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Database | Narrative | Archive

Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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While principally known for her book, Dictée, Theresa Cha’s archive reveals a remarkably prolific “intermedia” practice for her thirty-three years. As Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) Director Lawrence R. Rinder has written, “Theresa Cha’s art stands out, even among the work of the most accomplished and celebrated of her contemporaries, for its formal and material inventiveness, theoretical rigor, and poetic depth.

Her practice encompassed hand-crafted artist’s books, concrete poetry, mail art, several ritualistic performances and their rudimentary documentation on audio and video, as well as five completed videos (restored by Electronic Arts Intermix), one three-screen video installation entitled Passages Paysages (1978), which was recently exhibited in the large traveling women’s group exhibition, Wack!, and finally, a Super 8mm film and video installation created in 1980 entitled, Exilée. Her 16mm film, White Dust from Mongolia, commenced in 1980, was never completed.

Former BAM digital director and curator, Richard Rinehart has remarked that Cha’s archive proposes unique challenges, as her conceptual approach to intermedia art-making is enriched by contextualization and inter-relations between objects to be productively drawn. The Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Collection was originally included as part of the University of California’s “Conceptual and Intermedia Online Project” (CIAO) in 1997 involving four museums of which Berkeley Art Museum was one. Simultaneous to this, several museums developed “Museums and the Online Archive of California” (MOAC) to further facilitate the integration of museum collections into the California statewide Online Archive of California, or OAC, which now provides public access to detailed descriptions of primary resource collections maintained by more than 200 contributing institutions including libraries, special collections, archives, historical societies, and museums throughout California and collections maintained by the ten University of California (UC) campuses. The Cha (Theresa H.K.) Collection is now one of five of BAM's collections (there are fifteen physical collections at the Museum) that are available through the Online Archives of California's main site.

In its inception, CIAO endeavoured to explore issues of collection access in relation to conceptual and intermedia arts, notably, performance art, mail art, artists books, installations and video installations, earthworks and media arts-based forms, such as (at the time) CD-Roms and web-based works. Rinehart (who instigated CIAO from Berkeley) has commented concerning Theresa Cha’s archive, that the interrelationship between the various components within such a conceptual art archive is of key significance.
Conceptual art, while a subject of concern to contemporary art studies, presents problems of access….collections access is impeded by the ephemeral, documentary, and multi-part, mixed-media nature of many conceptual art works….Works of this nature require a context in order to be understood; they require complex relationships between objects and groups to be  made explicit in both human terms and in machine formats for purposes of navigation.
Since the time of Rinehart’s original writing in 1999, the Cha Collection now holds seventy-nine folder items in its online collection, many of them comprised of multiple images. (Untitled, Artist’s Book [1977} is for instance, composed of fifty-four single images.) These are navigable in alphabetical order with visual icons, or else catalogued through nine titled genres:

Artist’s Books
Concrete Poetry
Mail Art
Performance Art
Sound Recordings
Artists’s Statements
Video Art

A focus on the intermedia dimensions of her work bring into play the rich layer and overlaps of genres, themes, styles, and points of reference for her oeuvre, and also integrates the various conjunctures at which she found herself throughout her creative phases – Berkeley in the 1970s, Paris for a year of film studies in 1976, South Korea for the initial filming of White Dust in 1980, and then New York. The archival, filmic and other fragments (photographs, notebooks) that are related to White Dust from Mongolia, can be accessed in reproduction or still images and can be critically considered in relation to the rest of her oeuvre, including Dictée. Apprehending these seemingly liminal elements of her practice deepen our comprehension of the complexity of her practice and the conceptual dimensions of her works, and contribute to intermedia histories more generally. Yet, because of the formalities of archival classification, many contextualizing – biographical, personal and theoretical – elements are not reproduced and not accessible within the online Collection itself, which is constructed from and has favoured individual still images and reproductions of objects and photographic representations. What the online website does offer is an opportunity to view numerous paper documents and ephemera, as well as Cha's fragile artist’s books in high-quality reproduction, which might otherwise be overlooked or difficult to view and access otherwise.

The tensions between archival protocols and conventions (appraisal, classification and naming), specialized and non-specialized viewer access, precipitously and productively encounter each other in online archives. In the Cha Collection, the ontologies of conceptual art and intermedia as seen in her oeuvre – their ephemeral, multi-part, mixed media qualities – encounter the ontological specificities of the digital, and the pragmatic economies of artworld economies of distribution.
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