On Art and Populism: Mohammad Salemy on the New Centre for Research & Practice


 The online school bridges the gap between legacy institutions and new knowledge production

03/02 2016 One reason I like the New Centre for Research & Practice is the way it constructs itself out of tools made available by the internet. Implicitly, even the school’s chosen moniker, the New Centre, suggests what potential gets realized through the use of this context. A school in pragmatic terms, the project is also an embedded reflection on what kind of capacity the network creates. Registered in the State of Michigan (under the category of a Licensed Proprietary School) the non-profit offers graduate-level certificates, along with a range of related on and off-line activities. Started in the Fall of 2014, the New Centre has quickly established itself as a presence, in part due to pent up demand brick and mortar institutions have been slow to meet. However, in this conversation the curator and artist, Mohammad Salemy, one of the school’s three co-founders, makes clear their mission is not oppositional but supplementary to educational resources provided by traditional institutions. With a big shout out to Google docs, the web app Mohammad and I used to conduct this discussion over the last two weeks.

Rosemary Heather (RH): Can you talk about the origins of this project?

Mohammad Salemy (MS): The New Centre was established due to a common interest amongst its founders — myself, Jason Adams and Tony Yanick — in philosophy and theory, in particular their contemporary and emerging forms. We wanted to see how these new approaches could be put to work in a variety of disciplines, with a special emphasis on the arts, technology, and politics. We shared a desire for new intellectual spaces, and new forms of research and development in these new areas of thought. We first focused on online seminars. These are taught face-to-face via Google Hangouts, for video conferencing, and Google Classroom, a platform for maintaining classroom environments. Later on, we opened a new focus on research and publishing, including ten different research groups on the areas of accelerationism, the anthropocene, new art, new music, postcapitalism, and poststatism. Our approach is to identify groundbreaking research agendas and bring together the people central to their development with students and scholars seeking to take their work in new directions. Our publishing platform &&& (tripleampresand.org) publishes the results and disseminates other works by The New Centre community.

RH: Since the Kunsthalle Wien planned their Political Populism exhibition late in 2014, the tendency has only become more pronounced, in Europe and the US. We could say the solution populist politicians offer to a perceived crisis of legitimacy is dubious, but it’s an authentic channeling of discontent nonetheless. Can I draw an analogy here? Can the New Centre for Research & Practice be said to be similarly providing an alternative to an academic establishment perceived to be at an impasse?

MS: If anything, our collective operations at The New Centre can be said to represent a form of academic populism. This can only be accurate if we redefine our understanding of the notions of pop and popular. We are popular to the extent that the increasingly youthful face of our academic world — for instance, the average age of those attending PhD programs has dropped dramatically in the last two decades — demands forms of knowledge that are in tune with the contemporary world, not just politically but also in terms of epistemology. We organize seminars, events and activities that bring new thinkers, scholars and artists to a global audience using available web technologies as the Centre’s physical and institutional platforms. Given the popularity of everything digital and networked these days, and of social media in particular, we are also popular because we operate out of this virtual space rather than depend on traditional educational infrastructure like a campus, studios, etc. However, unlike the movements associated with para academia, we see ourselves as a fluid space which surrounds and extends, rather than opposes, the capabilities of traditional academic institutions. Our objective is to legitimize newer forms of knowledge through our collaborative work with universities, colleges, and other physical institutions like galleries and museums. We think these institutions, despite their material and political limitations still provide an irreplaceable set of tools and valuable networks for the advancement of new discourses that are yet to be canonized. Most of our members and students are already connected to universities and other institutions as professors, graduate students, researchers or artists. They come to us because they find our services a necessary complement to what they otherwise pursue in their own work.

RH: It seems accurate to call The New Centre a decentralized initiative. On your website, you talk about “accelerating academia” and “ecologizing knowledge.” Both concepts can be described as capacities of the network. What effects do you see resulting from the project specifically due to the platform you are working from?


MS: Not only are we more decentralized than other educational platforms, but we are also intent on becoming even more decentralized as we grow. First of all myself and my cofounders, Jason and Tony, are geographically dispersed, often residing in different parts of the world. For the longest time, until Machines that Matter our collaborative conference with e-flux in New York (December 2014), we had not even met in person and had done everything via the internet, from registering The New Centre as a school in Michigan to setting up various service accounts with government and private entities. In regards to accelerating academia and ecologizing knowledge, the key is in having an ear for what is emerging from inside and outside of academia, and shortening the feedback loop through which the works of the younger generation of researchers and graduates become validated and available to others who are pursuing higher level education. On the practical level, we see the school lending a hand to those who might have remained outside the academic gates by upgrading their knowledge and skills and helping them enter the academic world faster. What we mean by ecologizing knowledge is a networked process in which the seminars, syllabuses and assignments will find new ramifications outside of the classroom. To facilitate this, we try to connect our educational services to other activities inside and outside The New Centre. This is a process through which not only a new knowledge but also a new environment for its reception and evaluation is constructed, basically through networks established via the interactions between the wider internet and the institution.

