Artist Focus: Mariannah Amster and Frank Ragano

    Today I'm sitting down with Mariannah Amster and Frank Ragano of Parallel Studios, the creators and curators of the Currents New Media Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For fifteen years I’ve had the pleasure of watching them curate and present new media to the public. Now in its eighth year, the festival is always a highlight of my summer both for the chance to experience so much art and for the community it brings together.
    Let’s start with a little bit of history - tell us about the early shows and how you decided to make the transition from Currents as artists collective to Currents New Media Festival, an international event with a public call for submissions.
    Mariannah Amster: I don't know if it was actually a decision.
    We started out ourselves as artists - as new media artists - and, I guess, 2002 is when we launched the first exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Arts. At that point, we had a community of new media artists here in Santa Fe that really weren't being seen in Santa Fe. We just kind of took it on ourselves to create a platform for primarily local new media artists to show their work.
    Frank Ragano: At that point, we had started using media in our own artwork not too much earlier than that . In my case, it was video as part of installations. Mariannah was doing the same, and also animations. That's why we did the first show - we were both in the first show, actually.
    Mariannah: We were in the first several shows - but then it became inappropriate, and we don't make work anymore, really.
    Frank: It became inappropriate, and I was really kind of happy to have the distance from the show and not have my own work in there. My work had gotten good reception from a bunch of people, but not having to think about, "Oh I wonder what people are thinking about my work in the context of being a curator?" was like a relief for me. It kind of freed me up to think more about the general concept of the show without having my subjective barb involved in it. So I was happy when that happened.

    Currents 2002 / Center for Contemporary Art / Santa Fe, New Mexico / 11:25

    At the time it was really interesting - because Santa Fe, obviously, is very known for the arts and yet - like you said - there was this whole community of people who are actually very cutting edge in terms of what they were doing with new media that didn't have any visibility. I think it started putting Santa Fe more on the map as a place where you could come and get an experience of some new ideas in media technologies.
    What was the focus? Because new media is a pretty big term, obviously. It's changed a lot in the time that you guys have been looking at this. When you started out with the Currents group shows, what do you think was happening in new media?
    Mariannah: Primarily, video really, and then video with installation elements or multi-screen, multi-channel work was - that was kind of what Steina (Vasulka) was doing. She was processing and doing Image/Ine and a lot more interactive work. She was the only one I think that was doing interactive.
    Frank: In that first show, she was the only one doing interactive. Then Anne Farrell had sculptural elements. There was sculptural elements involved too. It had a little variety, but it was fairly straightforward video.
    Mariannah: Well... video with environments - so it made it more immersive. We were definitely moving towards that immersive use of video.
    Yeah.. I'll be curious as we get into some of the more contemporary stuff about your perspective on how that's changed. But before we go into, that let's look at how it moved from being these smaller group shows into what it has become now.
    Mariannah: Well, we did several - they were more like pop-up shows. All of a sudden, we'd get a bee in our bonnet - or Frank would, more likely. When it was time to do another one, it would happen. We worked out in Tesuque at John Mar Graff’s place, Salon Mar Graff.

    Currents 2007 / Salon Mar Graff / Tesuque, New Mexico / 13:56

    It was wherever we could find a big enough space to show people's work, and it averaged out to be about once a year. And then I think really what changed it … actually, before we started doing this, we did have fantasies of creating something like a media art center in Santa Fe. That's before we started doing the shows. We just couldn't swing that. We didn't have the backing. We didn't have the finances. It wasn't the time.
    So like more of a permanent museum?
    Mariannah: Yes, where there'd be archiving and a place where people come in and look at work.
    Frank: One of the interesting experiences early on was that for two years we got invited to use half of the upstairs of the Sweeney Center to put on part of the Art Santa Fe art fair, basically run by Charlotte Jackson. The first year we had half of the upstairs. We had about eight people, something like that.
    And I'll never forget this woman Charlotte, who was running it. She was saying, "Well I can freshen this up somehow." She'd never seen anything we did. She didn't really know - she just knew we were into this video art/new media thing. So I remember when she first came up to see what we had done she looked at it, and she says, "I had no idea." She was blown away.
