A talk with Jason Simon about video and its distribution.




Jason Simon: In the 50s you had two crises for Hollywood here. One was the anti-trust suits, where they said that a movie studio couldn't make the product and own the theatre. The other was TV. At the same time as television appeared the suburbs were invented, and so you had all these suburban homes, where everybody was moving to, each one with a television. That looked like the death of film.

Florian Zeyfang, Stephan Dillemuth: I thought this was a big chance for alternative film making, you couldn't get this on TV and VCR was not invented yet, so you had to go to the movie house. Watching a Hollywood movie was still possible on TV, therefor no need to go to the movie houses in the 60s and 70s for the mainstream stuff.

JS: That would be typical European, because the independent film makers were so much closer to the mainstream, anyway; whereas here, were there is such huge gulf between Hollywood and, say, Cinema 16 or the Film makers' Coop. But its obvious in Europe people like Faßbinder or Herzog took the reins. The people like that here, that would reinvent cinema at the moment of its crisis to great succes would be like Cassavettes or someone. That's a whole other ballgame and that's not part of the distribution that I was discribing before.

Z/D: The experimental film distribution?

JS: The history here is really interesting because of TV early on, but then more in our period the VCR and then film and video becoming comparable enterprises in this small community, this small network of experimental media.

Z/D: And this started with the Portapack, the early video?

JS: I am not a historian at these things. There were two little revolutions in video.

One was the Portapack that then became adopted by Vito Acconci, Nam June Paik or Dan Graham. It was very quickly incorporated into a fine arts discourse, because it was seen as this amazing conceptual tool, this little electronic system that could completely change all of these conceptual- minimalist artists' presentation of space and time.

And then, 20 or 30 years later, the Sony Camcorder, which broke down all these other kinds of barriers.

Z/D: So early video was just a fine arts thing?

JS: Video was more like a military or broadcast machine that slowly became portable. A number of artists adopted it and a lot of writing happened around it by quite respected writers in important journals, and so it reqired a sort of intellectual caché in the fine arts.

So, that idea of video is important because of how media became understood in an academic or intellectual culture. You had all of this theory that actually had been generated in the 60s around videoworks by people like Acconci or Paik. There was a sort of groundwork for an intellectual validation at that point, and then maybe the same people who were aware of that intellectual history of the early video were part of the validation for all of these younger people starting to use the Camcorders like this. Now, were we just have millions of videomakers, all doing reasonably interesting things with no reasonable place to show it...

Z/D: More and more easy to handle, video went out of the art context, ex-film makers were videomakers, and political people, journalists, grass-roots organizations used video. And I think at that time started the need to create an own distribution.

Probably out of two reasons. The reason for a political alternative group to think about distribution is different from that of film makers and artists. Could that be true? For them it is just the need to find an audience, whereas grass-roots organizations, with or without video, saw probably the need to link each other up.

JS: Fine art takes place in these institutional contexts that are elitist or exclusive, and contributed partly to this whole history of experimental film. And on the side of the political activist, documentary tradition that has its whole other network and lines of communication that are part of a larger social agenda - the differences between those two distribution systems are obvious and not so interesting. What is interesting to me is when they get confused, when artists end up doing a work that gets adopted into not a fine art context as much as a political education or consciousness-raising effort, or a political documentary that was done for purely efficacious reasons is discovered as a sort of aesthetic masterpiece and is brought into these other institutions.

Z/D: In Germany I know very few or hardly any real functioning distributors of video. How can that be made possible or how was it made possible in America?

JS: I'm sorry to say, on the universities. If you didn't have all of these unemployed film and video makers teaching and renting those films you wouldn't have those distributors. Unlike in Germany, there is a huge history of independent experimental film making and media making in the US that you never see unless you are in one of these classes; so there is a whole art history that only exists in classrooms because the cinematheques don't show everything. Otherwise it's completely dependent on the classroom; it sounds silly!

Z/D: Not only have you the universities, you have all the english speaking countries as a possible audience! Canada, New Zealand, Australia, England, the US versus Germany, Swizerland and Austria......

JS: Austria has as many film makers as America, I mean in that same sort of history - Peter Kubelka or Kurt Kren.

Z/D: How is distribution of video organized? Do they call you?

JS: Yes, they approach the film maker and they say, we would like to distribute your movie, and the film maker's heart beats fast. They sign a contract and then, twice a year, the film maker gets a letter from the distributor saying: number of rentals - zero; amount of royalties - zero ... But sometimes somebody comes along and says, I'm curating an exhibition and I like to see what you have, these issues by these artist. And now, the Video Data Bank is getting much more involved with high schools, classrooms for teenagers, and is trying to do more along these lines with media literacy, because now this is the big educational mandate.

Z/D: Are different distribution companies linked to each other? How do I find out who represents you? If I want to have a video about a certain topic, what would I do?

JS: There is a craft called programming, media curating, and part of the programme is information where to find works. These companies compete with one another, its not so much in their interest to steer you to one to find somebody's work, they rather say, we've got a better piece than that.

Z/D: That doesn't seem so much different from Germany; except that there the distributors come more from an alternative background. It's the same with "Querblick" or "Autofocus."

JS: For film and media makers in America distribution is the last thing to think about. If they thought about distribution they would never make films. So, on the one hand the infracstructure was created by all these artist or artist-affiliated faciliators; on the other hand, in fact its not integral to the production, unlike TV. The production and distribution of TV are actually hardly ever seperated.

Z/D: Compared to Germany I still think video distribution in the US seems pretty organized and advanced. But I still wonder why distribution companies don't accumulate all their information in a central data bank accessible through an Internet-Mailbox. That would make search, order and updating more easy. I also wonder why there are no specialised videostores or -libraries.

