Superstudio and Videotape
The paper investigated a single U-matic videocassette of Superstudio, currently archived at the Getty Research Institute. It first defined the medium specificity of videotape based on its early history as a transmission medium. Inheriting from its fim predecessor, kinescope recordings, videotape was first introduced to the television stations as a portable storage device in the 1950s. Since the magnetic tape was difficult to produce and expensive, the stations had to reuse the tape multiple times. The tape disciplines the users to erase and rewrite the contents and to physically move it to other stations for transmission. Therefore, the medium specificity of videotape is digital nomadism through rewriting. In the second part, I traced down the life of the videocassette from the Getty Archive to Machi studio at Florence. I found some answers for when, where, how was it made, who made it, where it was displayed, and how it was distributed and archived. Based on the archeological findings of the videotape, I argue that the videocassette of Superstudio fundamentally resituated architecture into disappearance. This research is the first incomplete history of the videotape. It established the videotape as central to the production of Superstudio for the first time.
“These are the objects we'll carry with us: some strange pressed flowers, a few videotapes, some family photos, a drawing on crumpled paper, an enormous banner of grass and reeds interwoven with old pieces of material which once were clothes, a fine suit, a bad book... These will be the objects.”
-Superstudio, “A journey from A to B,” Italy: the New Domestic Landscape. 1972. 247.
In 1972, Superstudio, an architecture collective in Florence, Italy, entered the competition-based exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. The curator of the exhibition, Emilio Ambasz, asked each team to present an audio-visual material that explained their works. Superstudio presented a film, Fundamental Acts: Life, Supersurface, a roughly 10-minute long, originally shot on 35mm. It was the first of the five films planned by Superstudio as a “critical reappraisal of the possibility of life without objects” (Ambasz 240). The second, Ceremony, was made in the following year. The rest was never shot. The two films were converted into a single Sony U-matic videocassette, currently archived at the Getty Research Institutes.
This paper investigates the transition from film to videotape in architecture. I argue that the transition was when Superstudio converted the films to the tape. At this very moment, videotape enters the discipline of architecture in a way different from that during the late 1960s in the United States. In the 60s, avant-garde artists and architects in the U.S. treated videotape as a weapon against corporate and art institutions. Its heritage from film and corporate and institutional affiliations were consciously erased for the sake of the historical narrative against them. In contrast the videotape of Superstudio reveals its close tie with film as well as museums and incorporations. Archeology of the videotape suggests a different story of video art and architecture in the 1960s.
The paper consists of three parts. The first traces the invention of videotape and the transition from film to videotape in the television industry. The early history of videotape defines its medium specificity as rewritability and itinerancy. The second part performs an archeological investigation on the videotape at the Getty. It examines the contexts in which the tape was made, displayed, distributed, and archived. It aims to provide the cultural, economic, and technological exigencies that shaped the introduction of videotape into architecture. The last part analyzes how the medium is the message. I argue that the videotape of Superstudio anticipates digital nomadism. The tape transforms the world of interchangeable types and collections into the world of exclusive formats and disappearance. Videotape enables the digital nomadism. It imagines an itinerant life of human being in a videosphere.
Part 1. Early history of videotape and digital nomadism
In the 1950s, videotape was introduced to television stations as a transmission medium to substitute kinescope recording, a film recording of televised video. Early television cameras did not have a recording mechanism; they could only televise the video live. When it comes to broadcasting to the regions where the live transmission was impossible, the stations shot the live television screen with a 16mm film camera. This process was called tele-recording. These film recordings were called kinescope recordings named after kinescope, a mechanical part of the recording machine. After broadcasting the program live, the kinescope recordings were transported by mail to the distant stations. Then, the films were processed and projected directly to the television cameras. For example, in 1953, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was televised live in England, tele-recorded on a 16mm film, and delivered by Canberra jet bombers of the Royal Air Force to Canada, the United States, and other countries of the Commonwealth. A second copy of the film was made in San Francisco and carried to Sydney for transmission. While the prior coronation of King George VI reached 10,000 audiences, the Queen’s coronation arrived at 200 million (Sorensen “The firm’s got buzz”).
