Professor Ryszard Kluszczyński, a curator, art critic, and internationally renowned specialist in video art, new media art, and cyber culture, talks to Agnieszka Sural about technological art.
Agnieszka Sural: Can we trace back the beginnings of what we now call new media art and technological art to the daguerrotype – an invention conjured up by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and Louise Jacques Daguerre?
Prof. Kluszczyński: Daguerrotypes started to appear towards the late 1930s, so we can say that the development of technological art begins there. But it is also true that a few decades later, the impressionists would use photography as a device to help their painting, and the thought that photography could also be a form of art didn’t cross their minds.
Technologies have a different origin than the technological art which results from their use. The technology of photography emerged in the 1830s, while the emergence of photography as an art form is more disputable, one could either say it was in the 1890s, or in the beginning of the 20th century. Art history never establishes clear-cut boundaries.
At first, photography was rejected by the world of art, because it challenged all the ideas of what constitutes an artistic image. It only gained the status of an artistic medium when it imitated the production of techniques with an already established position – such as engravings and drawings. Pictorial photography of the period would imitate what was not photography.
For a long time, people refused to accept that something created by a mechanical device had the right to be considered a work of art. Today, nobody objects to the fact that photography is produced by a camera. In cinema’s case, the battle for its own rights was shorter. And when video art appeared, nobody had any issues with its mechanical character anymore.
And yet, it took 35 years for the world of art to recognise this form.
One of the reasons is that art is still governed by the art market (even though in Poland the situation is different, it isn’t really in Poland that media are gaining a global artistic status). Video was accepted as an art form, but for decades it didn’t appear in museums where more traditional media were continually honoured. It was only in 1995 that Bill Viola’s Buried Secrets were presented at the Biennale in Venice, and this date is usually considered the beginning of a process wherein video art started to be accepted by the art establishment.
Video is something we consider part of technological art, but not part of new media art. But it is no longer that simple, because today, video is often created with digital media and all digital technologies are considered an important part of new media art. So, I would say that in a certain form, video is part of the large domain of new media art, but also that today, it no longer plays a significant part on its own. The important things are taking place somewhere else, and they have been taking place somewhere else for the past 25 years. What has been and continues to be important is the interactive nature of new media projects, their virtuality, as well as their internet and participatory character.
What was the most important exhibition?
A very important event took place in 1966 in New York. It was called 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, hosted by the 69th Regiment Armory. Some of the participants included Rauschenberg, John Cage, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainer. For nine consecutive evenings, the artists presented their work in collaboration with engineer-technicians, brought over by Klüver from Bell Laboratories. The Armory project was hugely popular with the public, whose presence was massive, and with the artists and engineers who were ready to collaborate with them.
Rauschenberg’s project consisted in having two people play tennis with prepared rackets, whose handles were equipped with a transmitter. The device triggered the sound of a gong each time a ball bounced off the racket, and at the same time, it turned off one of the lamps lighting the court. The longer the game, the darker the court area became. Later, infrared cameras were turned on. And when the audience could no longer see anything, it was presented with its own image on a screen.
A week later, Klüver and Rauschenberg created the Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) organisation.
Hundreds of artists and engineers came to the founding meeting. A few months later, there were thousands of them. The goal was to create a network for facilitating contact between artists and engineers. Artists who were members of the organisation received help from the associated technicians.
What tools were used by those pioneers of technological art?
The first use of computers by artists dates back to the late 40s, but it was only in the 70s that technology developed sufficiently for it to spread and become common. Artists have had access to transportable video equipment, the famous portapack mobile camera, since the mid 60s. Legend has it that the first artist to buy such a camera was Nam June Paik, who hailed himself the father of video art.
The first successful Internet transmission took place in 1969, but the Internet as such began to develop in the 80s. You could clearly perceive the growth and progress of all sorts of aspects of technology, and projects started to become more differentiated.
Were Penderecki, Rudnik, and Borowski the pioneers in Poland?
In the domain of electronic art, yes. But simultaneously to the activity of Rudnik and Penderecki, in the broader context of technological art of the 50s and 60s various film experiments were also conducted. We now catalogue them within the paradigm of avant-garde cinema, a genre at the borderline of two different art forms. Andrzej Pawłowski was both a painter and a photographer, and at the same time, he made abstract films where he associated images with music.
During the communist period, there were many different was of approaching and working with technological art. A group of artists gathered around the Film Form Studio. Wojciech Bruszewski and Piotr Biernacki made the first video tape in 1973. From the late 60s and throughout the 70s, a trend developed in Poland which focused on technologies and worked with photography, film, and video. They were given the 'photo-media' moniker. It wasn’t an easy thing, because while hundreds of artists created video works in the 70s, here, Wojciech Bruszewski was initially the only person with a camera at his disposal.
