Interview: Carolyn Sortor

by Kate Watson

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      Guy Ben-Ner, Stealing Beauty, 2007
      single channel video with sound
      17 minutes
      Courtesy Postmasters Gallery, New York

      The Program, the newest addition to the Dallas Video Festival, provided an incredible opportunity to actually take time with video art in a way infrequently seen in a gallery space. The breadth and depth of work shown was on a scale rarely seen anywhere and the turnout was remarkably strong. During my visit to Dallas, I had a chance to sit down with curator Carolyn Sortor, who worked with curators Dee Mitchell and Bart Weiss on the project, and chat about the process.

      …might be good: Can you tell me a little bit about your background— specifically, how has your interest in video art and your relationship with the Dallas Video Festival evolved?

      Carolyn Sortor: I've always been interested in art and literature, but for most of my adult life, I've worked as a commercial real estate lawyer.

      After my first Dallas Video Festival in 1991, I believed video was the most powerful art medium yet invented. I'd begun doing pro bono work for artists and arts organizations and Bart Weiss, the Director of the Video Association, asked me to become a board member and then to serve as the first Chair of the Board who wasn't Bart.

      All the while, I wanted to see more video artit still isn't easy to see. As you know, there's been a lot of resistance to video as an art medium. Just a couple of weeks ago, I overheard a collector wonder out loud, “does anyone actually buy this stuff?!” And of course, exhibiting it is a challenge; you have to assemble all the hardware and software and get it to work together and most art venues were originally designed to let in lots of natural light, without any concern for access to electrical outlets or acoustics.

      Of course, each year, I immersed myself as fully as possible in the Dallas Video Festival. But although the Festival has shown some great video art over the years, Bart is more partial to documentaries and other varieties [of film and video]. I kept bugging him to show more video artI'd already begun compiling lists of artists and works that sounded interesting. Four years ago, he finally gave me the OK. Since then, I've programmed about 2 hours of video art at each Festival, but I knew that was just a tiny portion of what was out there.

      …mbg: Is that when The Program was born?

      CS: Based on the surprise success of the I Heart Video Art series at Conduit last summer (curated by myself and Danette Dufilho), the Video Association asked me about the possibility of breaking most of the video art out from the rest of the Festival and presenting it as a separate series at Conduit, with me co-curating.

      We started working on the series in February. By May, it had become a full-time job for me and from there, the workload escalated dramatically. We installed a mostly-new exhibition each week for five weeks; we had to re-configure hardware, software, pedestals, and sometimes furniture, do new labels, set up and take down chairs for the seated screenings and host an opening reception. Danette and Nancy Whitenack [both of Conduit] were also extremely helpful with their expertise and advice, and we are deeply grateful to them for their terrific generosity and hard work.

      …mbg: How did you decide which works would be screened in the gallery space and which would be in the screening room?

      CS: The decisions about what would be shown in the seated screenings versus what would be shown in the installations were largely determined by the works themselves, although a few of the pieces we included could have been shown either way. Most of the work shown in the installations either was specifically designed to be viewed on the internet, a computer or TV, or else the artist requested that it be shown the way we showed it, or else I had seen it installed that way elsewhere. These decisions seemed fairly easy to me, for the most part. If there's one choice I felt somewhat torn about, it might have been with respect to Ryan Trecartin's A Family Finds Entertainment. It's a gorgeous and challenging piece of work with lots of visual detail that looks great projected and should command full, focused attention from start to finish. However, Trecartin's only requirement was that there had to be a couch and my co-curators were skeptical about including Family in a seated screening. So we put it on a good-sized TV in front of a couch.

      …mbg: How did you group videos for the seated screenings?

      CS: The curators agreed that we should include a variety of pieces in length and tone each evening, for the sake of watchability. We also agreed that each week's programs should be organized around coherent themes, although we didn't completely agree on what those should be or at least on how best to formulate them.

      As for what I thought those themes were, much of the media-based work I've seen during the last few years digs deeply into questions relating to personal identity, social governance and control and issues relating to time and history (how we manage our time and our collective memories, and how those choices shape our selves and our future). I tried to group works together around these types of themes.

      These concerns have been around forever, of course, but they've become newly complicated because of such recent developments as extreme plastic surgery, genetic modification, cloning, virtual identities (avatars, etc.), psychotropic cocktails, computers as brain prostheses, our increasing immersion in and dependence upon media-based technologies, the replacement of the physical public square with virtual facilities owned by private corporations (one result being that our data, personal pages, opinions, even our collective history, can be sold, deleted or modified with a keystroke), the growth in the sheer volume of historical and other information we're now able to store and accumulate, the potential obsolescence of borders, technologies for identifying and tracking individuals, etc.

      …mbg: What is the future of The Program? I know that the scope of this project is massive and certainly exhausting... What are your upcoming projects?

      CS: The future of The Program is under discussion. For one thing, I hope never to work so hard for negative income again. Also, I need a break from curating (although I'm already thinking I'd like to curate an exhibition of media-based work focussing on the "medium" of time [including history]).

      But at least for the rest of this year, I'd like to get back to making my own work. Earlier in the year, I'd begun working on a triptych of short video works that I think of as relating loosely to myths involving whales.

      I also have a couple of major, earlier projects to complete. (Until recently, that's been difficult because of my day job.) One is a three-part performance and video piece called Intrajection that explores questions relating to property, the marketplace including the art market, our immersion in media and digital communicationsmuch of which is uninvited but some of which may, intentionally or unintentionally, be helpfuland the kinds of interactions and interrelationships that arise more easily now despite distance or other barriers.

      Another body of work in progress is The Cressida Project, which will include an approximately 25-minute video and related prints or paintings and sculptures. The video will involve two main, quasi-narrative storylines influenced by Shakespeare, Homer and other sources. The main scenes take place in or about the year 2056. A young woman is abducted and finds herself in a low jail cell in a remote nation called the United Democratic Islamic Emirates (U.D.I.E.)an imaginary, future federation comprising the nine countries that now combine the highest-percentage Muslim populations and the greatest estimated oil reserves. The piece will deal with issues of power, interpretation, identity, reproduction, transmission of knowledge, transformation and escapethrough succeeding generations, if not within a single lifetime.

      I also have some smaller pieces and writing projects in the works.

      Kate Watson is Coordinator of testsite, ...might be good's sister project, and an editorial contributor to ...might be good.

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