Talking Back To The Media: interview with Sebastian Lopez

Brigitte Bélanger
Blog post
Fragment uitzending Sebastian Lopez bij fototentoonstelling in Aorta

Sebastian Lopez was closely involved in TBTTM. He was a friend of Raul Marroquin and other curators from TBTTM and a member of the programme committee of Time Based Arts. Lopez still lives in Amsterdam nowadays. We met twice for long interviews.

The time and the context

Sebastian Lopez: When I arrived in the Netherlands from South America in 1981, I knew de Appel, because if you knew anything about avant-garde, you knew de Appel. De Appel was working on performance and video and joined the Dutch debate about video art at that time. There was a huge democracy in the 70’s, also at de Appel, there was no separation between management, art agents and employees. The importance of de Appel was the importance of the artists and vice versa.

I often went to the Mazzo, ( where I met Raul Marroquin and René Coelho. Mazzo was a disco and media centre of Amsterdam and forerunner of Montevideo. Artists and art historians came there to meet and dance. At Club Mazzo, the very first local television broadcast was made by the video artist Miguel-Ángel Cárdenas. It was a 24 hours show television, a mix of live and pre-recorded items broadcast on Local TV Channel Amsterdam, this channel is now called Salto. I looked at it at home and went to Mazzo to see it live, that was great! 

The establishment of the Netherlands at the time despised video art and TV! One of the recurring criticisms was the lack of quality of video art. But those artists didn’t have the equipment they had in Hilversum, where all the big Dutch broadcasters were. Then de Appel made sure that artists could get good equipment and production capabilities. De Appel produced a number of videos and really did her best to give everyone good equipment and production possibilities so “Hilversum” couldn't say anymore that video art didn't have quality. 

In the early 80’s, de Appel reorientated, they had their spurs in performance art and wanted to do something else. Wies Smals got the idea to form an association for video art because there were so many video artists in Amsterdam. And so Time Based Arts was founded. I still remember the noisy announcement of the establishment. The association was right away in considerable disagreement with René Coelho from Montevideo, because René disliked the competition. 

TBTTM started from Time Based Arts. There were Time Based Arts artists working with video or sound or performances. These were different directions, and there was a certain degree of mutual respect. 

The beginning of TBTTM

I was in the programme committee of Time Based Arts. This committee had to develop activities where everyone would be addressed. We believed that there had to be paid attention on the relationship between video and mass media. So we have a grant application lodged with the City of Amsterdam for TBTTM. They said, great idea, but we have no money anymore for this year. Can you wait one year? I think it was in 1983. So you can imagine TBTTM had a long history!

In 1984, we met regularly at Time Based Arts or at Ulises Carrión's home because of his great art collection, but also because we were all very close. Aart van Barneveld was the boyfriend of Ulises and he was the organiser of Time Based Arts. Well, meetings; it was very cosy. It is insane to realise that in one year, the idea for a small project with video has developed into this major project! In one year's time, the idea was expanded and became more complex.

From the beginning it was absolutely clear that video should be central and also that we wanted to add new work. This meant we needed funding for productions and also for a video festival, because we had our own collection! It was a great opportunity to show this collection.

One of the videos that de Appel produced from Ulises was called TV Tonight. He took fragments of TV and thus made a kind of argument; his analysis of what television is. It was gorgeous! It was not easy to make a video back then. A video artwork was very expensive, from the videotapes to the assembly. Therefore, it was of great importance in TBTTM to give artists production money for new work. 

At the same time, we wanted people to be aware of the new forms, not just the work of Sherman and Prince, the so-called school of NY. There were important women with thoughts and analysis: the second wave of feminism was in full swing. And I have learned a lot of women, who studied mass media, television and film. And there was a much more complex element, not only of Pop Art, which found its forms in the 70's, it began to develop in a different way.

Ulises and I felt we couldn't make TBTTM with only a video festival. The ideas we wanted to develop at TBA were so numerous that we needed more people. I was already a teacher at the Art History Institute of the University of Amsterdam, and made a work-group named TBTTM, almost every week we met. Sabrina Kamstra, Marijke Vos and Rob Perrée were students of mine, and were in this work-group.

Sebastian: Before I came to Holland I had worked at New York University, I have met young artists who have been of great interest to me, like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince and I saw the very first works of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. It was mind blowing! I befriended Cindy and Richard. These artists used the forms of mass media for their artworks.

One of the most famous series of photographs of Richard were pictures of the Marlboro man: the Cowboy and the Wild West and the mythology of masculinity and how that mirrored in Hollywood. This kind of characters where developed in the American film, Cindy was very involved in that. At that time, she had just finished the so-called film stills, which she was a character from the film. For me these experience were of great importance. I came to the Netherlands with two backgrounds: my education in Argentina, where the development of mass media was of great importance and with rich television broadcasters, and a new context, not so much the mass media in the visual arts, but the one that  really went through your body. The mass media had turned me into someone else, said Cindy Sherman. Massmedia that manipulates, such as Richard’s Marlboro man.