    She didn't have any idea she was gonna be blown away, you know? I think there was one couple from Chicago - Jay Alan Yim and Marlena Novak - but almost everybody else was from in-town and the quality was very high. It was interesting.
    Mariannah: The other thing, too, is that we bring a little bit of a theatrical feeling to it. I think that's one of the things that surprised her because it wasn't just about the work - it was about the space that the work was in, and creating that whole sense of a new environment. That's one thing that is a little different about how we approach it, I think.
    Frank: Yeah - my background in New York was mainly theater. I was involved in theater, so I love the theatrical aspect.
    Mariannah: And so that's one of the things I think that makes us different than a lot of festivals is that we think of it as a whole piece and we’re trying to provide people with a real transformative kind of experience when they walk into the space.

    CURRENTS NEW MEDIA 2016 / Opening Weekend

    Frank: Which is where [art collective] Meow Wolf is - I mean, this is where things have moved now anyway. What's really becoming key in terms of success in the art world is it needs to be… well it doesn't need to be, but it's very helpful if it's experiential.
    Mariannah: And I think we were a little bit in that lineage, you know? It definitely set that tone, and I think that's a great thing because for me the art… I want it to be a visceral experience for people because I feel like that's where the real transformative quality is.
    Maybe this is a good place to segue into how you approach the festival. One of the things that's a little different about Currents is that you don't have themes for the show, like  'Currents 2016: Here's the Topic. It’s something the audience members are left to find. That said, I would be surprised if you don't consider thematic concerns when you're actually curating.
    Mariannah: Actually, our only ongoing theme is how artists are using technology in service of the arts. As artists ourselves, we really feel that to get the best work you don't want an overarching theme because people squeeze themselves into the theme.
    Frank: It's a shoehorn. What a lot of curators do, when they have a real particular theme to curate - and especially to fill out a show - is to spin things.
    Mariannah: ...or to have a lot of written material that kind of ties it into the theme.
    Frank: Yeah. Shoehorn it into the theme, you know - “I gotta fill out the show and I like this piece so let's see how we can spin this to get it into the show.” Or the artist spins it also.
    Mariannah: What we do find is that certain themes emerge themselves. And as we're viewing work, I don't know if we do it consciously, but we will begin to select works so that the pieces support each other.
    Frank: For example, death is a theme this year. Balance is a thing, death is a thing this year.
    Mariannah: Agility and balance, which makes tremendous sense right now.
    Frank: One thing that's clear about what has definitely moved back into the art world over the past few years is more pieces that have a human element of some kind. That's very clear that the human element has become a very big part - not in all cases, but in a lot of cases.
    Mariannah: I mean, we've done things because they're not beautiful, but… we like beauty.
    Frank: It's not a make-or-break deal with beauty - but we're not opposed to beauty and we're also not opposed to entertainment. You know, not in a huge pop culture way, but it depends. We're open to anything - if we think it works and the work is good and it has some depth and it's well-crafted, we'll take anything, basically.
    Yeah - and that's something I've always appreciated in the way that you approach things. There is a contingent of very academic and intellectually founded work, and yet there's a lot of work that's just good work to be in the space of and it's not confined to just being academically oriented or targeted. It's a very broad range of experience that you can have. You go from playful to contemplative to provocative.
    Mariannah: One of the things that is important for me - and it has been a little hard to manage, in a way, because there's pressure for “why aren't you showing this artist” or “why…” - a big focus for me is looking for artists who are doing good work but who aren't being seen enough or supported enough. The big artists, they have plenty of places to be seen. And Site Santa Fe does a fairly good job of bringing in well known artists, so if the general public wants to see a well-known artist they can go to Site. We now have instituted the Thoma Foundation supporting the addition of this guest curator element, and the guest curator tends to bring in people who are a little more established.
    And so how does that work with the rest of the curatorial process? Do they have a certain number of selections that they make?
    Frank: Well, last year - the first year that it happened - a woman came to us and said, "Hey - are you up for this?" And we said, “Sure.” She had Casey Reas and Jim Campbell.
