John Sanborn, born in 1954, emerged as a leading figure in American video art during the 1970s and 1980s. His career spans experimental video art, MTV music videos, and contemporary digital media art. As a consultant for Apple and Adobe, he played a crucial role in the digital image revolution in California. The monograph John Sanborn. Between Order and Entropy. Works 1976–2022 covers over four decades of his work, exploring themes of sound, music, and cultural identity. Essays by video art experts and recollections from colleagues examine the intersection of mass media and the art world. Sanborn reflects on his diverse career, from museums to Hollywood and Silicon Valley, before returning to the art world. 

In this interview excerpt, art critic and curator Stephen Sarrazin discusses video art with John Sanborn. Sanborn reflects on his life-changing encounter with video art at the Art/Video Confrontation 1974 exhibition in Paris. The discussion unfolds to highlight the pivotal role Nam June Paik played as a mentor and supporter in Sanborn's creative journey, emphasizing their shared humor, anarchy, and Paik's influence on Sanborn's approach to art and media.

Stephen Sarrazin: How did you encounter video art?

John Sanborn: I was seventeen, and I took a job in Paris. I was not a student; I had actually been in university in New York for a year and really was bored. Then, I was offered a position with a film company that was dubbing French films into English and English films into French—the owner of the company asked me if I wanted to go run a Paris office that he was opening, and I said, “Of course.” In Paris, I was very young and very impressionable, and very much in love with everything that French culture offered. Over a short while, I started hearing about this thing called video art, and nobody at the time could tell me what it was. However, there was this show called Art/Video Confrontation 1974 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris that was opening, and I got invited to the party. The title alone will tell you a lot about how video art was perceived at the time. It wasn’t considered art; it was an interloper. But it sounded interesting. I walked in the front door, and within seconds I knew what I would do with the rest of my life. Done. Through the support and kindness of Dany Bloch, Suzanne Pag., and my good friend Don Foresta, I was quickly introduced to video art, the artworks, and the artists. Obviously, it’s rare that one moment can be identified as something of significance that literally changes your life. And as I’ve repeated often, at that moment, I understood that my life had changed, and after having met Nam June Paik,I was able to meet up with him in New York and spend time with him.

S.S.: After Paris you returned to New York, and Paik became a mentor figure. What creative and cultural interests brought the two of you together?

J.S.: I had met Nam June when he was still unknown, but those who knew—they knew. It didn’t seem odd at the time, but there were many days in Paris when Paik, Don Foresta, and I would go out for lunch, because Paik was hanging out at the American Center—and Don impressed on me how important Paik was. Although, at the beginning, it didn’t really dawn on me that this was the godfather of video art and would go on to become such an important figure in my life. But one of the things that connected us, besides humor and anarchy, was that he was not well understood, because of his very thick accent, particularly by the French. For whatever reason, I could understand everything that he said. I actually acted as an interpreter on a lot of occasions in those early days. It was a curious and funny thing, but I think it was this psychic connection that the two of us had that I could understand everything he said, because people were like, “What’s he talking about?” Because his mind was working so fast he would skip over words as he talked. I told him that I was thinking of going back to school to New York. I had been accepted by NYU because I had sent them some videos I’d been working on in Paris—and Paik said, I called him when I got back, and he said,“Mr. Sanborn, when you get back to New York, you call me, 226–5007.” I will remember his phone number forever. I called him when I got back, and he said, “Oh, hello—meet me at the corner of Mercer and Spring Streets.” I thought, “Oh my, the great master needs me.” Well, what he needed me for was to carry two hundred chairs from his loft to The Kitchen, which was then on Broome Street, not that far away, but quite an uncomfortable thing to do. He was doing a screening, to which I was now invited; and I got to meet everybody at The Kitchen. Paik was as much a mentor for me as he was a facilitator. Paik was a great supporter, a true believer. He always called me a genius. He always told me that many other people were jealous of me and that’s why I would get pushback. He was quite the happy character, and there are so many stories about situations we got into or fixes we got out of, or circumstances that seemed dire that suddenly we turned into triumphs. I enjoyed the man very much. And of course, he had a tremendous influence on my work and my approach to television, to video, to art and institutions. One of the things I most loved about him was his complete denial of barriers or borders or barricades. He didn’t believe in partitioning experience. He thought everything was up for grabs, and everything was worth pursuing. And I agree with him.


This interview extract is part of the book John Sanborn. Between Order and Entropy. Works 1976-2022.

John Sanborn – Between Order and Entropy. Works 1976–2022 | Hatje Cantz


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