Conversation with Magda Sawon
Magda Sawon

Magdalena Sawon (together with Tamas Banovich) is the Director of Postmasters Gallery in New York. Established in 1985, Postmasters is committed to showing young as well as established artists working in all media. The following conversation between Magda Sawon and Galen Joseph-Hunter occurred on July 12, 2005.

Galen Joseph-Hunter: Could you tell me a bit about how and why you came to focus on new technology works? Did this start in the mid-nineties?

Magda Sawon: Postmasters started in 1985. The first thing we did with new media work was this rather large show called "Can You Digit?" in 1996 when we were still in SoHo. What that show did was to exhibit the works in a gallery context in the same way as you would present any other form of art. That meant each piece had a dedicated space—in this case, its own screen. Now it's a common practice, but at that point you would always have a little designated, ghettoized area in an exhibition for new media works, if at all. It was a very large survey at that time, with artists who did anything from electronic novels to interactive pieces to non-interactive pieces. The goal was really to present the spectrum of the medium. So we did that purely because that was what was out there, and nobody else was picking those bones, so to speak. It's an incredible creative resource and we just started looking and working on it. That clearly piqued our interest, primarily because this was and continues to be the medium of our time. It's something where the tool and the medium (which I very often distinguish one from the other), are really of great impact on current culture. The technologies that have been developed in the last 15 years—in terms of creative energies and resources and communication and distribution—are just enormous and very different from what was there before. Quite naturally a lot of artists and creative people go after that. Some people stay with the mediums that have been established and that they know, but this is an incredibly powerful territory for an artist to investigate all the contemporary forms of expressions.

GJH: Since "Can You Digit?," have you observed dramatic changes around the exhibition and reception of technology-based work?

MS: I think others gradually moved towards giving this kind of work equal billing, although that's more wishful thinking. They are building museums that are supposed to open five years from now, and they still have the media lounge in the basement. It's not exactly incredible progress, but there is a core group that is trying. That would go for galleries, institutions, nonprofits and varied organizations that keep this form out in the public view. Some of the work is on the Internet, and that's clearly a problem because the necessary updating of those works is not an easy task and a lot of it is exhibited in a more stationary, white-cube context. So, it's changed, but it certainly did not change too fast. We did the show in 1996 and at that point a lot of art audiences just ran away like this was fire. You know, I remember a major art critic coming to this show with his class, the class was mesmerized and he stayed in the reception area.

GJH: (laughs) Wow.

MS: So, you know, it just takes time. In general, flexibility is not an incredibly strong point with a lot of people, and the adaptation to support something new takes a little time. But initially I thought it was going to take much less time than it has. I thought, "Oh, well, in three, four years we'll be done and this process will continue," but I don't think so. Of course, it's out there.

GJH: Speaking of support, when collectors purchase this work, do you provide technical assistance for the installation?

MS: It goes case by case. Some of the works are online; some of them are pure software, hardware, plug-in packages; some of them are multi-channel videos; some are specific installations; and some are just-do-whatever-you-want-with-it—it's the content. We try to apply standards of common-sense assistance. A lot of collectors have equipment already, which can be used for varied pieces. I have a pool of four Pioneers and varied synchronizers and varied monitors plus massive projectors, and this gets updated. There always will be a project that none of it is right for. So, you know, maybe we just go to B&H again.

GJH: Have you encountered any issues related to preservation? For example, are there works that you have sold for which equipment is no longer manufactured or the platform with which the work was created is no longer supported?

MS: Well, in the instance of changing technologies, we have often recommended having good hardware support. So if this computer no longer works, maybe you want to have two of them—one of them in cold storage so it extends that piece. For example, we sold the piece by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in 2002, which was one of the most amazing things that I achieved in my 20 years. Between the complexity of this work and the rigid acquisition process associated with this institution, when they first called I thought somebody was playing a joke on me.

GJH: (laughs)

MS: This was purchased through the photography department.

GJH: Oh, that's interesting, there seems to be a consistency in more traditional institution's comparison of media work to photography when it comes to acquisition models.

MS: Which is actually incredibly progressive; they perceive photography, the first reproducible medium, as this as a springboard to what happened after photography. The Metropolitan collection does include rather radical work. They just also bought from us a two-channel piece, Spielberg's List (2003) by Omer Fast. You know, I have only praise for this particular department. The McCoy piece is this database of video clips categorized into three hundred categories and originally it was done on a video CD.

GJH: This is Every Shot, Every Episode (2001)?

