Effervescence. A conversation with Santos Zunzunegui
Historiak, 10 

“En las fronteras de Videolandia” is the title of the article written by Santos Zunzunegui for Festival magazine in 1983. In the early 1980s video was still an innovative technology unknown to most of society, which was facing up to a future that was promising and uncertain at the same time. In 1982 this medium became known in San Sebastian through the arrival of the ‘First Video Festival’. Santos Zunzunegui was invited to participate on the Jury in the second edition of the Festival.

Diario, 17 septiembre 1983 – Nº: 3, pág. 3

A graduate in Law and a film historian by profession, Santos Zunzunegui is Emeritus Professor in Audiovisual Communication at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU). One of the most popular and respected thinkers on the film world, he has published major contributions to the field of film theory and history in the form of monographs and essays, as well as writing a number of screenplays. He has worked with magazines such as Cahiers du CinémaNosferatu or Caimán Cuadernos de Cine, among others. He took his first steps in the field in the 1980s, when he started to write for Contracampo film magazine. He participated in the Video Festival in its three editions (1983-1985) in a series of activities, as a member of the jury and in the section called “Video y Enseñanza” (Video and Teaching). This conversation with Zunzunegui takes us back to that period, in which he talks about video technology from the perspective of what it was and what it could have been.

Claudia Sánchez and Elena Gosálbez: The Video Festival held from 1982 to 1984 took place against a background of change and transformation of the San Sebastian Festival: after years of instability and democratization in the second half of the 1970s, the Festival lost its ‘A’ category of the FIAPF and set off in search of its identity through experimental initiatives such as the Video Festival. What was your relationship with the San Sebastian Film Festival at that time? Were you a regular filmgoer or did you participate in more specialised activities?

Santos Zunzunegui: Well, I have never been a ‘regular filmgoer’ in the San Sebastian Festival; I am not very keen on ‘festivals in general, I was in the San Sebastian Festival once, but I don’t remember the year, probably towards the end of the 1980s. What I do remember is that there was retrospective on Jacques Tourneur [1988], and that was very important for me because he is a filmmaker I hold in high regard and I was able to see almost all his films. I was on the jury for the Young Directors Prize that year, and had to watch a lot of films, but I am more interested in seeing old friends rather than watching films during festivals. Sometimes I come across people I don’t see too often and I don’t want to miss that opportunity; I always think that I can watch the films later. That year, however, I was a member of the Jury so I had to watch all the films, but I have never been particularly active in festivals, not even in San Sebastian.

CS and EG: We have found records in the documentation of the Festival archive about a seminar titled “Video and teaching” held in 1983, in which you participated. Could you tell us a bit more about the ideas that were put forward there and the activities that took place?

SZ: I organised the activity with a colleague of mine, a Professor of Communication in the University of the Basque Country, José Antonio Mingolarra. I have always operated more in the field of reflection on images, not necessarily philosophical but rather ‘para-philosophical’. José Antonio worked in the field of teaching, on technologies applied to education. I had also done something along those lines in the 1970s, something called video ‘micro-teaching’. It is a technique we used to try and see what video could offer in teacher training. It was very simple; we filmed someone giving a class and the material – recorded, not filmed as such, because it was in video format – was then reviewed by the teacher with two or three education experts to see the weak and strong points of his/her performance, etc. This was the basis for ‘Video and Teaching’, a reflection on what could be done with the new technologies that were emerging in the field of the image.

CS and EG: We have a small programme of content and teaching in which only four or five titles of activities are mentioned, with no implementation. Do you remember what was involved in some of the activities carried out in “Video and Teaching”?

SZ: Mingolarra and I designed the programme. It consisted of two parts, one of rather more conventional presentations on technology and education: What are the current prospects?; What role could video play to assist educational processes?; What role do audiovisual documentation sources such as the archive of Televisión Española play, for example?

The programme of the Ministry of Education of the Basque Government was also present, involving the plans that had just been transferred to them by the Central Government. The question was: what differences could emerge from using video technology in infant and primary school courses, or should one go straight to the secondary level? Video was not only studied as an auxiliary medium but also to foster videographic creation by the pupils. These were the kind of problems we examined, although when we thought of the Festival we realised that it was not just a case of going there and making a purely theoretical presentation. As video was something almost unknown in the world of the image in Spain at the time, we organised an international competition to see what people around the world were doing with the medium. It was also an opportunity to compare what was heard in conferences and round tables with practical cases.

It also represented an opportunity for young artists in the Basque Country starting out in the world of multimedia and abandoning certain practices in Fine Arts, traditional ones such as painting and sculpture, in order to try out more sophisticated things with light video media. Indeed, there was a Basque Video Competition with a high level of quality.There was also another element, which quite a novelty at the time, in the form of installations. 

