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The Image in Movement, managing time, the explosion of activities. A conversation with Mercader and Bonet

— Xavi García Puerto / A-DESK about LOOP 2017

This article has been written as part of the collaboration between A*DESK and LOOP Barcelona 2017

To talk about Eugeni Bonet and Antoni Mercader is to talk about two referents in the world of video art, even in relation to the construction of the current point of view within the sector of our territory. Their respective careers span from the beginning of the 70s until today. This year, both are assessors for the program of LOOP, as well as having their own activities (Eugeni Bonet curated the exhibition of Robert Cahen at La Virreina and Antoni Mercader did the documentation of the anthological exhibition at Arts Santa Mònica). So they are “judges and part” of the present edition dedicated to the origins of video art.

XGP: When talking about the presentation, exhibition and showing of video art and image in movement I’m always worried about the fourth dimension: the question of time, within specific shows, as much as in the event globally. In fact, this factor is what differences it with respect to the plastic arts: time, the limitation and management of it. Sometimes we come across programmers or curators who compile a series of works without taking into consideration that they have a specific duration. Each year, LOOP arrives and it is an explosion of events, with many activities that ‘invade’ the city for a limited time. If you were asked for a possible model for a show, that bore in mind and appreciated the management of time and the perspective of those who see it, what itinerary would you propose to cover the avalanche of proposals?

E.B. With LOOP, I have always had a bit of precaution in this aspect, suddenly there is a boom that it is difficult to deal with, but generally it’s what occurs in all festivals // AM: let’s not forget that Loop is principally conceived as a fair, and an effort is made to bring together all the options related to AV and art. I have evidence that they make an effort to construct more operative proposals. In part it is a question that falls upon the user, little by little it becomes an issue of audio-visual ergonomics. // EB: I believe that currently the programmes of mono-channel projects presented don’t function very well and therefore they have tended to show video in a more exhibitive format, with this idea of the continuous loop (even though the two proposals, exhibition and projection programmes, coexist within the activities realised throughout the year, like FLUX, or the new programmes of la Virreina). In cinemas it functions much better, you go to a session, from start to finish, and even if you don’t like it or aren’t interested you go. But in video it doesn’t usually function well, and for this I believe the loop has ended up becoming the norm, continuous exhibition in a space. What is more, video has received attention from the art world that it hasn’t had from film (well, this is difficult to demarcate because everything is video now, everything is digital) but these are practices that haven’t had much space within the circuits of cinema strictly speaking. One has to appreciate that at the beginning of the 80s, even the 90s, video was an element that was more or less rejected in artistic circuits, by museums as much as by galleries, galleries above all, as it was hard to commercialise. It functions better perhaps as distribution, as in the case of film. But when showing video, it has always been counted by piece, not by the minute, and therefore led to different costs. When I did programming of this type, if you had too many short pieces the budget went through the roof, it is a system that has not ended up consolidated.

XGP: It seems that this debate about the presentation of works, and the dichotomy between museum exhibition and distribution in alternative circuits, as in the world of independent cinema has always been present. Do you have any preference about some of these formulas? What do your professional experiences in the past tell us about these routes?

Here in La Virreina they carried out some programmes in the eighties, “La Virreina els dilluns vídeo” (Video Mondays at La Virreina), that were done with monitors and around 300 people came, and later the proposal was extended to Madrid and Zaragoza. Regarding mono-channel video to me that has always seemed the most ideal formula.

Antoni can tell you about his experience with Videografía, a school of video that tried out distribution: in those decades (80s) various experiences of distribution were tried out in Galicia, Madrid // A.M: Videografía was the first distributor of video art. The majority of the works presented in the programmes of the four editions of “Virreina Dilluns vídeo” passed through as representatives of Electronic Arts Intermix de NYC. The same could be said of the screenings in Zaragoza, Toulouse, Madrid, etc. In the documentary exhibition of the Arts Santa Mònica you can see the work done. It wasn’t an intent so much as it was an irrefutable reality. With the appearance of media-libraries in BCN and San Sebastian the activity ended as the collection ended up becoming freely accessible. Just think that even TVE and TV3 broadcast materials supplied by Videografía in their avant-garde cultural programmes like Arsenal or Metrópolis.

E.B.: At that time, what we now know as the market of video art didn’t function. Analogue video was a very volatile thing and the formats and video players were continually changing. So attempts were made with the limited edition, and the supposed destruction of the master copy, but this was rejected in favour of trying out distribution.

XGP: So, you definitely think that the presentation in programmes with limited time frames (and their later, potential, distribution) is a better strategy to make artistic AV more extensively known? The perspective where the works of the authors are presented as an installation, with a more diluted enclosure, within, perhaps the hands of the spectator?

