A few years ago, there was an omnipresent personality to be seen at any digital art event organized in Barcelona (amongst other places). This personality was José Luis de Vicente, a writer, theorist, curator, and researcher actively involved in events like Sónar (http://www.sonar.es), OFFF (http://www.offf.ws) and ArtFutura (http://www.artfutura.org).
José was, and still is, known across the world for his blog Elástico (http://www.elastico.net). It’s for this reason that he and his partner, Marta Peirano, have been included amongst the European cultural bloggers interviewed by labforculture.org (whose collection of interviews also includes one on the director and founder of Digicult, Marco Mancuso).
Some years ago, José Luis stopped collaborating with these festivals in order to focus on his personal career path. At the moment, José Luis, apart from being a jury member in several digital art awards (like Prix Ars Electronica, Transmediale Award, Vimeo Award), teaching at the Elisava (http://www.elisava.net/) in Barcelona, directing the Visualizar program of the Medialab Prado di Madrid (http://medialab-prado.es/visualizar) and curating several exhibitions like Habitar (http://www.laboralcentrodearte.org/en/735-concept) at the Mediateca Expandida of the LABoral – Art and Industrial Creation Centre in Gijón (http://www.laboralcentrodearte.org), takes part, with 12 partners of different origins, in ZZZinc (http://www.zzzinc.net), a platform (as well as a space and lab) for digital production, research and innovation, based in Barcelona.
José Luis de Vicente has always been a curator with a particular, and very personal, vision, as well asa well-rounded figure capable of becoming instantly famous thanks to his wide range of interests, his genuine enthusiasm in sharing knowledge and the continuous attention he’s paid to social dimensions of the new media-art phenomenon. This is why we thought it would be especially interesting to have a chat with him. We met him at the C3 bar at the Centre of Contemporary Culture in Barcelona.
Barbara Sansone: What lead you to end up here?
José Luis de Vicente: My background is not in the world of art and my relationship with art is kind of coincidental, accidental. At the beginning, my idea was to study journalism and dedicate myself to popular culture. Then my father, who was a journalist like my grandfather, suggested that I studied instead, something which I would be interested in writing about. I changed my mind, I studied Contemporary Literature and specialised in Contemporary English and North-American Literature. At this time, in the early ’90s, my field of specialism was not provided by the Spanish education system; but the first wave of digital culture was emerging, and it was mainly based on the Californian cyberculture and models like “Mondo2000” (http://www.mondo2000.net/), “Wired” (http://www.wired.com), la Electronic Frontier Foundation (http://www.eff.org/).
This was also a time in which educational institutions were beginning to getinternet access. The internet was completely different then; it was a kind of secret society made up of people amazed by the possibility of communicating through a medium quite unknown to the others. In these years, I began to realise that what interested me the most was the scope, the intersection and the cultural and social repercussions of technology as a means of transformation and change. Culture, in this case, is intended in its widest meaning, and is not specific to art.
In ’98, when I was finishing university, ArtFutura, Spain’s first festival on new media art and technology, came to my hometown, Seville, after having been in Madrid and Barcelona. I attended and had the opportunity to see Derrick de Kerckhove and Eduardo Kac, who were working in the field of virtual reality and devices like the Cave. It was love at first sight, and I knew that this was what I wanted to be involved in. This was not my first contact with the world of cyberculture; as I said, at university I had read magazines like “Mondo 2000” and “Wired”, had taken an interest in cyberpunk culture as a literary genre and the web as an independent space, and had followed various lines of work. But it was the festival that truly revealed to me what I wanted to do.
When the festival was over, I wrote to ask if I would be allowed to do something in the following year’s edition, if I could help in some way. It took a month or two for them to respond, but it was a warm answer. In 1999, I joined the festival as a volunteer. In 2000, I was entrusted with my first job, a collection of Chris Cunningham’s work. In the meantime, I had met people involved in several Spanish online communities and free software like Barrapunto (http://barrapunto.com/), which lead me to my first experiences in the field of digital journalism. These early experiences put me in contact with journalists who wrote on the Internet about new media, introducing me to an interesting world and the dawn of new media.