JS: This kind of distribution network which you think works so well here but doesn't really. But if you don't have it in Germany, then your video rental store might be a good idea.

Z/D: If one in every bigger city would be a public place to rent and show that stuff...

JS: When that scene was good, in the 70s, when the cinematheques were really going strong and there was a lot of work etc., it was definitely a much healthier media scene, it didn't have this sort of desperation.

Z/D: TV as a repository, where you can call it up; structuring TV like a library?

JS: The book library system here is very advanced, and it costs so much money to keep them running, especially in smaller towns. Books are always treated like a cultural heritage; you have to read books to get smart. But then, you have such a growing number of videos that have a cultural legitimacy - and this is totally neglected by the people who run these libraries. Maybe TV accept this task?

Z/D: Do you know any station that gives two hours a week to off-video and film production.

JS: Yes, on PBS and WNET they had shows, but they were killed step by step. Now there are these cable channels that programme experimental work, independently produced work. This 500-channel-model, they need a product and one of the things they are looking at showing is all of these independtly produced things.

Z/D: So, you think its getting better?

JS: Quantitatively its lager. Now you can say, this could mean its better - there are more videos, more video makers, more outlets on cable TV, or in community centres, where everybody shows videos. But qualitatively its worse. What I said before, that I think it was a better world in the 70s when the cinematheques had a sort of slightly elitist, self-validating and self-legitimating function. It was better because there was the sense that this was an art community; producing artists in the community that were self-sustaining, self-legitimating, although they were small and limited. Now its like everybody in the world gets a camcorder and makes a video and can show it on public access, in a community center or whatever. But there is no sense of whether or not its meaningful for them or anybody else.

Z/D: But maybe its a matter of curating if you are inundated by these home videos?

JS: The American Federation of Arts just dropped their film programme, and that was a huge issue. The American Film Institute in Los Angeles cancelled their video festival, a big, important festival. Curating, programming is a dying art, and its needed now more than ever.

Z/D: The political alternative video scene in Germany said: , we don't want to even be in TV, private or public, we look for other institutions, for a specific audience.

JS: In Europe I think its more likely that you could put on something different or unusual or alternative on television and expect people to be curious. In the US, people aren't curious, they are only entertained or not entertained. If you are entertained you are engaged, if you are not entertained you are not engaged. People are curious if they are either told to be curious or if they are entertained first, but I don't think television is a place where people are curious in the US now; in Europe people still are curious.

Z/D: Why not having in America also small publics that might be interested in small, exclusive and special things. Are you talking about a whole group which is whole America who all want to be entertained?

JS: But its true here that the networks made entertainment the priority. Initially education was a major priority when television was being described. The networks here said, we are not going to worry about social needs, because what people is entertainment, and based on entertainment we can sell advertising. That's why I think alternative television here is not as effective a system as the network and the infrastructure that has been created by the film makers for themselves.

Z/D: But those of the 70s and 80s, thought of themselves as specialists, who wanted to really rely on the income of distribution, now in the 90s this changed a lot. Video became a direct and easy to handle tool like a brush, a pen or a taperecorder. Material is easy to collect, it comes through hundreds of channels. In almost every exhibition nowadays you have a video playing. It explains the background, shows the research and sometimes works like an advertisement for the artist. The videos circulate quite strangely, in a good way: by exchange, rent and bootleg etc... Maybe there was a certain frustration or neglection of the income out of distribution, because its so little. But still I see the necessitiy of fusing information together, to know where things are.

JS: In the 60s it was like everybody can have fun, tying T-shirts into knots, dipping them into colors, and if you make enough T-shirts like that you can hang them out on your street corner and sell them for a dollar. In the meantime you have done something sort of fun and creative - and that seems like video now, like the tie-dye of the 90s. And the proliferation happens to coincide with the dissolution of the validating structure that the early film and video makers had set up for themselves. Now you just don't seem to have that kind of support.

Z/D: One could see a two-class-thing coming up.

JS: Yes. Not so much in television but in fine arts there is a two-class video culture; the single-channel video makers - all these former film makers, activists etc. - and then the high-tech video installation artists. Video installation is the first here in fine art video, and single-channel video culture, as a whole mix, is like a second class video-citizen. Of course, I don't agree with that judgement of the relative quality, but it exists as a hierarchy in cultural institutions. Every museum wants to own a Bill Viola or Gary Hill installation, but God forbid they just set aside a little corner for a TV and show videos.

Z/D: But you are talking about the museum. The tie-dye videomakers are the third class, like workers on the street. It is nice that the tension and the question of high and low is out. But I think it should be compiled, what is available where is it available, and it should be more curated, more structured for a public. And therefor we still have the question of quality, which is always good to have in order to find and define new qualities.

JS: And therefor it is different from TV and should not be in it. Everybody else who talks about TV talks about it as about the stupid cousin that was there for the night. That's a way to work around your actually very private and personal evening, being hypnotized alone.

Z/D: TV distorts grindstone reality, and this also can be fun to talk about. You talk about the distortion in an analytical way, virtual reality of the social.

JS: The thing is, if I say to you: Did you see last night's episode of this or that soap, I am telling you that I was home alone watching televion. Television is still such a private activity, its not a private event, the activity of engaging it is private. That's the fundamental reason why we don't talk about it, why we talk about movies. Television is essentially private, and people keep it that way; its a public event for private consumption. Whereas movies are public consumption of a private event.

Z/D: Maybe one can say, TV can be fun to watch but you always know that its not reality, and therefore its fun to watch. Either you do this or you make TV yourself and create your own reality through that. The movie is like going into a museum, like seeing art.

JS: I agree.