CS and EG: Do you recall any installation in particular?

SZ: Yes, for example, the installation that Eugenia Balcells, a Catalan artist who lived in New York at the time, set up in the basement of City Hall consisting of 12 screens that reflected twelve visions of Manhattan, one on each screen. It was very innovative at the time; we have seen it fifty times since but in 1983 it was ground-breaking. The screens were placed in such a way that they reproduced the perimeter of the island of Manhattan; they ‘looked’ at each other and people moved around among them. There was also a video performance by Esther Ferrer from San Sebastian, a major figure in avant-garde art in Spain. She filmed her performance and then interacted with what she had shot. There is a part of the history of video that has to do with what we would call ‘feedback’ from what you are filming. In some cases it consisted of entering a place where you found an image of yourself that had been recorded just a few seconds earlier. So, you were there in real time, looking back into the immediate past; all this was very exciting.

These innovations were accompanied by our Video and Teaching talks. The basic idea was not to turn it into an event with ‘lecturers’, we could say, but to make it a place where there was a territory with limits that had not been defined yet, where a lot of things could be achieved if you set your mind to it and, mainly, opening people’s eyes to the potential of a new technology.

CS and EG: All those initiatives you mention, not just the colloquia and round tables but also the installations, exhibitions, à la carte video programmes, videoclips, etc… how did they go down? Were they really seen as something innovative, as something that helped the Festival and everything around it to reinvent itself?

SZ: Well, quite frankly, from the point of view of the Film Festival I think this was always perceived as something on the fringe, i.e. it was not of great interest to many of the organisers of the official festival, although it was to the political institutions and many artists who wanted to get out of the narrow framework of conventional technologies (painting, sculpture…) to open their gaze up to the audiovisual world.

They were years in which technology started to become fashionable. Reflections emerged about technology and its limits: what it was useful for, how it could be reasonably used, etc., and from this point of view it aroused enormous curiosity. I think the people who were less interested were the regular filmgoers of the San Sebastian Festival. They went to see their films and were not particularly bothered about this new video thing. They were partly right, because nothing really great was going to come out of it, at least in the artistic field (with the odd notable exception), but that’s another story. Video is an analog system, so when digital came along, and then the Internet, everything changed radically. All these developments killed off video in a certain way.

CS and EG: How did people from the world of culture react? Did they see it as an opportunity or as a field of action where they could explore the curiosity you talk about?

SZ: Certainly; it was experienced with great intensity and aroused a lot of curiosity. What happened, like with all new things, is that one had the impression that everybody wanted to work with video. Sculptors no longer wanted to sculpt; painters didn’t want to paint… Everybody wanted to be free and make videos because that’s what got people going, shall we say. I remember when they interviewed Godard for Cahiers du Cinéma in the late 1980s and they asked him about what he thought about all these light, small, digital cameras, and especially if everybody was going to be able to make a film. Godard’s Incredibly sensible answer was “let them make them”. The use of technology does not guarantee an aesthetic result.

CS and EG: Do you think that the possibilities offered by video democratised access to audiovisual creation in a way? Did that happen?

SZ: I think that people thought that, but it was probably too optimistic an idea and a rather frivolous way of thinking, shall we say. In other words, the problem with images, and also with the written word, is not just how it is made but how it is distributed later. 

And then, where were these films going to be shown? Television was out of the question. TV is a service, as you well know, in the sense that Umberto Eco uses the expression. Video did not have a place there, nor in normal movie theatres because many of these videos – especially at that time – broke a lot of taboos. They didn’t want to tell stories. It is not enough to just have access to the media, you also need access to distribution, to answer the question: “where can this be distributed?” In galleries. It is like when people talk about expanded cinema nowadays. Expanded cinema is for three or four filmmakers with artistic awareness but it’s not for the majority, who are mere ‘functionaries’ of the image. For example, I have always been struck by that piece of equipment that we all know very well: the smartphone. Our entire relationship with the world of the image, or at least 99%, is through this piece of equipment and nobody has thought about what is the most suitable type of image that can be distributed through it, at least in the aesthetic sense.

There was enormous fascination and curiosity around this; the former is necessary and the latter important. However, there was also a certain ingenuity, as people thought video was going to impose itself in such a way that it could challenge the domination of TV.

CS and EG: Talking about TV, part of our research is about the synergies that could have emerged between TV and video. Some channels in Europe, such as Vidéographie in Belgium, started to distribute video via TV. Do you think that video and TV could have mutually enriched themselves, and that TV could have been a window for the distribution of video?

