Interviewer: Ja. What sets Van Gogh TV apart from you know showing arts spots on television, once that they had interactive aspect to it. How about the project that you commissioned for CAT? Was that already possible at that time?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. It was possible but because of course WGBH Television in Boston had a long history of working with artists in their studios. I mean it goes way back to Nam June Paik and it goes back to lots of artists who came for the CAVS at MIT were kind of aligned with the WGBH. Our remit was not so much to do interactive works but just to have an artist have a slot and a kind of presence and to try to make a difference. And to give artists a chance to consider television with some support from television not just you know a grant. You know WNAT in New York was already, they had a TV lab and they were already supporting major works by Nam June Paik, by Bill Viola, by John Sanborn, by different artists in New York and internationally but there was a lot going on. It was not just a kind of a thing. It was really a big, big energy of artists, and at the end of the ‘70s into the early ‘80s.
Interviewer: Again, could you give some examples from a project that you really liked while you were at say CAT?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Okay. Well, I liked them all. I liked them all (laughs). I can use one example that I thought was really – well, let’s see, Doug Hall’s work Storm and Stress where he took a camera crew and they went to investigate a tornado, tornadoes and these people who follow tornadoes. I forget what they’re called. Tornado, they just go everywhere there’s tornadoes. They hide in holes and watch you know they want to get right under the tornado. And it was a really powerful work. And it also went along about the same time as the work that Doug made, as an installation at the ICA in Boston. So, it was not an interactive work no, but it was actually a real artist programme. But he thought about TV while he did it.
Also, Tony Alpha, I commissioned a couple of pieces from Tony Alpha. Also, I commissioned work by Chip Lord, I commissioned Dara Birnbaum, Laurie Anderson. The piece we commissioned by Laurie Anderson became the intro to another TV series called Alive from Off Centre where she used herself and her alter ego the sort of midget and talked, she introduced all the programmes. So, you know it was a time when there was a lot of overlapping, there was a lot of communication among curators and producers and artists all in the topic of television. You know we even interchanged the word TV and video. It was – it was not, like today they interchanged video and film. We would use TV or television but it sounded better in the title. It wasn’t a significant difference in the content. It just referred to all the same thing.
So, I was really interested when I heard about Van Gogh TV and I think I had come to a Festival. And I wanted to meet these guys who had the TV track. I thought that’s a really big jump. And so, I made a special arrangement, when I was here, I met them and I made an arrangement to go and visit them in Hamburg. So, you know living in Boston it wasn’t so hard to fly back and forth to Europe at the time. So, I went and stayed at Carl’s place and met all the guys and we had a good, you know they really showed me you know who they were (laughs).
Kathy Rae Huffman: A bunch of crazy guys.
Interviewer: How did you hear about them in the first place? At that time there was no internet, information travelled slower.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, you know I was – this was our business. This was our business to know what was going on. We were in touch with, as a curator of a very high-profile program in Boston, which was producing artists’ work, I attended almost all the festivals at the time. I was on the jury of many of the festivals. It was kind of my high time I would say this ‘80s and early ‘90s period.
It was, there were very few of us who were working as curators specializing in video. In the States there were only about three or four of us. So, everybody knew us if we didn’t know them. So, we found out about everything. Internet is not the only way to learn things (laughs). And you know once we had fax in 1979, 1980s, early ‘80s it really facilitated everything very quickly. So, I think fax was a major way to get information quickly and have it written down. You know there was no misunderstanding about how to spell street names or put people’s names and things like that. So, we get a lot more efficient.
Interviewer: You said that you met the group. What was your first impression? You said a bunch of crazy guys? Could you be a bit more specific what was outstanding about them or so special?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, they were like – they were like an unusual combination of performance artists and technical folks. So, those two groups had come together. It was clear. Mike and Carl were not the techno guys but they were the kind of energy behind the crew. And then there were other – and I would say guys because I would say it was like 90% men. There were some women hanging around or involved or sort of peripherally girlfriends or associates or something like that but it was a male operation.
Interviewer: And was that a problem for you?
Kathy Rae Huffman: No.
Interviewer: Because some women said that they felt like you were saying it was like that was a boys’ game and you know?
Kathy Rae Huffman: It was a boys’ game but you know I respected what they were doing and I never had a problem to be in a you know group of men. I wasn’t intimidated by them at all. I liked them. They were fun. They had high energy, you know really high energy. So, and then you know when Benjamin and Mike came to Boston, they stayed at my, well, I got them a hotel for a while. They wanted to stay longer so I had them in my house. And so, you know you get to know people quite well when they stay in your house for a while. So, we had a big party and they got to know the people in Boston and it was quite, quite an experience.
