Founded in 2010 in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, Microscope Gallery has rapidly become one of the most interesting art venues in New York. Conceived as a means to dissolve the boundary between the white cube of the gallery and the black box of the screening room, Microscope holds film and video screenings, exhibitions, and a variety of sound and performance events, representing well-established artists from the experimental film world (such as Jonas Mekas, Peggy Ahwesh, Su Friedrich, Takahiko Iimura) as well as emerging ones. I exchanged with Microscope co-founders and co-directors Elle Burchill and Andrea Monti on their curatorial work, the relationship between the film scene and the art world, and some issues of the art market.
Let's start with the most basic question. How did Microscope begin?
We found our space in Bushwick accidentally when looking for an art studio (for Andrea). It is quite small, but we think it’s the minimum size you need for screening. So we signed a lease and opened a month later. The idea to start a space that combined the black box of the screening venue with the white cube of the gallery had been in the back of our minds for more than a year. We felt that there was an unnecessary divide between the works that were destined for the film world and those for the art world, that artists/filmmakers shouldn’t have to be separated or even labeled. We had also had conversations with many filmmakers, videomakers, those coming from the screening context, about the lack of galleries open to their works. And we were aware that many people known for film or sound also seriously work in multiple mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, and so on. We felt it was important to show these works as well.
Joel Schlemowitz, 2012, Camera Painting: Hanazono Shrine, 16mm film in lightbox (detail), 16 x 14 x 6 inches
© courtesy of Joel Schlemowitz and Microscope Gallery
And how does Microscope relate to the Brooklyn art, film, and video scene?
From the start we were doing two things: monthly exhibitions open during the day and an event series a couple times a week at night. Again, our idea is to blur this boundary as much as possible. As a screening venue we’re one of about five in Brooklyn with a regular schedule of avant-garde films to various degrees, including Light Industry, Union Docs, Spectacle and now Millennium Film Workshop (they moved to Bushwick last summer). We all have a somewhat different approach and focus, but there is overlap with all. We do at least one screening a week, plus other sound or performance events. We tend to present a lot of solo screenings and we try as much as possible to have the artist present. We hold emerging artists as important as the pioneers. We also get a lot of visiting artists from Europe, Canada, Asia and other places.
As for the gallery, we present shows at least monthly. Bushwick has the highest concentration of artists in the world. When we opened there were only seven other galleries. Now there are fifty galleries in the neighborhood. We should add that, like us, almost all the galleries in Bushwick are run by artists.
Indeed both of you make also art, can you please describe how your being artist relates to being gallerists? Do you find that there may be a need of separating the two activities or rather they make a whole? I sense that there must be a difference between curating a show at Microscope and showing your own work.
It’s true that both of us do work in a multiple mediums, not just with video (Elle) or sound (Andrea) and that we had both shown in gallery as well as screening/performance contexts. We were also both curators before starting Microscope, so were already used to balancing both roles. We think it’s very important that we keep our works separate from the gallery as much as possible. We have only shown our work once, a screening/sound night as the last show of the first year. The title of the night was Nepotism (this tells you a little bit about our perspective).
We do think that being artists ourselves helps us have a deeper understanding of an artist’s concerns, hopes, point of view, when we are working together to plan an exhibition. In many matters, we know exactly where they are coming from, because we have been there ourselves, and still are. Additionally, we can relate to the artist and can offer a lot of technical advice because of our understanding of the mediums.
Katherine Bauer, from the exhibition Teenage Dream Sequence: Seduction of the Eye (2014) - Installation view
© courtesy of Katherine Bauer and Microscope Gallery
Also, always on this topic, can you talk a little about your previous projects and how they informed the founding of Microscope?
[AM] I co-founded an international film festival with friends in Lucca, Italy that was focused on experimental filmmakers. I was involved with organizing retrospectives of Michael Snow, Stephen Dwoskin, Jonas Mekas and others in which the filmmakers were present. In many cases, I also arranged for an exhibition of their artworks in conjunction with the festival. I moved to New York in 2009, I curated several shows at Anthology Film Archives and some other places, bringing a number of films from Europe to the United States. I also briefly interned at an art gallery and had a couple of exhibitions of my work.
[EB] I too was involved with a film festival in Washington DC, called Rosebud. One of the founders was the filmmaker Jeff Krulik. That festival was smaller and focused on emerging film/video makers from the area – the new version is based in Virginia and still exists but it's a different festival. Then in New York, I worked as one of the directors of the Galapagos art space in Brooklyn where we were showing dance, burlesque, bands, avant-garde music, and the experimental film series Ocularis. I also was constantly going to see films at Anthology and Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, almost every week. I started making my own videos and working as a video editor for other filmmakers. And some of my videos also were screened or exhibited in gallery shows and art fair situations.
