Conversation with Michael Connor
Michael Connor

Michael Connor is Head of Exhibitions for the new gallery space at the National Film Theater in London. Prior to this he was a Curator at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool. In December 2005 Caitlin Jones sat down to talk with Michael about starting from scratch in a brand new space, what we can learn from the cinema, and the rise and fall of the "media lounge."

Caitlin Jones: So you're setting up this brand new space—a blank slate. What are some of the issues you have come up against? Can you first tell me what this new space is going to be?

Michael Connor: The project that I'm working on is an expansion of the National Film Theater in London, which is underneath Waterloo Bridge. Since 1999, part of the building has been left unused. It's been lying empty. The refurbishment is going to do a number of things. One of the most important things is to give the building a new front door and improve the street presence.

CJ: By street presence do you mean the path along the Thames there?

MC: Yes. There are 13 million people who walk by our front door every year. The NFT caters to an audience of people that learn about films, book in advance and go there for a specific program. It doesn't often attract curious onlookers. So, number 1, a new front door. Number 2, an indoor social space with seating, a bar/caf and a book shop for film-related publications. There's also going to be a small screening space for class visits and small artist talks or video screenings. We're going to be showing a lot of video from the British Film Institute's (BFI) archive in that space. And there's a project space where we're going to be doing some interactive and new media projects, where people can come in and make a project that responds to the environment. There's going to be a mediatheque, which is going to be a space with individual viewing stations where people can come in and select work from the archives to watch and comment on. The key part of the plan is a new gallery, which will exhibit works by artists working in film, video, and new media. In the past five years, film and video in particular have gotten a huge amount of attention in the UK. Millions of people a year go see video installed at the Tate and other art galleries. And of the past 24 nominees for the Turner Prize, I think eight of them have been video artists. So there's a huge amount of attention, but the work has been disconnected from its history. Often this work has been done in an experimental film and cinema context, and when you bring it into the gallery world I think you lose some of the dialogue with the history of cinema, so we're trying to reconnect it with that context and deal with that history. It's going to be both historical and contemporary and it will involve film, video and new media, and our first exhibition is going to be with Jennifer and Kevin McCoy.

CJ: So you said this is a film, video, and new media space-do you see a real difference in curating these kinds of shows? Or do you conceive of them as sort of the same thing—under the umbrella of media art/the moving image?

MC: There is so much crossover between these areas, it's difficult to define them under one umbrella. If you define new media as work that really responds to technology or looks critically at the technological world, then that would describe many artists working with film and video. On a nuts and bolts level, it's really difficult to draw a line between moving image technology and the technology of networks and digital tools.

CJ: The distinction is very blurry to me, and the idea that curating new media is an inherently different process than curating other forms of contemporary art/moving image is problematic. But I do understand that there are issues, particularly with the Internet and more interactive projects which pose particular challenges.

MC: The average visitor to FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) where I used to work in Liverpool—and I think this applies to most public arts institutions—knows three things about computers: jack doodle squat. Usability is so key for these visitors, but principles of usability are often incompatible with artists' and curators' agendas. The test should be something like, Is it possible to interact with this art work using something as simple as a joystick with a single button? If not, you are limiting audiences by a huge margin. Usability is one of the strong appeals of the recent boom in Webcam/live video processing works. It makes interacting with a work of art less scary. And oftentimes just the presence of a computer in a gallery puts people off-they are too used to having that technology contextualized by their office space. But, of course it depends on the project. With the video example there are certain things that we accept as invisible even if they're not. Like a cube monitor, which we take to be invisible. If it's shaped like a cube, then we don't think of it as a television.

CJ: Is this a goal though? To render the technology invisible?

MC: With the computer—I mean, most of the kit that we use is what you use in your home or in your office, and that's what people reference. Someone needs to design a line of computer kit that looks different from what you use in your home or office. Projection kind of helps in that respect. It's not about minimizing the object's presence, but recognizing that the computer as an object brings associations with it into the gallery. We don't have neutral gallery associations with computers. And so, as a result you have to come up with a strategy for how you're going to incorporate that physical object into the gallery—within the artists' rationale.

