Klaus Biesenbach

"Video Acts: Single Channel Video Works from the Collections of Pamela and Richard Kramlich and the New Art Trust" was exhibited at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York, from November 10, 2002 through April 13, 2003. The exhibition was organized by Klaus Biesenbach, Chief Curator at P.S.1 and today Chief Curator of the Media Department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Barbara London, Curator in the Media Department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Christopher Eamon, Curator of the Kramlich Collection. This interview was conducted by Elna Svenle in New York on April 24, 2006. See Also: Video Acts Case Study.

Elna Svenle: Klaus Biesenbach, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. I would like to focus on the exhibition "Video Acts," which included around 130 single-channel works from the late 1960s to the present, all part of the vast video collection of Pamela and Richard Kramlich of San Francisco. I wanted to start by asking you how the idea to create an exhibition with the work from this particular collection originated. I imagine you were already very familiar with the Kramlich collection.

Klaus Biesenbach: The idea was developed curatorially. The idea was conceived around single-channel video from the moment on that you could say video acts. The word video means of course that there is a video camera involved. The idea of acts was not only a theatrical one but also one that should put emphasis on the active nature. But it was mostly about expressing the performative nature of the work. So what we did was to select performance work where the act was recorded by a camera. The show was also loosely grouped around the idea that if an artist performs in front of an audience, in front of a mirror, or in his studio, then there was the camera recording it instead of the audience, instead of a mirror, or instead of a performance in solitude. So there was always the camera as the opposite of the act.

ES: Pamela and Richard Kramlich have compiled a major collection of video art from the late 1960s, when artists first started employing the video camera, up until the present date. Did you also include single-channel works where the artist uses the camera as a tool to document a performance?

KB: I think working with media art there are always two directions you can take. One could easily focus on the time-based nature of media art. So you could do a show about time, the visualization of time, or the conception of time. The other direction you could think about is the specific nature of the hardware or the software, the recording devices or projection devices, the interaction of the artist with the devices, the interaction of the artist with the very nature of the medium. I think, since we had video acts, which could be a singular video act or plural video acts, or it could be a very active description, it could be a verb that would mean video is acting, then it would be an act. So it could be a verb as well as a noun. What we did was to look into video as an easily accessible medium to record the duration of time and an activity in time, but we were also very clear that we wanted the performative aspect as a more seminal part of the work that we showed. So it was basically both.

ES: You collaborated with Barbara London and Christopher Eamon in organizing this show. There must have been a lengthy planning and viewing process.- Can you speak about the collaborative process?

KB: I think conceiving an exhibition always involves more people than those whose names are actually printed in the catalogue. Of course you talk to the institution so that it would be a show that makes sense in the history of the institution, a show that would make sense in the architectural reality of the institution. And when you work with collectors like Pamela and Richard Kramlich of course you have feedback from them. And then of course there is always reality, because you could wish for many ideal scenarios but you have to be able to place them in real time and space. We also talked to several of the artists, so there are also interviews in the book. I think the book describes very well how the show was realized.

ES: Since this was an exceptionally large media show, I'd like to know how much time elapsed between the conception and the execution of the exhibition.

KB: I think the whole preparation time was around two years. The first year was spent brainstorming how the exhibition could look, which exhibition would make sense, which exhibition could fit P.S.1, and also-since some media art exhibitions are very expensive concerning the installation and equipment-which show we could realistically produce. The last year was spent preparing "Video Acts," the show and the book.

ES: It was an enormous show, covering the whole first floor of P.S.1, and it included around 130 works, many of which were durational performances. If you wanted to see, say, five minutes of each work you would end up spending around 10 hours in the exhibition. Can you speak about your strategy of showing each work on a separate screen, rather than condensing the show or compiling the works into programs?

KB: I think that the plurality was very important. We were working exclusively with single-channel video, but we were showing a lot of works, and we basically tried to show each work on a separate playing device, projected or on a monitor. So we were simultaneously and continuously showing all of the works. Each of the works was looped on its own screen, which was very important, because it was about the performative idea of the work. You were not missing one work while you watched another. I think that the multi-faceted manner in bringing so many works together was part of the original idea. When ñVideo Actsî toured to London to the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), which is a much smaller institution than P.S.1, we focused on Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, and Bruce Nauman. We had several other pieces, but ICA had to have a much more narrow focus since it isn't that big. But I still think that in order to catch that moment in media-based artistic practice it was seminal to have so many different works shown at the same time.

ES: The idea to put each work on its own monitor or projected separately was fairly original. What was the inspiration behind this?

KB: It was more the inspiration of being angry walking into a show where you always miss five pieces because you watch the one that is on view, and the other five will follow. Also, many of the performative pieces actually work as moving stills, many of them-not all, but many-are narrative in a way that you can get an impression already from walking by and coming back. The idea was to have this synoptic sense that you could walk into a room, let's say of Bruce Nauman, and you could turn around and you could view a piece a little longer and then go to another piece. You had a chance to compare the video works like you would compare different paintings or photographs in a room. You could experience the works wherever you decided to put your focus. You were not directed by a screening schedule, with one work that starts at 3:45 and the next at 3:50, etc. You could freely move between the works, and that was a very important aspect of the show from a display point of view.

