On the evening of October 8, New York- and Philadelphia-based video artist Borna Sammak will scramble all the video monitors at Best Buy on Broadway, in New York. He'll replace the promo imagery with 13 ecstatic, aggressively colorful compositions that are themselves scramblings of the same generic source materials. What would seem like a cyber hack parody of the television media and Best Buys' less than optimal choice of programming is actually Sammak's debut solo show.
Borna Sammak: Best Buy was arranged by artist and curator Thomas McDonnell. Here, like-minded artist Kari Altmann asks Sammak and McDonell about the politics of borrowing corporate space, technical specifics, and why it somehow leads back to drawing.
KARI ALTMANN: How did you come to match Sammak's video with Best Buy?
THOMAS MCDONNELL: Borna's videos are made specifically for display on high-definition screens. And Best Buy is the largest American retailer of HD technology. It would be nearly impossible to have a show at a gallery, or even a museum, that delivered the same kind of visual impact. Best Buy has the gear.
ALTMANN: This exhibition takes place during Best Buy's store hours. All the same, you aren't paying them, and this isn't a guerrilla "hack" of the screens in the store. What kind of exchange is taking place in order to insert Sammak's video into the store's operational framework?
MCDONNELL: I called Borna a couple months ago and told him about the idea. I think it made sense to him from the beginning. Not the case with Best Buy.
ALTMANN: How were you in contact with them?
MCDONNELL: Our first dialogs with store management were very much along the lines of, "Tell me why I should lose $40,000 worth of business for you." When I explained that a lot of people who normally wouldn't patronize Best Buy would come through for this show, the advantages started to become clear. Though I brought in some stills from one of Borna's videos, we didn't really look at them, or discuss them. It was about being able to guarantee foot-traffic.
SAMMAK: Tom didn't say a lot, although he did say, "I think we should do a show of your videos on all the screens in Best Buy." Which, of course, sounded awesome, but I didn't really think much about it until the following day when I opened my inbox to find Tom had copied me on emails to store representatives.
ALTMANN: Did you have reservations about the context?
SAMMAK: I was apprehensive in the beginning. I didn't want to come off like I was advertising for Best Buy. As a member of the Free Art and Technology Lab, advertising is 100% antithetical to our mission statement. I actually received a rude email from a colleague saying something to the effect of, "Best Buy is another corporate tool of the man and his constant effort to bring us down and you're just legitimating The System."
While on some level that may be true, it's not how I see the situation. As Tom mentioned, my work is made specifically for HD screens, a technology that for the most part is completely inaccessible to me. Part of the reason I make this type of work was that I don't have a studio-I don't even have an apartment right now-and all I need to make these videos is my laptop and a place to plug it in. But to display the videos, there is no viable alternative, short of running return fraud, to doing business with "the man." And then to display these works in the natural habitat approached this issue in an interesting way.
ALTMANN: And the issue of foot traffic?
SAMMAK: I highly doubt any foot traffic is going to make up for "$40,000 worth of business."
ALTMANN: How are the video feeds wired at this store?
SAMMAK: In the A/V section of the store, flat-screen televisions line most of the walls-in several places they're even gridded two or three tall. The general content is a mind-numbing loop of sports, movie promos, and nature footage. Initially, my hope was to break up the feed such that I could create massive compositions that would take up entire walls.
ALTMANN: But that didn't work out?
SAMMAK: Given the way the monitors are wired, this isn't possible. What I've done instead is design video that will be displayed on all those TVs so that the edges of the image bleed seamlessly into each other. The effect is more than a tile pattern, and has no end and no beginning, which is different from a bunch of TVs playing the same video.
In addition to the wall-mounted units, there are a number of "end caps"—stand-alone televisions that run in their own content—Chicken Little or advertisements for nonsense next-gen cable services. Each of these will be getting its own video. A couple have super comfortable leather recliners in front of them. So that's nice.
ALTMANN: The videos you're showing comprise manipulated material from a variety of sources, including footage you've shot, downloaded, and ripped. Much of this source imagery is also the default material that would be shown on these same screens at Best Buy during regular hours. In a typical display at these stores, the viewer scouts for minute differences, comparing TV to TV to examine the way a screen-image rates against "reality."
SAMMAK: In this case, the relationship between source material and what ends up on the screen turned out to be more distinct than I had originally anticipated.
I look for simple, lush colors, compelling forms, unusual movement. Sometimes I find all three. Sometimes I find all three situated in a video in such a way that I can't I can't pull them out without also pulling the object they're attached to. While I try to avoid discernible objects in my videos, or at least objects that I did not create myself, this is something I go back-and-forth on.
ALTMANN: What were the first videos you made of this type?
SAMMAK: They were constructed predominantly out of footage from Planet Earth. But Planet Earth is too cool in its own right, and the real content of my work is process, not source, so I moved to less distracting imagery. I ran around shooting videos with a pocket camera, downloading in bulk quantity from the Internet, mostly video game and movie trailers. I quickly noticed that my videos were taking on a much flatter quality, because all this stuff has the same pacing. The footage I shot is all paced at the speed of my hand moving the camera. And watch enough movie trailers, you'll realize that they all look and move the same.
ALTMANN: In several videos you repurpose footage into more traditional landscapes. What is the relationship of the landscape genre to the digital material?
SAMMAK: I came to a point where I felt I had fully explored how to deconstruct moving images according to one strategy. I wanted to see if I could figure out how to use the process to put them back together. I didn't want to do another all-over, abstract composition. I wanted to see if I could draw something. Drawing landscapes was a natural choice: They're as close as you get to being devoid of connotation. No matter how much you fuck with a landscape, it is still recognizable, and enjoyable to look at.
Borna Sammak's works are on view October 8, 7–9 PM. Best Buy is located at 622 Broadway, New York.