As physical carriers of the programs, kinescope recordings traveled and connected stations. In the mid-1960s, educational television stations were small and local. Due to the limited production resources, they were short of programs to fill their daily broadcast schedules. They started to share kinescope recordings by mailing or shipping them from station to station. One film was circulated for several weeks and broadcasted through different stations at different time. This practice was called “bicycling” (Handman 324). The telephone lines were essential to the development of the practice because it made possible for a television personnel to call the program of bicycling interest while watching the show. By the late 1960s, based on the telephone lines that connected television stations, a “network” of educational television stations emerged, which is Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) today (Museum of Broadcast Communications, “National Educational Television Center”).
When the transcontinental coaxial cable was constructed in 1951, the live transmission from studios in New York City to the West-Coast homes became possible. This change assigned a new role to kinescopes: to control the time shift between the Eastern Time Zone and the Pacific Time Zone. The following quote describes the process of time shifting in NBC during the 1950s.
“When a live program went on the air in the East, it was transmitted to the West Coast via coaxial cable and filmed by two cameras at NBC’s Hollywood studio. The network used a 35mm silent camera with a three-thousand-foot magazine that allowed for thirty-three minutes of continuous filming. A separate 16mm magnetic soundtrack served as the primary audio recording; a 16mm single-system optical- sound camera was used as a video and audio backup. Every half hour, the magazines were removed and the film was unloaded in the darkroom. The 35mm film was messengered to a lab, hastily developed, then rushed back to NBC; the 16mm was developed in house. When West Coast airtime came, the 35mm negative and 16mm fullcoat were synched and threaded, as was the 16mm single-system negative. At airtime, both were run; in case something went wrong with the higher- quality 35mm, engineers could switch to the 16mm backup” (Martin 49).
Since kinescope gained importance as the time shift device, more films were consumed. By 1949, television stations in New York City alone used 250,000 feet of film per week. In 1954, the amount of film consumed in the television networks was more than the sum of all the Hollywood studios. These films were discarded once used. The kinescope prints were sold to Eastman Kodak as “salvage,” at seven cents per pound (49).
The problem of kinescope was its complicated processes of transferring images to different media. First, the electrical signal of video was transferred to a phosphor image, to a film negative, then to a film positive, to an electronic mosaic image, and lastly back to the video wave. Transfers between the electrical, chemical, and optical media increased the chance of distortion. To simplify these complicated processes, Howard Chinn, chief engineer at CBS, suggested to record the video signal on a magnetic tape in 1950. He said “such a scheme might use up a lot of tape, but it might well be worth it, especially since the tape could be erased and re-used almost indefinitely” (51).
Indeed, early videotape recorders consumed a lot of tape. For example, a prototype of Crosby Enterprises in 1955, which rotated the tape 180 inches per second, could record only 8 minutes in a fourteen-inch reel. Later, the Ampex Corporation in California significantly improved the recording efficiency by increasing the number and speed of tape heads. The four heads rotated 14,000 times per minute, recording more video signals on the same tape. Videotape replaced kinescope recording inside and outside of television studios; it was used for the time shifting as well as a physical transmission medium. The National Educational Television and Radio Center (NET), which had relied on the kinescopes, was able to switch to videotapes in 1959, thanks to a Ford Foundation grant. When the center purchased forty-five videotape recorders, it came to be “the world’s first video tape network” (56).