ES: Most works were shown on their own monitors. Some works, however, were projected on the wall, such as, for example, Marina Abramovic's Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975). What was the reasoning behind this presentation?

KB: Some artists had several works recorded on video, but also some recorded on 16mm film. In the case of Bruce Nauman, he has a clear rule that if a work was recorded on 16mm film it should be projected. The sound of the projector is also part of the work. There was no other way to present a 16mm film than through some kind of projection device. So it was true to the nature of how the works were made. Concerning the overall presentation of the show, it was not only dictated by technical requirements or artistic decisions, it was sometimes a decision to improve the overall exhibition layout. We didn't want a completely boring archive show with one monitor next to the other, over 130 channels one after the other. Every exhibition is about creating a certain pace in space. We looked at a couple of pieces that we felt would make sense to see in life-size, or where it would add to the work itself if you saw it in life-size, and it would add to the exhibition to have a more present contemplation with the work. These works we did project. But it was really a curatorial decision for each individual work. For example we included Darren Almond and Steve McQueen in the exhibition and their works had to be projected.

ES: Instead of using anonymous, white plinths, which are most often used in galleries and museums to support monitors, you used these industrial-looking steel tables, with one shelf for the DVD player and one for the monitor.

KB: We were thinking of the idea of a storage area that is accessible, but also the idea of a library. So it was like a workstation. It emphasized that it was nearly an archival report, showing as many of these works as possible. With these carts we could very easily have the medium, a monitor and a DVD player, be there, have it changeable, but also create a situation where you can spend time. We didn't create a movie theatre, we created almost a mediatheque. We created the situation where you had a bench and a table and you could actually work yourself through the exhibition. It was hopefully viewer-friendly, but we tried to accommodate something that would express both the archival nature of curatorially going through so many works and presenting so many works, but also allow for the works to be viewed in private and with integrity. So we had headphones, we had benches, we had books. We tried to merge all these different aspects that sometimes seemed difficult to connect, and I felt that this display succeeded in that.

ES: The audio element is often a problem in exhibitions with a large number of media works. Did you have headphones for all the monitors or did you allow some sound to emanate from speakers?

KB: Not all the works had sound, and not all the works needed to be listened to in an isolated way. So when it was an ambient sound or when it was a sound that was clearly distinguishable as to which work it belonged... Sometimes it even added. We had the Bruce Nauman violin piece in one room, and I think it added to the whole piece to have the audio in the room. But of course we didn't want to end up with a cacophonic mess. I think the rule became that if the piece was narrative and you needed to follow a certain narrative-if there was speech-then the sound was on headphones.

ES: Did you consider using so-called sound showers that direct the sound to a spot right below them?

KB: That would have been too expensive.

ES: The mode of presentation, to show each of the 130 works on its own monitor or projected separately, must have made the exhibition very expensive. Did you buy the equipment needed or did you borrow it?

KB: We bought projectors from many different sources. The projections weren't big, most of the projections were the size of a photograph on the wall, and therefore we didn't need equipment that was outrageously demanding. It was a joint effort and still considering how we worked with the equipment, I think when you have a medium size monitor and a DVD player, it is still manageable. It wouldn't have been possible to have one hundred large-size plasma screens and it would not have been possible to have 130 projections. But we had some projections, they were modestly sized most of them, so it was possible.

ES: To document moving image work in a catalogue is always difficult. I think you succeeded well in the Video Acts book, in including at least ten images of each work, allowing the reader to get a fairly good sense of the development. However, in some cases you only included one large image of a work, such as Steve McQueen's Bear (1993).

KB: Sometimes the artist had very special requirements of how the work should be presented in the catalogue, so we listened to the artist.

ES: The exhibition format was innovative, but there are no installation shots in the catalogue.

KB: The catalogue came out before the show opened.

ES: Did you ever consider delaying the publication slightly, just to include some images of the installation?

KB: No, for us it was important to get the catalogue out.

ES: As you mentioned before the show toured to ICA in London. I saw the show there, not at P.S.1, but from what I can tell from installation shots the layout of the show was very similar, showing each work on its own monitor or projection and using the same steel tables. The only difference between ICA and P.S.1 was the number of works. Was all the equipment and the furniture shipped to London?

KB: The tables were shipped to London, the equipment wasn't.

ES: Did you consider touring the exhibition to additional venues?

KB: I think like with every show, you conceive the show and there is one institution you do it with. There was the idea of touring it but there wasn't an institution that said, ñOh, we want this show, we have to have it here in September.î There were various institutions interested but it didn't materialize to a third venue. It is also a quite challenging show for the institution to present. It was great that it had two venues.

ES: As I suggested before, it must have been a fairly expensive show to produce. Was it particularly hard to fundraise for this exhibition?

KB: Every show is difficult to fundraise for, but "Video Acts" was not a particularly difficult one.

ES: Is there anything you would like to add concerning the show?

KB: What was nice was that we got very good feedback from artists. That was really nice. I still meet people who say that they saw this show at P.S.1. From many young artists I get good feedback, which is very nice. They had never had the chance to see all of these pieces, and many of the pieces are seminal. I think it was a show that had a large impact in the larger artist community. That is at least what I hear, and that is always a very nice resonance of a show.

ES: Thank you, Klaus.