Net.art & bioart
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 Tavern2 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.
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.
We all looked at that site and this knowledge shows
Interview with Steve Dietz
Domenico Quaranta. What curatorial methods did you follow in collecting and archieving ada’web?
Steve Dietz. Opportunity (ada’web was being discontinued by its corporate owner) met long range strategy (had decided to start a “digital arts study collection” based on our commissioning program) via networking (had done a “studio visit” with Benjamin Weil and crew a while earlier, so we were familiar with each other).
D.Q. Some of the links from ada’web to other sites now take us to the funeral inscription of all dead sites: ‘Error 404’. How did you deal with the question of the inevitable loss of the context around ada’web?
S.D. Primarily through acceptance and through commissioning “The Unreliable Archivist” as an artist-generated project about archiving ada’web. I do wish we had captured at least first page screen shots of the now 404 pages.
D.Q. …. Can we record a 1996 art project without recording its 1996 environment?
S.D. Yes, technically, although it’s clearly not the same. May be able to use Wayback machine or other archives in the future to recreate the past.
D.Q. One of the worst consequences of this loss is the current online inaccessibility of Weiner’s ‘Homeport’, one of the most interesting projects of the ‘digital foundry’. What about that?
S.D. I agree completely. It is a project that would be worthwhile to “restore” in the same way that darkened paintings or other degraded media have been as a special project.
D.Q. What’s the difference between curating a dotcom like ada’web and a museum website?
S.D. The line between curating work for sale and not selling work that is curated is almost a taboo. At the same time, the relationship — or formal lack thereof — is constantly manipulated. If curating a dotcom site is based on sales, I would say that it is different than curating for a museum because the vested interests are potentially different than the goals. For example, search engines that return results based on who has “bought” the search term makes me suspicious whether the results really are the best ones.
However, I think that curating for a for-profit institution (a dot com) vs curating for a not-for-profit insitution (a museum) are not necessarily that different. Indeed, both Walker Art Center and America Online gave up their web art programs precisely because of monetary pressures.
D.Q. Can you tell me your opinion about the rule of ada’web in the history of net art?
D.Q. Why? Do you think current net art owes something to that experience?
S.D. Precisely because it was such an experience in a way that few other sites at the time attempted and which few other sites since have achieved. We all looked at that site and this knowledge shows.
D.Q. Can we find in ada’web a prominent work of art, something that had an enduring influence on later projects, or do you prefer to look at ada as a whole?
S.D. In the end, I believe ada’web is greater than the sum of its parts. At the time, Jenny Holzer’s Truisms was a kind of breakthrough as were many of the projects, but it is the overall site that has the greatest resonance and importance to my mind.
D.Q. Do you think there’s a place for ‘another’ ada’web today? How much the net art field has changed from 1995?
S.D. Yes! I think it is critical that the field develop a rich, heterogeneous environment, where no single approach is dominant or _the_ way to go. Even at the time ada’web was operating, Stadium, artnetweb, internationale stadt, the thing all made a rich context.
D.Q. What’s your idea about ada’web as an ‘entrepreneurial venture’ (Scott), ‘a new approach to the economy of the arts’ (Weil)? After four years from its loss of funding, was it a success or a failure?
S.D. ada’web is an unquestionable success, but I think that many ideas about how to go about economic self-sufficiency have gone by the wayside, and this was not the genius of ada’web, so to speak.
D.Q. I think that projects like Simon’s Alterstats (supported by ada) and The Web Stalker corroborate Weil’s idea that net art can be useful for corporations and software developers. What do you think about this conception of net art as a ‘creative research’?
S.D. I’m skeptical that art and corporate research can benefit each other in a very direct way. Especially over the long term. Too many trade offs. But I’m a fanatical believer that each venue can learn from the other – the relationship just needs to be structured differently than “creative research,” I think.
D.Q. Would you like to change something today in the way you archived ada’web in 1998?
S.D. I would like to be more rigorous in recording meta data about the exact state of ada’web. I would like to have done more “variable media” interviews with more of the participants. I would like to have captured more fully more of the context of ada’web.
