Talking Back to The Media project update

Camie Karstanje
Blog post
Poster made by Klaus Staeck commissioned by Talking Back to the Media, 1985.

Poster made by Klaus Staeck commisioned by Talking Back to the Media, 1985

In December 2013, Rob Perrée, author and art historian, visits de Appel Arts Centre to talk with us about his experiences with Talking Back to the Media. Talking Back to the Media was a manifestation that took place in Amsterdam during november 1985. It focussed on the media and its influence and how artist reacted to this influence. Rob Perrée helped organising the manifestation and curated the photography exhibition in Aorta. In our talk he tells us about the emancipation of the medium video, the lack of substance in contemporary art and the history of Time Based Arts. 'When I look back at Talking Back to the Media I remember it especially as a very important subject on which we worked with a group of people with like minds. I liked the process of realising more then the end result.' 

Rob Perrée: 'In 1985 I was the chairman of the board at Time Based Arts. David Garcia and Raul Marroquin were both very active as artists at our centre for video art. Especially Raul was the die-hard when it came to media, and still is. So it made a lot of sense that they presented their idea there to us. They were there every day anyway! They came with the concept and we, the organisation, took care of the execution.'

Brigitte Bélanger: 'How should I picture Time Based Arts?'

RP: 'Time Based Arts sprung from de Appel as a video centre, and Montevideo already existed. So they were in competition right from the start. The man behind Montevideo, René Coehlo, was a cameraman from origin. We have always said that Montevideo produced technical video-work, and that we produced the more conceptual work. For a long time this was the case. The video's that both centres produced were very different. 

Aart van Barneveld, the director of Time Based Arts, was a very social and binding figure. He played one of the biggest roles in TBTTM but he always stayed on the background. He made sure that the circumstances were such that a project could occur. Sometimes his role in Time Based Arts is underestimated, because he was so low profile - but he was essential.

Both Time Based Arts and Montevideo were founded because video art wasn't accepted and exhibited. At the time, there was still a lot of discussion whether it was art, because of the fact that there was a camera between the artist and the art piece. Some people still have that conviction. Museums didn't know how to show it, they didn't have any specialised rooms for it. Actually, one of the only ones that had something like that was the Stedelijk Museum, with their video-stairs. The organisation of Time Based Arts and Montevideo but also TBTTM had a lot to do with the emancipation of the medium.

Later Time Based Arts and Montevideo had to become one because the Dutch Government said there should be one national institute. And of course nobody was happy with that decision.'

Camie Karstanje: 'Were you enthusiastic about the concept of TBTTM from the start?'

RP: 'Yes I was, I visited New York a lot then, and it was a very important subject there as well, people felt that it was an essential matter.'

Intro from broadcast Talking Back to the Media on the Kabeltelevisie Amsterdam, 10 november 1985.

CK: 'Were the other organisations involved easily convinced as well?'

RP: ''We started organising the manifestation with quite a big group. And because of that we had lot of good contacts, we all visited de Appel for years so it was logical to involve them. Somebody had contacts inside the theatre, others within VPRO Radio. It was mainly a matter of making our already existing contacts enthusiastic and that wasn't so hard. You have to place it in those days. It was the time of Aorta (a squatted gallery in Amsterdam in the 80's) and this existed for a reason. It existed because the established museums did not pay attention to this kind of art; video and media art. The museums focused a lot on foreign artists and conceptual art. The 80's were the heydays of the squatters, there was this grand mentality of doing it yourself, when nobody else wanted to do it. So this manifestation was in line with that mentality. And it was all quite unique, so many disciplines and forms of media that were involved in one project. As far as I know something like this was never done before.

A lot of artists were drawn to the Netherlands because of the culture of subsidies and funds. Here everything was possible, there were a lot of institutes where you could experiment, de Appel was such a different institute back then. At de Appel everything was possible. De Appel was at the Brouwersgracht at that time, and it was a dark brick room. You came in there and you never knew what would happen. You just hoped that you wouldn't get involved in it (laughing), because that wasn't something you wanted! And there was money too. Marina Abramovic can act like she is world famous, but she became famous here. If she wasn't supported by the Dutch funds she would have never become so big. Amsterdam was a city in those days where a lot more happened.'

Brigitte Bélanger: 'Was the photography exhibition in Aorta your project?'

RP: 'Yes, I've organised that exhibition. I am not sure if there are any photographs of the exhibition, we weren't that much concerned with documenting or publicity. Aorta was a fantastic space but it was a impractical exhibition space, it was cold and humid. But that was all possible in the spirits of that time. I remember that a gigantic photographic work of Katharina Sieverding entered Aorta. It was incredibly wide and about five meters high. I remember thinking that this would turn into a disaster. And indeed: during the opening somebody stood against the work! After that we were in a struggle with the insurance company for a year. They only wanted to pay for the printing costs and not for the whole art work which then was already worth over 50,000 guldens. We weren't so experienced, but we've definitely learned from this!'

CK: 'I've read in the final report that you also underestimated the power of the media yourselves,'

RP: 'Yes but that was also the funny part, we were working on a theme of which we ourselves didn't make enough use of. That may sound silly now because nowadays everyone is so focused on publicity. But we just wanted to do things because we found importance in doing so. We wanted to involve so many institutes because they had something to do with the concept, literal and figural speaking. Nowadays it wouldn't be a good way of organizing something, but I think that we've gone too much to the other side. In our project we judged that the media was of too much influence. It would have been strange to collaborate intensively with that same media.'