RH: “Shaping the future” is one of the stated goals of the school. Is this in respect of an ideal of progressive politics? What set of political ideas frame The New Centre project?

MS: Jason and Tony come from other trajectories, and also we tend to have both overlapping and diverging point of views in relation to politics. Perhaps what unites our political horizon is the faith we have in the collective human capacity for self improvement via human and non-human technologies, both on the singular and collective levels. For myself, the political dimension of The New Centre is encapsulated in a term I have been using lately: “epistopolitics.” As far as political economy is concerned, an accelerationist project like The New Centre can never be merely political, but can perhaps be epistopolitical. In my opinion, political emancipation can only be possible as a result of an intense epistemological revolution that transforms the entire social fabric, including the outlook of the capitalist class, and a complete revamping of the structures and processes that constitute contemporary liberal democracies. Epistopolitics describes the entanglement of politics with the theory of knowledge and vice versa, which instead of restating Foucault’s position on the relationship between knowledge and power (i.e., knowledge is political) shows how truth, or more precisely the production of knowledge, can only be emancipatory if the trajectory of its politics is also emancipatory. This means an emancipatory political project will be doomed to fail if it remains untouched by a transformation of the existing theories of knowledge. Epistopolitics is the ultimate politics, which consists of producing a knowledge that uses both the critical (negative) and constructive (positive) forms of looking at the world to secure qualitative gains in the general production of knowledge towards collective emancipation.

RH: British political philosopher John Gray said recently that our best thinking today is happening in mainstream culture, not the academy. He cited as an example the way certain TV series (Breaking Bad, for instance) are able to dramatize ethical contradictions. I agree; it’s hard not to notice the many ways that mainstream culture is progressive. How do you then position a project like The New Centre, with its commitment to advanced political and philosophical thinking? Is the model of the avant-garde relevant?

MS: It is impossible to define a contemporary ontology for an avant-garde carved out of its history and actuality from the 20th century. If we forgo ontology and instead identify an avant-garde based on its process and function, then I think it is possible to talk about The New Centre as an avant-garde project. The difference is that in the traditional definition of the term, innovation and radicality is articulated through the 20th century metaphor of war and confrontation that imagines the avant-garde in the front line of political and cultural battles. For us, if there is any avant-garde, it must be found as isolated and dispersed elements and entities within the larger universe of social, artistic, political and scientific fields and institutions. The New Centre can claim this mantle by being both the agent of cohesion, bringing these elements together, and vehicles for navigation, using networked resources to move the whole operation, and not just its front rows, forward.

RH: How do you reconcile the work you do at the The New Centre with your work as a curator and practicing artist?

MS: Even in the strictest definition of the term “curatorial,” the work of a curator already includes the creation of public education programs in relation to other activities of the museum or gallery, like exhibitions. In my case, the collaboration with Jason and Tony began as a result of working together on the Incredible Machines conference, which was a curatorial initiative I undertook in 2013–14 culminating in a part real/part virtual gathering of thinkers, scholars and artists around the themes of computation and cybernetics. Respectively, our work at The New Centre is at least partially — if not completely — curatorial. It takes curatorial skills to compose a virtual institution of learning out of digital bits and parts that are generated on different platforms. So much of managing our virtual institution has to do with maintaining its virtual interface on a regular basis, like an ongoing exhibition of interdisciplinary work with parts being operational separately but also together as a whole. If at the end of the day the function of a good exhibition or another kind of curatorial project is to bring people together and generate questions, conversations — and possibly plans of action — around a theme or concern, I think one can see how what we do at The New Centre overlaps with the activities of any rigorous curatorial team.

It’s also interesting to talk about my practice as an artist, which itself is a cross between curatorial and conceptual practices. In recent years my work has involved taking large data sets extracted from technological platforms like Google, social media, or archived live television broadcasts, and using them to create novel and critical forms of cybernetics involving humans and machines. In this way, I see an overlap between working as an artist, a curator or a programmer at The New Centre.


Mohammad Salemy is an independent NYC/Vancouver-based critic and curator from Iran. He has curated exhibitions at the Koerner Gallery and AMS Gallery at the University of British Columbia, as well as the Satellite Gallery and Dadabase. He co-curated Faces exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. In 2014, Salemy organized the Incredible Machines conference in Vancouver. Salemy holds a masters degree in Critical and Curatorial Studies from the University of British Columbia.

This is one of ten posts written to accompany the Kunsthalle Wien’s Political Populism exhibition (November 11, 2015 – February 2, 2016).

