From February 11 to 16, 2009, took place in Madrid the 28th edition of Arco, one of the most important international fairs dedicated to contemporary art, if not perhaps the most important, that also this year has seen the presence of the section Expanded Box, an island devoted to art expressed through new technologies.
Curators of Expanded Box 2009 were the Italian Domenico Quaranta – whom Digimag’s readers know well (for the stads section) and Carolina Grau (for the cinema section). Surely fascinating, especially the section cared for from Quaranta, both for the heterogeneity of the artists and the proposed works, as well as for the level of the forum organized on February 15 with the presence of critics and curators such as Jon Ippolito & Joline Blais, Roberta Bosco, Geert Lovink, Inke Arns, Régine Debatty, Zhang Ga , Joasia Krysa. A rich ensemble of critical voices coming from both the world of the contemporary art and the youngest new media art, testifying a growingly fleeting border between these two worlds.
Exactly of these subjects, and of the general philosophy that has driven the project of Expanded Box we spoke with Domenico Quaranta: Arc Projects of Sofia with THOMSON & CRAIGHEAD, Ernst Hilger of Vienna with John GERRARD; Fabio Paris Art Gallery of Brescia with UBERMORGEN.COM, Fortlaan 17 of Gent with LAWRENCE MALSTAF, MS Galeria of Madrid with ESTHER MANAS & ARASH MOORI, One and J Gallery of Seoul with Kim JONGKU, Project Gentili of Prato with JOAN LEANDRE and Vadehra Art Gallery of New Delhi with PORS AND RAO, are the galleries and the artists presented.
With the duo of artists Ubermorgen.com, represented in their own stand at the Madrid fair Arco, the Brescia gallery Fabio Paris has been awarded the Arco Madrid / Beep Art Award. The gallery was at the fair with the monographic project The Ekmrz – Trilogy (introduced for the first time in a single installation projected for the fair, the “trilogy of the e-commerce”) that explores the artistic use of the new technologies and their impact on arts.
Marco Mancuso: Let’s start from a wide perspective: how was the experience of Expanded Box, in terms of understanding by the organizers of Arco, the public, of the research of the works and the galleries, of the arts market in general? What are the positive and negative feedbacks of this experience?
Domenico Quaranta: In general, very well. But let’s start from the negative aspects, so I get them off my chest . The present Expanded Box is the arriving point of a process that lasted ten years, where the extraordinary will – of the fair, of a sponsor (Beep Datalogic) and of an exceptional mediator (LaAgencia of Vicente Matallana) – to sustain the most (technologically) advanced and experimental art, is accompanied by an inevitable marginalization due to the concept itself of the Expanded Box and of its predecessors: creating, inside the complex organism that is a contemporary art fair, a “dedicated” section. This decennial work gave some remarkable products, first of all the constitution of an exceptional collection (the Beep, tied up to the Arco Beep Award); an increasing awareness of the public; and, consequently, an increasing presence of “new media” works in the whole fair, not only in the Expanded Box.
At this stage of the process, nevertheless, and exactly because of what has been done till now, some aspects of this project would deserve to be revised. This year, I have worked a lot in order to have the galleries perceive the Expanded Box not only as a place of cultural in-depth examination, but also as a market place. A place where to arrive not only with a strong project, but also with a project that can be sold. Some understood this, and this has brought its results. We still have to work on the architecture of the Expanded Box, that traditionally is a more intimate and enclosed section if compared to others: all stands are open on a single side, on a narrow corridor.
But these are in fact details, if compared to everything else. Arco has shown an exceptional sensibility and helpfulness to face the specific problems created by the single projects; the galleries have responded with enthusiasm, even if the economic crisis has forced some of them to decline my invitation; the public came numerous, and in the days reserved to VIPs and professionals the projects of the Expanded Box have called the attention of numerous curators, critics, institutions and collectors. If you sum to this the opportunity to operate in one of the most important fairs worldwide, plus the presence – at the fair and in the city – of many other interesting initiatives, i.e. Oscar Abril Ascaso’s project for the region of Murcia presented at the fair, or the Vida prize, or the activities of the Medialab Madrid; the result has been an extraordinary chance of networking, and a much better mood than the past editions of the great festivals.