While videotape played the same role of kinescope recording, it created different production practices in television studios. While films were used once and abandoned, a single tape was re-used multiple times. The primary reasons were economic and technological ones; tape was more expensive than film and difficult to produce. In 1958, an hour of tape costed approximately $300, when an hour of kinescope film was around $110 (56). Only when a tape was re-used multiple times, it was cheaper than film. In addition to the economic reason, broadcasters had to use the same tapes multiple times since good-quality tapes were rare. Producing a good two-inch quad tape was difficult in the late 1950s; small dirt on a tape, which was ignorable in audiotapes, appeared as noticeable dropouts on the screen. For example, in April 1957, only three out of a hundred new videotapes produced by 3M were suitable for broadcasting purposes. In these piles of the defective, an easy way to find a good one was to re-use the old tapes that proved its quality. Therefore, keeping the good tapes in its best condition was crucial for the networks. For instance, when NET distributed the videotapes to the affiliated stations, the tapes came with strict guidelines for proper handling, rewinding, stopping, starting, and packaging. At the end of the manual, it said “REMEMBER: THE TAPE YOU SAVE WILL BE BACK AGAIN WITH ANOTHER PROGRAM FROM NET” (58). The medium was more important than the message.
The early history of videotape reveals its anti-archival qualities. First of all, it re-writes. Its reusability disciplines the users to erase and to write over. It rejects any accumulation of time and space. Videotape only remembers its immediate past. In addition, since it was not meant to be a permanent storage medium, its physical body and operating platforms are vulnerable to time. Magnetic tape is more susceptible to the light and heat than film. Furthermore, while film strips reveal images to the human eyes, magnetic tape requires a set of machines to translate the electric data into an image. Each playback machines can read a specific format of data, and dominant formats change quickly. The manufacturers of playback machines produce more efficient formats. In the meantime, the old formats inevitably die out not only because people transfers to the newer formats, but also because the parts of the old playback machines are no longer produced. Once the old machine is broken, the corresponding tapes cannot be read (Quigley). Therefore, videotape demands periodic transfer to the newer format. To transfer is to translate. The original tapes fall into trash, and the copy accede the throne. If the ideology of collection is the originality and the permanence, a collection of videotape is, therefore, absurd.
Instead of being archived, videotape travels. Inheriting from its film predecessor, kinescope recordings, it moves and establishes networks based on social and economic needs. It resists to settle down spatially nor temporally. And it vanishes. The users engage in this decay and renewal, by re-writing, bicycling, and shifting to the newer formats. Such actions reinforce the nature of videotape, and videotape induces those actions. Therefore, videotape disciplines nomadism. Its nomadism is a specific kind, that is, digital. The medium not only demands a set of electronic devices and electric infrastructure, but also stores the data in a form of electric signals. Lastly, its networks are sustainable only in the realm of digital, where telecommunication technologies immediately connect one another. Without the telephone lines that connected television stations, videotapes could not be bicycled, and no television network could be made.
Part 2. Archeology of the videotape of Superstudio
In this part, I dig into the ground in which the videotape was found. This excavation aims to find the order of the videotape: the details of making of the tape as well as the cultural, economic, and technological contingencies which influenced the making of the tape. The videotape at the Getty Archive is a Sony U-matic videocassette of ¾” color tape. It includes the two films, Supersurface and Ceremony. The “date of work” is October 1974. It is ambiguous whether it means either the date of converting, acquisition, or archiving. The tape was transferred from the Long Beach Museum of Art (LBMA) Video Archive to the Getty in 2005, when the Getty acquired the entire collection. However, there was no document directly associated with the tape.
The only document that mentioned the tape was “Chronology of Film and Video Exhibitions at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 1974-1999,” compiled by Kathy Rae Huffman, published by the Getty. In 1974, Huffman was a graduate student in the Museum Studies program at California State University Long Beach. She was interested in video and wrote her graduate thesis on it. Huffman worked as an intern from 1976 to 1977, video coordinator from 1978 to 1979, and curator from 1980 to 1984 in LBMA.