CJ: These things that were maybe online and highly distributable are now being turned into installation—like video became video installation. I guess it's just easier for people to deal with a computer in a gallery when it has a structure around it.

MC: On a basic level, the artist makes work on a computer—there are different strategies to deal with that. You can build a plinth around it—so it's a wooden box with a screen sticking out of it.

CJ: What if there's an interactive element to it?

MC: These are decisions you have to make. What kind of interactions do you want to enable? You could have the keyboard and mouse available. There's a touch screen. Joystick. Video camera's another one. This decision basically comes down to how complicated is the user's interaction with the piece. Do they just need to make selections with large buttons? Because in that case maybe a touch screen is the best. Although maybe you don't like the "slick" appearance of that.

CJ: Touch screens feels like a bank machine to me.

MC: Right, so keyboard and mouse. Then do you use standard office keyboard and mouse, or the metal kind with the roller ball? I always have gone for the idea of replacibility as opposed to durability where these things are concerned. I mean, look at the normal mouse. So much research went into that as to how it was used and it's the most effective device—it's rarely been improved on. You can talk to computer/human interaction experts about this stuff and they can tell you what the options are and how humans use them in real life. And that's an interesting strategy. It's often useful to have that discussion: "We have this project, and we'd like your advice. How will users be most likely to engage with this piece of technology in a meaningful way?"

CJ: That's a really interesting point.

MC: Another question you need to ask is, Do you want users to sit down, or do you want them to stand up?

CJ: Also, defining the space around the computer. Are you exposed or in private?

MC: We have an interesting design for the mediatheque where people can draw a curtain around themselves if they want privacy. It allows them to feel psychologically isolated.

CJ: We did an interesting case study on this work The Erl King, and without getting into it again, one of the most important elements of it was how it was installed. The artist was very clear about the installation parameters, which allowed for a space for someone to interact with the work, and someone to watch the work. To watch what that person is doing. Almost everything else installation-wise was variable, but these distinct spaces needed to be created. It was key.

MC: I think that's a really good principle-and I think you could multi track it in better ways than that. With some projects I've done a thing where there is a facilitated area with a gallery staff person to help on the computer. And then a more easy area where you can just access the projects, and then the advanced use area where you can do it on your own, and not be told what to do. Usually the advanced area will be the most popular area because people will use it for longer periods of time. I like that principle—because technology allows you a way to put different skins onto the same thing.

CJ: How does this apply to issues of video installation? I get very frustrated with the sound lock/light lock situation, where you walk into this space and everyone sort of hovers around a door and leans up against a wall and then shuffles out again. It seems to me a very user-unfriendly way to be exposed to art, but I'd be interested to hear what you guys are thinking along those lines.

MC: In some cases you really can't get around having a light lock—because it's not really fair to the work to have it bleached out. And some spaces are better set up than others. If you could handle having some sort of lighting just on the seating areas—so people could know where to sit. If people are given an anchor point so they can find their way there to sit or to stand, that makes it a bit easier to deal with. I think it's a bit psychologically exhausting anyways to go into a dark space.

CJ: I find it difficult, those exhibitions when it's just dark room after dark room, it gets tiring and I don't think it's a good way to look at art. So it's kind of a six of one, half dozen of the other kind of situation. Would you rather lose some of the image quality or just have people not willing to engage in the work?—which I suppose relates to your point on computer/person interaction.

MC: This is one of those ones where if you have the money to spend you can do different things like: Having a bright space with a really bright projector? I mean, that makes the experience so much more fun. Have the walls white—projector so bright that you don't lose image quality at all? I mean, that's a joyful experience.

CJ: There is also the issue of duration. I mean, how long do you expect someone to sit and engage. It's not like walking by a painting—you sort of have to sit down and engage before you decide. And in terms of making a space more accessible—you don't need to squeeze down a long corridor or wrangle a large heavy curtain to assess whether or not you actually want to watch something. This black box thing—it does pose some major problems.

