East Coast/West Coast

Nancy Holt
Video, black and white, sound
Duration: 23 minutes, 15 seconds

East Coast/West Coast is a conversation between Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson recalling television talk shows and improvisational theatre. This important example of early video art was recorded in corner of the SoHo studio of artist Joan Jonas, a close friend of both artists. It was recorded by artist Peter Campus using a video camera, equipment at the time that was prohibitively expensive. Having gained access to the camera and playback equipment, Jonas and Campus invited Holt and Smithson to experiment, and the improvised exchange was first screened for artist-friends Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, and Jackie Winsor the evening after it was made.

The video starts with some frowning about how to operate the camera and, as the recording begins, Jonas reassures Holt that if it does not work, they can do it again. What follows is created spontaneously, using the comedy, wit, and collaboration of “improv.” Holt and Smithson perform stereotypical positions of east coast and west coast artists of the late 1960s: Holt assumes the role of an intellectual conceptual artist from New York, while Smithson plays a laid-back Californian, driven by feelings and instinct.

While Holt stresses analytic systematic thinking, Smithson represents the opposite, privileging visceral experience and instinct. He declares: “I never read books; I just go out and look at the clouds,” and asks Holt “Why don't you stop thinking and start feeling?” In the companion catalogue to Smithson’s 2004 retrospective, Cornelia Butler describes: “All hedonism and flake, Smithson plays the liberated half of Holt’s character, the uptight theory bound market savvy conceptualist who tries to convince the artist that wallowing around the desert frontier can only be an economically ignorant waste of time.” As the videotape ends Smithson repeats “I don’t care what other people think” as the screen turns to snow.


Published Writing
Miguel de Baca

Such everyday casualness, when taken with the tone of Holt and Smithson’s subsequent performance, seems to press subtly up against conventional artistic expertise despite that these artists were immersed in an art world in which they were also considered professionals. Smithson, for example, published his indictment of midcentury formalism (and justification of land art), “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” in the influential journal Artforum in September 1968, the same year Holt traveled the mid-Atlantic with him, the gallerist Virginia Dwan, and the Minimalist artist Dan Graham. The following year, Holt showed at Dwan in the group exhibition Language III.2 Jonas, a performance artist, studied with the noted choreographer Trisha Brown in the late 1960s and broke out in 1968 with Mirror Pieces (1968–71). Campus’s work in video, focused by an encounter with Bruce Nauman at the Castelli Gallery in 1969, would quickly set the bar in the field.3 Given the vital moment of these productions, at the end of the 1960s when video was brand new, we need to know more about the stakes of their performed amateurism, its importance to the development of the medium, and its potential messages to the viewer. In each of the examples studied in this essay, artists deployed an affected lack of virtuosity in their early video artworks to confront established hierarchies—in short, to establish video as a radical medium.

Excerpt from "'It’s Making a Little Noise': Video Art, A Radical Mess," published in Panorama, 2019

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See Also

Mono Lake
Robert Smithson
Mono Lake, California, USA