INTERVIEW: Charlie Gere, Christiane Paul, Jemima Rellie, by Lauren Cornell

This text is republished in collaboration with Rhizome.org. It was released in two parts in Rhizome Digest, 06/20/07 and 6/27/07, and appears here as it was originally posted.

On March 20th of this year, a vast and promising new space opened in Gijon, Asturias: the LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre. Devoted to the ‘the exhibition, research, training and production of new art and industrial creation,’ LABoral opened with four exhibitions: GAMEWORLD, EXTENSIONS-ANCHORS, LABCYBERSPACE, and FEEDBACK—the latter of which was organized by Charlie Gere, Christiane Paul, and Jemima Rellie. The three curators bring a tremendous amount of experience to FEEDBACK, a show that is ambitious in both scale and premise. Charlie Gere is Reader in New Media Research in the Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster University & Chair of Computers and the History of Art (CHArt); Jemima Rellie is Head of Digital Programmes at the Tate; and Christiane Paul is Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art and director of Intelligent Agent. All have published widely on digital art and new media. Their exhibition breaks down established boundaries between disciplines to present a fresh perspective on art history, one that connects new media to artistic practices not usually seen as historical precursors. This interview was conducted via email after the exhibition opened.

LC: Your exhibition, FEEDBACK, casts a broad historical look at art that is responsive. It bridges categories that are often considered mutually exclusive by showing interconnections between software-based projects, net art, light works, early performance, and kinetic sculpture, amongst other forms. Could you discuss the themes of the exhibition and how you arrived at the exhibition title FEEDBACK?

CP: A main goal of the exhibition is to map out precisely the connections you mention above, between early performance, kinetic and op art, algorithmic software-based projects, etc. FEEDBACK focuses on two major themes relating to ‘responsive’ art. One theme traces the concept of feedback from ‘algorithmic’ art based on instructions (from natural language, e.g. Sol LeWitt, to code, e.g. Casey Reas) to art that sets up open systems (reacting to outside inputs or its own) and global connections. The second theme explores the concept of light and the moving image from early kinetic and Op Art to responsive notions of television and cinema.

The term ‘responsive art’ obviously covers a broad spectrum and, given the various themes we are covering, we wanted the exhibition to remain as focused as possible. The term ‘feedback’ goes beyond responsiveness, per se, since it means that the system is in turn changed by the output or response it produces. The works in the exhibition range from self-sustaining objects that rely on a closed system of feedback to systems with varying degrees of openness that receive input from instructions, the viewer, their environment, or information networks.

JR: We adopted the ‘feedback’ theme to illustrate the connection between new media and art history, as the term is not only descriptive of much new media art practice but also indicates how new media art is distinct from traditional painting, sculpture, and even photography, film, and video work. So we needed a term that was not media-specific. There are, of course, other terms or even qualities that we could have equally exploited to this effect, including for instance interactivity, non-linearity, or even participatoryness, but we felt that feedback was preferable because it is less loaded as an art-historical term and more importantly, it is more suggestive of the central tenet of the exhibition, that these earlier works have influenced new media art practice today.

LC: Jemima, you discuss in your essay how technology-based art is often marginalized or written out of art history. For this show, you construct a powerful argument that uses the concept of feedback to chart a new course through art history. Can you explain the art historical context you have carved-out for the show and what, if any, historical connections do you find most important or revealing? For instance, you discuss the relationship between instructions in Dada to generative and software-based art, or between Kinetic Art and cinema.

JR: A core objective of the exhibition is to demonstrate that new media art has a much longer history than is, at times, assumed. New media art did not emerge out of nowhere at the turn of the century, but rather its roots can be traced back to works created decades earlier, for instance Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator (1930). In the exhibition we were keen to show that the earlier artists, such as Moholy-Nagy, were often interested in the same issues and opportunities for art that new media artists engage with today, in order to dispel the false notion that new media art somehow sits outside of modern art history.

CG: Art history always involves choices about what to remember and what to forget, choices made in retrospect and designed to simplify the complexity of art practice at any given period and to make it fit a particular narrative. The history of art concerning the 1960s and 70s seems to involve a massive disavowal of the importance of technology and technological utopianism in that period, which was strongly bound up with cybernetics and systems thinking. The recent show at Tate Modern, Open Systems c. 1970, was exemplary of this partial amnesia, as it seemed to suggest that the art being made in that period was mainly minimalist and conceptual, while leaving out exactly the works most directly and explicitly concerned with systems (which had a particular and specific meaning at the time in relation to technological discourses such as cybernetics). FEEDBACK is, to my mind, a directly polemical show intending to recover a forgotten heritage and in doing so show firstly the richer and more complex sets of influences at work then, and also the importance of technology for artists in the period, which, in turn, looks increasingly relevant to our current circumstances.

