|Interview with Steve Seid|
Steve Seid is the Video Curator at the Pacific Film Archive
(PFA) at the Berkeley Art Museum in Berkeley, California. This
interview was conducted via e-mail by Rebecca Cleman in spring
Rebecca Cleman: First, some background on how you came to PFA and media arts curatingÉanything that seems relevant.
Steve Seid: My media experience prior to coming to the Pacific Film Archive was an amalgam of disparate activities, unified perhaps by a countercultural sensibility. As a young arts writer (what else would someone with an M.A. in English Lit do?), I covered the wild tumult of things that was the San Francisco underground, an underground that was colored and charged by the punk scene. Coincident with this punked out and political movement of aesthetic resistance was the emergence of countless alternative gallery spaces that had no apparent allegiance to such things as the art-historical divisions governing disciplines and media. Video was very much a tool of this cultural recalcitrance. I'm talking the late '70s/early '80s. This lead me to the Bay Area Video Coalition, where I toiled for a few formative years, and then on to other media groups, principally the long-defunct San Francisco International Video Festival, and several film-dominated festivals. Through these associations, I began to gain a healthy sense of alternative media practice. In the late '80s, I curated a few programs for the Pacific Film Archive (PFA). Video had reared its head with an undeniable force. The chief curator at PFA, Edith Kramer, was adventurous enough and strategic enough to know that this electronic counterpart to film was not going away. Furthermore, the Berkeley Art Museum, our parent institution, had been home to David Ross's handiwork a half-dozen years earlier. There already was a formidable though not continuous history of expanded media within the building. When PFA purchased its first wave of video hardware around 1988, someone had to select the signals that would stimulate the circuitry. I've been selecting those signals ever since.
RC: When did PFA first begin to exhibit media?
SS: The PFA opened its doors in 1971. The first video exhibition occurred soon afterwards when Video Free America teamed with PFA to present "Tapes From All Tribes," a multi-part series that combined guerrilla TV and image processors. There was then a gap of many years, which was compensated by activities at the museum, including residencies, installations, and performances by Terry Fox, Joan Jonas, Frank Gillette, Howard Fried, the Kipper Kids, etc. Then in the late '70s, David Ross was hired as a museum curator. He began a Sunday afternoon video screening series that was staged in the PFA theater and persisted until about 1982. Another gap in experimental video screenings occurred until my arrival in 1988. There have been consistent video exhibitions since that time.
RC: I'm interested in drawing out your experience as a curator of video-distinct from film-in an archive that handles both. It seems to me that the distinctions between these mediums, at least in theory, are being blurred by digital technologies. What are your thoughts about this?
SS: I have a confession to make: I think of myself as an idea curator, not a video curator. Maybe it's my text-based lit background, but I've always been much more interested in the expression of ideas and in an ethical engagement with our surroundings. There's nothing intrinsically interesting about video. What is it? An inadequate ribbon with some embedded electronic pulses? Video only becomes worthwhile when it expedites the transmission of stirring, intricate, and beneficial visions of the world. I'm not trying to deny the immense cultural importance of the video apparatus. Image generation is certainly a substantial part of our gross national product. But as a curator, video is more a limiter, an I-curate-here, than a primordial point of fixation. That said, I've also spent 15 years nailed as the video curator, distinct from a film curator. This new category of digital is just that, a new, or third category as much generational, as much an aesthetic argot, as a material issue. Artists and curators who have a lightness of (media) allegiance can pull up their aesthetic anchors and enjoy the drift. The big sea change is yet to come-that's when digital cinema eliminates the film projector (and by extension, the print). There should be no attendant trauma if you can conceive of yourself as an image-maker, rather than a medium to a dead medium. The same goes for curators, though we do have one advantage-it is certainly within our mandate to celebrate the past (and still seem relevant).
RC: Could you isolate some of the changes that you've experienced in the last two decades at PFA?
SS: My first decade at PFA was quite compartmentalized. We had a senior film curator, another who tended to the avant-garde, and me, exclusively video. That has radically changed. The divisions are now moot. Well, I should say moot with qualifications-film as the more valued history within a film archive is still operative. But electronic media has made distinct incursions into the general programming and the collection efforts. All the curators now work with artists who are crossing media boundaries. In many cases this has occurred because the filmmakers themselves have tested the digital waters, dragging their loyal curators along in their wake. But, in other cases, it is because media promiscuity proves to be so fruitful. When you're pursuing the elegant alignment of ideas, the matter of grain versus pixel seems irrelevant these days. Those hidden wizards, our projectionists, have had to adapt as well. It's not uncommon that a single night's program will have 16mm film, Beta SP, mini-DV, and computer output, or some other equally reckless combination.