The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, Thailand 2009

The 35th Toronto International Film Festival 2009

by Rosemary Heather

For all their stately elegance and clarity of intent, on the whole, the films I saw in the Wavelengths section of TIFF, a series of screenings devoted to avant-garde film, were not involving. The comments I jotted down tell the story. My notes are voluminous. I made jokes and then would write “haha!” when I thought I was being funny. It was like I was ‘live blogging’ (one of the jokes I made…haha). They were the musings of someone venturing to entertain themselves; I was compensating for what wasn’t happening on the screen. It may be a cheap shot to say I had a good nap during avant-garde film eminence Ernie Gehr’s Waterfront Follies (2009), but it’s true. Although, I knew there was a point to the film’s strategy of presenting long static shots of a sunset in a bay somewhere,I struggled to remember what it was. In Gehr’s case, refusing to abide by the conventions of narrative cinema has the value of deepening and expanding upon the viewer’s perception of time, and to a certain extent, his film succeeded in having this effect on me. Given the deeply distracted state of a portable-computing-enhanced contemporary existence, it is curious to think there would be no need for an antidote like this. But I would be happy if I never saw Gehr’s film, or any film like it, again.

Even given my apparent unsuitability for such viewing, I am tempted to say that our culture has moved on from the lessons avant-garde cinema has to teach us. But there were films in the Wavelengths screenings that I enjoyed. The TIFF audience was lucky enough to see Titan (2008) by Klaus Lutz, a screening that was dedicated in memorium to the Swiss filmmaker, who died just days before he was about to travel to Toronto for the festival. The film, which features Lutz making his way, sometimes crawling insect-like, through a gorgeous, optically-printed universe, fulfills an ambition close to the heart of the discipline: to recreate cinema in its originary moment, when it is closest to the dream state. Shot in lustrous black and white, Titan is profoundly connected to the now seemingly ancient traditions of the European avant-garde. The announcement of the filmmaker’s death moments before the film’s screening made it all the more otherworldly. Klaus Lutz (1940-2009) R.I.P.

I also liked the always-terrific Harun Farocki’s In comparison (2009), for counter-intuitive reasons. Does a short documentary about methods of brickmaking in different countries have to be boring? Not in Farocki’s case; the exercise was meditative and instructive. Adhering to a brick-like one-after-another structure, In comparison exemplified the ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ approach to filmmaking. Instead of voice-over narration, Farocki used intertitles with brick diagrams to give his images’ context. Constructing a subtle joke about the very idea of inference, In comparison brings a message about the coherence of a world infused with an everyday intelligence.

By far the best film I saw in Wavelengths was A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) by Apichatpong Weersethakul. In a landscape of pretenders, Weersethakul is the real deal: an artist working at the leading edge of cinematic practice today. Far from keeping his audience at the formalized distance so characteristic of the avant-garde ethos, he makes full use of cinema’s ability to immerse viewers in an experience of time and place. As with Weersethakul’s features, A Letter… is highly evocative of its location (in a luscious, rain-soaked Nabua in northeastern Thailand), but otherwise has little in common with conventional narrative cinema. Lacking the perspective of any view of the horizon, panoramic shots of the jungle work to create an interior space, inside of which the film situates the viewer. Matching the circular movement of the camera is the narrator’s repeat readings of the titular letter. Far from being an exercise in cinematic distanciation, Weersethakul makes believers of us all.

If once abhorred as being complicit with a spectacle-driven mass entertainment industry, the possibilities inherent to cinematic seduction would today seem to offer a viable strategy to the avant-garde – if only because of the level of sophistication such a strategy assumes on the part of its audience. This makes Tsai Ming-Liang’s Face the best film I saw at TIFF – although saying so is itself controversial, mainly because a number of people I talked to thought it was bad, their verdict, they suggested, backed-up by a more general consensus. Albeit long and sometimes overwrought, Face is also absurdly ambitious and extravagantly beautiful. How to enumerate its pleasures?

A series of languorous tableaux shot in Taipei, and later in the film, in and around the Louvre (for which it was a commission), Face dazzles because of the faith it invests in the power of the image. Ming-Liang has an extraordinary ability to construct film segments that reward that faith. He then redoubles the complement, through the assumption he makes that he doesn’t have to explain anything. Aside from tangentially taking place within an imaginative realm governed by the tale of Salomé, Face follows no narrative. All power to an audience that likes their cinema majestically realized and unfettered by any further explanation.

Face succeeds because of what its structure of successive tableaux allows Ming-Liang to get away with: melodrama, grand emotions, stark eroticism. It gives him the freedom to unapologetically create the world he wants. If it happens to be a world fluent in the aspirational language of globalism at its most perverse – a world of luxury and elitism, blissfully free of any knowledge of the underclass – so be it. That makes Ming-Liang’s film all the more appropriate as a coda to our era.