Interviewer: And you said you also organized a tour for them in the U.S. at that time?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. Well, they had their friends that they knew in different places and they – but you know to contact everybody to fix it, to get the contract or the letters of agreement, to get all the information about the exact place, who to contact, what the dates were, that’s what I did. That’s what curators do anyway you know? You work with artist information and you get it all clear. So, yeah, I organised it for them. They went to Vancouver, they went to Omaha, Nebraska. There was a guy that Benjamin had heard about so I phoned him and yeah, they wanted to go there. I think they went a number of different places. They went to Iowa. You know the guys really followed through on all their contacts. And it’s one I’ll say is that they really kept very good contact with people that they worked with and people that they knew. And I think that’s always a plus to maintain your contacts.
Interviewer: And then you said in 1990 you went to Linz to Ars Electronica to participate or ja, what exactly did you do on Hotel Pompino?
Kathy Rae Huffman: I didn’t do anything. I watched. I could be – I stayed in their dorm. They had a – they were in the OK before it was renovated and so it was all classrooms and so they had one big classroom which was all for the women who were in the – in the group and another big room for all the guys. And then you know it was a very intensive programme.
So, I was invited to sit in in the control room and to talk, to get to know everybody and to participate in that way. I didn’t perform or have anything to do with any of their programme except I could see how they made it. I could see the tensions, I could see what they liked, what they thought was a success. It was good. I think I had a much better understanding of what it would take to do a live program like that. Although I had been a participant in live TV programmes before. This was our nature where they had to actually have performers and queues and people and blue screens and you know it was kind of, it wasn’t what I would call my taste (laughs). And the humour I’m sure many times evaded me because it was all in German but there were other things you could observe.
Interviewer: And they also included audience interaction already? That was something that became much more important in Piazza virtuale.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Right.
Interviewer: Did that really set this apart for you from previous television project?
Kathy Rae Huffman: I would say the audience interaction on that program was minimal compared to what happened later, excuse me. There were some phone-ins and I guess it was one political scandal where Ars Electronica was like pressured. I forget the exact reason why but there was a call in about something had happened on the program that offended some politicians, people reportedly called in. I wasn’t quite sure how many people really called in. Some friends were set up to call in you know? It was more like that. It wasn’t normal for people to call in to any kind of programme. And I don’t think talk radio was anything quite understood in Austria. But they did it and you know and they weren’t the only ones who did interactive live programmes. The ORF themselves had done many experiments with live TV between their stations. So, you know it was not out of the blue. It was – but it was considerably more people, more energy, more resources. It was a wild event. It was quite wild.
Interviewer: And when…
Kathy Rae Huffman: And I don’t know if you can tell by watching the programmes, you can see it. It might look kind of calm but it was in the background it was quite rambunctious let’s say.
Interviewer: And then for Piazza virtuale you didn’t just visit, you actually came to work with them on a permanent level. Did that mean giving up your whole you know life in the U.S. to?
Kathy Rae Huffman: No. The thing was that I had already left – I had already left Boston and I’d moved to Austria. I met a guy and I – actually I met him at the time I was there with the Hotel Pompino. So, my idea was to go and spend the summer in Austria. I’d never actually done that. You know? I’d gone straight to school and straight to working. So, I said okay, the ICA itself had a big administrative change. David Ross left. He was a Director at the ICA and he moved to become the director at the Whitney Museum. He took his chief curator with him Elisabeth Sussman who’s still at the Whitney by the way. David, who was the assistant to Elisabeth Sussman. He went back to school to get his PhD. He’s now, I believe he was the dean at Yale and now… I’m quite, he’s in a very prestigious position now. He’s written an interesting book about television by the way. And others, they’re at the ICA. So, everybody, Bob Riley had already moved and gone to San Francisco a few years before. So, I said, “Okay, this is a sign.” You know? Everybody is leaving, my support system will, has disintegrated so let’s look at what I can do. So, I decided to just move to, I put my stuff in storage, everything and bought a ticket and ended up staying eight years in Austria.
So, you know I was in touch with all these guys and I had told people that I was going to be there. And so, Mike came to visit in January of – I think it was January, shortly after I arrived there or maybe we met somewhere at a festival. I’m not sure exactly how it went. And so he said, “You know we’re doing this huge project and there’s almost no money. I mean nothing really. And – but I need somebody to help with keeping track of everything and doing all that.” So, yeah, we travelled together. My, at the time boyfriend drove us all through Eastern Europe. We drove to Russia, Poland. We really spent a long road trip visiting artists and going to TV stations and you know talking about this project. Mike and I went…
Interviewer: Before we talk about this trip in greater detail, let me just ask you one other thing. Why do you think he picked you?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, I had – they knew that I was knowledgeable. I don’t know (laughs). Why do you think they picked me? Who was around who’d had any experience at all working with television, with artists, with large productions, who was – I guess I was more or less unflappable. I could handle stress. I enjoyed it. I liked them. I think that one of the things about VGTV is that they really relied on this loyalty aspect and that people really trusted each other. They had a lot of experience with people maybe who thought they could get something from working with them. I didn’t need to get anything from them. I wasn’t earning my reputation by working with them. I wasn’t achieving any you know notoriety. I was just doing something I loved to do. And yeah, we did it (laughs).
