Interview with Kathy Rae Huffman, 18.06.2018

Kathy Rae Huffman is an American curator who was responsible for coordinating the international piazzettas at Piazza virtuale.

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  join the project 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 invited them to Boston in 1989 when I was curator/producer of a project called The Contemporary Art Television (CAT) Fund. And they, Benjie and Mike came for about a week and did a live cable TV show. So, that was quite fun. I got to know them a bit better. And I observed them in 1990 at Ars Electronica. Karel invited me to come and stay with their crew and embed myself in the ‘Hotel Pompino’ live TV 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: I started with video art toward the end of the ‘70s when I was still a graduate student.  I was in Long Beach, California and Long Beach had a museum, the Long Beach Museum of Art which had a project in design to build a cable television studio in the new museum. So, it wasn’t my idea to  produce artists’ television.. It was the idea of Jan Adelmann, who was a German  and the Director at the Long Beach Museum and David Ross, who was the Deputy Director at the Museum at the time.
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 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 exhibition design for an MFA degree. I also entered a museum studies course which was another three years on top of 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 I did my unpaid 6 month internship at the Long Beach Museum (laughs). So, that’s how I got involved in the whole thing. Cable TV and artists interest in TV in general at that time was my reason for getting involved. I listen to artists. They were interested in television, so was I, too.

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: At the time, both things were of interest to us. We did do some programming of video art on cable TV and we also commissioned works for cable TV. So, 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, the video art was on cable TV  – yes, , because that’s what was possible at the time. You know it wasn’t like today where there are 100’s of channels. In the US it was only your main 3 network channels, PBS was starting up but it wasn’t very successful yet and we had a public access channel, which was a regulation for the cable provider. They had to agree to allow the community so many hours for public use, in order to get the franchise for installing cable TV in that municipality.

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. There were ten different artists who produced spots and they were programmed on the cable station and we circulated them to other cable stations as well. They were also shown in the museum and they were also shown by the artist in a number of other venues where the artists were showing.  This last month, Nancy Buchanan was asked to talk about the TV spot that she made for this programme, there’s going to be a big exhibition of her work at The Armory in Pasadena, and she’ll show this work. So, you know they’re still out there, these works are still in distribution, people are still watching them.
And then when I moved from Long Beach to Boston, the whole remit of The Contemporary Art Television Fund was specifically to produce works for public television, which meant a national broadcast. So, there were many precedents that artists had done, Peter D’Agostino did a number of cable TV experiments. Jaime Davidovich also did a number of cable TV broadcasts as the host, Dr. Davidovich. And so, there was a lot going on all over the country. And I know there were also things going on in Europe, but American video artists were were quite energetic about 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: WGBH Television in Boston had a long history of working with artists in their Boston studios. t goes way back to Nam June Paik and lots of artists who came to Boston for the CAVS programme at MIT which was  aligned with the WGBH New Television Workshop. Our remit for The CAT Fund was not so much to do interactive works but just to have an artist have a slot and a presence and of course we wanted to make a difference,  to give artists a chance to consider television with some support from television not just a grant. WNET in New York was already supporting artists, they had a TV Lab and they supported major works by Nam June Paik, by Bill Viola, by John Sanborn, by different artists mostly in New York.  I There was a lot going on internationally. In the UK, in Germany, and (former) Yugoslavia.  There was really a big, big energy from artists, especially at the end of the ‘70s into the ‘80s, to infiltrate and influence television.

Interviewer: Again, could you give some examples from a project that you really liked while you were at The CAT Fund?

Kathy Rae Huffman:

Okay. Well, I liked them all. I can use one example that I thought was really intense. Doug Hall’s work ‘Storm and Stress’ involved taking a camera crew (all artists) to investigate  tornadoes and thepeople who chase tornadoes, they just go everywhere there’s a tornadoe. It’s very dangerous. They hide in ditches and holes and watch and wait, they want to get right under the tornado. It was a really powerful work, but we worried about them during the filming. I The work  was premiered the same time as ‘The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described’ (1987), an installation with video Doug made at the ICA in Boston. It was not an interactive work, but it was actually a powerful piece, with Tesla coils that emitted energy. He thought about extreme intense weather and TV while he produced this work. Also, Tony Oursler. I commissioned a couple of pieces by him, one was a performance work together with Constance DeJong . I commissioned work by Chip Lord, Dara Birnbaum, Joan Jonas, and Laurie Anderson among others (. 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 to introduce the programmes.

