Peter Rose: Witness

Delivered at a colloquium sponsored by The National Association of Media Art Centers on the topic of "Artists' Concerns"

I confess to considerable awkwardness in approaching this topic. I feel very much of an outsider here- outside of your (the, a) history,) outside your exhibition and distribution schemes; I'm not a curator, a social historian, or a media activist. I can only offer the perspective of an artist, a kind of phenomenology of subsidy, if you will, and to try to do so by taking advantage of my freedom to speculate in some less constrained ways. I've taken the question of the aesthetic impact of public finding as a point of departure, but I will inevitably ramble quite a bit. I offer some personal observations from my experience as artist who began working in video at a time when public support has been critical, and I make some fundamental assumptions about not providing ammunition for attacks on public support for the arts. I'm going to be asking more than answering, hoping that we can at least rehearse our defense to some potentially difficult questions.

First, a theory, generalized from my expriences in Pennsylvania. Funding agencies seek to perpetuate themselves, to try to generate a greater demand for their service so as to have a claim on the larger institutional budget. This results in an effort, legitimate in principle, to promote the field they represent. The danger is that the field becomes artificially inflated; one must at first make a claim about the significance of the activity to the public-at-large; it must be embedded in a social policy of the arts. This accelerates a demand for a kind of accountability, for relevance. This, in turn, tends to promote the invention of historical and aesthetic discourses to legitimize the field; a rhetoric arises which defines "the issues" outside of which nothing exists: a new medium arises ex nihilo.

Two years ago I was nominated for one of those $35,000 Rockefeller Fellowships. The only proviso was that the work had to deal with intercultural issues. Being of proprietary mind, I soon set about trying to identify which of my current projects might qualify as "intercultural" and settled upon the notion of dealing with a fictitious culture. About whom, after all, do we hear less; who might be more "other" than those do not exist. There were tremendous possibilities for facilitating greater understanding here and I was quite enthused. The Foundation, needless to say, did not express as much (any) interest and seemed miffed that I had even brought the subject up. I was torn between shifting the terms of my work for the sake of funding and declining to apply. I declined, only later to learn that the work which had been so funded bore as little relation to the guidelines as mine. I point to this as an example of manipulation.

Much has been written, lately, about the institutionalization of avant-garde work in film through the award and receipt of grants and fellowships. To the extent that video has been, to an even greater degree than film, dependent upon, if not created by, public funds, the argument is perhaps even more sharply focussed. The assertion here is that either the system encourages the proliferation of mediocrity--that no new work of any significance has been done since the 1970's despite substantial federal and state subsidy (an argument that seems pertinent principally to film); or that the really important work that is being made cannot be so rewarded.

To propose this first stance would be to voluntarily assume membership in an old guard, and while there may be elements of truth in this judgement- it should not after all be necessary to renounce the past to embrace the present, truly phenomenal work is rare, not everything is of equal value- this attitude doesn't promote an amelioration of the situation; it is not generative-it is kind of crabby and mean-spirited and all too predictable a symptom of a tedious, generational conflict. This somewhat patrician attachment to the work of the past overlooks that the earlier work was dependent, for its influence, upon a formidable critical apparatus and that, let's face it, some of it does seem to fade in impact with the passage of time.

As to the second assertion, we must acknowledge some problems here. There are necessary constraints placed on the nature of materials submitted to review panels. One deals with a representation, if you will, of the work, which is itself, we are told, a representation. This means that works of duration, or works which accumulate meaning with time, or which are otherwise not strikingly packaged in a 10 min. sample, tend to be poorly represented. Samples become the medium under review. This distorts the panel process and risks encouraging a certain aesthetic in a manipulative way. Otherwise, you must have already established yourself or gained the favorable regard of at least one of a number of key critics or curators which at least allows an end-run around the formal strictures of the application process. This means that one must have mastered certain games, and it is unarguable that important work does not always have anything to do with these games. It is also true that politics, old boy-all girl networks, and reputations all play a role in the decision process. But can one doubt that without the system hardly anything would gather any support? I believe it is still possible, given the peer-review process and the yearly turnover on most panels, for most committed work ultimately to find some kind of support-at least as far as production. I have quite a different take on distribution, which I find far less democratic and far more oligarchic. More on this later.