BB: 'Did you have a certain goal in mind?'

RP: 'Well we mainly wanted to point out that the media was of such a big influence, and whether we managed to do so is always hard to say. I always find it hard to come to such conclusions after the end of a project. But I think we had a certain impact because the manifestation lasted for quite a long period of time. We did manage to show artist that were unknown or never shown in the Netherlands before. Richard Prince was never exhibited, Barbara Kruger was unknown.'

CK: ''Was it a new phenomenon that you presented?'

RP: 'I think it was a subconscious phenomenon. I think that people had a feeling of recognition when seeing the work that was shown for the manifestation, but that they did not noticed it themselves yet. For me that is always the hardest part for exhibitions, I really dislike educative exhibitions, I dislike to influence people with all sorts of information. But by not doing so you sometimes fall short. I've noticed that a lot of people feel the need for text and information. I've always thought: just look around, you can read at home! But I can imagine that we fell a little short to the public by communicating our message.'

BB: 'When you watch the broadcasts that you've made for the manifestation, it is striking how much relevance the themes still have.'

RP: 'Yes, it only has gotten worse. You have to be realistic, in a project you can point something out but you of course can never change something. Art hasn't got the power to change. Never. I really don't believe in that. Art asks the public to give something a moment's thought. You can hope that something happens after that, the the people feel some sort of recognition. But really change, I don't believe so.


Excerpt from broadcast Talking Back to the Media on the Kabeltelevisie Amsterdam, 10 november 1985.

CK: 'Do you think it would be possible to organise something like this nowadays?'

RP: 'No, absolutely not. Now everyone would be taking care of their 'image' or their institutions 'image'. There was much more freedom in the 80's, the art scene wanted to free themselves from what they thought was the junk from the artists before them. Video art was the symbol of this liberation, because it wasn't accepted it became anarchistic. It isn't, of course, bin this atmosphere something like this had the freedom to become big and influential. 

CK: 'What do you think of contemporary video art, are you still involved in it?

RP: 'Well, I keep an eye on it. For all of us the frustration was that at the end of the 80's, video art became booming out of the blue, without us playing any part in this. And that was very strange, also the video artists of those days were a bit frustrated. They all stood at the beginning of video art and when it finally became big, they all were sidelined. And why did it all of a sudden became big? I think art academies played a big part in that, they had started media related departments. Nowadays, all video art gets blown up and is called 'art', but often the quality isn't that good. No, that was strange. How is it possible that in a certain period you are so involved in a certain medium and then all of the sudden without you having any influence on it, it becomes so big? All of a sudden video was everywhere. And now I sometimes wish I saw less video in museums. Back then it was a lot stricter, you couldn't just walk in an out of the screenings. You had to watch the entire work, because it was all about the lapse of time. It had to do with television which was such a fragmentary medium, their reaction was to oblige the viewer to look at the whole. One of the reasons that video art was made was understanding the concept of time.'

CK: 'Did you experience a change in the activism and enthusiasm from the 80's in the 90's?

RP: 'Yes, it disappeared after the 80's and I especially have noticed a lack of it in the past ten years. The absence of the Stedelijk Museum played a part in that as well. Not having an major museum for modern art is very unfortunate for a city. You can already see a a change now (the Stedelijk Museum reopened their doors in 2012 after eight years of rebuilding). You can see that there are more activities and a city needs that. But I hope it also comes back because the situation of the artist now is comparable with the situation in the 80's, again they are not getting the attention they deserve. Just because there is no money.

CK: 'It shouldn't be too comfortable for artists?'

RP: 'No, because when it isn't, you can see that artists have the guts to make art that they will never accept at the Stedelijk. Maybe this situation will progress, I hope so. But a city has to cooperate as well. There has to be a climate in which you can realise a situation like it was back then and I am not so sure if this climate is there. A lot of artists became much more individualistic. And projects like TBTTM had nothing to do with individualism, of course there were big ego's but they will always be there. It still was a group that wanted to do something together for a bigger cause. It was in a way idealism. And that is lacking now in a lot of art made in the Netherlands. It is not about anything anymore. What do you want to tell me?

I've gotten more and more involved with non-western art because of this reason, because they still have a message, have something to say. They are not just occupied with how things should be or are supposed to be like. They are just making. So a part of the spontaneity is gone. When you are creative you have to have the guts to fail. We have been talking about nothing for too long.

Everyone seems to have a certain profession and they stick to this, art historians as well. But you can't achieve anything this way. We all are dependent on each other, we are all playing a part in this small world. And I don't understand why it matters. I guess it is the zeitgeist. I am always surprised when people talk about accepting a job because they will make a lot of money that way. That should not at all be the first criterion.'

BB: 'Everyone wants to be the rich and famous.'

CK: 'A project like TBTTM  is necessary nowadays!'

RP: 'Yes, it might be necessary but I wonder if it would be possible. With new media, like twitter, artist are always involved in it in a way which has nothing do to with the meaning. That was the same with video, there was a fascination for the possibilities of the medium. And this group of people working on TBTTM was passed this point and looked at the dangerous effects. Now you have these twitter-novels or twitter-poems, but that hasn't got anything to do with the medium, or what kind of influence twitter has on us. It has nothing to do with the meaning or substance. And art about these new media should be.