In the 90s, a new generation appeared for whom video art didn’t constitute a form chosen instead of other ones, but rather an instrument of creation in its own right. While the 70s saw video works emerge among the graduates of the film schools in Łódź and Katowice, in the 90s it was the Academies of Fine Art that became the cradle of video art – with works of artists such as Anna Baumgart or Piotr Wyrzykowski.
How did their research inscribe itself in the global development of new media art?
In the 90s, new media art was already a domain in its own right. Artists worked outside of the traditional institutional system. The most important mainstream museums, art biennales, and festivals were not looking in that direction. The challenge among those using digital technologies was to work with what is interactive, what constitutes a network, and with what is virtual, too. By then video art was already part of the mainstream. But at the time, in Poland it was regarded as the height of modernity.
The first shy gestures towards interactivity were assumed by a small group of people. Piotr Wyrzykowski made his Poczet Królów Polskich (editor’s translation: Guide to the Kings and Queens of Poland) in 1993, wherein viewers could interfere with the structure of the text. Simple projects of this kind were significant for Polish art, but they passed almost unnoticed, because they weren’t exhibited in places that attracted the most attention.
Wyrzykowski is an incredibly interesting artist, and each phase of his work brings things that transgress technological and conceptual levels of his Polish art contemporaries. He created the first interactive projects back when the idea of interactivity as such was either unknown or misunderstood.
In your book, Sztuka Interaktywna. Od Dzieła – Instrumentu Do Interaktywnego Spektaklu (editor's translation: Interactive Art: From Instrument-work to the Interactive Performance) this kind of art takes on many different forms.
I selected eight different strategies within interactive art. Some of them contradict each other. What connects them is that they don’t have a definite form, they don’t have the character of an artefact. They are all events who unfold according to the audience’s behaviour. Artists have different ways of defining the frame of these interactions. These works are not abandoned by the artists to be left entirely to the viewers. They are conjured up within a dialogue, usually an indirect form of dialogue. The public often has to construct their relationship with the artists through contact with his work.
Piotr Wyrzykowski was one of the first to make such works (although we shouldn’t forget the pioneering activity of Wojciech Bruszewski and Józef Robakowski). Nowadays, his works are linked to Augmented Reality – he superimposes virtual layers onto the real world.
How did the Polish art world respond to those who worked with new technologies?
In the 70s, an unfriendly relationship was shaped between the traditional milieu and radical artists who worked with technologies as their main medium. And when I speak of the traditional milieu, I am thinking about modern artists such as Kantor, for example. This hostile stance was actually shaped by traditionalist art criticism. At the time, Wiesław Borowski published his famous article about the pseudo-avant-garde in which the contempt of a certain group of artists for those using different methods was explicit. But the problem was not so much with technologies, but with the diverging concepts of art as such, and the role of the artist. They were two distinct ways of understanding artistic creation.
Today we can see that the other party, those who focused on technology, actually followed a direction which became the future of Western art. Robakowski with his use of technology, Partum with his use of conceptual art – according to Borowski, they were the pseudo-avant-garde, and not the real one. These artists proposed a different way of thinking about art, a way which is something essential and important in today’s art world. Their past opponents are still present today, but mainly due to the fact that the art market plays a huge part in creating the art establishment.
In the book which you published together with Dagmara Rode in 2015, Trajektorie Obrazów. Strategie Wizualne W Sztuce Współczesnej (editor's translation: The Trajectories of Images: Visual Strategies in Contemporary Art), you describe revolutions within the world of images.
In my text about nomadic images and post-images, I draw attention to the way that the world of images in art has been revolutionised five times. The first revolution was strictly technical, connected with the emergence of photography as an image created by machines, and not by hand. Later came the electronic revolution, with the appearance of television and video. I write about the way that the image lost the status it still had when photography emerged, namely, it ceased to be something material. The image would appear during the functioning of the television, on its screen – it was a performance. The next revolution was the digital one. Images began to be produced by mathematical operations. And then, the interactive revolution, wherein images are made by many people, they are process-images. Finally, there’s the Internet revolution, connected to the development of other networks that also provoke new ways of producing images and new ways in which they function.
Don’t artists have any issues with the way the most important technological inventions of the late 20th century were initially created for the state and for the army?
Money is required to create technologies. And it is a known fact that the Internet developed in the United States thanks to subsidies of the Department of Defence. Those who introduced the idea presented it as a communication system capable of withstanding nuclear attacks. More than ten years later, Milnet was isolated within this network, as the part which would still serve the army, while the rest was made available to everyone and the era of Internet for all began.
