Interview with Florent Bex (a.k.a. Hubert van Es) by Lou Jonas, March and December, 2014
Could you tell me about your taking office at the ICC (now the M HKA – Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp) and the beginnings of video?
I became the director in 1972. In 1972, Jacques Ledoux, the director of the Museum of Cinema in Brussels, organized the last experimental film festival in Knokke. He asked me to look after the video section. We invited Nam June Paik, who came with his Abe-Paik Synthesizer to process the images. It wasn’t very big. I filmed what was happening on the beach in black-and-white. There was hardly anybody there. It was winter, it was quite cold. Then Nam June Paik invited me to try and work on it. We added colors. We reproduced the image. These were fairly simple operations, but they immediately altered the image.
This would be your first video experience?
Yes. There were still no cameras in Belgium. In 1974, the first video devices appeared on the market. I bought a Portapak with a recorder. I didn’t have a lot of staff at the ICC so I started by asking for conscientious objectors. Among them was Christiaan Goyvaerts, who lived through the whole history of video. During the first two weeks, the two of us experimented together. I had to become familiar with all the possibilities offered by this medium, in order to be able to explain them to the artists who came with their own ideas. In fact, I made the very first videos in Belgium using this equipment.
With Experiments for Autocommunication (1975) in particular.
There was that, yes. For days on end, I had fun with Chris. We did several experiments, which we numbered. In fact, it is an assemblage of several different videos, but they were all made within the scope of self-communication. I would place the camera in front of me. I would try to look at myself and communicate with myself. But that wouldn’t do because we needed to be able to place the camera in the middle of the screen. We never know how to look at ourselves straight in the eye: the impossibility of self-communication as demonstrated through video.
I was always interested in the relativity of perception. For instance, I went to the Coo Waterfall and had the idea of turning the camera around. It was at the end of the day, at sunset. You could see a red-orange color projected onto the waterfall. I had recorded the sound of the waterfall, the sound of the water. I was filming the water. Then, when we played it on a monitor, we could see flames and hear fire. What did I call that? Waterfire (1975). I began creating several things in the same vein: you make a few alterations and perception changes completely.
You started with some experiments with special effects and editing.
Yes, they were experiments. I never used video as a film camera. What interested me were all the unique aspects of video. One day, I took a square meter from an exhibition I was organizing (Aspects of Contemporary Art in Belgium, 1974). Because of the fake walls that had been built, there was an empty square. So I created an installation called Sand Action (1974) in there using a false name (Hubert Van Es). I put a board on the ground and filled this square with sand. Then I placed a chair there. I sat down on the chair. I put the camera on my lap and moved my feet in the sand for an hour. The tape was being played on a TV placed in a corner on the ground. It was a small situation. My Korean son, who is 45 years old today, was with me at the museum and he automatically removed his shoes and sat on the chair. Then, during the exhibition, some adults also removed their shoes. It was a piece that called for participation.
I used video again in an installation, not by Hubert Van Es this time but under the name of Flor Bex. I was interested to know what the visitors thought of the exhibition. We never had any contact with visitors. One fine day, there was a whole circuit in the ICC. And the last room was right next to my office. I placed a camera and a monitor in every room. The camera in my office filmed me behind my desk. I could see the visitors entering the room on my own monitor. I would then speak to them: “Hello, sir, hello, madam. How do you do? I am the director of this institution. I am close to you, in another room. I would like to know if you liked the exhibition.” Some people would start talking. So I would say to them, “If you want, come into my office and we’ll continue our conversation face to face.”
Did you keep track of the manner in which your works were exhibited?
They traveled a lot. They were shown in every International Open Encounter, all over the world. We started doing video exhibitions and video presentations around 1974–75. Then I started organizing five or six video festivals with Jorge Glusberg, the director of CAYC (Centro de Arte y Comunicación in Buenos Aires). We did them in London, at the Espace Cardin in Paris, and so on. We did that for two or three years at least.
How did these festivals unfold?
It all happened in the institutions. The fabulous thing was that many international artists met there for the first time.
These were projections where the videos were broadcast on monitors?
They were mainly projections, but there were a few installations as well.
What about copyright?
In the 1970s, art had nothing to do with money. Even painters and sculptors did not think about selling their work. The most important thing, once they had finished a piece, was to exhibit it. It was a completely different mentality. Even the well-known videographers of the time, such as Bill Viola, were sending tapes and we were not supposed to send them back. When we received the tapes, we would automatically make a copy to be able to replace them should they ever break during a presentation. Then there were colleagues from other institutions, such as Wolfgang Becker or Lola Bonora, with whom we exchanged everything, and the artists never made a fuss. It took a long time for the institutions to consider videos as being works of art. At the M HKA, it was only in the late 1980s that I bought videos by great American artists and had them inventoried in the collection. Before that, they weren’t really considered artworks. They were like performances, temporary installations. At first, they weren’t considered physical pieces that were inventoried works of art. Today, it goes even further than that. Some archive documents are given the status of works of art.
How do you perceive that?
It’s the commercial side of artworks, somehow. Some artists, such as Gordon Matta-Clark, physically left no works of art at all. Apart from a few snippets he kept from some of the places he worked in, only photographic documents remain. There are some drawings by Gordon of pieces he never made, drawings of ideas. We kept them as documentation. Their highest possible status was that of documentation. They were not even seen as drawings. And now, of course, they are unique works, the only trace, the only object, that exists as an illustration of this artist’s specific idea. Some things were regarded by artists as documents at the time, and today are given the status of artworks, since they are all that’s left. Every detail becomes important.