Marco Mancuso: The choice of the works and the artists, although limited to 8 galleries and 8 artists, represents in my opinion a good cross-section of the contemporary production in various disciplines, from the sound art to the interaction design, from the 3d graphic design to the video, from the software art to the new media critics. Did this judgment influence your choice of the works or, also for practical reasons, you’ve had to focus more on the galleries able to understand an economic investment in a growing market context? I’m wondering, because based on my experience, the galleries in the world who believe in this type of investment are not many…
Domenico Quaranta: Before talking about the single projects, it is necessary that we analyse a little the selection process. Same as for all the projects of Arco, one can access the Expanded Box through an application or through direct invitation from the curator. Despite the numerous applications, I have tried to keep some liberty so that I could insert projects that corresponded more to my vision, or that completed the perspective proposed by the other works. Overall, as you say, I have tried to offer a cross-section of the present research, not so much in the media used for the works, but rather in the attitude shown towards the media. There are works that use the most advanced technologies, others that use obsolete technologies, even others in which technology as a medium disappears, only to be proposed as content, theme, cultural reference; in some cases, technologies are exhibited, in others they disappear in the backstage; for some they are the main element of the project, for others they just another medium to produce an experience.
Talking about the galleries, I started from a vast range of opportunities, that comprised of both galleries specialized in digital media, and many others that opened to the experimental research but also kept on working on a more traditional and agreed on research. On my side I had of course the appeal of Arco, one of the most important fairs in Europe and the more visited in the world. Despite this, the process of selection has been tiring, but I wouldn’t attribute these difficulties to some kind of slow response by the galleries. The crisis we are going through is indeed serious, and especially in the United States and in the UK it struck extremely hard. Investing thousands Euro on a monographic project, where an economic gain is not guaranteed, it is not very easy today. The galleries that have taken part to the Expanded box, but also those that have been forced to retire, they all have my gratitude and respect .
Marco Mancuso: During the last two years, you carved out a space for yourself a specific role at European level, especially through Holy Fire at iMAL and Expanded Box, as a curator / critic able to help the transition of the universe of the digital art inside the mechanisms and the borders of contemporary art, even through all difficulties and risks. So, a circle of artists, whose multimedia works is exhibited and represented by a circle of galleries looking for space and market through the fairs or the events around these: how do you consider your personal journey? And how does it fit in with the growing process, without wanting to judge or criticize?
Domenico Quaranta: This definition of “Charon of the digital art towards the heavens of contemporary art” makes me smile, and it is also a little excessive (there was a series of curators, from Christiane Paul to Claudia Giannetti, for the previous editions of the Expanded Box); but after all I’ve deserved it, at least because of Holy Fire. Actually, I would gladly avoid to speak of market, but it seems that for many people it is not such an assumed subject. Personally I feel I am a curator of contemporary art who discovered in the digital cultures a renewing force, and who’s trying to support in any way and in every context the things in which he believes. In the panel I have organized for Arco, Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito wondered if it is worth to take things from a ghetto to bring them in another one, just bigger, when by now a context exists (the net) where the most radical researches can live and reach a public unreachable for a museum. In my opinion, it is worth to try the three ways together. The net guarantees the direct contact with the public, the community of the New Media Art allows an even comparison and a first, very specialized context analysis. But market and the world of the contemporary art have an irreplaceable role of selecting, giving access to a wider and varied communication system, and of accessing the “history”, the dimension of the duration that it’s opposing the ephemeral nature of the event (the festival, the exposition) and the absence of memory of the media.
