Basel, June 2015: Maxa Zoller is the new curator of this year’s Film Sector at Art Basel. Leading up to her film programme this week, Olga Stefan spoke with the Cairo-based curator and lecturer about the blurred lines between film and video art and their implications on modes of viewing; how film can be commodified; political films and their impact at art fairs; and the spaces of free expression in Cairo.
Olga Stefan: Could you describe for us what this all-encompassing category of "moving image" refers to? What are the differences in form between video art, traditional and experimental film, and other forms of moving image.
Maxa Zoller: The answer is very simple; the term “moving image” refers to all of the above: video, analogue, and digital film art. It is simply an umbrella term that came about in the last decade or so when the production of experimental artists’ films increased dramatically. Up to the 1980s it was still relatively easy to distinguish between the analogue filmmaking tradition, that is 8mm and 16mm film, and video art, the former coming from the avant-garde tradition and cinematic modes of filmmaking including notions like montage and suture, still frames, chemical processes, a critique of the studio system etc. The latter, video art, was associated with TV; it was durational, often performative, it had a live feedback system and was electronic. Sometimes artists would work in both fields, but most of the time they were loyal to a specific form and its respective philosophies, politics, and aesthetics. On top of that digital film opened a whole new chapter in the history of moving image art in the 1990s and 2000s. So not to step on each others’ toes the term “moving image” is used simply as a practical (maybe not very elegant) way to talk about all these forms together.
OS: Yes, moving image does refer to everything, including computer art like gifs and video games. Besides the technical differences you mentioned above, which seem to have dissolved with the advent of digital technologies, can we speak of differences in language that might still preserve certain distinctions between terms? For example between an experimental film shot digitally and video art?
MZ: When it comes to digital media the situation becomes more complicated. It is not that digital technologies have dissolved any technological differences, they have just added another new visual mode or representation. Digital post-production can easily mimic the celluloid and video “look,” but that’s only on the surface. If an artist working with digital technology today claims to be either a video artist or a filmmaker, then this means that she aligns herself with a certain art movement or school, rather than a medium-specific discourse. Since digital technology can easily hide its own conditions and instead assume the aesthetic of other media, it is particularly difficult to be aware of and work with the specificities of the digital form. The concepts of time and materiality are completely different from older moving image media. Also the notion of spectatorship has radically changed. Personally, I think that the aspect of animation is still very much underdeveloped; digital technology is animation!
Katie Armstrong, Once More, Once More, 2011, 4'30''. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Eigen + Art
OS: Your curatorial practice has focused on film and video from marginal geographic areas, but also experimental filmic forms from the 60s until today. Do you see the moving image as an artistic medium with more transformative potential than others?
MZ: I think that film and video art is one of the most exciting art forms of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s entangled in so many experiences, sensitivities, aesthetics, and narratives. The moving image originated in the world of toys, fairs, and the vaudeville theatre! Nobody is afraid to go to the cinema, whereas the sterile atmosphere of the white cube immediately signals a certain social framing. Since moving image culture is so entrenched in everyday life, the potential of transforming the conventional structures, codes, and language of the medium is vaster than say that of painting. As an organism, film and video art has a very high metabolism! One aspect I am trying to explore in the programme “Morph my Mind!” at Art Basel for instance, is that of digital animation, an area with huge potential.
I consider myself lucky to be of that generation that has one foot in classical analogue filmmaking and one in digital media. Witnessing the effect of that shift in the art scene, that is seeing the art of film (projection) move from the cinema tradition to a much wider, open, and also somehow “anything-goes” visual culture, has given me a sense of artistic depth that I see in the work not only by established filmmakers, but also very much in the practices beyond the mainstream. In my capacity as film curator I work hard to capture and present that breadth in my programming. In the programme “Food (in) Chains” the grand nouvelle vague master of filmmaking Angès Varda is shown alongside a short film by the young artists Will Benedict and David Leonard and I am looking forward to discussing with the artists the way in which these films might echo each other.
Will Benedict & David Leonard, Toilets Not Temples, 2014, 25'. Courtesy of the artists and Gió Marconi, Bortolami
OS: This anything-goes culture has also impacted the way we relate to the moving image, while the pervasiveness of images in turn incite the anything-goes culture, a continuous cycle. In the realm of moving image, this has decreased our attention spans, and artists maybe respond to this change with works that are shorter in length and encourage a fractured viewing—for a long time it was an unwritten guideline that moving image works presented in the art gallery should be about 8-10 minutes in length. How do you see this development in the way we “consume” moving image work? Is it all positive and full of potential? Or have we also lost something?
