• Interview

  • November 25th, 2013 11.25.2013

    Bitforms: In Conversation with Steve Sacks


    In 2001, Steven Sacks founded Bitforms gallery in New York, on 20th street in Chelsea. Since then, Sacks continues to explore new media territories, participating in some of the largest contemporary art events around the world.

    Dominique Moulon: Is the reemergence of kinetic and optical artworks on the art scene favorable to the entry of artists like Daniel Rozin on the market?

    Steve Sacks: Kinetic art has been around for a long time, so the difference, especially since I opened my gallery, has been the introduction of the computer that has merged with the idea of kinetic movement. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Daniel Rozin, Björn Schülke, U-Ram Choe, a Korean artist, just to name a few, have basically created works, and some of them are clearly interactive, which again goes beyond the idea of kinetic. Some of them actually have the ability to really take on a life of their own – an identity. It is the evolution of kinetic art. The fact that kinetic art has a history is only helping the newer artists today, and the newer works that they have created. The concept is always important. The difference is the idea that these pieces have the ability to react, to think, and to generate in very different ways.

    DM: Does your work consist of encouraging artists like Zimou to move away from the world of residencies and festivals to help them enter the art market?

    SS: I actually tell most of my artists to stay away from the festivals, unless it is a very specific kind of work that is meant to be presented in that type of venue. For example, Ars Electronica is interesting, because you can discover talent. But overall, the art world has different rules, a different agenda; different criteria for succeeding.

    DM: Are contemporary art fairs like Basel absolutely necessary?

    SS: Art fairs are a huge part of every art gallery’s business today. It helps that I am located in New York, because obviously you have people coming through New York looking at works, collectors, curators, etc. But without the art fairs, it would be very difficult to sustain a business. Maybe if you were a huge gallery, but most galleries are not huge, and even then they still attend. There’s a handful of Zwirners and Gagosians out there, but the ability to reach thousands of people who are interested in art in a 3 or 4 days period is unprecedented, and you can’t do it in any other way.

    DM: Do you address institutions and companies more than private collectors when showcasing artists like Rafael Lozano-Hemmer well-known for their large scale installations in public spaces?

    SS: Zimoun is another example. When I started working with Zimoun, I told him to stay away from making small objects. His path for success is more about immersive, large-scale installations, and that’s what will eventually drive smaller objects that could be presented to private collectors. So it depends on the artwork that the artist is working on. Rafael is, of course, very well known for large-scale public works, but again, as you can see, just like the most famous pair ever, Christo & Jeanne-Claude, they only did huge public works, but they wound up making these intimate pieces to help support them, drawings and other things. So, there is always a way, if the artist has the ability, to make more intimate interpretations of these public pieces.

    DM: Is it harder to sell printed artworks, potentially multiple, like those by Manfred Mohr, than photography?

    SS: Manfred Mohr is an interesting case. Almost all of his early plotter drawings are unique – they are not multiples, nor editions. One of the reasons he’ll get sent to Basel, Switzerland, is because Manfred started off very early tapping into, and utilizing the computer as an artistic tool. At the time, there were no high-resolution, beautiful monitors where he could show anything that was active or moving. So his way of presenting his works, which were very “new media” at the time, were to do these individual plotter prints. I think they’re very valuable, very important, and as time goes on, will be really studied as some of the earlier works devoted to computational or new media works that were being developed in the 1970s.

    DM: Is the possible obsoleteness of an artwork, when a lot of art pieces are very fragile, still problematic?

    SS: Obsolescence, maintenance, and preservation, these are huge issues for contemporary digital media. Again, every artist’s work is different. Such as with Daniel Rozin’s mechanical pieces, clearly, there are two issues: one is the idea of just maintaining mechanical pieces, and then because there is some kind of computational element in terms of interpreting the image, that also has to be maintained over time. So I think some of these works are meant to die, and they disappear, and that’s OK. For a lot of these works, it’s the responsibility of the collector, whether it’s a museum or an individual, to make sure the gallery is presenting them with enough information to preserve the work. It is the same controversial issue of emulation, in terms of how things will be recreated in the future. For example, Nam June Paik’s work was problematic because he used a TV as the main component of his sculpture, which also played the video.  When that TV, which is no longer being manufactured, had disappeared, it was a clear problem. In terms of solving the problem, either you let that work die, and you let it exist in the form of documentation, or the artist can give you certain direction as how to emulate the work in a future piece, or iteration of that work.

    DM: You opened your gallery in 2001. How, in your opinion, has the market evolved with regard to emerging artistic practices that include technologies?

    SS: That’s why I opened the gallery, because at the time when I was researching what I was going to do, there were a handful of exhibitions that were very important. There was Bitstreams at the Whitney, there was 010101 at SFMOMA and there was even one that was devoted to digital printmaking at the Brooklyn Museum. So all three of these things were happening almost at the same time, and I saw a need to open a more commercial gallery that would be devoted to studying different areas of new media, from historically significant works all the way to younger, more experimental work. In 2001, 2002, 2003, (of course, it is always complicated when you do anything new), but media art in general was not as accepted. Also, the art fair system started really ramping up and becoming much more necessary, probably in 2004, 2005, and now it has exploded. So that part of the business model, the integration of the art fairs, has changed drastically. It is necessary to be involved.

    DM: Don’t you feel as though, in a world that is constantly digitalizing, that we are living in a time of a return to the presence of objects in art?

    SS: Overall, for artists working with media, not all of them were necessarily great artists. I think maybe they were good at certain skills, dealing with new media, but I try to focus on artists where concept is most important, and they also have some type of skill to put it all together and execute a presentation that is supporting the idea at a very high level. I’ve always been a believer in combining the object with media. Of course, if it’s just a straight single-channel video, I can like that as well, but I definitely look for artists who are merging different worlds.

    DM: Historical galleries like Denise René’s in Paris are finally beginning to show an interest in digital practices whereas more recent galleries are starting to pull away from it. What do you think about it?

    SS: For me, as a gallery that focuses on new media, I’m happy to see that more galleries are integrating these artists into their program, because it only shows that there is demand, and there is interest. If I were the only gallery doing this, I probably would be out of business. Galleries like Denise René were obviously dealing with kinetic works, minimalist and conceptual artists very early, which is why I was very happy when they were working with Zimoun, because I offer much different things for Zimoun than they can. It’s a nice combination of galleries. It is important that media art currently enters both historically significant galleries and young, emerging galleries.

    Interview by Dominique Moulon for digitalmcd.com and translated by Valérie Vivancos.