Christopher Eamon has curated exhibitions in museums and galleries including the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin; MoMA PS1; the Institute of Contemporary Art, London; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and many others. He is the former curator of the distinguished Pamela and Richard Kramlich Collection of Media Art, former executive director of the New Art Trust, and former assistant curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In this interview we discussed the career paths of video artists, and the economy of time-based art.
Our readers are mainly emerging filmmakers who make short films with the aim to enter the film industry. These people want to follow the career path of a filmmaker. We know very little about how a time-based media artist can be discovered, what the forums or platforms are where they can show their videos or films. Can you tell us about some career examples with their significant stages?
In general my rule of thumb would be that there are no rules of thumb. Still, almost everyone in the art world has some notion about how to make a breakthrough. Although many of these ideas are not borne out in reality, and perhaps represent only received notions of a path to success, it is possible to trace a basic trajectory based on visibility. An understanding of who sees what and where is essential because all visual artists are challenged to find their paths as working artists from the outset as they vastly outnumber much-needed exhibition opportunities that grassroots organisations such as artist-run centers, emerging galleries and other non-profits have traditionally provided. In order to get your work shown in a gallery or an institutional/museum setting it has to be seen by the curators or a combination of curator-artists who programme content at those venues. This more or less forms a continuous matrix of artists, artist-teachers, curator-artists and full-time institutional curators which can be a handicap to film artists (filmmakers, media makers) who haven’t in a sense ‘grown up’ in this milieu.
Yet also, time-based or video artists have been to greater or lesser degrees breaking with convention since the beginning. Many pioneering video artists, for instance, were eager to have their work circumvent traditional hierarchies of selection and exhibition by envisioning their work as an artistic form of mass media. Many early video exhibitions and catalogues were characterised as television art in the 70s for example. Today, the Internet promises to realise the potential of the once-radical notion of televised art, if it hasn’t actually done so for most media artists today. The most prominent example of an artist being brought into a gallery, contemporary art center or museum context to date has to be that of Ryan Trecartin who was putting his work on YouTube when he was still a student at Rhode Island School of Design in the 2000s. A lot has been made of his discovery on Youtube by the art world. It seems unlikely to me that YouTube was the only or even the main mode of transmission or conveyance for this art based on what I said above and also the fact that the RISD is an art college in the vicinity of New York. Still this is more and more a means of transmission, and media art is completely made for this as a way to get your work out there.
Many short films I watch at film festivals often experiment with the classic forms of narration and visual language. They confront entertainment-based cinema (often embedding themselves in European cinema traditions), while being cinematic is still a kind of request by festivals. When I see audiovisual works in museums, the concept or the object of investigation seems more important than being cinematic. Do you recognise any evolution in the history of video art in this question?
I can’t say I see an evolution as much as I see cycles of emphases. In the late 90s and 2000s there seemed to be a groundswell of work relating to this, but that perception may have been the result of curatorial selection and framing. I suspect this perception may have a material basis as well, as during this time video projectors became so good at projecting relative to the past that artists wanting to approach the classical cinema as material using its own language were suddenly more able to do so. The fact is that, at that time, there was also a great deal of 70s performance-based work being made and also very conceptual work as there is now.
Are there any gates between the film industry and the art industry? Can someone identify themselves as a video artist but as a film director as well?
That’s a very good question. In fact there is still a big disconnection between these two terrains. Many in the visual arts who remain in the dark vis à vis film history and the importance of the many recent media arts (i.e. visual artists working primarily with film and video) have had their films invited to, and shown at, film festivals. Nearly all of these were already well established as mid-career artists. This suggests to me that the artists have to reach a certain level of publicity or stature for them to be recognized by the film world. The art world on the other hand seems to have blinders on with respect to other disciplines. Other forms of art, like dance and film, can become the topic or trend for five or so years, but when it comes to seeing work by actual choreographers and filmmakers in the art context, there seems to be a barrier to entry. I think this too can be linked to economics of the arts and the amount of focus required to really know a field really well. The latter seems to preclude knowing the other field in more than a superficial way. I am generalising of course, but there is sad truth to this and its something I myself like to work against or bridge in my writing and curating, but it’s difficult. You can stretch both areas too thinly and end up with a very thin soup of an exhibition.
