Interview with Berta Sichel
Berta Sichel

Berta Sichel is Director of the Department of Audio/Visuals at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina SofŇa in Madrid. She has curated numerous media art exhibitions at international institutions, including "First Generation: Art and the Moving Image, 1963-1986," at the Reina Sofia in 2006-07. Sichel's conversation with Galen Joseph-Hunter and Lori Zippay took place in August 2005.


Galen Joseph-Hunter: The Reina SofŇa is Spain's national museum of modern and contemporary art. Could you describe your program at the Reina SofŇa and give us a bit of its history?

Berta Sichel: I have been at the museum since 2000. When I arrived there, Carlotta Alvarez Basso had been there for eight years. The Reina SofŇa has had a video program since the beginning of the l990s. Carlotta developed quite an interesting program that mixed historical shows like Yoko Ono and Muntadas with more emerging artists. While, at that time, these programs made a great deal of sense, I observed a problem. Tapes produced in other languages were never translated into Spanish. Instead, tapes were shown in their original language. I think we all have the frustrating experience of encountering a work in an exhibition context that is heavily language-based and in a language that we don't speak. In general, language is a kind of firewall for the circulation of video. One-minute or two-minute loops for installation don't often cause problems, but longer works, especially in a cinematic setting, need to be translated according to the specifics of your audience. In Germany and Holland you can probably show tapes in English, but this would be problematic in France. Video art had less of a presence in the '90s than it does today. This lack of visibility created challenges when it came to programming and attracting audiences. When I arrived at the museum in 2000, Carlotta had already been gone for a year, and during that time, the department had been closed. Immediately, when I arrived, I thought, I have to find a way to subtitle these works in order to reach our audiences, who are mainly Spanish speaking.

GJH: Your commitment to subtitling for a museum screening program seems to be unique.

BS: If I do not subtitle, people become very furious. When Michael Rush [currently Director of The Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University] came for a lecture, he brought several tapes. There was a tape by Kristin Lucas from which he showed a fragment, and it was in English. I received several complaints saying that I cannot invite people for a lecture that will show work that the audience cannot understand. So I really think that language needs to be considered carefully. I don't think that North American institutions have a comparable problem because every film in the world comes with English subtitles. Recently I was able to make an annual contract with a company that makes the subtitles and it has been of great help, yet we have to be very organized with the programming schedule because the process is tedious. We have to get the scripts far in advance, they have to be translated and put into a digital format, which is very time consuming and expensive. It is easiest when artists are able to provide a script so that the translation process is more efficient. I think that the museum should acquire everything we show because we pay not only for the rental, but also for the subtitles.

GJH: What happens with those subtitled screening tapes if they are not purchased by the museum?

BS: Most often, if the artist wants the subtitled tape, I give it to the artist. I try to travel the programs to other institutions, not as a way to make money, but as a means to share expenses. For example, with the program "Carcel de Amor", which focused on domestic violence, in particular, and gender/violence in general, I was able to share the cost of subtitling with other institutions. Then for the screenings, the other institutions pay the artist directly. When it comes to the cost of subtitling, if every institution pays a portion, it becomes manageable for us all.

Lori Zippay: What's interesting to me in this discussion of subtitling is your response to and concern for your audience. As a curator, you naturally assume an educational role. I think in many cases video art tends to seem intimidating; it can be technologically and conceptually mystifying. You are really trying to provide access to this work by making it more understandable and user-friendly to your audience.

BS: I think if you grow up in countries where people have at least some idea of video, if they have seen exhibitions, if they have been exposed to video art, it is different. I think what I do is to educate. I don't mean to sound patronizing, but these audiences have had few opportunities to experience this kind of work. The more people see, the more they have a general knowledge of the subject, the more they will attend screenings. For me, it is immensely rewarding to see the auditorium full of people. The screenings are free; the museum doesn't charge anything. Admission to the museum is 6 Euro, but to go to the auditorium is free. I think it is fundamental that we educate people. Besides the screenings I have a very dynamic conference program. I always try to bring the artist whose work is being screened. Even when there is a large audience and people don't ask a single question it is worthwhile.

