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John Sanborn

John Sanborn has been called “a key member of the second wave of American video artists that included Bill Viola, Gary Hill, and Dara Birnbaum” by Dr. Peter Weibel, director of the ZKM. Sanborn’s career spans the early days of experimental video art in the 1970s through the heyday of 80’s MTV music/videos and 90’s interactive art to digital media art of today. His work has been exhibited, screened and broadcast hundreds of times since 1978.

Recent projects include live video/theater performances of God in 3 Persons, a collaboration with The Residents, at MoMA NY; commissions from the National Museum of Qatar, the City of Berkeley, and Jeu de Paume, Paris; solo exhibitions at Galerie Tokomona, Paris; Telematic Media Arts and 836M, San Francisco; and the premiere of The Friend, starring John Cameron Mitchell, at Festival Videoformes. In 2022 the ZKM presented a retrospective exhibition of Sanborn’s work which includes a monograph, to be published in October 2023.

John Sanborn holds an honorary Master of Cinema degree from ESEC, Paris; and named a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the Minister of Culture of France. Sanborn’s YouTube channel has over 22 million views and over 101,000 subscribers.

Together with Dean Winkler, John Sanborn created the video "In C, Too," one of the finalists in the Best Experimental Music Video category at Experimental Brasil 2024.


Dean Winkler is a NYC-based film/television engineer and video artist.
Career highlights include: Senior Engineer Production and Post Production, Doha Film Institute, supervising the production, post production and display of nine boundary-pushing immersive films for the new National Museum of Qatar; Executive Producer / CTO of Crossroads Films and Co-Founder/ President of Post Perfect.

Winkler has collaborated / co-directed numerous video art projects including: Act III (1983) with John Sanborn and Philip Glass (named one of the 100 Masterworks of Media Art by ZKM), Good Morning Mr. Orwell (1984) with Nam June Paik, This Is The Picture with Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel (1984), Perfect Lives (1984) with Robert Ashley, Luminaire (1986) with John Sanborn, Continuum (1990) with Maureen Nappi, 140 Characters (2017) with Maureen Nappi and Don Butler and Our America (2021) with Don Butler.

Winkler holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He holds a US patent on a unique dual reference digital-to-analog converter. His work has been recognized with over 45 Emmy, BDA/Promax, Monitor, ACM Siggraph, Telley, film festival and other awards. He is also an accomplished with aviator who has earned Skydiving, Rotorcraft-Helicopter and Glider licenses.


1-Can you both introduce yourselves and share a bit about your artistic backgrounds and how you came to collaborate on projects together?


Hello, I’m John Sanborn, a media artist, living and working in California. I “found” video art when I was very young, living in Paris and working for a company that dubbed English language films into French and French films in English. I had heard about video art, but had no idea what that meant, so when I attended the opening of “Art/Video Confrontation” in 1974 I was astounded. In a single moment I knew that this would be my future – and thanks to the curators and one of the producers, who graciously helped me, I started making video and exhibiting in Europe. Don Foresta, who I met that night, and is still my friend, told me, a few months later, that Nam June Paik was coming to Paris and we should meet. I expected a grand figure, but there was a short, rumpled man – but he became my great video master.


I knew about Dean, as he was an acknowledged genius of video, and after we met, we discussed doing a project together, as we both appreciated abstract storytelling and the fluid, malleable nature of video. I knew Philipp Glass and knew that he wanted (very much) to have a wider audience for his music. I suggested that we work with Philipp’s music to Dean, and found he adored Philipp’s music. So, with Philipp’s support, I made a deal with CBS Records – they would fund a video and I would get it on MTV. Indeed, Act III played on MTV, and all around the world, for over 40 years.


2-What inspired the creation of "In C, Too," and what themes or messages were you hoping to convey through this film?


Throughout the 1980s Dean and I were very close, working on many projects together and having great fun. I moved to Berkeley and while we were in contact, did not collaborate until in 2018/2019 Dean and I were involved with the launch of The National Museum of Quatar, designed by Jean Nouvel. This was a complex and intricate project which ended with great success, and I thought, “why don’t we make a new work together?” So, after 40 years we decided to make a “sequel” to Act III.


As with the original, the sequel is about transformation, and world building, deconstruction and reanimation. Our style of work and our personalities are well reflected in both works, but now, as much older artists, mortality and longevity are top of mind. So the impulses to use a sequel as a way to reach beyond and towards the infinite made sense. Video, and the kind of processing we pioneered, speaks to a kind of evolution, from static to “in motion”, from framed to unbound, and from physical to electronic.


3-Can you discuss the significance of using structured visual improvisational techniques in "In C, Too"and how they contribute to the overall narrative?


With almost every project we’ve done, after we choose a theme and music, we proceed with ideas and with words. An outline becomes a storyboard, and the storyboard indicates what we need to produce and what we will develop using our “structured improvisation” techniques. Probably invisible to our audience, but clear to us, are the logical steps from one moment to the next, and how various motivational elements (such as with 4 dancers performing in In C, Too).


As we construct sequences, links and transitions make themselves known, and we incorporate them into the flow. I would rather not call what we do “narrative” but it is certainly a story, as part of our technique is very musical – a kind of programmatic progression- where each beat feels correct, and one gesture of transformation leads to the next.


