Notes from the Field: Karin Schneider
Updated: Jun 27, 2021
In our 'Notes from the Field' series, we speak with artists, filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, programmers, writers, and thinkers working across the spectrum of art and film, hearing about the ways in which they are working towards creating new ecosystems for the creation, circulation, and consumption of moving images. Here, Matt speaks with artist and filmmaker Karin Schneider, a co-founder of moving image streaming service ORTVI, about how her approach to making art and the various projects she has been involved with over her extensive career have come to inform her approach to creating this innovative and necessary new platform.
Sentient Art Film: I’m interested in a few things, and I suspect they might all be connected. I was hoping to learn first about your art practice, which I understand is often collaborative, and then also about some of the organisations and projects you’ve been involved in through which you have explored ideas of interdisciplinarity and cultural exchange. Then, I thought it would be good to hear about ORTVI, and how your background may have come to inform your work with this platform? Perhaps first you could introduce me to your artistic practice and maybe talk a little about how you define yourself as an artist, and how you approach making art?
Karin Schneider: I'm originally from Brazil. I started making art when I was in Brazil, but at a certain point I realised that the core of the people that were organising, distributing, and displaying art had a very neo-colonial perspective on art. I was profoundly frustrated by this so I left Brazil in my 20s to go to New York. I received a scholarship to study art at NYU, but ended up doing the majority of my classes in film. I had two classes with Annette Michelson in the Department of Cinema Studies at Tish, which were “Experimental Cinema 1” and “Experimental Cinema 2”, and I was mesmerised by these classes. It changed my understanding of cinema.
I also did a residency in Upstate New York a year earlier, before I moved here. I had another experience with film there. While I was in residence, an older guy came in with a 16mm projector and screened some films by George Maciunas. It was the first time I had seen a 16mm projector in my life. I was in shock because I had never paid any attention to the materiality of film before this guy - who, it turned out, happened to be Jonas Mekas - showed us these films. Jonas came to my studio after. We spent the entire night drinking and talking, and, at the end, he gave me a card and said that when I came back to New York, I should call him so that we could keep our conversation going. I said sure, but when I came back to New York, I never took him up on his offer. I told someone about this, and they said that I was crazy not to do it; I had to go see him because he was an amazing filmmaker. I had no idea.
Eventually I did end up going to Anthology Film Archives, which I thought was his actual home until he opened the door. Even though this was now a year and a half later, he still remembered me. He showed me the archives and asked me if I want to work with him, and I said yes. By coincidence, around the same time, I also met Dan Graham, who introduced me to his friends and taught me about the whole New York art scene. I was deeply influenced by him.. One time, I was having lunch at Anthology Archives, and then Peter Kubelka showed up and we went for a drink. This at the Mars Bar at 11am, and then Stan Brakhage was also there. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, with the right group of people, and from these numerous conversations, I was able to learn about the history of experimental cinema and art.
i started to really get used to film as a medium. I was going to do my PhD in filmmaking, but Jonas said that would be a complete waste of time and that I should just buy a camera instead and start filming. I said that I didn’t know how to film, so he said he would teach me. He helped me to buy my camera and taught me and Nicholas Guanina, my partner at the time, how to load it, and we started to film. We were both broke artists, but we decided to create a film company and collaborate with other people from different disciplines. That was the beginning of Union Gaucha Productions. That space really helped me to expand my practice as an artist. I was not interested in just producing by myself alone in my studio, and after that, my artistic practice became more and more collaborative.
Then September 11th happened, which made my practice even more collaborative. After that, I really didn't want to be working alone anymore. I really wanted to bring a collective force into my form of making art. That became really important, and while I don't have the exact explanation why, I know that during the attacks, I was in New York and I had several cameras loaded into my loft in Soho. When I saw the second plane hit the second tower, I also saw a lot of people jumping, but I couldn't film anything. I was so terrified, I didn't want to do anything at all. That was the moment in which there was a radical transformation in me. I started to be more aware of what, how and why I film.I will never forget these images of several people jumping from the towers. These images will be forever in my head, and I did not want to share them with anyone because they are really awful.
