Interview: Curt Cloninger

Curt Cloninger
US artist

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biography

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Interview: 10 Questions

1.
Question
Since a reasonable time, digital media entered the field of art and extended the traditional definition of art through some new, but very essential components. Do you think it is like that and if yes, tell me more about these components and how they changed the perception of art?

Answer
“Digital Media” is a very broad and somewhat vague term. I think certain forms of generative software programming extend art, but Sol LeWitt’s instructional drawings and certain 20th century composers were already “programming” without using computers. You don’t need a computer to program. You just need someone or something to execute a set of instructions. From a synesthetic perspective, it becomes important that all digital media (visuals, audio, code) are reduced to binary instructions. Then you can begin to map the output of one medium (the blue color signal from a video, for instance) to the input of another medium (the frequency of an audio tone, for instance). You can give the color blue a voice. Computers let you do this in real-time. This ability to abstract sensory data from the world, cross-pollinate it, and then output it back into the world instantaneously has promising implications for art.

In 1990, John Cage warned: “There’s so much button pushing now, and the results are so spectacular that there’s a temptation, which I hope is avoided, of just taking what the technology gives and not doing anything with it.” The new tools themselves do suggest new paths of conceptual inquiry (phenomenological perception, identity modulation, telepresence, or whatever), but the artist still has to figure out what the tools are good for. In a way, this forces “digital” art to be more “conceptual” and less “aesthetic,” since anybody with the right equipment can tweak some knobs and produce something fairly beautiful. So one of the artist’s main jobs is to construct the context in which the beauty is received (since machines cannot manufacture their own cultural context).

2.
Question
A relevant section of digital art represents Internet based art. The Internet was hardly existing, but artists conquered already this new field for their artistic activities. Can the work of these early artists be compared with those who work with advanced technologies nowadays? What changed until these days? What might be the perspectives for future developments?

Answer
In general, early net artists were more concerned with code than contemporary net artists (this is an oversimplification). Contemporary net artists have a lot of online tools, templates, and content already developed for them, so they can afford to be less concerned with code and content production. Early net artists generally dealt with online media at a “deep” level. They got under the hood, behind the interface, and tweaked and parsed at a more root/rudimentary level. Contemporary net artists generally deal with online media at a “surface” level. They spend more time finding and recontextualizing readymade media.

Compare an early net art piece like Mark Napier’s “Shredder” ( http://potatoland.org/shredder/ ) with a contemporary net art piece like Oliver Laric’s “50/50” ( http://oliverlaric.com/5050.htm ). Both pieces “remix” online media, but Napier’s remix happens at a deep level. He’s under the hood of the browser itself. Laric’s piece happens at a surface level. It’s really a video piece. It need not be viewed online. It qualifies as net art simply because it takes its content from youTube and conceptually examines youTube culture. It is art “about” net culture.

When I say “deep” and “shallow,” I don’t mean that one is better and the other worse. I’m just describing a level of technical engagement. Both of the above pieces are conceptual, and both pieces are formal. By engaging at a deep level, Napier’s piece conceptually problematizes the myth of “form vs. content.” By engaging at a shallow level, Laric’s piece conceptually problematizes the myth of “unique identity via subculture participation.” The concepts are different, and the formal aesthetics are different; but that doesn’t mean that one piece is completely conceptual and the other piece is completely formal. They are just technically engaging with the media at different levels. Different methods of artistic production lead to different conceptual and aesthetic outcomes.

Again, this is a historical (over)generalization. There were early net artists who engaged with online media on a shallow level, and there are contemporary net artists who engage with online media on a deep level.

3.
Question
The education in the field of New Media art, including Internet based art, started late compared with the general speed of technological development and acceptance. So, generations of artists who used the Internet as their artistic working field were not educated in this new discipline(s) and technologies, but had rather an interdisciplinary approach. What do you think, would be the best way to teach young people how to deal with the Internet as an environment of art?

Answer
I have been teaching this internet art course ( http://lab404.com/330 ) every year since 2003. My students come into the class with video, animation, and interactive production skills; but not much contemporary art history knowledge. Initially, it is challenging for them to wrap their heads around conceptual and tactical net art. But once they get it, the projects they make can be very ingenious, often due to the fact that they have technical production skills. But I’ve seen some very good work that didn’t rely at all on difficult technology, and some very bad work that was technically savvy but conceptually weak.

All that to say, there is probably no formulaic approach for teaching net art. There is some ingenious net art currently being made by BFA and MFA students who don’t consider themselves “new media artists,” and don’t have a lot of technical craft skills. But they do have a useful understanding of contemporary art history, and they have an intuitive understanding of the network from using it as cultural consumers. So they are able to get in and wreck things in provocative ways without sweating the technical details. That said, there is part of me that wonders how much more interesting their art might be if they did have better craft skills. I think my ideal net art student might be someone simultaneously reading the collected writings of Robert Smithson ( http://www.amazon.com/dp/0520203852/ ), beta testing the openFrameworks development project ( http://www.openframeworks.cc/ ), and participating in the Anonymous attacks on Scientology ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Chanology ).