The photo exhibition

We also figured that we shouldn't make singular unique artworks, but that all art MUST be put back in the media. We wanted try to operate within these mass  media. With all the risks that entails: I wanted to make art on the radio, on television.

I came with the idea to create a photo exhibition and that was the more traditional element of TBTTM. So we looked for an exhibition space to use, there were also a few precious photo works and we could not put them out on the streets.

Aorta was one of the emblematic places of the squatters' movement in Amsterdam, where artists always have been involved. It was a place .... my god, 80% of the people there were artists! There was a very large exhibition space. I had a long list of artists and artworks, so the space of de Appel was far too small. Aorta was the only major place in Amsterdam. Apart from the major museums of course, but we have never thought to go visit a museum. We needed to have a place, Time Based Arts was there but we used Aorta as the meeting place. From there we let everything happen, it would be the landmark.

We had a team for a few weeks to spread the posters of Baldessari, Kruger and the others on the streets, like I had seen in New York. There was a video festival at TBA, there were four television programmes where new productions were screened. There are four radio programmes made by us at the VPRO from Time Based Arts. There was a film programme because there was a connection with the film theatre Kriterion. Marijke Vos was the coordinator of it. Saskia Bos was the only one of many people who had a little awareness of the new directions, she knew who Sherman was. Saskia came up with the idea to invite Eric Bogosian the opening of the event. Because Eric was at that time starting to use the phenomenon radio in his performances. That was one of the brilliant ideas of Saskia.

Fragment uitzending Sebastian Lopez bij fototentoonstelling in Aorta

We were so ambitious, but we couldn't do everything alone. Through collaboration we could get more money for certain parts. There was theatre in the Shaffy theatre and we wanted a publication, but not a catalogue.. So, we decided to make a magazine! We were good friends with Lydia Schouten and her then-boyfriend was a designer. With him we worked together, but he had to respect our ideas. No catalogue, no book: it had to be a magazine. On the cover should be the head of a woman, which is the case up to the present day. We regularly went to Rotterdam, since Dutch designers are very good, full of imagination, but not to be trusted. So you have to keep on checking. In the table of contents, you see artists pages that are works of art created especially for this magazine.

Ulises invited Max Bruinsma to work on the radio with him, Max was also a student at that time. Ulises took an important place in Amsterdam in the 70’s. He had an alternative space called Other Books with so with many artworks that were very advanced for that time: Books, stamps, mail art, performances and sound-poetry, which was the interest of Ulises: sound.

Fragment uitzending Ulises Carrión en Max Bruinsma bij de radio

The opening

In Aorta, where once stood the printing presses, there in the hole, stood Bogosian with his performance, and it was a lot of noise, everyone was chatting. Bogosian said, I will not go on, I quit, but he finished it anyway, although not wholeheartedly. There were heaps of people there, over 1500 I think. When John Baldesarri arrived at the opening, there was a lot of excitement. Oh fuck! John said, like in the Good Old Days. There was real vibration there!

People thought we wanted to announce a new movement, but that wasn’t the case. There was a group that started a campaign against us, in bars, in Mazzo, half a year before the event took place! Very interesting, very interesting. We were not bothered by things like that. 

At a certain moment the whole Netherlands knew of the event. And also typically Dutch: there were a few people totally against it! Artists from Tilburg or so. They have even made posters against our event! 

It was in the 80's one of the most important things that happened in the Netherlands! 

Protestants at that time also had an aversion to intellectualism. When I started talking about feminism or philosophy, they wanted to have nothing to do with it, with that nonsense! In America the Art Schools were moved to the University, so you got sociology and theology, so  artists were very learned. Until today, the texts of Victor Burgin of great importance in terms of theoretical analysis. For the Dutch it was too much hassle and theory, it’s all about the image they think.

I think it was the first time a group presented themselves this way. In the same year as TBTTM started, I wrote a book about post-modernism, which was the first book about it and it was immediately suspicious, I mean everything was suspect! What the hell is that crap, that kind of reaction. You do not know how that was. It was a lively hassle. Everybody was very involved. And then came the 90s, and people became indifferent, and with the Internet they became even more indifferent.

A couple of guys from Aorta were involved in pirates television, Rabotnik TV that was. They broke in on local TV, when regular TV was over they broke in and broadcast. That were all artists. More people then began to use the media. 

“I do not want to do anything with TV”, Raul recently said. Internet is the future. My mother who lives in a small village in Argentina has 150 TV Channels! Yesterday I read in the newspaper that the British Museum has put one million images on their website. That's going to come back into works of art!