Pau Waelder is a researcher, art critic and curator who recently finished his PhD about the art market, its displacement on internet platforms and the interactions between contemporary art and New Media Art. His research acknowledge the explosion of the Post-Internet Art, as example of an artistic sector connected to New Media Art that stimulated the interest of the traditional art market.
Post-Internet Art has been for many a short parenthesis, a phenomenon which is already obsolete, but it setted a precedent of a successful artistic production for the art market, in the general context of New Media Art, even if some artists of the new generation does not recognize himself in the New Media Art field. From a different perspective, this interview also focuses on the new online resources for buying art and the new forms of distributions of digital contents.
Moreover, it is especially interesting the Waelder’s research to see how artists adopted strategies to propose something suitable for the market, and for the acquisition by collectors. An art that often is coherent with the contents and strategic in the forms of presentation. Pau Waelder was one of the speakers invited to the Media Art and Art Market symposium that took place in the Lentos museum in Linz the 10th of October 2016. His contribution in this topic is highly relevant and it gives a precise overview of the current situation of the market related to Media Art.
Alessio Chierico: In respect to the dissemination of creative contents over the net, have you observed any form of assimilation of typical internet phenomena (meme, for instance) in recent artistic practices?
Pau Waelder: This question leads me to think about post-internet art, and it’s very interesting for me. During the last decade, while I was focusing my research on New Media Art, my first reaction to post-internet art was: “This is stupid, this makes no sense, this is not what it should be”. When I started to focus on it, however, and read the texts of Artie Vierkant and other people who gave it a bit of structure, I started to think that it was more interesting than I had initially thought. For me, this was a lesson in seeing beyond my own perspective about what Media Art should be. Now what I see is very interesting: This new generation is taking all these contents from the Internet that for them are already natural, are already part of their culture, and then incorporating them into works that can take any form.
They even say that the artwork can simultaneously exist in different forms; as an animated gif, as a print, and as an object. These artists are incorporating things like memes, like everything they see online, everything they experience, into their artworks. Websites or apps like Tinder, or Instagram, or any other ones, are already part of their cultural DNA, and thus they become part of their artworks. It’s a new kind of cultural baggage, a new set of themes and subjects, that are very naturally presented there, and the implication is, that an effort must be made to learn about it. What I see concerning this generation is that they are speaking about the Internet, without actually directly referring to it. I mean that it is integrated, it is part of their subject. The important thing is that we are past the phase in which we have to talk about the technology itself, because now everybody knows what we are talking about. Now we can go to the next step, and talk about other subjects that are related to it. So, when a meme is introduced in an artwork, the meme is just part of the conversation, part of the artwork.
Alessio Chierico: You said that in the beginning you were not really impressed by the idea of post-internet. when did you start to become interested in it?
Pau Waelder: The problem is that post-internet art came out with a lot of self-awareness. If you think about the avant-garde movements, artists first did something, brought things together, and then somebody gave what they were doing a name. When I started to do a little research on post-internet, I understood that after Marisa Olson had coined the term, it suddenly it became the new theme, and many people were getting involved in it; it was simply the place where you had to be. So, everybody was working as a kind of entrepreneur, thinking: “Ok, if I can manage to have this label applied to my work, it will be a part of the contemporary art scene, and I will be promoted”. I saw a lot of this self-promotional idea behind it.
The problem is, that it eats itself up. When you read the text of the exhibition called “Art Post-Internet”, that Karen Archey and Robin Peckham (former Digicult author) put on, you find out about an interesting survey in which they interviewed many people in the Media Art world about post-internet. That text already maintained, that post-internet was dead. People, artists, curators who were participating in this label, were saying “Yes, but this is passé”, at the same time they were promoting it. At some point, it seemed inappropriate to talk about post-internet, because there were too many people that wanted to jump on that wagon. It became too much of a hype, and it was good to be beyond that. It is interesting to see how that happened: There was a small group of people, mainly based in New York, who created a network about around post-internet art, and managed to very rapidly promote it. Historically, the most important thing about post-internet is that it represents a new generation of artists, who are past the New Media Festival era; they have studied with the Media Art masters, with the people who won the Golden Nica, who were in the extremely strong scene of the 90s that was very much related to engineering and research.
