The following interview took place at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library on April 7, 2008, following a screening of the Art:21 episode Paradox. Consulting Director and video artist Charles Atlas spoke with Lia Gangitano, Director of Participant, Inc.
**Now have the chance to ask Charles Atlas your own questions about his work. Art21 will conduct a follow-up interview with him next month and will publish it on this blog. Leave a question in the comment space below by Friday, June 27 to participate!**
LIA GANGITANO: It’s a great pleasure to be here, and always an honor to have an opportunity to talk with Charlie Atlas. I thought it might be good to ask Charlie to talk a little bit about his work in television, but maybe we should start by giving a tiny bit of information about our working relationship: it has certain overlaps in terms of involvement with people and other artists, ideas about collaboration and general topics that I think are pertinent to everything that Charlie works on. The way that we know each other is through a project that occurred a few years ago at Participant Inc., which began as a discussion about the two of us doing a show together. What that show was initially going to be was sort of a screening or multiple nights of screenings selected from Charlie’s many decades of film and video work. However, as our relationship progressed it became clear that the opportunity Charlie really wanted from an alternative space such as Participant was to actually create a new work on-site, which would be somewhat based on the idea of the portrait or the street portrait.
Charlie scrapped the idea of showing any existing work in lieu of setting up a studio in the lower level of a two-level space. I don’t know if we spoke directly about it, but I got the feeling that if you could have put your studio out on the street you would have done that to be more like a street portrait and a video. What I think was really important was what unfolded in the space, which not only gave rise to a totally different kind of exhibition in that it was live for the duration of three weeks. It also was an open invitation to artists to perform or be interviewed or engage with Charlie, who was working with a variety of analog and digital tools to manipulate footage as the performance or the interview was being conducted. Does that sound right?
CHARLES ATLAS: Yes. The show that I did at Participant was called Instant Fame. It was based on an idea that I started to work on in 2003—to do live video in and as a performance. This was a further exploration of the idea of having a video studio in the gallery space, so that I could create instantaneous live portraits of whoever would come by the space. My original idea was that a very intimate space would be the creation space and that the presentation would be a very public space. So these low-key and lo-fi technological performances, interviews, or portraits would be in a space as public as Times Square. I suppose when I think back on it now it’s sort of a little pre-YouTube—the whole idea of performance, casualness, and messiness.
Over the course of three weeks I was in the gallery for four hours a day creating these things. I did 55 portraits total, some of which I later finished. The results were very short clips from the live mixes, which were simultaneously screened in a different space in the gallery. The sessions lasted anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, and it was all a continually improvised response that was done as quickly as I could according to what the people were doing. Sometimes they brought in their own music, sometimes I put on something, and sometimes we just talked. This way of working was completely new for me, but it was kind of a response in a certain way to the twenty years of work I’d done before, which was all very controlled and planned, though I suppose nothing is ever completely under control. For this one, I thought I would make things that are sketches: I would do the live mix and then I would have the original material so that I could go back and really fix it. But when I realized how much material I had and how long it would take to do a finished portrait in the style of work that I normally do, it was just too daunting to undertake. So, I decided to just go through all the live mixes and pick the best parts, though there are a few that I’ve since turned into more finished works.
Then I had the opportunity a couple of years later to do the same piece, but in London. In fact, it’s kind of a movable piece, so I felt like I could do it anywhere with anyone who came in. I found that the project really kind of called for people who are showoffs and who are performers so that I didn’t have to draw a performance out of them. I was too busy doing all the video to direct them. I had one assistant in New York, Catherine, and another assistant, Glenn, who worked with me in London. They both had to do two cameras at once while I was doing all the mixing, so we took turns if we had to talk to the people. It was really exhausting, but fun too. And, it was a different kind of work for me.
LG: They looked like pros.
CA: I’m usually working right on the edge of the technology that’s available, and my ability with the technology is getting a little better. The kind of work that I’m pursuing now has to do with live installations. I’ve also been doing laptop performances with video, like mixing live video in collaboration with a musician. But most of my work throughout the years has been video, television, and film.
