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Silke Schmickl on body politics, video and the moving image at Beirut Art Fair 2014 – interview

The Curator of the Video Projects programme at Beirut Art Fair 2014 discusses experimental cinema in Asia and Africa. This article was originally published on Art Radar (12 September 2014). 

Silke Schmickl, Director of Paris-based film and curator label Lowave and Curator of the Video Projects sector at this year’s Beirut Art Fair, provides an insight into the changes in video art over the last decade. Beirut Art Fair will be held from 18 to 21 September 2014. 

Beirut Art Fair was founded in 2010 and is dedicated to art from the ME.NA.SA (Middle East, North Africa, South and Southeast Asia) region, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. The 2014 edition will see the participation of nearly fifty art and design galleries in Beirut, Lebanon. The Fair will include a pavilion dedicated to Indian contemporary art, as well as an exclusive platform for Lebanese designers.

There will also be a programme of experimental cinema and video from the region, curated by Silke Schmickl. The theme for this programme is “Body Politics”, and according to the Fair website, it will consist of "a series of art films that explore how contemporary artists comment on current political and social issues by means of their own bodies or those of others."   

Schmickl is an independent curator, as well as the co-founder and Director of Lowave, which has grown over the past decade to constitute a curatorial platform of research in the field of moving images. Lowave has published a number of DVDs of experimental cinema and video art from around the world and has curated film programmes internationally, including at Contemporary Art Platform (Kuwait, 2014), Incubate Festival (The Netherlands, 2013), Institute of Contemporary Arts (Singapore, 2013), the third Guangzhou Triennial (2008) and across France. 

Art Radar asked Silke Schmickl about the upcoming programme of the Beirut Art Fair, and how video art has changed over the years. 

Image: Sookon Ang, Exorcise Me, 2013, video, 3:13. Image courtesy the artist.

Could you tell our readers about Lowave, the label dedicated to experimental film, video art and the moving image that you co-founded in 2002 and presently direct? 

Lowave started as a publishing house for video art and experimental film in 2002. We wanted to create a new marketplace for artist films beyond the gallery and festival circuits, and Lowave was one of the first art film labels of its kind in the world. At that time, it was difficult to see artists’ films and DVD was a great way to make them accessible and help them travel outside these established networks. After VHS tapes, DVD technology was revolutionary and allowed us to develop an editorial line to curate thematic, regional and monographic programmes and to enrich them with artist interviews, critical texts, image galleries and biographies. 

Our DVDs were mainly sold in museums, film and art shops, as well as bigger retail chains such as Fnac, Virgin or Amazon. They were also bought by educational, film or art-related institutions which started renting the programmes for public screenings and exhibitions. That’s how Lowave became a distributor and a programmer. We later also started some film production with artists we liked and who needed structural support. I always thought that it was interesting how we did everything the other way round – the traditional way would have been to produce, distribute and then publish. Our development was always intuitively driven, based on observations, human encounters and artistic desires, much more than economic strategies. 

In recent years, Lowave has turned more into a platform for curatorial research, principally of moving images: exhibition concepts, film programming and performances, production of audiovisual projects, artistic consultations, teaching and workshops are Lowave’s main focus today. Distribution has become a side activity, and we have decided to stop DVD publishing this year as the market is slowly disappearing. The singularity of Lowave’s work is still the same – its international scope, with a strong interest in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, interdisciplinary and intercultural crossings, and highlighting emerging artists.

Lowave is now 12 years old. Over this period of time, how have video art and experimental cinema evolved? And, how has Lowave’s focus shifted or expanded over these years? 

The video art changes have been closely linked to the change of technology. Twelve years ago, some of the video artists we worked with just came out of their first experiences with numatic, high-8 or even VHS tapes. The first editing softwares were basic, and the editing style was still very much inspired by analog film editing techniques. There was also a passion for some basic effects, such as the mirror or split-screen effect, which were found in numerous works of that period. It was also the time when all of a sudden video works could be accomplished in total autonomy. Even artists with no technical background dared to experiment with the available and affordable image and sound tools and realised works without support from production houses or galleries. This is still true today, but I feel that many artists have returned to a more collaborative approach, because of interest but also because of the necessity to create a more solid framework to increase the chance for their work to be seen. 

The situation of experimental film has always been slightly different. Traditional experimental film coops, which were born out of the desire to share experiences, analog film knowledge, laboratories and technical support, still continue. These groups have always worked closely together and still do, especially now that it has become more difficult to access analog film. 

Lowave’s focus has not changed that much over the last decade, and we are still interested in combining works of different genres and techniques. We select the films we want to distribute in regards to our programmes and exhibitions, and pay attention to the sincerity of the artistic approach, the formal quality of the works and how they engage a mutual dialogue. One of today’s key questions is the editing of content, the montage, and this has always been one of our major concerns in the process of curating. In recent years, we have added more works from Asia (Human Frames) and Africa (IN/FLUX) and maybe some more narrative films and creative documentaries than we did in the beginning. 