CP: One of the art-historical lineages we are tracing in the show is a move from instruction-based, generative, and conceptual art to telematics and networks. FEEDBACK reflects on various models of open systems and their inherent characteristics. Instructions and rules as a basis for creating art were an important element of art movements such as Dada, Fluxus, and conceptual art, which all incorporated variations of formal instructions as well as a focus on concept, event, and audience participation as opposed to art as a unified object. This emphasis on instructions connects to the algorithms that form the basis of any software and computer operation. Instruction-based practice is closely related to contemporary generative art in which a process, such as software, a machine, or a procedural invention, is set into motion to create a work of art. FEEDBACK explores generative art in two related threads that connect ‘machine-driven drawing,’ from Roman Verostko to 5voltcore, with biological systems and artificial life and intelligence (for example, Harold Cohen’s Aaron or Sommerer & Mignonneau’s LifeWriter).

Another art-historical lineage we are sketching is the one between kinetic and op art works that employ motion, light, optics, and interaction for the creation of abstract moving images; video pieces based on input from the audience or the environment; and contemporary cinematic pieces that react to the viewer or construct a movie in real time on the basis of software or data from the internet. Mapping out this territory was important to us for two reasons: first of all, as Charlie says, these connections are often neglected or forgotten in the process of writing art history; secondly, the connections are frequently made within the new media field, at conferences, in writings, in discourse on mailing lists but, at the same time, nobody has actually seen the works physically together in the same exhibition space. At the opening, many people came to us saying that it was great for them to actually see Moholy-Nagy and the Sinas next to Herwig Weiser and Amorphic Robotworks, next to a Tinguely sculpture, etc.

LC: How do you distinguish interactivity from feedback, in this case?

JR: The two terms overlap, but interactivity suggests to me that a high level of active audience participation is involved, whereas in fact much of the work in FEEDBACK is actually responding to the environment, or the system itself, and does not demand human intervention for full effect. Furthermore, whereas the term ‘interactivity’ focuses closely on an object-level process under consideration, I would suggest that feedback can connote a relationship that extends beyond the work in question to the practice as a whole.

CP: I would agree with Jemima that interactivity is usually understood in relation to human interaction, although people occasionally use the term ‘system interaction’ to refer to works that interact with themselves. Feedback is a broader term referring to the process by which a system is modulated, controlled, or changed by the output or response it produces. Of course feedback also is a commonly used term for an evaluative response and the return of information about the result of an activity, and we wanted to include this meaning. On a more metaphorical level, the projects assembled in the exhibition function as a response to each other, returning information about their context to the viewer.

LC: In 2007, there is still so much debate about terms like ‘new media art’ and ‘digital art’ in regards to whether they are still relevant or useful. As a goal of this show is to contextualize what we call new media art in a broader trajectory, I wonder what you make of these classifications.

JR: I think we all agree that both of these classifications are fundamentally problematic, and I don’t think it is necessary to rehearse all the reasons why to the Rhizome community. But even though they are clunky terms that are difficult to define precisely, they do, I believe, still hold value in that they allow us to point to and discuss a broad and diverse practice that has traditionally been excluded from mainstream art history.

The argument that says that these terms are now defunct and that all contemporary art is now new media art, as it inevitably all now involves new technologies in its production and/or dissemination, is spurious I believe. What this ignores is that there remains something quite distinct about new media art, which fundamentally challenges the established art world infrastructure in both concept and production. This challenge does not simply stem from the media employed in the works, but more importantly from the issues and values they raise.

CP: I very much agree with Jemima. Digital or new media art are certainly problematic terms, and there have been discussions—on the lists, at conferences, and in other contexts—about their shortcomings for years. Art that uses digital technologies as a tool for producing a photograph, video, or even painting, which is the case for a lot of contemporary art, tends to be better understood than art that uses these technologies as a medium, making use of its inherent characteristics—its participatory, networked, non-linear, modular, generative nature. As long as we do not understand the language of new media as we understand the language of painting and video, this art form will not be integrated in the traditional art world. By contextualizing new media art within a broader trajectory FEEDBACK tries to explore at least some of the aspects of the aesthetic language of the digital medium as it relates to more traditional art.

LC: FEEDBACK is the inaugural exhibition of LABoral. When you organized the show, how did you take into consideration the institution’s premier and its local context?