4-How did your previous collaboration on "ACT III" influence the creation of "In C, Too," both artistically and conceptually?


When we created Act III, I doubt we thought of it as a lynchpin of a kind of style or a display of leitmotifs – but looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it laid out our approach as collaborators. Our individual works touch on elements of our joint projects, but we use a visual language of our own. When we work together, however, something special sparks and we’re back 30 years, telling the same jokes and driving each other crazy.


You might note that many aspects of In C, Too (palette, “feedback”, geometry, and character) are evolved cousins to those in ACT III. While the technology changed, our desire to alter the way we perceive the world (and in fact to make our own world) has remained the same.


5-As filmmakers who have worked across various mediums and technologies, how do you see the role of experimental video-making in contemporary art and culture?


In 2022 I was honored by a retrospective exhibition at the ZKM, produced by my friend, the late Dr. Peter Weibel, who stated goal of this show was to correctly write the history of media art, and my significant part in its inception, evolution and current state. For Peter, “video art” was a slice of a larger whole, and the incorporating of some principles of video in contemporary art was also a poor way to measure the power of media art. He saw the impact of artists working with media, and indeed across media, as the most significant philosophical advancement in contemporary culture since its introduction and early popularity.


Of course, I agree with Peter, as the scope and scale of media- highly affected by artists working with those tools and objectives, is obviously immense. From YouTube and Tic-Tok, to the proliferation of “stories about stories” as well as the confessional, confrontational and chaotic media-sphere we exist in, media is the currency and collateral of the 21st century.


6-Could you elaborate on the creative process behind integrating Elena Ruehr's music composition into the visual storytelling of "In C, Too"?


Elena Ruehr’s composition is a sweet mediation on one of the greatest musical works, and a pillar of minimalism – Terry Riley’s In C. As with its source, In C, Too ebbs and flows through simple note clusters, and dances with feet as light as air around tension and release. The music we choose always sets a tone for our video work, even if we are going to push against programmatically responding to a work.


The piece, played by pianist Sarah Cahill, suggested hands, a scenario of an unmoved mover, and from that we imagined 4 dancers, whose movement triggers almost everything that happens on screen. As they appear, and are absorbed by the rhythmically pulsating visuals, only to be transformed before the appear again, you can hear Elena doing much the same thing, sonically.


7-Your careers have spanned from the early days of experimental video art to contemporary digital media. How has your approach to filmmaking evolved over time, and what continues to inspire you?


I am continually inspired by music, and how it transports the mind into a realm that is spiritual as well as emotional. Attached to that I work with elements of our humanity, to investigate what makes us who we are, which allows me to ask questions about our souls, our morality and our sense of animality.


I am fixated on aspects of storytelling, from abstract representations of subjects like memory and ontology to the role stories play in our lives, culture and history. While I enjoy a good story (who doesn’t?) I am more interested in “the story of” – the why of a recitation as opposed to the what.


Dance also inspires me, as movement to express a philosophy is proof of life. Defying gravity (which does not exist in video) links to our desire to fly.


8-"In C, Too" explores the balance between chaos and order, as well as the concept of entropy igniting evolution. How did you visually represent these themes in the film?


It would be foolish to attempt to match our themes with specific instances, as part of what has made our work indelible is the ephemeral and mercurial nature of transformation. We suggest that order and chaos are not mutually exclusive, as each measured beat is followed by a pause, a visual fermata that lasts but a heartbeat.


As we take viewers through a continually mutating environment, we only touch on stability for an instant – because change – specifically entropy- is the core to being alive. A system in collapse is a system moving forward. In other words, in order to be alive, you have to be dying.


9-What challenges did you encounter during the production of "In C, Too," and how did you overcome them?

When we worked together in the 80s we sat in the same room, side by side, for hours and hours. Each of us has a role to play, but it was fun to banter and laugh as tape layers bounced from machine to machine, and invention became our mother.


With In C, Too, with Dean in NYC and me in Berkeley, we had to find our working rhythm. With the help of zoom and the pandemic, and the almost daily back and forth of watch seconds of new footage, cutting it up and passing it back – we locked into a workflow that pleased us.


10-As artists who have received numerous awards and accolades throughout your careers, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers and video artists?


Thank you for noting our history, as for me, the most interesting moment is now.

When I am asked “how do I become an artist”, I can only say, “make art”. The process of realizing an idea can be taught, but the actually of creation, with all the wiles and dead ends that you must avoid, and the largesse of self-doubt we all face, is what any individual artist must do. Start with an idea, develop your process, and make a frame, a second, a minute of video and then listen to what you have done – and follow it where it leads you.


11-Can you share any insights into your future artistic endeavors or upcoming projects that you're excited about?


Dean and I are about to begin a new project which is exciting. A long and more complex work, with the music of a composer we both adore. It’s blank slate time – terrifying but exhilarating- and a reason for us to speak to each other every day.


Personally, I am doing several multi-screen installations, and using AI and AR to further deconstruct storytelling. I am also working more on live media/theater pieces, where the electricity of live performance is bonded with a structure of media expression to create a hybrid kind of media opera.


Part of my practice is collaboration, whether with Dean or others, and this year I am working with several artists who are 1/3 my age, and finding inspiration in their approaches to media, which are less about the past and totally connected to the present.

Dean Winkler

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