D.Q. What do you think about the Variable Media Initiative? Do you find any mistake in this kind of approach?
S.D. I view the Variable Media Initiative as a valuable tool, not a complete solution—which is how I think its proponents view it. There are, presumably, many mistakes to be found in the specifics of VMI, but that is part of its beauty that it is flexible and not fixed and open to change. I do think that the issue of artist wishes vs cultural needs are unresolved by VMI.
D.Q. In a way, you archived ada’web two times: collecting it in Gallery 9 and commissioning The Unreliable Archivist. What’s the best way? How much that second archivist is ‘unreliable’, and how much the first?
S.D. I think the best way was, of course, both. Unreliable Archivist was not intended as a literal archive but as a parable of archiving, which I think remains relevant but not a reason not to archive.
D.Q. Introducing The Unreliable Archivist, you say: “No matter how intelligent archiving agents are in 2020, they will be poor substitutes if they can’t represent an individual point of view”. What’s the role of subjectivity in your curatorial work?
S.D. I don’t know what the root is and generally, I am not convinced by notions of origin.
D.Q. Talking about museums on the web. For different reasons, you left the Walker (or the Walker left you), and Ippolito & Weil changed from a full-time to a part-time job. Do you think American museums are losing their previous (and pioneering) interest in net art?
S.D. It’s hard to say with such a small sample. At the same time, the Whitney is supporting Artport, Dia is continuing to do stellar commissions, the New Museum is joining a strategic alliance with Rhizome… Perhaps there will be a second wave of interest by mainstream museums, and hopefully it will be more nuanced and better integrated than the first wave.
D.Q. If American museums seem to lose interest in net art, European museums, with few exceptions, don’t find it interesting at all. What’s net art without museums? And what museums without net art?
S.D. I have always contended that net art doesn’t need museums. I still believe this. And institutions that purport to present the “art of our times” that don’t figure out ways to actually do this with net art will become history museums — with lacunae — all the more quickly.
Steve Dietz è curatore indipendente e critico. Attualmente è “visiting teacher/artist” al Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota). La sua esperienza di curatore del “New Media Initiatives Department” del Walker Art Center di Minneapolis, da lui fondato nel 1996, si è conclusa improvvisamente nel maggio 2003, quando la direttrice del museo Kathy Halbreich ne ha annunciato il licenziamento, con la conseguente interruzione del programma del dipartimento. Halbreich si è impegnata a mantenere online la “gallery 9”, a tutt’oggi uno dei più avanzati programmi di commissione e archiviazione di progetti in rete, ma la sua attività verrà congelata fino a nuovo ordine.
Nel periodo di attività al Walker, Dietz è stato anche co-fondatore (con il Minneapolis Institute of Arts) del sito ArtsConnected, un programma di condivisione delle risorse informative dei due musei, e (con la McKnight Foundation) della comunità online mnartists.org. Fra le mostre da lui curate, ricordiamo Beyond Interface: net art and Art on the Net (Museum and the Web, 1998), Cybermuseology (Museo de Monterrey, 1999) e, per il Walker, Shock of the View: Artists, Audiences, and Museums in the Digital Age (1999), Art Entertainment Network (2000), Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace (2001-02) e Translocations (2003), una sezione della grande mostra How Latitudes Become Forms.
Nel 1998 ha curato l’archiviazione di ada’web, ed ha commissionato alla triade di artisti Janet Cohen/Keith Frank/Jon Ippolito il progetto The Unreliable Archivist, che propone una archiviazione alternativa di ada’web servendosi di criteri assolutamente aleatori.
Questa intervista è stata tenuta tra aprile e giugno 2002, rivista e ampliata da Dietz in data 23 settembre 2003.
Open Letter to Kathy Halbreich (con la sua risposta e quella di Dietz)
Leaping into the abyss and resurfacing with a pearl
Interview with John Ippolito
Nonostante l’impegno, assolutamente pionieristico, di curatori e istituzioni che nell’ultimo decennio si sono posti il problema di come archiviare e conservare i nuovi media, la questione è ancora ben lontana dall’aver trovato la soluzione definitiva, quella che esclude le altre, si impone come migliore e diventa routine. Forse, la soluzione migliore non esiste nemmeno, e forse è proprio questo il bello di tutta la faccenda.