Interviewer: Well, this road trip started, you said you came in January. Is that ’91 or ’92?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, it would have been – I went to Austria in – I went for the first time in ’90 and then I came back. May of 1991, I moved for the summer, and stayed. I probably was going to a lot – I was invited to a lot of festivals to present programmes and do things. And so, I think it was in the fall, or something. I don’t know. The actual timeline is not so clear. I don’t have any of the documents or books. They all remained with Van Gogh TV. So, I don’t have any of the – I can’t check it. My calendars for the time are all in storage still. I’m a kind of, you know I’m going by just memory. But I know that we did travel in the spring but see, if Documenta started already in July, is that when it started? The? June? What month did it start?
Interviewer: I think it was June, July and August.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. So, we had to be doing things in the fall of the year before. We couldn’t wait till the spring. It’s too late, you know what I mean? So, it had to have already been in the fall. Yeah, it had to have been in the fall, because we otherwise we couldn’t have a plan, we went to – I went to Italy with Mike, we went to Milano a couple of times. We went to Rimini. There was a group of really interesting Italian artists and then we went to visit France. And so, every time we went some place we always stayed with people. There was no money for hotels or anything. We just went by train you know, we ate sandwiches, we stayed overnight at people’s houses. We travelled overnight (laughs). It was the, you know it was the, not a deluxe travel that a lot of TV productions would experience so
Kathy Rae Huffman: But I didn’t mind it so I was used to. So, it was okay. Yeah.
Interviewer: I think we will you know find out the exact dates for these trips or at least the period they were…
Kathy Rae Huffman: I would like to know. Sometimes – yeah, sometimes I try to reconstruct it and I honest to God cannot figure out how so many things happened in such a short period of time. I have no way to understand how we did so many things but we did (laughs).
Kathy Rae Huffman: All right.
Interviewer: Ja. Let’s now talk more specifically about this trip.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah (laughs).
Interviewer: How were the people or the artists chosen? Was it all Mike’s network or did you also suggest some contacts?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Pretty much – at the beginning pretty much it was Mike’s network yeah. I mean after we got rolling, a lot of people that I knew from other parts came in and did things but not on the level that Mike’s network did. I mean of course, I would never ever say that I had anything to do with the concept of the project but I think as a curator you know, and as a person who was concerned with details and keeping records of things and keeping accounts and contact information and all of that, that that was my main focus.
And also, to just discuss my interpretation of what we might be able to expect from certain groups of people. I mean Mike had a lot of – he had a lot of trust in all of these guys. And I would say, “Hmm, I don’t know about these. I don’t know really let’s – I wouldn’t put too much in these guys, more on those people.” So, you know some of my responses were correct and yeah, we got along really well. It was an interesting time for sure.
Mike works, you know, he had people in every city that we went to that he had known for a long time. And you know back in ’84 actually, I had met Mike for the first time. And so, I knew Mike already going way back to 1984 when I went to San Sebastian Film Festival. And I was – went on a road trip afterwards with an artist friend of mine, Brenda Miller. So, I already had this kind of contact with Mike from the very early days. So, he wasn’t a newcomer in my realm of artist’ connections. I just remembered that.
Interviewer: So, I mean there was no precedent for this project. How did you explain to the groups and the artists you met what you know the whole project was about and what their task would be within it?
Kathy Rae Huffman: I mean we just told it like it was, you know? This was an experiment. Before I had left, actually, this is, okay, things are starting to come back to my memory, so. Before I left Boston, I was already in touch with Benjamin and Carl. I might have even stayed, gone to Hamburg another time and stayed there. I don’t know. They asked me to buy and bring with me when I came to Europe picture phones. Panasonic had produced these picture phones. They sold them in a box set of two and the advertising on the cover was a grandmother and a grandson you know talking with pictures.
So, now, this was in 198-, 1991 yeah ’91. So, I bought all the picture phones that there were. I think I got 17 sets of picture phones. And you know that was a big trust on my part because I had to pay for them and then get them to the guys and they paid me back. But I made sure that all the remaining picture phones that were on sale could come into their hands. And those picture phones, we took around to different places and showed them what – and it was the first time most of these artists had seen this possibility. It was really before email you know? Few people had mobile phones at that time. You know always looking for payphone sometimes you had to have a card to use a payphone. And so, it was really, it was a nightmare to communicate.
