Videonale: taking video art seriously

Georg Elben

Videonale, an international festival of contemporary video art, was launched as a student initiative in 1984 in the German city of Bonn and since then has become an influential event in the video art world. For the 13th edition this year, 48 artists from among 1776 applicants from 76 countries have been selected for the competition program of Videonale. After a two-month show at the Bonn Art Museum, Videonale will tour the world presenting its full or partial festival program.

Olena Chervonik:
You have been the Videonale's director and curator for eight years overseeing its last four editions. This July you moved to a director position in Skulpturenmuseum Glaskasten Marl, stepping down from the Videonale post. I think the time is especially appropriate to look back and reflect upon the Videonale's recent history. Could you tell us how the festival has changed during the eight years of your curatorship.

Georg Elben: The big change came when we moved to the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2004. Before it was just a weekend-long small exhibition and the screening session was the festival's primary format at the time. It was a cinema-type situation: a several-hour screening with a short presentation of each video. For me the big challenge was to move the festival to the Kunstmuseum Bonn and to establish a way to show videos in a museum. I wanted to show videos in a similar way. In a space designed for the exhibition of paintings the viewers can choose what videos to watch just by looking at them from a distance and deciding which videos looked more appealing to them, the way they would do with traditional paintings.

O.C.: Have you accomplished everything you initially wanted to do with the festival?

G.E.: What really worked like I wanted was, first of all, an increase of numbers: the increase of festival entries being sent in and of countries being involved, which indicates the growing reputation of Videonale. For a number of years I lectured and showed a Videonale program with a selection of videos in various locations abroad. Last year we were actually able to bring the entire festival to Sarajevo. This year a similar fully-fledge festival program will be shown in Katowice, Poland and in Taiwan. The international expansion means both the diversity of countries which participate in the festival and the diversity of places the Videonale travels to.

O.C.: What type of video art the Videonale is interested the most? What are the Videonale's jury selection criteria?

G.E.: We never place any requirements about the content or genre of video entries. When the jury comes together every other year I try to make it clear what we are looking for, because it's always so vague when we say we are looking for quality. We are, of course, looking for quality, for high standards. But we are not looking for something which is fashionable.
You mention a distinction between decorative and politically engaged art during one of our previous conversations. I don't believe that either one or the other is superior by itself. A decorative piece can be executed with highest quality. This year we have selected a few works that contentwise are very simple but have a catching point on a different level. We include all sorts of videos: some are narrative, some are more formalistic, some are more like video clips and others are more documentary. We have videos that address political issues and videos that explore the capacity of the medium itself, working like sculptures.

O.C.: There is really a variety of formats.

G.E.: Yes, for me, the Videonale is about variety, variety on a high level, variety that really makes understandable what video art can be. It is a kaleidoscopic view of the world.

O.C.: You don't have any content requirements for video entries. But still, at any given time artists tend to raise similar issues. So how has the content of video art changed during these eight years if it has changed at all.

G.E.: The change in video art becomes clear if you look at a longer period of time. In the 1980s a lot of artists were exploring the possibilities of the medium. They were playing with the video potential, inverting colors, exploring its structural aspects. Nowadays, video art works more with content rather than formal aspects of the medium itself. It is obvious: when there is a new technique we want to test its boundaries. When all the good and interesting technical aspects have been more or less explored, we start paying more attention to what we can say with this medium.

O.C.: So now the formal explorations are less prominent and artists work more with the subject matter.

G.E.: This is definitely something I've experienced for the last eight years. Besides, videos have become steadily longer and more complex. They acquire film characteristics. But then we can start this discussion about what a film is, which would be an entirely different and exceedingly vast topic.

O.C.: Coming back to the question of content. Are there some prominent or recurring themes that you can single out in contemporary video art?

G.E.: Is there a prominent theme in contemporary art? I would say there is none. However, there is an interesting aspect in contemporary video art, a thesis, rather than a definite statement, that needs to be explored further. I have noticed that non-Western artists are more interested in the political. I first experienced it when I went to Lima, Peru, to South America, to present the Videonale there. Then I was confronted with it in Bagalor, India, another destination of the Videonale itinerary.

Of course, there are artists in the West who also approach the political. But they go abroad, to a different part of the world and reflect upon the society there. I don't know many interesting video art works dealing with a German party system, for example. It's about labor in South Africa. Somebody from here going there to deal with this topic. But somebody from Peru would not make a video about a government system in England. They would do something about their own country. This is something I am missing in the German and Western-European art scene. In the West, art is often seen as a mere formalistic experience. That's why I am very interested in going to other places, to Eastern Europe, to Asia, to watch video art and talk about it there. I find there more attention, an eager interest in discussing various aspects of video art.

However, it is not a priory better to deal with the political or with problems of the society. You can do a very boring video dealing with a burning issue. And you can do a very artful, skillful video of something which is pure beauty, pure surface, something without a controversial content.

O.C.: Do you think a video festival the way we have it right now is going to be relevant much longer? Taking into an account the increasing mediatization of the society, we now have so many activities happening online. We already have an attempt at a virtual art fair that operates in a virtual space. Video art, which according to Walter Benjamin lacks the aura of authenticity, seems to be a perfect medium to exist in a virtual space. It is reproducible. It can be copied and watched anywhere else, not necessarily in a museum setting. So why would people come to a museum to watch videos if they can do it online in a privacy of their homes. Can we have a Videonale festival online?

G.E.: I don't believe in it. You are right, video art can be reproduced one to one without any difference. On the other side, it's not the art object itself which constitutes the authenticity, but also where and when, and how you receive it. For me it makes a big difference if you see a video on you own laptop or if you see it presented in the way we try to design in the Kunstmuseum Bonn.

O.C.: It's interesting that it's not about the object itself but in the way it's arranged in space and time.

G.E.: Right, if you are in the space that is designed for a certain purpose, you have a completely different experience. When you can concentrate on the viewing experience, not being distracted by receiving new emails or spotting something on the net. You can be completely focused. The size and the sound are also a huge consideration. We try to arrange videos like an installation in an exhibition and to create an immersive atmosphere to receive this art. Therefore, no, I don't believe that the Videonale online would be the same Videonale. It can be that the development would eventually go there. But then it would be a completely different thing.

O.C.: I have heard some people say that video medium is difficult because it requires so much concentration. You can't just have a glance at a screen and move on to the next one. You have to invest some time to watch.

G.E.: Well, on average, Germans sit in front of a TV for about four hours a day, irrespectively of the age. And they can't concentrate on a video piece for half an hour?

O.C.: Maybe because watching TV does not require so much of the intellectual processing, that's why it's easier. But it's more work to watch a video.

G.E.: Is it? Well, is it easy to look at something in the traditional fields of art and understand it immediately without exploring what it is? Of course, not. Do you think you can understand Malevich's “Black Square” or let's say Caravaggio without knowing anything about them?

O.C.: Well, you can probably enjoy Caravaggio without knowing the context.

G.E.: Maybe, when you watch a video and you can find it entertaining. But overall, art takes effort. So the mission is to make people take art seriously.