LZ: As a major national museum of modern and contemporary art, the Reina SofŇa must serve a very broad public. Can you characterize your audience for video art screenings?

BS: Many different people, but most of them are art students. It is interesting that not many artists and critics come. In Spain if the work is not being shown as an installation or a projection in the space of the museum, they don't consider it "art." The film critics do not consider it ˝filmţ so most things never get reviewed.

GJH: Your screening program includes historical as well as recent works. Is this connected to your educational intent?

BS: Yes. Not only historical video; also with film. I did a series with Ulrike Ottinger and Joseph Jacobs curated one with Stan Brakhage, for example. I am going to do Berge-not this year, because we didn't have the funds, but perhaps in May 2006. I'm starting to transcribe the scripts this fall. I recently organized a Fluxus program. For the Fluxus show I had five lectures and three concerts. Ben Paterson's concert was fantastic, and Christian Marclay also performed. We currently have 9 to 10 programs a year, including live performances and concerts. We don't have an exhibition space yet. That is another thing. The department does not have an exhibition space.

GJH: Are there plans to have such a space?

BS: Not really.

LZ: I understand that the Reina SofŇa has begun to acquire video works. Do you think the museum's willingness to begin collecting now is related to the evolution of video art's presence in the art world? What has changed?

BS: Yes, I'm very excited because the museum, for the first time, is starting to buy works. I made the project starting in 1963 and in the first phase, going until l986. I think when we have, as we do now, a very good group of works, both installations and single-channel videos from this period, we can move on. Over the past year, the museum has bought works by Joan Jonas, Valie Export, Gary Hill, Peter Campus, Muntadas, David Hall, Ulrike Rosenbach, and Ira Schneider, among others. Those are installations, and we also bought around 60 single-channel videos. I think they realized that they cannot go on without collecting video. So when the director spoke to me, I said that in my opinion, we should start collecting in a chronology, we shouldn't just have a random video here and there. Also it is not easy to buy the historical works, even with a budget, because there are not many on the market. I went to Ronald Feldman, because there has always been this piece by Hannah Wilke that I would like to buy; the performance that she did in Philadelphia [Through the Large Glass (1976)]. Do you know this piece?

LZ: I love that piece. Her work is very important and, I think, under-recognized.

GJH: EAI distributes a single-channel video version of this same work. I'm curious how these two pieces differ.

BS: This piece includes the ˝making ofţ before the performance footage, where Wilke is getting dressed, smoking and talking. She makes one of her vagina gum sculptures and places it on the wall. Galen, your question is interesting, this idea of the difference between these works. You can show the single-channel video, but the installation that includes the video also has photographs and, in some cases, like with Valie Export, also drawings. The work is not different, but how you exhibit it is. For example, with Joan Jonas's Vertical Roll, it could be shown inside an environment made by the artist, or in an auditorium, or on a small monitor.

LZ: Taking Vertical Roll as an example, have you shown this work in these different exhibition contexts? Or perhaps you can give a specific example of a video work that you've shown in multiple viewing contexts.

BS: Yes, I have. Vertical Roll I exhibited in the context of pioneering video works, in the context of performance, and so on. Recently, in a different fashion I have shown Annika Larsson's Untitled (Hockey) as a projection in a black box environment and at the same time it was screened in the auditorium in the program "Music Video Music," curated by Bob Nikas.

LZ: When you showed the work in the auditorium context and outside in the project space, do you think the two different viewing contexts affected the meaning or the experience of the piece?

