Gerfried Stocker is a media artist and since 1995 he is director of Ars Electronica. As one of the main international institutions of Media Art, Ars Electronica plays a fundamental role in the promotion, dissemination and creation of recognition of Media Art. The sociological aspect that determines this cultural field, like others, is actually recognised in this interview, in which Stocker express hope about a fruitful dialogue between the contemporary art and Media Art fields, in respect to their own specific competencies.
In this sense the art market, seen as one of the elements that create recognition and validation of art practices, appears to be a possible meeting point in which the understanding of these two areas can converge. Art funding is composed of a wide spectrum of different economies, and according to Stocker, since Media Art presents a very complex ecology of practices, it needs to be supported by several of these economic formats. In this interview, Stocker stress out the specific nature of Media Art, and how it finds its perfect expression in the festival setting. However, it is important that all the various existing formats that display cultural contents are used to sustain the specific nature of the various artistic products.
Another central aspect that emerges from this interview is the necessity of stimulating the process of “musealization” of Media Art. In this sense the contribution of the art market in creating economic value, might raise concerns about the problematic conservation of Media Art, thus, invites the institutions to promote preservation policies. However, it must also acknowledge that the process of “musealization”, thus “sanctification” of the art practice, is always the final act of art production. In facts, its historicization might represent a sort of disaffection to the present time, thus, the end of its experimental stage.
Alessio Chierico: The peculiarities of Media Art, as well as the larger field that relates art, science and technology, often requires some special attention. In your opinion, which are the most appropriate formats (festivals, galleries, online platforms, museums etc.) where Media Art can be better exposed?
Gerfried Stocker: I think that festivals has the best format so far. There is a good reason why most of the Media Art has been presented at festivals, because they can be more experimental, you can use different types of presentations, different modalities, than in a gallery or in a museum, but of course there is a lot of Media Art that can also be presented in these contexts. We have many visual oriented Media Art, or with some sound or small interactivity that would work in a gallery as well. However, the very broad spectrum of different types of Media Art production, from visual to sound, to installation, to process, to communication, to community, can be very nicely and efficiently presented within a festival.
I think that’s the reason why, in the last twenty, thirty years a lot of festivals have started all over the world. Media Art has this particular and very important thing that is its explorative nature, and this fits very much with the kind of attention that the people have, when they go to a festival. Media Art festivals have a very clear format and shape, and certain types are more popular and functional for Media Art. Usually the festivals are related to a topic, to a scene: you have symposia, you have artist talks, you have exhibitions, situations that could be in a gallery as well, and you have all these possibilities for these crossovers. I think this is the important thing, because there is so much Media Art that has a very strong theoretical and discursive moment.
When the artists can talk about their works, but at the same time they exhibit their projects, or they talk during the day and during the evening they have a concert or a performance, or you have a piece of art that is partly an installation to look at, but it has also a performative element. All these crossovers, they are part of the nature of festivals. And I think there is a good reason why most of the festivals have a very similar style, a very similar mixture of activities. For me it’s totally clear, because Media Art is not just art that is using computers and media technologies.
Media Art, if you really take it seriously and consider the whole picture, is a specific art on its own, it is art with its own with very strong characteristics, that you can identify very clearly. This is why this field is flourishing, and developing in the best way within this kind of format. Festivals have been developed in this way to respond to the needs of Media Art. I know it very well from our activity, but also from many others. The way how festivals have been formulated and created the different kind of presentations, directly responds to the needs of Media Art and media artists.
Alessio Chierico: Which do you think are the proper economic resources that can support the development and circulation of Media Art? Should it borrow the format of performative arts (ticket for public, fees for artists etc.), should it rely on public funding, or use the traditional market model based on sell and buy?
Gerfried Stocker: First of all, there is no possible business model that it is not based on public funding. Even when you look into fine art and the super expensive stuff that are owned by galleries. In the beginning all the artists, even the superstars that are earning a lot of money, they all have to start with some kind of public funding. Either are funding coming from the government, like in Europe, or funding coming from foundations or philanthropists like in the United States. This is always the basic business model for art in general. Also performative arts like theatre need a lot of public funding until you can finally sell tickets. Theatre earn some additional money with tickets, but the major budget is again coming from some sort of public, or some form of contribution from the society. This is because the theatre will need of somebody to operate the theatre, somebody have to pay the playwriters, and all these kind of things.