I think this approach shows very well in my personal curator path. After “Holy Fire”, a show hosted by a small “new media centre”, but included in the program of a big fair, I have taken care of the 2008 edition of the Pixxelpoint (a small but brave provincial festival); then “RE:akt! | Reconstruction, Re-enactment, Re-reporting”, an exposition that is bringing the works of a small Slovenian institution (Aksioma) in various museums and institutions (from the MNAC of Bucharest to the KUC gallery, Ljubljana to the MMSU of Fiume); the “Expanded Box” in Arco 2009 and, in a couple of months, a small section inside the “Biennial of Prague”, a classical event of contemporary art.
Marco Mancuso: There is a very interesting point of your curatorial statement in which you state: “According to this model, art no longer consists in the masterful implementation of to technique (painting, sculpture, music or writing) to world (the know-called “real” world, the unconscious world of the Surrealists, etc.) present. Anything Khan be art, if given to specific discourse and to specific conception, and if conveyed by means of to specific context. The aura of to work of art, which may be lost and found time and again, is now attributed by means of to precise process of consecration, which takes place on the market and in the museums.” You know very well that this statement is rather strong and opens potential discussions. The obligated question is: don’t you think that someone could answer that even if art would need some consecration, that should arrive from either the public or the critics, but certainly not from the market or from museum collecting? In other words, don’t you think the aura of a work, as you say, can be found when it is free from these bonds and gets lost instead when the strings begin to tighten ?
Domenico Quaranta: In fact, my text maintains that the most radical research opens small possibilities which allow to overcome the so-called “contextual definition” of art, according to which “it is the context that makes the work” and on which the artistic production of the last 50 years was founded. I don’t agree with the position that I’m describing, though I understand it. But let’s be careful: to question the contextual definition doesn’t mean to question the role of collecting and of museums in favour of the populist position according to which the public decides. If we are here speaking right now, it is because a couple of wealthy collectors has financially supported Duchamp for fifty years, and because the director of a museum has bought Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol without considering too much Greenberg’s opinion. Public is now consecrating the impressionists – but if they had been able to decide at the time, Bouguereau would still be the very best of art. What I criticize is rather the intellectual clumsiness of those who accept only a work of art because it is there, in the white hall of a museum, without questioning if it correspond to their own idea of art.
Marco Mancuso: In this sense you are well aware of the controversies that rose around the new media art – contemporary art debate. Although it is already less and less debated in the festivals, it still is a pivotal theme. Lately I was pondering, also publicly on the AHA list, on how curious the shifting of this polemic is: before, the debate was between the world of digital art and that of contemporary art, with all the problems of identification and mutual acceptance that followed, but now it seems that the pivotal conflict sits between the world of the digital art and what is considered and recognized as the world of the technological experimentation, of the artistic hacking, of the digital avant-garde. Furthermore the weakening of the polemic around the digital art – contemporary art debate, seems to suggest a sort of satisfaction in spite of the avant-garde originating from autonomous and self-managed spaces: that is “we have arrived here, whatever road is still ahead, we don’t care about all the others”.
Domenico Quaranta: What are you saing? That Rifondazione Comunista split? That minuscule party that didn’t reach the 3% has divided in two parts? Heck, I will have to choose what side to be, and in both cases I won’t matter a damn thing… Sorry for this vulgar and pseudo-politic detour, but these polemics always seemed futile to me, and usually harmful for the weakest part. What I know is that digital art, if ever has existed, doesn’t exist anymore. Holy Fire was already clear enough on this: what Casey Reas and Ubermorgen.com have in common, from a results point of view, is zero. They continue to have in common a reference community, I agree, and this is something too precious to be abandoned. A place where one can nurture his own researches with total freedom, and where these can be submitted to a public of equals. But this doesn’t prevent these researches to remain stuck in there, even if they would be ready to face a wider public. That’s exactly what happened to Reas and Ubermorgen.com, and it will happen again.
Marco Mancuso: A similar argument can perhaps be applied in the artistic sphere: there are some “contemporary” artists who begin to turn their attention towards the digital tools and aesthetics, while others that have begun with the digital avant-gardes seem to be interested above all to enter in the arts market – which is always a market and can influence choices and artistic initiatives. What do you think about it?