I was lucky becauseat this time in Spain, there was a great call for people to write on the Internet about the Internet, and not many people who could do it, yet I already knew what it was all about. I was given the chance to write for “El Mundo” in “Diario del navegante” (http://www.elmundo.es/elmundo/navegante.html), a national newspaper. This was surprising because the first article I wrote for “El Mundo” was only the third or fourth article of my career! Those were incredible years because digital journalism was inventing itself in real time. You could do whatever you wanted: traditional boundaries imposed by writing on paper were suddenly gone. And so I was a digital journalist for a couple of years; more than anything else, divulging what was happening in the world of digital culture and in the meeting point between culture and technology. At the same time my relationship with ArtFutura continued. For me, the festival was a means of exploring many fields, not only art.
In 2000, the festival left Seville and moved back to Barcelona, where it remained until last year. Many things changed within the organisation and Montxo Algora asked me to move here and work with him on the festival, of which I became assistant director. I arrived here in May 2001 and started taking part in several projects like Sónar and OFFF. My relationship with journalism became full of ups and downs, some years I wrote a lot, others I wrote little. I founded, with three journalists (and friends), a collective blog Elástico. Now, I’m teaching here in Barcelona at the Elisava, I’m the curator of several projects, and not long ago we opened a new office, ZZZinc, a working group which develops research, cultural and innovation projects.
Barbara Sansone: What is the relationship today between curator and artist? Does the curator tend to overpower the artist? Are they in competition with one another? Or is it a partnership?
José Luis de Vicente: Relationships can be determined by several criteria. Above all else, it is a case of common interests, where each person has something the other wants. Sometimes this means a fair, professional and easy relationship, and in other cases, the best ones, it’s a real process of intellectual complicity, where the curator interprets the artists work in a certain way, and the artist likes this perspective and is enabled to grow, to see his work from a different angle. Obviously, the very best times are when they start with nothing, and they work together, one creating the right conditions, and the other developing an idea.
There are obviously as many relationships as there are people and circumstances. An exhibition, however, is a window into the world of an artist. Starting from a specific moment, it becomes an artefact between the institution and the artist, and the curator has to negotiate in order to create discourses, thoughts and frames. This is the kind of curatorship I’m interested in. When curatorship is just a technical process, focused only on the right way to display the works, it is respectable, but leaves almost no space to creativity. Creating an exhibition can be a very easy job: of course, there are difficulties, complexities, but in itself, I don’t believe it to be a great intellectual challenge. For me, it only becomes one when you make it a medium for communicating what you want to say.
For me, the most important thing about exhibitions is the capacity to create a discourse, a point of attention towards what you want to express through other qualities, like spaces. I love this. I find it more interesting and powerful to present an idea as a space rather than as a text. I think it is simply an artifact resulting from a process of negotiation, for which the curator is the principal organizer, since he has to produce a number of different conditions with several parties, which obviously have different interests, conditions and needs. This is at least true for my area; although I am sure it cannot be applied to many others which have different conditions for example, I would generally not apply this to contemporary art.
Barbara Sansone: What happens when the ideas of curator and artist differ?
José Luis de Vicente: Every decision made by the curator is filtered many times mainly for conceptual reasons. For example, you want an art work to be part of a specific route, or for the means of a festival, you want some art works to be displayed one after the other. Sometimes this is a subjective choice of a curator, which obviously isn’t good if it goes against the will of the artist. Sometimes the curator has a certain distance which allows him to see things that the artist can’t see, and in fact the best decisions are often guesswork, taking an artist with a certain idea but who doesn’t know how to produce a situation in which it can be read, and giving him concrete conditions.
But there are many determining factors: these are above all processes of political negotiation with the institutions. For example, the fact that Ars Electronica (http://www.aec.at/) had to be in a factory this year is the result of a political decision resulting in an institutional relationship between two organizations. This was obvious in many areas, and created numerous difficulties: we could hang nothing on the walls, it was difficult to follow the exhibition because there was too much space, and sequences were not clear, and some factors, like light and sound, were out of our control.
You always try to do your best with what you have to work with, even in the most difficult situations. Another example is Máquinas y Almas (http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=1266), an exhibition organized with many problems and limitations. I don’t think I will ever organize another exhibition with the same budget and limits, even if I had to work an extra 50 years! You often find all kinds of limitations, and negotiating with the institutions is very complicated. It’s like a puzzle: you have a specific number of elements which you have to fit together and you have to strive for the result which combines the largest possible amount of objectives. But it’s often impossible to combine them all.
Barbara Sansone: Like movie directors, curators are usually known only to insiders and fans. Most people remember the exhibition, the artist, the art work, but not the inventor of what they’ve seen. This is not the case for you, people know you.
