Interview: Bart Weiss On Film, Technology, Gene Youngblood, and 25 Years of the Dallas Video Festival

When Bart Weiss, artistic director of the Dallas Video Festival and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, staged a program of video art at the Dallas Museum of Art in 1987, he had no idea he was founding a festival. But the following year he was invited back, and the Dallas Video Festival was born. For twenty-five years, under Weiss’s hands-on tutelage, the Dallas Video Festival has remained focused on creating programming that explores its medium, surveys and embraces the latest techlogical invotions in video and film, and uncovers incredible documentaries and features that you really will never find anywhere else. We spoke to Weiss about how he sources his films, his embrace of technology, his vision for the festival, and having his own video hero, Gene Youngblood, at this year’s festival.

FrontRow: We’re not very far off from the start of the festival. What are you working on at this point?

Bart Weiss: We are publishing to five media this year. That’s astounding, if you think about it. We’re doing the website and the program book, of course, and we’re doing the ebook, the iBook, and the iPhone ap. That means you have to move all the data and there are different people doing these things. So any change has to finesse a whole lot of other things. And the iBook and the eBook, those are totally new. We’ve done these other things before. But the question now is, how do we turn into a publishing house?

FrontRow: Well, the Video Festival has always prided itself on incorporating new technologies, but at any point do you ask yourself, do we really need to do all these different platforms?

BW: Well, yes. Absolutely. I think it is an important prerogative for us to stay a step ahead and explore the possibilities because we are of the mindset – and always have been – to explore what technology can do. It is sort of the core thinking behind what we program, and it’s certainly very core to what we do as we practice our work. Year one we did desktop publishing, which was just an absolute, complete, unknown thing at the time. It was horribly inefficient, but we went through and learned how to do it. And we were able to show other people have to do it. As we went along every year we would incorporate some new technology, both that we would show the public in our programs, but also how we would work in the office.

It was very important for us to be on the leading edge of being efficient because we’ve never had as much money as anyone else. We’ve always been the underfunded organization in town because, frankly, we don’t really care about celebrities. That’s never been our prime focus. It’s all about the content, the issues, the material. And when you’re not bringing in a celebrity, you can’t have the bigger funders. So we have to be efficient, and so using technology is how we take advantage of that. But what that means is the first time we do it, we drive ourselves crazy.

FR: There are a few festivals that are also thinking about what a festival is and how you show films and how that all changes with technology. I’m thinking of Tribeca, who has tried an online film festival.

BW: And they have a nice blog with writing about technology. They’re really quite efficient. If we grew up and had money I think that is what we’d be like.

FR: Do some of those kinds of ideas appeal to you, moving screenings online, and that sort of thing?

BW: Yes and no. The problem is that once you get into that arena there is so much, the universe is so full. I also think generationally, online, a lot of that work is made by much younger people than I. It is not that I don’t get it, it’s just that I don’t live in that space enough to be really effective. I’m certainly aware of it, aware of its aesthetics, but it’s not like I come home and think, let’s look online and see what’s happening.

On the other hand if we are thinking of where media is going and where audiences are going, clearly to me the most interesting part of things are mobile. It’s not like I’m not interested in things on YouTube or Facebook, I really am. But the media that traditional makers are making are moving onto mobile. There are people that are making really interesting work that is not meant to go to theaters. And the media that we have in our hands, I think, is going to be much more impactive in the next ten years, five years, seven years. I really think that the mobile revolution will have a larger impact than the dot-com revolution of the early 90s because so much computer power is right next to our bodies. Back in 1988, we were talking about virtual reality. Now that sort of morphs into augmented reality. You don’t need goggles and glasses anymore, just get this iPhone ap where you build materials and you are moving into virtual worlds. This stuff is extreme infancy. The ability to observe the world and have data about that world coming into you – or the Google glasses – how that will impact what image making and storytelling is going to be, it is just going to be incredibly profound. What those stories are and how they will evolve, those are the sort of things that we are looking at in the next 25 years.

FR: At the same time, I think of the video festival of having two sides. One is this technology-conscious approach, and the other is the array of documentaries, especially politically-conscious things — or other pieces that are below the radar and that are not picked up by a lot of other festivals. Does that play into mobile, or is that kind of a two sides of the coin that you are working with, having a venue for these other things, kind of another mission?

