In his 1964 book Understanding Media, theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, “I think of art, at its most significant, as a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”
What does this mean relative to the increasing prominence of video art? Are we gravitating toward the ephemeral, the reproducible and the easily disseminated in recognition of the fact that all around us physicality is breaking down? That our planet is burning up, continents are melting, and increasingly destructive weather patterns are tearing our cities apart? Are we losing our interest in the old capitalist mainstay of physical ownership? Once our museums are drowned beneath what used to be the ice caps, will our red-shifted M*A*S*H episodes be all that’s left of us, emanating outwards into the cosmos millions of light years away?
Maybe not, but I’ll leave it to the next McLuhan or Stephen Hawking to sort that out. What is certain is that some of the most exciting and innovative art made today is as likely to come to you via link or download as it is to be found on a gallery wall. Video art was a highlight at this year’s Frieze London with some of the most anticipated pieces coming from artists who work in the medium—a re-presentation of Sylvie Fleury’s “Lean Routine or How to Lose 30 Pounds in Under 3 Weeks,” for instance, along with work by pioneering artists like Gery Georgieva, Lucy Beech, Rachel Rose, and Shana Moulton.
Why video art production and collection has seemingly become a female-dominated space—with all of the collectors featured herein being female, along with many of the most prominent artists in the field—and what that might mean is something else I’ll leave for the future theorists to ponder.
The history of video art is short in duration but wide in variety. While it was once common to lump the installation in with the media—see Nam June Paik’s massive wall of cathode-ray television sets in his “Continental US”—today the focus is increasingly on the content itself. Contemporary video artwork has used the cross-platform accessibility and shareability of the internet to its advantage, making room for new spaces in which art is presented and transmitted, radically redefining the way that it is consumed and collected and raising questions about what it means to “own” a piece of art at all in an age of mass reproducibility.
An example of such a space is the website Daata Editions, a platform that commissions pieces of video art and makes them available for anyone to purchase. But ownership here is fuzzy—not only are there multiple owners of the same piece of artwork, but the only thing separating an owner from someone who might have copied the video and who has it sitting on their hard-drive is a “certificate of authenticity.” So, if you wish to resell or transfer a piece of artwork to another person, you simply click a button, the video is made available to them on the site, and your certificate of authenticity is voided while a new one is generated for the recipient. Still, art has been mimicked and forged for centuries, and we’re always at a crossroads with a work’s supposed monetary value and its essence. Aren’t we?
In a reality where half of all media consumed online is video, the moving image has, arguably, supplanted language as the primary means by which we receive information and communicate. Technology allows each of us to be our own artists and galleries, whether we Periscope our lives, craft an Instagram video, or share a short-lived Snapchat. Perhaps because of this ease, we are swarmed with video content of all kinds, begging the question: does the ubiquity of video enrich the medium or cheapen it?
To answer this question and many others, we spoke to four prominent collectors of video art: Francesca von Habsburg, Archduchess of Austria, noted environmental activist, and reggae enthusiast; German art collector Julia Stoschek who specializes in time-based media art and who will open a second exhibition space for her impressive collection in Berlin this year; Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the Italian collector who was hailed by Blouin Artinfo as “One of Italy’s most incisive art collectors;” and Ingvild Goetz, who was painted by Andy Warhol in 1980, and whose collection was named “one of the ten most important in the world” in the Wall Street Journal.
A consummate art collector, the long-time art dealer and publisher Invild Goetz holds the largest contemporary art collection in Germany. Chris Dercon, the former Director of the Tate Modern, has described her collection as one of the ten most important in the world, and Goetz has remained amazingly sensitive to the many different directions art has taken in her lifetime, staying ahead of the curve since opening her first gallery in 1969.
In both her collecting and philanthropic efforts Goetz’s interest lies with those from unknown, overlooked, or inaccessible perspectives, and she has a special sympathy for people that society labels as “outsiders.” Her charity has provided support for everyone from young Nepalese monks, to African schoolchildren, to those with eating disorders, to refugees and asylum seekers. We spoke to Goetz about her long history as a collector and her perspective on video art, of which she was an early appreciator.
Can you describe the weather you’re experiencing right now and the mood in you that it inspires?
