Man With A Movie Camera: The Global Remake - Interview with Perry Bard

Man With A Movie Camera: The Global Remake
Interview with Perry Bard, by Evelin Stermitz, November 2008

Interview with artist Perry Bard on her recent participatory global remake of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Perry Bard works with electronic media and lives in New York. Aside from site-specific public works she has exhibited videos and installations at museums such as MoMA, P.S.1., the Reina Sofia, amongst others. The global remake of Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera has been screened internationally: on public LED displays in the UK and Australia, at the Las Palmas International Film Festival, at Joyce Yahouda Gallery in Montreal, Ueno Town Art Museum Tokyo, the National Center for Contemporary Art Ekaterinburg and Moscow, Ars Electronica 2008 and more.

Evelin Stermitz: In which aspects did your former works influence your recent Vertov remake and how did you decide to create such an intense global project?

Perry Bard: One of my persistent concerns is the question of access, the digital divide, who is included, who is left out. I’m particularly interested in public space as a venue.
In 2000 I set up a screen in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal Building in New York to present The Terminal Salon, a portrait of the community done in collaboration with local residents of a government funded apartment complex who shot all the video. When we were testing the projection passersby asked how they could be on the screen and I had no way to do that. The experience of installing the piece gave me the idea to work with a database.
While I was working on The Terminal Salon I was invited to participate in VideoArchaeology in Sofia. My Staten Island project was taking so long (a year), I had to go to Sofia with a plan and I decided to reshoot four minutes of Man With A Movie Camera in collaboration with Bulgarian artist, Boyan Dobrev, who wanted to learn about video. Vertov was an influence on my work, Sofia in 1999 was in transition and I thought the parallel could be interesting. Putting those two experiences together led to Man With a Movie Camera: The Global Remake.

ES: How did you investigate the basis of the project in accordance with your primary idea?

PB: The primary idea was to use global input via the internet to generate multiple versions of one film to be screened in public space and on the web.
That meant two sets of files - lo rez for the web and hi rez for large scale projection - and a lot of technical details that have to do with trying to make something global for video when there isn’t one video standard, trying to make something for the internet when people have different kinds and levels of access, and trying to make something that is cross platform (unless you upload via cellphone) - which is still something many media sophisticated people haven’t ever addressed, infinite software details which my programmer John Weir could elaborate.
And - the whole world doesn’t speak English.
The investigation is the work that led me to this project. Further investigation is hit and run. Try something if it works, go, if not move on.
Vertov’s 1929 film is a great point of departure for the internet because it has so many dimensions from the documentary to the performative to the effects along with its use of an archive which translates to a database and it’s a film within a film. It was shot in three different cities, going global was obvious and the rhythm is very contemporary, there’s no shot in the film longer than twenty seconds. It seemed like a perfect vehicle for global input and in keeping with Vertov’s intentions as a filmmaker.

ES: Did you have any funding for the project and a specific time frame?

PB: The piece was a Bigger Picture Commission ( via Cornerhouse Manchester in collaboration with the Arts Council of England and the BBC. It was destined for four public LED displays in the UK.
I had six months between receiving the commission and the premiere i.e. next to no time. When I received the commission I was asked not to tell anyone until the formal announcement was released so I busied myself by logging the entire film shot by shot. In Sofia I had used 4 minutes of the film and I was originally thinking I would do 15 minutes in the UK - but how do you excerpt 15 minutes from a multi-layered masterpiece? I immediately decided I would have to look at this as a longer term project - I was really interested in what the remake could/might become if it were global and if I invited interpretation - and I knew in six months we’d have just scratched the surface.

ES: What were the difficulties and what were the points of new insights of this vast project?

PB: There were a lot of ideas that I dismissed for one reason or another. For instance I thought if I had the same shots from many different parts of the world viewers should be able to select their screenings geographically. But six months was too short to make that an option. I was toying with the idea of letting viewers shuffle the order of the scenes and shots but I decided it was more interesting to revisit Vertov. I divided the film into one-minute scenes which has nothing to do with Vertov’s structure: I did it to facilitate browsing and uploads. I thought people should be able to upload one-minute scenes - we tried but we couldn’t handle that.
One of the greatest challenges in a participatory work is creating the network and getting the participation. This has turned into my fulltime job. I made one great decision from the start: because email lists that I’m on are so Western and I was determined to have global input I decided to commission foreign correspondents from parts of the world my email lists don’t reach. I have people in Korea, China, Japan, Thailand, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, Israel, Lebanon, Russia, Serbia, Pakistan. Their role is to organize through their mailing lists, blogs, facebook, the upload of one minute of video. OK, one person in each of those countries and so many countries - even continents - missing, isn’t enough. That’s still on my to do list.
Language is another issue. Even though I have foreign correspondents they can‘t be sitting next to everyone in their country who browses the site. I now have the site in Spanish, French and Chinese and I’d like more translations.
The biggest issue is server space. We can’t stream the remake right now for lack of space. The software builds a new film (a daily remake) each day based on the most recent uploads. Shot 441 for example has seven uploads which means there are at least seven versions of the film as the shots rotate with each screening. The ideal scenario is that the daily remake streams on the website. Right now the website has a November 2007 version and I’ve uploaded an October 2008 version to youtube. SO IF ANYONE READING THIS HAS SERVER SPACE TO DONATE PLEASE CONTACT ME.
New Insights: Well, this isn’t a new insight but it’s something to keep remembering.
All is not equal on the global network. I don’t think I need to elaborate.

