SFMOMA'S Curator of Media Arts, Rudolf Frieling, is seeing moving image artists return to obsolete technologies, be it film as film or slides or 8-bit computer games.

Rudolf Frieling Looks to Technologies New, Old for SFMOMA's Screens

Michael Fox January 3, 2011

Now in his fifth year as curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Rudolf Frieling has achieved an always compelling mix of the obscure and provocative (the 2008 show Room for Thought: Alexander Hahn and Yves Netzhammer) and the accessible and entertaining (Bruce Conner’s Three Screen Ray last year). The German native came to SFMOMA after more than a decade in various curatorial positions at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. We sat down one quiet morning around the holidays to talk about his acclimation to the Bay Area, philosophy of curating and the programs he’s lined up for 2011.

SF360: I’m curious, first of all, how your perception of Bay Area audiences differs from your original expectations.

Rudolf Frieling: Coming here in the summer of 2006, I didn’t have a clear picture of what I would get into. I had made visits and I had been completely mesmerized by the openness and the charm and the sun, and there were a lot of good vibrations about coming here—

SF360: Especially from Germany.

Frieling: Especially when visiting from a cold Germany in November, so it felt like a very good place to work and live. I only gradually understood the complexity and also the intellectual stimulus of the Bay Area as a kind of habitat, as a culture. Basically seen from Europe, the Bay Area had a history dating back to the ’60s but at the same time it meant Stanford, UC Berkeley, Silicon Valley. I was not really familiar with the richness and texture of the culture here. I certainly was not familiar with a lot of the ramifications of the historical components and their presence today in terms of film, in terms of performance, music, literature and all of those parts. So in one way I was quite unprepared for what I think is a very, very rich texture. And in another way my expectations have been fulfilled.

One of the things that I thought would happen here is you have a very, very responsive audience. And I can clearly say that is what I expected and what I found. On the other hand, I had no familiarity with working in an American institution. And specifically with working in an institution that has more than 600,000 visitors per year and a large portion of that is tourists. So I was really dealing with a public that is very broad. Fortunately, my programs so far have gotten good feedback from all kinds of people. It is clearly not as rigorous and as maybe intellectually—the Americans would say at this point 'elitist'—

SF360: A critic would say 'formally challenging.'

Frieling: Or as formally challenging as things I was involved in earlier. But at the same time it sort of sharpened my programs in looking for works that are accessible to a larger audience while at the same time not getting rid of some of the intellectual and conceptual rigorousness that you would like to see happening in a museum of modern art.

SF360: That’s interesting, as I was hoping you discovered that audiences were more willing to be challenged than you had expected.

Frieling: I knew SFMOMA from two previous visits as a professional before applying here, and from what I saw in 2005 when I came here a couple of times. I really didn’t have a clear picture of what the legacy and history of this museum was or is. I should say that it has a great reputation in Europe. I wasn’t expecting to be immersed in and confronted with what you call a commercial environment. And I should also say that SFMOMA has a legacy of really groundbreaking shows over the last decades.

SF360: Including video.

Frieling: Definitely including video, including film, as we all know, including performance, and it has shaped, to a very important degree, the understanding and dissemination of contemporary art in the Bay Area, if not nationally. At the same time it’s privately funded and it needs to be commercially viable and successful, so there is clearly a pressure on getting visitors. And we all know that, we all understand that. A current project, Stephanie Syjuco’s Shadow Shop, invites 200 local artists to sell merchandise here in the museum. She is very consciously acknowledging the fact that we do live in a capitalist society, in a commercial environment, and that there are strategies and ways to work within that structure and not completely be submersed and submerged and inundated by those pressures but to keep your identity as an artist and to play with that. So it’s a much more playful, almost tactical, reaction to those conditions. That’s from an artistic point of view. You could also say that I would like to see my program as something that tries to do that from a curatorial perspective. One of my key moves here in the beginning was to really look at what participation in art would mean, and I did this show called The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now in 2008-2009, fortunately at a time when we were not yet hit by the economic crisis. It was a project that stimulated a lot of new ways of looking at what a museum does and what a museum will do in the future, or should be doing in the future. I was surprised that the museum so fully embraced that concept and I was surprised by the actual success of that show in relation to the public in the Bay Area.

SF360: It’s an old question, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on how audiences perceive video in a gallery setting as opposed to projected in a theater.