    Mariannah: That was supported by Thoma, and they are encouraging us to do it again - but this year, we had to put out a call for a curator. That's another reason why things like that - New Media New Mexico - go away. Because now we have another thing that we are, in a sense, curating. Now we're curating the curators.
    I think it's really interesting to have this parallel because - certainly what I found last year - is that I really liked both shows a lot, but it wasn't like one show outshone the other.
    Frank: Exactly. But it's a different voice. I've been advocating for that for a while. I think it's good - not on a huge level, but on that kind of level - to at least have one other voice.
    Mariannah: The thing that is difficult, though, is that now one of the things I want us to resist is formulaic things. And now there's no place else to put that show except in that room. if we continue this way, it potentially limits what we can do in that space every year - so, at a certain point maybe there'll be another option and it will be in another space and running concurrently because I don't like having to use the space in the same way every year.
    That brings up something interesting about your approach. The space that you're actually using for exhibition is very open and requires a lot of overlap of the pieces just by the nature of the actual architectural space. How do you deal with actually allowing for overlap...
    Mariannah: Well, we do create some spaces for people - we control sound using infrared headphones which have their own limitations. Since infrared has a certain cone of sound, things overlap if you're not careful and you get a lot of static. The floor plan is being worked on constantly to make sure that doesn't happen and...
    Frank: The main problem with the infrared is that we have two different kinds of infrared headphones, and one is far superior to the other one, but the main limitation of the infrared headphones occurs if you have an installation that people can walk around - because infrared is directional. Even if you have a couple of different spots where the transmitters are, you always move into a phase as you move around the piece where you go, bzzzzt - static noise, and then you lock back into the signal. Anytime you've got a piece in the round, it doesn't really work. But for other pieces, it's great. You put on one set of headphones because the infrared is only 25 feet to 30 feet. Line of sight, so if you set it up right people with one set of headphones can walk from piece to piece to piece and pick up the audio.
    Mariannah: I keep saying this and I hope I'm not lying, but this year I think we actually have less video than we've had in the past - pieces are tending to be more object-driven or interactive in a way that is not necessarily visual.
    When you say video, you don't just mean single channel video works.
    Mariannah: Right. Installation.
    I think that brings up another really interesting question. You have this really unique perspective, because... how many submissions roughly were there this year?
    Mariannah: A little over 600. you saw over 600 instances of what people are doing that they consider to be new media. What are you seeing as the big trend right now?
    Frank: Clearly interactive is the biggest. For a few years now interactive has been the big push but now, of course, there are all kinds of ways to interact.
    Mariannah: Last year we had a lot of AR (Augmented Reality) pieces. This year we only had one which I think is specifically AR.
    Frank: The thing now is VR (Virtual Reality) - that's what everybody is wanting to check out because it's still too expensive to have in the home, so people can check it out in a venue like this and really experience it. But is VR an interesting thing because is it by its nature interactive? No, not really. It is interactive only if there's an interactive element in it. It's not necessarily interactive - in fact, we have both kinds of pieces this year.
    There are two kinds. In one, you actually make choices and you interact, In the other, you're on a ride. Those are the different ... I mean you do interact in the sense that you can move in a space. You have freedom of ‘point of observation,’ but that's no different than installation. They try to say you're in the midst of this virtual world.
    Mariannah: I think VR really is the newest thing that we're seeing, and it's probably the first year where I feel like there's real art happening inside the environment. We've had VR pieces for three or four years actually. So yeah it's definitely the… thing, but of course, soon prices will come down and it'll be in every house.
    What we choose to show and what you're probably gonna have on your home set will always be different, but I think there's gonna be something that follows VR - and that's what I'm waiting for.
    Do either of you have any ideas of what that might be? Or - regardless of the specific technology - what particular vector of experience that you think is open for further exploration through technology right now?
    Mariannah: Well I don't know, I haven't really thought about this, but what just came to mind was some increased intersection between performance and interaction. Also maybe something including VR and AR kind of elements so that the performance is an immersive experience and not just a viewing experience.
