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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Barbara London, “A Chronology of Video Art in the United States: 1965–1980.” Artforum 9 (September 1980).