So, postcards were also (laughs), people did a lot of communicating with postcards of all things. You know, it wasn’t very reliable. So, you know sometimes we would go someplace and people went there and Mike had to go and try to track people down and they gathered at a bar or something. You know, it wasn’t always straightforward I’ll say. But we did take this picture phones and they got to try them out and you know they started to think about what they could do with this kind of technology. It was like a slow-scan. Have you ever used one?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Did you ever use slow? Okay.
Interviewer: Ja. Benjamin still has some of those.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Great.
Interviewer: He said that they still work. They still work.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. I’m sure. Yeah. They were very robust. They were consumer items. And they were meant to just plug into the telephone jack you know? So, good.
Interviewer: And so, these 17 that…
Kathy Rae Huffman: I don’t know if it’s 17 but there was – it was a number. It was above ten. I mean I really had a big pile of these things. Whether I had them shipped or I’m not sure how they got there. But I got them all, yeah. So, they knew me. And they…
Interviewer: Tell us how they got to Europe still because…
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. It’s totally unclear with my memory. I might have brought some and then – and others were shipped, I’m not sure but you know it was…
Interviewer: I wonder if this was legal at all at that time because that was…
Kathy Rae Huffman: Probably not (laughs). But you know people didn’t – wouldn’t have even known what they were, so.
Interviewer: (Laughs) So, you can’t…
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. I remember, because you weren’t even allowed to use a fax machine on your phone line in Austria. I mean my friend had to like go in and cut the wires in the phone line in order to hook the fax machine. It was completely illegal. It was very controlled. So…
Interviewer: Do you know how they had heard about these picture phones?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, you know Benjamin knew about them. He was always reading technical information and whatever, you know, this was – and they were advertised. They were something that was advertised.
Kathy Rae Huffman: I never had seen them but he knew.
Interviewer: Provided the opportunity to create this little piazza mini studios in other cities.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Exactly.
Interviewer: So, you left them with the different groups or?
Kathy Rae Huffman: That’s right.
Interviewer: How did that work?
Kathy Rae Huffman: That’s right. They got left with the different groups. And in Germany, I don’t know who made the deal, probably Benjamin and Carl who made the deal with the Deutsche Telekom for the ISDN phones, which were still prototypes. They weren’t really yet in distribution, you know they were completely prototypes.
Interviewer: Slow Scan television is – well, it’s an excessive slow, you know you might get used to it. When you saw it at first, did you think, “Wow, this is an interesting technological way to do your own television also” or?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, I’d seen it before, you know? I mean we weren’t out – we weren’t unknowledgeable to them. And there were people who had been using this for a long time. The Canadians, Bob Adrian had done slow-scan projects. There was this guy in Amsterdam, what was his name? He did a lot of slow-scan stuff. It had been in the – it had been in the background for a while. It wasn’t the main you know artistic medium but there were artists who were working with it, and we knew about them. Everybody was connected in this kind of, I don’t know how. We were all connected. We got things in the mail, we – people travelled and talked. It was a little like an oral history as well as delayed information. But we did know what was going on.
Interviewer: And let’s talk about some of the piazzettas, so which group do you particularly remember? You know, which one did you think was very interesting or? People who left a big impression on you?
Kathy Rae Huffman: I would say probably the most dynamic of all of them were the Italian artists in Milano. They were really quite amazing. And they got it right away and they – you know they lived in a, or they shared a huge squat in the middle of Milan towards, I can remember walking into this place that was a complete graffiti environment. Everything – every inch of wall was graffiti. And yet the artists themselves when we went to visit them in their private places, they were absolutely pristine and clean. So, it was like a real shock to have these two environments that they operated between. But they were very smart and really – I think they engaged a community on their side to interface. So, it was – I was really impressed with them.
Interviewer: Italy of course was you know a part of Western Europe or a country where you could travel before easily but you also went to many countries that were you know behind the iron curtain. Can you – how do you remember traveling there?
Kathy Rae Huffman: We travelled there by car in a Volkswagen Polo, is that what they were? Yeah. And I had a portable laptop already at that time. I’d had one for many years already. And we were always in constant fear when we went through border checks because they would immediately find this box which looked like a Eastern European sewing machine to be honest. It was a little grey box and the front came down and they would always think it was porno. And Mike was like, “No, no, poet, she’s the poet.” Just I don’t know, he could always manage to communicate in about every language.
We didn’t – we were not successful to leave picture phones in all of the Eastern European places. We did manage to do some work with some people in Saint Petersburg. Mike went on his own to Moscow later on and they had to use a kind of corporate office there. It was impossible to use a picture phone. We worked a lot in Poland. We would spend a lot of time in Warsaw.
We visited a lot of artists. They weren’t as interested in Poland. We even went to TV companies and sat in front of TV portrait guys and they weren’t interested. Michael Bielický in Prague took us up on the offer. And he was – he had his own you know program he wanted to do, his own performance work. We left picture phones also in Austria. They had them in Graz and in Vienna and Linz. Gerfried Stocker was one of the artists who did a piazzetta by the way, back when he was an artist. We left him in Slovenia and went down to Belgrade.