I had an exhibition a month later in Buenos Aires, where I turned a solo show into a group show. I invited a group of artists to go to the space to make the work for me, and then opened it as a solo show. I was criticised in the newspapers because they said that I was copying the work of the some of the most important artists of the country. I was not copying anyone, they were literally the ones that were doing the work for me. I just erased their names and only had my own. That was the beginning of a sincere desire to collectivise my artist practice, and since then I always try to figure out mechanisms and forms of production that bring more people into my work in order to not just have a single voice.
This is something that is probably now more accepted, but at that time people wanted art to be an object, something they could identify as belonging to a single artist. People wanted artists to display a signature style, which is something that I refuse to do. Every time I complete a body of work, I close that chapter, then often head in a different direction. I deflate narratives, and, in a certain way I feel that I am always lost, and trying to understand what I am doing. Perhaps because of this, my work became situational. It's always diagrammatic: a specific situation creates the motivation for the work to exist. If I create a work in Venezuela, I’ll pay attention to the context in which I'm doing that work and then depart from that. if I do a work in Nuremberg, the world and the politics there will produce different work. I really have to understand a context, in order to produce something, so being in the studio alone doesn’t work for me.
After I started to collectivise my practice, I became part of a group that created a gallery in the Lower East Side called Orchard Gallery. It was an intense project that we knew had a beginning, a middle and an end. The motivation for this idea came out of President Bush’s re-election in America. We were depressed at that time because the art system was very in love with the market, and the conversations and the productions that were circulating were very flat. We felt that we needed to do something, so we created this cooperative gallery in the Lower East Side. It was formative to my practice.
When I engage with projects, I always have an open heart: I’m very utopian in spirit. I really believe that we can change things if we want to. Even as I’ve got older, I haven’t changed.
You don't get disillusioned?
It's very strange. I really think change is possible. But after Orchard Gallery, I did get burned out as an artist. It was a very intense project that involves lots of heavy duty discussions. In my solo shows at the time, I was creating what Dan Graham called “Transparent Partitions”, which were display mechanisms designed to project multiple devices into my paintings. Each individual painting had a semi-open programme, which always involved an invitation for other people to do something in relation to it. People would come and use these machines and project their own work onto my paintings, and after that, I realised that the next step would be to open a space, and really experiment with other kinds of programming. Orchard became a place in which viewership became the focus of attention; it was really important who was coming to see the show. That was not the path that I wanted to take, so I decided to retreat.
Next, I opened another space in the Lower East Side called ‘Cage’. It existed for five years, I was the only initiator of this space. I started conversations with people who were incarcerated, one of whom was Judith Clark. She had been imprisoned for a long time. Because of her, and other people I met, I started Cage, through which I was really engaging with people who were in a completely different place than anyone I’d met or worked with before. I really wanted to engage with people that didn't have any freedom anymore, and have a dialogue with them about that. We created the first programme with inmates who were not allowed to exist outside, taking their drawings, poems, out of the prison and into the space.
Was it hard to get access to the prison? Were the prisons interested in the project or were they resistant?
Yes, it’s not even legal.
The first thing that we did at Cage is eliminate the audience. Instead, I distributed 22 keys to people in different capacities, handing out these keys to the space at parties and other places. I was not interested in determining who was in or who was out—I didn't want to be the gatekeeper. I was very frustrated with the system and the art market, and Cage offered a place for me to breathe. I didn't want to give up on making art and I wanted to keep instigating people, myself included, to do other kinds of practices.
Cage became a very strange place. If you visited, you would sometimes find a guy doing yoga, then another group teaching art to children in the neighbourhood, and then there were study groups, a radio station, performances, reading groups, and then certain exhibitions too. This was also the time of Occupy Wall Street, and the Black Cross Anarchists were using the space to write letters to inmates, alongside other anarchists who used the space to organise actions. Cage was a very schizophrenic space—nobody really knew what it was about, not even me. I was just going there in the morning, paying the bills, cleaning the space, and then sometimes coming in the afternoon to meet people. Who knows what happened there at night? During Occupy, the police were there all the time, sitting in their cars outside, or coming in and checking the space.
I can imagine if they see something like that and they don't understand what it is, that it scares them?