Both of us were having our works show in different contexts so this was a dialogue we were already both having with ourselves and then with each other and the broader community.
I think what characterizes Microscope is that you work with time-based artists, but you don't only display time-based works. As mentioned before, It seems that there are two aspects of Microscope: the events and the exhibitions. Do you find any significant difference in working in these two fields?
We don’t really see this as two fields, but rather two different means of presentation. We show work by people working with time-based arts in the context they prefer the works to be shown. Sometimes our exhibitions are just video monitors in the dark. The most extreme example was our second exhibit, which was a film that screened as the exhibition. There was no looping involved. It was the complete Cinématon series, the ongoing film – and now video – project by Gérard Courant, which at the time was 292 hours. We were open every day from 9am to 7pm.
We’ve also had a few shows where there was nothing time-based on exhibit at all. There are a lot of time-based artists, and we’d say especially filmmakers, that work in multiple mediums with the same intensity of practice as the medium they are known for, but they keep it for themselves, or they are never asked about it. We’re not talking here about people making stills from their films or videos, but a real investigation of a specific medium. We’ve had a lot of discoveries in these three years. For example we visited Amos Poe to plan a screening and there were all these black and white paintings on the wall. Turned out they were his. He’d been obsessively painting these "Robots" for months and months, but he hadn’t told anyone about them. So we booked an exhibit and then showed a film as an event one time. Same with Sarah Halpern who works often with live projection/expanded cinema. We were talking about an evening event and she brought along these amazing collages, made using old film books.
Of course, we do have more freedom with the events as these are single evening events. We present more than fifty each year, so we are able to work with many more artists in the event series. With the exhibitions we are dealing with a core base that we represent, although we are always open to proposals and will change our plans, if someone’s works gets us excited enough. Exhibits, however, involve much more of an investment and commitment, especially in time and money.
And do you feel that your audience changes regarding the events or the exhibitions?
Regarding the audience, a lot of our audience goes to both exhibitions and events. Our hope was that the audiences would cross-over and we have been very pleased that this is happening. That said, there is still the occasional “purist” who shows up for a screening and has no interest whatsoever about what is on the walls, even when the filmmaker screening that night made those works, which for us is a bit hard to understand. And there are sometimes people from the art world who have no interest in knowing anything about what events we have on the schedule. But for the most part, people coming to Microscope, or following us, are interested in time-based arts and looking to be exposed to more in any context.
Takahiko Iimura, from the exhibition Between the Frames (2011) - Installation View
© courtesy of Takahiko Iimura and Microscope Gallery
I guess this says a lot about the distance between the so-called “experimental film world” and the “art world”, but I have the feeling that new generations don't really care about such distinctions. Would you say that Microscope also helps people from the experimental film world in entering the art world? I am asking this because in Paris we have the well-known example of Pip Chodorov's Film Gallery that ultimately never managed to be fully integrated in the art world.
Regarding helping filmmakers enter the art world, this is something that is happening. But we must be clear that our intent is not to help these artists “make it” in the art world. It’s not only a matter of labels. Rather, we want to expand the dialogue about the works these artists are making and to have their works discussed with the same relevance and importance of the works being made in the so called art world.
But it’s much more than providing an exhibition space. As with any other endeavor, the art world has a specific way it functions. There is a way to hang shows, a way to present the artist, a way to sell certain types of works, a way to promote your activity, and hundreds of things that cannot really be found in any book. Also because at some level there is an interest in keeping them secret. Only if you know the rules of the game you can decide whether abide by them or circumvent them. If anything, we are trying to be fast learners. And we are trying to advise and transfer that knowledge to the artists we work with, as we want to eliminate the risk that a work may be dismissed for any reason other than its artistic value, if such a thing exists.
I would like to hear something about the difference between screening films or videos in a gallery space and the theatrical experience. I am asking this because when I was in New York I had the feeling that (contrary to what seems to happen in Paris, for instance) the most exciting events did not take place in theaters (except Anthology Film Archives) but in galleries or other alternative spaces – not regular screening rooms.
We take the screening very seriously. We can get total darkness in our space, we have good film and video projectors and decent sound system. Most galleries do not do screenings and if they do they don’t usually have equipment. It’s true that there are exciting film events happening in the other screening venues or in alternative spaces. The empty gallery space allows the most different set ups and facilitates – perhaps even encourages – the performative component, which makes every event more unique than the classic, serial screening form. Film theaters in New York usually show theatrical releases so they are not showing the kind of underground works we are discussing (of course Anthology is an exception).