This new generation wants to go back to the gallery, they want to make money, they want to be recognized by the contemporary art world; you have to consider all of these aspects. If you think about how New Media and contemporary art are meeting, I think post-internet is a key moment. A number of young artists who took part in auctions like the Paddle8 in New York suddenly got a lot of attention from the media because of the connections they had. Some of them very quickly went to big galleries. I think all of that has already faded away, but it was interesting, something you had to pay close attention to. For instance, I found the career of Petra Cortright fascinating, and I would like to consider it more closely. She went from being a YouTube cam girl, to a highly regarded artist. I recently read an article where she was called the “Monet of the 21th century”.
Alessio Chierico: We all know that the Internet has radically altered the dynamics of all the markets in the latest decades, as well as those of several cultural phenomena. What do you find especially interesting about the manner in which the Internet has affected the art market?
Pau Waelder: In the beginning of this decade, the art market suddenly woke up and realized that there is something called the Internet, and that they should use it. That had already happened at the end of the 90s. At that time, people in the art market were interested in what they could do with the Internet. For example, Sotheby’s created a platform for online auctions, and Artnet was also established, but both of them lost an amazing amount of money because their innovations didn’t work. The problem was, that in the late 90s, at the beginning of 2000s, the Internet was already somewhat familiar to everybody, but not to the extent that it is today, not to the extent that it has become since 2006. E-commerce was starting to explode, but it was not yet where it is today. Sotheby’s first partnered with Amazon, and then with eBay, and it lost something like eighty million dollars.
My impression was that this made the whole art market say: “This is not working”, so everyone just stopped. Besides, the 2008 economic crisis brought about changes, because gallerists were not selling very much. They had to look for new markets and new ways of reaching out to customers. First of all, they explored new markets for contemporary art in emerging economies, like China and Brazil, which were then going strong. Then, at the same time, they also started to realize that they could reach new customers through online platforms. Saatchi then created Saatchi Art. That was a platform where artists could directly sell their works to customers; initially they didn’t have to pay any fees to do so, but after a while the platform started to charge a commission. Apparently, Saatchi Art was making a lot of money, and around that time a series of new platforms for selling art online emerged. In 2011, the VIP Art Fair was initiated; that was the first fair that was conducted entirely online.
A number of other companies that started up at that time, like Artsy and Sedition, became increasingly interested in selling online. Artsy is an interesting example: A young engineer, Carter Cleveland, initiated it as a website that was supposed to help people find the art they like. In his opinion, the art market is very ineffective; if you want to find art works, you have to go from one gallery to another. He had the mentality of an engineer, and so he thought: “I’m going to make a system that includes all the artworks and puts a lot of different tags (names, categories) on them. The computer will then show you all the artworks that are similar to the one you choose”. It was a rather strange idea, a bit naïve, but he got six million dollars in funding from a group of investors, among them Larry Gagosian, one of the most powerful galleries in the world. Over the last years, a lot of wealthy people have been looking for new companies they could invest their money in, and many of these start-ups have suddenly received millions of dollars to work with. Artsy is one of them, and it rapidly developed into one of the main platforms where collectors could find art from galleries and be informed about what was happening in the art world.
The Internet is a good channel for directly reaching the customer. There are platforms where gallerists sell the same artworks that they have in their galleries through the Internet, with the help of apps. In that way, they are able to directly reach the customer. This seems like a much more effective way to sell art, than going to an art fair and waiting for the collector to show up. This is one way in which the Internet is changing the art market. The structure of the market is not changing, what is being sold on the market – that is, the artworks themselves – are not changing, the only thing that is undergoing a transformation is the way in which the audience is being reached and goods are being distributed to it. This is very different from what is happening with artists who are working with new media; they are striving to find better ways to sell their artworks, both online and in digital formats.
Alessio Chierico: How has the Internet affected the work of the artist?