LG: Since you mentioned YouTube…one of the things I wanted to ask you about was how you perceive the huge change in the relationship between television, video art, and what I guess is this sort of public forum such as YouTube, where people have almost immediate access to different kinds of media work. It seems to me that ideas about democratic forms of distribution as well as the presentation of video on television will certainly change because of YouTube.
CA: Well I can talk a little bit about that in terms of my own history. When I started working in the ‘70s, there was such a thing as art for television, art commissioned for television, and art on television. And, nowadays that doesn’t exist anymore—it stopped existing a long time ago. I’m intrigued with the idea of the Internet providing a different kind of access to video for people.
In all of the work that I had been doing, I thought I was making something to last, so I put a lot of investment, time, and care into making it as good as I could. I always thought that given the kind of material I worked with—the kinds of dancers and performers—that the works would hold up over time and over multiple viewings. It really wasn’t a very casual approach; it was, rather, a very conscious approach. I think nowadays the aesthetic is kind of different. With YouTube, the work at least has the air of being disposable, that it could just be made over and over again and shouldn’t be too high tech. I think it should be kept at a minimal level of technology so that it seems democratic.
The kind of experience that I like to have with art I’ve had in galleries, or in a movie theater, or sometimes in front of a television, but so far I’ve never had the same level of experience on the Internet. Maybe it’s just that my relationship with the computer is different, so I don’t really recognize if I’m having it. I guess if I’m going to have it, it is probably going to be completely different. I don’t know, what do you think?
LG: Well, I feel sort of similarly. It’s recently come up in regards to how people organize their experience with something like YouTube by curating for their friends by selecting specific things for each other to look at. Basically, they are trying to figure out ways to find and then guide one another to art resources on a particular subject rather than directing people to the most looked at YouTube video by everyone on the planet.
CA: People have suggested to me that I put some of my older pieces on YouTube, but I just don’t want to because if you care at all about the quality of your work and the way it’s viewed, then you just can’t put it on YouTube. When you put work on YouTube, you have to give up that control. I haven’t come down one way or the other about it, but I haven’t yet done it.
LG: The first works that I saw of yours were feature-length video works that were clearly radical. Do you think it is possible for an artist working now to find or get support to make a professional-looking feature length video?
CA: Well, it’s hard. Over the years, the time-based media that I’ve always done has changed. In the ‘70s, work was purposefully very long, and intentionally kind of a little bit boring. And that certainly changed through the ‘80s. A lot of the works that I typically did then lasted for a long time; they were at least a half an hour long. I didn’t do short pieces because I really thought that they were going to be seen by someone who would sit down either in front of a television or in a place that shows videos or films.
Nowadays, a lot of the videos being shown in curated programs are shorter because [the audience] can’t handle anything longer than ten minutes. And a lot of people make things. I eventually started making these longer works because I realized that doing a ten-minute piece wouldn’t take me that much less time than doing an hour and a half piece. Of course, it would take more time, but my ambition and desire for a challenge are very big. So, I challenged myself.
I do think that things have gotten faster and faster and shorter and shorter. I had an assistant who was one of the very early Internet savvy people and I showed her this 45-minute epic piece that I had just finished in Denmark called Superhoney, and she said, “Oh I could make a great five-minute piece out of that for the Internet.” But I didn’t take it…
LG: Is that the one with the robots?
LG: The first time I saw Superhoney is when I realized that there was a level of support for a completely over-the-top production video art piece.
CA: Well that was only because it was in Denmark. I could never have done that…
LG: It had robots.
CA: I just used every resource I could. I found a guy with robots, and he let me use them!
LG: But when I saw it, I really felt like this was a very particular moment because it was a format of video art that had kind of slipped away a little bit.
CA: Well, you know people still do them, but they do them differently. Matthew Barney does these epic fundraising efforts for his elaborate pieces. But, he makes it all back—that’s the difference. I never thought about…
CA: …making money on any of the things I did.