In the document, she briefly noted the exhibition at LBMA from September 29 to October 27, 1974: Studio Mindscapes: Sottsass and Superstudio. She wrote that it was curated by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. It reads “two animated films constructed by the technique of photomontage, purchased on Videotape from Environmental Communications (LA). Supersurface: An alternative Model for Life on Earth, 1972, color, 9:44. Ceremonia, 1973, color, 14:14.” Environmental Communications, a firm of architects, planners, historians, photographers, and artists, who were deeply influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s ideas, published and distributed Catalog of videotape, 35mm color slides, film as early as 1973. If a person wanted a copy of the catalog, he/she would send $3.75 to the firm at 64 Winward Avenue, Venice(Greenberg, Smith, and Teacher second cover). Then, Environmental Communications sent the copy (second cover). It was the main distributor of the films and the tapes of Superstudio in USA (Lang and Menking 176). Its location was about 30 miles away from LBMA. Shipping of the videotape did not cost much since video exhibitions did not involve art shipping. David Ross, Deputy Director and Curator at LBMA from 1974 to 1976, said “artists would put a tape in an envelope and sent it” (Philips 254). For example, Walker Art Center sent three videotapes of Daniel Burden to LBMA in 1975. It used U.S. Mail Registered, and the insurance value of the tapes was only $26 (see fig. 5).
There was no document in the archive to prove the price of the tape. However, if the price was around the valuation of $95 as labeled, the tape was not expensive at all, considering the cost of art video rentals in the 70s. For example, Electronic Arts Intermix, Inc., one of video art distribution organizations, charged $75 for a three day rental of one videocassette to LBMA (see fig. 6).
The exhibition, Sottsass, Superstudio: Mindscapes, started from the Walker Art Center. Mildred Friedman, the editor of Design Quarterly from 1970 to 1991, saw the exhibition, Italy: the New Domestic Landscape. Inspired by the exhibition, Friedman went to Italy and met Adolfo Natalini and Ettore Sottsass Jr. (Fontenot 323). She suggested them a show in the Walker Art Center, and they agreed (323). The exhibition opened at the Walker Art Center in 1973 and traveled to five other museums, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.Y., Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell, Ithaca, N.Y., Long Beach Museum of Art, California, and Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska.
At the time of the exhibition at LBMA, Ross was in his first year of Deputy Director and Curator in LBMA. In 1974, collecting videotape was not an idea. In an interview on the history of LBMA, he said:
“We weren’t thinking about collecting per se. First of all, we had no budget, and we weren’t really making concrete acquisitions with contracts and all the things that today seem so obvious and essential. At this point, we had what I’d call an accretion rather than a collection. Artists would make a tape, then they’d leave a copy for us. Artists would show a tape and wouldn’t ask for it back, so it would just be there on a shelf. I mean, why would they want it back? They can just make another dub. It didn’t have any value. It was just a box that you ran through a machine, and the notion of it having any long-term value was completely alien. The notion of there ever being a market for video was not even imaginable. Who would want to pay for this? How would you own it?” (Philips 257).
His statement reveals how much the notion of video collection was alien in the 1970s. It explains the absence of documents related to the tape of Superstudio. In the same interview, Huffman talked about how the museum started to collect videos. She said:
“But eventually the museum did start officially acquiring works. And of course there was always the request that artists who worked in the studio leave a copy of their tape as part of the collection. It was understood that would be part of the deal”
Her comment shows how the collection was made of copies. Furthermore, it reveals that video art grew inside the museum through a social contract, or “the deal.”
Details on the converting the films of Superstudio to the tape remains unknown. Because the second film of Superstudio, Ceremony, was finished in March 21, 1973 (Lang and Menking 176) and first displayed in the XVth Milan Triennale (Lang) in September 20, 1973, the converting should have been done sometime between March 1973 and September 1974 before the exhibition at LBMA. Adolfo Natalini might have been involved in the converting because he was the member who participated in the exhibition at the Walker Art Center. When I talked Peter Lang about the videotape produced in 1974, he suggested a possibility that Natalini might have not wanted to bring the 16mm films back to the United States. In the email correspondences, he wrote that one of the members of Superstudio knew professional filmmakers in Rome, and might have converted the films there. However, he could not specify the names of the member and the filmmakers.