RC: What are the implications of this technical fluidity for your institution?
SS: Right now, the shifts in format seem to have more to do with convenience than with stamina or quality. DVD is a great preview format, but it is more fragile than expected, cranky, prone to digital glitches, and not as hi-res as we'd like to think. With works that aren't digital-born, Beta SP is still visibly superior. With works that have their origins in digital files, I prefer DVCAM with its slim compression scheme to DVD, though there are complaints about the tape stock being too vulnerable. We still have a number of 3/4" decks up and running, mainly because so many of our collection tapes are still U-matic.
RC: Have you noticed a change in the audiences, and can you relate these changes to the broader context of media curating?
SS: Once upon a time, there was a distinct audience for video art and its cohort practices. The "videoness" of things could only sustain itself for so long. Now I believe our audiences are attracted by subcultural alignments, topicality, and a certain feral quality that I can pull off in my best moments. So the audience is drawn to the particular thematic inquiry, the style counsel implied, or the ability of a program to open up, verify, or contest the assumptions of the everyday. The Bay Area still prides itself on a general liberality of thought-works that tease this pride are very popular. I do regret the diminished audience for the more formal programs I present now and then-there's still a reason to take pleasure in and/or resurrect those image-process tapes and other medium-specific experiments that are, in fact, still going on. But I think the coloration of our current audience is a certain restlessness-they don't want to sit still too long for any one thing. I'm quite willing to partake in that nervous journey.
RC: A few years ago, in the NAMAC Salon on media curation, you wondered how the changing status of media art modifies the artist's relationship to different institutionsÉcould you speak to that in relation to PFA? What do you define as this changing status?
SS: PFA has a somewhat unique circumstance. We are a full-blown film/video archive (research library, collection, preservation program, exhibition, etc.) within a museum. I see the biggest status shift not within our program but between the galleries and our program. There is a curatorial reflex now to include moving image media in the galleries-it's like affirmative action gone awry. What was once a welcome rarity has now become a placeholder for currency.
RC: Can you talk about your curatorial process, and how you work within your organization?
SS: My curatorial recipe is this: 1 cup of historical reference, 2 tablespoons of cultural and political relevance, 1 half-cup of recent works and their related practices, 1 tablespoon of contemporary art theory, 2 cloves of personal fixation, a dash of Tabasco. The institutional aspect of curating is another matter, more a process of balance and negotiation. With several curators at work, we stake out territory for individual programs or series, then try to balance a given programming period so that all is not of one kind-there should be substantial and accessible works presented alongside experimental, regionally diverse, and documentary forms. In other words, in any given exhibition calendar there should be multiple entry points for audiences.
RC: How do you determine which curatorial projects to pursue?
SS: As I mentioned earlier, I have narrowed my focus to Bay Area experimental media, though I do stray when necessary or fruitful. Luckily, there is so much overlooked work out there that the "narrow" focus never seems restrictive. By the way, the museum side of our institution also collects electronic works, often installation based. They have gone much farther afield, having acquired such artists as Shirin Neshat, Jim Campbell, and Doug Aitken, among others. What has happened as a consequence of the "digital revolution" (and I don't mean this as criticism but a natural outcome) is that yet another history has been born which overlooks or excludes an entire body of work, i.e. early video art in this case. In other words, in the same way that successive generations of video artists managed to sever their own historical reference points, digital artists trace their roots to a very limited set of tendrils. There are some historians and scholars who are trying to rectify this ahistorical practice, but for the most part younger artists don't recognize the continuity of media practice which joins a 100 year old tradition of avant-garde art-making to successive waves of moving image technology. So even though our encounters with moving images have become almost continual and the cultural import (or at least impact) of moving images a prominent point of discussion, those encounters and that discussion concern themselves with the present and not the past. It's a curious negative outcome: except for a few influential artists like Bruce Nauman, Bill Viola, and William Wegman, the works of many foundational artists from the late '60s/early '70s are as endangered as ever. Arguments for preservation have not become easier, as we had assumed they would.
RC: Could you talk about your role in relation to PFA's archiving and preservation initiatives? What are some of the major projects you've been involved with?