SZ: We need to be realistic about these things. Many ideas that were explored as video art end up in TV shows. At the time there were some programmes broadcast very late at night, such as MetrópolisLa Edad de Oro… Well, there were many things, but everything was like being stuck in a ghetto. Capitalism always has means of controlling things, it’s very complicated. Who was going to maintain this kind of practice for a period that went beyond a temporary curiosity?

CS and EG: All these possibilities offered by video… which do you think have been fertile and which have been, as you say, put aside?

SZ: I am not sure my diagnosis is correct, but I think that video left a certain mark right from the outset. The way and the place it was born are very closely linked to conceptual art, starting with pioneers such as Nam June Park, whose thinking and practice went hand-in-hand with the work of John Cage, i.e. radical and minimalist avant-garde in America. There is a vein that has survived down the years. Some might think that these issues survive better nowadays in a certain kind of filmmaking that some call – although I don’t like the term – ‘slow cinema’.

Bill Viola, for example, understood right from the start that his search was not so much a technological one; for him, technology was at the service of an aesthetic choice. He was probably the only one who took part in those seminars who thought this, mainly because he was very familiar with the technology and – above all – knew what he was going to use it for. Viola clearly moved in a territory that was different from the others, who were very concerned about the technologies, while Viola had a more long-term view. 

I remember that year’s edition [1983]. People did things that they hadn’t really thought through, they took less than two minutes to say what they wanted, which is not very different from what is happening to filmmaking and art in general nowadays. Not a lot of thought goes into it. Why am I doing this if it’s already been done a million times before and I am just repeating pre-established approaches? Even though I dress it up in colours, film it in analog or digital, it is still the same dross. It’s like everything, and we need to speak about these ruinous attempts. Some real artists remain, as well as real researchers, but I don’t think they are very numerous. 

Saying this should not be seen as contradictory with paying tribute to people who set off – and continue to do so – on these adventures, because quite often they do it without really knowing where they are going. When you reach the end of the road, you often find a wall in front of you and you can’t make any more progress. Many don’t know what to do, they take risks, although that is always positive.

CS and EG: The holding of the Video Festival coincided with the first steps of the University of the Basque Country, where you are currently Emeritus Professor. Bearing in mind your role there, to what extent was the university that was being created – and we are particularly thinking of the Faculty of Fine Arts – influenced by all the debates that were taking place in the Video Festival? 

SZ: I think they did have an influence on the Faculty of Fine Arts. In mine at least, because Journalism and Audiovisual Communication are more conventional; indeed, an unprecedented passion was released on Fine Arts. People did a lot of things, although very few really valuable results remain. I think that there was little influence on the Faculty of Communication, but Fine Arts has undoubtedly been more receptive to these practices. 

CS and EG: Was there any influence or some kind of exchange or enrichment between Fine Arts and the Video and Teaching seminars you organised? Did they collide at any particular time?

SZ: I don’t know what your experience is, but one of the problems the university has – at least mine – is that there is very little internal communication. In other words, the Faculty of Fine Arts shows very little interest in Communication, and vice versa. It’s similar to the problem of Spain and Portugal: they turn their back on each other. They are condemned to understand each other but they ignore each other. When I officially retired five years ago that was the situation, and maybe things have changed. In any case, five years down the road I have worked on some theses in the Faculty of Fine Arts and I could see that there is a problem that remains: people are still contemplating their navels. I don’t think I need to remind you that we live in an era of exacerbated narcissism: it’s all about ‘me’, nothing else exists. That is my diagnosis, but you always have to check these things out with others or people who have different points of view.

CS and EG: To finish, how would you describe your experience of the Video Festival over the years in one word?

SZ: Just one: effervescence, although with a select and limited audience. Furthermore, there was a lot of movement, but in the sense that there was a lot of curiosity. There was also positive stress; people were in a hurry, although rushing things is not a good approach in anything to do with art. However, I suppose there was a kind of ‘halo’ of something new, and that attracts a lot of people who really want to do and create things and work on them, and also many others who try to see if I can slip something in here. That’s inevitable and it’s no big deal. I am someone who, thanks to my training, tastes and continuity, mainly thinks in terms of filmmaking, but I realise that cinema is not an ‘island’ created from the same audiovisual practices. It is weird that people in the film world do not have the slightest curiosity within the festival in this innovative field. The audiences were different. 

CS and EG: Why do you think that happened?

SZ: We are all prisoners of our way of seeing the world, we find it hard to open up to different things. To finish, I would add that really regular filmgoers are very reluctant to absorb new influences.