The process of converting was called telecine. The major obstacle of transferring phosphor images of film to electrical signals of videotape was the difference in the frame rates. The rate of most film cameras is 24 frames per second, and that of television cameras in the United States is 30 frames per second. Projecting a film directly into a television camera caused flickering on television screen because a television frame captured the same film frame multiple times, and the film frame changed in the mid of the television frame (Morse 548).
Synchronization of the different rates is achieved through “stretching” film frames. It is called 3:2 pulldown. It exploits the fact that a single video frame consists of two video fields. When odd field records a certain film frame twice, even field records a different frame twice. Combining the two fields produces in two video frames including three film frames. Telecine introduces a problem of translation. When the two films of Superstudio was converted into a videotape, it not only changed the physical body of the works, but also “stretched” the contents.
Superstudio started making films in 1972 for the exhibition at MoMA because Ambasz encouraged designers to use audio-visual means. In the design program for the participants of the exhibition, he specified that the designers “may disregard the spatial requirements and present his proposal solely by audio-visual means” (Ambasz 142). He also suggested the designers “shall include … possibly as an integral part of it, space for at least one 23-inch television screen ... The television set will be used to present a film depicting the varying patterns of the ceremonies, rituals, and uses of space of the proposed environment” (142). The use of television set suggests the submitted films were not projected, but telecined and played on television screens. Ambasz himself used 12-minute film to present the intentions and premises of the exhibition (“Outline of the Exhibition Structure” 1).
Eight teams produced films for the exhibition. Superstudio presented their first film, Supersurface: An Alternative Model of Life on Earth. It was produced on 35mm color, sound film. It was designed and directed by Superstudio, sponsored by ANIC-Lanerossi produced by Marchi Produzioni Telecinematografiche, and shot in Marchi studios, Florence, Italy.
Marchi was an advertisement firm. Its name, Telecinematografiche, suggests that it used cinematography to produce television advertisements. It was probably because videotape did not provide the video quality as good as film in the 1970s. Besides that, film had a rich history of cinematography and montage as well as various editing machines and techniques by that time. In contrast, videotape was a new medium. Its editing techniques were immature and the editing facilities were not economically accessible. For example, an early editing machine, ECS-1 edit controller, costed $50,000. In Hollywood to use the machine for an hour, one had to pay $400 (Philips 254). Machi might have had either a telecine machine to broadcast their advertisements on television or a contract with other company for telecine. If it did, it is possible for Superstudio to convert their films through Machi. And the cost should have been covered by ANIC Lanerossi.
In the exhibition at MoMA, Superstudio made “a room with walls.” Black felt covered the ceiling and the floor. Chequered laminated plastic covered the walls. Thin luminescent lines marked the corner angles. A second cube, size of six feet wide, was placed on a sixteen-inch high platform diagonally to the room. The three walls of the cube were made of polarized mirror. Out of a little ‘machine,’ various terminals came out. One of them was connected to a TV screen, which showed a three-minute film. Onto the ceiling, climatic events like sunrise, storm, clouds, and night were projected. A soundtrack was played to explain the original concepts of the model. Depends on the projected events, the lighting of the room changed accordingly (Ambasz 242). The fact that the model had a television suggests Superstudio’s consciousness about videotape.
In the book, Superstudio: Life Without Objects, one of the Superstudio members wrote the summary of Fundamental Acts. It reads:
“each film is … in 35mm, if necessary convertible into videocassettes, super 8 or 16mm, in order to facilitate distribution...The films have been planned to be shown on normal or alternative circuits, on TV, exhibitions, schools, etc. The language is purposely plain and “advertising-style”: the films can be considered as propaganda for ideas outside the typical channels of the architectural discipline” (Lang and Menking 176).