ES: The project has been screened internationally, could you tell more about the different screenings, presentations and exhibitions and your experiences with them in a global context?

PB: The piece is meant for multiple venues and the biggest difference in the screenings has to do with the venue. It works differently and people view it differently whether it’s on a public LED display, in a museum or gallery, at a film festival. At the premiere in Manchester UK which was in a park where there was seating people hung out and watched a good portion of it. At the UK screening in Norwich where the screen was on top of a truck in a plaza that had an ice rink, a book-signing, a robot handing out flyers, no one even noticed it. In Montreal where it was an installation (projection of remake plus website on monitor) at Joyce Yahouda Gallery the gallery reported to me that people sat an average of 25 minutes and many sat through the entire 67 minute remake. I was surprised as I estimate gallery viewing time at 6 minutes max.

In Sheffield, Tokyo, Beijing I did workshops where locals uploaded footage to the remake before it was projected. One is happening in Rio now - this is really ideal in terms of linking the virtual and physical experiences of the piece - the people who upload get to see their uploads projected - and we all know bigger is better.
Ultimately I’m really interested in using media as a catalyst for change. In the Ferry Terminal Building the screen stimulated an active social space because people gathered there for at least five minutes before each boat (their only other option was to eat Dunkin Donuts).

ES: Some of your other projects also include public art and installations. Do you see your Vertov project in this context and what are your experiences with public art projects, what is your approach?

PB: When artists first began using video as a medium there was the utopian notion these works would be programmed on broadcast television - in the U.S. prime time is reserved for entertainment and embedded journalism. To combat this, I’ve done a number of site-specific works where I’ve installed a “local channel” - public screens displaying community based video. I’m also interested in the fact that public LED displays are fast becoming the new real estate. There should be a Percent for Art for electronic billboards.
The Vertov project is somewhat different from my other public video installations in that one of the partners is the BBC. They’ve installed public screens for non-commercial use in the Northeast of England with more screens in the works. So my struggle here has more to do with the internet aspect of the piece and that’s a very different mediascape: youtube invites you to broadcast yourself, there are blogs from Baghdad, many alternative news sources.
It’s easy for me to look at a public projection and see how it does or doesn’t work. With this piece I’ve learned to let go of all expectations and definitions. When someone from Bogota uploads next to someone from Beirut the montage has nothing to do with Vertov’s aesthetics. Maybe the most challenging and exciting aspect of this project is that I’m still not sure what it is.

ES: How did the real space presentations affect the net art project since net art projects could also exist as a concept solely in cyber space?

PB: The two exist in relation to each other. From the outset I was interested in using public LED displays to interrupt the status quo. The website is an amazing tool for organizing global input. The link between virtual and real space is most effective when locals see their participation projected where they live. It’s a form of empowerment. And, we don’t live only in cyberspace. I’m curious about the connection between these spaces.
One great gift to me through this project is conversations I’ve had with people who have contacted me online, or people I’ve met after they participated in the project. This is a dimension I never imagined. When I was logging the film shot by shot there were some mysterious shots, #381 for example, that I couldn’t identify. I found a reference in a bibliography to Seth Feldman’s book Vertov, A Guide To References and Resources which describes the film shot by shot. Early on in the project he found the website and emailed me. He mentioned that in one of Vertov’s Kino-Pravda newsreels there’s footage of Vertov projecting a film onto a sheet thrown across power lines in a public square. I made an appointment to view that newsreel at MoMA’s (NY) screening room. That was one of the most elite viewing experiences I’ve had, me alone with Vertov in a plush theatre that seats 60 and the film which had been shipped from the storage vault in Pennsylvania, projected at sound speed!
My first upload was from someone in Israel who sent me an email “here’s something I did”. There was a bare-chested guy wearing a sports jacket lipsyncing with Scene 23 in the background. I freaked out thinking I’d launched youtube - in fact I was interviewed by and they described this project as “opening up the creation to the youtube generation”. When I thought about it, if Vertov’s mission was “decoding life as it is” then youtube is a dead center. I met the guy, Doron Golan, when he came to New York six months later.

ES: It seems that your contemporary version of Vertov’s male-gazed Man with a Movie Camera is from your approach rather non-gendered, how did feminist thinking influence your art work and creative process?

PB: My work has always dealt with power structures, social relations. Man With A Movie Camera: The Global Remake is open to everyone and since I’m interested in making it inclusive I’ve spent a year and a half networking, doing workshops to try to get communities participating who might not otherwise know how or have the opportunity. Creating community, this is how I define feminism in relation to the Vertov project.

ES: What do you think about the gap between public art and museum’s art and how do you see the future of new media art, since it is still difficult for this art form to enter galleries and museums?

PB: Give new media art another 30 years. People need to understand something before they can embrace it. It took video that long to make it into the marketplace.
Anything can happen in museum space with the approval of the corporation. In public space, what’s left of it, anything can happen.