I think we have to be just honest about this, and we shouldn’t expect that Media Art will be suddenly became an art form where you can make the living, or where you can earn money on your own. Media Art is a new, experimental, avant-gardist, and explorative art form, I think there must be a strong interest from the society, to support this kind of art. A strong interest that goes way beyond education or entertainment. It is something that has to do with the reasons of why we are investing in research and science. Media Art is an instrument that help us to better understand and get to terms, with all these transformations that our society is going through, because of digital technologies, media technologies, networks, and this kind of things.
We should really consider that this art gives a very important contribution to the society, not just for the interest in good art, but also for its ability to contribute to this all process of creating knowledge, creating understanding, creating access also to our times. I’m thinking again why also festivals, become part of the art market of Media Art. Most of the artists who were successful in Media Art in the last ten, twenty years, have made their career. I don’t know any artist who make the all income with just this one kind of thing, but the big part of the income, they made it being present at festivals and artistic residencies, often centred around festivals. This is because if you are an artist in residence, or you have a commission piece and you want to present it, the festivals have become a kind of market that is paying money to the artists, to produce, present, and discuss new works. Moreover, in Ars Electronica, many other festival directors, curators, people who are responsible for exhibitions, for programs, come to see what is updated, what are the new art projects, to meet the artists, and even make contracts or agreements with them during the festival.
Alessio Chierico: Since the segment of Media Art which is present in the art market represent a small portion of the whole field, how do you think is it possible to associate a specific economical value, to Media Art works that are out of the art market? Do you think that this can be considered as a problem, or it does not affect the developments of this filed?
Gerfried Stocker: I wouldn’t see it as a problem, I would see it as an asset, as one of the special qualities of Media Art. Referring to this, we can see a certain segment of Media Art that has a good chance to connect to galleries and art market. Then, we have another, maybe bigger segment of Media Art that fits quite well to performances and concerts, including all of this pop culture scene things like vjing. There is quite much of this audio-visual stuff that fits perfectly into the market of concert and performative arts, but there is always this exploration, this kind of experimentations and investigation of the new realities of our society, to understand the mechanisms of our time. I think this is a certain contribution of Media Art that we also know from contemporary art. In this field there are always have been artists that did very conceptual works, especially from the 20th century. We have many areas, and some of them, after some time, they even made it in collections of museum and things like this.
The interesting thing is that: in the moment when Joseph Beuys started to be collected by museums, he was already dead. That’s the problem of this. The real energy of this art projects cannot be unfolded in the collections. The collection is a very good reference that pays respect to the artist, his idea and concept, but the moment when this artwork happens, is the moment which it was conceptualized, discussed. This is again the moment when Media Art is at its stronger point: when it is collecting the, so to say, the bit of the time, when it is contributing to the understanding, shaping and designing our time. The matter of fact that a certain segment or portion of Media Art doesn’t fit to any existing art market, is not a problem, but maybe an asset. As society, we just have to make sure that this artistic work and production can survive, can take place, that can happen, because we benefit a lot from it. As society we probably benefit more from this experimental, explorative part of Media Art, than what we benefit from super nice animation of generative graphics that are hanging in some gallery.
Alessio Chierico: Do you think that Media Art and contemporary art, are two separate things? Should they found a convergence or just keep their own domain of pertinence?
Gerfried Stocker: Well I could give a diplomatic answer, but I prefer the provocative answer, which is: I think there is no contemporary art outside of Media Art. This does not mean that only the type of Media Art that we present at Ars Electronica or that comes from these educative courses like Interface Culture, is exclusively the only contemporary art, but you cannot make contemporary art out of what contemporary means. Contemporary is not just “ok, the artist is living right now”. For me it always meant: art that is taking deep the into the reality of our times, that is able to unveil, and that is able to show us how the mechanisms of our time are working. Since our time is mostly dominated by phenomena, developments and transformations that comes from media technologies, the most contemporary art you can do, is not just working with media as tool, but working as an artist about our digital era, about our tech-times.
