VIDEONALE. About video art and palm-sized collections (Interview)
“Andrea Éva Györi “Shower 39. Jennifer Gassmann and Tasja Langenbach”.
Although video art emerged already at the end of the sixties, in many countries people are still suspicious about this type of art. Moving images are not favoured by art collectors, either, as they cannot flaunt their DVDs as art works. However, thanks to the efforts of art lovers, creators and curators, this type of art is obstinately ploughing its way to official art institutions, art fairs and festivals. Today we can say that there is hardly any contemporary art exhibition or fair without at least one moving image art work.
VIDEONALE, one of the Europe’s oldest festivals for video art, has been organising this event in Bonn, Germany, and touring with the selected programme around the world for 30 years. It is the only festival of video where the selected works are shown for a period of several weeks in a museums exhibition, presented not in video programmes but as single presentations in special exhibition architecture. This year, the 15th edition of VIDEONALE.15 will be visiting Lithuania during International Contemporary Art Fair ArtVilnius’15 on 25 – 28 June. Artistic director Tasja Langenbach and project manager Jennifer Gassmann will be specially arriving from Germany to present VIDEONALE.15 in Vilnius. During the interview, Tasja Langenbach and Jennifer Gassmann, told the story about how a small festival initiated by students in 1984 has grown into a world-scale event.
(TL: Tasja Langenbach, JG: Jennifer Gassmann)
First of all, could you please introduce yourself? When did you enrol into the VIDEONALE? What has brought you into the world of video art?
TL: My commitment with Videonale began in 2008 when I started working with its former director, Georg Elben, to prepare the 12th edition of the festival. I worked with him as a programme and project manager and stayed with the festival since then. But since we are all working freelance and Videonale only takes place every two years, I also did other projects besides Videonale, most of them also related to moving images. When Georg Elben left the festival in 2012, I took over his position as artistic director, so VIDEONALE.14 was my edition as the festival’s director.
How I came to work with video art? I always was interested in the medium, already when studying art history at the university but contemporary art wasn’t such a big topic there and then. After my studies I went to work at the ZKM-Center for Arts and Media in Karlsruhe for a while which is one of the biggest art centers devoted to contemporary media arts in Germany. After that I started working for an art gallery in Frankfurt with a strong focus on video art, which actually still today is quite rare since video art has a difficult positioning in the gallery market. During my years in the gallery I got my most important insights in all aspects of working with video art, regarding the challenges with exhibiting and selling it, bringing it to art fairs, but also with the constraints artists face during the course of production, postproduction and distribution.
JG: I have started working for the VIDEONALE.14 as project director and director of the festival programme in 2012. For me it has been a great challenge to work for a significant festival like this, but also a good possibility to incorporate my own ideas into the project and realize them.
I studied art history, theory and history of photography and film studies at the University of Zurich, so the moving image had already played a role during my education. Next to my studies I managed a gallery for contemporary art in Zurich, have worked as an art advisor and curated exhibitions but more with a focus on contemporary photography. But if you are dealing with contemporary art you are also dealing with video art. My work for the Videonale gave me the opportunity to get even more involved in this topic.
Can you shortly tell me the history of Videonale. I know that it was launched as a student initiative in 1984 in the German city of Bonn. How did this initiative grow into an influential event in the video art world and even managed to celebrate its 30th anniversary and its 15th edition this year?
TL: When Videonale was founded in 1984, the video as a medium already existed for about 15 years but – at least in Germany – there were no festivals, museums or other institutional platforms where video art was presented to the public in a bigger scale. But not only in Germany, even in Europe there were hardly any festivals or similar platforms for that medium, just one or two in Italy, France and in the Netherlands. So, for the founders of Videonale it was simply a personal necessity to create their own platform if they wanted to know what’s going on in the world of video art making. However, in the region where Bonn is located – the Rhine area with cities like Cologne and Dusseldorf close by – they met a great interest with their activities. Cologne was the center of the German avant-garde at that time with a very active art scene and there also were people like Nam June Paik or Joseph Beuys working as professors at the art academy in Dusseldorf, pushing the video medium with their own artistic activities. In Cologne you also had curators like Wulf Herzogenrath who started as one of the first ones to exhibit film and video in his institution, the Kölnischer Kunstverein. There were also some artist initiatives and even art galleries who supported this new medium and promoted it in different events. Hence, Videonale was founded in a fruitful surrounding which also might be one of the reasons why it was so successful from the beginning and continues its work until today.