BW: That’s extremely perceptive. Indeed, yes. These are things that I think about: what media is left behind and needs to be brought to the surface. Essentially what I’m doing in this role is performing as a kind of gatekeeper or curator, taking the traditional role of the curator and moving it into a different space. When you have the option of everything in the universe, when you walk into the largest blockbuster store, all you have is a high level of frustration because there are too many choices. What you need are people to suggest things for you, and I think that is where we have a role and will always have a role as a kind of sifter of the things that you didn’t know about.

FR: I’m always surprised by some of the stuff that shows of the festival, in part because I end up seeing some really good movies, and then discover they haven’t really played at a lot of other festivals. Are those things you are finding through other channels or submissions?

BW: Okay, I’ll give you one of my secrets. There is this conference that I either go to or I have a scout go to and scour through the book that I discovered 15 years ago called INPUT. It is an international conference of public television producers. It is this wonderful thing. It is in a different country every year, and I’ve traveled to Taipei and Poland and Mexico– I’ve literally traveled all over the world to go to these things. It is really geared for producers to show each other each others work to be inspired, and the work that is shown is just incredible. It is like, what is public television in Taiwan look like? So that’s where a lot of the really international, strange, wonderful things come from. And those are the hardest things to track down. I found this great film by someone who lives in one of the “‘Stans,” I forgot which one it was. And it took three months – somebody knows somebody who knows somebody because he produced the thing in connection with the television station. The television station doesn’t know where the guy is anymore. And hunting the people down to get permission to use these things is a lot harder because they are not as well known, but finding these things is really great.

And I go to festivals all over the country pretty regularly with my eye to finding things that are off the beat and track. And meeting people. There’s time when I just go through my list of friends and filmmakers and say, what have you seen, what do you know, what’s happening? We all do that as programmers. And somebody will say, I don’t have anything new, but I helped this guy make this film – I’ll have him send it to you. And that’s where the really great things come from. Because what you have when you have been doing this for a long time is a whole bunch of people who trust you and you love and they’re happy to do something for somebody who they are helping, and it works out really well. That’s where I find things.

FR: Are there some festivals that seem to have good stuff for Video Fest again and again and again?

BW: Well, obviously my time at South by Southwest really sort of begins the search. For experimental work there is this festival in Albuquerque called Experiments in Cinema, and the guy who runs it, Brian Konefsky, we have a very interesting relationship. I pull stuff from his festival; he pulls stuff from my festival. I think we just have very similar taste. And he brings his students to my festival every year. I often don’t get to go, but I also pull things from Silver Docs and Tribeca, but generally trying to find the more obscure thing from those places.

FR: For the twenty-fifth anniversary, you are doing a few things that mark the occasion, such as moving back into the DMA. But having Gene Youngblood coming, that really has a kind of back-to-the-roots feel about it. How did that come about?

BW: So, Gene is sort of a personal hero for me. When I was my first year in college – I was in Beloit College in Wisconsin and I got really interested in experimental films purely by accident. Somebody in the dorms had experimental films and they were showing them. Let’s just say there were not a lot of opportunities to screen experimental films in Beloit, Wisconsin. So I read Gene Youngblood’s book, Expanded Cinema, like over and over again because it was what I couldn’t see. It told me about this world that was out there that I could just sort of think about. And then I transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia, and I could see a lot more and made a point to find it and see a lot more. So a lot of my thinking about media, the potential of media, the effects of media, were very much shaved from Gene’s mind and Gene’s writing and Gene’s examples. And if you think of a book like that, curating the best of that moment, then Gene’s curatorial nature – he’s always been this personal champion.

And several years ago he moved to the Sante Fe/Albuquerque area, and out of the blue one day, I just got this email saying, “I’d like to come to your festival, my school is going to pay for it, can you find me a hotel.” And I was like, “Oh my God! Gene Youngblood is coming to my festival.” It’s like, “I’ve done something right!” And so this year Brian Konefsky, my guy in Albuquerque, has been working on a documentary about him, and the documentary is not finished. But in talking with Brian, he said, why don’t we bring Gene there and do a lecture and we can show a cut of this film? It was really his suggestion, and it was, of course, intuitively obvious. You know, my job is that these things appear in front of me and I grab them. You have to be sensitive to the universe to find when the great things fall in your hands.


Photo via UTA


  • Many thanks to Peter Simek for continuing to cover the arts in Dallas!