BS: I think that there are some works that don't fit well with the auditorium environment and vice versa. There are some pieces that can be mutated to work in different contexts, but some pieces cannot. I don't think that in an exhibition space you can show a work that has a half-hour duration. People don't stay. It is important to understand that media works have a beginning and an end. It is how the technology is constructed. It may not be linear, but there is a beginning and an end. Some works can't be shown in an auditorium because they are meant to be seen as a loop, and you can't designate the duration of that loop for a cinematic audience. It doesn't work like that. For instance, when we did the Stan Brakhage series, if I had had an exhibition space, I probably would have installed a projection of one of the films. Also, when I did the Fluxus show, there are a couple of films that I could have shown in the space. I think it is interesting when you can create two complimentary viewing experiences. Another example: Ottinger has fantastic photographs, which were basically photography from backstage of the films.

GJH: When you are working with a gallery are you typically provided with exhibition guidelines?

BS: Let's go back to Annika Larsson as an example. At first Andrea Rosen did not want the work in the auditorium, but Bob Nikas convinced her that this was a valuable viewing context.

GJH: Perhaps we can shift gears a bit to discuss the technical aspects of your screening program. What kind of technical support for media art exhibition do you have in the museum?

BS: The equipment in the museum's auditorium could be updated, as everything can be updated every day. Yet we have two 35mm projectors, one 16mm projector, two multi-system DVD players, and a Beta SP deck. The video projector has 3,000 lumens, which I would like to upgrade to 5,000, but for now it works well. I bought some new equipment because when I came to the museum they only showed PAL. This was very expensive, because every time we rented tapes from the United States, the work would need to be converted. It is more economical to buy equipment that can accommodate multiple standards.

GJH: It's crucial for exhibiting institutions to have multi-standard equipment. In addition to the cost of transfers, the quality loss is rather significant.

BS: There is also the transportation problem. The museum was using art movers to bring a tape. Once I bought a film from Italy, and because art movers were hired, rather than a standard shipping company, the transportation charge to bring a box with two or three rolls of film in it was $4,000. So after a ˝struggleţ with the museum administration, which is a Spanish government cultural institution, I was able to reorganize how the works would be transported. Now the Department has its own account with an international courier company.

LZ: I suppose that being the only media art specialist within a major museum can lead to such misunderstandings regarding technical and logistical issues. Is there now a better understanding in terms of what you need to exhibit media art?

BS: It's not easy, and it's new for many people.

LZ: Do you have a technical staff?

BS: I have two projectionists, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. I have a technician who works on a project basis. And I have four assistants working with me. It is a good team.

GJH: Have you encountered artists' technical needs that were difficult to meet or created special challenges in terms of sound and video equipment, or the viewing environment? [laughter]

LZ: I wish we could capture facial expressions for our readers.

BS: There are many examples. For instance, I was showing a work where the speed of the image is less than the regular frames per second, so I had to rent a small computer, which was very costly for one month.

GJH: Were you simply given the challenge that in order to show the film you would need to figure out a way to accommodate the unusual speed requirements, or did the artist provide you with the technical details for what exactly you would need?

BS: In this case the artist provided exact information, and it was costly but worked well. A different example was an artist who specified ˝professional sound.ţ I urged him to be more detailed, to let us know exactly what technical specifications were necessary, but he said no, no, I just need "professional sound." So I hired someone and said I need "professional sound." The technician came to see the auditorium and decided what equipment would be best. When the artist arrived, he said, ˝This is not professional sound.ţ You have to be precise. You cannot say, I need professional equipment and get upset about it. Another artist arrived just before her performance with an NTSC mini-DV tape to be projected. Mini-DV is not considered a standard for our screenings. I have a mini-DV deck but it is PAL. If she had arrived a day before I would have sent it to be transferred. But she arrived at the museum one hour before the event. So I had to call someone who owned an American video camera and rent it for two hours!

LZ: I suppose it's about communication. The artist or artist's representative needs to express exactly what is required technically to achieve the work, and then the institution needs to respond according to their capabilities or limitations, so that both parties are on the same page.

GJH: What media formats do you use for exhibitions?