I liked Face because it affirms the value of beauty in the world, and of material things, as opposed to the infinite regress of irony and the referent. In this sense it shares much in common with Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009), except for the part about beauty, and maybe the irony too – with Korine its hard to tell. A polar opposite to Ming-Liang’s film, Trash Humpers would seem to be the product of an auteur who set out to make the worst film he could possibly think of; and in return has received nothing but accolades for his trouble. Korine’s audacity begins with his decision to shoot on VHS and blow it up to a murky 35mm. It continues with the film’s opening sequence: young people made-up to look like old people humping plastic garbage cans. This as advertised brilliance continues. The Trash Humpers smash things up, and then break into a passable-enough tap dance. Mysteriously absorbing, Korine somehow manages to sustain our interest, in itself a considerable accomplishment, given the ugly look of the film and the behaviour on view.

Some people have argued that Trash Humpers would work better as an installation, but I think on the contrary it is entirely suited to its presentation as cinema. Filmic duration and a seated (not to say captive – plenty of people left the screening I attended) audience allows it to unfold as if emanating from a recognizable place. The people in it are recognizable too. The poverty of experience on display is after all not so far fetched. You can see it every night on American TV. Notably, on shows like America’s Dumbest Criminals that seem to consist solely of meth-fuelled car cashes caught on surveillance camera, the grainy veracity of which Trash Humpers recreates. If I admit that the latter is a personal favorite of mine, I say so without attempting to justify my viewing on any terms other than voyeurism. The show offers the exploits (and exploitation of) the American underclass as entertainment. This is something I understand much better now after seeing Korine’s film. He gives the phenomenon a context larger than my own prurient interest. So I have to say “Thanks, Harmony!” – you have, paradoxically, made my world a little bit bigger and more humane. What better goal is there for cinema?

Vassily Bourikas talks to Rosemary Heather

Vassily Bourikas

Vassily Bourikas is the programmer of the Experimental Forum at the Thessalonikki Film Festival. His passion for the format combined with an exceptional ability to root-out lost and forgotten film artifacts make for viewing experiences quite unlike any other. His Amantes Sunt Amentes  programme for instance, seen at last November’s 50th edition of TIFF, brought together unknown 8-gage films by the Serb Ljubomir Simunic; an equally obscure feature-length film made by Hollywood character actor, Timothy Carey; Super-8 epics from Jeff Keen, an overlooked progenitor of the early British underground; and sui generis feature film experiments by the mad Italian theatre director, Carmelo Bene. Seen together, these films have the effect of demolishing notions one might have that experimental film is a completed project. Conversaton with Bourikas reveals a deeper connection between the films he programs and his perception that exisiting orders, whatever they happen to be, can always do with some disruption and reordering from below. I spoke with Vassily in Thessalonikki, after we had shots of raki he had been given as a gift, and before he had to rush off to present another one of his programmes at the Festival.

I guess we could start with an observation. Your programming is quite distinctive  I’ve followed what you’ve done here pretty closely and I thought that there was a common denominatorin pretty much every film there is nudity or sexual content and gunshots…

Is there!? I never noticed that.

Yeah! But that’s specific to what was happening at that time; and to your interest in experimental film from the 60’s and 70’s.

You mean the Serbian Kino Clubs programmes or in all the programmes?

All of the programmes, I mean they’re all experimental to a certain degree, so I just wondered if you could elaborate more on that interest …

I thought that too, when I  saw the films in the cinema with the audience, I thought, “Hey there’s a lot of tits in this film!” But not in most films, it’s just what stays with you, maybe. Because if you think about it there’s some nudity in maybe one one film per programme of the Serbian Kino Clubs. There is nothing like that, not a single gunshot or a naked person in the Ex-Yu Experimental programme.

But there were gunshots in the Ex-Yugoslav programme! On the soundtrack in Vlado Kristi’s Poor People (Arme Leute) (1963). This really spoke to me about the time that these films were made, there was a lot of tumult. 

This was a time of turmoil in the streets–and in the jungles–but it was also the time when avant-garde cinema all over the world was laying its theoretical foundations. Avant Garde scholarship is still very much devoted to work from that era. Material and structural films, were developed then. Most of the avant-garde filmmakers we revere today made their mark around that time. But many of the films in these programs are not part of that canon and have not made their mark yet. So I didn’t really focus on whether there would be gunshots or not in them, the fact they were made at that time was good enough a reason to want to put them in this “picture”.

Military sounds, drumming, marching, and nudity. It’s expressive of the time, there’s an expression of freedom and anti-authoritarian attitudes, and this goes with the form of the films…

I think it just happened those days, from the early 60’s till the mid 70’s, that people expressed themselves differently and used the form as they felt. Like Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena (1972), which is a rather unique example, but also many other American films they did not obey rules, there were more stream of consciousness works back then. Films like Doctor Chicago by George Manupelli (1968) or Ron Rice’s Queen of Sheeba meets the Atom Man (1963), or what Jack Smith was doing. That’s when people were revolting against conformity in any way they could. But what is interesting is that you notice this same attitude at the same time even when looking at these most precursory expressions of film experimentation from Yugoslavia. It was similar in many other Eastern Bloc countries.  

