Practice Prism

Last week the new issue Garageland on Collaboration came out. Pick up a copy to read my wonderful entitled Practice Prism (thank you to the editor for that brilliant title), an interview with multimedia artist Conrad Ventur. Here is the unedited version for super-keen readers.Ventur_Conrad_13MostBeautifulthumbsConrad Ventur’s definition of collaboration is clear and all-encompassing: “Anytime I work with a living person, this is collaborative to me. These are relationships, even if the interaction was a split-second long.” But as with everything Ventur does, this split-second holds the possibility of expansion; if there is anything I learn from my discussion with multimedia/disciplinary New York artist, Ventur, it is that the boundaries of the collaborative process are awkwardly blurred.

Collaboration appears to have a number of different values attached to it: temporal, material, economical, deeply personal and individual. Ventur is certain, for example, that the Youtube videos he uses for his prism installations do not amount to a collaboration with the deceased, and yet if he is working with an archive or an estate (as with his recent 11 person group show and tribute to Mario Montez, Montezland), he supposes that this can be seen as a collaborative effort.  The problem, of course, largely comes from the sticky discomfort of the question of ‘authorship’, the hierarchy of artist and source material, and a post-Warholian hang-up which stems back to the exploitation of the Silver Factory.

Ventur writes that it is “characters” which interest him, and the ways in which “people build and record themselves”, there is a strong emphasis here too on recording  in a “contemporary technological landscape” where “users generate content and/or ARE the content through a complex layer of electronic global distribution and self-awareness.”

Although my interview with Ventur amounts to an email exchange across continents and time-zones, it feels like another kind of collaboration: a fractured sparking of stories and thoughts cascading through my inbox. The zoom-narratives of tangential clarifying questions and visual picture walls of informative footnotes; are all rich material for our virtual collaboration.

Ventur’s prism pieces use archive videos in an immersive expanded cinematic installation, he explains: “you walk into the space and immediately see a kaleidoscope of imagery coming from the video projectors and the motors, from which the prisms hang. The spinning crystals fracture what is being projected.” Ventur’s prism, which he flashes before me at different points in the interview, is the ideal metaphor for his collaborative process: his work is a prismatic display of time and character, distilled through the artist as medium.

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Ventur sees this work as “reclaiming” the original performances he uses: “[The videos had] been squished and down-sampled to such a point to get them online (reducing their file size etc.), and here I am, fracturing them and expanding them in a darkened space – giving them some kind of new agency.” Ventur acts as artist and prism in all of his collaborations.

The types of characters he chooses are usually displaced or dispossessed, down-sampled to become forgotten icons: “I appreciate a celebrity if their star is sort of faded, or not-quite right – niche. I would look closer at the archive of that person if there was something redeemable, something magical to recycle and expand about their story, their life: a lesson to multiply in space.” We have only a fraction of their story until Ventur reanimates in a fractious expansion of sound, light and colour.

He is, ultimately, a portrait photographer in the ultra-sensory world of new technology: he tells people’s stories by using all the synesthetic equipment he has at his disposal. Somehow this ‘expanded cinematic narrative’ brings us a little closer to that first experience of the cinema, when audiences ran in terror believing that a steam train would crash out of the screen and into the audience.  Across Ventur’s projects and in different media, narratives are communicated as expanded experiences.

Ventur’s act of collaborating is a means of readdressing an imbalance of power which works outside of his own interests for the vindication of the collaborator. Ventur writes that: “I feel like I’m articulating something, in my own time that they couldn’t do in theirs. I feel like I’m an extension of them in that way, or an echo”. The fact that a part of these stories was left untold is also an uncomfortably loaded issue of exploitation.

With 13 Most Beautiful/Screen Tests Revisited, it is the faded stars of Warhol’s Factory that Ventur returns to, but he is resistant to the idea that this might just be an extension of the Factory model: “my work, I believe, is more sensitive than that”. The initial compulsion to work with the dispossessed of the Factory came from the belief that he “could unhinge the subjects from some nostalgia they were mired in,” and that he could add another layer to that myth. The Factory’s appeal is as a “a brief platform from which a few characters, each for their own reasons, performed,” but Ventur’s primary interest is in “the subjects themselves (and their own place or displacement).”

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The exploitation by Warhol of those involved in the Factory seems to swamp any definition of collaboration in a debate about money and alternative measurements of value. Having worked with a whole spectrum of Factory characters, Ventur’s understanding of this is sensitive and inquiring:

“In Warhol’s case, I feel he was collaborating, but his success was so eclipsing, and don’t forget he was a rich person by the time he started the Factory, that this unsettled many of those he worked with (especially if/when he didn’t pay for their participation, or he paid too little). If he’d been a commercial failure – if he’d actively, glamorously resisted commercialisation like Jack Smith, how would we have seen it differently? It was still collaborative even though the change in contexts and his own ambitions created a disproportionate exchange of value.”

Ventur’s relationship with Warhol is consistently critical and yet it has come to define the parameters of his own collaborations. He sees himself as being “in the service of others” and hopes that his work will add a “welcome flourish of activity”: a resurrection and rejuvenation of those dissatisfying 15 minutes of fame perhaps (expanding that fleetingly temporary time-frame too).

Ventur views “people as both material and as relationships, even though I am seen as ‘author’.” There is also a “tension around that hierarchy” but Ventur feels that “we all get something equal out of being together when you measure the potential outcomes and what we each bring to the table.” Deeper thought and attention has been put into each of Ventur’s collaborative relationships than can be found in any of the momentary Factory clutches at fame. Ventur’s critical approach to Warhol has offered a springboard from which he can make those relationships as fruitful as possible.

It was through his Screen Tests Revisited that Conrad Ventur came to work with the Boricua drag performer, Mario Montez. His three year collaboration with Montez will now come “full circle in a durational month-long performance project in Fall 2013 in New York,” where they’ll be working with “a multi-generational cast of actors in a largely improvised live exhibition environment”.

Ventur now sees those “split-second moments” of collaboration, “made more complex”. The influence of Montez, (who was a founding member of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company, the only living link between Smith, Warhol and Ludlam, and a collaborator in the 60s with many other artists and photographers) has moved Ventur beyond the individual to collaborate with ensembles and think “about a larger consciousness as it relates to lens and media.”

The collective has always been in the frame for Ventur but the development of his practice, set in motion by his work with Montez, has helped him to realise this in large-scale collaborative performances. There is after all, something of the anthropologist about Ventur too: and if not an anthropologist exactly, then at least, an “artist/catalyst with a new-age-y anthropo-fetish”. His work spans a chain of social histories which stretch from the people who came of age in post-War 50s and 60s all the way to post-911 Obamania and technology culture. Perhaps this is all too close to make sense of at the moment, too fractured, but with fame and posterity Ventur sees himself, “there eventually – melted, if I live long enough, and maybe I planted seeds in the 00s that will grow and wilt with me – shifting my material and my own narrative in the coming years.”

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