Frieling: Well, these questions have been around for so long and have been discussed so widely I feel I don’t have anything new to say about that, but clearly it’s a success story. I remember when I sort of grew up professionally in the ’80s, just the very idea of a video projector seemed like a blasphemy and seemed so almost capitalist and so spectacle-oriented and all those issues. I remember some people saying, ‘If you work with U-Matic, you’re a capitalist.’ U-Matic was a semi-professional video format in the ‘80s. You were basically a traitor to the more democratic VHS medium. So there have always been ideological fights attached to upcoming tools, technological and electronic tools. I see that as a lost cause from the very beginning and I’ve never had an interest in pursuing that or maintaining a more purist point of view. What I see is interesting though, is that speaking today in 2010 there is clearly a sense that we’re not fighting these fights any more. We are rather confronted with a whole tech-savvy society that kind of surpassed the artists, left and right, by inventing tools, by using tools everywhere. It’s ubiquitous and that has serious implications for how artists work. One of the implications is that it’s hard for you to be the technological avant-garde when hundreds of kids aged 16 or 17 can already do a much better job technologically than you do. So you see all of a sudden artists’ return to obsolete technologies, be it film as film or slides or 8-bit computer games or whatever old tools you have..

SF360: As long as you brought up technology, where does the Internet fit in?

Frieling: Today you have social networking tools and Web 2.0 just like you have a return to old and obsolete formats. It’s side by side. It’s parallel. I think that is wonderful, actually, and we’re not fighting those fights anymore: ‘Is this actually new media now? Do we have to be new when we talk about media art?’ And that is liberating. At least for me. I’m not interested in being technologically the most advanced curator there is. But I’m interested in also bringing that into play. To give you one example, we don’t have to be the museum that is the first in Second Life with a project. But if there is a great artistic project for Second Life, we’d be happy to do it. Actually we’ve done it. We’ve done one project with Lynn Hershman for The Art of Participation in 2008. But we’re not tied to that. So I’m not the 'new media curator,' I’m the “curator of media arts,” and media arts can even go back to radio, can go back to print if that was about a new way of distribution systems, for example. If you could find an interesting angle from today’s perspective, then we can look at media art in many different formats.

Since we’re talking for a magazine that is mostly concerned with film and your initial question was about gallery versus theater, what I love is when these two different formats sort of play together and come together—when we have a work that can be viewed constantly either as film in the galleries or as a transfer to video, but we also create a theatrical event and show the same work under different conditions for maybe a different audience as a film projection. Another opportunity obviously is to look for works that use the theater in a different way, possibly as a continuous stream of film or possibly as a theatrical site for performance, film screening plus performance, maybe for an audio concert—all of these possible iterations for what it could mean to actually listen to an event. We have become so used to using new and constantly changing formats of technology in the galleries in the museum at large, that we’re not really challenged—let’s say fundamentally challenged—by the very fact that this is a new technology. We’re eager, happy, to explore whatever an artist is challenging us with.

SF360: So our world has become less about the machine or how the image is created than about the evolution of our relationship to the image? Everybody has a cell phone with a camera, and when they watch a video in a gallery their relationship to it is altogether different than it was 20 years ago.

Frieling: Well, clearly one of the things that The Art of Participation was doing was to look at the ways that people relate to the museum or to art, the way that they use the museum as a site of experience and the way that they use technologies to disseminate information and reflect upon it. Like everybody else, the museum is also trying to understand how to deal with that, and in an artistic way. Basically, what we’re trying to do is look at new developments and our position in society as a museum through artistic projects. And we need challenging and interesting artistic projects for that. The way that plays out, for instance, is we have to change our institutional policy in relation to photography in the museum. We’re now embracing the fact that people are taking pictures. On Open Space, the SFMOMA blog, we say, ‘Here is our point of view and here is your point of view and here are actually many other points of view.’ This is much more of a dialogue-based activity that we’re doing in general, whether in relation to an artist or an artist in relation to us or to the public, or whether that includes the public. You can find both sides of the equation equally invested in dialogue. Just as much as it could be invested in narcissism. (Laughs.) But that’s fine, the way that people use the museum to take pictures of themselves in front of an artwork. We want to reflect on that rather than critique it, or we want to reflect on the fact that people are looking for an experience, just as much as they’re looking for education.

SF360: Which is an argument against putting a video on the Web and letting people watch at home by themselves.