Domenico Quaranta: I think that I’ve always liked the theory of the communicating vessels, like hybridizations and migrations. I think that I’m tired of walls, and of hearing that an artist sold himself to the market just because he’s earning his living with his job. I think that, if I like something, if I really believe in a work, I can’t just speak about it on Digimag and present it in a small provincial festival, but instead I must write about it on Artforum and bring it to Arco, to the Biennale in Venice , to the MoMA and to any other available platform. And I believe that if I don’t do this, and to the best of my possibilities, I am not doing my job of critic and curator well enough. After all, I’m absolutely confident that if the so-called “New Media Art”, despite its huge potentialities, has never succeeded in earning the place it deserves in today’s artistic scene, that’s mainly our fault – that is, of a team of critics and curators who don’t do their job: to aim at the mainstream channels instead of continuing to survive in the “alternative” channels, to introduce “their” artists to the galleries, to bring them in the museums, etc. And to abandon the critical horizon that divides “contemporary artists” and “digital artists”….
Marco Mancuso: However, I wasn’t talking about selling oneself to the market. I was asking what you do think more contemporary artists who begin to explore technologies new to them, and of artists born with the digital who on the other hand return to use hybrid tools and means, with different languages, and analogical, mechanical and material technologies, integrated into the digital ones. I think that it’s a very interesting mixture, that doesn’t exclude any choice, this is what I meant. Your words speak of a dangerously radical thought: basically I don’t like to take a side and I love to confront myself with very different cultural spheres (starting from galleries to festivals to social spaces), but I think that the choice of many “activist” curators and critics has to be respected, for their ideological credo, for their interest for experimentation, for refusal of the market, for the search of expression channels alternative and external to the main productive circuits. I don’t think this makes them worse professionals nor that, for their expertise to be recognized, it’s necessary for them to be mainstream and institutional.
Domenico Quaranta: As for the first point, I really believe that the distinction that you mentioned – among “digital” artists and “contemporary” artists – doesn’t have sense anymore, even if historically it had one. From this point of view, the process you describe is interesting, but also entirely natural. With Inke Arns, I’m absolutely convinced that the new media art, or whatever we want to call it, doesn’t have to appeal to its mediatic specificity, but instead on its cultural specificity: it is exactly this awareness of the political, social and cultural role of the new media that makes it strong, competitive and absolutely contemporary. This, obviously makes the same term I just used obsolete, too characteristic in a mediatic sense. What we once called the new media art or digital art, can very well use non-new and non-digital media, because its strength is elsewhere: precisely in the cultural discourse it brings on. The victory of UBERMORGEN.COM of the ARCO BEEP prize is an example of this. In the meantime, a “contemporary” artist not interested to new technologies, can anyway adopt them as tools, and develop an interesting discourse: the job of the koreano Kim Jongku presented at the Expanded Box exactly represented this point of view.
As for the second point, the matter is more complex. I have a total respect towards the work of the artists and curators opposing the art system and trying to operate out of it, pursuing and developing alternative channels. In the meantime, nevertheless, I refuse to stick to the double equation art system = market and world of the new media art = alternative scene that seems implicit in your objection. In reality, independent platforms are distributed in both worlds, and both worlds run the same risk of stiffening and paralysis. I have already presented the beautiful project introduced by Oscar Abril Ascaso at the fair, in the Murcia region pavilion. It was indeed an experimental, radical, outside-of- the-market-logics project, picking up urban performances that used technologies to stimulate social dynamics. Nevertheless, it was presented to a fair. This way, he gave the chance to the artists involved to show up on an open, variegated and powerful platform, more than it would be offered by a festival of new technologies. Ascaso works for Sonar, but he didn’t refuse to face the new stage offered by a fair. When I accuse the critics and curators of new media art, I don’t accuse them for what they do, but for what they don’t do: for their incapability to move on different platforms, to compare themselves with other contexts, other demands, other discursive systems, and “to hedge their bets”: an incapability that favoured the “marginalization” process. And for what I know, artists don’t like the ghetto, except obviously those who could only get visible in the ghetto .