Budapest, we didn’t have a success in Budapest. I don’t know why because they have a really big media scene there but for some reason it wasn’t very successful to get a piazzetta there. But I have to say, once we, Piazza virtuale started and artists were coming to see what was going on, Suzanne Mészöly who was the founder of the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art, she was really impressed. And she gave some money to the project so that artists who were working on piazzettas could come and visit. So, that’s how many of the Eastern European artists got to come to Kassel.
Interviewer: What do you remember about Riga?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Riga, we were in Riga. Riga did their own project with their Riga Television Station. And Mike was completely desmitten with Riga and he really liked Baiba Ripa a lot. And we stayed at her place, and she’s a lovely person. But the national TV decided to this and in my opinion, they used it as a PR platform to talk about Riga, the beautiful Riga. So, it wasn’t as much an artist program as it was kind of nationalistic presentation. That’s just from my point of view.
Interviewer: I looked at some of the archive material already and they did have a slow-scan camera in Riga.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Did they? Did they have one? Okay.
Interviewer: Ja. But you’re right that what they show is beautiful Riga, the beautiful old buildings, the beautiful women of Riga, something like that. So…
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah, folkloric things yeah.
Kathy Rae Huffman: It was beautiful. I was – I really felt it was a beautiful place yeah. We had a little bit of trouble there because we were waiting for Mike at one point and we were in a parking lot and my friend was trying to clean the car and he took the floor mats from the car and was shaking them out and the police came. Then they said we were littering. And we were really very afraid because it was still Russian police at that time. So, we apologized, you know we were overly apologetic and they let us – we had to clean out the dust that we had put on to the parking lot but we could leave.
And then on our way to Poland, we were driving, Mike says, “Oh, we’re going to go a shortcut let’s go down to Kaliningrad and we’ll go cross there and we’ll be closer to Poland because it’s not – otherwise, it was too far. So, we said, “Okay, Mike knows.” So, we got in the car, we started driving. And I guess it is Kaliningrad, right? That’s the southernmost part of where you can cross over into Poland from I don’t know which, Lithuania.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Anyway, they wouldn’t let us cross because we were no residents. And this was really – it was already getting dark. So, we had to turn around and drive you know like another ten hours to get across because our visas were going to expire. That was the other thing. We started the trip from Finland.
I had been invited to a festival there in Finland and so we had taken a ferry boat from Hamburg, I guess over to Finland. And so, we had the car there and so we drove from Finland over to Saint Petersburg. But before we could cross into Saint Petersburg, I tried to get us visas in Finland. We can’t do it. It’s that you know if you try to get a visa in a country that is not your passport country into Russia, you can just forget it. They’re not going to give it to you. So, I got transit visas. Very dangerous, (laughs) I got us transit visas so which are only good for three days, and I think we were there for over a week. So, we just, all we would say when they look at it, we would just go, “Transit, transit.” Which was so embarrassing but we managed but it was you know you had to just kind of play the game as Mike taught me you just play the game. And if – we weren’t doing anything wrong so, really so we didn’t have a big problem.
Interviewer: That was of course the time of post-socialist chaos, you know the old order was gone and the new order wasn’t established yet.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Exactly.
Interviewer: Do you remember any instances where this became obvious to you?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, there were no petrol stations. This was very difficult. All, I don’t know if this is going to answer your question but this is something that I remember. We would be driving and you know, okay, getting low on gas and there were no gas stations in Russia at that time. So, what there were, were these tanker trucks on the side of the road, gasoline tanker trucks. And so, we would just sort of pull up and Mike would get out there and you know, “Ha-ha,” you know “Ha-ha” talking with the guys, yeah. They would kind of agree on a price and then pull the car up and that gas would come in directly out of the tanker truck. I said, “This isn’t good, you know, what if this isn’t diesel, you know?” (laughs) But we managed to get there.
And then there were really no places to stay. There were only like these workers’ hotel, workers’ places, really terrible conditions, really terrible. I had never seen anything so terrible since I was in South America seven years before. It was really terrible. So, there was like just a room with a shelf and all you could see were men’s feet lined up next to each other because they were just – it was just truckers that were just getting some sleep. There were only non-stops where you could get maybe a coffee and maybe a sausage you know to eat. So, it was not so easy all the time on the road there but it was quite exciting. I took a lot of photos then of these monuments which have all since been taken down, kind of Soviet things on the side of the road. And Mike kept saying, “You know these won’t be here for very long. These won’t be here for very long.” So, yeah.
Interviewer: And you never thought “Why am I putting myself through this? It’s too much. I don’t want to do this anymore”?