Of course, there is a third alternative: that all the important work is being made via state subsidy and that a kind of addiction results, an addiction that is fueled, in the case of video, by the unrelenting obsolescence of each technological fix and by an unfortunate proscription, built into the structure of public support, against the purchase of equipment. Such a proscription prevents us from setting ourselves up as cottage industries (desk-top publishing is the model I have in mind) and obliges us, formally at least, to rely on rentals, leases, off-line situations, and media arts centers, all of which constrain us to think in units of work (so that they can be proposed), to a time-limited access to equipment, and to a provisional acquaintance with the mastery of technology. In that this latter process has had an impact on the aesthetic articulation of the medium, privileging a performative, rather than compositional strategy, it may be said to have skewed the medium in important, perhaps disturbing ways. By way of thought experiment, what would have happened if the artist-in-residence model had proliferated, if one were less obliged to turn out or propose a product and if one's access were continuous and unfettered? (In all these respects, I have great admiration for the Experimental Television Center in Owego, and have heard fine things about the TV Lab at NET) The impact of consumer video on all of this is, of course, quite to the point. As editing, time-base correction, and basic effects enter the consumer domain, will subsidies now move to higher end production, serving to underwrite, once again, capital intensive, centralizing models of production and to marginalize work produced through a more dispersed system?

Ten years ago, almost all of my media arts income derived directly from public support, from grants and fellowships. The proportion has diminished considerably lately-- to about 25%- and one might take this as evidence that such support was non-addictive. It must be acknowledged, however, that all of us who exhibit, distribute, program, write about, or watch independent, avant-garde, experimental, underground, self-indulgent, marginal, alternative, half-assed, subversive, incompetent, decentralized, multicultural work are also dependent in some indirect way upon federal and state support, as is also true of almost all of the rest of the economy. But questions remain.

What kinds of work gain such support? To the extent that one is obliged to make proposals that serve, putatively, as outlines for future activity, isn't one implicitly constrained to define and execute work so that it follows existing conventions, however personally defined? Is this support helpful? What assumptions and pressures operate during the period of the award? Is there subtle pressure to produce work that is "accessible" on some level or that favors a particular factional agenda? The question of distribution is quite relevant here. For those who have been excluded by the major public-funded arms of distribution for philosophical reasons (the tyranny of "the issues" perhaps), a personal presentation has been one of the only paths to exhibition. I confess to feeling uncomfortably accountable when I show work made with public funds to an audience of three, for example. (Someone recently told me about the salutary effects of being humiliated in front of a group of good people-in this light, some of these shows are extraordinarily therapeutic. We are all better people for having had them.) This would lead me into a whole discussion of the rights and responsibilities of travelling artists, which I think I'll avoid right now, but the point is that we are torn between making claims about the public function of our work and needing insulation from that same public. (The current controversy over the NEA is, in once sense, inevitable. I'm surprised it hasn't happened earlier. The problem is not only that repressive forces are being brought to bear against the arts, but also that those of us involved in the "marginal arts" are obliged to defend ourselves in terms that claim a public value for our work. Are we really prophetic visionaries, mutant shaman; subversive iconoclasts, are we the conscience of our race, and if so, do we really want to formalize this as a job description?)