José Luis de Vicente: Really? I don’t feel like that [laughs]! Sometimes I think that an audience different from us doesn’t exist! That there’s no general public at all, and that we are all the same. I never wanted things to be like that: I always felt like an educator. I don’t believe I’mmore well-known than others. Let’s think about Jorge Luis Marzo or Mery Cuesta: in my opinion, their personalities and discourses play a key role in all their projects. They really are curator-authors. I have an ever-changing range of obsessions and interests: I do not have a steady line of work, I am always changing from one thing to another I don’t know, maybe because I am sort of intellectual flâneur, an amateur. I am enchanted by one epoch, and then by another, I change direction all the time.
I don’t know what to tell you: I don’t feel like people know me more than others. Generally I think that people understand me, and that’s more or less the most important goal I’ve reached. I try to communicate things I want to say in the most simple and understandable way possible, this is crucial for me. It is very important not to conceive projects as airtight containers forcing the consumerto read a code he can’t understand or control. Maybe that’s it, I don’t know. It is hard to talk about yourself.
Barbara Sansone: I think that your attitude might be a reason for this: during the events for which you were curator, I saw you as part of the crowd, fun and enthusiastic. This kind of energy is inevitably passed on to others.
José Luis de Vicente: This is true: enthusiasm and excitement when I see something really interesting have always been my driving force. It is also true that many people keep a distance from the project, a kind of suspicion, an intellectual distance. I don’t: I am a fan, and personal participation is the only way I know how to act. There was a time when I was involved in so many projects, that people maybe found me a little boring [laughs]. It was a period in which only a few people were involved in these things. Today things are different, I feel much more supported than five years ago. People that once were following different lines of work are now coming together, and it is not strange to see them in the same contexts.
Barbara Sansone: You have already partly answered, but maybe you would like to add something: how does the personality of the curator affect an event? For example, everyone could see the difference when you left OFFF or ArtFutura. Why? What was your mark?
José Luis de Vicente: Everyone has his look, his perspective. There is a shapeless mass of productions out there, and what we essentially do is project a look, connect the dots so as to create a story. It is quite similar to the preparation process of a newspaper in that you have to decide what to print and what to leave. Similarly, curators decide how to link the art works and create a specific concept.
For example, OFFF focused on the design and web design community. I was looking for a space starting in the experimental field of design, and reaching a more popular feeling; more direct and probably more sophisticated and technically spectacular, which fitted this context perfectly. I tried to select various personalities who weren’t really part of the art and design community traditionally seen at OFFF. I felt like they could expand the perspective of the event: they were people like Casey Reas, Ben Fry, Jonathan Harris or Graffiti Research Lab. Many of them weren’t web-designers, they didn’t work in agencies, but they expanded the vocabulary and maintained an ambiguity and an equal distance between the world of art and that of commercial production and design. This was very important to me because I wanted to expand the event, to make it about more that just a web design convention. When I left the festival,
It probably returned to its traditional style. This confirms the importance of curators in the organization.
As for ArtFutura, it had a very specific tradition: it started up during the ’90s in a very concrete context, and it had always been a complicated project because the idea was to maintain an easy relationship between cultural artistic production and commercial production. Everything went: you could present artistic projects and Hollywood productions side by side. It was taken for granted that it didn’t matter. But often it did matter: the readability was not easy and one production could cast a shadow on another. ArtFutura was always associated with special effects and videogames, whereas when I worked for the festival, people like Howard Rheingold, Bruce Sterling, Steven Johnson and Lev Manovich were hosted.
Barbara Sansone: You dealt with the first day of the weekend, is that right?
José Luis de Vicente: Yes, I did. Thursday and Friday were my responsibility; the computer animation day was on Saturday, and that was the responsibility of Montxo Algora; Sunday was dedicated to videogames, and we ended up starting an interesting relationship with Daniel Sánchez-Crespo. For me, that was a way to develop relationships between commercial developers of videogames, artists working on videogames or independent videogames creators and media art (or digital art). They are all part of the same culture.
One yearToshio Iwai and Tetsuya Mizuguchi came, they had been classmates at art school. The former is one of the most important figures in the field of interactive media, the latter is one of the greatest videogames designers. It was interesting to have them in the same space and to see the similarities and differences in their activities. This was a success for ArtFutura because this type of thing doesn’t happen in other contexts.