Il lavoro di Jon Ippolito sembra confermare questa ipotesi. Anzi, sembra dire: una soluzione migliore esiste, ma è “variabile”. Dal vecchio caso dell’archiviazione di ada’web, cui ha contribuito con un archivista inaffidabile – frutto dell’adversarial collaboration con Janet Cohen e Keith Frank – alla Variable Media Initiative alla mostra Seeing Double, ripercorriamo le tappe di questa esperienza.
Domenico Quaranta. What do you think about ada’web? Do you think that its (old, in web-years) experience can teach something to current net art?
Jon Ippolito. ada’web’s role in the history of Internet art is unmistakable. There were certainly works of Internet art that preceded ada’web and/or reached beyond its cultural and geographic bias – most notably the classic European “net.art” works of the early 90s. Nevertheless, ada’web was the first and foremost platform for Internet art in the mid-1990s, and remains relevant to this day.
That said, my artistic collaborators Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and I didn’t like everything on ada’web – which is why we set out to “improve” it.
DQ. What about the way ada’web has been collected by the Walker Art Center?
JI. While other curators wrung their hands about the nightmare of archiving digital media, Steve Dietz, the architect of the Walker’s Digital Study Collection, leapt into the abyss and resurfaced with a pearl. Of course it would have been great for him to do variable media interviews with all the artists first, but you have to remember that one of the inspirations for the Variable Media Network was Steve’s daring leap. In new media, we learn by doing, and Steve was the first to do it in a thoughtful way.
DQ. How did The Unreliable Archivist see the light?
JI. Janet and Keith and I often joked about our Force Majeure resume – Force Majeure being the clause that lets parties break a contract thanks to an “act of God” like a war or hurricane. This resume was full of exhibitions and publications cancelled at the last minute because of ceilings declared unsafe and so on.
When ada’web curator Benjamin Weil offered to let us make the next featured work for ada’web, we were very excited – until we heard that AOL dropped ada’web’s funding, at which point we thought, OK there’s another line for our Force Majeure resume.
Then Steve heard about our proposal and the light turned green again.
As an aside, I’ve worked with and alongside curators who simply shuffle commissions in and out of their exhibitions to coincide with prevailing fashions. Steve was a provocative and engaged interlocutor in our collaboration, both in refining and contextualizing the project. He probably deserves credit as one of our artistic collaborators.
DQ. Why ‘unreliable’? Do you think there’s a reliable way to archive a piece of net art?
JI. Ha! No, you’re right. The word “archive” derives from the Greek word for “house of government” – the same root as monarchy – and their centralized, controlling nature is proving increasingly unreliable for the preservation of digital culture.
That said, I’m working with some collaborators on a completely distributed model for documenting digital art and criticism. I should also say that I think archiving and collecting are two different things; the former implies fixed documentation, while the latter requires a more variable approach to preservation.
DQ. How much of the curator Jon Ippolito can we find in The Unreliable Archivist?
JI. Hopefully none. A curator’s job is to nourish artists and safeguard their work. In The Unreliable Archivist, my job was to knock them off their pedestals.
DQ. In an interview you had with Liisa Ogburn in april, 2000, you make yourself a question: “What would it mean to adapt museum culture to net culture?” Can I make you the same question?
JI. It would mean complementing archivists with animateurs. Animateurs are those loony folks who re-enact historical moments, whether medieval jousting tournaments or the Wright brother’s first flight. One of Internet art’s first “historians”, Robbin Murphy, once suggested that thinking about animateurs might help us understand what’s missing in new media preservation, and I think he was right. We need this kind of person – for their anachronistic skills (whether it’s wielding a crossbow or Commodore), their interpretive fidelity (how do you cast Hamlet in a chat room?), and their enthusiasm for the process of re-creation.