It was a time when there was a lot of overlapping, there was a lot of communication among curators and producers and artists all on the topic of television. At that time, we even interchanged the word TV and video, regularly. It was not like today which interchangesvideo and film. We would use TV or television because it sounded better in the title than video. It wasn’t a significant difference in the content. it referred to the same thing.
I was really interested when I heard about Van Gogh TV andI had  traveled to see them at a Video Festival. I wanted to meet these guys who had the TV truck. I thought ‘that’s a really big jump’. and so I made a special arrangement to meet them.  I alsovisited them in Hamburg. Living in Boston, it wasn’t so hard to fly back and forth to Europe at the time.I  stayed at Karel’s  place and met all the guys and they really showed me a good time, you know how they were (laughs).

Interviewer: Yes.

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 this was our business. It was my business to know, what was going on. As a curator of a very high-profile international program in Boston, which was producing important artists’ work, I was very connected, I attended all the video festivals at the time. I was on the jury of many of these festivals. It was my high time, this ‘80s and ‘90s period. And don’t forget, there were very few curators specializing in video. In the States there were only three or four of us. So, everybody knew us, even if we didn’t know them. We found out about everything by speaking on the phone, visitors passing along news, and journals. Internet is not the only way to learn things (laughs). And you know once we had fax, in the ‘80s, it really facilitated everything very quickly. I think fax was a major way to get information quickly and have it written down, there was no misunderstanding about how to spell street names or people’s names, 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 geeks. Those two groups had come together. It was clear that Mike and Karel were not the techno guys but they were the energy behind the crew. And then there were other – and I would say guys, because I would say it was like 99% men. There were some women hanging around or involved peripherally, like 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 group of men. I wasn’t intimidated by them at all. I liked them. They were fun. They had high energy, really high energy. So, when Benjamin and Mike came to Boston, they mainly stayed at my place, I got them a hotel for a while, butthey wanted to stay longer so I had them in my flat. And so, you get to know people quite well when they stay in your home for a while. I had a big party for them, and they got to know the people in Boston and it was quitean experience for everyone.

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 friends that they knew in different places and they knew where they wanted to go – but my job was 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 artists and get it all clear. So, yeah, I organized ‘The All Amerika Tour’ for them. They went to Vancouver, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska. There was a guy that Benjamin had heard about, so I phoned him and yeah, they went there. They went a number of different places. You know the guys really followed through on all their contacts. I’ll say it was important that they really kept very good contacts with people who they worked with and people that they knew.

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 watched. I stayed in their dorm. They had a set-up at The OK before it was rennovated, when  it was still all classrooms. One big classroom was all for the women performers who were in the group and another big room for all the guys. It was a very intensive schedule, demanding. I was also invited to sit in in the control room and 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 content, 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 a good experience. I had a much better understanding of what it takes to do a live program on that scale. Although I had been a participant in live TV programmes before.this was a situation where they had to actually have performers queued, andworking in front of blue screens.  It wasn’t what I would call my taste (laughs), and the humour I’m sure evaded me many times because it was all in German but there were other things I 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. There were some phone-ins and I guess there was one political scandal where Ars Electronica was pressured. I forget the exact reason why but there was a call in about somecomment made on the program that offended some politicians, people reportedly called it in. I wasn’t quite sure how many people really called in. Some friends were set up to call in, because it wasn’t normal at that time for people to call in to any kind of TV programme,. I don’t think talk radio was  quite understood in Austria, either. But they did it!  . The ORF themselves had done many experiments with live TV between their stations, and were quite innovative, so, you know it was not commissioned ‘out of the blue’. But  Hotel Pompino involved considerably more people, more energy, more resources. It was a wild event. It was quite wild.