Frieling: Not necessarily, but we like to stress the link to the physical location. One of the things I initiated here was to acknowledge that, while SFMOMA was among the first to commission Web projects, we hadn’t yet embraced that as something we could actually collect. Now we’ve started collecting some Web projects. Lynn Hershman’s Agent Ruby is one, Julia Scher’s Predictive Engineering, which is currently on view, is another. We currently exhibit a wonderful piece by the French artist Marie Sester called Access which has a Web component. We’re also exhibiting a translation of a Web project into the gallery format—that’s Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s Learning to Love You More, part of the collection show called The More Things Change. Local artist Stephanie Syjuco transformed all of those materials that were collectively produced over seven years from 2002 to 2009 into a slide-show series of videos, audios, something that unfolds over time but just two assignments per day. The next day two other assignments, so over 35 days we go through the full archive of this Web site. Clearly that is not an experience of browsing a Web site but you can, as you said, have that at home. What we want to do is to reflect on what it means to exhibit that, and how can that be exhibited in a new way. This is by far not the only way you can do that. This is just an experiment. So yes, I am very much interested in the way that the gallery space, the museum space, or let’s say, the art space at large relates to the virtual space.

SF360: What was the favorite piece you saw in 2010?

Frieling: My favorite thing was actually something that you couldn’t see, but you could only experience by talking and by walking. That was Tino Sehgal’s exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum [in New York]. He had two works, so to speak, on view: The Kiss and This Is Progress, which was a series of conversations that you had with four individuals all different in age, from a kid 10 or 11 years old to an old man or an old woman. So you were making progress through the ages as you were walking up the ramp of the Guggenheim. And each time you had a different conversation of what it means to talk about progress. ‘What is progress?’ Having conversations in the museum, I think, is just fantastic. This is really what we all want anyway from human interaction, but having very specifically framed and conditioned interactions with individuals as art is something that’s quite new and radical. Currently we have a work by Tino Sehgal installed in our atrium. It’s new and people will have to experience that as they go into the museum. The idea that you can be challenged by something so radically anti-visual at the same time having such a wonderful, engaging experience has really taken me but also taken us as a collecting institution to a new level.

SF360: What other trends do you see, perhaps reflected in upcoming installations at SFMOMA?

Frieling: You know, I really don’t believe in trends. Having said that, it is still possible to see artists come up with something that you haven’t experienced, that is new, and whenever I see that I get totally fascinated and excited about it. We exhibited Bruce Conner’s Three Screen Ray as a three-channel projection in the galleries and if you knew Bruce Conner you would be surprised that at the end of his day, at the end of his artistic career, he was so fully embracing the digital as a way to review his own practice. It felt like you were reviewing his earlier films through this new format, and it was one of the most successful media art pieces we’ve ever shown in this museum in the gallery. The idea that we are in an age of review and remix and still it provides you with really fundamental challenging experiences, Bruce Connor stands for that for me.

A Belgian artist called David Claerbout will have a show [Architecture of Narrative] opening here in May that includes two or three works specifically dealing with transitions between two different media. He comes from an interest in photography and film at the same time. One work is a projection called White House and what you’re looking at is a film that seems like a straightforward short narrative of two people of color somehow getting into a fight in a somewhat romantic but maybe also colonial or post-colonial setting. This is looped and if you go back to this film, maybe at a later point, you will see the same film again but in a different lighting, a different time of the day, as a matter of fact. This film is synchronized with the clock. You look at the film at 11:00 a.m. in a different lighting than at 6:00 at night. So this film is actually a database film with a total length of 13 hours. It was shot, I believe, over 70 times at the same location with different times of day and different lighting and different settings and different atmospheres. Reviewing the same film under different conditions will take some dedication from the viewer to actually experience that level. But it is possible, it is there for you to come back to. Coming back to a work of art at a different time of day, to have a different viewing experience, I find that fascinating.

A second work is Sections of a Happy Moment, where you look at what seems like a slide show. It has music and it is projected as a digital video, and you look at a series of stills, or what looks like stills. And each time you see this from a different angle. But this is taken so far that you wonder, ‘Well, how is it possible that you are looking at the same image again and again from a different perspective and still it is always the same scene?’ As if he had had 150 cameras synchronized and taking the same shot at the same second. That is clearly impossible, and I’m not going to disclose how it was done, but it becomes almost a physical 3D environment that you are experiencing from severa; different angles and always disclosing different aspects of the complexity of a narrative scene. Which is just a family playing ball. It is so banal but it has a specific setting referring to modernity, and it has certain social implications that are referenced. It refers to cinema as well—

SF360: And the blurry line between documentary and fiction.