SS: Over the years, I've worked on several projects that have brought some interesting and important video works into the collection: the Dilexi Series, tapes from the National Center for Experiments in Television, Paul Kos, Ant Farm, Terry Fox, some early Wegman, etc. I'm in the midst of an effort to reclaim some of Skip Sweeney's works from the Video Free America era. We are the proverbial under-funded archive. Much of our acquisitions have come not from direct purchase but from either gifts, or roundabout, through preservation. I have been able to muster preservation funds (and gifts) to build a collection of tapes that numbers in the low thousands and consists of 1/2" open reel, 3/4" and a smattering of 2" and 1" formats.
RC: How are these projects selected?
SS: Historically, the Bay Area has been home to a thriving and influential community of moving image-makers. My efforts have been focused on preserving this history. There are still many artists out there who require serious attention to insure the longevity of their video works and to secure an understanding of their cultural relevance: Tony Labat, Howard Fried, Jeanne Finley, Cecilia Dougherty, Scott Stark, the Half-Lifers, to name just a few. PFA also has a parallel but larger preservation program to safeguard avant-garde film from this same regional community: again, I'm talking about such important figures as George Kuchar, Nathaniel Dorsky, Bruce Conner, Ernie Gehr, Chick Strand, and others. PFA's most important work regarding collection and preservation has been in the area of the American avant-garde. We now have beautifully preserved prints of work by Jordan Belson, Bruce Conner, Chick Strand, George Kuchar, Scott Bartlett, Nathaniel Dorsky, Curt McDowell, and others. We've also begun amassing a sub-collection of great international cinema, so that we will be able to exhibit seminal films when prints begin to get scarce, i.e. in the not-so-distant future. I should also add that we-Kathy Geritz, another PFA curator, Steve Anker, now chair of the film department at Cal Arts, and I-have been working on a book-based history of avant-garde image-making in the San Francisco Bay Area. This history extends back to the 1940s. An extensive exhibition will accompany the book's release. A number of newly preserved prints are being readied for that exhibition series.
RC: Have PFA's collecting priorities changed over the past years?
SS: PFA still emphasizes the avant-garde, along with several other strengths in the collection, namely Japanese cinema, early Soviet cinema, East European cinema, and animation. We've always had examples of what are now called orphan genres, such as industrial film, propaganda, home movies, erotica, etc. The orphans get a bit more attention these days, now that the marginal cinemas have gained prominence.
RC: Have you noticed any significant changes in demands for access to your collection in recent years?
SS: PFA considers itself a research center for cinema-part of our mandate from the University that houses us. We've always had researchers, scholars, grad students, etc., requesting access to our collection, especially the specialized groupings like Soviet silent films. Some of the collection is readily available via transfer to videotape, but most must be viewed as film. This doesn't limit access but it makes it more cumbersome. Our policy is that everything is accessible, unless viewing endangers the materials, or we simply can't deliver it, e.g. 1/2" open reel tapes. We have been involved in numerous conversations of late regarding the transfer of film and video materials to digital media for access. If this weren't such a costly enterprise, we'd be in the midst of it right now. Unfortunately, many of the people who request access want only that, the access, without any understanding of the enormity of the request. One glimmer of hope is that there are pilot programs, like CineGRID, housed at UC San Diego, that are researching the potential of Internet alternatives to shuttle large images around the UC system. The success of projects like that might stimulate the process of digitizing collections because of the ready distribution. These hyper-broadband projects would have library access use, as well as implications for exhibition. It's hard to quantify but there has certainly been an increase in the demand for media from faculty and students. What is quite visible, though, is that the demand is coming from far afield, not just film studies. More and more disciplines find film to be a worthy (if not ethnographic) text for study, or as a supplement to study. Art history is also more conscious of the importance of moving images-a relatively recent development in a department (art practice included) that was dominated by the painting/sculpture matrix.
RC: What do you see as the greatest challenges to media exhibition right now?
SS: Though this has been long in coming, moving images are being rapidly dispersed throughout our daily sensorium. Images on a large theater screen are just one instance. Images retrieved from MySpace, viewed on an iPod, or projected in your media den at home are going to rival the specialized theater for viewer attention. What these latter visual experiences share in common is the very personal delivery and consumption of images. Whether the cinematheque or archive can convince an audience that the communal is still worthy and important is anyone's guess. I certainly hope we'll continue to drag our viscous sacs into public spaces and exchange images and ideas.