Interviewer: And when…

Kathy Rae Huffman: I don’t know if you can tell by watching the programmes, if you can see it. It might look kind of calm, even rehearsed, but the energy 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: The thing was, I had already left Boston and I’d moved to Austria in 1991. I met a guy– 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 taken that kind of time off before. I’d gone straight to school and straight to working. So, I said OK, the ICA itself went through a big administrative change. David Ross,  the Director at the ICA left  to become the director at the Whitney Museum in NYC. He took his chief curator with him Elisabeth Sussman (who’s still at the Whitney by the way). David Joselett, who was the assistant to Elisabeth Sussman, went back to school to get his PhD. He’s now, I believe he was the dean at Yale   and now is Professor at Harvard University. He’s written an interesting book “Feed back: Television against Democracy”, by the way. 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 here has disintegrated, so let’s look at what I can do. I decided to just move to Austria for a while, I put my stuff in storage, g and bought a one-way ticket and ended up staying eight years in Austria.
I stayed in touch with all the VGTV guys and I had told everybody that I was going to be in Austria, and I also met many friends at Ars Electronica in 1991 as well. Mike came to visit me with an offer.He told me, “You know we’re doing this huge project and there’s almost no money. I mean nothing really, but I need somebody to help with keeping track of everything and doing all that.” It sounded exciting, so I said OK.  We travelled together to meet the various potential Piazettas.Myat the time boyfriend drove us all through Eastern Europe, to Russia, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary. We really had a long road trip visiting artists and going to TV stations and talking about this project.

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 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 who 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 notoriety. I was just doing something I loved to do. And yeah, we did it well (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 was invited to a lot of festivals to present programmes and do events. 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 anymore. They all remained with Van Gogh TV. So, I can’t check it. My calendars for the time are all still in storage.I’m going by memory. But I know that we did travel in the spring but see, if Documenta started already in July, is that when it started?

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 would be too late, you know what I mean? So, it had to have already been in the fall.. I went toItaly with Mike, we went to Milano a couple of times. We went to Rimini. There was a group of really interesting Italian artists there, and then we went to France. Every time we went some place we  stayed with people. There was no money for hotels. We traveled by train, we ate sandwiches, we stayed overnight at artists’ houses. We travelled overnight to avoid accommodation issues (laughs). It was not deluxe travel, what a lot of TV productions would experience.

Interviewer: And…

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: 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 accomplished so much but we did (laughs).

Interviewer: Okay.

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. 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 would never ever say that I had anything to do with the concept of the project but I think as a curator, 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 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 artists. And I would say, “Hmm, I don’t know about these. I don’t know really– I wouldn’t put too much faith 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  a productive time for sure.
Mike knew people in every city that– people that he had known for a long time. And you know back in ’84 I knew Mike already going way back to 1984 when I went to San Sebastian Film Festival. And  went on a road trip afterwards with an artist friend of mine, Branda Miller, and we connected in Lyon for a live ‘all-night’ radio broadcast. So, I already had this kind of contact with Mike from the early days. He wasn’t a newcomer in my realm of artist connections.

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 left Boston, I was already in touch with Benjamin and Karel. I might have even 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 talking with pictures.
So, now, this was in  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 could be done with them – and it was the first time most of these artists had experienced  this possibility. It was before email, you know? Few people had mobile phones at that time. You were still always looking for a payphone and sometimes you needed to have a card to use a payphone. And so, it was really, it was a nightmare to communicate.
So, postcards were also useful (laughs), people did a lot of communicating with postcards of all things. You know, it wasn’t very reliable. So, sometimes we would go someplace and Mike had to go and try to track people down and then they gathered at a bar or something. You know, it wasn’t always straightforward. But we did take these 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?

Interviewer: Ja.

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 huge number of them. I mean I really had a big pile of these devices. Whether I had them shipped or what, I’m not sure how they got there. But they got them all, yeah. So, they knew me. And they knew I could be trusted.

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 some years ago, perhaps I had them shipped through the institution, even.

Interviewer: I wonder if this was legal at all at that time because that was…

Kathy Rae Huffman: Probably not (laughs). But you know customs wouldn’t have even known what they were, so.

Interviewer: (Laughs) So, you can’t…

Kathy Rae Huffman: Yeah. I remember they were probably illegal, because you weren’t even allowed to use a fax machine on your phone line in Austria. I mean my friend had to cut the wires in the phone line in order to hook up my 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.

Interviewer: Okay.

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: The picturephones got left with the different groups. And in Germany, I don’t know who made the deal, probably Benjamin and Karel 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? There were artists who had been using this technology for a long time. The Canadian, Bob Adrian had done slow-scan projects. There was this Amerocam artist in The Netherlands,  Tom Klinkowstein. Bernd Kracke also utilized slow-scan.  It wasn’t the main artistic medium but there were artists who were working with it, and we knew about them. Everybody was 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 huge squat in the middle of Milan, and 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? 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 for porno. And Mike was like, “No, no, poet, she’s the poet.” I don’t know, he could always manage to communicate in about every language.
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, because it was impossible to use a picture phone there. We worked a lot in Poland. We spent a lot of time in Warsaw.
We visited a many artists. But they weren’t as interested in the VGTV project in Poland. We even went to TV companies and sat in front of TV guys, and they weren’t interested. Michael Bielický in Prague took us up on the offer. And he was – he had his own program that 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 one in Slovenia and went down to Belgrade.
Budapest, we didn’t have 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, PiazzaVirtuale started and artists were coming to see what was going on, Suzy Mészöly who was the founder of the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art, 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 support to come to Kassel.