4.
Question
What kind of meaning have the new technologies and the Internet to you in concern of art, are they just tools for expressing artistic intentions, or have they rather an ideological character, as it can be found with many “netartists”, or what else do they mean to you? Many “Internet based artists” work on “engaged” themes and subjects, for instance, in social, political, cultural etc concern. Which contents are you particularly interested in, personally and from an artcritical point of view?

Answer
I think all tools have implicit ideologies associated with them, since tools exist in the world and are connected with things (matters of concern) in the world. In 2006 I began doing more performance and installation work offline. This offline work specifically explores language and phenomenological affect. So my online art was freed up to explore other themes. The internet is never going to be the best place for high-bandwidth, high-resolution, immersive, spectacular, visceral experiences.

I am currently interested (from a critical and artistic perspective) in online meme dispersal, microcosmic and macrocosmic ways of modulating culture, hijacking specific google search terms, web surfing as a form of subjective narration, marketing/mind-control, and invisibility via hyper-saturation. Alex Galloway suggests that the destruction of the network is already inherent and dormant in its own architecture. The way to achieve this collapse is via hypertrophy — pushing the network beyond what it is capable of sustaining. To me, this suggests establishing thousands of mySpace, Twitter, youTube, and delicious accounts, and pummeling the network with rigorously purposeful, (de/re)contextualized media — to play the entire network as one huge, nefarious instrument. What is sacrificed in the ability to subtly control any single piece of media is made up for by the accumulation of massive agency. This is a dangerous proposition.

I’m proposing a form of resistant/tactical media, but one not afraid to co-opt and implement corporate consumer strategies. It is simultaneously subversive and overt. It is fluid enough to have discrete manifestations in offline galleries, to take on non-“new media” forms, to assume the form of critical essays, books, and talks. It is basically a project of ongoing, widely-dispersed, inflected language.

5.
Question
The term “netart” is widely used for anything posted on the net, there are dozens of definitions which mostly are even contradictory. How do you define “netart” or if you like the description “Internet based art” better? Do you think “netart” is art, at all, if yes, what are the criteria? Are there any aesthetic criteria for an Internet based artwork?

Answer
As early as 2000, Andreas Brogger dealt with these semantic distinctions ( http://www.afsnitp.dk/onoff/Texts/broggernetart,we.html ). The definition of net art itself has actually become a form of net art ( 1997: http://www.mteww.com/nad.html | 2003: http://www.linkoln.net/complex/ | 2007: http://www.mtaa.net/mtaaRR/off-line_art/commons_art_diagram.html | 2008: http://rhizome.org/imagebase/article/19/netartdiagram.gif ). I am more interested in thinking about art based on its topical interests rather than on its media distinctions. Focusing on media distinctions can lead to self-referential work about the media itself (painting about painting, net art about networks), which seems like a dead end. So I am willing to entertain a broad definition of net art, because that will probably lead to more interesting work.

6.
Question
“Art on the net” has the advantage and the disadvantage to be located on the virtual space in Internet which defines also its right to exist. Do you think, that “art based on the Internet”, can be called still like that, even if it is just used offline?

Answer
Different approaches to the network lead to different kinds of conceptual, formal, and topical art work; and that’s fine, as long as the approach fits the concept. As the internet increasingly becomes a normal aspect of everyone’s daily life, offline art “about the internet” will start to lose its unique identity as a discrete “media genre.” For instance, we don’t say that “art about books” or “art about walking” are their own media genre, like painting or sculpture are. The Oliver Laric piece above, when shown in an offline gallery, is technically video art (if you want to define it by media). It is video art about the internet. Whereas art that happens on the internet will always be “internet art” because the network is its medium, not just its topical concern.

Again, neither approach is better or worse. It’s just that their eventual reception and absorption into the historical art canon will likely start to diverge. I think this divergence is perfectly acceptable to artists making art “about the internet.” They don’t want to be known as “internet artists.” They just want to be known as artists. And lots of the original “net artists” now consider themselves plain old artists. They work across media, so “net artist” becomes too restrictive a term. Andy Warhol never considered himself a “silkscreen artist.”

7.
Question
Dealing with this new, and interactive type of art demands an active viewer or user, and needs the audience much more and in different ways than any other art discipline before. How do you think would be good ways to stimulate the user to dive into this new world of art? What do you think represents an appropriate environment to present net based art to an audience, is it the context of the lonesome user sitting in front of his personal computer, is it any public context, or is it rather the context of art in general or media art in particular, or anything else? If you would be in the position to create an environment for presenting this type of art in physical space, how would you do it?

