Feb 242015

This is the first part of a multi-post investigation. Here is Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

I have been submitting my animated shorts to film festivals since 2007. In 2014 I was distributing ten short films resulting in 544 total submissions (and if you’re curious, I counted: 93 of these resulted in screenings). That is just one recent year since 2007. But during my entire career I’ve had work in exactly seven gallery shows, group or solo, and most of these were the result of requests for my work. I definitely expend more effort on distributing my films through film festivals rather than galleries.

This is ironic considering that I started out doing conceptual installation art and have a fine art Bachelor’s degree. How did I end up in the festival world rather than the gallery world?

Slices in Time, custom installation in the ASIFAKEIL space, Vienna. Photo by Stefan Stratil

Slices in Time, custom installation in the ASIFAKEIL space, Vienna. Photo by Stefan Stratil

When I discovered animation and started researching it, the filmmakers that really inspired me were the likes of Caroline Leaf, Yuri Norstein, and Jan Svankmajer. Masters from the 1970s whose work was primarily distributed, at that time, in festivals. I guess I just thought, if that’s what they did, that’s what I should be doing. That’s where my work belongs.

But if Yuri Norstein made Tale of Tales today, and he wasn’t already famous, would it have the same success on the festival circuit? It is 30 minutes long, and doesn’t have a traditional narrative or story structure. I’m not so sure festivals today would recognize its genius. But I could equally picture Tale of Tales being projected in one of today’s art galleries.


Animated gif of a scene from Tale of Tales by Yuri Norstein.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for the success my films have found in festivals, but it is true that my work is often described as being not ‘narrative’ enough for some of these. Would it behoove me to investigate the gallery route more also? Is it possible to do both?

Of course, some work might be more appropriate for galleries than festivals to begin with. Maybe the piece is meant to be projected at a small scale, or the animation is somehow incorporated into sculptures or objects (see the review I wrote a few weeks ago of the Move On…! exhibit at Kunsthal KadE in Amersfoort right now that has some nice examples of animation installations). In these cases, naturally the gallery is best. But I do see a lot of video art that is basically a short film. It is in a gallery, yes, but is projected onto a big screen in a traditional manner. It is this type of video art that I’m concerned with here, because it could conceivably be seen at a film festival as well as a gallery. So for these artists, what prompts them to stick with the gallery world, or do they also do the festival thing?

To investigate I’ve been to video art exhibitions, a panel discussion, talked with gallery owners and artists, and I’ve also sent out a survey to seven filmmakers/artists/curators whom I know have sometimes, at least, had work in both galleries and film festivals. In this post I will discuss potential advantages of showing work in festivals versus galleries, and in future posts I will gather and analyze the surveys that will hopefully give some practical examples of how artists today navigate these two worlds.

VanNelle Fabriek, Rotterdam. Photo by Tess Martin

Van Nelle Fabriek, Rotterdam. Photo by Tess Martin

Projections, Rotterdam Art Fair

A few weeks ago I went to the Rotterdam Art Fair at the Van Nellefabriek, mostly to see the video art section called Projections. There were 12 pieces, and only 3 of them involved some kind of non-black box arrangement. One piece was a collection of four monitors, another involved two screens back to back, and one was a screen but turned on its side – so the projection was portrait rather than landscape oriented. But the others were pretty typical displays: large screen, bench for sitting, and directed speakers above the benches.

These films ranged in length between 10 and 45 minutes. All were accompanied by a short text on a podium near the screen that stated the artist, title, format of video and the gallery that represents the artist. Some of the signs also stated which edition this video was, out of how many. None had prices listed, though I think all the galleries could also be found on the main floor of the art fair and presumably you could go there and ask the attendant the price of the video work (I didn’t, I was too shy).

One film I watched was called Episode 1 by Renzo Martens. It was 45 minutes and kind of drove me nuts for a while because the artist (filmmaker) was putting Chechen refugees in really tough spots for the sake of his ‘art piece’. But he was making a point about the tendencies of the media to use victims of disasters for their own purposes, so conceptually it was an interesting piece. Why was it in a gallery and not a film festival? The only advantage I could see was that the piece was 45 minutes and that’s kind of a weird length for festivals.

Still from Episode 1 by Renzo Martens

Still from Episode 1 by Renzo Martens

This was not a looped piece, it had a beginning, middle and end. It had credits. And yet still the artist must be OK with people walking in the middle of his film, because it’s in a gallery.

Differences in viewer experience:

In galleries people can walk in in the middle of a film, and they tend to leave after less than 45 seconds, I’m told, if the piece doesn’t grab them. At a festival, people are basically trapped and forced to watch the whole thing.

But for this very reason films that are meant to be looped or are slow and meditative might work better in galleries rather than festivals. Like the film Night Time that was also in the Projections show. This one was by Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck and was 15 minutes of individual shots, like a slideshow, but with a little movement in each scene: a seascape, a room with a candle, a pier with a ferris wheel, a woman with tattoos, etc. All the shots were composed of elegant watercolor paintings, somehow composited together into an animation. The movements were very slow, and the scenes beautiful. Yes, I could picture this film in a film festival, in fact, I would love to see it there. But I honestly think most festivals would not be open minded enough to accept it. So perhaps for this reason, the gallery is better for films like this.

Still from Night Time by Hans Op de Beeck.