It affects me very much, the weather. When it is gray and wintertime, I escape to the sun because I cannot take it. It’s really depressing. Weather has a big influence on the body. When it is dark, it’s like a cloud on my soul, but when the sun comes out it fills me with optimism.
When did you start collecting video art?
I’ve been collecting since ’68, but I started collecting video art in 1993. I was always interested in art that reacts to the present moment—what the artists are doing to respond to what is happening in the world. In the ‘80s video art came onto the scene and it was really something new. I mean, there was video already in the ‘70s, but it hadn’t come into its own as an art form in a way I could appreciate until the early ‘80s. There were these performance videos like Bruce Nauman and other artists, but following them was a new generation that fully took advantage of the medium. It was something new and I found it very fascinating. There was a moment when I said, “There is something new coming up and I have to collect it,” because I always wanted to be in what is new at the time.
Has this ubiquity of video in the wider world drawn you to it as a collector, or has it pushed you away?
I believe it has made it stronger. I say that because in the museum we often show videos, and there are so many kids there who are drawn to them. I think it strikes them as something new because they’re used to viewing media on the computer and they are familiar with all these possibilities that they can see in videos, and it gives them the curiosity to see what’s going on, to see video in a different ambience, in a different projection.
What are your thoughts on the future of the global environment?
I think that we are in a really horrible situation, and it’s coming much faster than we thought. We visited Greenland recently, and there you see these houses that used to be stabilized on ice and now they are sinking into the earth. So, disaster is everywhere. And the pity there is that we haven’t responded quickly enough, and now I think it’s too late. I’m very sorry for my grandchildren. They will have a different world.
FRANCESCA VON HABSBURG
A member of the Austrian nobility, Francesca von Habsburg went from ‘80s it-girl to SCUBA diving, art collecting, philanthropic ocean-defending. Recently, von Habsburg has merged her two callings of art and environmental advocacy in her project with her independant art space, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), called “The Current.” It’s a three-year “multiphase exploratory fellowship” that takes place in sites all around the Pacific with the goal of raising awareness for the threats facing the ocean, and inspiring creative ways to circumvent them. We spoke to von Habsburg while she was in India attending an environmentally-oriented biennale.
Given the political controversy around climate change, how do you think “The Current” can influence the discussion?
I believe that “The Current” has the potential to explore, highlight and communicate complex topics that are not part of the public discourse, like deep-sea mining and rising sea levels that will drown entire nations and not just Donald Trump’s beachfront. TBA21-Academy has become the first art organization ever to be granted observer status by the UN body that administers the international sea bed, which brings us the same rights as the US and Greenpeace at the ISA. Besides influencing the discussion, “The Current” directly engages with projects on the ground that are working on achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, that is formulated to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.
Some argue that the combination of art and the sciences deters the latter from producing tangible results and physical changes. What is your response to those sentiments?
Science is on a trajectory based on the history and method of the discipline. Art has the freedom to develop a vision outside the constraints of disciplinary rationality. Together they have the potential to leapfrog development. We are taking art out of the studio, science out of the lab, and all of us out of our comfort zones! We have the opportunity to work on site-specific solutions for challenges that would never receive consideration in the ivory towers of scientific research. We are reinventing the art of exploration.
Often climate change discussions have a pessimistic tone of doom and gloom. How does “The Current” try to steer clear from that form of communication? Or does it?
Addressing tough subjects means you have to use as much poetry as possible, not to render them incomprehensible but rather to expose their vulnerability and to explore the fragility of nature. Art has a way of telling the truth that is not driven by drama and selling newspapers. It can reveal solutions in its interdisciplinary approach and help people feel curious again.
What was the first piece of art you acquired? Do you still have it?
It was a huge painting of a back by Jean-Michel Basquiat that I bought from Gagosian in the 1980s for $15,000, and when Jean-Michel came to stay with me in London he complained that he had not had the time to finish it and that it was an unfinished work, so I gave it back to him to finish it when he was preparing his legendary show at the ICA and I never saw it again…
In 2010, the cantankerous German art collector Harald Falckenberg told the Wall Street Journal, “I try to get away from enthusiasm, from liking or loving [art].” He adds: “An artwork at the end of the day is an expression of a certain development in society.” Although inspired by Falckenberg to start a collection of her own, Julia Stoschek—who also has a preternatural eye for emerging talent and the way a piece can capture the cultural zeitgeist—makes no such allusions towards stoicism. Speaking to us about whether she can point to a particularly meaningful piece from her extensive video art collection, she replies, “If you have children, do you love one of them more than the other? All of the works in my collection are meaningful to me, and they relate to each other in unique ways.”