    Frank: I mean, once whatever the device is gets to cost no more than some good 3D glasses so the whole audience can wear them, well that opens up tremendous possibilities. How do you actually interact...
    Mariannah: ...with each other in that VR world? Reilly Donovan’s AR piece last year where you could step onto the tile floor and you could be mixed in with the 3D scanned people - something like that where people are really interacting.
    Frank: There's a performance piece that Daito Manabe did - it's on YouTube - where there's a performance taking place on stage, but the audience through augmented reality could see the interactive, AR elements on the stage at the same time they're witnessing the performance.
    Mariannah: The thing about that is technically it's interesting, but I didn't feel like that piece was really offering the audience a personal experience of depth in the way that like Nadav Assor’s is. I think his piece is really fascinating because he's fascinated with leaving your body - he has a single channel piece, and the whole setup is playing with this idea of leaving your body. But he also brings people into your space when you're in a VR environment who appear to be interacting with you.
    Frank: And they're just people from ... It could be the people who are guiding you in there that could be pre-recorded.
    Mariannah: But it's a confrontational experience in a way - because each person’s personality and the way they present themselves is very different, and you have to somehow figure out if you're comfortable with that. It's fascinating. And then you also have this button where you can shoot out and actually see yourself interacting with these people.
    Frank: He also has this interesting experimental video piece that's about a guy who had a really rough life and then he found Jesus, but his whole thing is a drone. So he's into this out-of-body experience through the drone where he goes up and he can look down on himself from the drone.
    It reminds me of the movie Chronicle. It was a similar idea of being able to view yourself from these external perspectives.
    Frank: Yeah, so that's a big thing right now - I mean, drones are big right now. We're seeing lots of drone pieces in terms of videos.
    Mariannah: Well we have one really beautiful, I think really beautiful, video piece that's done with a drone. It's poetic, extremely poetic.
    That's another thing that I think is really interesting in this field is that new technology is constantly emerging. The initial explorations of a given tech are often naïve and - in many cases - something replaces it before it's ever able to mature. Are there particular technologies that you think have been able to reach a level of maturation that stands out?
    Frank: Well a lot of the biggest kind of push with technology has been within the interactive world, right? And this is a big problem, to find any interactive work that has any substance to it, that isn't just about waving your arms and going, "Wow, man - I can make this happen." Now, that side of things is starting to mature… but this is where the technology hasn't quite, in some cases, matured yet. For example, there was a piece last year by Issey Takahashi and Akihito Ito with a heart in a box - The SyncDon II. That was an incredibly beautiful piece, but the technology wasn't very elegant, so it was crashing all the time. That was a problem.
    In fact, Issey is coming back this year with the same kind of idea but this time it's a box - he simplified it, in a way, because there's no really deep levels of processing going on.
    Basically he has a box about three feet wide, with two hand grips. You're looking in one end and another person is looking in the other end and the grips are checking your heartbeat. In front of you is a screen. In front of the other person is another screen. Every time your heart beats, it triggers a camera that catches a picture of you and the other person, and makes your screen transparent.
    You can see the other person, but only when your heart beats align. But it's very simple technology because it's just your heartbeat triggering the sequence.
    Mariannah: And he's such a romantic, right? In fact he's working on this with his partner and it's so profound really in such a sweet way.
    Frank: Yeah, so you see each other when your hearts beat. I mean, I think the interactive thing is something that has matured and actually there is a lot of stuff with substance out there at this point, which didn't used to be the case - It was once just waving your arms. Because otherwise it's just, you know, it's a fun ride, but it's interesting as it develops into an art form.
    Another thing that always strikes me about Currents is the way that you are able to create community among the participants so that people really feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves. Can you talk a little bit about how you think you make this happen?
    Frank: Well, that's the thing, you know - I mean, we really are about community but we don't really think that when you're about community that means you have to sacrifice the quality of the art work, which I must say happens often. These artists, they're all coming here and really fine artists and basically what we offer artists is we put them up and we give them some money for transportation.