Pau Waelder: Basically, what it changed for the artists is that they are aware of the much greater potential they now have to show their work. They do not have to confine themselves to exhibiting them in a physical space; they can also present them online. There are two developments that I find very interesting in this respect. One of them is a New York gallery called Transfer. It is one of the young galleries which are currently very actively promoting New Media. The owner, Kelani Nichole, is a curator who collaborates with young artists working on the Internet. These artists told her that, although they were showing their works online for free, they were missing the experience of presenting them in a gallery. Initially, the gallery was created to take online works and convert them into physical objects: sculptures, installations, etc.
This connects with post-internet too, because many artists like to show their works in social networks and online, but I think they are also quite fed up with showing their work for free and getting nothing in return. On the other side, let me tell you about Gregory Chatonsky, an artist I often work with. He has created many artworks online, as well as installations, prints and sculptures, and lately he is creating large installations in collaboration with another artist, the sculptor Dominique Sirois. Once he told me: “when I do a show, I do a special installation just for that show, and when it’s over, I destroy it. It is not worthwhile to take it anywhere else, or to do it again, because while the exhibition is being held in one particular place, it is also being shown online; it’s already documented out there. If somebody wants to see it, he can find photos, or videos of it on the Internet”.In my opinion, these two examples show us the different ways s in which artists are reacting to the simultaneous presentation of artworks online and offline.
Alessio Chierico: In the current cultural context, which is driven by data mining, contents aggregators and search engines, what are the biggest challenges that art curating is confronted with?
Pau Waelder: The biggest challenge for art curators is their budgetary limits. Then, when you go beyond mere theory, it is relevant to consider that you are actually working in a physical space. I like to work within physical spaces, because I think is important to create an interaction between the artworks and the spaces that surround them, as well as between the artworks and the people that view them. That’s why I have not been a very big fan of doing exhibitions online. However, the challenge is to be able to convince an institution or a gallery to do a show, to devote funding to it, and to pay the artists. That makes it possible to produce works. Unfortunately, that cannot always be realized. You experience a great deal of satisfaction when you are able to do a show, to actually produce a new work, to help the artists who are involved. If you succeed, you have accomplished something that had never been done before; you have made a change. It is really amazing when you can do that.
Let us go back to your question, which is: “How do you do curating in the age of Google?”. By posing this question, you might be saying, that you consider curating to be nothing more than selecting appropriate artworks. Actually, doing that is merely the first step. The selection process is just a small part of curating; after all anyone can select. That is why it became fashionable to call everything “curating” a couple of years ago. People were even saying: “I’m curating a party at my house”. For me that is totally nonsense, and it displays ignorance of what curating really involves. A curator is not merely a selector. What I like about the word “curator” is that it comes from “curare”, which means: “taking care”. For me, a curator is someone who takes care of an exhibition and of the works shown in it. Curatorial work involves two aspects. First of all, the curator has a vision of the exhibition and the works it displays. He or she then has to harmonize this concept with the works of the artists which are being presented. He must deal respectfully with these creations and make sure that they are presented well, in the manner in which the artists would like to have them exhibited.
Besides, they have to be adequately communicated to the public. The work of a curator is to create a situation. I especially like to make group exhibitions about particular subjects, and to present my vision of the artworks. In the texts I provide, I try to tell the visitors where the work has come from, and to explain that it has another meaning besides the one that I propose. From this point of departure, people can proceed to explore the world of the artist, and to discover what the artist is trying to say. The basic task is to make sure that all of this has been accomplished. Therefore, selection is only one aspect of a curator’s job; Another one involves talking with the artist, talking with the institutions, trying to make sure that everyone is happy. Then you have to communicate what you are doing; you have to be there and take care of all the problems that arise, try to attract the attention of the general public to the exhibition, do good research on the subject, etc. Ultimately, the curator has to bring an idea to an audience. That is what curating means to me. It is much more than simply selecting, and it is something that no search engine can yet accomplish!
Alessio Chierico: What are the most interesting strategies that media artists employ in their attempts to break into the art market? In other words, how can media art projects materialize an art object for the market? Can you give me some examples?