This is in my opinion a crucial issue, since the display of moving image art seem to be largely overlooked. But displacements can also be exciting. I remember years ago October [No. 100, Spring 2002, pp. 115-132] published the round table on ‘Obsolescence and American Avant-Garde Film’ in which such issues where discussed. Paul Arthur at the time suggested wittily that Ken Jacobs should be screened in a local multiplex, and Chrissie Iles underlined the advantages bound to the typical “black box” looped-screening situation. I was wondering if you too operate such displacements from the curatorial point of view, or do you prefer to stick to the artists’ intentions? The Cinématon series you mentioned earlier seems to me an example of an appropriate displacement.
Cinématons was an example of showing the work in a way that was different than the original conception of the work. But in this case, most of the project was shot on Super 8, so it’s only been relatively recently (in terms of this forty-year project) that the technology even permitted this option. We’ve done the reverse, doing a screening program of works made by artists that were made for and only previously shown on installation in a gallery or museum (Alex McQuilkin, Janet Biggs, Soun-Gui Kim, Alice Guareschi, etc.). Changing the context can reveal things about the work you don’t see in the way it’s normally shown. Sometimes it exposes weakness, sometimes new depths.
Of course, any “displacement” first and foremost has to feel respectful of the nature of the work and not all works should be shown in different contexts. We talk a lot with the artists about how best to present and display their works. There have been instances where we had different visions, but in the end, before any work is shown, the solution always becomes clear - you just know when you get it right, and everybody else senses it as well. It is very important to go through that process together, considering all the different options, because it ultimately helps with a more in depth understanding the work.
Also, this is a bigger topic, but it’s also important to mention that for works that are for sale, you also have to think about not only the presentation in the gallery but the future display of the work when it is acquired.Sometimes artists feel that their work should be displayed in a certain way and only that way. In that case, the work comes with the specific equipment chosen by the artist for it, at some level becoming part of the piece.
Also on this note, are there any other spaces, galleries, etc. - in New York, the United States, or elsewhere – that you feel particularly close to from the professional point of view?
If you really mean professional, then no, not that we are aware of. We have not yet encountered another space that is doing both things that we are on a constant basis, having regular screenings, holding events of multiple programs of film screenings and film performances, and also having monthly exhibitions, representing artists, participating in art fairs.
I would like to hear more about the practical side of running a space like yours. For instance, you were recently [December 2013] in Miami for Art Untitled, how do you relate to events such as art fairs? What do collectors buy?
This is a not a practical endeavor. While we do sell works at art fairs, a main element is to expand the audience for these works, letting people see works by filmmakers and other time-based artists that they do not see as regularly in such a context.
Peggy Ahwesh, 2012, Smoke Stacks, pigment archival print, 12 x 12 inches
© courtesy of Peggy Ahwesh and Microscope Gallery
The whole story of film/video as art object is something that has become increasingly important even in the scholarly field [see Erika Balsom, ‘Original Copies: How Film and Video Became Art Objects’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 53, No. 1, Fall 2013, pp. 97-118]. Do you sell “limited editions” of film/video works as well?
Yes, we do sell limited editions of videos or film installations. Producing more editions of the same work, where possible, is an old and very widespread practice. Certain kinds of collectors feel more comfortable with what they know is established as common practice. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be creative. Once for instance we were selling unique drawings by James Fotopoulos, each coming with a unique thirty-second video made by the artist especially for it. Or in case of net-based moving image works, you can sell a .gif, a vine, a private link. Vimeo for instance has made quite an impact on anybody working with moving image at any level, and in case of galleries also as a tool to help sell works.
You seem to work with both well-know artists of the scene and newcomers. How do you choose the artists you work with?
We look for people who are working with time-based mediums first of all, and then we tend to focus on those who are really doing their own thing, people whose work you couldn’t mistake for someone else’s. In general these are emerging artists or pioneers of their art forms that for some reason or another, although collected in museums around the world, are underrepresented in the art world context. This is the premise. Then you look at the work, that’s what counts most. Ultimately, we work with artists whose work we feel like we have to show, or that people absolutely have to see. There is something about sharing with others our personal excitement for it.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects with the gallery and list the events/exhibitions that satisfied you the most in these three years?
Very shortly we’ll be announcing soon a call for Now What #3, our open call evening of screening and moving image performance. Also, we are getting ready for Moving Image Art Fair New York in early March during Armory Week, the first art fair entirely devoted to moving image. We tend not to announce what we’re doing until it is about to happen. We’ve got a lot in the works including exhibitions with a few fantastic filmmakers, and some surprises.
As for shows that satisfied us most, it’s hard choose. Would you ask a mother which of her children is her favorite? That said, having Jonas Mekas show up at the gallery dressed as a clown performing a crook gallerist teaching the audience how to rip off artists, well that was quite a mind blowing moment!