Frieling: Yes. And with a third work, 'The American Room,' he is taking that another step further by including cinematic devices in traveling through pictures, traveling through photography, and then almost stitching it together in a way that you feel you are traveling through space. It feels three-dimensional and you also have a Dolby surround-sound that enhances that experience. It’s situated somewhere in that gray zone between photography and film. And it is both at the same time. It is very flat in terms of its visuals but it is a traveling shot through an interior space.

SF360: I can’t wait for this Claerbout show.

Frieling: In a completely different way we’ll have the L.A.-based artist Sharon Lockhart come with a film in the fall. Lunch Break is about a shipyard factory in Maine. It’s about industrial labor and it is about an actual lunch break. It’s a long, 80-minute linear traveling shot. And she achieved that by producing something like 12 minutes of actual footage and then slowing it down so much that it is extended and really feels like this almost super-saturated slow-motion that is so slow, in fact, that you often don’t see how things change. And she is depicting a world of individuals, of individuality, subjectivity within the setting of an industrial past.

SF360: I’m thinking of Warhol, I’m thinking of Michael Snow.

Frieling: Of course, it’s all there, the whole history of film experimentation is there. But it does that not so much as a formal challenge or as an interest in formality or concepts, but rather through an interest in the people and the setting and the kind of findings and relics that actually make up the film set.  She accompanies it with a series of photographs that are about, for example, lunch boxes, or the way that we individualize our working spaces.

SF360: The past meets the present.

Frieling: Most of these works are pretty advanced in terms of the digital production as well as the playback. We often now have to include servers and large files to be played back in the galleries. This is again an ongoing transformation of the museum world. You thought you could sit back and just relax because now we have DVDs, but DVDs are not here to stay; we are moving into a world where you just deal with files off computers, Mac Minis or servers. But the works that I’m interested in do not necessarily foreground that aspect. That’s right, what you said. I’m much more interested in a conversation that these works have with either film history or art history or institutional histories, and we’re interested specifically in finding works that can give you a sense of a contemporary look at that. Why is Sharon Lockhart contemporary? Because she is actually going back to what is almost lost, that is, the whole industrial idea of work and labor. I think that is an important point to make in the Bay Area so close to Silicon Valley. Our society is still based on industrial labor and we should not forget that. At the same time we’re looking at that through highly advanced digital technology.

SF360: We keep coming back to technology somehow, don’t we?

Frieling: Your earlier question about images, how we deal images, is certainly something I’m interested in, but I am the curator of media arts so I have a very personal interest in media and technologies. That’s not because I’m a tech freak. Not at all. But I’m interested in the way that this introduces an almost non-human component, a sort of machine-based aesthetic that is clearly pointing to opportunities of imagery and acoustics that are different from what a human can create. So that dialogue—what a machine can do, what kind of generations of images, sounds, programs, etc, can come out of machines that go beyond what you can do as an artist—is something I’ve been interested in for a long time.

You can also say that is an interest in chance procedures. Where can you be confronted with something that is not programmed, that is not curated, that is not preconceived but rather a chance encounter or an unforeseen fact. To make this an even larger issue, it’s an interest in losing control. In losing control as a curator, while at the same time you obviously need to control certain conditions because you’re working in an institution. But opening up to other factors that contribute to what you’re doing inside the galleries is an interest in a more collaborative idea of production. If you want to embrace the idea that you cannot control every single aspect of what you’re doing and it’s actually OK, you’re not going to die because you do not control every single aspect of your life, then it’s actually wonderful. It opens up a new world of experiences. My message in this museum is also to say, ‘You know, it’s OK if things change.’ One of the discussions we have in the galleries right now, is that title, The More Things Change in relation to a collection show of contemporary works from all departments. The traditional notion of collection show is definitely ‘This is not going to change, this is the canon of what they collected.’ We’re saying, ‘Well, yes, we do make decisions, we do make choices, we select, but at the same time we’re interested in ways that this has changed over time and is going to change over time.’ All of a sudden you’re part of a fundamental dialogue and conversation that might be political or might be about art or might just be about the way that you and I talk. So it is not all based on technology, but more based on processes. Whether that is Web-based or sound-based or just image-based, it doesn’t matter to me. But I am interested in process-oriented ways of working, and in collaborative ways of working.

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