On Horizons
by Norie Sato and Emily Zimmerman, in conversation
volume 6

Norie Sato has been a pivotal force in the Pacific Northwest as an artist and a curator, responsible for supporting the production and exhibition of video art throughout the 1970s and 1980s and placing spaces such as and/or at the forefront of a national dialogue around the then-emerging, experimental forms of media art. 

As an artist Norie Sato has been recognized for her public art through Americans for the Arts Public Art Network Award; as a curator, she was responsible for first bringing artists like Nam June Paik to Seattle, and supporting key early exhibitions of work by Gary Hill, Al Robbins, Peter Campus, Shigeko Kubota, and others. While histories of media art have been well documented for cities such as New York and San Francisco in the context of the United States, such accounts are still needed for cities such as Seattle. This interview took place on October 15, 2021, over Zoom, while the COVID-19 pandemic still conditioned how we could gather. 

Detail of a still from Norie Sato, Horizon, 1971. Digital video. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Emily Zimmerman: To set the stage: when did you arrive in Seattle and the MFA program at the University of Washington? 

Norie Sato: I arrived in 1972. There was an active film community in Seattle before then. The work I made was in video with Bill Ritchie, not in film. At the time, we were really trying to distinguish ourselves from film. There were so many physical characteristics of video that made it so different from film— the resolution of video was so low comparatively, and the two looked so different. The process of making was also different.

When I first arrived at the University, photography was not taught, really. Ron Carraher was unofficially teaching it as well as film but there wasn’t a photography department. When I was in undergraduate school at the University of Michigan, I was majoring in printmaking. And I thought, “Oh, well, I’ll catch up on photography when I go to graduate school. I’ll take some courses in photography and get to learn it then.” But when I got to UW there weren’t any classes in photography, which was a huge surprise and disappointment. 

And then the University hired Paul Berger, and he made photography much more of a department. He was interested in technology and digital media during the transition phase between analog and digital. I think he really built that department. 

EZ: How long was it before you started working with Bill Ritchie at the University of Washington? 

NS: Pretty much immediately. I started with him because he was teaching printmaking and I entered the MFA program in printmaking, not knowing about video really at the time. Bill roped me into video. A lot of artists today like Sherry Markovitz, Carl Chew, and Nancy Mee, we were all part of printmaking. We also became involved in video and made some early experiments in video. We started in the printmaking area, then were drawn into video because Bill was really focusing on it. 

Installation view of Lux Aeterna with Norie Sato, Horizon, 1971. Digital video. Dimensions variable.

EZ: Horizon was made in the University of Washington while you were a graduate student. What were some of the ideas and materials you were working within that piece? 

NS: When I was thinking about that piece, I was also working with the idea of horizons. The horizon line is interesting because it’s the edge between sky and ground. We all know that the horizon is a fiction—there’s no line at the horizon. In many ways we are the horizon, the human is the horizon. We stand on the ground, and we’re in the air. I was working with that idea, not just in video, but also in printmaking. I made a whole series of prints about horizons and horizon lines. 

The way the technology of a cathode ray tube television works is that it’s like an electron gun. It shoots out electrons onto the back of the phosphorescent screen and it scans back and forth, 525 lines 30 frames per second. At any given nanosecond, there’s only one electron, one phosphor that’s actually lit up. The whole idea of the image on the video screen is really an image that’s made in our brains and not on the screen because our eyes and brain can’t perceive movement that fast. It looks like it’s a solid image, but it’s not. 

It made a lot of sense to play with the structure of the cathode ray tube, and this concept of horizon lines. I was using the television screen as the landscape, instead of trying to go out and record images of landscapes because the image is all horizontal lines. I took a video monitor, and a piece of matte board that I had cut two horizontal lines into. I shot a video where you can see the image of the snow on the screen coming through those two lines. Snow is important because rather than an orderly video signal such as television stations might do, snow is just random signal, signal that is all around us at any given time. We cannot make it orderly in our brains, either. I loved that it was just always there and invisible to our eyes without the television set. I then made another video where I moved the camera back and forth so the line moves back and forth and I layered those two video images together. 

EZ: It acts as a visualization of the production of the video image that we’re not capable of perceiving. 

NS: We think we know what a horizon line is, but actually there isn’t one and it’s always moving. It’s very abstract as a concept, but I was really interested in playing off the lines 

of the screen and the horizon line, which leads to horizontal lines being very critical as a concept that brought technology and the natural world together. 

EZ: Your piece Dis/Connect from 1993 was also interested in human perception and the natural world. 