DQ. As new media curator at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, you conceived the Variable Media Initiative. What’s the current state of the project?
JI. I was never alone in working on the idea; collaborators like Keith Frank and Rick Rinehart have contributed more to the idea of variable media, while folks at the Guggenheim and Langlois Foundation have done most of the heavy lifting. One of the most ambitious projects we’ve accomplished to date is a test of emulation, which is one of the most important tools in the animateur toolbox. In 2004 Caitlin Jones, Carol Stringari, Alain Depocas, and I organized Seeing Double, a Guggenheim exhibition that paired works still running on their original hardware – such as Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman’s Erl King from 1982 – with emulated versions running on completely different hardware. We did audience surveys and held a symposium to gauge the reaction of viewers to the digital doppelgangers we built in the gallery.
Along with innovations like Seeing Double, we continue to refine the variable media questionnaire, a tool for allowing artists and others to articulate their visions of how a work may – or may not – be re-created in a new medium once its current medium becomes obsolete. Although anyone can currently download the prototype just by requesting it, our latest thought is to get a Web version up so a broader audience can play with it.
DQ. How did artists react to the VMI?
JI. Almost without exception in our case studies to date, artists have reacted to the questionnaire with a serious and sustained imagining of how their work might unfold over time. Some had already devoted some thought about the future of their work; for others the experience was a revelation. In every case, as far as I can remember, there was at least one question the artist had never considered before.
I did get criticisms from a few artists who had no direct knowledge of the variable media paradigm. They had heard that we asked artists to give the museum permission to re-create works, and these critics figured it was just a way for museums to wrest control of the work away from the artist. Whereas in fact it is precisely the opposite – as the market’s influence on the ultimate fate of Dan Flavin’s light installations has made painfully clear.
DQ. The VMI began with a reflection on net art and its preservation, but it spread out as far as covering many other fields, and more traditional (or simply older) art practices. In this sense, can we say that net art can reach an invaluable role in the updating of museum engine?
JI. Absolutely. The hardest innovation for the museum to swallow is the network, for museums have historically been defined in the exact opposite terms (centrality, stasis, rarity, disconnection).
DQ. In “The Museum of the Future: A Contradiction in Terms?” you say: “… the most extreme departures from the material object, digital or otherwise, are ultimately the ones whose future depends on the very institution they were designed to render obsolete”. So, does net art need museums to survive? Do you see other possible solutions?
JI. Net art doesn’t need today’s museums – it needs what museums will morph into if they take up the challenge of adapting to the needs of an increasingly networked culture.
To be sure, my colleagues in the Variable Media Network and I have been exploring more distributed alternatives to documenting and preserving Internet creativity. But even the most net-native scheme requires someone somewhere who dedicates herself to keeping culture alive. More than technical knowledge, that person needs interpretive skills and a passion for preserving history undaunted by the many challenges in her way. Right now that person is most likely to be found in a museum.
DQ. I find the VMI very interesting, but I think it runs the risk of seeming something like an aggressive therapy. Looking at the questionnaire, and thinking about strategies like emulation, I can’t reject the idea that they are based on a question like: “How would you like to live when you’ll be dead?” What about this real risk?
JI. New media artworks die and are reborn constantly, with or without the variable media paradigm. Apartment, a networked piece by Martin Wattenberg, Marek Walczak, and Jonathan Feinberg, went through some 30-odd variations from 2000 to 2002 alone; it has been incarnated variously as a net-native piece, a single-user installation, and a dual-user installation.
While the artists are still kicking, they can direct the life cycles of their artworks. But before the artists themselves kick the bucket, they should have the option of entrusting others to supervise future re-incarnations of their work.
Your question implies the Variable Media Network could explore the possibility of resuscitating dead artists as well as artworks – definitely an option I hadn’t considered! Researchers like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil have proposed that we download our consciousnesses into hard drives for use with new bodies once our present ones disintegrate. The reason I find that suggestion so revolting is that I feel very much part of my body. Partly this is because all my experience is mediated by it; I might be writing different words now if I were a woman penning a manuscript in a monastery rather than a guy typing on a laptop in an airport. But the other reason I’ve grown attached to my body is that I’ve never been separated from it. This is not the case for digital artworks, whose bodies are swapped out for new parts all the time.