There was so much open-mindedness and originality in the experimental film in those parts of the world, and we don’t know about it. The issue is still with us today: Where do we look for this type of work, which is very important in certain ways for cinema and for media altogether?

So how did it come about that you did this programme of cinema from former Yugoslavia?

I was travelling a lot to Hungary by train, preparing programmes on Hungarian experimental cinema, which I find is equally neglected. There was a lot for me to see there, they have an organized archive. As I was passing through Serbia, I came across snippets of forgotten films at the AFC (Akademski Filmski Centar).  I first came across a couple of films and some catalogues in Serbian. With the second visit I found a few more; and then I felt the need to go there again.  Soon I realized, when looking at Yugoslavian cinema, not the mainstream, but the narrative fiction film from that time, that its techniques and themes where very progressive. In the early works by Makavejev, for example, you find extensive use of found footage, appropriated in a feature length fiction film made for the general public.

And that was done without much fanfare. So I thought, there must be interesting works from there. I mean, thinking about Amos Vogel’s book Film as a Subversive Art (1974). The cover of the book is a scene from Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). It’s not a coincidence. Makavejev at that time epitomised the global subversive film, he was very open-minded, was not really concerned only about Yugoslavia, but was not ashamed to be from there. He was showing the world what was happening in his country, but at the same time looking at everywhere else. 

As you said, it’s interesting to show that certain cultural currents are global and may move through different societies

Yeah, It’s just that now we don’t remember and acknowledge this. I learnt a lot about that last year because of the programmes we did with Ivan Ladislav Galeta. He taught me a lot about a festival called GEFF (Genre Film Festival) in Zagreb.  A couple of years ago there was a GREAT presentation at the Rotterdam Film Festival about the history of another Festival, the equally important Knokke-le-Zoute. This festival was held in a small town in Belgium and in the early sixties was also hailed as a key event for avant-garde film in Europe. I guess it still is. It was a really international event with important artists from all over the world.  But there was very little work from the East of Europe at Knokke Le Zout, as if nothing of the sort was produced on the other side of the Iron Curtain.  

At the same time there was this GEFF festival in Croatia, it started in 1959—so it was Yugoslavia then—showing works from the West as much as from the East. People were very open-minded about film, there were a lot of philosophers and even clerical philosophers—theologists and writers—discussing cinema, but also theater poetry, all the arts. Galeta told me that back then certain films like Le Chant D’amour (1950) by Jean Genet were banned in France, but you could watch them in a state funded festival in Yugoslavia.

People forget how cosmopolitan Yugoslavia was up to about 1972. I don’t know much about politics, but I can imagine that the early days of Socialism in a country like Yugoslavia–which was not even Stalinist–would be interesting. We never really think about it, but this is a country that has been penalised more than any other–not Serbia the whole of Yugoslavia–in the region after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whereas before that, it was the land with the most liberal model of Socialism in the east of Europe. So I was really curious to see what happened there in an artistic way. And I’m not talking about artists like Marina Abramović, who had a career abroad, but the people who stayed there, those we never really hear about.

What you find out if you look at the credits of those films is that these filmmakers who  experimented in the Kino Clubs worked very much together, despite their different ethnic backgrounds, which later caused civil wars. They loved each other, exactly those were the words of one of the people interviewed for our publication. 

They loved each other because they were all artists, he told me. I do believe that; they were people living in urban environments, caring about the exchange of ideas. Being an artist back then and over there seemed to me to be different concept from what we are used to today. When it came to what they saw as avant-garde cinema, there were different systems and ways of thinking in the different parts of Yugoslavia. But there were very good ideas in every area, and they were blending together very well. It was a period of vitality in that country and I think it’s one that we should explore, not just in experimental film.

I thought all the films you showed in the Experimental Forum had in common a kind of a sensibility, as I mentioned before, a lack of concern for conventions, or the desire to explode the conventions, and an anti-authoritarian very liberated attitude.   I’m  curious about what your interest is in this type of film?

Everything! I like everything, as long as it’s free. ‘Experimental film’–that category–the way that it is pigeonholed, is actually quite conservative, in my opinion. We must look for what is really free, and we must show it. We should not manufacture it. Especially with the kind of film that claims to be an experiment.

The Ex-Yu films we showed were made in film clubs by amateurs, there was no ambition  to become rich or famous through that work. In Yugoslavia there was freedom at a certain stage, or at least people believed there was and that they could make what they wanted to. Until the authorities took notice and pulled the plug on them. This entire historical and political context became for me a very interesting area of focus for my presentations at TIFF.

And the idea of being free and of doing exactly what you love made me think more about the concept of amateurism. Which is not about being an amateur in the sense of not caring too much about detail; it’s more about really loving what you do and not having any aspirations for getting financial reward or glory from it. This leads to the next big section of the  Experimental Forum, which was called Amantes Sunt Amentes; that is Latin for “lovers are lunatics”. The word Amantes is etymologically quite close to the word ‘amateur’. I wanted to say that many of these filmmakers were people who desperately needed to get their work produced. And I think we have so much to learn from them. One can take the path of professional industry run cinema. The professional cinema will always have possibility to reach more people, because its structures exist almost since the beginning of “cinema TIME”. But for me it’s ridiculous to think that we are facilitating a professional structure of experimental or avant-garde cinema production, because such a thing shouldn’t exist, you know, and it does.