MS: Yes, Every Shot, Every Episode. Video CD is a non-existent form by now, but the artist had the hard drive base for that. With the Met and their interns, this piece is going to be transferred to a DVD, eventually. For now, with the purchase they acquired five or six extra players. So this kind of immediacy of the maintenance and the preservation of the things depend on the technology and factoring in the obsolescence of technologies. That's something that we handle right away with this common sense of "what if." Then, of course, 20 years down the line the "what if" is more murky, and it's like predicting the weather. There are factors that we are closer to knowing, like hurricanes, and then there are things where somebody up there kicks and it goes in a different direction. We just do as much as we can and those standards have slowly, slowly developed into something. We have worked with the Guggenheim. They have their contracts. They have their requirements. It's not completely universal. We sold the work to MoMA and their standards are slightly different. It's all about attempting to tame this beast. Nobody has the answer, but the attempts grow slightly more sophisticated as they have grown closer to creating standards for handling this kind of work.

As you know, everybody started showing video in the 'nineties. We had no idea what to do with it in a commercial market. I was selling Alix Pearlstein videos for 200 dollars, for a project that took her years, and the issue of editions didn't even come up at that point. It just had to find its place in the realm of how one approaches other work. Then the photography model came up with the idea of limited editions of things that lend themselves to it. That's how I think the market tries to deal with video. But more often people who buy video don't buy it for investment and that reduces the percentage of potential collectors from 100 percent to like 5 percent. No offense to people who have secondary market value in the back of their heads. With video I think it's very close to zero, because that market, the secondary market for all these typical parameters for art merchandising is really not in place. You'll only see institutions and fanatics and really well-informed people go to buy this work.

GJH: Earlier you referenced several different institutions who have acquired new media work through Postmasters, and mentioned how different each of those negotiations were. Are there acquisition documents that Postmasters uses as a means to standardize the process?

MS: Yes.

GJH: What is included in the documents?

MS: Yes, well you know, new media works are reproducible. So we establish an edition and then sell it by number and give it the certificate of authenticity. Plus at this point, with every video, we provide a Digital Beta and the certificate of authenticity is signed by the artist and by us. I think that goes with everything. We start this case-by-case ballet of whether it comes with the screen or you buy the screen or if you have a projector or what kind of monitor. It also depends on what the pieces are.

GJH: Are you working with artists who are making works that are impossible to sell in any fashion?

MS: My experience of 20 years tells me that absolutely nothing is impossible to sell. It just takes the right match and I say that out of experience, because there were works that we showed and we didn't even bother to price and to deal with that and then somebody is determined to have it. And of course it works the other way. I put up a show and I liked the work, but in the back of my head would be the thought that, yes, this is incredibly attractive material, commercially, and then nothing. All it taught me is that I should just drop such criteria. I show work, and I don't know if somebody will buy it or not. In many instances we are elated. In many we are disappointed. The luxury of the gallery is that you have 10 or 15 artists and always something happens for somebody. This was the inspiration for me to run this place and it remains the motivation for 20 years now. We still don't know how to sell Wolfgang Staehle's live transmissions. No idea. We kind of make some standards. A few weeks later or a few months later we change those standards. At the same time, as an idea, this is one of the most revelatory projects, because it mixes this incredible contemplation of all art with the most advanced tools of transmission of the new art. He did a couple of incredible single-channel videos of the Niagara. We sold three of those because that is something that fits within the standards of what can already be collected. Then there are the institutions I dare to show with where there is a critical dialogue about this work. Then we have people like McCoys who are at a place where the work is commercially successful. There is a zero to 10 spectrum. We just show anything that interests us. If it tickles us-sometimes that tickle actually means that we don't understand it and we are uncomfortable with that project, but not in this kind of this-is-garbage uncomfortable. It goes even ahead of my thinking and sometimes that is an incredibly great challenge. Then there is work that is not gallery work and it took me a long time to figure out what to do with the Web work, because a lot of these projects are about distribution and access and ultimately the gallery collapses that so we can show some version of it. On the other hand, the full access and the full Web is so big that is does need some kind of filtering, so maybe I should be a filter for those very few people and say, "Look what I found!"

GJH: Segueing back to exhibition, let's explore some of these challenges specific to new media presentation. How much do you control, on behalf of the artist, the way works are installed? Do you provide a list of requirements and guidelines for installation?