DQ. Today, the ‘love affair’ between contemporary art museums and net art seems to be in troubles. What about the future of this relationship?
JI. Sure, the relationship is on the rocks now. But there’s a groundswell of interest in Internet art on the part of graduate students in art history and museum studies departments. Things may change once this new generation gets a foothold in the museum world. But even then, these folks will bring a perspective on networked culture that’s different from geezers like me.
DQ. What are you doing now?
JI. I’m about to publish a book with Joline Blais called At the Edge of Art, which proposes a functional definition for art in the age of the Internet. We argue that the most creative work these days is coming out of scientific labs and online activism, and conversely that a lot of works in galleries – paintings, sculptures, installations – aren’t up to the new tasks that art must fulfill in the 21st century. The book is sure to piss off curators who assume Duchamp granted the power to define art to the white cube’s gatekeepers. But if Duchamp could be reincarnated as you suggest, I like to think he would have a good laugh at their expense.
Jon Ippolito – http://www.three.org/ippolito/
The Unreliable Archivist – http://www.three.org/z/UA/
Variable Media Initiative – http://variablemedia.net/
Seeing Double – http://variablemedia.net/e/seeingdouble/index.html
Interview with Oron Catts
[Una versione più breve, con traduzione italiana, di questa intervista è reperibile in Cluster. On Innovation, n. 4 (Biotech), pp. 158 – 163.]
Uno dei tanti effetti collaterali della pubblicazione, alla svolta del Millennio, della Bibbia di Lev Manovich è la trasformazione dell’espressione New Media, da relativa che era, in assoluta. Nuovi media = Media digitali. Personalmente, mi sento più vicino a coloro che sostengono l’opportunità di restituire all’espressione il suo carattere aperto e generico, perché credo che l’introduzione di un nuovo medium fra i linguaggi dell’arte sia all’origine di un duplice registro di conseguenze. Il primo registro si lega semplicemente al suo essere “nuovo”, ed è comune a tutti i nuovi media, dalla fotografia in poi: crisi e riconfigurazione dei media precedenti, crisi e ridefinizione dello statuto dell’opera d’arte, etc. Il secondo si lega alle caratteristiche specifiche del mezzo, ed è quello che differenzia una “rivoluzione mediale” dall’altra (e che fa dei media digitali il più rivoluzionario fra i nuovi media). Poi passano gli anni, la rivoluzione viene assorbita e l’arte ad essa contemporanea ne esce trasformata: ma non c’è dubbio che i primi anni siano i più divertenti: anni di sperimentazione, e per tutti gli attori in gioco; anni di scontri, di discussioni, di tentativi e fallimenti; anni di fondazione di nuove etiche e nuove estetiche.
Tutto ciò per dire che è interessante ritrovare, nell’arte biotech e nel dibattito critico che la accompagna, gli stessi luoghi comuni, gli stessi dubbi e gli stessi entusiasmi che hanno accompagnato la rivoluzione precedente. È arte? Dove va a finire l’opera? Deve prevalere il medium o il contenuto, lo sviluppo delle sue potenzialità o la critica delle sue ideologie?
Ne abbiamo parlato con Oron Catts, artista australiano, membro fondatore, con Ionat Zurr, del Tissue Culture & Art Project e direttore artistico di Symbiotica, un laboratorio di ricerca ospitato dalla University of Western Australia (UWA) e guidato da artisti all’interno di un dipartimento di scienze biologiche. Esempio unico nel suo genere, Symbiotica organizza residenze per artisti a cui offre l’opportunità di lavorare a fianco di ricercatori e scienziati nello sviluppo di un progetto.
Domenico Quaranta. Let’s start from the usual question: what do you think you’re doing, playing God?
Oron Catts. There are two ways to answer this question – one is that the concept of God is a human construct so actually the question can be read as “what do you think you’re doing, playing human?”