Indeed, some artists do evoke the Internet’s shady origins, but it happens less and less often. I could briefly point out in this place that the Tate gallery collection was founded with money from the slave trade. The question of where an institution or a technology comes from is not the most important, what matters is how it works and the purpose it serves.
What is the current stance of museums and galleries with respect to technological art? These works are not bought for collections in Poland – they are expensive and difficult to keep and conserve.
Some of the institutions in Poland only want to gather artefacts, take care of them, and preserve them for the future. Those are all traditional tasks of the museum. Modern museums across the world have already began to consider themselves as discourse-institutions, which have the character of a workshop and which offer the public contact with new ideas – ideas manifested through artistic activity. It’s the present activity that matters, and not work on the past for the sake of the future. There is a growing number of museums for which this has become a priority. It hasn’t yet happened in Poland.
Even the best museums still function within the traditional field. It is only seldom that, under the tagline of a radical or a critical museum, they try to break free of this perspective. They enter a realm of activities which also have a long history of their own – performance art, political art, and video art. Those phenomena are now something obvious, with an unquestionable artistic status.
In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw held an exhibition about post-internet art. And yet, it was the Internet and digital imagery that constituted its main focus. Another exhibition called Document evoked the 1968 display prepared by Joanna Reichert, Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. That was one of the first ever exhibitions of cybernetic and robotic art, and among the items on display was SAM by Ihnatowicz.
Today, a transmedia perspective can be clearly traced in the world of art. A growing number of art works is located by the artists within a space in-between different media, rather than within one of them. In 2007, Bill Viola’s exhibition at the Zachęta National Gallery included electronic images (some of which had been shown at the aforementioned Venice Biennale) whose video aesthetics conversed with the aesthetics of painting. Viola, who introduced his works into the transmedia context, found an intriguing way of evoking his very early experiences with video art, wherein the perception of images and the perception of reality were left unresolved. Electronic portraits and scenes depicted on flat screens that hung on Zachęta’s walls seemed to imitate painting through the way that they were exposed, as well as their aesthetics. This led to a similar kind of confusion [as Viola’s earliest video works], because of the difficulty in integrating the process of perceiving very slow changes in the images with the process of recognising the representations which changed as their result. The process of perception and the process of seeing were set in mutual conflict in these images.
In 2009, Fiona Tan presented different transmedia events at the Dutch Pavilion in Venice – electronic portraits of contemporary women.
The Biennale, which many still consider the most important showcase in the world of art, has seen the growing process of videofication since the mid-90s. There was an edition of the Biennale where video art was almost omnipresent, and there were many works derived from digital synthesis. There were also singular pieces that used the Internet. I remember some Polish art critics declared a downfall of the Biennale at the time. But it wasn’t a crisis of the Biennale, but rather a crisis of the Polish art critique. The lack of professional education that prepares you for the job, the lack of knowledge about a domain no longer all that radical – that is what was revealed. There are few places in Poland today which teach about new media art and digital aesthetics.
What kind of a time are we witnessing now, in early 2016?
In the first decade of the 21st century, the new media trend had become so intense that some artists experienced a burn-out in this respect. Some declared that what had been so important in the 1990s – creating interfaces and shaping interactive experiences for the viewers – started to become secondary due to the presence of interactivity in everyday life. Being interactive became too obvious to constitute a significant subject. The era of post-media art was proclaimed, in which new media technologies become a new generation of creative instruments.
The French philosopher and a researcher of culture, Pierre Moeglin, paraphrased Descartes when he wrote 'you’re interactive, therefore you are.' We discovered that interactivity makes up a part of our biological and psychological apparatus. Technologies which come from the outside have now adapted themselves to our way of being in the world, and they determine the parameters present in the world of art. Interactive technologies should now be used for different purposes. This is what was being debated in the international art scene, while in Poland, much simpler technologies were only beginning to function.
Art nowadays plays all kinds of games with reality, and it does so on a variety of levels. There are some who evoke traditional aesthetics, others who engage in a game with political institutions, art institutions and with science. Interdisciplinary discussions take place, and art has its place in these discussions. The idea of art’s autonomy has lost meaning. Technology is an inevitable winner in all this, as a platform of various interdisciplinary interactions. This is especially the case wherever technology is highly developed, and recognised as an important part of culture. But it’s not like that everywhere.
In Poland under the communist regime, the development of technology was limited by ideology. Conservatism within art schools also played a significant part in slowing this process down, and it continues to do so.
Certainly. But to speak of ideological contempt towards something that doesn’t even exist reminds of one of La Fontaine‘s fables, the one about the fox who wanted to eat grapes. And because these grapes were hanging too high, the fox decided that they were sour and hard, and that he didn't like them. One can only speak of conscious choice with respect to technology where technology is really accessible.
Interview conducted in Warsaw, November, 2015. Written by AS, translated by PS, May 2016.