MS: Yes. Basically, as you know, some single-channel videos don't have specific parameters for exhibition. It can be projected, it can be on the monitor, but in an instance where this is a part of the work, we do provide a PDF with very precise instructions, which usually come from the artist. I distribute that, because we have just had way too many issues with these works. Omer Fast has a very famous piece, CNN Concatenated. Half of the places wanted it projected, completely misunderstanding that since the piece refers to the CNN monitor, projecting it subverts that concept. It's rather clear that it's the intention of that artist to show it on the monitor. Curatorial practitioners sometimes get very creative.

GJH: Yes, this "creative" tendency can be especially dangerous with malleable time-based mediums.

MS: Yes. You know, the bigger the institution, the more potential for trouble these things are. The artist and the curator may understand the idea of the piece perfectly, but then comes the bureaucracy and then comes the exhibition designer, etc. We just had a McCoys' piece at the Milwaukee museum. Horror Chase was shown in a very well-lit room. As a result, the notion of the cinematic was completely collapsed. The work is meant to evoke the idea of this being somewhat scary, in fact, an accelerated horror-movie scariness. When shown with sunlight in the room, the content is compromised, and the work becomes merely images of some guys running. Milwaukee invited the artists for the opening. This was a traveling show; it was shown properly in Miami, at the Carnegie, and SITE Santa Fe. The artist arrived six hours before the opening to find the piece installed in a wear-your-sunscreen situation. As you can imagine immediate measures had to be taken to block off the light, paint black around. This experience taught us that nothing should ever be assumed.

GJH: I find that a lot of working on behalf of media artists means policing these issues.

MS: Exactly. Nothing's going to happen with a painting unless it's slashed by a maniac, but with the work that depends on equipment—the projector goes off one day, the amplifier, there's all these extra factors so ... You sort of release these babies out in the world, but they very often call back home, so you have a lot of that. I think, partially, that's why there is a certain market-weariness, dealer's-weariness with this work, because it's a bit of a cesspool compared to how easy it is to put a nail in the wall. There's just this other side. But this work is important, it represents the contemporary.

GJH: Could you speak a little bit about this transition recently in museums and gallery spaces from the white box to the cinema?

MS: It's a difficult thing. I guess I'm not the only one that has the white box and needs to paint it black because the work they chose requires that. There's plenty of problems, the market being just one of them, with the notion of time-based work. In the limitation of the gallery you can at best show one or two projects and at most it would take a couple of hours to look at them. I just came back from Venice (Biennale), and I walked through the dark tunnels of the Arsenale, looking at video after video after video, and that's excruciating. It's a difficult, difficult thing. I think curatorially, people should have a degree of balance because they're losing audiences. It's a very difficult thing. Images blend into one another and a lot of work is linear, so if you stumble upon the middle of something you may just see a wrong piece. It's also very demanding, but if you didn't see the whole thing, you therefore cannot judge. Then if you've seen it and you think, ultimately it's very dissatisfying, you get way more angry than if you were coming to a picture show and leaving in three seconds. So, there are very tough parameters, but nevertheless, I think that a lot of artists who produce work these days are naturally aware of the fact that these are the problems, so ... Nobody's going to sit through a twenty-four hour cycle if it's a conceptual project. Frankly, if at any point you come in, you get your treat, and it may be three minutes and it may be an hour, but not twenty-four.

GJH: Maybe we're at a point now where the work is being created more with audience in mind than ever before.

MS: Yes, and I think that artists are aware of that, because ultimately the centuries-old question, "Who do you make your art for? Is it for yourself or for others to see?" comes into play. It was very hard to break from 3,000 years of history of the stationary object. It's a huge task, but, you know, that's what artists do. Yes, this consciousness, you're completely right, comes into play more and more.

GJH: Do you find that most artists you're working with are very technologically savvy and capable themselves? Are there artists you are working with that conceive of conceptual projects that require an outside editor or programmer to realize the final piece?

MS: I think the latter is becoming more common, but clearly artists have to be savvy to a certain degree to know the parameters of the medium, what it can and cannot do. I mean there's always this initial strategy of mainstreaming the medium, but artists have to be well-informed to produce interesting works. I think a lot of artists I know are, but you learn that. I wasn't initially very technically conversant, and I still am not. I try to preserve this to tell you the truth, because I don't want to be overwhelmed and overly fascinated by technology, because that's of no interest. Technology really should first and foremost be a communicative tool. An artist may be extremely knowledgeable about programming, but this doesn't mean that their work will reference code directly. Those who are informed, those who know what's going on in the world in terms of media and computers and communication, will reflect that knowledge in their ideas, and then choose their medium. There are no easy answers here, but it's a totally exciting thing.