Conversations at the Edge

Interview with Christiane Paul

Posted on | March 29, 2014 | Comments Off

Curator and academic Christiane Paul sat down with CATE Program Assistant George William Price to discuss her research and curatorial practice centered around New Media.  Paul presented a multimedia talk “Genealogies of the New Aesthetic” at CATE on March 27, 2014.  

Christiane Paul (b. 1961, Attendorn, Germany) is Associate Professor at the School of Media Studies, The New School, and Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She has written extensively on new media arts and lectured internationally on art and technology.

George William Price:  So Christiane how did you become interested in tracing the genealogy of the New Aesthetic?  What was so intriguing to you about this particular project?

Christiane Paul: I’ve been thinking and writing about the aesthetics of digital media for quite some time.  To me it is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the reception of new media.  I’m working at the Whitney Museum and one of the problems I encounter constantly, occasionally with my colleagues at the museum and often with mainstream audiences, is a lack of understanding of the aesthetics of the medium. I’m very invested in changing that and when the New Aesthetic appeared and took off I was just struck by the fact of how blurry an image of aesthetics it represents.

The New Aesthetic is a ghost of an image. It is a degradation but at the same time very valuable because it says something about its own condition.  To me the achievement of the New Aesthetic and perhaps the reason why it became such a meme is that it really captures something important about aesthetics right now.  But it fails and is not very helpful when it comes to actually creating a framework for an in-depth understanding of aesthetics.  That is one of the reasons why Malcolm Levy and I decided to look at genealogies of that New Aesthetic; many aspects of the New Aesthetic of course have a fifty-year history.

To me the current discussions surrounding post-digital, post-Internet, post-medium work are really closely related to the New Aesthetic because they struggle with some of the same issues, particularly the relationship between networked technologies and the object.  All of these terms ultimately describe projects that are deeply influenced by digital technologies on various levels but do not necessarily take a digital form, existing as software and hardware.  They manifest as paintings or as sculptures but could not be understood without a deeper level of knowledge of digital technologies and their aesthetics.

Image from Clement Valla’s Postcards from Google Earth.  http://www.postcards-from-google-earth.com/

Image from Clement Valla’s Postcards from Google Earth. http://www.postcards-from-google-earth.com/

GWP: Would you please elaborate on the relationship between the various Institutions you affiliate with and the fields or mediums you are involved with?  Net Art could be argued as having a rather renegade or non-canonized history within the field contemporary art.  So I am interested in how it can be positioned within the Institution rather than being opposed to it and your feelings regarding this tension.

CP: The relationship between digital media art, or new media art and the mainstream art world has always been a very contested space. There’s nothing new about that, it literally has been going on, again, for almost fifty years.  There were some major exhibitions in the 1960s in which this art form first gained momentum.  Cybernetic Serendipity (ICA London) and the New Tendencies (Museum of Contemporary Art of Zagreb) exhibitions were really important moments in that history.

Some media art historians have argued that the exhibition Information (1970) by Kynaston McShine at MoMA was a breaking point at which the new media art of that time and related experimentation was subsumed under the umbrella of conceptual art.  Conceptual art survived and got canonized while the new media aspects of it dropped out. Today very few people look at work that Hans Haacke has created with computers or his investment into the digital world.

I think that the mainstream art world or museums such as the Whitney may not necessarily be the best platform for exhibiting new media art, a lot of which lives on and through networks, is performative and constantly evolves.  Net art is a good example of that type of work, and quite a few artists in the 1990s chose this medium to circumvent traditional art institution structures.  At the same time, many net artists want and deserve to be seen within the context of traditional art.

I am concerned that new media art could drop out of art history if art institutions do not embrace it; museums play an important role in writing an art history.  I would like this work to be seen in connection with artistic practice of different media over decades, I would like to see it collected and preserved.

GWP: How would you frame or contextualize your own curatorial practice?  Perhaps you could talk a little about your involvement with such exhibitions as Cory Arcangel’s: Pro Tools, 2011, Eduardo Kac’s, Lagoglyphs, Biotopes and Transgenic Works, 2010 or The Whitney Biennial, 2002.

CP: My curatorial practice has always been very context-specific.  Of course I specialize in new media but I do not want to create a new media ghetto.  My ideal would be to always show new media art in connection with other art forms, which is what I’ve done in the Feedback exhibition (LABoral Art Center, 2007) I co-curated with Jemima Rellie and Charlie Gere, and in the 2002 Whitney Biennial where net art was shown in the galleries among other media.  I am always very aware of what you can accomplish within a certain context.  I can realize exhibitions at The New School, where I curated The Public Private last year (2013), that would be very hard to present at the Whitney, both in terms of legal issues and with regard to the audience, for which art using Facebook and Google as its reference and platforms would be more challenging.

In 2011 I curated the exhibition Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools at the Whitney Museum, which seemed more appropriate for that venue. Cory is an artist who has been very successful at bridging the gap between new media and and more traditional art-historical concerns and issues, positioning new media in relationship to minimalism or conceptual art.  His work can be translated much easier into a traditional institution.  I very much appreciated that net art received a lot of attention around the turn of the century and that the Whitney made a point of including it in the 2000 and 2002 Whitney Biennial.

Eduardo Kac’s exhibition Lagoglyphs, Biotopes and Transgenic Works (2010) took place at Oi Futuro, an institution in Rio de Janeiro that is focused on new technologies and telecommunications in a social and cultural context and therefore a great venue for exploring Bio Art and Eduardo’s work.

Image from Clement Valla’s Postcards from Google Earth (ongoing).

Image from Clement Valla’s Postcards from Google Earth (ongoing).

GWP: As a European working in the USA, how would you articulate the dialogue between these two geographical locations around the framing of curatorial practice as a form of knowledge and meaning production?

CP: While I’m aware of those differences in the framing of curatorial practice, they have not been that pronounced for me due to the medium I am working with. Curating new media or digital art really is a very global endeavor.  Artists and curators see each other on a kind of global circuit, whether it is at Transmediale (Germany), Ars Electronica (Austria), DEAF (The Netherlands) or many other festivals, organizations, and institutions in Europe, or at Art Center Nabi in Korea or the ISEA festivals around the world.

I think we all have the same concerns and our approaches are not that different.  The biggest rift I experienced when it comes to understandings of curation was at a conference and symposium organized by Fundación Telefónica in Argentina.  Many of the curators were from South America, and it had not been clear to me before how politicized an effort curating is within that part of the world.  The curators were all seeing themselves as deeply embedded in a political dialogue with institutions and local governments.

GWP: Finally Christiane, would you tell us about some upcoming projects that you are involved with and why they are exciting and meaningful to you?

CP: I’m working on an edited anthology, A Companion to Digital Art published by Blackwell, which is exciting to me because I feel that a lot of the history of digital art is still missing from the canon.  I’m also curating projects for a park in Turkey, an outdoor park similar to Storm King (Hudson Valley) or the Inhotim art park in Brazil, but more focused on new media work, which is unusual.  I’m very excited about the possibilities of that project, but it is a very long-term one.

This interview between Christiane Paul and CATE Program Assistant George William Price took place at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago on March 27, 2014.

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