NS: I’ve always been interested in how (analog) video technology is always an illusion—it’s happening in our brain. There’s a relationship between that and memory and how our bodies process information. 

With Dis/Connect I was interested in looking at how we take in images when we’re not quite sure where they are coming from. I wanted to create a piece that makes you really have to work to figure out what’s going on. It’s about how we perceive the world. How we think about the world is so much based on how our bodies work, and how our memory works. 

The initial idea for Dis/Connect was really about how people have inhabited spaces and abandoned them. The 1993 video for Dis/Connect, which I no longer have, was a combination of footage of the battlements at Fort Worden, because they were important built elements that were abandoned because technology went beyond what that infrastructure was able to really do. The battlements were made to be surveillance points where they could watch the straits Strait of Juan de Fuca and see if any enemy boats were coming in. But the moment that airplanes became available the battlements were no longer useful. 

And then I went to the Southwest and I was recording Native dwellings in Bandelier National Monument. And they were also structures that were made by humans that were abandoned, but for different reasons. Both of those abandoned spaces still had a sense of human presence there, even though they weren’t used by people anymore. 

I love the word medium, because it seems to me it’s in-between the physical world and the non-physical world. It’s real and not real at the same time. It has a way of recording events and time that have an illusion of being real. I’ve always been interested in the idea of the after-image, when you see something that’s too bright and it leaves an image residue in your eyes, but then it gradually fades. The idea that after-images are analogous to memory is something that I’ve also been really interested in as well. 

Norie Sato, slide of Dis/Connect, 1993. Courtesy of the artist.

The new Dis/Connect (2021) is really much more about memory and time. It thinks about how this is a moment in time. You’re looking at some of the video in an indirect way—looking either at the screen or through a reflection of a screen, and so the whole idea is that there’s a certain illusion to reality, to time, and to memory, and that memory mediates in between. The piece is more about how there is this ongoing passing of time: it recycles, and it progresses forward, but it doesn’t go backwards. 

EZ: The mirrors function to reflect the upper video, but they also seem to hold a really strong metaphoric space. Could you talk about mirrors in your work? 

NS: I’ve used mirrors quite a lot actually. The first use of the phrase “virtual image” refers to the reflection in the mirror, and since then it’s been co-opted as a term for technology. I’m interested in the way mirrors reflect what’s behind you, which you can’t see, and places it in front of you so you can see it. It becomes a way of seeing, but you’re not really seeing the real thing, you’re seeing it in a virtual space, which is the mirror space. It holds a power of perception in a way of seeing that our bodies can’t do by themselves. There is a certain relationship of that to how video images are made and perceived. 

EZ: The piece was originally shown in the context of an exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum? 

NS: It was called Washington Voices in Contemporary Sculpture and it was all about women sculptors. 

EZ: What else was going on around film and video on the University of Washington campus? 

NS: In ’73 there was a big video exhibition, Circuit: A Video Invitational , at the Henry Art Gallery that was curated by 

David Ross, who eventually became director of the Whitney, but in those days I think he was still at the Everson Museum at Syracuse University. He was a very early supporter of video art. In Seattle, there were hardly any stand-alone video exhibitions, and for those of us in graduate school who were interested in video, that exhibition was a really big thing. Then Jan van der Marck was hired by the Henry to be the director after Lamar Harrington. Jan van der Marck came from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. 

He was an early supporter of Christo and he taught contemporary art history. Some of the art department grad students, including Dennis Evans and me, really gravitated to him because we had so few contemporary art resources within the department. Martha Kingsbury was teaching contemporary art, but there wasn’t a lot of heavy emphasis on contemporary work such as conceptual art, Arte Povera, performance, and installation art, and a lot of these contemporary artists didn’t necessarily come to Seattle to show. Jan van der Marck was really a linchpin in terms of bringing Seattle up more towards the contemporary art world, because the Seattle Art Museum was also pretty traditional. 

Anne Focke had organized a conceptual exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, 557,087, that Lucy Lippard curated which was another landmark exhibition for Seattle. Seattle didn’t have a lot of good institutional support in contemporary art. And certainly not in media art. So, in ’74 Anne Focke started and/or with a few other people. 

It was a really exciting place because there was something happening every weekend. I had a show there with Dennis Evans, Bill Ritchie, Carl Chew, and Carolyn Law. Anne was very prescient in a lot of ways because she also had a television program at KCTS that was of art and technology experiments. And she did a lot of video projects at KCTS. 

EZ: Like the public access experimental video that was happening in San Francisco and New York at that time? 