But for sure it wasn’t an easy task for the different teams and directors to keep the event on running, there definitely also were long periods where the applause of the artists and audiences were the only payment they received. But of course the situation became much more stable today, especially after Videonale moved to the Kunstmuseum Bonn and has the possibility to show its exhibition in the museums spaces every two years. This move very much helped the festival to change its reputation from a more alternative festival event, only happening for a short period of time, to a more established festival and exhibition event lasting for several weeks.
But still we keep on changing and evolving the festival with each edition, looking for new currents and trends in the contemporary moving image art world or even broader, the time based arts scene. Video still is the most important category for us but today you can’t perceive video art without also paying attention to its wider context within the contemporary arts, especially digital media, music, performance.
Why VIDEONALE is a unique festival and different than others?
TL: Videonale is the only festival where the selected works are shown for a period of several weeks in a museums exhibition, presented not in video programmes but as single presentations in special exhibition architecture. Videonale positions itself somewhere between a festival and a biennial, offering the exhibition but also a wide spectrum of additional events to discuss the situation of video art on a more theoretical level. We also offer a wide range of educational programmes, conducted in cooperation with schools and we try to engage a new public by also being present in the city of Bonn, discovering new spaces which have until then not been used for art. So, our special position is really somewhere between the museums world and the festival world which still today work quite differently.
In 2005 VIDEONALE festival moved to the Kunstmuseum Bonn. Did the space of an official art institution change the festival?
TL: Yes, the move to the Kunstmuseum very much changed Videonale’s profile, not that much as far as the selection of the works is concerned: we still work with a worldwide open call for entries and select the works with the help of an international jury. But the context of the presentation naturally changed completely. The Kunstmuseum Bonn is a modern but classical art museum, with strong focus on modern and contemporary painting, photography as well as sculpture and that’s what the museum’s spaces were designed for. High ceilings, white cube spaces, a lot of day light – not the best conditions for the presentation of video art. But Videonale adapted its concept to the space and started to develop – still under its former director Georg Elben – new exhibition architectures for each edition of the festival, dealing with the question of how one can present moving image art works in a museums space without using the black box system – still today the most common way to show moving images in exhibitions.
Hence, the exhibition architectures which were developed throughout the years are definitely something people pay attention to when visiting our exhibition.
But the possibility to show the selected art works in an exhibition context, of course, also changed the character of the festival. Today we can only show around 45 art works out of up to 200 works presented for the competition before the festival. This is since before the move to the museum the works were shown in several video programs on monitors or as projections but in the exhibition we show each work as a single presentation. This also distinguishes Videonale from other festivals which take place in cinema spaces, for example.
After celebrating such a solid anniversary of 30 years, I can guess that you or your colleagues can tell a lot about changes in video art since 1984. Even more, maybe you can tell what kind of video art survives the time and is interesting for all generations?
TL: This question is really hard to answer since there were so many changes to video art on many different levels since the first works were produced in 1968. Of course, the medium itself changed during the last decades which is also why most people don’t speak about video art any longer but rather moving image art or even more generally, about time-based-arts (but this term also includes sound, music, performance). Artists don’t work with video tapes any longer but with digital files, and with the new technical possibilities the whole process of production and post-production has changed completely. Also the ways of distribution changed; even though there are still few galleries with a strong focus on video, most contemporary art galleries have video works in their programme just because a lot of contemporary artists use it as one of their mediums, besides other media. Video also has a much stronger presence in exhibitions nowadays, you could almost say: no contemporary art exhibition without at least one moving image art work. And of course there’s the internet as a new distribution platform which made video much easier available and also brought with it new styles, for example the amateur style developed on Youtube.
The question what kind of video art survives the time is even harder to answer: it has to be relevant and pioneering, either aesthetically or content-wise, trying out new technical possibilities with the medium or presenting a crucial topic in a new and inspiring way, like for example Dara Birnbaum or Pipilotti Rist with their feminist video works, Marcel Odenbach, Klaus vom Bruch with their political statements, Gary Hill with his researches into body and language, just to name a few.