Kathy Rae Huffman: No, I never thought that. I thought, “This is great. You know, we’re – we had a mission, we were like missionaries in a way. You know we really believed what we were doing and we really believed it and we really were excited about it and that’s quite contagious. And we really believed in this project. There’s nothing to hold back. We just went for it.
Interviewer: But that was exciting to talk to these people like with the missionary aspect…
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, I think the artists there were a bit more suspicious in a way. And I think you know it was at a time when many, say Russian artists were making a lot of money selling their works to collectors and maybe they weren’t that great of artists but collectors didn’t know. So, I think there was more interest in what they could get out of it and on the western artist side they knew that they weren’t going to – they were just going to have a great time.
And I think not all the Eastern artists were monetarily obsessed but some were. So, yeah, I think it was just their knowledge about what was going to actually happen, what they could expect from it. And many, many of these artists you know had worked with Mike and I don’t know how many but some had worked with Mike and Carl on this stone project. So, in the west they had artists who had travelled with them before. So, they knew what to expect, you know? Chaos and good times.
Interviewer: People keep saying that Mike wasn’t in the Kassel during most of Documenta because he kept traveling. Why was that? He was thinking you do the preparation before and then we see what happens? Why did he continue to travel throughout Documenta?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, I think there was some reinforcement needed and you know Mike wasn’t the person who was the technical backbone of the project. So, in Kassel there wasn’t a lot for him to do except you know keep some energy going. And I think that was his part of the project was to keep the piazzettas or to keep this whole business going. I don’t know what was going on in his personal life at the time, we didn’t really talk a lot about that. I also did some traveling during Documenta, went back – went to Prague, we went to Salzburg to put the Dalai Lama into the Piazza virtuale. And so, you know there was a lot of things that we both did. We both moved around a little bit.
Interviewer: But at that time you didn’t travel together anymore?
Kathy Rae Huffman: No, not at that time. It wasn’t necessary. I mean I think you know also it helped me to understand a lot more about the underpinnings of the program to be there in that part of the research phase. I would call that the research and organisation phase but you know nobody was a kind of TV professional and so they all needed a bit of energizing and…
Interviewer: But did you tell them what to do? Or did you give them any editorial advice or?
Kathy Rae Huffman: No. No, not at all. They just needed to keep to the schedule. So, my job was to schedule the slots if we call it the TV slots. So, I would be sitting there in Kassel with the program outlined and I would – it was a constant telephoning and faxing at that time, constant. So, I was always on the phone to the people for that night and for the next day, reminding them, preparing them, saying they had to be ready at exactly this time and they would have exactly this much time, you know what I mean? Because they needed to know it was live, and that was quite exhausting.
And remember at that time, you could not make a direct phone call to Russia. You had to schedule and you had to go to an operator and you had to schedule your calls. So, if you had made a call to ask for a line into Russia and you had to go to the bathroom, forget it and that call came and you start all over again from the beginning. So, you had to really sit there and wait. And sometimes you had wait for hours before you got the call. So, in order for me to tell them what time your slot was, I had to sit and wait and be prepared for the operator to call me back. It was another kind of communication issue.
Interviewer: Who was particularly reliable and who was particularly unreliable in that regard?
Kathy Rae Huffman: What do you mean? Of the piazzettas?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Everybody – everybody came through as far as I recall. I don’t recall having a blank programme slot. I don’t recall any blank programme slots.
Interviewer: That means that you did spend a bit of, quite some time in Kassel. How do you remember the working atmosphere there?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. It was a very busy crew, very young crew until the technical guys were all upstairs in the double level and some of them were Eastern German guys and they didn’t speak any English. So, you know they’re – on the bottom there were two women who were more or less like receptionists. I’m not sure what they did. Ludwig Seyfarth was there. He was the PR guy. We became quite good friends and then myself and I had an assistant and then we were doing all of the scheduling and blocking the time slots and constant checking with the technical team what else was going to happen, and you know things changed. If somebody came in in Kassel and had this great idea, they would shift everything. And that meant we had to get on the phone and tell everybody that it was going to be different, but you didn’t always meet with the great you know it was okay. Everybody knew that it was going to be a bit chaotic.
Okay. So, in the beginning you know and I had a lot of artists that I knew at Documenta at the time, and people were talking that, “This was absolutely ridiculous. There was no content. How could this have happened, you know? What was this?” And at the beginning it was just the kind of automated things that they had designed and that in the you know the little PR thing about how to use a touchpad because there were no touchpad phones in Germany at the time. So, (laughs) in order to play any of the games online you had to go and get a little device that was a touchpad. I actually bought one of those and I still have it. A little, it was like a remote that you could use.
Interviewer: A beeper.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah, a little beeper thing (laughs). So, you know they were way ahead of the whole game at the time. They really pushed the envelope.