NS: Yes. Some of the stuff that she did at KCTS involved Alan Lande. He was also really instrumental in a lot of the videos that we did. He worked with Anne on the KCTS 9, 

the channel 9 experiments that they did. And he was really also very involved with and/or as well. 

In 1975 Anne Focke received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and it was very unusual for an organization so small and new to get a grant from the NEA, but the NEA was really reaching out at that point, trying to support smaller efforts and things around the country. She organized a show that was called Five Artists and Their Video Work, and it involved Joan Jonas, Shigeko Kubota, Peter Campus, Bill Wegman, and Terry Fox. It was really a seminal exhibition for Seattle and for video in Seattle because it included a national group of artists who were pretty well-known and they came to Seattle. And at that point I got roped into volunteering at and/or for that exhibition and to do a variety of different things—help install, take photographs, whatever was needed. 

It was a lot harder then because nobody had equipment. You could barely rent it. Anne actually bought a Portapak and she also bought some monitors. The volunteer work that I did at and/or transitioned to a more regular job. We had a very active media arts program, which I ran, and it was mostly video. I would invite artists from around the country to come and show their work at and/or. That’s where I first met Nam June for instance. 

EZ: At and/or did you present mostly screenings or installation work? 

NS: Mostly screenings because it was really hard to do installation work, but we did installations too whenever it was appropriate and feasible. Our access to equipment was somewhat limited and our low budgets also made installation work so much more difficult. We also presented performance involving video. And one artist I should mention because he’s a local is Gary Hill. We showed his installation in 1980, and he was living in upstate New York at the time. It was, for us, a very complicated, computer-driven video installation called The Glass Onion. It was a really beautiful piece. 

Promotional image for and/or featuring Norie Sato. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 41291.
Nam June Paik at and/or. Photograph: Norie Sato. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 41295.

EZ: Could you walk us through highlights of the video installations at and/or? 

NS: So, we did a variety of different kinds of video installations. Some of them involved artists such as Mary Lucier and Shigeko Kubota. But we also did performance with artists like John Sturgeon and Jo Harvey Allen. And then we also did a lot of talks and screenings where artists came and did a variety of different showings of their work, but they were here in person. 

But we also did installations with Muntadas and Willoughby Sharp. We brought Steina Vasulka out and she did a talk and a showing of her video work. And the Vasulkas were very instrumental in starting The Kitchen in New York. The art world was so small and the video world was even smaller. So we kept being in touch with each other and trying to do exchanges and also taking advantage of artists who are traveling then to Vancouver or Portland or to the Bay Area. We did that kind of exchange with a lot of the other institutions that were showing video along the West Coast at that time. 

EZ: What were some of those institutions? 

NS: Vancouver, BC, was very active in video then. There was the Vancouver Art Gallery, Western Front, and Video Inn, and a lot of artists who were connected, I would say, much more globally than I was. They brought quite a few people in and Vancouver is so close that we were really able to share the costs. The Portland Northwest Film Study Center was also active. Even though they didn’t do installations per se, they were willing to have artists come and do showings, so we also shared costs with them. 

EZ: I saw in the archives you had an exhibition with Suzanne Lacey and Hans Haacke. How did that come about? 

NS: So, originally when I started working at and/or, I was really focused on the video and media program. But as and/or changed over the years, I ended up taking over the entire exhibition program, which included exhibitions and performances and was not just focused on video, per se. So we did a couple really great shows. One of them was with Suzanne Lacy with mostly photographic work with some of her banners and also with Hans Haacke where we showed his Mobil oil piece. We also did a show of Martin Puryear’s artwork. Martin Puryear made a big yurt in the middle of the space, which was so beautiful. It was so far away from his wooden sculptures that he usually does, but what was great about it was that there were objects inside the yurt that he carved that were very small, personal kinds of pieces rather than his big sculptures. 

Shigeko Kubota at and/or. Photograph: Richard Neal. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 41296.

So, we had some significant exhibitions then in the 1980–81, the last year of and/or’s exhibition program. We went for broke knowing that it was coming to an end and we just thought, “Why not?” I would call up artists that I admired and I’d say, “Hi, I’m calling from Seattle at this small art center and we’re wondering if we could show some part of your work?” And it’s amazing how happy people were and willing to participate and even come out to and/or to do talks in conjunction with their shows. We felt it important that the artists are personally available to the community, and that they spend time here. It was not a group of collectors who were hanging out; it’s really the artists who were coming to these events and hardly any collectors ever came to and/or. There was a huge network of artist-run organizations and it was well known. I think artists were willing to participate in that sort of low budget sort of alternative scenario from the museum world. Museums hardly ever showed video in those days. It was really only through the alternative organizations and these artist-run spaces where video and performance really had a life. And that life, as it turns out now, is being done by the museums as well. So I think that we’ve had an influence, but it took really a long time for it to happen. We were in touch with curators too. Barbara London at MoMA and John Hanhardt at the Whitney came out to talk about video. Another curator that I think fondly on is Germano Celant, who also came. He was an Italian curator involved in the Arte Povera movement. When I think back on it and think about who came through and/or in those days, I’m actually kind of amazed. 

