Preserving a Living Archive: EAI’s Executive Director Lori Zippay

Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)
Dec 6, 2013 11:24PM

The earliest video art piece in EAI’s collection of 3,500 media works is a 2-minute, black-and-white performance by Nam June Paik, recorded in 1965 on an early form of computer tape. Shot through with jagged black glitches and thick electronic noise, Button Happening captures Paik performing a simple gesture: the artist repeatedly buttons and unbuttons his coat. Leaping forward almost five decades, the most recent addition to EAI’s collection is Eleanor Antin’s 2013 Fragments of a Revolution, a multilayered theatrical narrative produced on high-definition video. Between these two works lie some fifty years of artists’ conceptual, political, formal and technical engagements with the moving image.

EAI’s collection allows media art’s current practices to be framed within its rich and eclectic histories: significant early video works by artists such as Bruce Nauman, Joan Jonas, Mike Kelley, Dara Birnbaum, and Martha Rosler are seen in a multigenerational dialogue with new digital works by a young generation of multidisciplinary artists, including Cory Arcangel, Seth Price, Ryan Trecartin, Kalup Linzy, and Jayson Scott Musson (aka Hennessy Youngman). Alongside the collection proper, EAI has also built a parallel media archive of rare materials that hold unique historical, cultural and scholarly value, such as artists’ interviews and exhibition documents.

EAI’s collection is a “living archive”; it is in constant motion, flux and migration. EAI has a dual mission in relation to this significant resource: stewardship and access. Today the ongoing restoration, migration and digitization of works in the collection are among the organization’s most critical activities.

Begun in 1985, EAI’s Preservation Program was one of the first such conservation initiatives for video art. EAI’s preservation efforts have allowed important bodies of early video works to be seen and made available for the first time in many decades, including major projects to conserve and bring to light extraordinary video and film works by artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Joan Jonas, Vito Acconci, Dara Birnbaum, Bruce Nauman, and Lawrence Weiner, to name just a few examples. A recent, ongoing project at EAI has led to the discovery and preservation of a remarkable body of never-before-seen video performances from the 1970s by artist Anthony Ramos, whose politically charged, conceptual videos are among the most distinctive of that era. 

Media art is mutable at its very essence—reproducible, based in technologies that are constantly in flux, and able to be experienced across multiple contexts, iterations and platforms. Variability and fluidity are defining characteristics of media art, from early analogue video to works made from digital source code. (As one of the oldest existing organizations in the U.S. dedicated to the support of video art, EAI’s collection also represents a fascinating archive of media technologies, from obsolete open-reel tapes to obscure digital formats.) The very attributes that make media-based works more accessible—and the transition from an analogue to digital culture—have complex implications for how they are exhibited, circulated and preserved.

At EAI, access and preservation are inextricably linked; access is itself a form of preservation. The artists’ works in the collection circulate within an artistic and cultural framework through the international exhibitions, screenings and acquisitions that are generated through our Distribution Service. Individuals actively engage with the collection through our free onsite Viewing Room, our Public Programs of artists’ talks and screenings, and our extensive online resources and materials, including our Online Catalogue ( and Resource Guide for Exhibiting, Collecting and Preserving Media Art. The ongoing digitization of EAI’s “living archive” ensures long-range preservation and access.

Preservation is a dynamic process, often unfolding in collaboration with the artist across time. Another recent addition to the EAI collection, the film Exchange by artist Charles Atlas, carries a split date: 1978-2013. Atlas created the new film from never-before-seen footage of the dance piece of the same name by the legendary dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, which Atlas shot in 1978. Recently rediscovered by the Merce Cunningham Trust, the footage was edited and the piece completed by Atlas in 2013. With its own creation spanning thirty-five years, Exchange is itself an embodiment of media art’s history in conversation with its present, of analogue in dialogue with the digital—and of a rich artifact of the past gaining vivid new life for the future through the restoration and reanimation of the moving image.

Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)