The quote explicitly reveals the intention of Superstudio to distribute the films, especially to the public. It shows a clear interest of Superstudio in converting the films and broadcasting them on television.
However, one might claim the importance of the films of Superstudio and disregard the videotape since Superstudio produced their works originally on 35mm films. Their interests in film also might make the importance of videotape in Superstudio doubtful. Gian Piero Franssinelli, one of the members of Superstudio, made his thesis in film in the 1960s (Lang). Cristiano Toraldo di Francia was also deeply interested in film and photography (Lang). If Superstudio was truly interested in videotape, why didn’t they produce their works on videotape in the first place?
It is because of the same reasons for television advertisement companies to make their ads on film. First of all, videotape production facilities were not as available as the dark room in Florence, during the early 1970s (Lang). Sony Portapak, which made non-professionals video production possible, was first only introduced to Florence in the late 1970s. Furthermore, editing videotape was expensive as well as limited. Videotape did not have various techniques of editing that film had developed for more than a hundred years. Montage, an essential technique for Superstudio, was not available in videotape. Therefore, Superstudio had to produce their works on films and then convert them in to videotapes.
Part 3. Videotape and Superstudio: disappearance through re-writing
In this part, I first analyzes how videotape as a nomadic medium supports the concept of Superstudio’s environment in the MoMA exhibition. In their project statement for the exhibition at MoMA, Superstudio anticipated nomadism as the permanent condition of human life. They said:
“Nomadism becomes the permanent condition: the movements of individuals interact, thereby creating continual currents...The diminished possibility of physical movement results in an increase in conceptual activities (communications). The model constitutes the logical selection of these developing tendencies: the elimination of all formal structures, the transfer of all designing activity to the conceptual sphere. In substance, the rejection of production and consumption, the rejection of work, are visualized as an aphysical metaphor: the whole city as a network of energy and communications”
They argued that physical activities and habitations would ultimately transfer to the conceptual sphere. They imagined a city without monuments, where a network of electric energy and communications was ubiquitous. Superstudio imagined nomadism, of which basic needs were satisfied by plugging into the grid. Such form of habitation resonates with the medium specificities of videotape. It is always in movement, operates based on electrical networks and telecommunications technologies. In fact, Superstudio mentioned in “A journey from A to B,” that one of the objects that would be carried in this nomadic life is videotape (Ambasz 247).
Nomadism that videotape engenders is not limited to the physical movement, but resides at the very means of existence, that is, accumulation of time and space. Memory is what keeps an identity fixed. Because videotape erases the memory and re-writes, it destabilizes the identity of the user. Roberto Gargiani’s discussion on “Superstudio’s grave” being a memory machine illuminates the qualities of videotape. He said:
“Il cimitero di Superstudio diventa macchina della memoria, cervello elettronico per l’accumulazione di dati di un’umanita scomparsa; in esso si dissolve ogni forma convenzionale di monument – l’unico del complesso e una copia. Immagini, voci e ogni informazione relative ai defunti sarebbero state immagazzinate nelle strutture disposte lungo la proiezione dell’orbita e rese accessibili da ogni parte del globo grazie a delle <<capsule della memoria>> e al satellite transmmitore che, fluttuante nel cielo, replica le sfere del fantastic cimitero di Chaux ideato da Ledoux."(Gargiani 80)
I argue that videotape is the memory machine and Superstudio’s grave. Videotape exists only as a copy. It contains the images and sounds in a form of electric signal. In the quote, Gargiani was still attached to the idea of accumulation of data. However, the moment when those films were copied to a videotape, the mankind and architecture stages its disappearance since the medium rejects the memory, and the accumulation of time and space. Most architectural forms of representation resists erasure. However, when architecture enters the logic of videotape, itinerant and ephemeral, architecture starts to erase itself.
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Sohun was born in Jeju, Korea. He is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in architectural studies and art history at UCLA.