Barbara Sansone: In your opinion, how can one define and evaluate works of new media art?
José Luis de Vicente: As for the definition, for me it’s dependent on the conversation a work intends to create, the questions it asks, and what the artefact, or device, wants to introduce. So what distinguishes a media art work from a non-media art work (which belongs to contemporary art, which is something different)? I don’t know. There are people who are really concerned about this topic, but it doesn’t interest me a great deal: what is important to me is the conversation. In this sense, contrary to the field of contemporary art, I feel much more comfortable in the field of new media art because the questions it raises are the questions I’m concerned about.
As for an evaluation, how can one decide whether an art work is beautiful or not? The right criteria do not exist, and it would be difficult to define a scale. On the one hand the art work must give the chance to access different levels of perception, on the other hand it must raise a conversation, arouse an issue, open a range of possibilities, a new scenario. This could be a good way to evaluate an art work. Its economic value is not a good parameter: this is a classic mistake. As for its value as an interactive experience? It depends, but for me, this isn’t a crucial element.
Many media art projects that caught my attention basically have something fragile, precarious about them. More than solid realities, they look like attempts, alpha versions of what they could become. But I find them more interesting because they change the conversation, the discourse. For example, during this year’s Ars Electronica I really enjoyed the work of Daan van den Berg, a designer claiming to have created (in theory, but I use it as a story, it doesn’t matter whether it is true or not) a virus able to infect the CAD-CAM files of Ikea products creating deformities just like a biological virus. The creation of deformities to Ikea lamps deal with a relatively new device like rapid prototyping, digital manufacturing and issues like mass customization opposing to mass production, and large-scale industrial production. So, I found many interesting ideals not only in the object itself, but also in its story and the process of decoding it.
In the context of new media, I believe that most of these stories are proofs of concept, prototypes, possible incarnations of research. Obviously, reading the research through a tangible, physical proof is not always easy. It is important to get into contact with proof and the presentation of the device rather than the device itself. That’s why I am very sceptical about presenting new media art through somewhat standard exhibitions. Often you can visit a new media exhibition which is trying to be something else and has been there for a month, and find yourself alone with all those devices, before a sort of rotting corpse, something that worked well on its very first day, but which quickly stopped working.
Barbara Sansone: In your opinion, to what extent can The eye writer created by Zach Lieberman, Chris Sugrue, Theo Watson and Graffiti Research Lab be considered an art work, and not only a device made by artists for artists?
José Luis de Vicente: This project is the evidence of boundaries blending. I had the same uncertainties before seeing an image: as part of the research, data that Tempt (http://temptone.wordpress.com/) drew with his eyes from a hospital bedare generated as output so as to be produced by different kinds of devices. One of them is a robotic arm, similar to those used in car factories, customized to create graffiti on a wall. And so a relationship is formed between a paralysed man in a hospital bed who can’t move anything but his eyes, and an industrial technology device, which suddenly becomes his incarnation, his new body. I know that such modification implies a great quantity of fantasy and fiction, but there is something interesting about it.
And whilst speaking with some of them at the airport on the way back from Ars Electronica, they were saying how this scenario could become more and more interesting. Theo Watson (this is the best answer to your question) told me their final goal is to cause the police to arrest Tempt for his graffiti.
I repeat a concept I mentioned before which is crucial for me: the range of possibilities. In the field of fiction, factors which aren’t necessarily the most important, end up playing a keyrole: like the fact that this is fundamentally a group made up of seven artists from around the world capable of creating something that, just a short while ago, would only have been possible for an industry with a high level of investment. What I like about this project is that it shows that every attempt to produce something in an open and collaborative way (from Processing to openFrameworks and Arduino) allows the artists to provide themselves with the right devices to create their discourses: in 5/7 years they have come up with this project, and I think it is a great success.
Barbara Sansone: How do you explain over thirty years of solidity for Ars Electronica festival, and its unchanging reputation as a highly prestigious event?
José Luis de Vicente: Above all, Ars Electronica has something other festivals don’t (maybe Sónar, but the situation is slightly different): it is a strategic cultural project for Barcelona. That’s why Linz has been included in the international schedule of cultural events. In this sense, it has a privileged status. But it deserved it. I really appreciate the way the organizers understood that an art, science and technology festival can’t reproduce the dynamics of a biennial art exhibition. They created a space raising discourses and questions during conferences, defining the relationship between the technological industry, the art industry, digital activism and thought, moving easily from one equilibrium to another.