Can you define what that is, the professional structure of avant-garde?

Okay well, I mean I don’t know if I am going to get people upset for saying this, but I think there are a lot of filmmakers who are creating the work based on what already has been done, what already has been approved, historicized . That is often apolitical or minimal or basically, shall I say, superficial, based on very vague philosophical notions and ideas that could be talked about forever but they don’t have any relevance to people. The general public is not expected to understand. I am concerned about a certain regurgitation of concepts and subjects, a repetition of formal treatments. And one notices that much of this work is the result of a regular cooperation with academic structures, arts councils, and perhaps festivals .

In every profession, there are people who always manage to get as much as they can from a given condition, like a situation that supports the arts, and they can do it well. And it’s good that this support exists, because the arts need to be funded. But art councils and film festivals shouldn’t just create a circle of the “funded” and “supported” for a standardised kind of experimental film work, produced by the same people and their artistic offspring. In the feature-length film sector, it is not uncommon for important  festivals to fund a production, then to select it, maybe even give it a prize; or national film funding authorities that fund certain films and then make sure that these films have to be shown.

It shouldn’t be like that in the realm of experimental film. It should be more free. It’s good to fund some filmmakers, but it’s also really important to go and find those that never got funding and never got help and still found ways to get their films made. And to give them a tap on the shoulder, even if they don’t need it. When I see that the type of work that doesn’t get much attention and is not going to be shown, whereas other films are repeatedly shown from festival to festival, the same people, you know, the same organisers and the same structures, then, yeah, maybe I will make that decision and say, “I’m not going to show any of that because it’s going to be shown anyway. I will go find something else; there has got to be something else. “

It’s a good project to expand or dismantle the canon, and to show that it’s still living. I think this is what your programming does is show that this type of film is not just solidified into this thing in the past, but is still really alive. Jeff Keen’s films, for instance, are incredibly fresh. Carmelo Bene–this is like almost nothing I’ve ever seen before. I felt so energised by it, and the Yugoslav films as well.

I think it’s not just about considering different countries that do not get shown as much, like Serbia, but it’s also about different modes of operation, about how people worked. Like maybe people wouldn’t put Carmelo Bene in an Experimental film section, but why not? Why does Experimental film need to be short or really long? Or why should avant garde film have no actors and acting in it? What rule says that this is not an experiment, if it is as free and as radical and philosophical and weird? Because it’s not about originality, these people are not looking for a gimmick that would set them apart.

They are just what they are, and I find that free. I feel that art is, by nature, something that should oppose the structures that suppress us. It’s about expressing yourself against whatever everybody else says.  These films, like you said, they show that this thing is still alive, we haven’t closed that circle. Maybe those people were forgotten on purpose or by accident, I don’t know, but if we like their work and if we think that it is valid today then we should go back and find it. It might remind us that we can also do this for what’s going on today.

So that leads me to the question about your method of discovering these filmmakers who’ve been forgotten, like Timothy Carey or Ljubomir Šimunić?

I think everybody has got some sort of spider sense, or something, and sometimes you just see a photograph and you think, “What’s this?” And then you ask a question, and then you get a first answer, and you start realising that something is interesting there, and sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just if you carry on asking a lot of questions you might get some interesting answers, and if you lift up a lot of rocks you might find something somewhere underneath, so you’ve just got to do it often.

And you are creating a platform for this…

A small platform. I think that this would be nice if it remains a small platform because there are a lot of other important things out there to do in many aspects of life. But if we had a lot of small platforms it would be a lot better because then we could choose. Rather than everyone going to one big platform, if all these little small platforms were left alone and free to decide who they want to play with, then it would be interesting to see what happens when they come together and big platforms or bigger meetings could occur, but they would done freely.

The Thessaloniki festival gets impressive audiences, big audiences, it doesn’t matter what the time of the day is. And they largely stay at the screenings, they’re interested. I thought that maybe there was an ability to access this material because it’s retrospective and also the programming is identified with a region…

Not all of the films are about the region, I mean we showed Harun Farocki’s “In Comparison” (2009), and loads of people came to see this great film. But what impressed me is that people carried on coming, and on the weekdays too, and that’s nice. And it’s interesting that these are people from all walks of life; we’re not related to each other, like often occurs in such film screenings .

It’s not a ghetto.

It’s not an artistic ghetto definitely. You see people from all walks of life, all ages, all type of financial strata. I knew that from last year and I was impressed and that’s what gave me the energy to carry on working harder this year to make a bigger programme. In my introduction for the catalogue I was asked to answer the question that was the motto for this year’s festival, which is: ‘Why Cinema Now?’