Can you shortly describe the process of how the video art works are selected for the VIDEONALE main programme? I know that you receive hundreds of works and it takes time to select the best ones.
JG: In the last few years Videonale has managed to increase the number of submissions constantly. The artist submissions worldwide counted 650 for VIDEONALE.11 and achieved its peak with 2.116 submissions for VIDEONALE.14. So it is quite difficult to find the right way of selection for such a huge amount of submitted works.
The presented video works are selected by an international jury (up to 9 people) in general 8 months before the opening takes place. Within one week the jury has to watch all the videos, discuss and select them. A typical jury day includes time to watch a certain amount of videos, select the best ones in order to present them finally to other jury members in the afternoon. For this, every jury member makes a pre-selection which is the only way to handle such a significant number of submissions. At the end every jury member can vote for or against the work, so it is quite a long and intensive selection process. There is a lot of discussion around it.
Have you ever selected some artist from Lithuania or Baltic countries?
JG: No, unfortunately not. But hopefully the festival will get more submissions from Lithuania or Baltic countries for the VIDEONALE.16 next year. You are all very welcome to apply.
VIDEONALE particularly focuses on the promotion of aspiring young artists. Maybe you can name some artists that were participating in VIDEONALE and afterwards became worldwide famous video artists?
TL: There were quite many artists who were presented at Videonale at a very early stage, often having the first public presentations of their art works in Germany, and later became well-known video artists, Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Dara Birnbaum, Ken Feingold, Marcel Odenbach, Lynn Hershman, Klaus vom Bruch, Sadie Benning, among others.
As noticed by journalist Olena Chervonik in one interview, video art seems to be a perfect medium to exist in a virtual space or to be held online. Will video art survive the changes in media?
TL: There will always be moving images, so there will also always be something like video art, we just might no call it video art any longer in the future, but rather “moving image based art works” which better reflects the changing media the art works are produced and distributed on. In my opinion the moving image in all its facets, from TV, cinema, music video to advertisement, youtube videos etc, will become even more important in the future, also as an artistic medium. Therefore it’s even more important that there are still institutions like museums, festivals, art spaces, functioning as a filter but also as a mediator for this art form, selecting the relevant works out of the mass of images available and offering this selection to the public. Even though moving images surround us everywhere in our daily lives, they apply very diverse languages to transmit their content. It therefore can be helpful if they are put in a specific context like an exhibition which makes these languages easier accessible.
Can we say that watching video art works in a specific place, museums or on a big screen brings totally different watching experience than watching it on a small laptop screen?
TL: Yes, it definitely makes a big difference if a moving image work is perceived on a small laptop screen, in a cinema space, a monitor or as an installation in a museum. The institutional context already makes a difference but above all the way of presentation very much influences our relation to the art work. Not only the image quality and colours might be totally different from computer to projection but also the question of the sound – often forgotten – is crucial for the perception. Are headphones or loudspeakers used, normal loudspeakers or 5.1 surround sound, is it a single or a multi-channel-work, presented in a black box or in an open space, is the work shown in a programme together with other works or as a single presentation; all these things very much influence our relation towards the work, the degree of involvement. Most of the artists have a very clear idea about how they want their work to be presented and, not always but often, there are good reasons for this.
Let’s talk about art collecting (that’s what art fairs are about) and especially video art collecting. People are still not used to the idea that you can actually buy and collect video art. Can you say something on this topic?
JG: I think it is just a question of time; it was the same thing with photography. In the last years video art has become an inherent part of the contemporary art world, video works are shown in museums and significant exhibitions worldwide. Then it just has been a matter of time that the moving image has found its way into the art market. More and more galleries have started to include video artists in their programme but also the fact that young artists work with all kind of media has increased the appearance of the moving image in exhibitions, art fairs and art collections immensely.
As a festival for time based media, we have recognized a strong development regarding the commercial side of video art although I have to say that collecting video art is still an elitist way of collecting, not referring to the prices which could be very attractive especially for young collectors but in the way how video art is separated from the idea of materiality and uniqueness of a work. You have to deal with editions, a huge availability through our digital life and with a medium which itself is just worth little money. It is not about banging a nail into the wall, you need technical equipment to show it. At the end there is no Picasso over your sofa but rather a DVD in your drawer. The idea of collecting video art I would say is something for the more advanced collector. It is still hard to sell video art, especially at art fairs because these works need time and suitable surroundings for their reception. But I think galleries and art fairs should work on this.
