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Tecnologie e Società
Investigating a new realm, a new set of givens, a new landscape
Interview with Benjamin Weil
Domenico Quaranta. When you started äda’web, there were only a few artist’s projects on the Web. What did you know about them? What made you think that the Web could be an interesting medium for artists and what made you bet on it?
Benjamin Weil. The community at the time was very small. The Jenny Holzer project became known very fast. By the summer of 1995, a lot of artists working online had been in touch. We were also looking. However, it is really important to point out that one way we learnt about the existence of other projects was through the links they left in the “Change” section of Jenny Holzer’s project. Something of course we did not anticipate at all.
I did not get engaged with the web because of the artists who were already working with it. For instance, I only learned about Muntadas’ “The Fileroom” long after it was launched (I’d say in the spring of 1995).
The web was the logical development I was expecting when we started The Thing in 1991. It also had to do with my interest in working with artists outside of the art sphere, with an interest to try and invent a new model, a new form of interaction between art and its viewers. This is for instance what interested me in 1993, when I curated an exhibition on the vaporetti in Venice, during the Biennale. It is also what led me to curate an exhibition of poster projects that were to be fly posted in the urban settings. Both exhibitions were informed by the notion of reaching out to people outside of the context of art, because of the conviction I had that the context of art precluded most people from accessing the ideas expressed in the art projects because of the prejudice created by the context. Not because of the work itself.
I immediately understood the web as a public place, a neutral place of sorts. Also a place where artists could engage with a new medium before it was totally mapped out by commercial interests. It was an opportunity to fashion the medium, make people understand that by taking ownership of their experience, they could gain a more critical understanding of the environment they lived in.
I also thought it would be interesting to bring artists whose operating principle was more conceptual than medium specific. They could understand, in my mind the idea of experimentation with a new form of communication, take the challenge as an opportunity. In a way, I thought of the web, as a mean to do what public access television did not manage to do, because of the fact it came too late in the game.
D.Q. At the beginning of the 90’s you were one of the pillars of The Thing BBS. Has it been an important experience for you? Did it help you to formulate your curatorial criteria?
B.W. It was a seminal experience. The first time I could really engage in a reflection about art, its social function, its capacity to possibly represent the world, not just as an image, but also as a set of parameters to understand the world. I think Wolfgang Staehle was definitely a visionary in that sense that he got immediately the incredible power of a community-building instrument that went beyond the notion of geographicallocale. He wanted a “Mudd Club” (1), or a Cedar Tavern (2) of the 1990’s, a place where people from all over the place could meet, and have those long discussions that they did not necessarily have in bars or clubs, any more. The Thing was also a collective of people, a loose-ended group of people, artists, critics, curators, thinkers of all sorts, all of which saw the collapse of the art market in the late 1980’s as an opportunity to reinvent the art world, or at least a moment when new ideas could be pushed forward, when there was so little money, and so much time! The Thing definitely helped me explore the idea of artivism, of a mean to empower the idea of art over the idea of commodity, the importance of gesture and process opposed to the one of product. In that sense it was a grounding moment.
D.Q. You decided to bring artists not involved in digital art to the Web when it was difficult to call ‘art’ what some people were doing on the Web: this is one of the points that make the strength of äda’web. Tell me something about it. Did Julia Scher’s work for The Thing have an influence on your view?
B.W. I first worked with Julia Scher on an exhibition in 1989, which was the graduating project, so to speak, of the Whitney Independent Study program. Along with 4 other students, we curated “the Desire of the Museum”, an exhibition that very much reflected the current intellectual climate of what was later on referred to as “institutional critique”. I also curated an exhibition at Galerie Esther Schipper, in Cologne, in early 1991, where Julia contributed a new piece. So I knew Julia quite well before The Thing. I brought Julia to be one of the co-founders of The Thing, and as such, she was very much involved with its development. She was also very interested in the aesthetics and practice of Sado-Masochism at the time. The dungeon was only a trace of those concerns, a mean to recontextualize the practice and aesthetics of S&M in art. I called Julia into working on Securityland, because it immediately occurred to me she would be interested in the web, which I introduced her to. I do remember the night we first “surfed the web together” I had never done this before. Neither had she. We were both fascinated by the enormous resource it already was at the time. No amazon.com’s, rather, a multitude of university pages, about any subject you could imagine, a live encyclopaedia where you could learn about pretty much any subject. We looked for hours, with UrouLette as our starting point (that was a student site that sent you to any random page entered by people who were using it… the first… even before Yahoo, I believe).
D.Q. Äda’web has been an ‘entrepreneurial venture’ (Andrea Scott). Atkins says that you looked not at ‘commercial art-world models’, but at the ‘burgeoning high-tech industry’. Is it true? How did you persuade Borthwick to join this venture?