The second way of responding to such a question is that following its internal logic any form of manipulation of living systems is a form of playing God therefore this question can be directed to farmers, gardeners, chefs, people who are doing flower arrangement etc. In both cases you can see that this is not going to take us anywhere.
I believe that this type of response to our work stems from exactly the point that we are trying to raise through the work – that there is a immense discrepancy between our cultural perceptions of life and what can be done with life with the knowledge of modern biology and it’s application through biotechnology and biomedical research. This question can be relevant only as a starting point in the discussion in regard to the limits of manipulation of living systems by humans. However, using God as “a side” in this discussion is quite futile as no one seems to agree about who/what is his/her/its real representative down here.
DQ. Biotechnologies seem to answer the eternal dream of Pigmalion, to create works of art and give them life. Is every tissue engineer therefore an artist in this way?
OC. To be specific, tissue engineering is not about creating new life. It is, however, does transform life. Tissue engineering in the context of our work is about maintaining and prolonging the life of parts (i.e. fragments of the body), while removing them form their original context and transplanting them into a context of the semi-living. So unlike Pigmalion life is the starting point of our work.
It was the Tissue Culture & Art Project intention to grow semi-living sculptures, that do not necessarily conform to the original “natural” design of the body, and to sustain them alive for as long as possible outside and independent to the body (with the assistance of the techno-scientific body).
DQ. Do you engage biotechnologies as a tool or as a medium? How do they influence the content of your work?
OC. We are using tissue technologies both as a medium and as a subject matter. In general, the TC&A was set to explore the use of tissue technologies as a medium for artistic expression. We are investigating our relationships with the different gradients of life through the construction/growth of a new class of object/being – that of the Semi-Living. These evocative objects are a tangible example that brings into question deep rooted perceptions of life and identity, concept of self, and the position of the human in regard to other living beings and the environment. We are interested in the new discourses and new ethics/epistemologies that surround issues of partial life and the contestable future scenarios they are offering us.
We will be concerned about what might happen when the use of the medium of living tissue becomes less critical and self referential and will become a force of domesticating of the technology rather then a resisting force.
DQ. What exhibition criteria do you adopt when showing your projects to the public? To what extent are they conditioned by the context that they’re proposed in?
OC. As the presentation of living tissue sculptures is somewhat of a precedent we are experimenting with the aesthetic strategies we employ. We usually produce site specific installations based around the research projects we are working on and the context of the show. Whenever possible we try to maintain the semi-living sculptures alive for as long as we can. For that we construct a laboratory in the space. The laboratory fulfils two main conceptual purposes in addition to be the practical way to keep the semi-living. The conceptual purposes are to emphasis that our work is process based and to demonstrate the care that is needed to keep the semi-living. We make a point to tend to the needs of our semi-livings during gallery opening hours so the audience could witness the responsibilities we have once we transform life in such a way.
We try to strike a balance between presenting the technology needed to care for the semi-livings and the story we try to tell. The elements of the different installations contain many references to the history of partial life, as well as references to popular culture and art. We like our installations to be ambiguus, but in all projects we try to confront the viewer with an evocative experience that challenges his/hers perception life.
We are exhibiting in a wide variety of contexts; from exhibitions that their thematic is the biotech era to textile+ exhibition (our latest project titled: “Victimless Leather: A stitch-less jacket grown in a techno-scientific “Body”). We also presented our work in artistic, scientific, and other conferences. It is important for us to speak to a large and varied audience (rather than strictly artists or scientists).
We are asking what the context of the show is also to avoid falling into a trap of exhibitions that celebrates biotechnology, though we believe that the content of our work and the ambiguity and subtlety of our message can be interpreted in many ways. People who would like to understand more about our ideological/political views should read our academic papers.
DQ. All your projects can be read in various ways: as scientific experiments and complex narratives, as a process to be followed from beginning to end and as a path that leads to sculptures, even if semi-living. Which of these layers do you feel as yours?