Some years ago I had a pleasure to participate in the lecture of the famous video art collectors from France, Isabelle and Jean-Conrad Lemaître. They are keeping most of their video art collections in the closet and don’t care much that part of their collection is already on Youtube. They just want to have fun and support artists. Do you think video art is a good catch for art collectors?
JG: Although the prices of significant video works from notable artists are already quite high, collecting timed based media of young contemporary artists could be a good starting point in case you have an access and a relation to that medium. It is always very interesting when you are talking with video art collectors about their motivation. In most of the cases the motor is the passion for this art, just very few collectors see collecting video art as an investment. For the festival programme of VIDEONALE.14 we have started the conversation series “Collecting Video Art” and Jean-Conrad Lemaitre was also one of our participants. It was fascinating to learn how the collector couple handles this medium and operates with it. They deal very freely and naturally with their video art collection without seeing the public access through the digitalization as a problem. They put their DVDs in the closet and take them out to watch the works while sitting on their sofa. That is what I have meant before with “advanced collectors“. The passion for art and the support of artists are the most important factors, collecting is not only about possessing a unique copy.
VIDEONALE is touring a lot with its programme. What countries have you already visited? How dolocal audiences accept the festival?
TL: We had Videonale screenings but also exhibitions in, among others, India, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Taiwan, Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Greece, Scotland, Poland, South Korea, Russia. At the moment we’re also preparing a presentation in Lagos, Nigeria. So, the contexts are very diverse and of course, sometimes there also are critical topics which might not be that openly received in other countries, topics like homosexuality for example or critical political works. But until now we have never had any serious problems or they always could be solved. One thing you notice when presenting video art abroad is that there are still a lot of places where video is not yet accepted as an artistic medium and that hence there are only very rare opportunities to see video art or even study it in art academies. So, for us it’s very important to present our programme abroad, not only to promote our own festival but also to promote the medium itself as an art form in its own right.
Videonale in ArtVilnius’15. Can you shortly introduce the programme and the artists? To what kind of video works/ideas should the visitors pay more attention?
TL: For the call for entries of VIDEONALE.15 we, for the first time, chose a topic to contextualize the competition and with this also the later exhibition. The topic was THE CALL OF THE WILD. With this theme VIDEONALE.15 wanted to address the question to what extent “the Wild”, as used by the arts and cultural history for centuries, can nowadays be productive in the discussion of current social, political and artistic developments. What associations does “the Wild” or “the Wilderness” evoke in us? How do we react when we are presented with the Wild, in the sense of the strange, the unknown, and what do these reactions tell us about our counterparts, but also about ourselves and our environment? Why does this Other fascinate us just as much as it disturbs us?
So, for the programme presented in Vilnius we tried to select works which represent the topic in its diverse aspects. There are works like Mahdi Fleifels XENOS or Shelly Nadashis A HIDDEN QUIET POCKET which reflect the more socio-political dimension of “the Wild”, while Constantin Hartensteins ALPHA and also Marianna Milhorats UNE TERRE FAMILIERE explore more the relationship between humans, techniques and nature and the question whose in control of whom in that network. And then there’re Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz who address the gender issue in their work TOXIC and the (im)possibility to reduce a personal identity to a clear gender identity. But we can only show a selection of eight works out of 38 which were presented in Bonn, so there’s still much more to discover. On the DVD we published together with the catalogue there are at least 25 works presented in full length; so, anybody interested is very welcome to order it from our website.
The last question (very traditional). VIDEONALE future plans.
TL & JG: We keep developing Videonale from edition to edition and are always thinking about new programmes and concepts. For VIDEONALE.14 and 15 we strengthened the festival format again which kind of took a back seat for the first editions after Videonale had moved to the museum. So, for the last two editions we had a very extensive festival programme with lectures, performances, talks, concerts and we also established a new format, the VIDEONALE.PARCOURS. For the Parcours we get in touch with art academies and select works by students to be presented in different institutions in the city of Bonn. The idea of this project not only was to establish a platform for young and upcoming artists but also to bring the festival back into the city, open up new spaces, also non-art-spaces, to the public and therewith make the festival easier accessible for everybody and more grounded in the cities community.