The video art power player has been in the collecting business since 2003, most recently opening her second exhibition space in Berlin (her first, in Düsseldorf, sees 15,000 visitors annually). And next year celebrates the ten-year anniversary of her collection.
We spoke to Stoschek on why collecting and exhibiting has become her life’s passion.
When was the last time you felt unsure of yourself?
I feel that if you don’t challenge yourself, you won’t be able to affect change or grow as a person. I face new situations head on—but I also try and reflect on what I’m doing at that moment. These moments of decision, and of change, are an enriching and exhilarating part of my life.
Video is now said to be half of the content we consume in our everyday lives. Do you think that the evolving formats by which we view video have cheapened the medium?
On the contrary, I think that the fact that video is so omnipresent in our lives means that time-based media art is perhaps closer to the way we experience the world than any other art form I can think of. The main aspect of my collection is contemporaneity. I try to create an image of the socio-cultural condition of my generation, and video now more than ever is an integral part of the age we live in.
Can you have as personal a relationship with video art as with sculpture and painting?
There is one particular artwork that I’ve been traveling to see installed again and again, “Play Dead; Real Time,” a three-channel video installation by Douglas Gordon from 2003. It is still one of the works that fascinates me most, and it’s not even part of my collection—so I do actually have to follow it around. I feel a strong personal tie with the work.
What was the first piece of art you acquired? Do you still have it?
Yes! It is mixed media painting by the Spanish artist Pep Agut: “Mon ombre est un mur” (1996). It’s still close to my heart.
PATRIZIA SANDRETTO RE REBAUDENGO
Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo is a powerful force in the international contemporary art market. Born in Turin, the city that now houses her Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, her expansive collection includes over 1,000 pieces of contemporary art. Her philanthropic efforts along with her willingness to take risks on new artists and to support daring work with her patronage landed her on Artnet’s Top 200 Art Collectors Worldwide last year. We spoke to her about the changing nature of art in the face of technological advances, and about her special appreciation for video art.
Video is now said to make up half of the content we consume in our everyday lives. Has this ubiquity drawn you to it as a collector, or has it pushed you away?
Technological progress is a defining feature not only of our time, but of any epoch, and it has always affected the evolution of art. Nowadays this is especially evident and maybe accelerated, and artists are responding to it—they endorse it, but also analyze it critically in their works. This is for me the most interesting thing—how through the artists’ viewpoint I can better understand the logic of these changes and how they affect our everyday life.
Can you have as personal a relationship with video art as with sculpture and painting?
I think you can have a relationship with video as personal as with any form of art. My interest in video art is so strong that I have created a movie room in my house, to enjoy the videos from my collection in the best conditions. And being President of an art foundation that very often shows videos in its exhibition space allows me to have an even stronger relationship with this medium. I am aware this is a special condition, a privilege I would say, as usually it is more difficult to live with video art than it is with more traditional object-based art, but visiting museums allows every one of us to enjoy the interesting video works created by contemporary artists.
Describe when you feel least compelled to enjoy art?
I like it when art has a strong message to convey, but it should always do it on its own terms. What I dislike is when art is instrumentalized for aims which are alien to it, or when, on the contrary, so-called art instrumentalizes other issues, like social or political ones, for its purposes. It is not correct, and it does not produce good art.
What is unique about owning a piece of video art in an age of mass reproduction?
The specificity of video art not only lies in its materiality, which is easily reproducible, but also in its conditions of visibility. As collectors of media-based art, you are co-responsible for the circulation of these images, and for producing or allowing occasions of viewing. It is also a responsibility in terms of support to a practice which would otherwise find it difficult to survive, if submitted to the same economic logic of traditional media like painting or sculpture. In this sense, we act as patrons more than mere collectors, so we commission and support the production costs in order to help artists pursue their ideas.
Written by Sid Feddema