Baby Steps: A Media Arts Adventure in Central Europe
Today s conflict: PIMAC vs. telephone.
I ve found the perfect apartment to comfortably house three quarters of the operating staff (plus mascot) of a budding media arts center in Prague. The apartment even has a telephone - all for about $450 per month. Since we don t have office space yet, a telephone is essential to us, an American public charity operating in a foreign country. It enables personal contact with potential constituents and advisors, and Internet access links us with our guiding support system and other stateside contacts, including potential donors.
We re doing fine with personal contact, but internet access has eluded us. With more than seven years of combined experience living in Prague, we know enough to make certain our place has a phone before signing the lease. But five minutes after the signing, we learn that our phone is "special." It turns out we have a radio phone, an accommodation the Czech telephone company provides to those on the waiting list for telephones. Some people have been waiting ten years. And, as our ISP confirmed, internet access is not possible through radio phones.
This experience is a paradigm for the many challenges we face every day in establishing the Prague International Media Arts Center (PIMAC). As challenges arise we adapt, improvise, and most importantly, maintain our sense of humor.
Eight months ago, four close American friends living in Prague realized that a vital resource was missing there. In this beautiful region - alive with exotic traditions and colorful characters from all over the world - we couldn t find any readily available media-making equipment to record stories and events. Since we all had experience working in non-profits, we did some research and discovered the non-commercial media arts community in the United States, and at the same time, the lack of a similar community in Central Europe.
We saw the clear potential for a media arts center in Prague. We would give artists and the public access to the tools with which to preserve, explore, and exchange their ideas and cultural backgrounds in creative and personal ways. Other non-profits in the region would be able to use digital media and video to communicate their messages effectively. A center that offered media making equipment and training, at the lowest cost possible, would accomplish these goals simultaneously.
Five months ago we knew where we wanted to go, but not how to get there. Joel Bachar of Blackchair Productions in Seattle recommended we meet with Sally Jo Fifer at Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) in San Francisco. We knew that BAVC is one of the largest and most technologically advanced media arts center in the United States, but we had no idea that visiting the facility and meeting with Sally would become a turning point for us.
As soon as we had given Sally the barest outline of our goals, she responded by energetically describing their potential in eloquent detail. She told us that she had been thinking for some time about how a media arts center could benefit emerging democracies and nations with deep wounds to heal. We left with her generous offer to give us step-by-step guidance for creating PIMAC and envisioning it as a pilot project for future international media arts centers. From our perspective, BAVC was an excellent model for the kind of facility that our Prague constituents would find useful.
Currently our activities are focused on identifying those constituents and assessing their needs. Like many stateside media arts centers, our constituents fall into the broad categories of artists, non-profits, and the public citizenry. When we meet with people they emphasize the importance of integrating our activities into the already existing local infrastructure. But there are problems with this scenario. The Communist regime co-opted both education and public art to disseminate propaganda, and consequently the infrastructure is quite skeletal. And because the region lacks media-making resources in general, PIMAC has its work cut out for it.
Miraculously, Sally s good friend, artist Barbara Benish, is a longtime prominent figure in the Czech art community, and is acting as PIMAC s liaison. She gives us the benefit of her enthusiasm and years of experience with obstacles far greater than those we will likely have to face. For example, in the summer of 1989, she and Czech dissident artist Tomas Ruller organized an exchange program which brought a number of artists from Los Angeles to Czechoslovakia. The Americans were trailed by the not-so-secret police throughout their visit. Subsequently, Communist authorities denied passports to the Czech artists who were to travel to Los Angeles. Fortune intervened, and by November the Czech artists made it to Los Angeles as planned.
Today Barbara is working on a public art installation from her home in the Czech countryside. Tomas Ruller is now the Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Brno, and was the first person Barbara introduced us to. She organized a meeting for us with Ludvik Hlavacek, director of the Center and Foundation for Contemporary Arts in Prague (formerly known as the Soros Center for Contemporary Arts in Prague). Mr. Hlavacek has overseen funding of several of the most significant Czech art projects in recent years, including a two-year public art initiative. During the meeting, we realized that by collaborating with the Center we could enhance - with widespread community outreach - the efforts of an established institution fostering the creation of quality art. By working with other non-profits we want to promote free speech in Central Europe, a region that is just beginning to discover the possibilities and challenges of freedom. The entire non-profit sector of this region is less than ten years old because historically, the concept of private charity was antithetical to Marxist doctrine.
Currently, the leadership of these budding organizations has little awareness of the power of dynamic media for reaching their audience. Just last week we contacted Julia Szanton of Nadace Via (a local non-profit) because she is organizing a longterm training program to equip nonprofit leaders with multimedia skills. Nadace Via also encourages nonprofits to take advantage of new media technologies by offering grants for media related projects. When we begin providing state-of-the-art facilities at PIMAC, we hope to become an important resource for these new programs. Such collaborations will further our purpose of lending a voice to those that otherwise might not be heard.
PIMAC will focus on offering the public access to and training in the use of the most-needed technology. Since none of us has hands-on experience with media technology, we thought we would face the problem of being too long on philosophy and too short on technical expertise. But this limitation hasn t been as daunting as we d originally expected. While in San Francisco, we met with Luke Hones, Executive Director at Artists Television Access and former facilities coordinator at BAVC, and he generously gave us strategies for implementing and maintaining a technical facility.
In addition to all the typical obstacles standing in the way of establishing any new media center, we as foreigners in Prague face formidable hurdles posed by regional languages, cultures, legal systems, and Communist-era bureaucracy (not to mention the Czech telephone system). Yet in the short time we have been back in Prague we re discovering a growing network of support that is reaching out to us; and it is just as formidable as any of these barriers. For example, five minutes ago, Mr. Hlavacek called and offered us office space complete with "normal" telephone.
DIANNE SHOCKLEY was a founding director of the Prague International Media Arts Center. Unfortunately, the center no longer exits.
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