OC. All of the above and more, we also deal with narratives surrounding species em, eugenics and the treatment of the other, but more then anything else our work is about life and it’s complexity. When we presenting our work in a context of an installation, the work should be experienced (rather than just read). We use different methods and techniques as times goes by and we are gaining more experience, though the bottom line is to have the multiplicity of narratives and discourses that are subtle and ambiguous. We would like the audience to form their own opinions (and love when they share it with us). We believe in complexity and look at “life” and/or “biotech” in a wider social/economical/political context that have many grades of shade rather than a black and white explanation. Our written publications are more “revealing” in an ideological and political sense.
DQ. What about the “killing ritual” that ends all your projects? What kind of rule does it have in the defining the whole sense of the work?
OC. During the exhibition of the living Semi-Living sculptures we are performing routinely the “Feeding Ritual” in which the audience can view when we feed and care for our sculptures. The most pronounced act of violence in the work of TC&A is that of the public release of the semi-living from the techno-scientific body by the end of the exhibition, this act results in the death of the tissue and is known as the killing ritual. TC&A durational installations usually culminate with that public action in which the organizers of the event as well as the wider community are invited to touch the exposed semi-living and by that hasten their death. The killing only takes place when we reach a point when no one can take care of the semi-living any longer, either because we could not stay around for the rest of the exhibition or when the exhibition ends and we can not take the semi-living with us. The killing ritual can be seen as either the ultimate pitiless act, as an essential show of compassion; euthanasia of a living being that has no one to care for it, or just returning it to the cultural accepted state of “a sticky mess of lifeless bits of meat”. It is important for us to be transparent in regard to the fate of the living art work in the end of the exhibition. It also interesting to note that in some occasions members of the public came to us after participating in the killing ritual and told us that only by killing the semi-living they believed that the work was actually alive.
DQ. SymbioticA is a unique example of the willingness that the scientific and academic world has towards artistic research. What caused it? Why in Australia? What does science ask in exchange from the artist?
OC. Here I should emphasis the distinction between The Tissue Culture & Art Project and SymbioticA. All of the answers above are to do with The Tissue Culture & Art Project (TC&A). TC&A was initiated by me in 1996, and Ionat Zurr joined me shortly after. It is an ongoing research and development project into issues of partial life and semi-livings. The Tissue Culture & Art Project members are Ionat Zurr and I (Guy Ben Ary was also a member from 1999 to 2003) who sometimes work collaboratively with other artists such as Stelarc.
SymbioticA, on the other hand, is a research laboratory dedicated to the exploration of scientific knowledge in general and biological technologies in particular, from an artistic perspective. It is located in The School of Anatomy & Human Biology at The University of Western Australia. SymbioticA is the first research laboratory of its kind, in that it enables artists to engage in wet biology practices in a biological science department.
The decision to set up SymbioticA was made after four years of residency of The Tissue Culture & Art Project (Ionat Zurr and Oron Catts) at the School of Anatomy & Human Biology in UWA for four years. When we realise that our project is ongoing and that it seems that other artists are starting to get interested in similar practices we decided to formalise the relationship with the university and be able to provide other artists access to the facilities in the school without going through the hassles that we had as artists in residence. The Tissue Culture and Art Project is now hosted by SymbioticA along side the other core research group – The SymbioticA Research Group and individual artists in residence.
A very important point in establishing SymbioticA was that it is an actual physical space that the visiting artists can call “home” and not be in a position of a guest.
When we were looking for support for the establishment of SymbioticA we received much more positive reaction from the science community then from the art community here in Perth. Now things are a bit different and it seems that a major part of the art community here is becoming very supportive while some of scientists that originally supported us seem to realize that their expectations of what SymbioticA will do were based on archaic and sometimes exploitative views of the role of contemporary arts.
SymbioticA was founded by Prof. Miranda D. Grounds, Dr. Stuart Bunt and myself – Oron Catts – in 2000.
The physical space called SymbioticA was completed in April 2000. It resulted from at least two years of trying to generate funds and to establish a frame work in regard to SymbioticA’s role and mode of operation. The beginning was quite humble with SymbioticA acting for its first year as a “studio” for two artists in residence and almost nothing else. During this year Ionat and I were in Boston so we could not play an active role in SymbioticA. It gave us the opportunity to reflect on the needs of future residents in SymbioticA and to develop more ambitious plans for the kind of activities SymbioticA should pursue.