Still from Night Time by Hans Op de Beeck.

Other factors to consider: in a festival your film is usually one piece in a program of films. Maybe yours ends up being compared or contrasted with the other films in the program, and maybe you would prefer people to watch your film by itself, as just one of a few pieces of video art in a gallery exhibition.

In a gallery you have the opportunity to display archive or associated materials alongside your film, whereas in a film festival you’re lucky if you get a still in the program.

Differences in amount of exposure:

Which context offers the artist more eyeballs? Between a medium-sized gallery and a medium-level festival, I would guess that the festival would bring in more people, but it really depends. Some festivals aren’t really well-advertised, and neither are some gallery shows. Maybe for our purposes the audience numbers are about the same.

But there is one aspect of going the festival route that can definitely give more eyeballs, and that’s the internet. Of course some festivals (though their number is diminishing) still don’t like it if your film has been available online, so for this reason filmmakers tend to wait 6 months to a year before putting their film online. But eventually, they can and do. After a certain amount of time, and your film has done the festival circuit, there’s really no reason not to. And for short films (I’m leaving feature films out of the discussion, because the distribution and monetization of these is so different from shorts, and not as comparable to video art) it’s so impossible to make money off of them that you may as well put them online for free and hope to get great exposure on a couple well positioned film websites.

If you go the film festival route, eventually you can also take advantage of what the internet can offer.
If you go the gallery route (and try to get representation), your work should pretty much never be online, at least not without a giant watermark or at significantly reduced quality.

So taking into account the internet, I think the film festival route offers more exposure than galleries.

Differences in monetization:

But of course the main difference between the two is: you can sell video art, you can’t sell short film. Yes, some festivals offer screening fees for shorts, but they’re rare. Yes, you can try to make money off YouTube ads, but really only if your film goes viral. Yes, you can compile your shorts onto DVDs or sell through VOD platforms, but unless you’re already super famous, I doubt that makes a significant dent in recouping the production costs.

As the New York collector Aaron Levine said at a panel discussion on video art at the Rotterdam Art Fair, “You wanna pay your rent, right?”

Of course the artist wants to pay his rent, but this is a decision he has to make. Witte van Hulzen, video artist also on the panel, asked: “Do I want 6 collectors in the world to see my work, and pay me for it, or do I want the whole world to see my work and make money some other way?” The exposure garnered from festivals and internet can lead to money down the road in the form of commissions, artist talk fees, etc. But that’s a different way of life – you have to be more proactive in marketing yourself rather than relying on help from a gallerist to sell your work for you.

Phi and Laurine, by Sander Breure and Witte van Hulzen,38 minutes, 2015, installation at Projections, Art Rotterdam 2015

Phi and Laurine, by Sander Breure and Witte van Hulzen,38 minutes, 2015, installation at Projections, Art Rotterdam 2015

But, let’s not forget – it’s not easy to get your video art sold. Ideally, you would first get gallery representation, which is no walk in the park. And then your gallerist is not going to have an easy time selling your video art, because it’s still kind of an unknown quantity for collectors. People are still struggling with the idea of owning a digital file, it’s not a straightforward as buying a painting or a sculpture. If the chances of outright selling your video art are so slim, are you denying yourself the potential exposure offered by film festivals and the internet?

Video artists in festivals:

But if you are a video artist, is it still possible, somehow, to show your work in festivals also, taking advantage of the exposure these offer? Can you have a piece in both?

It has been known to happen. The artist Witte van Hulzen, at the panel discussion, said that he has had films in festivals, and his gallerist, who was also there, Martin van Vreden (galerie tegenboschvanvreden), concurred. But these screenings came about when a specific art-minded film festival, like IDFA or the International Film Festival Rotterdam, requested a specific piece for a special program. Sometimes the festival even works in collaboration with an art gallery to select the video art pieces. In this situation Martin van Vreden said he does not charge the festival a ‘rental’ or ‘screening’ fee, and he sees it as good exposure for the artist. I asked him if he thought his position on this was rather more open-minded than the majority of galleries and he said yes, certainly.

In fact I spoke with a gallerist inside the Art Fair with a different point of view. This gallerist represents a well-known Rotterdam illustrator and artist who also makes animation. He said that the artist has a separate manager for film festival submissions, and this manager doesn’t submit the same pieces represented by him to film festivals. “Or at least I hope not,” he said. His concern is selling the certificate of authenticity that comes with the video art, which is how he gets a commission. And giving the work away for free to film festivals doesn’t help him achieve that.

So it seems like it’s possible to have your video art be included in specific film festivals by request, but that is different from actively submitting your video work to 300 festivals a year like I do. I asked Mr. van Vreden of galerie tegenboschvanvreden if any of his video artists did this and he admitted that no, none of them invest that much effort into the film festival world, and if they did, he’s not sure he would represent them, because after all, he needs to sell something to make money.

As one Piet Zwart student pointed out, at their recent studio open day, maybe the answer is simply making different work for the different markets. But even if the two bodies of work were quite distinct, would they complement each other, or detract from each other? Would having an active film festival career be a drawback to finding gallery representation?  Is the potential exposure and money from gallery shows worth focusing on that path?

These and more questions might be answered by the survey I’ve sent out to seven artists and curators. I will be posting their answers here probably in two waves, over the next few weeks. Stay tuned!

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