Can any commissioned artist be entirely free from the pressure to deliver a product, to satisfy an agenda- a public instead of a private agenda? Isn't the working process potentially contaminated by the implied expectation of the granting agency that the resulting work will be exhibited, promoted, displayed? Doesn't the whole relationship resemble a "commission," with all that that entails? Is it all that different from the commercial sector? Are we being co-opted? Is this state art? (If it weren't for the fact that much subsidized work reflects a pronounced bias towards the cultural left, that the political and aesthetic values of the works are often quite countercultural, that many panelists, critics, and theoreticians, inevitably, have decidedly radical loyalties, this might be a real risk. Instead, we have a paradox, one worth preserving.)

I don't like these questions. I only know the answer I would give in the ultimate case. There is no question that many of us would not be able to make work if it were not for public support. I happen to think that some of this work is strangely beautiful, thought-provoking, powerful, and important, that it keeps us inspired and immersed in this peculiarly idealistic enterprise of making useless images that somehow matter.

On Distribution

Dear Major Video Art Distributor--

I write this letter with some double-edged sense of conscience and consciousness, for I intend to have this letter published. Thus, I have you and an audience in mind simultaneously. You are coming out with a new catalog and you expressed an interest in previewing my work. It has gained some following-- I've sold a considerable number of dubs, received favorable reviews, been widely exhibited, and would seem to be a good client from your perspective. You've had my work now for over eight months. Now I'll admit that, as Jim Hoberman has pointed out3.a, we artists, many of us, must suffer the great indignity of serving as our own agents, and that this is uncomfortable, sometimes, for all of us. This means that we will be obliged to call you, after we have deposited our work, to determine whether there is any possibility of our entering into a professional relationship with you. Quite often this is not possible, and usually there are no hard feelings. Indeed, I think many of us have as much respect for those curators who have declined our work graciously as we do for those who have sincerely supported it. You are rushed, you never have enough time to do any of the projects you'd like; grant deadlines seem to approach continuously; you can't contact all of the video artists you currently manage for copy for the catalog; you're understaffed; underfunded; maybe you've even wondered whether it's all worth it; whether there's something better just over the horizon; another world where hobos play in the sunshine and small, shrill music issues from hand-cranked harmonicas; where some kind of tapioca-like substance seems to permeate all tangible reality; where vast towers from whose polished surfaces there gleams the impenetrable light of a conceptual aphorism in which catastrophic embrace there is yet the glimpse of an unyielding spectacular specular display, a reflection that lies outside visibility- beyond color, time, and name... One has never seen such phenomena before--the words appear before you in etheric lettering-- Shemba, Parshamba, and Gunjh.............

We produce the work at no cost to you. We make limited editions and send them to you for your perusal and take some risk that the tape will be copied while away from our us. As a direct consequence of this, you gain a larger view of the field and parlay that knowledge up into curatorial power. You amass the power to determine what gets distributed, how the medium defines itself, and what issues are current. You build up a collection that becomes one of the only sources of material on video and you control access to that collection. (I know a number of curators who will not voice any criticism of your practice for fear of losing such access.) That you have become an institution unto yourselves is surely no surprise to you. The question is whether, despite your unquestionnable integrity and best intentions, you have come to exercize monopoly power. I don't doubt that my feelings about you would change were you suddenly to choose to include me in your collection. And don't doubt that this disturbs me. But I somehow think that the dynamics of all this have come to be awfully one-sided. Were there to be no other models for constructive distribution, I would throw up my hands and agree that the gallery system has finally infiltrated video and that the schematicization into Ins and Outs is inevitable and that we'd all better behave if we know what's good for us. But I might also point to Canyon Film Co-op as a counterexample-- an organization that really seems to help independent filmmakers. Maybe you would be interested in helping us set up a co-op, so that you wouldn't have to deal, with such obvious reluctance, with all of us refusť types.

But you been less responsive than the most conservative television stations with which I've dealt; telephone calls are all but useless; your manner does not encourage further intercourse. Is this what they mean when they talk about the institutionalization of the avant-garde? Is there a way of placing this conflict in a larger context? This begins to sound political. We all begin to feel a little uncomfortable.

Sincerely yours,

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