MZ: We have to make the distinction here between popular culture and consumerism on the one hand and art and the art spectatorship on the other. You are right, the fast-paced images of advertising for instance decrease our attention span. Yet, there are as many artists who pick up that quick editing style as there are artists who work with a reverse attitude. Take the “Voices from the Off” programme for instance, where the breathless Laure Prouvost shows next to the “slow foodies” Mounira Al Solh and Kan Xuan. In “Lines of Beauty” I show Kimsooja’s wonderfully meditative Thread Routes next to Hassan Hajjaj’s upbeat Karima, a Day in the Life of a Henna Girl.
And one last thing, we should make sure that we don’t “consume” moving image art, nor any form of art for that matter. Unfortunately, the conditions of high capitalist consumerism controls the way we look at images, but in an art context, we should be aware of that and resist it.
OS: In the last 20 years or so, moving image works have been integrated in the art market by way of the art institution that has managed to commodify them by transforming them into objects. How did this come about? And how can a film be an auratic object that is sold by a dealer to a collector? What does a collector buy actually?
MZ: First of all, I don’t think that it was the art institution (museums and non-commercial galleries) that turned film projection into “objects” (sculptures and installations) but actually it was the pressure of the market on these and other institutions that is at the core of the commodification process.
The increasing process of privatization under neo-liberalism means that institutions—museums and universities included—receive less state support and are more dependent on overtly commercial strategies. This is especially the case of Anglo-Saxon and North American, less so in German and French museums, for instance. From tickets to latte sales, museums such as Tate Modern have to think of commercial ways to survive. Often a visit to the Tate feels a bit like a prime example of what is called “experience economy.” If you visit any art graduation show you will see that most students have a pile of business cards next to their work. Art magazines, formally known for their independent, critical approach, now organize art fairs. The artist names cover the front page like brand names. These and many other examples show us the way in which economy, “business,” has replaced social politics. This is not news, but the way in which the process of commercialization of the arts has become accelerated since 1989 is pretty breathtaking.
Secondly, you are asking how this came about? The commodification of a new art form is a normal process, look at what happened with “immaterial” concept art. It is important not to forget that the world of moving image art is vast and the work represented by a commercial gallery presents only a fraction. We also need to appreciate the hundreds and thousands of films, installations, projections and clips that are not commodified.
OS: But just because they are not actually sold, does not mean that they don't have the potential to be, and thus are a commodity, due to the pre-existing pattern. Every video art piece can potentially be commodified, just like a painting is a potential commodity until a buyer is found.
MZ: In the case of a commercial(ized) filmmaker, let’s take Isaac Julien as a classic example: a collector buys the limited edition of a work on, say, DVD. With that he buys the rights for presentation of the film. In addition to the film or video the gallery often offers film stills or production photographs for sale.
As for your question about the auratic object—I assume that you are referring to Benjamin’s concept of the aura of the artwork here—the answer is a bit more complicated. In his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin announces that with cinema a new democratization of the arts is coming to the fore. Cinema has no aura (bear in mind that he compared cinema primarily to the theatre, and not exclusively to art objects).
What started to happen from the 1970s onwards is a reverse process in which the market seeks to re-inscribe the “democratic” reproducible medium of film with an “aura” that was originally reserved for the exclusive, unique work of art. There is a kind of perversion here, technically speaking, but on the level of labor, the sweat and blood of many filmmakers deserves the kind of commercial recognition the art market can offer.
Kan Xuan, Object, 2003, 6'25''. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua
OS: So how does the idea of the democratization of art through cinema reconcile itself with the limited edition sale? Or does the deserved commercial recognition supplant the democratization aspect?
MZ: That is exactly the point; there is no reconciliation between Benjamin’s vision of a democratic medium, which he developed in the early 1930s in a very different context, and the limited edition sale of artists’ moving images—especially those made digitally. (I wonder what would Benjamin have said about that?)
OS: How has this transition towards objecthood in cinema impacted the production and distribution of these works? Before, films were produced either by the state or production studios and were distributed widely in cinemas and at film festivals. Now, as the distinctions between art (house) films and artist films blur and disappear even more, as your program at Art Basel itself demonstrates, how are films produced and disseminated and how do galleries play a role? We see now this cross-pollination, with artist films entering film festivals and more traditional films the museum/art space.
MZ: You are, it seems, referring mainly to mainstream film canon—that means to those works that were produced by, say, state TV or big commercial studios. Yet since the invention of the medium in 1890s there have been streams of all kinds of modes of production and distribution, some of which have made into the history books and others that have not. And again, the transition towards objecthood that involves, as you have outlined above, processes of commodification and commercialization, are also only one story amongst a thousand tales.