MC: A lot of times the black box is trying to rebuild a cinema in a gallery. But they never do it as well. A cinema is just an installation but you have a sense of entrance—when the door shuts behind you, you know how long you're going to spend in that space—you don't worry about time so much. You have a ramped floor so that you don't have people's head in your direct line of vision. They've spent a lot of time calculating the appropriate angles specifically designed for your best viewing. Your seat is comfortable, with a back. Little lights along the aisle—speakers are hidden behind the screen and they're nice and loud. And you're right about duration—because time is such a big element of cinema.

CJ: You can't really emulate those qualities in a gallery—or maybe people just haven't tried hard enough.

MC: I think that the art world has not taken advantage of these great spaces called cinemas. I think if you're curating a gallery exhibition and you're putting on four hours of video you've done a disservice to your audience. The same thing applies to a networked project—so many online projects are incredibly open-ended. Like a visitor doesn't know when they've seen the project. And, that's OK on the Web, although even on the Web it's exhausting. I mean, I want to know how much of this I have to experience before I experience it, can comment on it, and didn't miss the hidden secret thing that would change my worldview at the very end. This is a tricky thing online and in video—telling your audience how much of it they need to deal with. And some of this can be signaled in the space. Are you giving them a sense of arrival, and a place to sit, and telling them how long the piece is? Or are you putting it on a monitor with a stool in front of it?

CJ: You said at the beginning of this interview that one of the goals of this new space at the NFT was to reconnect video art with its cinematic context. Can you elaborate on that a bit more?

MC: I have the luxury of working within the NFT, which already has three fully-equipped cinemas and will add another screening space in September. So we have the opportunity to show single-channel film and video work by artists in the cinema. The exhibition program in the gallery will tend to focus more on work that involves installation elements or is more appropriate for gallery-based viewing.

CJ: It's great to have an opportunity to use these two contexts together. With some new media works though, there's sometimes a third context. When you were at FACT, there was the larger space that was devoted to moving image but then you also had a media lounge. This idea of a media lounge is a prevalent, if questionably successful one. Can you talk about that?

MC: At FACT the distinction between work that we showed in the gallery and work that was shown in the media lounge was never very clear, because this line was difficult to draw. But the media lounge was meant to be a space where it was easy to put a lot of content together—and I think that the one-size-fits-all space, where you can access lots of new media projects, is an idea that has not yet come.

CJ: You think its time has not yet come? Or its time will not come? Or its time already came and went? I just saw a job the other day that was advertising for a curator who would also be responsible for the "new media lounge" and I was sort of surprised that this model was still being used.

MC: I mean, if you really want to show new media work in a gallery you need a space you can move around according to a project's needs. If you want to have an Internet caf with a blog that your online curator puts together with suggested projects to look at and people can surf the Web at their own leisure—that can work as well. That's more one-size-fits-all. Because normally you assume that the rationale is, "We're an institution that doesn't deal with this—we'll assign a space to it, get some computers and " The problem is that everyone needs to know about technology now—artists, curators—I mean, almost every field you're in you need to understand, to some degree, technology. These decisions, to make a digital lounge for example, got made by those people partly because-well, partly fetishizing the unknown. Maybe if they knew more about technology they might think, "Well, we don't need a dedicated space for this," maybe they would think, "We should incorporate some of this work into our program rather than having a dedicated space for it." But also, like what we were saying about cinema, we have this great space to show art on the Internet—it's called the Internet. So there's this argument about "digital divide"—like people can't always access that work. But if you look at that argument and then look at the way work is installed in galleries you have to be so advanced to decode the way to use a work in a gallery. It defeats that argument before it gets out of the starting gate.