It was a peculiar question but it made me consider my involvement with experimental cinema. To me its important not to take cinema away from the traditional audience of the movies, which is pretty much everybody in a dark room not aware of what the other person is wearing, what they look like, how pretty they are. But you do know what they feel, maybe, how they gasp or how they cry or how they laugh, which is what you do in a dark room. I thought it’s an important question and that we could answer it with programmes that say: “Experimental cinema can be interesting now”. I think it’s a question I would like to carry on answering for a while: Why do we do it? Who do we do it for, basically? Is it just for a bunch of people somewhere else? What’s the point to be avant-garde when you’re the avant-garde of nothing. The avant-garde is a scout , in military terms, for the rest of the bunch; it seems now we’ve got an avant-garde that’s leading just itself. And doesn’t give a shit about where anybody else is going.

This interview originally published by apengine.org (now defunct) in spring 2010.

Ryan Trecartin Makes Art Cool Again

Ryan Trecartin, K-Corea INC.K (section a), 2009.

By Rosemary Heather


The third time I visited Ryan Trecartin’s show of video installations,  Any Ever in Toronto, it was near the end of the exhibition. People moved from room to room, notebooks in hand, recording their thoughts. Like few other art events I can think of, the show contained within it the seeds of a conversation. See Ryan Trecartin’s work and you want to talk about it.

Trecartin opens up a space that is innate to video’s technological capabilities; yet, before him, no one had quite dared to go there. And treading where others fear to tread can produce fear itself. Fear and a reluctance to engage is one response his work tends to get. Fear because a goal of sensory perception overload would seem to be one of the first principles from which Trecartin operates.

Ramping up the confusion, he leaves no aspect of the world within the frame unaltered. His performers, some of them former aspiring Disney child stars, wear a hybrid of clubbing gear and campy almost-drag. Spaces are filled-up with bodies and things; in one video, a gaggle of boys and girls in blonde wigs simper and scream while crowded onto a bus. Competing with the actors are layers of motion graphics, of the kind you might see on an infomercial – that is, the graphics normally relegated to a netherworld of bad video aesthetics – which are overlaid or inset, or spin and scroll across the screen.

Trecartin himself, ubiquitous throughout his work, sports bitchy attitude and mastectomy scars. Faces are adorned with self-tan, white lipstick or day-glo swatches of colour; this is make-up applied to bring the work’s human element into alignment with its tawdry mise-en-scene. The scenarios play out among the accoutrements of a cheap Florida vacation; Trecartin produced the videos in the nine rooms of a rented house in Miami. His use of disposable IKEA dreck makes sense, considering the casual destruction the performers wreck on the place.

People break things and smash Blackberries against the floor. Posters of things like fluffy white dogs on the walls further help to fragment the screen space, and everything is accompanied by the drone of cheesy synthesizer music. When the actors speak, their voices are sped-up, an especial irritant for some viewers. People talk into cell phones, or mimic this by holding thumb and pinkie up to their face, all the while mugging for the camera.

Trecartin’s extreme emphasis on artifice helps to reinforce the feeling that you and the performers in his work exist in separate worlds.  The focal point of a single camera lens means you peer into the frame, and they peer out at you. Trecartin’s actors seem stuck in a box; one in which they are always compelled to perform for the camera. Of course, such an existential state of affairs would only seem like hell to a portion of Trecartin’s audience. The actors he works with are adept at suggesting this is their native habitat. It’s a naturalism of sorts, if of a world organized along the lines of a hilarious late night trip to the 711, where fluorescent lighting, a riot of purchasable items and the drugs you took are responsible for your disorientating experience of the place. It’s a world as seen through the frame of TV, but with no discernible narrative – Sit-com or otherwise – to give it coherence.

Keeping the operatic pitch of Trecartin’s vision in check, ensuring that, finally, there is order in this world, is the absolute brilliance of the artist’s language and editing technique. As with every other aspect of the work, the lines delivered by the performers are fragmented and nonsensical – but what poetry! “Don’t worry, my death was really sexy and ultra tan!” Or in the opening moments of the video, K-Corea INC.K (section a) (2009) “I really need a case of atmosphere. Are you finding Position? It’s such a hunt.” He achieves the imagined ideal of an invented language that remains comprehensible. The same could be said for his work as a whole.

In response, people I’ve talked to have called Trecartin’s work “empty.” “Visually stunning but vapid” opined a friend; another disparaged it rather grandly as “outtakes from the world’s worst reality show.” In contrast to this opprobrium, the most intriguing comment I heard is that Trecartin’s work gives us “a new way to look at the world.” Let’s shorten that to “new”, as in “what kind of news does this artist bring us”? My guess: Trecartin answers the question about exactly where contemporary art fits into the cultural landscape. As with the response to his work, the news is both good and bad.

