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Q&A with Miguel de Baca

Associate Professor of Art History Miguel de Baca has jumped into research for his newest book project: an examination of video art. In a recent photo shoot for the College, de Baca’s vivacious personality was on full display. But on his scholarly side, de Baca, who earned his PhD in American studies from Harvard University, is examining early video work as an activist art form.

SPECTRUM: What prompted you to write a book about video art? Why do you think it is worth studying?

DE BACA: I began to think about video art after writing my first book, Memory Work: Anne Truitt and Sculpture (University of California Press, 2015). There, I discuss the 1960s work of an important American artist named Anne Truitt, whose work deploys the theme of memory in ways that might have been unexpected when compared to similar artists from the period.

As I continued to think about ways artists use memory in their work, I was increasingly interested in video as a means for “recording,” which, in a way, is a means of preserving some past moment to be seen or replayed in the future.

Presently, I’m studying video as an experimental art medium that allowed artists a lot of freedom for envisioning different activist identities for themselves.

SPECTRUM: In a presentation you recently gave on this project, you said that the video art you are focusing on is less about its aesthetic qualities and more about its sociological aspect. So what is it exactly that makes this video “art”?

DE BACA: That is a great question! These are all definitely artworks. However, I think we need to understand that after the 1960s, art is much more diverse than the usual painting, sculpture, photography, prints, etc. For some artists, the conceptual rigor of a given project took precedence over its aesthetics. A lot of the early video works I have been examining seem “rough,” so to speak, but that can be attributable to the fact that these artists were also just learning how to create visual effects electronically. Their stuff was really new, really raw.

SPECTRUM: Do you feel that this project is more along the lines of American studies than art history?

DE BACA: For me, the boundaries between American studies and American art history don’t really exist. When I start a project, I begin with a rigorously close observation of the actual artwork in terms of the details of its form – that is something I would characterize as unstintingly art-historical. But when I’m doing interpretive analysis, I’m bringing in history, politics, economics, etc., and that seems interdisciplinary in a way that American studies scholars might find appealing. But, like I said, for me it’s all just “research.”

SPECTRUM: Is this project unusual or has research been done along these lines before?

DE BACA: In 2005, I was the TA for a course on video art. Back then we had to use a course pack because there was no single textbook on video. Nowadays, there are many more resources, and it seems like the last four or five years have been booming for video art as the subject of scholarship. It can seem intimidating to find one’s voice among a plethora of others. But I hope to raise the new contention that video is an activist medium —that is the theoretical spine of my project in formation, and I’m excited to see how things go from there.

SPECTRUM: What are the best or worst parts of researching for a project like this?

DE BACA: Time: plain and simple. Watching video art can be an exercise in endurance. Some of these early videos are really far out, ranging from twenty minutes to more in length and not a whole lot apparently going on. And yet, I have to sit very patiently and watch the whole thing so that I can be sure to represent the artwork responsibly in my analysis. Other videos are really visually and aurally complex, so I have to keep rewinding and replaying to capture everything. It’s very time consuming.

SPECTRUM: Have you involved students in this project?

DE BACA: I had a wonderful Richter Scholar student named Chris Way ’14. Chris and I worked on a preliminary version of this project, and it was great to hear his thoughts. I think some of our work together influenced his senior thesis in politics several years later. Current senior Hanna Chang ’17 has been with me to the video archives and provided extremely valuable input as well.

SPECTRUM: Do you expect any of the research for this book to transfer over to your classes?

DE BACA: Oh, absolutely! I want to work on the issues at the cutting edge of my field so that I am able to train students to think in intellectually agile ways. It’s not about “video” per se (although I do teach plenty of courses incorporating video), but rather the skill of what it takes to manage ideas about technology and media and their place in history. There’s always a question behind the question.

-Sophie Mucciaccio ’19