When Ionat and I came back in April 2001 we started to implement our plans.
We formed the SymbioticA Research Group as a fluid and dynamic transdisciplinary made out of core researchers in SymbioticA and other interested people. We also started to develop the academic part of SymbioticA and together with Adam Zaretsky (who was our first international resident) offered a unit in Art and Biology for undergraduate students. Since we developed two more undergraduate elective courses and had a number of postgraduate students conducting their research in SymbioticA.
A growing number of artists (locally, nationally and internationally) have taken residencies here, from short and occasional visits to long term projects.
Just recently the Australia Council for the Arts announced their plan to establish an on going support for our residency program by offering (on a yearly basis) funds for Australian artist for six months residency in SymbioticA. In addition the amount of requests for residencies from international artists has being steadily growing.
All of these developments show that there is a growing and genuine interest in this kind of art and science collaborations and in particular in the area of life sciences. SymbioticA has proven that critical artistic engagement with scientific knowledge and technological applications is possible in an environment of collaborative research and within scientific institutions.
DQ. What does it mean, for an artist, to work in a team consisting of highly qualified scientists? How do imagination and research resign themselves in your laboratory? What’s in it for the author in the end?
OC. SymbioticA’s model for art and science collaboration is based on mutual respect of the differences between these two modes of practice while acknowledging areas of common interest. The residence are encourage to critically engage with the new sets of knowledge and their application, while getting involved hands on with the processes and techniques of science. The relationship between the new residents and the scientists they work with is initially that of mentorship. The residents develop the framework for their projects with consultation with SymbioticA staff and collaborating scientists and then go to learn the techniques needed for the fulfillment of their project. In no case the scientists are producing the work for the artists, and similarly, the artists do not work for the scientists. The long term residents (six months and longer) are being appointed as honorary research fellows in the school of Anatomy & Human Biology, which makes them equal in their position to the post Doc research fellows in the other research laboratories within the school.
Many of the artists are interested in problemetasing the knowledge and technologies they are engaged with, questioning the motivations, agendas and possible impact of these new developments. In most cases the research develops into the production of evocative cultural objects that brings into a wider context the ethical, philosophical and cultural ramification of scientific discovery and technological application.
Due to the fact that SymbioticA was a bottom up initiative that evolved organically, artists seems to have much more freedom and independence in the ways they choose to critique and present their findings. SymbioticA seems to operate very differently from most art and science initiatives in that it is not about creating public acceptance of new technologies and sets of knowledge but rather bring them into question.
Who is the author is not a simple answer when people are working together in a creative team. SymbioticA is encouraging collaborative work (with all its associated difficulties) with the belief that different people from different disciplines and indoctrinations who are open to each other differences and ethical sensitivities can create a meaningful project. However, we are aware of the limitations of such cross fertilization that might cause some cross contamination and in many cases we welcome that. We are not hiding the differences among the fields of Art and Science. We are also aware that in some instances these differences are important and should be emphasized. What I find interesting in many of the projects coming out of SymbioticA is multiplicities of narratives and concerns express through the one artistic object. This is true not only to the different scientific and artistic practitioners but even within artists working on the same project.
DQ. SymbioticA attracts artists from all over the world. How many projects has it produced so far? What are you working on at present?
OC. In SymbioticA, we are more interested in the critical research aspects, rather than the production of artworks. At the moment we have 11 artists in residence working on different projects (from bacteria, fungi and slime molds to mammalian tissue culture and eco-feminist science fiction writing and umbilical cord); we are running a course in Art & Life Manipulation and developing a Master by Coursework in Biological Arts. SymbioticA is also running workshops, and Ionat and I curate the SymbioticA BioDifferences Exhibition and conference as part of the Biennale of Electronic Arts Perth in September this year (www.beap.org).
Tissue Culture & Art Project – http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/
Symbiotica – http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/