Filmmaking can be very expensive. Even if the cost of creating the artwork does not matter, what else defines the value of media art?
The subject of value is perpetually controversial probably because, as a society, we are accustomed to assuming the value of art always transcends worldly economics and its rules of supply-and-demand. Of course, a society’s cultural production ought to be valued in, and for, itself. Yet there’s a sort of real politics underlying the entire system of the visual arts that continues to go unacknowledged, at least in nations that rely primarily on the private sector and private philanthropy for support. Historically, time-based media have been understood as rejecting the economies of exhibition by virtue of its historic omission from trade in art objects due to its fundamental immateriality. During the greater part of media art history, film and video art was indeed collected for its cultural value alone (when collected at all) because it was presumed non-discrete in the world and immaterial unlike “real” art that exists as independent and discrete objects. The presumed infinite replicability of media art was never really true when it was analogue. While today’s digital formats are more perfectly replicable, scarcity is built into the system through the legalistic convention of limited editions, which amounts to a kind of agreement between buyers and sellers. So the market for works of media art shares a conceptual grounding with the Law, which is also a kind of agreement between individuals and society. It is interesting to me that this is an effect of its immateriality, which is why its history is so intertwined with conceptual art since the 1960s. Today works of conceptual art made by many the movement’s founding artists, such as Lawrence Wiener and Robert Barry, are sold the same way as film and video art.
When speaking of the economics of exhibition, film and video art proposes, creates and lends itself to contradiction. While its replicability and immateriality made it unmarketable and simultaneously the perfect art form for mass distribution, one would think its predisposition to be viewed simultaneously by many make it easier to exhibit and therefore able to accrue cultural value outside of the market. I would argue that the exhibition of film/video art is more, not less, subject to the whims of the art market in the following ways: examine the number of film and video exhibitions at your favorite contemporary art center or museum each year and also observe the percentage of media works from the institution’s permanent collection on display on a rotating basis. The number will be very small. Even though media art doesn’t take up a great deal of space in storage, many works, especially those given the required amount of ambulatory space for viewers, generally take up a great deal more exhibition space today than other works of art. Furthermore, this bricks-and-mortar fact has to be supported financially in some way through fundraising. A kind of feedback mechanism ensues as a result, probably impacting its culture to a greater extent than we think. As the visibility of media art is diminished, having taken up so much real estate in the museum, its publicity is diminished and so is its market value. Lack of value limits its sexiness to potential donors and therefore fundraisers raise less money for it etc. and the loop continues.
The space of a gallery or a museum offers various new approaches for the viewer’s position. How do you see the connection among the viewer, the artwork and the artist? Is it possible to discover trends in terms of installation or screening techniques?
While I am always noticing trends in presentational terms, most of them are the result of changes in the consumer and pro-sumer electronics market. Because media art is so heavily reliant upon electronic devices both in its production and its presentation, the aesthetics of film and video art are always changing. This kind of work is probably the most subject to trends outside artistic intent than any art form in history. On top of this, there are questions about what exactly constitutes the work of media art. Is it the image as projected, or does the data as stored comprise the work? Where is the work of media art itself located? Is the work only a work of art, for instance, at the moment when the data is converted into an image in which case isn’t it then a form of a performance? An answer is hard to pin down. One could provisionally offer a notion that the work is comprised both by the data and a set of instructions for that data detailing how the data is to be displayed such as in what type and size of room is needed (other qualities may be also stipulated) and on which types of equipment. If we accept the latter as terms for a provisional definition of the artwork, then the space and its qualities are also part of the work. And since qualities are not things in and of themselves, consciousnesses capable of perceiving those qualities are also required, which means that viewers are also part of the work too. So the work of media art is by this definition work that exists at the moment when data of some kind (to be changed over time future innovations) converted into an image reflecting off of a plane or planes in space with certain qualities as perceived by one or more viewers! Now we get to the conclusion maybe that this relationship, between viewer-artwork-artist, is always to greater or lesser degree, the subject, if not the very medium of, a work of media art. So I guess my answer is that all possible configurations are being entertained at any given time.
