“That was like a nice start,” says Hanna Maria Anttila dryly about the time she moved to New York in 2001, only two weeks before the September 11 attacks. “I saw it, with my own eyes.” The artist, producer and director of Finnish digital archive and distributor AV-arkki is sitting across from me in the contemporary art museum café of Kiasma in Helsinki over 15 years later, and it occurs to me how much has happened since then. At this moment, upstairs, there’s a survey of post-internet art spanning all five floors of the labyrinthine Steve Holl-designed building. Key works by artists like Katja Novitskova, Ed Atkins, Cécile B. Evans, and Ryan Trecartin are showing in a major exhibition at a national institution, when not even five years ago there was still conversation about whether theirs was an artform at all. Not far away at Amos Anderson Art Museum, there are teenagers using Internet Explorer web browser windows as nostalgia.
AV-arkki, meanwhile, has weathered the storm of the early-noughties ‘digitisation boom’ (when video art became media art) to develop into a rich database and distributor of Finnish art to major institutions and festivals, of work by the likes of Mikko Kuorinki, Jaakko Pallasvuo, Henna-Riikka Halonen, Kimmo Modig and more. Living in New York at the turn of the millennium before returning to work with the non-profit artist-run organisation in 2004, Anttila completed an MFA in video installation when media art, particularly in Finland, was still a peripheral discipline. “Here it was more about painting and stuff but then, little by little – and I think it has got to do with also equipment becoming more accessible – it has shifted towards the centre.” It’s from that new centre, in the bowels of an institutional show of millennial artists at the Web 2.0 summit, that this conversation carries. It runs from how AV-arkki survived the transition from analogue to digital, and the difficult process of selecting members in the era after YouTube.
Hanna Maria Anttila: Well, AV-arkki started in 1989. It was first a project inside another artist association called MUU, which means ‘other,’ and around that same time, many similar places had already started, in the US and Europe, like Electronic Arts Intermix in New York, Vtape in Toronto. There were many archives whose purpose was to collect and distribute video art, it was called video art in those days, and experimental film. This equipment started to become available to artists and they started to make works, after which they realised, ‘okay, well somebody has to store this somewhere, this is really fragile, and it would be kind of cool if someone could see it, also.’ In those days, the Internet didn’t exist for the large audiences, so festivals were listed in these huge catalogue phone books. You flicked through them and then you would send physical tapes to them and sometimes got invited to visit the festival, if you were a director of the film or whatever.
** Talking about new databases and new systems of archiving, how have those things shifted through the history of AV-arkki? I’m assuming that in the late-90s to the early millennium, you were still using physical copies of films.
HMA: Yeah, even in 2004 when I started working with AV-arkki, we still sent out VHS tapes to festivals. We had this ancient region code converter – when you sent to the USA, it had to be NTSC, SECAM for France or whatever – so this machine was from the 70s, and it had green and red buttons where you chose the region code and you made a really crappy copy. Then you’d send VHS tapes in the mail and festivals contacted you with fax machines from France saying ‘please send us this and that.’ [laughs]
These regional differences with formats, they don’t really exist any more but the practice other than that is still exactly the same, except everything is digitised and it is just much faster. I think this is one of the reasons why media arts spread so easily, and why exhibitions travel, and works travel because it is easier to see.
** It’s also interesting to see how, with greater access, visual literacy has also changed in the mainstream. Audiences are so much more advanced in how they perceive time in how editing works with film, for example, there’s a language there that someone might not have understood 50 to 100 years ago.
HMA: Yeah, unless you are a specialist [laughs]. But have you seen Duchamps, or Man Ray, or Fernand Léger’s films? They did some really avant-garde stuff.
** They’re things that were considered avant-garde then but perhaps not so much now.
HMA: Exactly, YouTube is full of that stuff.
** I guess the uniqueness of a thing, or even the impact of a thing diminishes the more you’re exposed to it.
HMA: Hmm, so the ‘bewilderment’ or the experimental courses, you mean?
HMA: Yes, but it is exactly the same. If you think about performance art, and then you think of Jackass, it’s exactly the same phenomenon. These endurance pain performance pieces, and then MTV Jackass.
** So Jackass is like Marina Abramović.
HMA: Yeah, like a commercial version of it. The stunts are very similar to old school performance art. The duration is just shorter, so this is everywhere in culture, where artists do something first.
** Then, in terms of this democratisation of video as a medium and then also thinking about this expensive equipment that you needed in order to be a part of festivals, globally, it sounds like AV-arkki has a greater task at hand, to distinguish between a hobbyist or a professional artist, for example.
HMA: Yeah, exactly, finding the difference is sometimes hard. You have to draw a line in the water on who is a hobbyist and who is a real artist. Because anything can be interesting, like something that the kids make can be super interesting, or something that pensioners make.
HMA: Yeah, you have to send an application and then the board reviews it.
** How many applications are there versus how many people are accepted?
HMA: It varies a lot. Sometimes we might get 70 applications in a year and only 10 get accepted but sometimes it changes.
** I just wonder how it works, in terms of being a non-exclusive distributor but then also having to be selective about who can be a member given your limited resources.
HMA: The people who don’t get in are mostly hobbyists. If there is some sort of a professional quality to your work, and we also think, ‘can we help these this person, or are we of any use to this person?’ So if somebody wants to be a member of a AV-arkki just to have something check-listed in their CV or whatever, we don’t do that. We have to be able to think that we can help him or her somehow.
** Because also the value of a thing also depends on its scarcity…
HMA: But this is the question of outsider art, in general. Outsider art has always been influencing the ‘official arts,’ a lot, really a lot. If we just think of Dadaists or Surrealists or even the Modernists, whatever …
** Yeah, especially now, with an artist like Jon Rafman appropriating user-created content on YouTube or something.
HMA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Even though the kids that do the original stuff for YouTube, they’re not outsider artists, they’re just kids but this is the difference between found footage or outsider art.
** Do you feel like the selection process has become more difficult for AV-arkki?
HMA: Yes, it has. Now the applications that we get are mostly from kids graduating from the arts university that have done a couple of videos and some of them are kind of good and, of course, it’s obvious that we accept them as members but sometimes it is really hard to draw the line.
HMA: AV-arkki has been really lucky that in the early 2000s we had a director, called Eeva Pirkkala, and she realised that ‘now there are grants available for digitising and we should start doing this.’ She was smart. Not all other artists or arts organisations realised to do it then while there was this whole ‘digitising boom’ going on in the European Union then. It started with the French President Jacques Chirac saying that everything should be digitally available to everyone and with databases and services, like Europeana.
Eeva started applying for funding and she got it, so we’ve been kind of smart in this database-development and digitising, we started doing it early and we had everything done by the time that this boom ended, and the funding ended. Many arts organisations only then realised, ‘okay maybe we should start digitising something, or developing our online services’ but the online services are only an interface for the database and all the information that you have collected. We had done, or started doing that work already, five, six, seven years prior to the moment when the bandwidth of the internet grew in everyone’s home in Finland and suddenly the Internet enabled services that you could use. **