Pau Waelder: I wrote a text which is a kind of guide for artists, entitled “How to sell online art and make millions (of visits)” (http://www.pauwaelder.com/how-to-sell-online-art-and-make-millions-of-visits/). It presents eleven strategies that artists use, and shows their the pros and cons. Artists have various intentions when they create objects. For instance, people like Ubermorgen create what they call “media hacks”: online performances that present fictional events s as if they were real and thereby incite a reaction in the mass media. Each project includes a large amount of documentation, such as interviews, news coverage, and even cease-and-desist letters from lawyers. This documentation becomes part of the artwork itself. The artwork is a media performance that takes place in many different locations simultaneously. The intention of the artists involved is to test ways of hacking the media.
The question they are then confronted with is how to take something like that to an art gallery. They do so by creating derivative objects. For instance, there was a project called Vote Auction, where they created a website that supposedly would enable you to sell your vote in the US presidential election. They exhibited all the media coverage they got, as well as letters from lawyers. Then they presented them in a museum, where they also displayed the logo they had created for the website in the form of a large print, etc. They defined all of these things as objects that were suitable for sale in art galleries. Video artists and performance artists employ the very same strategy.
This is the kind of thing that all artists in such media utilize. Another very interesting strategy is that of Rafael Rozendaal, which I think is very clever. He creates websites that resemble moving or interactive paintings, and sells them to collectors. They have to sign a contract that he has created with a lawyer before they can purchase them. When the collector buys the website, he must keep it online, and he has to pay for the server and domain name, which is also the title of the artwork. It is unique; nobody else can have it. Finally, the artist adds the name of the collector to the title of the source code. The artwork is therefore public, although it is privately owned. The collector is interested in disseminating the work, because the more people see it and talk about it, the more his or her name will be promoted. I like that idea; when you go to the website, you see the paintings, and when you go to the source code, it is like seeing the back of a canvas with the names of the artist and the collector. Each strategy works with particular artwork, and artworks greatly differ from one another. It’s very difficult to define any kind of standard. The only standard is that you have to create some kind of object, because galleries know how to work with objects. It is difficult to work with a video or a website, or anything else that is not an object. Therefore, artists turn all kinds of things into objects, even just a box that holds a USB containing the artwork; we have not been able to go beyond that.
Alessio Chierico: Do you think that on-line platforms for selling art are good for the market, or do they need something else if they are to be effective?
Pau Waelder: There are different kind of platforms, that have various business models, but nobody has yet reached “Eldorado”; nobody has found the perfect strategy. Platforms like Artsy, that I mentioned previously, are managing to bring art to the collectors. I’m not sure how well they are working, but I think that they have long-term plans. If you want to sell an artwork from a gallery to people in any part of the world, then Artsy is just fine. According to a study of the online art market, it seems that people are not willing to buy anything that is more expensive than ten thousand pounds on it.
People do buy art which they haven’t see in person, but they will not spend more than that that amount of money on it. This study says that most of the people who buy art online purchase paintings, prints, or photographs. That is quite logical, because they are two-dimensional works that you can see very well on the screen. It is also interesting to consider what happens, when an artwork is in a digital format, and the screen is its natural environment. It is easy enough to sell a painting, because it is one single object that has been signed by someone and has been executed by hand; you cannot fake it. But if the artwork is a file, it can be distributed widely and readily copied. Every copy is thereby identical to the original. The same problem exists with video art. Its collectors don’t know what are they buying, because they buy a copy of an artwork that will one day become obsolete.
Some collectors have purchased VHS videos that don’t function after a certain period of time. The problem is also the way videos are sold. There are a number of restrictions about what a collector can do with an artwork. Normally, he can just play it at home and watch it with his family; he cannot show it anywhere else, because he doesn’t have the rights to do so. That is a strange restriction for someone who spends ten thousand, or even fifty thousand euros to buy a video. It is related to the very nature of digital art. The owner has something that can be easily duplicated. Some platforms have installed mechanisms to control this reproducibility. Sedition, for example, has so-called “digital editions”. You can buy one of the maybe five thousand copies of a work for around twenty euros. Theoretically, if five thousand people buy one of them, both Sedition and the artist can make enough money, and the buyer will have an “original” artwork. However, Sedition only allows you to watch the artwork in their servers. You cannot remove it from there, so you are dependent on them.