Here we should appreciate that there is the art of the media/library, and then the art that goes directly to the main floors of museums. We have to assess the different sectors, the artists who in the 70s/80s didn’t even want to call themselves artists so much as simply creators, or realisers, are those who have gone to the media-libraries or video-libraries, up until now when there is a return of what is called video art of the gallery, with limited editions, that function differently in mono-channel video or installation. We should also underline here that they now call anything installation, like the exhibition of Cahen, that for me are simply projections. But they are very different fields. In its infancy, video, for technical questions, was barely editable. So instead of doing the editing and montage as we know it today, it was another type of editing with the space, through multiple monitors. And this is why some experiences of sociological, community video had this aspect. It was editing through the multiplication of images and their combination with each other. // XGP: In this way the editing was via the itinerary of the visitor, rather than spectator, in the space // Exactly.

XGP: Perhaps its true that the pieces of the pioneers had another relation with audio-visual editing and a way of taking advantage of the possibilities of the medium that are different from current methods, while at the same time they had perhaps a more ideological relation with their political context. They even assessed how the presence of the visitor, or the walker, ought to be. All this means that perhaps they needed a slower and more deliberate viewing, as well as a more critical analysis, whereas current modes of viewing are more accustomed to a faster and more immediate consumption of the images, we are more accustomed to devour this almost cannibalised editing of the pieces. In this sense, if we think that one of the key points of the edition of this year is “the Archaeology” of video/art, from what perspective are the works from the origins presented and try to insert their points of view with regard to current way(s) of seeing?

A.M.:From the outset I don’t see it as archaeology. For me it is the beginning of a process of creating heritage tied to the idea of those in charge of Loop to want to turn the clock back. The compiling and ordering of documents, their digitilisation and presentation organised in the ASM in the form of an exhibition and on the web are unequivocal. Under a provisional agreement to document, with 35 items, the eruption of Spanish video art, this year Loop shows a desire to create patrimony (archaeology will come later). All this corresponds to the slogan of the exhibition curated by A. Alcoz of (re)viewing, (re)visiting… (Re)reading at the Santa Mònica, and is tied to the edition of texts, the presentation of works and the talks by a significant number of pioneers in the creation of video.

E.B.: This exhibition is very good, all in all, I’d like to put into context something in the exhibition of Cahen which, even though it won’t draw the public that the one there did, is different. In that of the ASM, apart from the piece by Eugenia Balcells and the installation by Carles Pujol, the other pieces are designed to be seen by one or two people, with the monitor and headphones. To visit it any other way is to take away a superficial impression. In fact, it is almost a space for consultation; this is the weak point of the encounter. It is the same as what happened with my exhibition at the MACBA (Screens, Projections, Texts), in which there was a series of programmes, and some sofas, there were two headsets for each monitor…although there was also another room with a calendar of projections. // AM: Currently I’m in an exhibition for no longer than an hour. I perhaps go back several times, but everything suddenly hits a point of saturation. It is a problem I see in the presentation of not just video. At present there are also other cinematographic works of this type. In MACBA they did an exhibition of Soukurov, there was a projection of a film that was four hours long…and there wasn’t even a chair!

b) ASM ©Loop @a-desk.org

XGP: Perhaps when film is talked about, just as in the narrative of film there is the convention of fiction, there is a sort of convention when you are talking about that piece in a referential manner, it’s like presenting “Centauros del Desierto” and putting a fragment, as a plaster, you assume that nobody will watch all of it // EB: it’s like a quotation // XGP: but you want to put it there to indicate something, and if you haven’t seen it it’s your problem because it forms part of the western cultural matrix. I believe that this premise exists as an unsigned agreement amongst museums themselves, which assumes that placing the ‘film product’ within the museum and the spectator “Ah, this is film, I’ll see the film another day, or I’ve already seen it”. Whereas, in video, we still have this sensation, or need, that to enjoy them you have to see them. Basically because not all these creators or artists are within the collective imaginary. In an exhibition that I saw not so long ago, there was also a film by Albert Serra, and only two benches…and clearly, or you see this in the cinema or…

EB: Any way, what my exhibition talked about, regarding the presentation of my own work…obviously, in reality I’ve designed my pieces to be seen from the beginning to the end: but on the other hand, the option I had to have a room just for me, where they were in a loop, also made me think that when it comes down to it, almost all my pieces are thought of in little bits, so that in the end I’m not bothered about whether the spectator wants to see all of it or with a fragment has enough. Whereas instead it gave me the opportunity to have it on show for three months instead of just a session for one day. This is a model that I believe functions better, the combination of installations in the space and then a calendar with presentations and projections. In the exhibition of Cahen there are also pieces on permanent display and later the programmes.