You’d been the curator of one of the largest private collections of Media Art. What were your main principles when putting together a collection? What is the difference in thinking in a collection or curating a specific exhibition?
I think the two roles are quite distinct. I’d break the question down even further by comparing the role of a curator of a private collection to the role of a collections curator at a public institution. For both, its important to have an overall view of the collection, its strengths, its focuses and for better or worse, its weaknesses. For both, it’s important to have a general sense of what can or ought to be done with the collection into the future. For instance, when it comes to contemporary art, public institutions often aim to capture the state of contemporary art at a given moment. They usually need to cover all media and follow where the art of the times leads them. And this can be national or international in scope, but the overall aim is quite broad. The private collection is an altogether different animal. Its first and foremost driven by the owner’s stated interests, and is driven ultimately by personal desires, the collector’s connection with any particular work. Given this, the focus or scope of the project can be anything. It can be based on a medium, a region, thematic content or the gender of the artists collected. Aim or scope of the collection can change at any time and become radically different in intention. I’d say that in general, terms both want to find the key artists and works of the era early on, or as early as comfortable. For the museum, this is particularly important because as the artists begins to become established, yes, he or her impact on society or other artists becomes more clear as the time goes on, but then the prices also usually increase in that instance and you could be priced out of that particular artist’s market.
With the private collection, and what I have always tried to do, is take a look at the givens, where the collectors passions lie, and more or less the predetermined scope of the collection. After, with that in mind, the curatorial input might be to develop some artists more in depth, perhaps diversify the works by that artists into different media. One might for example look at an odd, seemingly out of place work, like a single film print of a rare film and begin to develop a sub-collection of related rarities, venturing into the film artist’s photography for example, or even venture into collecting related ephemera if this seems important to do. An example of what I mean by importance could be, for example, if there are no known collections of that area of an artists work, it would be a matter of preserving and collecting a heritage, and a form of knowledge actually that may have been or is about to be dispersed. I would like to think that a kernel of such an idea might one day make a significant impact far into the future, perhaps on future scholarship, art history or an alternate understanding of the culture at large at a given point in time. Curating for an institutional collection rarely operates this way as the aim is most often (although certainly not always) to try to capture the art of a particular time and, while not attempting the impossible task of creating a universalist collection, try to cover as much territory as possible, hit the right bases so that within the range of works collected the institution will have something significant to offer in the future when works are no longer available or unaffordable. From my point of view, I’d want to diminish my personal aesthetics as much as possible to allow the widest variety of stakeholders, including the public, an access point for regardless the current tastes or intellectual trends. In other words, one would aim to build into the thinking process a form of, for lack of a better word, objectivity. In aiming for something known to be unachieveable, you at least have in mind that, you as a curator have a responsibility to use the resources and knowledge within the institution to contribute to something bigger than yourself. You have a responsibility to a greater public good, which is to collect, exhibit and preserve—here comes another tainted term—a nation’s patrimony, its cultural heritage.
Curating exhibitions are similarly serious business on the one hand, at least with respect to art historical impact. Exhibitions are from the outset, both a maker of and an integral part of that larger history. On the other hand, curating exhibitions can and should, I think, involve a degree of pleasure too. They can be playful, provocative, scholarly, critical, or even—and this is when it’s most fun—a form of creative expression itself. A great exhibition can be, and I think should aim to be transformational in terms of how the work of an artist is perceived or understood, but I like to think of the process of conceiving and realizing exhibitions as a form of storytelling involving both the mind and the eye. If, in the end, I want to keep looking at my own exhibition over and over again, I feel rewarded.
interview by Zoltan Aprily