Interviewer: Ja. So, what would you say to somebody, who says: “This has no content. This is not art.”
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, I said you know, “You’re the content. You’re the content.” (Laughs) The big thing that got a lot of people coming and interested was the café that we started right in the piazzetta, there in the camp, you know in the parking lot. And you know there was also a bit of opposition from some other groups in Germany who wanted to have their – like I think 235 MEDIA, you should look into that. They were-, they had built up a whole big thing and they said they were the ones doing interest – it was quite – it was quite unfriendly I felt like.
And you know the guys were never very diplomatic with other artists. So, you either played with them or you were nothing. There were also some spites with the local artists and the professor. They set up a tent just next to the camp. I don’t know, please be careful what you use of this because I was the outsider not understanding German, but I could see that there was a lot of tension. So, they had to really defend their territory I guess is the thing I want to say. It wasn’t always easy, even though they had the official 100-day project. They had a lot of competition and a lot of opposition by other artists, so. Some of the people who made the biggest use of the café which this amazing Chinese artist was managing – he was just great. Wu, did you ever talk with him?
Interviewer: Yes. His name keeps coming up. Ja.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah, he was fantastic. He was – he made a lot of friends. He was extremely friendly. So, like Tony Oursler was coming into the café almost every other day and other artists. So, Tony is a good friend so I remember him specifically, Julia was there, she came in all the time. And you know it was – it became a hub for people to come in. And you know at the beginning when there was just very little happening on the – on the television screen on the screens to the end when they actually had to divide the picture into four just to get everybody in who wanted to participate.
Interviewer: in the beginning they called it Hello TV.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah exactly. Yeah.
Interviewer: And so, you were saying that there was a development in the documentary that was made after Documenta there’s one segment where Benjamin talks about this turning into a virtual community. Would you agree that?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yes. I would think so, yeah. And you know they had originally mapped out the footprint of the extra satellite but there were people like I had a contact in Barcelona who wanted to come in and I think they did something with – very minor but they were holding you know some program presentations there also in England. There were some artists who wanted to participate, you know the extra satellite had a footprint and so that’s where the program could be seen.
And what was really shocking to everybody and even to the guys let’s say the big guys who were the four, was this satellite club that got in their caravans and came to Kassel and had a barbecue and they had made t-shirts and sweatshirts with Piazza virtuale on it and they were quite amazing. These were just, I would say ordinary Germans who because they had satellite dishes were always searching around and they found this and they just got hooked. It was really exciting. That was quite exciting.
Interviewer: Ja, a lot of people talk about the fan clubs, that emerged and different artists that came to visit from…
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah.
Interviewer: Ja, some people complained a little bit about that there was – it was very stressful. Others say it was the most fulfilling time of their life for them. What would you say?
Kathy Rae Huffman: For me it was, yes, it was stressful but I was quite used to that kind of stress you know? I didn’t expect it to be a holiday (laughs). It was stressful, it was-, it was rewarding. It was also, I don’t know, it was difficult because we were camping out in different places, they had rooms if we had to go away. We could come back and our room would be taken over by somebody else. We had to kind of fight to get it back. There were internal things going on all the time. The project was totally underfunded. Cash, it was cash poor. I found out later that they ran the whole thing on one PC.
Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not that they had no backup computers (laughs). Every day there were new things that were introduced that the techno guys were like developing overnight and they would try them out so there was a lot of experimental stuff going on. There was some stress among the German piazzettas, they wanted higher profiles. But you know this really created a big cohesion in a lot of communities around like in Berlin, I mean Pit Schultz was telling me you know how important the piazzetta in Berlin was and how it helped bring together that community and I think there was one in Bremen and there was one in Cologne, there was different places had the artists, so.
Salvatore demanded he take charge of all of the German piazzettas because they were using ISDN phone lines, it was completely different technology and they needed a different kind of supervision and that the people who were working in the German piazzettas were very ambitious (laughs). So, that said, that was fine with me because I had my hands full already.
Interviewer: What did you do after the 100 days were over? Were you ready for long vacation or?
Kathy Rae Huffman: No. I went back to – I went back to Austria and I went to, I think in December or November I went to Japan. And I was a guest at the Fujiko Nakaya’s Festival. And there I met at the Goethe Institute a man named Robert Schneider who was the head of the Goethe Institute in Japan. And he knew that I had been living in Austria and that I had not – and that I’d worked on this big project. We had a really nice, I had known him before because he had been the-, he started the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles. So, when I was a curator in Long Beach I had already met him, so it was a kind of reunion.