BS: If it is a short program, we rent everything on DVD. It is easier, right? But you know, I don't like DVD. There are a lot of problems with DVDs. I have a few very new DVD decks. They are professional decks, and sometimes something doesn't work. I went to Osnabr┘ck for the video festival, and met an artist from Poland whose work I liked very much. He gave me a DVD and I have never been able to play it. I still prefer Beta SP. We don't have Digital Beta equipment yet, though I do plan to buy a Digital Beta deck in the future. I think DVD is good if you need to send a work by mail. When we acquire works for the collection, we will buy a collection master on Digital Beta or Beta SP, and an exhibition copy on DVD.

LZ: DVD is the exhibition or reference copy.

BS: Yes, you can't have DVDs in a collection.

LZ: I'd like to ask you about preservation issues and if this is something that you and your institution are concerned with actively in relation to your exhibitions.

BS: This is something that we have to start thinking about now, because up until now we didn't have anything in place. I know the basics: you have to have a dedicated storage room with a constant temperature. Do you know what that is?

GJH: According to ANSI [The American National Standards Institute], videotapes should be stored between 50 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit at a relative humidity of 20 - 30%. The biggest danger is dramatic fluctuation in temperature, which causes expansion and contraction in the tapes.

LZ: We're addressing these issues rather comprehensively in the Preservation section of this project, the content of which is being prepared by IMAP [Independent Media Arts Preservation].

BS: Our registrar is of course more knowledgeable than I. Parts of the museum are moving to a new building, and there will be new storage space. In the original plan, they didn't want to use this space for video storage. Of course I have loudly objected, so we're having a meeting to determine what is possible. Currently tapes are stored on shelves in the department, which can become very hot. There are also decisions to be made about how to store tapes that artists might send unsolicited, saying that it's a copy for the library, for example.

LZ: Does your registrar understand and support the position that these ˝copiesţ are works of art?

BS: I don't know. She hasn't had the opportunity to work with video. It is very new at the museum. The museum's collection database doesn't currently accommodate video works. In fact, I have a question for you about the EAI database. How many fields are included?

GJH: There are 44 fields that address descriptive, distribution, and archival information. Our administrative database dynamically updates the EAI Online Catalogue.

LZ: Are you familiar with the IMAP cataloging template? They've developed a basic Filemaker database specifically to handle moving image media. The idea is that the database is user friendly while also being able to speak to more complicated cataloging languages already used by archives, such as Marc, Dublin Core, etc.

BS: We did something provisional with the Muntadas and Fluxus works. The database was designed by a company, and video wasn't included when the database was being customized for the museum.

GJH: It seems that a common methodology for museums, at least in the beginning, is to treat the videos similarly to photographs. There appear to be common qualities between these two mediums when it comes to collection management.

BS: Yes, I have to research this a bit more. Up to now, most of what is in the collection is painting.

LZ: Now that video and new media art have gained widespread acceptance within the contemporary art world, how has that changed or affected your role as a media art curator?

BS: It is interesting seeing how things changed. When I started to be interested in video, in the beginning of the '80s, it was very much connected with my studies. At the time I was at NYU doing a Master's in Media Ecology. Today it would be Media Studies. I started to go the Kitchen and watch videos, which I found much more interesting than writing papers. The school was heavily language-based; I mean, everything was on writing and I was much more interested in images. At that time, I started to work with other students from the Tisch School of Arts and matriculated in a video class. But it was too complicated. To put together people, get the heavy equipment and go around Washington Square taping other people was not my cup of tea either. So, I kept writing and watching videos. This was a good combination, but to be a curator you also have to know how to write. I think at that time I was going to two different schools: NYU and the Kitchen. It was wonderful that I had the time to watch so many videos and have a solid historical basis. Today it is much more complicated. At the museum I get so many that I can't keep up. Sometimes it takes me three months to have a free day to watch them.

LZ: As a media art curator at a major national museum, what are some of the challenges that you see as your program moves forward?

BS: The big challenge at this point is to have a space. It seems simple butâ

LZ: Do you see the historical boundaries between media or video art and other contemporary art forms dissolving in terms of their position within the museum?

BS: It depends on the institution. In this matter, the Reina SofŇa has a long way to go.