B.W. First, I did not have to persuade Borthwick at all, as he’s the one who introduced me to the web, and the one who contacted me because he had known about The Thing. We had known each other socially for a few years already. We reconnected because of the web. After he had shown me what the potential was, we worked together on starting this project. He was a visionary, and äda ‘web was as much his brainchild as mine. We both agreed when we started, that this was an opportunity to share our interest in art and artists with a broader audience, and through channels that were not tainted with conventions. We were both driven by the same interest. He had a business background; I had a curatorial and critical background. Our partnership was evident. The idea was to avoid referring to art, and to the art world. And part of that idea also translated in the belief that it had to be a profitable venture, so as to create a new economic model for a new form of art. The economy of äda ‘web was indeed an integral part of the mission. We were much closer to software and to the burgeoning net economy also thanks to John’s contacts, knowledge, and interests. And as stated before, I was indeed drawn to this because I wanted to work with artists outside of the constraints of the art system as it was then (and is still now!)
D.Q. You spoke about online art as a form of ‘creative research’. Do you still think this way? Perhaps, Homeport by Lawrence Weiner can be an interesting example of art able to improve technology. Can you find other examples (inside and outside äda’web)?
B.W. I still strongly believe artists have something to teach to the rest of the world. And my model was informed by scientific research. In a way I see art as the fundamental research of culture in general: a place where ideas are pioneered, way before they become mainstream. I continue to this date to be convinced that Jenny Holzer invented banner advertising when she asked us to negotiate with existing web sites the placement of one of her truism in their content, as a link back to her work. That’s one blatant example. When I decided to move to London and work at the ICA, one of the really compelling reason was the partnership with SUN Microsystems. And even if what I had in mind did not work, I left knowing that it was just a matter of timing if things did not unfold as planned. Sun engineers had lost confidence in the partnership, and to re-establish that confidence took way more time than Ithought… we were all exhausted before we could actually achieve what we were set to do. I still think that including collaborations with artists would have been an asset for Sun engineers training (we were about to put this in place when I left the ICA). And I am convinced that the most difficult thing is to create a platform of common language, where each can see their interest. It is not about charity, it is about re-inventing the relationship of art with the modern, post-industrial capitalist economy.
D.Q. Homeport: I tried to visit it, but I couldn’t. Is it a permanent loss? Has been made an offline copy of the project? What do you think about offline preservation of a web project in general?
B.W. Unfortunately, yes, most of it is gone. Keeping a separate server to operate the project was too complicated, and therefore was abandoned soon after the demise of äda‘web, when the archives were transferred to the Walker Art Center. There are archival papers, drawings, etc. But no electronic trace.
D.Q. Many of the links from äda’web to the Web around it bring us today to an ‘error 404’ page: äda is always the same, but the context around it is changing, and this can compromise our way to look to the ‘digital foundry’. How can we deal with this problem? Do you think that updating the links and ‘unfreeze’ äda could be a solution?
B.W. The web has not been saved the way äda ‘web has. TotalNY, the sister web site, launched more or less at the same time, has completely disappeared. Things change, migrate, re-invent themselves. The web is a very instable environment. Just like the street, in a way. Maybe it is just a matter of time: links always expire, sooner or later. So to keep the links live would be a full time job… why do you think search engines were invented… in my mind, they remap the web all the time, and that’s what they’re really good for. So my take on this is that one has to accept that äda ‘web is no longer a live site. It is an archive. And as such, it will age, and decay. And will eventually disappear. The cultural context in which you look at it today is not the same. Speed of access is different, screen definition is not the same, processing speed has changed, etc. To update it would be to deny the fact it is no longer a live project. Your thesis is very much part of a process that is recording that presence, documenting that trace. And that’s great!
D.Q. Tell me something about the ‘collaborative process’ in äda. You can start from a project produced by the foundry.
B.W. The notion of foundry is informed by the idea of sharing expertise. A team of people who devoted their time doing research online, learning the dynamics of html programming and related web production, and understanding the network and the hypermedia structure engaged in a dialogue with an artist or group of artists. That was the basic idea: to create a studio wherein people with a range of expertise would congregate to develop projects. This idea evolved through time. Initially, the idea was to have one team at äda ‘web, and others working in the same studio, on different projects. Then the idea evolved into trying to better integrate the teams. This did not really work, even though that made the process more transparent to other teams. In the end, there was not enough time to really experiment with that. That’s a shame, in a way, because this would have been a real breakthrough. Maybe this can be tried now.
To go back to the idea of teamwork, I think the web called for a different form of process. So a lot of the work process was based on the notion of exchange. Each person, each set of skills, would bring to the table something. We worked in a loft, so eavesdropping in a conversation was something that was not only allowed, but also really encouraged. Of course that was not always easy, and there were times when working that way would drive some insane! It was for instance very hard to concentrate on one specific thing, at times! All in all, however, I really believe that was an extraordinarily productive process.
D.Q. I think the ‘associate dimension’ can be seen as evidence of what a great context was äda and of its appeal for artists (like Jodi or Michael Samyn) with a very different approach to art online. What do you think about it?
B.W. From very early on, it became clear to me that the cultural context for the work produced by the foundry was essential. Maintaining good ties with the artists working independently was also very important: hosting (some of) their project was a way to give thema mean to collaborate that made sense to them: providing tools is something I still believe makes more sense. Both Michael Samyn and Jodi came to us: the äda ‘web team was really excited when they decided to offer a project to the site. It meant a lot to us, that we were part of the same community, in a way, even though what we were doing was different. I think that it meant a lot to them that some people understood what they were doing, and respected it without wanting to co-opt it.