Interviewer: What do you remember about Riga?

Kathy Rae Huffman: Riga did their own project with their Riga Television Station. And Mike was completely smitten with Riga and he really liked Baiba Ripa. And we stayed at her place, and she’s a lovely person. But the national TV decided to do this,  in my opinion 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. It was beautiful. I really felt it was a beautiful place too. 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, and 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 up the dust that we had dumped onto the parking lot, but thankfully we could leave.
And then on our way to Poland, we had to drive thru Lithuania to cross into Poland. Mike says, “Oh, we’re going to take a shortcut, let’s go down to Kaliningrad (technically Russia) and we’ll cross the border there and we’ll be closer to Poland and our destination because otherwise, it was really too far. So, we said, “Okay, Mike knows.” So, we got in the car, we started driving. Kaliningrad, is the southernmost part of where you can cross over into Poland from Russia. Anyway, they wouldn’t let us cross because we were no residents. And this was really bad – it was already getting dark. So, we had to turn around and drive another ten hours to get across because our transit visas were going to expire. That was the other thing. We started the car trip from Finland.
I had been invited to a festival there in Finland and so we had taken the car on a ferry boat from Hamburg, over to Finland.  We drove from Helsinki, Finland over to Saint Petersburg., I tried to get us visas for Russia in Finland. We couldn’t do it. 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 settled on transit visas 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 repeat, “transit, transit.” Which was so embarrassing but we managed.  You had to just kind of play the game as Mike taught me you just play the game. And 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. I don’t know if this is going to answer your question, but this is something that I remember. We would be driving on desolate highways (many trucks, not many cars) and getting low on gas, but  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?” (laughs) But we managed to get there.
And then there were really no places to stay. There were only like these workers’ places, really terrible conditions, really terrible. I had never seen anything so terrible since I was in South America years before. There were no women anywhere around, either!  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 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 amazing Soviet monuments which have all since been taken down, kind of big Soviet sculptures 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.”

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 had a mission, we were like missionaries in a way. You know we really believed what we were doing and we really were excited about the project and that’s quite contagious. There’s nothing to us 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 (Eastern Europe) were a bit more suspicious in a way. And I think you know it was also at a time when many Russian artists were making a lot of money selling their works to collectors even though 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 were just going to have a great time.
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 Karel on their stone project. So, 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 keep some energy going. And his part of the project was to keep the piazzettas 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, we 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 during that part of the research phase. I would call that the research and organization phase but you know nobody was a TV professional and so they all needed a bit of energizing and motivation.

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 (we call the time on broadcast  the TV slots). So, I would be sitting there in Kassel with the program outlined and it was a constant telephoning and faxing at that time, constant. So, I was always on the phone to the people for that night’s slot, 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, ,That was quite exhausting.
And remember at that time, you could not make a direct phone call to Russia! You had to schedule calls, and you had to go to an operator and you had to schedule a specific time, even for a fax. 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 back. So, in order for me to tell them what time their time 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?

Interviewer: Ja.

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: It was a very busy crew, and a very young crew.  All the technical team was upstairs in the double level container, and some of them were Eastern German guys and they didn’t speak any English. On the ground floor,  there were two women who were more or less like receptionists. I’m not sure what they did. Ludwig Seyfarth was there. He was our PR guy. We became quite good friends.   I had an assistant and  we did all of the scheduling and blocking out of the time slots and were constant checking with the technical team about what else was going to happen, and you know things changed quickly. 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. Everybody knew that it was going to be a bit chaotic.
So, in the beginning   I knew a lot of artists at Documenta at the time, and people were telling me 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 the little PR promo  about how to use a touchpad because there were no touch tone phones in Germany at the time. So, (laughs) in order to play any of the games online you had to get a little device that was a tone generator. I actually bought one of those and I still have it. It was like a little remote.

