• Interview

  • September 1st, 2014 09.01.2014

    Profile of the Curator: Christiane Paul


    Christiane Paul is Associate Professor in the School of Media Studies at The New School and Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum. Her most recent books include Context Providers, New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, and Digital Art. At the Whitney Museum, Paul has curated exhibitions including Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools and is responsible for artport, a website devoted to Internet art. Other curatorial work includes The Public Private, Eduardo Kac: Biotopes, Lagoglyphs and Transgenic Works, and Feedforward – The Angel of History. We sat down to speak about the use of interactivity in art today, changes in the perception of the three-dimensional experience, and the misconception that the rapid speed of technological development means that variable media artworks are more likely to disappear.

    Dominique Moulon: Do you think that the use of digital technologies in art is suitable to the rereading or reactivation of historical practices?

    Christiane Paul: Absolutely. Every “new” medium invites us to rethink the ones that came before it—photography, for example, changed painting and, as is commonly argued, “liberated” it from representation and opened it to abstraction. Digital art reactivates several art-historical lineages, such as those related to conceptual, instruction-based, and generative art; cinematic and immersive techniques, Op art, light art and kinetic art; as well as participatory art forms. Software art reactivates art based on instructions or rule sets—be they natural language or actual computer code—that can be traced from early examples in crafts and Dada, as well as the conceptual works of artists such as Sol Le Witt, to the Fluxus movement in the 1960s. The media-archeological impulse in digital art, meaning the renewed interest in and reflection on early experiments with immersive (projection) environments or early mechanisms for creating image loops, such as the zoetrope, testifies to these possibilities of reactivation.

    DM: Is the issue of interactivity, in art, still relevant today?

    CP: Yes. On one level, interactivity is an overused and ultimately meaningless term by now, since there is so many different possibilities and layers of interaction that need to be carefully analyzed in artistic practice. On another level, it is productive to think about interactivity in the broader context of participation and response. Myron Krueger started writing about and investigating response as a medium in the 1970s. Over the past decade, contemporary art has increasingly been shaped by concepts of participation, collaboration, social connectivity, performativity, and “relational” aspects. One could argue that the participatory, “socially networked” art projects of the past fifteen years that have received considerable attention by art institutions all respond to contemporary culture, which is shaped by networked digital technologies and “social media” and the changes they have brought about. However, art that uses these technologies as a medium still remains conspicuously absent from major exhibitions in the mainstream art world.

    DM: Are digitally controlled prototyping processes, among other emerging technologies, likely to renew sculpture?

    CP: Digital technologies have introduced significant shifts in the creation of sculpture and consequently the understanding of the sculptural act and the concept of sculptures themselves. Various stages of the creation and production of sculptural objects, from initial design to manufacturing, now involve digital technologies. To determine the date (or even year) of birth of an artistic technique is always a problematic if not futile endeavor, but it might be safe to say that the 1990s were the decade when “digital sculpture” officially began to exist, even if it had its roots in earlier experiments. The new digital tools for modeling and output have broadened creative possibilities for sculptors and changed the construction and perception of three-dimensional experience. While machines and industrial manufacturing have been used in the process of creating sculptures for a long time, digital technologies add a layer of data abstraction that brings new qualities to mechanical production. Digital media translate the notion of three-dimensional space into the virtual realm and thus open up new dimensions for relations between form and space. Tangibility, which has been a major characteristic of the concept and creation process of sculpture, isn’t necessarily a defining quality of the creative process or even presentation any more. Scaling operations, proportional shifts, eccentric vantage points, morphing processes, and 3D montage are some of the techniques employed in the realm of digital sculpture.

    DM: Isn’t the use of digital media particularly adapted to the practices located at the crossroads of art and politics?

    CP: Yes, I believe so. The infrastructure of most societies today is deeply affected or even shaped by digital technologies, and digital media art seems to be the art form that is best equipped to reflect on intersections between art and politics. Ideally, today’s media landscape could function as a way of measuring the political, economic, and social disturbances in our societies’ structures, thereby helping us to find a basis for action. Then again, media themselves can be seen as a disturbance of reality, being able to technologically record, refocus, edit and replay the world surrounding us and, in the process, both perturbing and reflecting upon it. Digital technologies, from computers to the Internet, are inextricably tied to the military-industrial-entertainment complex, and many new media works critically engage with this circumstance. This is not to say that the problematic aspects of the history of technological progress make new media art inherently tainted or flawed. One could argue that media art offers an ideal space for exploring the condition of media and its complex structures. As many media theorists have argued, any form of critical engagement with or intervention in the media has itself to employ media.

    DM: Should we get used to the idea that variable media artworks are quite likely to disappear more quickly than other kinds of artworks?

    CP: No! I think it would be a very bad move to get used to that idea. Granted, the rapid speed of technological development and continuous changes in software and hardware put (digital) media artworks at considerable risk. At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that all kinds of analog artworks are also highly ephemeral and threatened by disintegration (at the risk of simplifying the issue, bits and bytes per se are ultimately more stable than paint). Art institutions are committed to preserving these works and put money and effort into doing just that all the time. The big problem is that these institutions do not collect media artworks as consistently as more traditional art forms, and therefore there is no commitment and money to preserve the works. We need to get media artworks into collections to ensure their future or create organizations that are devoted to preserving them. The book Re-Collection – Art, New Media and Social Memory by Jon Ippolito and Rick Rinehart makes a great argument for the changes that need to occur in cultural preservation in order to create a historical record for new media art.

    DM: Does the crossover of the digital medium, moving from art to business, make it a little suspicious in the art world?

    CP: I don’t think that the blurry boundaries between art and business or commerce are what make the digital medium suspicious to the art world. First of all, the art world itself also is a business and infused by a hefty dose of commercialism. Technological media always cross the boundaries between artistic and commercial practice or art and entertainment: photography, film, video, digital media—they all can be used for the creation of artworks or commercial and entertainment products. I think the art world’s suspicions about the digital medium are more rooted in the ways in which it challenges existing art world structures.

    DM: What do you think about the attitude of the artists who, once exposed in art galleries, become more rare in digital art events where they originally came from?

    CP: Ultimately all artists want their work to be considered as Art (with a capital A), no matter in which medium they work, and all forms of media and artistic practices should be part of the dialogue within the contemporary art world. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t space and a need for medium-specific investigation and specialized events, be they devoted to photography or the digital medium. Unfortunately many artists still fear that being part of or returning to events devoted specifically to digital practices might hurt their acknowledgement and acceptance in the mainstream art world. These fears aren’t necessarily unfounded since many of the digital events do not have the “stamp of approval” of the art world.

    DM: Must digital practices inevitably adapt to the presentation conditions of the white cube in order to enter the art institutions?

    CP: No. Museums, galleries, and the art world have long been oriented mostly toward objects and have configured themselves to accommodate the presentation of static artworks in the modernist white cube. Digital practices require that museums and galleries expand their customary methods of presentation and documentation, as well as their approach to collection and preservation. I believe that changes in the art world’s infrastructure are already under way and that institutions are becoming a bit more flexible in accommodating time-based, dynamic, participatory, customizable, and variable art forms in their presentation formats. Since digital practices are deeply interwoven into our information society, they will always transcend the boundaries of the museum and gallery and create new spaces for art. Art institutions also have to configure themselves as nodes in a network of spaces in which digital practices take place.