D.Q. In net art, sometimes artists adopt a curatorial approach (i.e. Laura Trippi) and curators are involved in art projects (i.e. you and Extension, Barbara London and Stir-Fry). Can we say that on the Net curators have to adopt a more artistic approach? What about your experience about it?
B.W. The curator is not only a facilitator and an organizer, as well as a selector: she or he may also have become at times a close collaborator of the artist… However, I think it is really important not to blur the functions and perceptions thereof. The only risk is that nobody does a good job any longer… curators are not artists, even though some people may have two careers running along; my opinion is that sooner of later, these people have to choose, as they risk conflict of interest and intellectual blurriness.
D.Q. What about äda economic strategy? How did it change from the beginning to the end?
B.W. I would say that it changed with the growth of the Internet bubble, and the way expenses and pressure for return on investment grew exponentially out of control! At the beginning, there was a lot of utopia in trying to create a new economic model fast enough, then came the idea of what in economic terms you call a loss leader (äda ‘web as the prestigious r&d of the web publishing group it belonged to - web partners, LLC), to trying to be closer to the traditional model of non-profit (the company was re-incorporated as an non-profit just a few weeks before it had to close). I guess in the end, it was all about timing!
D.Q. How does your work in äda’web affect your present work as a museum curator?
B.W. As curator… I have become much more interested in process than I ever was before: both artistic process and organization. I probably have also been more inclined to investigate hybrid art forms that emerge from the technological convergence (use of the same production tool: the Macintosh computer)… cinema is affected not only by the advent of inexpensive and versatile professional quality equipment, but also by the prominence of sampling and remixing, pioneered by the sound scene. The web was an interesting ground for this, and the intentions äda ‘web had was to also foray into the establishing of a dialogue between various artistic practice with the site as interface. In the context of the museum, the dialogue is also enriched by the proximity of a historical continuum, which also leads to think more about conservation issues, and hence about how to “frame” an artistic practices that have become extremely ephemeral formally.
D.Q. Looking backward, what has been äda’web historic rule? How did it influence the history of net art, its relationship with art institutions and with the world of art in general?
B.W. Investigating a new realm, a new set of givens, a new landscape is how I see things today, and saw things then. On that level, my viewpoint has not changed much; we were set to do something that simple and that complicated. The modus operandi was “we do not know what we are doing; but then again, nobody does… so can we can only be wrong if we do not try things”. As for influences, it is really hard to tell. I guess you may be in a better position to judge… I was too involved with it to know. One thing that is clear to me is that there was from very early on people who saw the importance of such experimentation, such as critics ranging from the likes of Robert Atkins to Matt Mirapaul; curators (Barbara London at the MoMA; Steve Dietz in his various jobs since 1995; Lynne Cooke at the Dia Center for the Arts, working with Sara Tucker); or directors (Kathy Albreich; Michael Govan; David Ross).
D.Q. Do you think there’s a place today for another ‘digital foundry’, for another experience like äda’web? Why/why not?
B.W. It would probably not be the same: it would have to adapt to the needs of a wider number of practices, ranging from design to programming… from using the web as a space of experiment that goes beyond it, hybrid forms, multi-platform projects, etc. as the web has become part of a larger sphere of cultural practice. What people like Alex Galloway or Jon Klima do, for instance, needs other types of tools and support, which need to be articulated. I think it would more look like a lab than a foundry. It would more be an interface for the encounter of different expertise in order to create new forms: in a way, it would more owe to the Bahaus than it would to the printmaking studio of the foundry. It would however have one common goal withäda ‘web: it would have to provide an ongoing thought process about the necessity to evolve the economic model that supports these new cultural forms. What has stopped the web from really evolving is the short sight of commercial projects that tried to mimic the ones of older media. Think for instance of how advertising has permeated the network in the most inappropriate and inefficient manner.
1) A New York club, where a number of artists performed, but also just met and hung out together in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. [back]
2) A New York bar, where all the abstract expessionists used to hang out, located in Greenwichvillage. [back]
Benjamin Weil è critico d’arte e curatore. Laureatosi nel 1989 con il Whitney Independent Study Program, collaboratore di “Flash Art International”, “Frieze”, “Art Monthly”, è stato tra i fondatori della rivista “Purple Prose” ed è stato una delle colonne portanti di The Thing BBS, fondata a New York dallo scultore Wolfgang Staehle nel 1990. Nel 1993 cura una sezione di Aperto 93 alla 45ma Biennale di Venezia. Nel 1994 fonda, con l’imprenditore John Borthwick, ada’web, di cui è curatore fino al momento della chiusura del sito, entrato immediatamente nella collezione del Walker Art Center di Minneapolis (1998). Passato all’ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) di Londra come direttore della sezione new media del museo, approda nel febbraio 2000 al San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), come ‘new media curator’. Nel gennaio 2001 ha curato la sezione ondine della mostra “010101: Art in Technological Times”.
Questa intervista è stata tenuta tra aprile e maggio 2002.