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 was right in the piazzetta, there in the camp, you know in the parking lot behind the Fridericianum. And you know there was also a bit of opposition from some other groups in Germany who wanted to have their own broadcast projects – like 235 MEDIA, who had built up a whole big stage and they said they were the ones doing interesting content – it was quite – it was quite unfriendly.
And you know the VGTV guys were never very diplomatic with other artists. So, you either played with them or you were nothing. There were also some disputes with the local artists and the local professor. They set up a tent just next to the Piazza virtuale container camp. It wasn’t always easy, even though VGTV had the official 100-day project. They had a lot of competition and a lot of opposition from other artists. Some of the people who made the biggest use of the café was this amazing Chinese artist who was managing the coffee– 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 made a lot of friends. He was extremely friendly. So, like Tony Oursler was coming into the café almost every day and other artists. Tony is a good friend so I remember him specifically, Julia Sher was there, she came in all the time. And you know it was – it became a hub for artists. And you know at the beginning when there was  very little happening during  the broadcasts on television screens to the end when they 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 Astra satellite but there were people I had a contact with in Barcelona who wanted to come in as a rogue piazzetta and I think they did something with – very minor but they were holding some program presentations there, and also in England. There were some artists who wanted to participate, you know the Astra satellite had a footprint and so that defined 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 leaders of the project–, was this German satellite club that got in their caravans and came to Kassel and had a barbecue and they had even made t-shirts and sweatshirts with Piazza virtuale printed on them 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 project and they got hooked. It 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 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, but rewarding. It was also difficult personally because we were camping out, living in different places. If they had rooms free we could stay, if not we had to go away. We could go away for a day or so and 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.
I don’t know if that’s true or not that they had no backup computers (laughs). Every day there were new program options  were introduced that the techno geeks were developing overnight, and they would try them out live, 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 Germany. In Berlin, for example, Pit Schultz was telling me how important the piazzetta in Berlin was and how it helped bring together that community.  I think there was one in Bremen and there was another one in Cologne, they were placed at different places that had the artists.
Salvatore took 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. The artists who were working in the German piazzettas were very ambitious (laughs). So, that said, it  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 then I went to Japan.  I was a guest at the Fujiko Nakaya’s Video Festival. And there I met the Goethe Institute Japan director, a man named Robert Schneider. He started the Goethe Institute in Los Angeles when I was a curator in Long Beach, so I had already met him, It was a kind of a reunion. He knew that I had been living in Austria and that I– and that I’d worked on this big German documenta project.
So, he offered to give me a scholarship to the German language school, the immersive school. 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 Schwaebish Hall –it’s a very rural neighborhood in a very conservative place. And I had a roommate who was sent there by Caritas from Zagreb and she spoke no English. So, you know I got some kickstart learning German there. Although I didn’t have any way to practice because my friend in Austria refused to have any practice sessions. Anyway, I just continued and made some programs for Ars Electronica, I did some festival curating, I did quite a lot of things.

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 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 in Paris, and it also went to the IVAM in Valencia. So, you know I had done big major projects of that category. And some of those I would call much more stressful (laughs) than Piazza virtuale because I wasn’t in charge of the venues, 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 boyfriend of mine who was coming to stay in Kassel and he was not a very happy person, 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 amazing, and being that close to the Documenta gave me a lot of insight into how these huge events are managed.
How did it affect me? I stayed in good contact with the guys. I’m sure you know I worked with Karel for years afterwards. We did a big online exhibition project called the ‘VRML Art.’ It started off with that name and then we changed it to ’Web 3D Art.’ We did a lot of traveling for this. It was a big online portal that was active for several years, but when  I took a job in Manchester at Cornerhouse, 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. 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 Piazza virtuale. I didn’t make this a big issue in my profile. I was proud of it, I liked doing it and I met a lot of Russian artists. A couple of years afterwards I started to work a bit more with Suzy 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 we met again.
So, I felt like I had set up that grant that she gave the project. I had moved on my own by this time in 1993, when  I started working with Suzy and she put me in charge of the annual SCCA exhibition in Moscow. So, I spent a lot of time there, I 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 been friends with them and they had friends with us and, I liked the whole business of this reciprocation a lot. It expanded my network a lot, 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 resources, I mean they had a grant but they used every cent of it. They managed to make this extreme work with almost nothing. And even though they were very dominant, they needed to be in order to get it to actually function because they were dealing with a lot of very young tech guys in their early 20s (or maybe even younger).
So, they gave a lot of creative freedom to all of the artists working. I have to hand it to them, that they did not impose their own wishes and 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.  I’m really happy that there will be some 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 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.