CP: We started discussions about the show with the LABoral art centre, its director Rosina Gomez-Baeza, and people from the local government approximately a year before the show opened. Inaugural shows obviously make a statement regarding the mission of an institution, and the exhibition was meant to capture an intersection of art and technology. We all agreed that it would be important to communicate that the LABoral art centre is not simply devoted to the latest technological trends but acknowledges the histories of the intersections between art, technology, and industry. From its inception, LABoral very much tried to bring in and involve local artists and there were several inaugural events doing so, among them the one organized by Eyebeam. From the beginning, FEEDBACK was meant to be a more internationally- than locally-focused show, establishing a broader context.

JR: LABoral sits on a university campus, in an industrial part of Northern Spain. This context—which is reflected in the center’s focus on ‘Art and Industrial Creation’—allowed us, I would suggest, to present our arguments more forcefully, or straightforwardly perhaps, than if we were for instance exhibiting in a regular regional fine art museum. The focus of the center meant that we could assume that visitors to FEEDBACK would expect to find art works employing new technologies. Indeed, if anything, I think the challenge was to present these works as we would any other artworks, in any other art museum—i.e. to ensure the same quality of experience, of presentation, of interpretation etc as you would find for instance at Tate.

Of course we were particularly keen to include some Spanish artists in the exhibition (Antoni Muntadas and Boj & Diaz), but we were not required to edit our selection in order to promote local artists. These local artists were targeted in an accompanying inaugural program called Extensions-Anchors.

LC: As you mention, LABoral is a space devoted to art, technology, and industry. You took a very diverse, interdisciplinary approach to art and technology. What do you think the challenges and advantages are to opening up a space that focuses on a particular area of contemporary art?

CP: In terms of the exhibition, it was important to us to show the long history of intersections between art and technology. Art has always reflected the conditions of its time; as societies became increasingly technologized during the 20th century (although connections between art, technology, and science are obviously much older), art also more and more incorporated and/or commented on the effects of technologies. Both from an art-historical and aesthetic point of view, these developments remain underexamined, so that a space devoted to art, technology, and industry makes sense and is very much needed. The challenges are to avoid a focus on technology, per se, driven by the interests of the industry, and to ensure that so-called new media art does not remain marginalized with regard to the art world at large.

JR: The danger is that the work in focus is somehow ghettoized and perceived to be outside of mainstream art practice. The advantage is that sustained attention is given to what it is that makes this work distinct from mainstream practice, or special. The challenge is to encourage visitors to the space to value this difference within the broader context of contemporary art.

LC: The works in this show are very diverse and, as you eloquently put it Christiane, the notion of feedback is ‘the tissue’ that binds them. I really enjoy seeing Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Jean Tinguely, and Casey Reas all blended together. How did you determine the selection? And, how did you handle the installation at LABoral, which has such a large exhibition space?

JR: We all put forward the names of artists and individual works that we felt resonated particularly strongly with the central feedback theme, and grouped these according to a series of sub-themes, before making our final selection. Of course there are hundreds of additional works that we would have liked to include, but could not due to logistical reasons – and even space! In order to balance the budget and space available to us, we did deliberately select several large-scale works, such as Marie Sester’s Threatbox.us http://threatbox.us/, (2007) and David Rokeby’s n-Cha(n)t (2001), but these were complemented by smaller-scale works of equal impact including Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963) or Alejandro & Moira Sina’s Spinning Shaft (1983). The folded map set devised by the architects, Leeser Architecture, ensured that all these works of varying scale and media are held together and that a coherent experience is sustained when navigating the huge halls.

CP: As Jemima says, it was clear to us that we wouldn’t be able to do an inclusive historical survey featuring hundreds of works. Surveys of themes surfacing in this show, such as telematics or algorithmic art, have already been shown at other institutions (Algorithmic Revolution at ZKM, in 2004, or Telematic Connections-The Virtual Embrace, 2001, a traveling exhibition curated by Steve Dietz). We decided to create a fairly tight narrative by bringing together international works representing key aspects of the aforementioned themes throughout time. Our goal was to create a network of connections that critically explores the role of responsiveness in relation to technologies and how the latter have changed cultural life and the social fabric. The works in the exhibition are not presented in chronological order but form certain thematic nodes that branch or connect to other sub-themes. Projects are often presented as pairs, highlighting the realization of a similar idea at different points in time.