I have a lot of respect for what they do, it can’t have been easy: they have certainly fought hard to keep their independence over the years, in every context, andfaced with every political and institutional change. In general I think they have done things correctly. Many people are sceptical and assert that the festival helped consolidate the creation of the new media art “ghetto”. And indeed it is isolated from contemporary art, as if it were a different structure. But I honestly believe that contemporary art has the same percentage of responsibility, if not more, because it is the elder sister and had many more opportunities to open the way.
Barbara Sansone: And what about Transmediale?
José Luis de Vicente: My relationship with Transmediale has always been a little ambiguous. For example, it’s never been strange for Ars Electronica to extol utopianism and optimism, topics historically associated with cyberculture, whereas the situation is different for Transmediale. Suspicion, distance and cynicism have always been the right approaches at Transmediale. During the last two years, things have improved, that is to say I prefer the work that Steven Kovacs is doing. Before, with Transmediale, it was decided that the new media simply did not exist, and only made sense inside historical movements of contemporary visual arts and therefore wanted to delete every distinction. I am not saying I am a fan of distinctions: I simply believe that sometimes the conversation and the parameters are different. I didn’t care if such conversation turned in something more homogeneous or historicist. The attempt to find past history for everything means forcing a fixed interpretation, decontextualising such space from its field of work.
Barbara Sansone: What about the future? Where is new media art going?
José Luis de Vicente: Changing the etiquette is not new either. Once it was called digital art, then during the ’90s it became electronic art, a definition that it taken with a pinch of salt nowadays. Again, I am not really concerned about this. I do not agree with those who say that new media is dead, that it is no more a movement, a context, a specific discourse. I don’t think so. I don’ feel like, for example, that it would be ideal for new media to be absorbed by contemporary art. It will always work the same for different artists and art works. I don’t foresee a day when contemporary art will change its principles. In this way, new media has always been a concrete example of another kind of culture, a culture in which the relationship between science and art was dealt with differently.
Instead I believe that the creation of contexts, methods, devices and dynamics is becoming more and more important with respect to the production of objects and aesthetic devices. I think that intending this field fundamentally as the creation of a specific operating system or method is as important as it was before, or even more. The need to create Processing, openFrameworks or Arduino shows where the most important things are happening, and the necessity of producing an infrastructure with the possibility of starting discourses over various contexts. That’s why I reject the idea of being absorbed inside the four walls of a white or black cube. That is not where we want to stay.
We want to stay in a more fluid relationship with social innovation, technological and scientific development as well as with the change of model, the possibility to create a third or first culture, a culture defined not only by the humanistic, social and political, but also by the scientific, and way it creates these patterns. Moreover, such culture encourages and preserves critical answers, far from a technology intended as a flat and determined exploitation, which wants to carry on acting as a critical consciousness for higher processes. For me, the best thing we can do is to transform, to expand the parameters of conversation with other contexts.
Barbara Sansone: So which are the best adapted places for such conversation?
José Luis de Vicente: As for the incarnation of such discourse inside cultural industry, it depends, because we are continuously inventing them. For example, I am a big fan of lab and the work they do, because their main objectives are research processes and the socialization of open labs, and social innovation processes as a space to get possession of, where visitors become participants.
And for me, the best way to do it is to create new institutions that have nothing to do with preservation, heritage, and consumption of contents as a part of touristic-cultural industry. Obviously, we are subject to this. Sónar is an experience of cultural consumption linked to the vision of the city as a brand, just like a museum is a prestigious object, but also of economic value, as it increases the touristic value of a city.
Yet in my opinion, it is always possible to plan the research, the creation of hypotheses and generation of prototypes in a permeable and clear way, so to open access in real time for others, so as to allow a dialogue begin. This is a new kind of space. There was a time when I wanted to organize great exhibitions, and say loudly that interesting things were happening.
Today I am not concerned that much, because I believe such contexts are very limited. Still, I think we must keep expanding vocabulary, as we’ve been doing for the last ten years: we started with blogs, then with social networks, and today we have enough devices to go on.
Barbara Sansone: In conclusion: when it comes to art, do you work only with your mind or also with your hands?
José Luis de Vicente: No, in fact lately, my relationship with writing has become complicated, and now I’m starting to want to produce something tangible, like books. I’m also learning to grow tomatoes…