An interview with René Coelho by Marieke van Hal

René Coelho (1936)
is director of MonteVideo/TBA, the Netherlands Media Art Institute. In his capacity as curator, he has compiled the exhibition "The Second, Time Based Art from the Netherlands". This multimedia exhibition will open at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and will then go on a world tour for three years, visiting, among other places, Tokyo, Taiwan and Mexico. This is the second large travelling exhibition organized by René Coelho. In 1990, MonteVideo/TBA produced the exhibition "Imago, fin de siècle in Dutch Contemporary Art". This exhibition showed that Dutch media art had reached a high level on the international scene. Now, seven years later, René Coelho has seized the opportunity once more to show the ongoing development in the work of contemporary artists who give expression to their ideas with the help of technological media. The exhibition is also a kind of farewell. The contributing artists are: Kees Aafjes, Peter Bogers, Boris Gerrets, Jaap de Jonge, A.P. Komen, Pieter Baan Müller, Bert Schutter, Bill Spinhoven, Fiona Tan, Steina Vasulka, Bea de Visser, and Christiaan Zwanikken.

René, to begin at the beginning. "MonteVideo/TBA" originated as a gallery for video art, in 1978. Why this gallery, at that time?

I had been working in television for some twenty years, always from the social-democratic ideology that the world could become a better place with the help of this medium. Television could give the masses a development impulse in the cultural field. People were suddenly confronted with opera and the theatre in their living rooms. Much too late, I found out that television in fact caused the reverse effect. Instead of feeding the people with culture, it only numbed them. Their minds were made up for them, they were not stirred to use their imagination any more. Television quickly turned into a spineless mixture of game shows and 'infotainment'; chewing gum for the eyes. I no longer saw eye-to-eye with this system, and so I left.

And then, in line with your ideology, you opened the doors of your own home on the Singel in Amsterdam?

Yes, I wanted to humanize technology with the help of artists. When it opened, the gallery had one Sony U-matic recorder, an old monitor, a second-hand slide projector, two videotapes and one artist: Livinus van de Bundt. Livinus was one of the first Dutchmen to make use of video as a medium for art. Together with people such as Michel Cardena, Stansfield & Hooykaas, and of course, in America, there was Nam June Paik. So there were various people here who worked with video, with something that could be called video art, usually registrations of performance art. Performance art ran rampant in those years, and because it was a fleeting art form, artists quickly resorted to video to record it. People often confused performance art with video art.

This gallery for video art became MonteVideo/TBA, the Netherlands Media Art Institute. How did this development from video to media art come about?

I would like to say two things about that. The media developed themselves naturally. Technology did not stand still, and of course, the computer entered the field. Then came telecommunication, interactivity, virtual reality. But something was happening in art as well. From the (video) artists' side, there was a tendency to go one step further. It was terribly difficult to make people watch a monitor screen without them switching on their TV brains, that is, the brain with which they need not think, which only directs their hands to a bowl of crisps and a bottle of luke-warm beer. For art you need to activate extra brain capacity, because something is expected of you; you have to project yourself into someone else's world, add your own imagination to someone else's. Those are the interesting things that happen with art, not with television. Artists quickly wanted more than just to play a tape on a monitor, and, logically, that soon led to spatial work. You move on from painting to sculpture, and, if you can make that comparison, from video tape to installation. An expansion, an evolution of an art form.

What does MonteVideo/TBA do for media art?

We want to supply all those facilities useful for the practice of media art. Without wanting to brag, this is unique throughout the world, but perhaps not really sensible. We are too undersubsidized to realize this at the moment, and we will probably have to drop one of our functions. But MonteVideo/TBA's philosophy has always been that media art must be supported in all areas. Therefore, including elements such as documentation, production, distribution, research, exhibitions, and registration/preservation. The facility service, production and post-production, enables artists to realize their projects at a reasonable price. We distribute work in the Netherlands and abroad, and hold exhibitions at the gallery. We contribute to research and development in the form of a 'laboratory for the arts'.

Preservation is a new field of activity?

Yes, this is very important. Media art ages quickly, especially when video has been used. It is transitory by origin. Film has existed for a hundred years now, it is in bad condition, but it is still there. You can still see films from a hundred years ago, but 25-year old videotapes cannot be played any more, they have vanished, as it were. In our role as conservers, we sounded the alarm some time ago and were given the necessary funds to save practically all video art existing in the Netherlands. It worked, we have been able to preserve 90 percent, for the time being. Everything has been re-recorded on videotape, better videotape, and will eventually have to be transferred to a digital storage medium. I am always having to fight employees who lose their heads over phenomenons such as interactivity, and say: "Why bother, get rid of those videotapes". On the basis of things that have happened, new things will happen. "From a rotting tree, beautiful new toadstools emerge."

And those toadstools are now on show at your exhibition "The Second, Time Based Art from the Netherlands". What was the motive behind this exhibition?