They do this because they have to make sure that they remain in control of all of the copies of the artwork, and that you cannot copy one of them and share it with others. This is one of the shortcomings that now exist, but I think that there will be a solution one day. For example, everybody might have his or her artwork in a cloud-based system, which would make it possible to buy art anywhere. People are currently working with bitcoins the blockchain to certify ownership, so that collectors can register the artworks they buy. It would then not matter how much t they circulate, there would only be one single owner. In the current situation, however, the files still need to be controlled. In time, this will also change the structure of the art market, which is based on scarcity, on the idea that artworks are unique, that they are single objects that only the owner possesses. In our current society, however we are all sharing the same contents and therefore a large number of people now find that this scarcity makes less and less sense. The change is not going to be easy to bring about, and it will have to be sustainable. After all, as I said before, artists who work online are fed up with putting their artworks online for anyone to see for free. Of course, they want to earn money with them, so there will have to be a system that enables them to make their works sustainable and to earn a living from them.
Alessio Chierico: What should the priorities and specificities be for art galleries that want to focus on Media Art?
Pau Waelder: When I talk to gallerists who work with Media Art, they all mention that they collaborate with their artists with the intention of making their art available to the market. Of course, good galleries are businesses, and they want to make money, but they like the art they are showing, they like the artists they deal with, and they want to support them. Thus, the gallerists ask their artists: “What do you want to do? How can we do it? How we can present your work and show it to a collector?” This is the first and the most important consideration: doing something that makes sense with the work of the artist. If an artist who usually works online makes an object, it has to make sense. This is a priority!
There are two priorities for a gallery: one is to have something that can be sold to a collector in a way that a collector can understand the work, can keep it, and can have at least some sort of guarantee that it will be preserved. Once Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, who understands the art market very well, told me that we have to design some sort of best practice guidelines for new media artists. They should be a set of steps that are taken in order to give purchasers a sort of certificate of quality. He actually published an article in GitHub with some recommendations for artists, telling them how to document their artworks, how to preserve them, and how to deal with the collector once they had sold him or her the artwork. His concern was, that if a media artist sells a piece to a collector and it doesn’t work, that collector will never buy another work from any other new media artist again. If you buy a painting, and it self-destructs because the quality of the materials it is made of is inferior, you don’t blame all the painters in the world, but if you buy a new media artwork, and it stops working, you blame all of new media artists. He was saying that if we adhere to this kind of best practice, we give the collector some kind of insurance that he or she has something that makes sense and is going to last.
This is also a priority, because the collector is part of the life-cycle of the artwork. He or she might turn out to be the person who spends the most time with the artwork. Whenever I talk to artists who do not work with new media, and they see all of the problems that occur when you embrace the new technologies, they say: “I don’t know how I could manage to create anything in that technological world, I don’t know how to program, etc.”. Then I say “you don’t have to become something you are not, you can partner with an engineer and tell him what you want to do. He will then solve your problem”. There can be a kind of partnership between the artist and the gallerist, in which the gallery has to have some understanding of how the artistic creation works. He doesn’t have to be an engineer or be able to solve technical problems. He is specialized in presenting and selling the artwork; that is his expertise.
The artist has to contribute his own expertise and understanding of his works, and they have to work together to develop technical solutions whenever they are needed. When I talk to Media Art gallerists, most of them are concerned with educating the audience. For them, it is important to create a connection between the collectors and the people who come to the gallery. Their job is to create the proper context, to impart the essential knowledge to the collectors, to enable the general public to understand Media Art, so that people will be able to evaluate it and be willing to buy it. I think this is an important part of the job of the gallery: to educate the audience. This is something that usually doesn’t happen in contemporary art galleries. When you go to them, nobody tells you anything; you don’t even really feel welcome there, you just go there. If you like what you see, that’s fine, if you don’t, you just leave. In my experience, the new media art community is much more reachable, much more available, than other sectors of the contemporary art world.