XGP: Do you not think that sometimes working as a curator and editing them is also creating something new? Creating a narrative through the work of others?

E.B.: No, no I don’t think so. I’m simply organising, programming, as any other programmer does, relating some pieces with others, but in no way do I try to impose my perspective on the work of another.

XGP: Talking about perspectives: in the way of presenting these authors, let’s say of reference, how should it be assessed that perhaps the contemporary way of encountering (and looking) is not the same as that of the moment in which the piece was created?

EB: ell, naturally it would be a different way of confronting them…Equally if you go to the museum and see a Juan Gris, you don’t necessarily have to place yourself within the mentality of his era.

XGP: But the viewing time remains the same, a painting doesn’t stop being a painting, but we continually consume images, we are surrounded by multi-screens, I’m not sure if we are prepared for a slow digestion, which is what these pieces call for.

EB: not necessarily, I think… AM: The literature teacher at my high school, when he realised the total lack of visual culture of his students changed the programme of work and opened up a course of talks with slides about the artistic movements of the 19th and 20th century, leaving aside the actual subject itself. This occurred in approximately 1956, when I was studying pre-university in Girona. But now we find ourselves in a similar situation: we don’t have sufficient audio-visual culture and we don’t know what the heck is contemporary art. And even less about what is artistic experimentation versus technologies, in a career that stems from the sixties and seventies to here, and where the system of recording and electronic reproduction of visual and audio images plays an important role in the search for comparable artistic formulations as alternatives to the dominant TV media (from guerrilla TV to video-art).

c) Ant Farm ©Loop.@a-desk.org

XGP: Has this been the principal intention at the time of recuperating the work (and the very existence) of some of the pioneers? Their actuality, the need to know their processes of creation to be able to also (re)look at the present?

Many of the pieces presented at LOOP, beyond the exhibition at the ASM, are not very well known, they are in museums but it is not a type of work that is well known. The point is to present these works that are somewhat forgotten. The Reina Sofía has a considerable collection, but here, MACBA’s collection is pretty poor in this respect. I believe that many of this works will surprise, they aren’t as wrapped in cobwebs as one might think. The work of Ant Farm, that will be represented here by the work of one of its members, Chip Lord, (who works with archetypes at the time of television, the motorcar and North American society) that is a type of montage which is already different from that of the first times of Bruce Nauman, or even the first pieces by Muntadas, where the artist simply placed the camera in motion, moved from one side to another and recorded a specific action. We also find the work of Berlyt Korot, with four screens in relation to the concentration camp of Dachau. At that time she also worked with tapestry and it was a way to weave images with four monitors.

There are some artists we haven’t been able to bring…like Peter Campus, who has done an important exhibition in Paris (in January at the Jeu de Paume), or other artists with commitments they couldn’t avoid. One of them was Jonas Mekas, a very significant figure in relation to what has happened with people from film: around the 80s they didn’t want to know anything about video and currently they are all doing digital.

XGP: This is another recurrent theme of LOOP (not to say a gravitational axis): the encounters and differences between video and the different practices of avant-garde film. The terrains of more experimental film and video art stem from the dimension of art, they have had many connecting vessels, but also spaces of “misunderstanding”. How do you value the efforts and proposals made through LOOP to end up encountering a certain dovetailing of the two practices?

A.M.: I understand that throughout the 15 editions of LOOP work has been down to create a rapprochement between the different conceptions of the practice of video and film in art. For me it’s a question related to attitude, behaviour, the working methodology and the mode of production and not so much the technical condition of the supports employed. What seems to me more relevant, to pass over this trap, is the firm inscription of contemporary art and its experimental character on the part of the artists. One has to avoid any rigid proposal that masks the cultural domination of artistic AV. Paik with his mania for “Big Movies”, Chris Marker with his singular career and many others have shown the way.

E.B.: There are people who still don’t identify with the medium, not the how so much as the medium and don’t want to know anything about the ambit of video. What they want to do is go to film festivals, etc… In the end, all this is a little relative because everything ends up in the same channels where everything is thrown together, as in spaces such as YouTube. Why have Guerin or Albert Serra entered into this world? Why does one find an increasing number of people displaced from the space where they wanted to go? And obviously, apart from the festivals, it’s not as if there are many circuits or possible outlets for this type of film…What I find is that, unlike in other contexts, what is lacking here is more involvement: the museums have never become involved in the programming of regular, continuous projects, in creating a circuit. Perhaps the Xcèntric, but it lasts for only a few months, and this is a nuisance because in the end a regular programme is what makes it possible to create and foster loyalty.