So, when I got to Japan and he was there, we had a nice reunion and he offered to send me to the German language school, the immersive school. So, I was really excited about that. So, I took this course and I decided to take it in a city where I didn’t know anybody because I thought I would have had a better chance. So, I went to – and I know I even forget the name of this city by it’s down by Ome, it’s down in this – it’s a very rural neighbourhood in a very conservative place. And I had a roommate who was sent there by – from Zagreb by Caritas and she spoke no English. So, you know I got some start of learning German there. Although I didn’t have any way to practice because my friend in Austria refused to have any practice sessions. So, it was kind of too bad. Anyway, and then I just continued. I get, I made some programs for Ars Electronica, I did some festival curating, I did quite a lot of things, you know?
Interviewer: If you look back now, what do you think did this period mean to you? How did it change you or what influences and?
Kathy Rae Huffman: I don’t know. Maybe because I had had so much experience already before I joined this project. You know I wasn’t – it wasn’t my first big project. I had had years of working with artists on big programs. I had curated and produced a huge project with Raul Ruiz the Chilean filmmaker. That was the opening exhibition at the Jeu de Paume which went to the IVAM in Valencia. So, you know I had done big major projects of that category. And those I would call much more stressful (laughs) than Piazza virtuale because I wasn’t in charge, you know, I was there to do a specific job and I felt quite okay with what I was doing.
It was hard personally for me because I was uncomfortable. I had this friend of mine who was coming to stay in Kassel and he was not very happy so that kind of created some problems for me personally. But I don’t think it affected my work, it just made me a less happy person. We had bicycles in Kassel. We went to the lakes, we went swimming, we had a lot of fun. We could go to all the evening programmes, you know we had passes to go to everything. So, I enjoyed being in Kassel quite a bit. It was-, and being that close to the Documenta gave me a lot of insight into how these huge events are managed let’s say.
How did it affect me? I stayed in good contact with the guys. I’m sure you know I worked with Carl for years afterwards. We did a big project called the VRML art. It started off with that and then we changed it to web 3D art. We did a lot of traveling for this. We did a big online portal that was active for several years until I took a job in Manchester which I was just completely too busy to do this anymore and I had to stop. But up until 2000 we worked together very closely. So, you know I had a lot of contact with him afterwards. I feel very comfortable around all of them. We, yeah it was good.
Interviewer: The impact on the career and the life concerned you know of younger people probably for them it was a bigger thing…
Kathy Rae Huffman: I don’t think a lot of people know that I had anything to do with it. I didn’t make this a big issue in my – these headphones keep coming – I didn’t make it a big issue in my profile, you know I mean I was proud of it, I liked doing it. I met a lot of Russian artists. I did – afterwards I started to work a bit more with Suzanne Mészöly. I had met her already in 1990 and actually I had invited her to come to see Piazza virtuale when she came to Kassel.
So, I felt like I had set up that grant that she gave the project. So, I went to – because I was living – I had moved to on my own by this time and so I started working with Suzie and she put me in charge of the annual exhibition in Moscow. So, I spent a lot of time, probably went 15 times to Moscow on my own and I became very friendly with some of the artists who participated in Piazza virtuale. So, you know, what goes around comes around. We were – we had friends with them and they had friends with us and I, yeah, I liked the whole business a lot. It just expanded my network a bit, you know?
Interviewer: Okay. So, last question, if you see Piazza virtuale in a historic perspective, how would you, you know judge it?
Kathy Rae Huffman: Well, I think it’s a project that’s completely undervalued. I’m very happy that there’s going to be some research into the whole project. I think it was an amazing achievement by a group of artists who had very little financial, I mean they had a grant but they used every cent of it. They managed to make this, I would say from almost nothing. And they were very dominant but I think they needed to be in order to get it actually functioning because they were dealing with a lot of very young guys you know in their early 20s or maybe even earlier.
So, you know they gave a lot of creative freedom to all of the artists working. I have to hand it to them they did not impose their own wishes; a lot of amazing pieces came out of it. I think especially brilliant were the pieces done by the Austrian piazzettas. They really understood the connectivity between several points. Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s-, I’m really happy that there will be some more recognition given to it.
Interviewer: All right. Kathy. Thank you very much for that.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Okay.
Interviewer: Again, we are in the very early stage of this programme.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Okay.
Interviewer: I’m starting to you know find my way through all these different…
Kathy Rae Huffman: Sure.
Interviewer: Personalities and all these different things.
Kathy Rae Huffman: I’m sure there’s many, many different points of view.
Interviewer: Ja. Like I was saying in the beginning, I might approach you again once I have more specific questions. This was simply to get me started on things.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Sure.
Interviewer: So, thank you very much for that.
Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. I mean there, you know when anytime, you know off the record but anytime there’s a group of people working under such stressful conditions there’s going to be some blow-ups, there’s going to be people who don’t meet their job requirements, there are going to be people who disappear, there are going to be surprises. But I think through all of it, they came out very well, and I think they’re great guys. Karel is doing amazing things now actually I think he’s doing extremely interesting things. So, yeah.