Answer
I’m still a big fan of “the lonesome user sitting in front of her personal computer.” In 1999, David Ross gave a lecture about the 21 distinctive qualities of net.art ( http://switch.sjsu.edu/web/ross.html ). He talks about intimacy (only one user per mouse at a time), and the fact that when net art is encountered online it is not immediately recognizable as art because it exists in the context of the entire commercial web. I think net art can really take advantage of these qualities to achieve usefully disorienting results. One goal of curation is to contextualize work, and sometimes this contextualization sterilizes the work. The point of institutional critique was to disrupt and confuse these safe museological contextualizations. Net art on the web still has a chance to surprise and disrupt because it exists outside of a gallery.

So when people visit http://playdamage.org , they don’t know what it is (other than what it appears to be). And when people visit http://deepyoung.org , they don’t know exactly what to make of it (other than what it claims about itself). This slippage is part of the fun of net art.

Any time I have presented my artwork in a gallery setting, it always turns into something more like “new media” performance or “new media” installation art, because those are the strengths of the gallery. This is not to say that net-dependent work can’t succeed in a gallery. MTAA recently did a kind of net-dependent Fluxus piece that was pretty clever ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/23162340@N02/sets/72157613452579967/ ). But it worked because thought was given to the real-time/space performance aspect of it. “Users” participated online, but “audience members” also participated in the gallery space.

Any time I have seen net art presented in a gallery without a projector — as just a bunch of net art on a computer with a mouse and some headphones — the gallery setting becomes very distracting. I start thinking, “Just give me the URL so I can check it out when I get home.” To succeed in a gallery, net-dependent work has to somehow take into account the fact that the user is in a public physical space, that she is aware of people watching her or looking over her shoulder, that she only has so much time to engage with the piece, etc. In other words, it has to be more or less site-specific.

8.
Question
As Internet based art, as well as other art forms using new technologies are (globally seen) still not widely accepted, yet, as serious art forms, what do you think could be an appropriate solution to change this situation?

Answer
I think this is a question for curators to consider. As an artist and a theorist/critic, I don’t think it’s my job to popularize new media art. I just need to make art that explores topics that interest me, and I need to write papers that do the same. “New media art” will become more widely accepted when everybody starts focusing on what it is about topically rather than on its distinctive media elements. When this happens, it will simply become art. It will gain broader legitimacy and influence, but it will lose its distinct label as “new media art.” See Steve Dietz’s 2005 curated show “The Art Formerly Known As New Media”
( http://www.yproductions.com/projects/archives/the_art_formerly_known_as_new.html ).

9.
Question
The Internet is sometimes called a kind of “democratic” environment, The conventional art practice is anything else than that, but selective by using filters of different kinds. The audience is mostly only able to make up its mind on second hand. Art on the net might potentially be different. Do you think the current practice of dealing with Internet based art is such different or rather the described conventional way through (also curatorial) filtering? Do you think, that speaking in the terms of Joseph Beuys, anybody who publishes anything on the net would be also an artist?

Answer
There are forms of hierarchy, filtering, and curation, even on the “open” internet. Not all sites get the same amount of traffic, and not all sites get the same kind of traffic. It may be a big deal for me to have my work linked from http://sfmoma.org . Maybe only a few people would actually see it, but they would be “art” people ready to understand my work as “art.” Or maybe it’s better to get a bunch of traffic from a site like http://boingboing.net , people coming because my work is a kind of meme, but they don’t necessarily realize that they are viewing “art.”

If, as an artist, I “play” the entire network as my instrument, then I don’t have to wait for some art organization to curate my “work,” because my work is an ongoing performance of the network. If I can hijack google and cause it to display the images and links I want for the key words that I choose to appropriate, then I blur the line between performance, marketing, and mind-control. I am no longer trying to drive people to my discrete piece of online art work, as contextualized and labeled by an online arts organization. The search results that people get when they do a key word search at google is itself my art performance.

Having said that, there is also a place for discrete online net art pieces, and a place for straightforward online curation. There is also a more liminal space where a link list becomes a form of subjective curation that is is a kind of art performance.

It gets even more interesting from the perspective of an academic researcher and writer. What is the value of online listserv and bulletin board dialogue compared to having a peer-reviewed article published in an offline academic journal? What is the value of talking to a bunch of commercial web designers about web design praxis compared to talking to a few academics and curators about net art theory? For that matter, what is the value of teaching a bunch of students how to make art compared to making art myself? The good news is, I don’t have to commit to just one approach.

10.
Question
Do you think, the curators dealing with net based art should have any technological knowledge in order to understand such an art work from its roots? And what about the users of Internet based art?

Answer
It depends on the nature of the work. Artists who engage the network at a “deep” level should probably be curated by people who have an understanding of the medium at a deep level (cf: http://artport.whitney.org/commissions/codedoc/ ). Artists who engage the network at a “surface” level should be curated by people who have an understanding of the medium at a surface level (cf: http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/7/montage_unmonumental_online ). I think users should be able to relate to any art regardless of their own technical craft skills. It is the job of the curator and the artist to make sure the work is accessible (or semi-accessible, or inaccessible, depending on the goals of the exhibit).