In 1989, out of the blue, the Dutch Ministry of Culture and the Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst (Government Department for Fine Arts) asked me to compile a Dutch media-art exhibition which would go on an international tour. This exhibition was called "Imago, fin de siècle in Dutch Contemporary Art". During the course of almost three years, "Imago" visited eight countries. It was shown at the World Fair in Seville, as the Dutch contribution to the arts pavilion, and, besides Europe, it also went to Taiwan and Japan. It was a great success; it attracted more than one million visitors and had a very positive effect on Dutch media art. The experience and results of this exhibition, combined with the developments among talented artists, have led to a sequel: "The Second".
Has media art reached a breakthrough? The last few month we have had "Under Capricorn" at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, "Digital Territories" at the Photo Institute in Rotterdam, and "Everybody's Talking" at the Gemeentemuseum in Helmond.
For twenty years we have been promoting an art form that nobody was asking for. In the Netherlands it has never attracted a large audience, due to the lack of a scientific and theoretical foundation. There are very few art historians who really go in for it, and when they do, you never see them again. They have either got married or taken to drink, or have been involved in some other accident. Media art is an insufficient part of art history. However, since the latest Documenta in Kassel, it has become much more accepted. Since Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman, Tony Oursler have become the top artists there, the curators are falling over each other to buy their work.

Has the advent of the Internet played a role?

All technological developments begin as a kind of hype. Eight years ago, everything had to be made interactive because Jeffrey Shaw had made an interactive installation. And interactivity is still playing too great a role, in my opinion. Good interactive works are few and far between. Gary Hill's installation Tall Ships, that is what I call a monument for interactive art. But Bill Spinhoven's I/Eye is an icon, too. Yes, the hype of now is the Internet. I have yet to see the first really startling art projects on the Internet. At this moment, the Internet is an interesting and powerful distribution medium, but it still has to prove itself as an autonomous art medium. Who can tell whether this will happen? It is not at all certain that it will yield a new form of art.

Fiona Tan makes use of the Internet in "Atlas of the Interior".

Yes, but as input, not as output. She has found information that is useful in her art. That is the same as reading a book and using a fragment for your work of art.

And apparently you have not yet seen any interesting virtual reality either, or we would be wearing data gloves for "The Second".

No, not yet. But of course, that also has to do with the state of technology. It is developing fast, but not fast enough. If you see how much calculation time is needed, and in spite of that, how rough the generated images still are. To have to put on that silly, already archaic, helmet, only to see very basic chunks floating around in space. No, in my opinion, this is the stone age of virtual reality. It is fun, a good thing that it is happening, but we are waiting for technology to develop itself further. Virtual reality incorporates everything for artists to put to good use in the future. It is a medium that stirs the imagination deeply. It really is a God-given artists' medium, while I do not think the Internet will ever be more than a transportation medium.

The theme of your exhibition is "time".

It is a very obvious theme, in fact. It is one of the most important elements that media art adds to the contemporary visual arts. Time as artist's material. Time Based Art, the words say it all. It indicates the difference from other art forms. It is not an original, inventive theme, but there is always the risk involved that a theme is inventive but not interesting. I think that perhaps this theme is not inventive, but is one which presents itself naturally and which is certainly interesting.

But how does it work in practice? It takes a certain amount of time to view a painting, and the same is true of an installation. What is the difference in time perception?

All life is time, of course. Everything is time-related. Painting too, a painter needs a certain time to make a painting. The viewer needs a certain time to perceive a painting. This time is not fixed, some viewers are quick, others are slow. But in media art, the time required is more or less determined by the maker. Certainly with videotapes. With paintings, it is mainly the viewer who decides.

In Peter Bogers' installation "Heaven", time is brought to a standstill at one second.

In this work, the second is used as a time unit, to indicate standstill. On 17 small black-and-white monitors, you see various, quasi-coincidental fragments of movement lasting exactly one second. Together they form an image of household life: a door moving in the draught, a cat lying purring, a baby drinking from his mother's breast, curtains moving in the wind, a hand stirring a cup of coffee, a hand caressing a body, and, as an explanation for the needle getting stuck in the groove of a record on the record player: a fragment of the famous TV image of falling apparatus in a studio during the earthquake in Kobe. It is a frozen house with a bit of movement in it, and that is what makes it media art. It could have been photos, but it is not photos. It is one single second in life.

At "The Second", Peter Bogers is represented by no less than three installations.

Peter Bogers is a very talented artist. He gives form to his themes in an inimitably balanced way, very consistently and sensibly. His work is very physical by nature, it is always rather autobiographic. It is nearly always about himself, his wife, his body, his children. The series of works he has made would, in my opinion, make a wonderful one-man exhibition. It is remarkable that he has been making high-quality work for more than ten years now, and has never had a major exhibition. We are always busy trying to promote him. First you will find him in Dordrecht, then in Goor, and then again in Germany in some out-of-the-way place. But you will not find him in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum, or at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven or the likes of them. Those are the mysterious forces of art. How can it be explained? I feel it is partly publicity, and partly the way you promote yourself. Pim [A.P.] Komen has broken through to a certain level in much less time. Pim Komen is very good, but I find Peter Bogers' work even more powerful.