Either are you involved into a kind of activism, educational thing, if you are working with all the kind of market structures behind the internet, the surveillance thing, or if you are just creating beautiful or aesthetic experiences of what it means to be digital, these are all the things that describe our time, so, I would say, contemporary art has to be an art dealing with this reality. In one way or another, maybe even if you don’t involve a computer itself. Media or the techno-centered reality of our time is in the core of art itself.
About the next part of the question, this means that we have a very strong convergence of the two things, and I totally appreciate this. I’m in this business since more than twenty-five years, and I really remember the times when Media Art and contemporary art were completely separated. Now, beside this kind of conceptual or ideological approaches, you cannot make a difference at all. For me is important to really understand that it’s not Media Art to dissolve in the larger ocean of contemporary art, but that it is actually the other way around. Contemporary art, when it’s really relevant and contemporary, converges into artistic works that are based on the technical reality of our time.
Alessio Chierico: Could it be that it is not the practice itself, but the institutions that are managing contemporary art and Media Art, that are creating this separation between these two fields?
Gerfried Stocker: In art, like in any other sector of society, there are people who created a position for themselves, and then they have to defend it. Institutions have a certain identity, they are run by people who spent their lifetime to become expert in a special segment, so, of course they don’t want to give it up, they need to protect it. I don’t mean this negatively. That’s the way of how you build up expertise: by making a difference and making sure that things can be considered of high quality, and that those things don’t spoil your expertise. There are always moments of transitions, when things are changing. In these moments you are protecting your own thing, fencing your own interests. This might become counterproductive, and this is what is happening right now and in the recent years.
On many levels, people are recognizing that fencing is no longer the best strategy. Even if you are a gallery or a collector, and if you are still maintaining this exclusiveness, of saying: “I’m dealing just with oil paintings”, or graphics, or whatsoever, you might recognize that you are in danger to render yourself not relevant any more. Even from a pure market point of view, people are recognizing that they have to open up, because there are also other things. When they open they immediately recognize all the interesting dynamics and energies. Then they get interested in this field. Many artists who have a very traditional career, who have a very traditional education and training, suddenly start to be interested in working with computers as well, because it is part of our life, because it is part of our reality.
Alessio Chierico: The issue related to the preservation of Media Art works rises several concerns in a cultural, but also economic perspective. How does Ars Electronica deal with this problem? Which is the contribution that Ars Electronica gives to limit this specific issue?
Gerfried Stocker: At the moment it seems that Media Art and Digital Art are very difficult to preserve, because they are based on very young technologies, but there is no art that is easy to preserve. For example, every paint needs a lot of attention and care taking. For hundreds of years we have seen innovators and highly trained experts polishing and cleaning the paintings, to make sure that the colour comes back alive or to do some repair. What we have now is just a small percentage of the all the artworks. What we have now is what has survived through the centuries. In addition to the preservation comes the issue of value: how much value do we assert to a certain kind of artistic production? For example, now it is easy to recognize how much energy is put into preserving very old photography, since the very early time of daguerreotype or the first movies. This kind of appreciation always comes later. That’s why many super interesting works from Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo went lost: at the time nobody really paid enough attention. When we look at ancient Greek sculptures, for example, we almost cannot find any made in bronze, because the metal was often molten and used to make weapons. At a certain point it was more important to have weapons than old Greek or Roman sculptures.
Only very few things survived, like the Antikythera machine that we have only because it was under water for two thousand years. We cannot separate the question of preservation from the appreciation and value that we give to art. This is where we look at in places like Ars Electronica, or these kinds of festivals. What we are building is appreciation. A certain part of the festival responsibility is not only to serve the artists and create an environment where they can work, but also to connect them and communicate them to the audience. This is necessary to build up awareness and to understand the relevance and importance of this art, for the present time and for the future.