EZ: How long were you organizing the media program at and/or? 

Muntadas, “Personal/Public,” November 1980. Photograph: Norie Sato. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 41293.
Luminance Zones installed at the Henry Art Gallery as part of the exhibition 15th Avenue Studio II: The Mechanics of Contemplation in 1987.

NS: From probably late ’75 until ’81. Quite a long time. We did so many programs, trying for at least one per month. 

Because equipment made it hard for artists to produce video, we started a video editing facility at and/or that helped artists be able to edit video. If you can imagine, we couldn’t edit video because the editing equipment was so expensive. It was $15,000 to buy a setup. We received a grant from the King County Arts Commission when it wasn’t 4Culture yet. It wasn’t a huge, fantastic state of the art facility, but we were able to edit video tapes in there at least, and artists were able to make video work there. 

EZ: In 1980, Artforum listed and/or as one of the institutions that “deeply influenced the development of video history.”1 I wonder if there was a sense that you were making an important and unique contribution to the development of video art at the time though your work at and/or? 

NS: I knew we were trying to promote video art as best we could. In those days, the national community was relatively small, and we were aware that we were an important outpost here in the Northwest. However, we were not trying to make history, we were just trying to have video art be a more prominent presence in the contemporary art world, wherever it happened. And I was trying to promote the video being done here in the Northwest through various showings in other parts of the country as well. There was a relatively good amount of collaboration and connection, though the community was pretty small. 

Some of the places I was asked to present on Seattle video art at included Vancouver, Anthology Film Archives, SUNY Buffalo, Chicago, and a contemporary art center in New Orleans. Artists like Alan Lande, Bill Ritchie, Carl Chew, Karen Helmerson, and Sherry Markovitz. 

EZ: Then in 1979 and 1981, you received NEA awards and I’m curious about what impact those awards had. 

NS: Well, I felt like they were recognizing video art in the Northwest. That was really great. And it allowed me to buy studio time in media facilities at the University to make tapes broadcast-quality. There was this huge separation between what we were able to do in three quarter-inch cassette technology and so-called broadcast, which was this big two-inch video reel-to-reel thing. None of the broadcasters would show work that was made with the lower end technology. What it allowed me to do was translate some of my work into that higher end technology. I made a piece called Reflections. I was able to translate the Horizon piece that we made in ’74 into two-inch tape and make it higher resolution. The grant in ’81 actually helped fund a couple of my video installation works as well. That was really instrumental. I did some installations in Rainier Square in the lobby and did some shows at Linda Farris Gallery. She was my dealer and she was very receptive to having me build video installations in the gallery. And it helped me prepare for my exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, Luminance Zones. 

The Henry Art Gallery had an exhibition called Breaking Down the Boundaries: Artists and Museums in 1987 with Gary Hill and Alan Lande, and I was in it with a piece called Luminance Zones. It was a series of experiments in video and installation. They turned over the gallery to us to develop new work. My work was in the smaller galleries with skylights. The hardest part of my piece was that I put in a false ceiling around the skylights. The piece was about the speed of man-made light, versus the natural light from the skylights. Glass transmits light along its edges, especially when it’s frosted, and so the glass had some hand etching on it. 

By the late 1980s I was doing a combination of video installation and public art. Around that time I did a public video installation for Rainier Square. I did do another permanent installation called Duel for the US Bank Center. I was trying to push the video into public art, and it was too hard technically. I was doing huge works on paper based on the theory of video, and I did some sculptural pieces that incorporated glass and layers and the idea of trying to focus on perception, rewarding close looking. 

EZ: Thank you, Norie, for the important work that you’ve done, and continue to do, to support the arts in Seattle. 

Artist Judy Chicago in the foreground with Norie Sato in the background. During the installation of Chicago’s work at and/or in 1976. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 41312.
Exterior of building that housed and/or gallery (1525 10th Ave. Seattle, Wash.). The building, formerly the Oddfellows Hall, is located at the corner of 10th Ave and Pine St. on Capitol Hill. Courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 41311.
  1. Barbara London, “A Chronology of Video Art in the United States: 1965–1980.” Artforum 9 (September 1980).[↩︎]