Notes on Online Exhibition: Stream Slate

All images: Masao Adachi smokes a cigarette, screenshot on Zoom, from an evening copresented by Collaborative Cataloging Japan.

As 2020 comes to a close, and we mark nearly one year of navigating the effects of COVID-19, we've invited a group of curators and programmers to reflect on how they've evolved their work to meet their mission during these "uncertain times." Previously, we published Paolo Pedercini on LIKELIKE Online and Nimrod Vardi and Curator Rebecca Edwards on arebyte Gallery. Today, Nellie Killian and Jon Dieringer on Screen Slate's year outside the screening room. 

The year 2019 was clarifying for Screen Slate. For nearly a decade we had been an all-volunteer effort dedicated to listings and coverage of New York City’s repertory/independent film and media art scene—essentially any screen outside a multiplex, including galleries and DIY spaces. After declining an unexpected buyout offer from a venture capitalist who finances a local arthouse—not an awful situation, but one that was really taxing for a microscopic organization that technically had no staff members to suddenly face—we had set a course for 2020 with a renewed dedication to doing things on our own terms.

So, as the reality of COVID-19 came rapidly crashing down in early March, it was a shock to find ourselves suddenly forced to question the ethics of listing any events at all (including our own series 1995: The Year the Internet Broke at Anthology Film Archives). As theaters closed and layoffs began, we shifted our focus to material support, teaming up with Light Industry to raise money for theater workers facing an uncertain future. Later we worked together to support theaters that were able to open as safe havens for protestors.

Overnight we also converted our daily email—which was nearing a decade-long streak of going out 365-days-a-year—into a source for streaming recommendations and essays on online media culture, broadly conceived. In addition to under-the-radar streaming picks, this has included essays on topics ranging from Go Brrr memes to online film/video exhibitions to self-released DIY horror films. But in our biggest shift, we decided to start a regular live online series of our own: Stream Slate.

Our year of flirtation with start-up culture had given us cause to enumerate the benefits of staying small, and the one that served us best in 2020 was nimbleness. After nearly a decade of championing local film organizations, we could now introduce our audience to others from around the world, co-sponsoring screenings and discussion of work we wanted to see online and hipping New York audiences to things happening in cities ranging from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Mexico City. Many of these are organizations we’d known primarily through correspondence, or meeting in passing; others are closer to home but whom we’d yet to work with. Putting together online shows was a catalyst for collaboration and geographically far-reaching solidarity.

While many organizations attempted to approximate their usual programming online, this really didn’t work for Screen Slate. Our usual programming was a list of events, but the raison d’etre was not providing a list of content to watch exactly. Instead we offered a sort of IRL social network: places to go, things to see, people in an auditorium watching something together, and people in a lobby talking about what they’d seen. With a few notable exceptions, directly translating programs into an online space—as a digital marketplace of titles available for timed rental, for instance, or a window that sits in a browser vacuum—didn't capture what our audience loves about going to movies and shows.

Twitch was emerging as a platform that lent itself to DIY streaming, and as we were talking with a few initial collaborators, it seemed like a good match for what we were trying to do. A few things seem important to our approach: shows that lend themselves to Twitch’s text chat, live discussion that can and often does interface with the audience in real time, listening to our collaborators (along the lines of, “what have you been up, what are you excited about, and how can we make a show out of it?”), and engaging with issues related to access and preservation, which the pandemic has created heightened awareness of.

Some of our screenings have focused on mining the archive and interrogating the power structures behind what gets saved and why — these have ranged from collaborations with organizations like artist-run film lab Laboratorio Experimental de Cine in Mexico City, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and genre/porn restoration label Vinegar Syndrome. Others, like Cory Arcangel’s Freshbuzz with Rhizome, brought internet-based work made for a gallery or screening room back to the computer screen (where it was particularly well-suited to a live chat). We’ve also focused on things that aren’t easily accessible online: premieres of work by an earlier generation of artists like Ken Jacobs and Cecelia Condit who are interested in embracing a new paradigm of independent streaming without fussing over festival premiere status, and younger artists like Frank Heath who are excited to connect.

Without a regular program to adapt or maintain, Screen Slate was able to consider what was missing in our new landscape. There are limitations to what can be done in isolation, but also possibilities. Geography no longer mattered, we could work with organizations around the world, putting together programs that would have been difficult to organize in a physical space. Twitch seemed to provide as close an approximation to the spontaneous interaction of a live experience as is available online. We weren’t all in the same room, but a dozen people seemed to simultaneously take the same screen shot when Masao Adachi lit up a cigarette on zoom during our Gewaltpia: Motoharu Jonouchi and the Japanese Avant-Garde program with Collaborative Cataloging Japan.

Because one of us is a media archivist by trade, we’ve taken care to archive all the screenings. The full discussions are saved and the Twitch text chat and its metadata is downloaded and saved alongside it. Pending artist and rightsholder permission, we typically keep the full programs publicly online for a week, and then stash them in a private Vimeo channel accessible to our Patreon members. On that note, because we have never received programming grants, the honorary compensation that Screen Slate provides to artists is 100% funded by our viewers and supplemented by the generosity of our co-presenters as possible. Though our community has become a bit more amorphous as it has moved online, all roads lead back to our central mission: creating a supportive network of artists and audiences for the type of film programming we want to thrive.