Sarnath Banerjee, Sophistication, 2009-10, video 4:3, 5:00. Image courtesy the artist.

You are curating the Video Projects section of the Beirut Art Fair in September 2014. What was your curatorial approach? Who are the selected artists and on what basis were these selections made? 

When Laure d’Hauteville and Pascal Odille invited me to curate this year’s video programme for the Beirut Art Fair, I wanted to find a way to connect Lowave’s research and the fair’s innovative approach that goes far beyond a simple art market with numerous side projects such as conferences and exhibitions. I felt that both structures dared to go into territories where not many do. 

The theme of “Body Politics” then came quickly to my mind as it is one of the striking themes in video art from the Middle East and North Africa. Due to censorship and difficult production contexts, a number of important video artists from the region used their own body to make a political or social statement, to criticise and reflect on the mobility and also immobility of the region. Based on this idea, I continued my film research in South Asia and South East Asia and selected 16 works in total. 

The programme presents video art pieces but also some super-8 films, performance films and documentaries, each less than 10 minutes in duration so that the visitors get a chance to see them in their total duration. I have selected works created over the last ten years by ten female and six male mid-career artists: Sookoon Ang, Sarnath Banerjee, Taysir Batniji, Zoulikha Bouabdellah, Halida Boughriet, Khaled Hafez, Barbara Hlali, Katia Kameli, Lucky Kuswandi, Waheeda Mallulah, Ferhat Özgür, Monira Al Qadiri, Larissa Sansour, Shirin Abu Shaqra, Suleiman Brothers and Tan Chui Mui. 

Is video art a popular medium in the ME.NA.SA region or is it catching on? How is video art in this region different from that in other regions, like Europe – are there any unifying themes, issues or motifs that set it apart? 

Video art is definitely a popular medium in the ME.NA.SA region, and I would personally count some of the video artists from the region among the most interesting in the world. 

It is, however, difficult to attribute characteristics to a region without stereotyping it. When I initiated Human Frames, a cross cultural video art project on ten human emotions spanning from Portugal to Indonesia, I was interested in discovering regional specificities and differences, especially between Asia and Europe. After a two year-long research and after having composed the ten programmes, we could confirm that there is an omnipresent “globalised” language that appears to be dominant in regards to cultural or regional particularities. By using the same cameras, the same editing softwares and sound tools, it is nowadays often hard to tell where a video was made and how it is attached to a specific visual culture. 

What I have always appreciated about video art from the Middle East and North Africa is its commitment to the treated subject matters that are often political or socially challenging. One can feel the necessity of these works. I am also very receptive to the visual and textual poetry that is inherent in many of these works, and also the humour and irony which are powerful means to resist. More than in other art disciplines, these video works have been quickly connected to other international avant-garde movements, which is certainly due to their mobility and handiness. 

Waheeda Mallulah, Coloured Photographs, 2008, 1:40. Image courtesy the artist.

The theme of the Video Projects section at BAF is “body politics”. Could you elaborate on the theme, and why it was chosen? How have some artists and films tackled the theme? 

I can introduce the text that I have written on the programme for the exhibition catalogue: There is a camera. And a body. Both in motion, meeting and observing each other, reflecting on each other’s capacity to produce forms and consequently a visual idea. Synchronisation, then desynchronisation; frictions appear that reflect the state of a world that is characterised by tensions, obsolete systems and preconceived opinions. “Body Politics” is an art film programme that explores how contemporary artists comment on current political and social issues by means of their own bodies or those of others. Ranging from video art to experimental cinema, documentaries and performative experiences, the selection highlights how the individual can react to the bigger and rigid body of our globalised societies by exploding conventional production modes and viewing patterns. Through personal, ironic and poetic approaches, the artists invent a new visual language and take us on a cinematic journey that reintroduces a notion of humanity. 

As I mentioned before, there is a large number of interesting video works coming from the Middle East and North Africa that reflects on the potential of the body to question, denounce or re-imagine the state of the world and in particular the region. If all of the works are political, they use different strategies to communicate their ideas, whether it be humour as in Khaled Hafez’s The A77A project. On presidents and superheroes, Zoulikha Bouabdellah’s Dansons or in The Suleiman Brothers’ Rojak!; irony as in Sarnath Banerjee’s Sophistication, Monira Al Qadiri’s Oh torment (Wa waila) or Larissa Sansour’s As Space Exodus; or self-experienced situations such as Taysir Batniji’s Transit or Halida Boughriet’s Les illuminés, to mention just a few examples. 

