Interview with Robert Stéphane by Lou Jonas, April, 2014
If I understand correctly, the adventure of the TV program Vidéographie began in 1976 when you were director of the RTBF in Liège, and you were the one to suggest to Jean-Paul Tréfois and Paul Paquay that a magazine show on new media should be created.
The story goes back even further than that. In 1973, we decided with others to create an organization called CIRCOM (Coopérative Internationale de Recherche sur la Communication). We were witnessing the arrival of cable and wondered how we could make good use of it. I began specializing with Paul Paquay. A series of TV programs on new media were made, based essentially on the Canadian experience. In Canada, cable was immediately used more, much more so than here. It was occupied notably with a new concept, so-called “community” television. We went on to make a series of TV shows called Media 75, in which we presented various ways to use cable. Then, one day, around 1974, I received a phone call from the Rockefeller Foundation, which had found out that I was the Secretary General of CIRCOM. One of their delegates suggested that we meet with American colleagues to discuss an exchange of programs, or of programs in new fields. So I invited my friends from CIRCOM and we all ended up meeting a number of US public television directors. There was the director of the New York television station WNYT, of WGBH (Boston television), of San Francisco television, and so on. Finally, six or seven of the people at the meeting brought up two figures: Nam June Paik and Bill Viola. One of the ideas was that these American works would be broadcast. So we invented something called INPUT (International Public Television). We got lots of other pieces and people to come, other than Nam June Paik and Bill Viola. Then we said to ourselves, “Let’s do this!” We created Vidéographie. Vidéographie began with many works that were initially European. Then, at some point, Jean-Paul Tréfois and Christiane Philippe came with Paul Paquay to suggest we go to the United States to find works in situ. They contacted the Museum of Modern Art, where Barbara London was in charge of new production. We began broadcasting existing works: things that had more of a social and political connotation than a purely aesthetic value. Then we gave television lessons on: “How to use light video?” Based on the series of Canadian contacts we had, we also showed things that were being produced on local television there. There was an idea floating in the air: that everyone could start making television. It was the idea of so-called “communal” television.
There were therefore “educational” shows—training and awareness raising—and programs broadcasting existing works. Then we decided to open a real summer laboratory. We opened our studios to people who came to do performances. For example, Cirque Divers, Antaki, brought in Laurie Anderson. So we decided to film her for an evening. She had had a hit in 1981–1982 that was very successful in the United States and she came to record the only existing French version. It was called Oh super man. Antaki also brought in the Fluxus group, including Wolf Vostell in particular.
So if you will, there was an aggregate of different concerns. What can we do with TV to make it different? How can we use cable? How can we create works of art? How can we achieve participation? There is a variety of interests in the whole “game” of Vidéographie of which video art, strictly speaking, is only a part.
Beyond TV shows and performance recordings, you were also a producer, helping artists to make videos.
Jacques-Louis Nyst did pieces with us. Then, at one point, the studio was sold to some Americans. Nam June Paik came here. Ed Emshwiller came. Projections were organized in conjunction with the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Liège. Ernest Gusella also made recordings with us, then another famous figure, Antoni Muntadas, who most notably produced a film called Bars. Vidéographie was a place where we experimented with many things. The team was very motivated. Few shows lasted such a long time with such pretentious subject matter.
Ten years, am I right? Until 1986?
Ten years! We made 130 TV shows over a ten-year period. There was a show every month. This is a relatively slow pace and the broadcasting program had a lot of variety. We did not have the best slots, as you can imagine.
To return to the subject of production for a moment, in the 1970s, apart from Liège, the other cradle of video art in Belgium was Antwerp, with ICC, which had its own video studio.
The ICC! We went to show our stuff over there. We also broadcast a number of Flemish films. Flor Bex is someone we kept in touch with. To the point that when we formed the not-for-profit organization in 2003, I invited him and he was a member of the board of directors of “ASBL Vidéographie(s)” for a long time. Let’s just say that initially, the axis was not Liège-Brussels but rather Liège-Antwerp. Or Liège-Paris, Liège-New York, etc. In 1983, we also organized the first official video festival in Charleroi, starring Laurent Busine as the main actor, who was at the head of the Palais des Beaux-Arts. We had a great video contest at the time with René Berger in the jury, and a bunch of other people.
I gather that you and Michel Baudson took part in the selection of videos that ended up in the retrospective in Charleroi in 1983.
That’s right, with Michel Baudson. It was more of an exhibition with a contest. It wasn’t a festival in the traditional sense. There were screenings, there were videos projected in various places. But there were also installations, by Marie-Jo Lafontaine for example.
How did the Vidéogr@phie(s) festival come about?
When I left the RTBF, I came to work at TV5. Then my name was put forward by the European Commission to take part in the creation and development of television in Sarajevo. I came back in 2000 and asked myself, “What am I doing?” I thought Vidéographie was an interesting but dormant project. So I asked for some money to create what I called a “cyber-museum.” I put together a team with whom we digitized the TV programs. In 2003, a not-for-profit organization was established. In 2006, we celebrated Vidéographie’s thirtieth anniversary. We organized a series of events at the Palais des Congrès. From then on, we integrated a great many projects. In 2007, I said to the city of Liège: “I suggest that we team up, every year, with the European capitals of culture and make exchanges between these European capitals of culture and Liège.” We decided to start with Linz in 2009, organizing a weekend with Ars Electronica. In 2010, we worked with the International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Istanbul, and set up a global video contest that we will resume this year. Since then, we have never ceased organizing video-related events there in March. We are trying now to step it up a gear. We want to set up two or three events a month rather than just one. The idea is to keep working on topical subjects, or at least themes that echo the history of video and digital arts. We do not only focus on traditional video art, even though this is a strong point that we have developed more than anywhere else.