CJ: I think this speaks to the larger issue of audience though. I do think that unfortunately art on the Internet—it's not that it's hard to understand, but it's hard to find for some people and it's hard to contextualize. Unless you go to Rhizome or some place that contextualizes the art for you, in some cases I'm not sure you're going to understand what you're looking at. I do think the gallery context has a benefit in terms of audience and potential for didactic material. I mean, I think you're right—there's no better way to present this work but on this wacky new thing called the World Wide Web. It's huge—I hear it's really taking off. I think Rhizome's Artbase 101 was a good example of physical installation of Internet art. They had a flat screen monitor that showed "recording" of a piece-depending on what it was, but they were also presented in their Web form in the gallery. So there was both this more physical presence and a network presence—which I thought was really engaging. It can exist in both of these spaces and both of these spaces are equally important. One is for you if you just want to stand back and see it. And another one is if you want to delve deeper into a project.

MC: I also liked that they got involved with the physical object thing with the Paper Rad installation. I mean just have a different relationship with objects. I think that it did exactly that. It offered work that could be appreciated on a physical or object level, and then it offered a more screen-based experience. And also a "researcher" experience, using the Web. I'm normally not a fan of headphones, but it was nice to be able to see all the works at the same time, and not be overcome by sound. As opposed to the black box thing.

CJ: I want to change gears here a bit and talk really practically about the physical space. You just mentioned that flexibility and adaptability are really important. This must be a huge part of what you're doing right now—in terms of setting up a brand new space.

MC: Well first off, we've got false floor so that you can run cabling along the floor and bring it up to any point in the gallery. Because you know, having an electrical object in the middle of a gallery floor and having no way to get power to it is really difficult. The second thing is we have a space for storage for an AV kit with cabling pulled through under the floor and at ceiling level so that we can get cabling to any point at the ceiling and the floor and keep the kit in a locked space which is a more controlled environment, safe from theft. We have a lighting rig for projector mounting—we're going to be using ceiling mounts which will come down from the ceiling. Because with a lighting rig sometimes you need to adjust a projector and it allows more flexibility. We had acoustic specialists who did an acoustic spec of the space. It's got a high enough ceiling so we could handle a large-scale projection—I didn't want to go too high with it because I feel that vertical spaces are too hard to divide up. But when you have different projects with sound, the only way to really provide sound lock is to either live with "the harmony" or to build walls with some kind of sound lock in between. In the past I've used sound curtains a lot, but I think they limit flow too much.

CJ: I find curtains to be very distracting.

MC: Yes, so now the plan is to build a doorway that overlaps and put foam padding in the doorway.

CJ: We just had a demonstration of new directional speakers—this guy from MIT came down and showed these flat circular speakers. They're pretty amazing, I mean, the sound is fairly thin, but they shoot a straight column of sound.

MC: I've experimented with those too, but here's what I wonder about that—if you're willing to sacrifice sound quality anyway, then why do you need them? Why not just have sound spill?

CJ: Well, I think that it depends on the space that you're working in. If you're working in a smaller space that is going to have maximum three installations, then I think it's less of an issue. But if you're in a larger space, potentially you're going to have 15 works competing with each other and that's where I think they could have a real value.

MC: Fair point—I can see that. It also works better for spoken works rather than music I think.

CJ: Can you talk about the mediatheque and your collecting/archival policy?

MC: We haven't written the archival policy for the gallery yet. But because the mediatheque is our big way of getting material that's in the archive so that it can be shown, I've had informal discussions with some of the artists we'll be working with about making their work available in the mediatheque. So with the McCoys for example—they have these works that have a physical side, and video, and code—there's obviously a need to document them in a lot of different ways. But what I think we're going to do is make the installation photos and video recordings of the output of their sculptures and make them available in the mediatheque. So what that means is that we don't own the work—we own documentation of the work. BFI's in a funny position because it owns all of these film prints, but it doesn't necessarily own the rights to them. And the mediatheque is an opportunity for the lawyers at the BFI to go back to the rights holders and say, "Can we show this under these limited terms for free?" and because BFI has these relationships with rights holders most of them have been very accommodating. So we've negotiated this scenario which we all think can work out: onsite viewing. And the documentation of previous installations to become part of the mediatheque space. Content that we can capture out of our exhibitions, but we don't actually acquire the work.