Is it not also a matter of timing, a kind of emancipation of media art in general?

You mean that Pim Komen had an easier start than Peter Bogers. Yes, that is probably true. Komen's theme is, in fact, privacy, privacy in connection with the media. And that is of course a very sought-after theme. We are showing his work Face Shopping at the exhibition. Four close-ups of young women on four large projection screens. Each of the girls shows some sort of nervous tic, which kindles an obsessive effect because it is repeated every few seconds. In this way, 'forgotten moments' of unconscious behaviour take on an emotional load.

Why, in your opinion, is Bill Spinhoven's "I/Eye" a good example of interactive art?

Interactivity can be a very interesting angle in art, apart from the cliché that art is always interactive. But, as I said before, I have still only seen very few good examples. Much of the interactivity we have seen in the last few years, which amounts to having to push a button, for example, creates the impression that the artist himself cannot make a choice. What rather makes art so interesting is that, from the brain of the artist, something is handed to the viewer that he can get his teeth into. The artist has made a choice. And now he starts delegating this choice to the viewer, rather like: you can have this image, but you can also have that one. We do not need a choice, we have enough choices to make. Bill's eye is simple and brilliant, and like most brilliant things, in fact very simple. The viewer cannot escape the gaze of the work of art. It follows every movement that happens in front of the screen. The viewer's safe position is undermined. It is art staring back at him.

The exhibition has been reconstructed in 3D as a virtual exhibition, accessible via the Internet. Why experiment with this new form of exhibiting art?

I will explain this briefly, from my own background. Television has degenerated into an entertainment factory. It no longer distributes information, it only numbs people, it lulls them into sleep. Internet contains all the elements to stop this development and reverse it, because people become people again, rather than ratings. People set out to communicate with each other, albeit via electronic channels. The physical element is absent, except in the form of cyber sex. But still, it is an enormously important medium, and you would be foolish not to use it when you have got all the facilities. In a certain limited way, you also make your exhibition accessible to people who cannot visit the museum.

But how do you think you will reach these people? While they are surfing the Net?

Yes, that is the real question. I think that the infrastructure is developing gradually, and, by creating 'links' to all manner of 'sites' belonging to others, you can build up a considerable spread. When you approach friendly institutions abroad and are allowed to create links to your 'site', I think that, besides the occasional passing surfer, you will also reach a larger public.

But is it not precisely your intention that you should reach a wider audience?

The audience you would reach when you create links to sites of institutions, or individuals you are already involved with, is already interested anyway.
There is nothing wrong with that. After all, you will not find a cross section of the population at the museum either. You will meet the museum visitor.

A larger public, then?

We will reach a larger public in this way. By holding the exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, we have calculated that, on average, we will have reached some 40,000 people within two months. Of course, there are many more people who would be interested. And I do not just mean those in the Netherlands, let alone Tibet, although there, they still might not have access to the Internet. But possibly, for example, in Australia, which is not yet included in the tour. So it would be possible to reach an interested Australian audience with a limited version of the exhibition. To me, that is interesting enough. Certainly worth the experiment. I do not yet know whether it will work, but it definitely has potential.

What will the art of the future look like?

I have no idea. I once heard myself saying: " The day after tomorrow, tomorrow's art will be yesterday's." That sounds very like a Chinese philosopher, but it more or less expresses my feelings. I think that, if you were a town and country planner, for want of a better discipline, you could give a rather accurately defined picture of the future. But not so with art. Art reflects society (and sometimes it also functions as the motor of that society, not only as a mirror, and that is what makes it so interesting). Because you do not know what society will be like in the future, you do not know what art will look like either.

But could forecasts in the area of technology perhaps give us an idea?

You could imagine the role of the museum changing. That it would become much more of a conservational institution, which it was always meant to be. The Dutch word for curator, 'conservator', even implies this. The museum will preserve the past, and much less the present, let alone the future. An institution such as the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, the museum of the future, has naturally already become the museum of the past. Generally speaking, I think that the role of the museum will change. That it will indeed be the place to store the art of the past. Until, as is already happening, art forms emerge which are difficult to store. You cannot really store the telecommunicative part of a work of art, in the same way that recording performance art on videotape was a cry in the dark. Of course, that was not the essence of the work. The essence was the moment of the performance itself.

And your own future?

That is getting shorter and shorter all the time. The future is obscure and full of surprises. I am an opportunist, if that does not sound too negative. I have never been a man of strong ambitions, which also implies that I have no clear image of my future. I never expected to become director of a Media Art Institute. And I still find it a curious role, even though I have played it for more than twenty years. To me, that is a miracle in itself, I would never have planned it that way. As to the future of my private life, I think that, in a year or so, I might possibly be able to give my life a different rhythm. Perhaps I will become an artist again, because that always was my intention.