In his excellent book, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2010), John Lanchester observes that a postmodern era in finance led to the 2008 meltdown: “value, in the realm of finance capital, parallels the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism.”  The financial world of course runs parallel to the artworld; at many points, the two intersect. As recent events have shown, both realms are adept at conjuring value out of practically nothing. Compared to the art profession, the financial world is a relative latecomer to this game, one who found itself seduced by the question: how far can you abstract monetary value away from its origin in real things before it collapses?  It is still digging out from the wreckage of the answer it got. By comparison, the art system proves its resilience. It produces value around consensus that, however specious sometimes, is far from reckless. Art offers a model for the management of risk that is finely calibrated, and though it may conspire to elicit the occasional bad bet, it probably won’t ever collapse.

Trecartin’s work confirms something about this truth of the art world as purveyor of bankable assets. But he does this by showing us how the artwork as a value unto itself survives in spite of that. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, while the art business might be a centre of value production, it for the most part isn’t a centre of cultural energy today. It’s easy enough to find this energy elsewhere; I hardly need to name the culprit: suffice to say, if you are reading this, you are looking it. Trecartin smuggles some of this energy into the art gallery and its inhabitants, who are used to more calculated outrages, are amazed.  Even the Guggenheim, while acknowledging YouTube’s power with its Play Biennial, balked at going the full distance in their efforts. Almost all of the 25 shortlisted videos are slick graphic animations. This isn’t what people care about on YouTube, which is at its best as a hybrid vernacular entertainment medium and communications tool. I took note when I heard my friend say Trecartin gives us a “new way to look at the world”, partly because it’s such a big claim, but more important, because it begs the question why is Trecartin accorded this honour and not Facebook and YouTube? Isn’t the Internet the new way we look at the world, so obvious we can’t see it staring us in the face? Why is it we need art to tell us what we are seeing is New, confirming the truth of what we already intuitively understood?

Trecartin relates to this new internet-defined field of play first of all as an unselfconscious participant. As a performer, image-maker and manipulator, he is one among the thousands who upload material everyday to the web. Second, Trecartin acts out his affinity with web aesthetics in his use of what Hito Steyerl has termed the ‘ poor image’. While not making degraded images per se, the sheer busyness of Trecartin’s videos places his work within the visual field of the degraded image produced by illicit copies, cellphones, handheld video cameras, and webcams. Widespread access to video technology means the image proliferates, and on the whole, its legion of producers isn’t too concerned about quality. The degree of visual noise Trecartin crams into his videos, places his work on the low end of what Steyerl identifies as the contemporary hierarchy of images, with “sharpness…and high resolution” being at the top; as Steyerl points out, this competition between image qualities is a form of class struggle. In Any Ever co-curator  Jon Davies’ characterisation, Trecartin “transforms the space of the screen into that of the computer desktop with hundreds of windows open.”  He degrades the video image by overloading it with information and indulging in its worst aesthetic tendencies.

A wildly accomplished practitioner of his craft, Trecartin is widely lauded but his work does tend to inspire a certain amount of aversion. I suspect this is because he single-handedly revives the dynamic between high and low art; something a largely ossified artworld had forgotten about. However, even though Trecartin’s work might expose other visual art conceits to be hopelessly dated, the significance of the work he makes goes beyond that. Trecartin is important because he reaffirms the value of art beyond its monetary worth. He shows us the role artworks can play in reducing the world to its purely visual dimension. His work helps us extract what is New from the morass of everyday experience so that we can see it as historically specific, of today and therefore quite alien to any idea we might have of the past. It’s the Shock of the New all over again; how surprising to discover again that artworks have to the power to deliver it.

This text orginally published on apengine.org (now defunct), December, 2010.

Bruce LaBruce in Conversation with Rosemary Heather

Canadian art provocateur Bruce La Bruce
Bruce sees porn as the last radical art form

Well, Googie in Super 8½says “I don’t give a damn about continuity.” And it is kind of a luxury, continuity. Because you have to have a person who is specifically hired to do that job and you really need someone who knows what they’re doing. The person who was doing it on Otto had no clue what she was doing and she’d never done it before and she would come to me and explain all the continuity errors of a scene that I just shot after the fact. And I’d be like, “Oh well, thanks for telling me now”. After everything had been shot…

Army of YouTube

Faced with the awe-inspiring popularity of web-monoliths like YouTube, contemporary art risks becoming nothing more than a quaint relic of the 20th century.

It’s probably not fair to compare contemporary art practice with YouTube; yet there is evidence to suggest that somewhere in the ulterior of its collective brain, the art world does just this, and finds itself lacking. How else to understand the ongoing assurances given in art exhibition press releases and catalogue essays about the important role the viewer plays in the construction of meaning – and the intention to facilitate it with this very exhibition?

If artists once played a leading – avant garde – role in providing a complex and forward-looking framework for reflection on the contemporary world, it now seems most comfortable bringing up the rear, providing explanations for developments already intuitively understood and widely enjoyed by the culture at large.