The Independent profile on Suparak: “Experimental media curator as rock star”

Astria Suparak: Experimental media curator as rock star

Matt Wolf
The Independent
April 2003
p. 15-16

Clad in a puffy fur coat at five foot two inches, Astria Suparak may look like a rock star, but the ethos of a hardcore film nerd rumbles inside. At age twenty-four, Astria Suparak has already invented an unstoppable experimental film enterprise. As curator-on-wheels, she is aggressively building sexy niches for visceral and demanding new films and videos by cutting edge artists from around the world, who may seem freaky or misplaced in traditional art or film world contexts. Last year Suparak traveled to over fifty venues across the nation and abroad. From contemporary art museums to microcinemas, sports bars to Harvard classrooms, Suparak introduces all her programs in person whether the audience is eager students, or the quieter bunch, who converge in the dark corners and parking lots of undiscovered art worlds.

Growing up in Los Angeles in the Nineties, Suparak was entrenched in the Riot Grrrl scene and influenced by the do-it-yourself feminist ideology of her peers. She began her curating career when she was an ambitious scholarship student at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Dissatisfied with departmental divisions and old ways of thinking, Suparak founded a weekly avant-garde media series that showcased film, video and multimedia works by experimental artists and musicians.

When approaching artists and distributors the teenager lied about her age and booked shows via email, concerned that established professionals in a boy’s world would question her curatorial legitimacy. ‘I tried to cover up that I was a teenager, a student, and I wasn’t from a film background. Email enabled me to be age, gender and ethnicity ambiguous.’

The series expanded rapidly and soon audiences from outside of the student body were venturing, via the G train, to Brooklyn to view her edgy presentations. Pratt grumbled antagonistically and contested her student-initiated series, but each semester Suparak staged a healthy fight and kept the program running. Ultimately she presented over one hundred shows, but her venues soon stretched beyond academia. She presented programs at institutions like P.S.1, the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary art affiliate, and the New York Underground Film Festival. She also embarked on a tour with performance and video artist Miranda July and musician collaborator Zac Love in the fall of 2000.

And at the age twenty-three, Suparak again proved the eclecticism of her curatorial verse and mixed established hardball film abstractionists with conceptual video artists in a program accompanied by the live music of Boxhead Ensemble. The ever-changing group of Chicago post-rock music stars toured with Suparak on a bus making performance pit stops at cinematheques and rock clubs in different countries each day. Suparak grabbed on to the curator-as-rock star model and is using it to bring alternative artist film and video to new audiences around the world.

This fall, Suparak traveled solo on an extensive tour through the South, Southwest, East Coast, and Mexico. Sites ranged from the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City to the basement of an old pie factory in Boston. She presented and remixed two traveling programs, …Suparak’s curatorial choices indicate a personal video art aesthetic that is accessible, immediate, and purposefully absurd.

And she consistently manages to draw large sold-out crowds to experimental film screenings. In Mexico City, people lined up outside of the museum two hours before the shows. The enormous Victoria Theater in San Francisco was packed for the opening night of Ladyfest. Even tiny screenings in obscure locales such as a sports bar in Fort Worth, Texas get filled. “Email! I harass audiences in each town for their email addresses, and I have built a complex system of mailing lists. Each time I return to a town previous viewers arrive with a friend, and the audience grows,” she explains.

The rock-star model works. Suparak attaches her now-recognized name to programs of obscure art, which she insists on presenting in-person. She charms hip art students and cinephiles, even the occasional groupie, at intimate class presentations, followed by more public screenings at city venues throughout the week. Word of mouth builds momentum and audiences report back with glowing approval. Without a traditional budget or funding, Suparak relies on income at the door or limited support from small arts organizations. She can’t guarantee her artists rental fees, but she delivers extensive feedback from the road and publicizes the work like few other curators in the field. Suparak is bringing non-commercial, alternative, and feminist art to the masses.

That’s not to say that life on the road is filled with the comforts of a Rolling Stones farewell tour. Suparak has her share of horror stories. She re-routed on tour through the South to avoid hurricanes after catching a nine-hour ride from strangers to her next destination. She slept on the floor of a kitchen in New Orleans, where a small colony of house cats walked and urinated over her throughout her slumber. Nomadic and friendly, Suparak finds herself sweet talking new friends for a lift from one obscure site to the next, because she is absolutely determined to bring you, your friends and family good experimental film.

Originally the goal was to curate for a larger institution, but independence has its benefits. “I can spend time nursing a smaller amount of very tight shows. I like the versatility and challenges with creating custom programs for specific audiences and locations” explains Suparak who is currently organizing shows for the Yale School of Architecture and an upcoming festival at the Chicago Cultural Center. She continues to plan a spring tour through the Midwest, California, East Coast and Canada and looks forward to an extensive European jaunt through Italy, Belgium, England, and France in the late summer.