Yeah, we had a lot of undercover cops attending meetings. I became very engaged with anarchism at that time, and I really came to understand how the government infiltrates organisations like this—how they shut things down. They use students, generally from Ivy League schools, who appear to be the most radical. It felt like I was in a film, but it was reality. I was getting more and more radicalised, so one day I went to talk to Judith Clarke, and she told me to step away. She reminded me that I had a child, and said that I should away because otherwise I would end up in jail and it would all be a complete disaster. Right after, one of my good friends was imprisoned, I realised that I really needed to back off. After that, I let Cage continue, but I asked people to be more careful, because we had this idea that we could push the government to change, and that didn’t happen. Obama bailed out the financial system. Judith was granted parole in 2019, after 37 years in prison.
Over these five years, I met so many people as a result of Cage. At the beginning, I gathered a group of artists and programmers together and instigated a conversation with this group because I wanted to create a better distribution system for people that work with the moving image. That was the seed of ORTVI, and it had a few iterations before it came what it is now, first with a brilliant programmer who pulled out to create are.na, then with a group of radical developers from Colombia, and then with another group in the Amazon, but these works and discussions all fell through.
You were right earlier when you said you don’t give up…
Yeah, by then I was in a stage that I didn’t want to give up. I talked to two amazing guys next. One is an investor and engineer, Victor Ribeiro, who worked in the Google Institute in Paris. He really saw my vision and he and his wife, Alice Campos, gave me the seed money that was necessary to make it happen. Another, Andrew Francis, was part of our group during Cage, and he became another of my seed investors. Because I failed many times before, I knew exactly what I had to do now that I had the investment to move on and I started to figure out what would be necessary to make this happen.
And this became ORTVI? What informed the shape that the platform has taken, as I understand it is quite unique in some ways as a service?
Doing Cage, I was entirely against the market—I embraced negation all the way. This was a consequence I guess from my infinite conversations with Michael Asher. After Cage, I started to think more about what is necessary for artists to exist in a more expanded way. With ORTVI, we have assembled all the components. The ecosystem that we have has is strong. We have a group with different points of view. We have an art collector who really understands the art market from the collector’s points of view, Paul Leong. We have an artist/writer/gallerist, John Kelsey, and the support of key artists, filmmakers, curators, art galleries, and institutions. Silvia Kobolski, an artist, writer, and filmmaker, is the head of our editorial team. We have Raquel Guicardi, as the head of our tech team supervising a group of developers needed to make a functional platform, and we have a filmmaker who is also a lawyer, Carolina Saquel. It was very important for us to have a legal person because the legal part is instrumental to ORTVI.
My motivation for ORTVI came out of my own frustration because I have more than 60 time-based works that are not circulating, because there's no distribution infrastructure for them to circulate. This is a frustration that started the year I opened Cage. I’ve been cooking this idea for a long time; it's not something that I woke up one morning and decided to make. I realised that I needed to make an infrastructure for artists’ time based-work, and one of the core points for ORTVI is the streaming rights. As artists we need to change this habit that you can give away your work for free. You can do that if you like, but uploading something for free shouldn’t be the only distribution route for your work that is available. Who invented this ideology that things have to be given away for free? Why should nobody pay to watch the work we make? Nobody can survive distributing all their work for free. It is simply unsustainable.
The streaming rights was the first thing we worked out. I invited Paul to see if he agreed with the issues I was outlining, and he said that he wouldn’t mind people paying to watch the work that he owned, nor did he object to the idea that the artists would collect earnings for their own work. Next, we talked to various gallerists and they also agreed that the streaming rights for a work should go to the artist.
Everyone thought it wasn’t possible, but it is. We created a licensing agreement with a legal team, which was very clear that the streaming rights belong to the artist, and we are advocating for artists to use this in their contract to make sure they retain streaming rights for the works they sell. Now, people are starting to understand this, and we are starting to grow. Economy has to be part of any platform, and it has to be a sustainable economy. The way we have set up ORTVI, 70% of what we make has to go back to the system, to artists, to curators, and to the production of new works. At the beginning this seemed like a very utopian idea perhaps, and several investors said this is not a model that they were interested in investing in, but I responded by saying that they were not the right investors for this project. I was hearing that distribution was the problem, but I said that distribution was not the problem but the solution. I’m invested in making ORTVI a sustainable place for artists and that is what it is going to be.