You are right to ask those questions in the context of a film programme at an art fair, but I think that the Film Sector cinema programme at Art Basel stands out from the rest of the programmes because art films operate on a different financial level than, say, sculpture. The film screenings have been chosen from a pool of films submitted by the galleries. That is how the film programme at Art Basel works. But the films I am presenting do not exclusively “live” in the mainstream art world. I took the freedom to include films that have no commercial representation, for example Anfangsszene by Karolin Meunir, an excellent, subtle video and performance artist from Berlin. Yes, galleries help to bring film into the collections of major (and minor) art institutions, but often these films also have a life of their own outside of the mainstream art world. Take for instance Akraam Zatari’s new work 21 Nights and a Poem, which I would have liked to show but which is on a fixed film festival touring programme and so it was not possible for me to show it at Art Basel this year. By the way, the relationship between film festivals and the art world is becoming really interesting. This year, for instance, we are collaborating with the Locarno film festival, which presents a Duncan Campbell screening. What I like about the film programme is that it gathers all these different formats; its like a big muesli ball full of all kinds of crunchy works that float about in white cubes, black boxes, cinemas, DVDs, and vimeo.
Duncan Campbell, It For Others, 2008, 54'. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo
OS: Do you feel that commercial galleries and fairs, the culmination of capitalism in the art world, can also be platforms for real political criticism?
MZ: This is a very tricky question but I won’t hesitate to answer it with a clear “no.” The languages and desires of an art fair do not run in parallel with those of say regime criticism, I mean real criticism. It is impossible! It has never been that way, so why should it be different now? There is a tendency in the mainstream art world to think of itself as all-encompassing, all-knowing, expansive. Real political criticism, however, happens elsewhere and it is often close to very difficult life-changing decisions. What can happen, of course, is that very critical works are presented at an art fair, but their effect would always be compromised, if not smothered, by the context.
OS: The program you are showing at Art Basel steers away from the overtly political. Why so, despite “taking the freedom to include films with no commercial representation?”
MZ: What do you mean by “overtly political” films? What would that be? A film by activists? The kind of radical filmmakers that make direct, political work are not represented by commercial galleries, so unless I make an exception, the conditions for the Film Sector are not particularly conducive to activist filmmaking. I think, however, that the programme clearly displays ethical values (you might want to call them political with a minor “p”) by the inclusion of certain films, and the exclusion of others. The programmes “Voices from the Off” focuses on films by female filmmakers and raises feminist issues of self and language. “Lines of Beauty” presents the work of Kimsooja and Hassan Hajjaj, both of which invite the viewer to rethink conventional values attached to traditional women hand crafts. “Food (in) Chains” shows one of the most subtle, political filmmakers still alive, Agnès Varda, whose Les Glaneurs and la Glaneuse is a film of extremely deep ethical work. Our opening film, Takashi Murakami’s Jellyfish Eyes, might entertain, yet it takes a very hard look at Japan’s politics around the 2011 tsunami disaster.
Agnès Varda, Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse, 2000, 82'; Courtesy of the artist and Ciné Tamaris and Galerie Nathalie Obadia
OS: Tell us about operating in Cairo as a freelance curator. What are the limits on critical expression and how do you sense them? How do you navigate the complex codes and secure malleable spaces of freedom?
MZ: I moved to Cairo over two years ago to be with my husband, who is Egyptian. My motives of moving there were entirely personal. I cannot hide that I arrived full of enthusiasm which was dampened real quick when I realized how complicated the situation in the country was and still is. That realization made me decide to withdraw from any form of active curatorial or academic work for a while. Instead I have spent two years listening, putting my ears on the tracks of history and trying to make sense of it. In the last three years Cairo has seen many foreign curators and academics come and leave again very quickly. I cannot afford to be one of them so I focus on learning the local language, literally and metaphorically speaking.
For me the key problem of the Egyptian art scene is not the government, whose limitations in the cultural field have been exaggerated in the Western media. The real problem, for me, is the Egyptian class system, which plays a very important role in the Cairo art scene. Some of these issues Aleya Hamza and I will address in the talk “Beyond Austerity: New Models of Support for Art in Crisis.” Having said that, I will help organize a small exhibition by a Sudanese artist called Fadlabi at an artist-run space Sunset Nile Annexe later in the year. This will be my first curatorial gesture since I moved to Cairo, inshaallah.
Olga Stefan is an independent curator, writer, and lecturer born in Bucharest, raised in Chicago and since 2009, based in Zurich. She contributes regularly to ArtReview, Frieze Magazine, Art in America, Flash Art, Sculpture Magazine, ArtSlant, and Artmargins. Her upcoming exhibition, Laughter and Forgetting, takes place October 9-16, 2015 in the frame of Bucharest Art Week.
(Image at top: Hassan Hajjaj, Karima: a day in the life of a henna girl, 2015, 71'. Courtesy the artist and The Third Line)