Concerning our contribution, this is still speculative, but the next step will be to push places like Ars Electronica and ZKM to try to promote conservation: these places must become the first centres that help develop the skills, the knowledge and the tradition of preserving. The next important part is not just about how to preserve an art piece of Media Art, but also how to pass it to the next generations. Either is music, painting, theatre, we have legions of experts, every generation trains thousands, and hundreds of thousands of super musicians, art historians, renovators and all of this kind of things. In a similar way, we will start to do it with Digital Art as well.
Alessio Chierico: During its long history, Ars Electronica has been very attentive to any of the fast changes that happened in technology and the society. This has probably requested high flexibility in the content proposed and in the structure itself. Is there any new “branch” that will be created soon, and that you can reveal? What is the content that you think will need to be addressed soon in the area of art, science and society?
Gerfried Stocker: When you refer to this kind of responsiveness of Ars Electronica about this fast changing, meandering development of Media Art, one have to say: of course this comes with the prize. In these thirtyseven years Ars Electronica was very capable of always stay on the edge, but on the other side we have not built up or created a collection. We have documented a lot, but the way of following the fast developments always comes with the prize. Without that you are not able to pay enough attention to what has been created already. In the end is very important to have both these kind of institutional responsibility and institutions, that behave like Ars Electronica, and that stays on the forefront, and that try to communicate the values of this field. The other point is that we need more institutions, that are thinking about preserving and collecting. This is something where we have to necessarily be fast. Because first you have to build some appreciation and value and then you have to take care of it. This is the same way which we are more and more overcoming this separation between contemporary art and Media Art. This separation between the coolness of the fast flexible event or institution and the work like: collect things, take care of building taxonomies, building theories, building a codex out of it.
There is still much more work to do together, and I think this is slowly developing, and more this thing is developing less jealous we are about each other, and we don’t think we take away our resources from each other. I think we are more and more recognizing that we have to collaborate. In the coming years, this definitely means that we have to make an effort to connect a place like Ars Electronica, in particular the festival, with this art market, this contemporary art market, and this kind of things, whatever it is on detail. This is still a very vague description, because for many years or decades even, it was fine for us to say “we are Media Art and they are the contemporary art, who cares?” Now, we have to make an effort to connect to the contemporary art field, to describe it as vague as possible, including the market, which is just a part of this large area, from the collectors to the Biennale, Triennale, etc. I see that this field is more and more paying attention toward the Media Art, and it is becoming a rapidly growing possibility for media artists. There will be collectors collecting Media Art in the same way of traditional or conventional art forms.
However, the number of artists who are really able to make a living from selling the art work is so incredibly small. It is like going to the casino, there is always the chance that you became commercially successful, but it is a very small percentage, and as artists we shouldn’t pay too much attention to it. Despite this issue, this hope to become rich or famous, there is a huge area where artists, media artists can be active, where they can find possibilities and opportunities to work. This is why, from our side also, we have to really work hard on bringing down these fences and barriers, and create interesting collaboration models between these very flexible dynamics, experimental, explorative festival world, and the not so fast, but nevertheless important world of galleries, art biennale, and this kind of things.
It is on the interest of artists, and as institution, my main responsibility as Ars Electronica, is to take care of the interest of artists, this is what institutions should primarily do. This will be for the coming years, we are working on several proposals to galleries to collectors, to museums, for example for the whole issue when it comes to maintenance of Digital Art and Media Art. There are more and more collectors, private or public ones, that are interested on purchase and have Media Art in their collection. However, nobody is really offering to support about how to maintain and keep it alive. The artists cannot really do this, they have different things to do, they have to create new artworks, otherwise you make three artworks, and then you spend the rest of your life maintaining them. The galleries don’t want to do this, because it is not really their business, and they don’t really have the knowledge.
Places like Ars Electronica with all the experience that we have, we are maintaining hundreds of projects in our exhibitions every year has the expertise to do this. For example, even thinking about certain kind of business models, we could offer maintenance contracts, that would support artists in selling their projects. It is like in any other technical area. For example, if you have an elevator in your building, you have a maintenance contract with the elevator company. For now the most important thing is to start the dialogue and exchange between these two worlds, and I think this is what our festival is anyway trying to do.