    We make sure they have the equipment the need, but they're not getting really paid a lot. And I'm all for the artists being paid - I wish we had a lot more money so we could pay the artists a stipend, you know - a good honorarium - but we just can't.
    See this is the thing - what's happening now is that within the art world everything is becoming about entrepreneurship, which is - on one level - a good thing. I have nothing against business - and business is what drives the economy - but now entrepreneurship is being given the highest value in terms of what makes something either worthwhile or not. People feel like, "Oh that artist doesn't make a lot of money? Well they can't be a very good artist," and that is just not true.
    I think that's important to point out that nothing has an entry fee at Currents.
    Mariannah: We have started charging for workshops, but the exhibition and performances are free.
    Frank: We're idealists, right? We don't even have a donor’s special opening, because we just… I don't understand why the big donors - and I don't think it's true for all of them, but for a number of big donors for any organization - wouldn't want to be there with the public that they're allowing to have the opportunity to see this stuff. Wouldn't you want to be with those people? Isn't that the reward? Ah, but that's true philanthropy, and that doesn't really exist very much anymore.
    Mariannah: But going back to the entrepreneur business,  we have to fight for that, I think. I really want to keep fighting for that free admission, but a lot of funders are not as comfortable with that as they used to be. It used to be a plus if you were giving away something like Currents. 'Giving away', that's a bad phrase. We don't want to give away anything but we really continue to make the argument of how important that is.
    Frank: See, the art world is in a complete dilemma at this point, because it keeps trying to associate itself with something else to give it validity. […] artists feel like they have to validate art - that they have to make it seem like there is something that is of value there - by associating with something else, and there's no need for that. I'm not talking about ivory tower art - it stands on its own. Art is a necessity. It's a human necessity. It's not some luxury item, you know? Like I said, not against artists making a living, but the reality is that hardly anybody does.
    Mariannah: I think often artists who end up making a living - on whatever level they're doing that - end up getting locked into work and they lose that exploration, that drive for exploration, which for me is almost the most important part of what you're doing as an artist - opening up new views.
    Yeah, I think maybe one of the most liberating things about being unsuccessful is that you're free to continue exploring.
    Mariannah: Exactly, and I think the arts in general when they… One of the things that's really sad about the arts not being in schools more - I mean, when I was growing up, art was just part of what you did in a day - it was something creative, whether it was making a mobile or… I mean, this is in the 50’s, right? - art is about making choices, whether you're doing it in elementary school or you're doing it in your studio. It's about making choices and that's one of the things that our society is not cultivating in our children - the capacity to take pleasure in making choices.
    Before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like for people to know about Currents?
    Mariannah: Speaking of money, we're not sure what's gonna happen in the NEA. What we get directly from the NEA isn't huge, but the NEA supports New Mexico Arts which is a source of funding for us. It supports the Santa Fe Arts Commission, which is also a funding source. So that's just something we're looking to as being a possible challenge in the future. It’s not just us - there are so many other people that are gonna be affected if they defund….
    And so this is probably a time where people need to be thinking more and more about alternative structures of supporting and funding the arts.
    Frank: For instance, the current administration would like to get rid of PBS, right? But the reality is that if anybody who watched PBS put in $5, they would have more money than they have now. But once again, I'm not saying that's a good thing because I like this idea of the government actually creating stuff for the public common space. PBS is like the common space, basically.
    As far as Currents goes and what we do, there's Currents and actually we are Parallel Studios. That's the non-profit organization. A big choice we're trying to make now - which we've been toying with and not toying with and toying with and not toying with - is this idea of a permanent space. Ideally, we'd like a permanent space that's, like, 20 to 30 thousand square feet where we could have the festival every year at the same time for a month, free to the public. Then, for the rest of the year, we could have maybe two or three other shows that we actually charge people to come and see. That way, we could have a place for… we could maybe start residencies. We could have workshops. An archive.
    But then, the dilemma involves asking “Do we really want to do this?” At that point, we're really becoming ... I mean, we're already somewhat becoming an institution in a way, but then you're really an institution. And that's when people want to find bricks and mortar - so it's a dilemma.
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