You have curated film programmes around the world. One such exhibition was “Resistance[s]” at the 3rd Guangzhou Triennial in 2008, which also focused on artists from the Middle East and North Africa. Could you tell us more about it and the response it evoked, especially considering its location? 

I was invited in 2008 by Khaled D. Ramadan to be part of the Middle Eastern Video Art Channel that he set up for the third Guangzhou Triennial I in China. I was delighted to participate with our Resistance[s] vol. 1 and vol. 2 collection (vol. 3 was only released in 2010). It was one of the first opportunities for us to show the programme in a museum or triennial context. We installed the videos on a series of monitors, side by side, in a long occulted piece and some of them on a bigger screen. 

The reaction of the audience was overwhelming. Many visitors told me that they had never seen these kinds of images from the Middle East before. They were used to the typical media images – war scenes, checkpoints, veiled women – but had never experienced the visual power of video art works and experimental films from the region. It was fantastic to see how these works resounded in this context in a very special way and how the audience could relate to it. The theme of the Triennial, “Farewell to Post-Colonialism” was also the perfect framework for the programme. 

Mounira Al Qadiri, Oh Torment! (Wa waila), 2008, 10:00. Image courtesy the artist.

As mediums, how do video art and the moving image fare with art collectors? Are people becoming more open to collecting video and film? 

I think it is still difficult for emerging artists to sell single channel video pieces within the classical fair context. Many collectors prefer to buy an object that can be easily hung and exhibited within their collection. The format might also be tricky when it comes to sales: do you sell the digital file, a Beta tape, a film reel? What edition: 3, 5, 50? All these questions have to be thoroughly thought through, and there is still no universal answer to it. In the end, every artist has to deal with it in his or her own way. It also depends on the nature of the piece: some more narrative or documentary pieces might enter specific film collections, some more abstract pieces could become part of design collections, and so on. 

The situation is different for video art installations or specifically conceived objects that include video art or film. They might evoke the uniqueness and auratic presence of an object or sculpture and are more likely to get sold. 

At Lowave, we have experienced some changes in recent years. Ten years ago we had difficulties in dealing directly with galleries as they saw our non-limited DVDs – on which the videos were published in good quality – as a threat to their own limited market where a video that we sold for EUR 25 could be sold for EUR 5000. Gradually, their attitude changed as more and more artists put their videos on Vimeo and other online platforms. I also remember that Zineb Sedira for example had already sold the limited gallery editions of her video Don’t do to her what you did to me and then convinced her gallerist Kamel Menour to agree to its publication on Resistance[s] vol. 2. As a matter of fact, the video had hardly been seen as it was part of private collections. That’s where Lowave’s work always became precious, as it provided a wider exposure to videos that otherwise did not exist because they were sold in such exclusive circuits. 

What, according to you, are the issues and challenges that video art or artists face today? 

The basic challenges for video artists are the same as for other artists: where to find the money to produce the work, how to promote, distribute or sell it later. With an increasingly permeable fusion of the art and film market, there seem to be more possibilities for artists working with the moving image as they can be produced or exhibited in the gallery and museum contexts as well as at film festivals. Despite these widened possibilities, things are not that easy and artists can also get trapped in between. 

In cinema-related events it’s normal to receive a screening fee, which is not the case in the art world. As many experimental works are self-produced this might be the only way to earn some money. A gallery might invest in the production of a work, counting on sales afterwards. If this does not happen, it might be a one-time experience for an artist. There are many scenarios I could evoke where video artists got torn between two systems as the rules are not clear, and not every piece is suitable for both markets. The promotion and exhibition is still another aspect that remains challenging even if today’s technology allows an artists to self-distribute his or her work in various channels (internet, vod platforms, festival distribution etc.). The moving image is certainly the medium of our time and yet as an art form still difficult to handle.

Do you have any personal favourites from among the works you have selected for Beirut Art Fair’s Video Projects? 

I would not use the word favourites, but I definitely feel particularly close to some of the selected works and artists. Sookoon Ang’s, Barbara Hlali’s and Taysir Batniji’s artistic sensibility speaks to me in a special way, and not only the works presented here. I am also very receptive to Khaled Hafez and Sarnath Banerjee’s subversive humour and the visual power and subtle irony of Monira Al Quadiri’s work. 

What are Lowave’s other current and upcoming projects? 

We are currently working on a bigger project with Singaporean artists for the Singapore Festival in France in spring or summer 2015 in Paris. Under the title “Singapour mon amour”, we curate a series of art events dedicated to contemporary photography, video art, performance and literature in order to outline a portrait of the Southeast Asian city state and its emerging art scene. The events will be supplemented by a colloquium and an online publication. This online platform will then be further developed on other subjects and regions. Some components of the project will also be shown in Singapore – the film programme, for instance, will be screened at the Institute for Contemporary Arts during Art Stage Singapore in January 2015. 

Kriti Bajaj