The massive scale of the exhibition spaces at LABoral was indeed a challenge for us; artworks can easily get lost in the vast galleries. We worked with Leeser architecture to both ‘reduce’ the space and develop a design that would connect all the various strands of the exhibition. They came up with the idea of a Situationist map that is dropped into the exhibition spaces and folds to create walls and pedestals for the placement of work. The exhibition design becomes both a backdrop and a work in itself and seemed to be particularly appropriate in that it connects to Situationist notions of constructing situations (in public space). It adds another layer of art-historical connections since Situationist concepts have been an important influence on practices of mapping in new media—and locative, mobile media, in particular.

LC: Participatory culture, sociable media, and Web 2.0 are hotly debated ways to describe the shape of contemporary web- and mobile-based media and the social formations they engender. In this context, artists are emerging less as creators of individual works but more, as Trebor Scholz has put it, as “cultural context producers.” How do you think this notion of feedback can be connected to these emerging forms of artistic practice?

CG: There is an absolutely clear historical connection between current conceptions of participatory media and earlier forms of art involving feedback, interactivity, and other cybernetic ideas as well as with cognate concerns about systems, ecology, and so on. In a sense, those using the capabilities of Web 2.0 are involved in practices whose roots can be traced back to John Cage, Fluxus, Alan Kaprow, Telematics, work involving slow-scan and closed-circuit TV, and practices that fed into the thinking that enabled the shift in digital technology from being concerned with batch processing to being about real-time symbol manipulation. Trebor’s concept of artists less as creators of individual works and more as ‘cultural context providers’ is very close to the reconception of the role of art in relation to cybernetics undertaken by Jack Burnham in the late 60s and early 70s. Without the influence of cybernetics on the artistic culture of the late 60s and that culture’s influence on how computers might be understood and used, there would be no Web 2.0, at least as it is presently constituted. That said there are important differences between the work of artists in that period and what is being done with participatory media. One of the most important differences, to my mind, is that in the earlier period artists rushed to embrace the technological possibilities of the technology, whereas now they are more concerned with making critiques of the technological claims made for these networks.

JR: The importance of collaboration in the creation of new media art has been regularly debated and endorsed since the launch of Rhizome, but I think this concept is being pushed still further in recent works like Boj & Diaz’s Free Network, Visible Network (2004)—included in the exhibition—or, for instance, Furtherfield’s VisitorsStudio (2003), or Simon Pope’s Charade (2006), all of which, I assume, are the sorts of work to which you refer in your question. In these works the collaboration is less tightly-controlled or directed by the artist/instigator, and the success of the project rests more firmly with the level of engagement… or participation… or feedback that the work attracts from the wider public. So I think the notion of feedback is particularly strong in relation to these works, which essentially fail, or remain empty, in a practical if not conceptual sense, when little feedback is generated.

CP: I very much agree, and I think the shift from artists as content providers (a dubious dot-com buzzword) to context providers is one of the main characteristics of the digital medium. Together with Margot Lovejoy and Victoria Vesna, I have been editing a book titled “Context Providers—Context and Meaning in Media Arts” that explores these issues. I believe that the commercial construct of Web 2.0, with its social networking tools, has created a new, contemporary version of users as ‘content providers’ who fill ‘corporate’ contextual interfaces with data and sign off the rights for them. It’s interesting to see this new iteration of the content provider, which takes the notion of the artist as content provider for commercial tools and applications in the 90s to another level.

LC: As we’ve discussed, FEEDBACK illuminates a broader history for new media art, or art that engages technology. What are the current directions you see the field moving towards?

JR: Technology is involved at some stage in the production of most art today, so it is possible to argue that new media art is becoming synonymous with contemporary art. Artists, curators, and the public in general are all increasingly techno-literate and comfortable, I would argue, with using technology not simply as a tool, but also as a medium for art. But art that engages technology is a very imprecise and broad discipline, and some technology-based art is inevitably more innovative, challenging, and engaging than the rest. The work that I personally find most interesting, now, is work that somehow addresses, or incorporates recent technology developments classified under the banner of Web 2.0. By this I am referring to work which is either actively reliant on massive audience participation, or on the manipulation of large quantities of data. I am particularly intrigued by the potential copyright and pro-am implications of this practice on established, mainstream art structures.

CP: New media art is such a hybrid field that it is impossible to identify *a* direction in which it is moving. By nature, it develops in multiple directions. But, as Jemima indicates, there certainly is an increased interest in and focus on social networking and mobile locative media at this time. It will be interesting to see if the corporate construct of Web 2.0will be balanced by more user-driven, open source alternatives of ‘social softwares.’

+ http://www.laboralcentrodearte.org/feedback/index_001.html

+ Lauren Cornell is Executive Director of Rhizome.