Marco Mancuso: Referring back to an interesting part of your text, that follows a quotation of William Gibson: “The historic function of Expanded Box, the last embodiment of an enduring attention Arco devoted to new media and languages, is precisely that of cultivating and redistributing the future, and supporting an “expanded” definition of art.” Do you want to tell us in which ways and dynamics, can the fairs of contemporary / digital art help a real redistribution of the future? I have always thought that that quotation of Gibson carried with it polemics about redistribution of technologies, wealth, investments, infrastructures and therefore art, culture, production …
Domenico Quaranta: Certainly. It’s called appropriation. I took that sentence and used it to say that the signs of the arts future are still little considered in some works, but that thanks to specific systems of distribution, they will have an increasing impact, and they will change, sooner or later, the future of the art. The market is one of these systems of distribution, of course not the only one, but one of them, and historically one of the most important. Do you know why painters have stopped making bad abstract works? Because a gentleman named Leo Castelli believed in two strangers called Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschemberg, and he was able to convince some people that he was right.
I repeat: market is not the only medium to give mutant geniuses and changes their visibility. Not even the biennial exhibitions, the big expositions, the museums, the magazines, the books are enough. You just have to take the catalogue of an old biennial exhibition or a number of Artforum from the 1970s, to understand that 90% of what was then considered “successful”, has disappeared today. The stores of the museums are full of works of art defeated by history. But thanks to an incomprehensible combination of these elements, something came through, and today characters like Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman are considered part of the history of art. Now, let’s take their more famous contemporaries from the “new media” and let’s look for them in one of the many books of arts history that have greeted the change of millennium: needless to say that we won’t find them. This means many things, but I’ll try to point out at least two of them: that the model of the festivals has not worked, and that the scene of the “new media” did not succeed in creating a single critic able to communicate his vision on an wider and open platform. It’s time to change. Something actually is already changing: I think, for instance, of the growing reputation of Rhizome at the New Museum in New York ; I think about Raphael Lozano-Hemmer, that works with the Tate and with a famous gallery like Haunch of Venison. In my own small way, I would really like to contribute to this change.
Marco Mancuso: I imagine you have discussed about this during the conference organized at Expanded Box: how was the debate in this sense? In a way I already told you this at the lecture at iMAL, don’t you think that it could be interesting and stimulating for the debate, to hear in these spheres also more polemic voices – or at least some not agreeing in the judgment and in the opinions?
Domenico Quaranta: I assure you, my chairmen did anything but agree. Blais and Ippolito have given a beautiful speech lingering on a series of projects whose strength comes exactly from the fact that they happened out of any artistic frame. Roberta Bosco has talked about the entrance of the net art in the physical space, claiming that the public is by now ready to face technologically complex hypothesis and picking on those who, in this process, seems to bend too much towards the market. Geert Lovink, following what he wrote in Zero Comments, has made a clear and harsh diagnosis of the actual state of the New Media Art, theorizing some ways out: he calls entering the world of the contemporary art “strategy of disappearance”. Inke Arns has illustrated her own curatorial work at the Hartware MedienKunst Verein of Dortmund, that places the media art in a wider context, and at the same time forces it to compare itself with the expositional space, not necessarily adopting “technology based” layouts; Régine Debatty has shown the absurdity of a critical perspective that insists on the difference between contemporary art and new media art, while Zhang Ga has tried to explore the reasons that make the new media art so tremendously actual: all three interventions, with very different approaches, worked on the “specific form of contemporary” of the new media art. Joasia Krysa, lastly, concentrated on a particular platform of artistic production – the RMB City founded by Cao Fei in the virtual world of Second Life, and tried to understand its success and peculiar economic model .