Art critic and exhibition curator, Dominique Moulon specialises in the digital arts and the new media. He is also artistic director of Variation, the fair took place in October in Paris during the Digital Art Week. An interview.
What’s your thesis about?
It’s called L’art au-delà du numérique. Pratiques numériques plurielles d’un art contemporain singulier (Art beyond the digital. Plural digital practices of a singular contemporary art). The idea is to consider, as Norbert Hilaire does, the “digitality coefficient” of contemporary works, with reference to Marcel Duchamp and his “art coefficient”. Many digital works are in line with art history: in line with kinetic art — whose movement digital work can control — such as video and photography. I also wish to consider the change in scale which we’ve gradually witnessed, if only because today we hold the world in our hands with our smartphones. Works document this mutation and what society has become. I consider the great digital themes which have become themes for contemporary art or society on a wider scale —surveillance for example. The great trends of the 20th century can today be reconsidered through the prism of the digital medium. Finally, there are works that emerge as a consequence of Internet — what we call the “post-Internet” or more widely the “post-digital”. In the 1990s, we experienced a type of virtualisation of the world. Today, we see that artists wish to rematerialize art, the world. This is why we talk of a “new materiality” — we fond of terms in the art world!
How did this mutation occur?
In the 1980s, then the 1990s, digital means were still reserved to a happy few and considered a tool — even if I think that it’s more interesting to consider them a medium. The world of art didn’t get interested in the digital field spontaneously, for reasons of permanence, culture, habits or the market. More recently, the arrival of the Internet — or more specifically the participatory Web — has led society as a whole to grasp hold of the digital. The great mutation brought by Web 2.0 is the digital’s shift from being a tool to a culture. This culture influences each of us, and this is how hybrid works have emerged, works which we have trouble defining as belonging to digital or contemporary art. In fact, the big problem of digital practices in the 1990s has been their expression primarily via the “black box”, hence far from the “white cube” — the showing system favoured by contemporary art — and hence standing parallel to the market. Today, we observe a merging. Recognised artists are adopting hybrid practices while “digital natives” are using these same practices or this culture to document society as it is, fashioned by technologies, and so they’re joining the art circuits. Today, we observe the victory of the white cube. Digital practices belonging to networks or the black box are migrating towards spaces dedicated to contemporary art.
Digital art is being legitimised. In the 1990s, approval circuits were parallel to one another, but these are tending to merge…
The digital arts are mainly developed in festivals — this is incidentally why they are very present in parts of the world which benefit from public grants, such as Canada or Europe. Intangible practices which were somewhat frightening for institutions due to non-guarantee of their permanence, drew closer to the world of research in the 1990s. Today, we see these festivals moving in other directions. On the one hand, there are those that are really interested in research and asking social questions: Transmediale in Berlin or Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Whereas other events – the Biennale Némo in the Ile-de-France region or the Elektra Biennale Internationale d’Art Numérique in Montréal – are migrating towards a digital type of contemporary art. The second edition of Elektra was held at the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, which is altogether revealing. In short: some festivals are focusing on scientific approaches while others are joining the approval circuits for contemporary art. The ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, shows this clearly: it has both a technology museum and a contemporary-art centre, and it is run by an artist, Peter Weibel, who comes from the world of performance — already a hybrid form of art. What I like in Peter Weibel’s approach is the porosity that he has introduced between the media centre and the art centre, while paying interest to contemporary artists who are legitimised by these bodies. The approval circuits which were more or less parallel to one another in the 1990s and the start of the 2000s, are now mingling today — at festivals, the market, theory and criticism, for example. Cory Arcangel is represented by Thaddaeus Ropac, Raphael Lozanno-Hemmer exhibited at the Unlimited at Art Basel in 2016, etc. The market drives this hybridisation.
How about artists?
I like saying that artists use the technolgies of their time. There were some who used the camera obscura, others photography, then television, video, etc. Today, we live in the era of usages hijacked from business innovations in order to create works. Classifications and nomenclatures don’t matter much. What led to the emergence of video art was the portability of the Sony Portapak camera; what led to the re-emergence of self-filming was use of the webcam associated with YouTube — hence the idea of “re-emergence” which my exhibition in Montreuil defended.
This triple exhibition at the Maison Populaire in Montreuil was called “L’art et le numérique en résonance” (Art and the digital in resonance), and looked at the concepts of convergence and re-emergence… Can you go back over these ideas?
The idea of the exhibition was to query the role of the digital in contemporary art by considering works which place themselves in line with the 20th century — video, photography, etc. —, but in the digital era, while also considering practices following the digital, hence the “post-digital”. The artists are cultivated, they are familiar with art history. In addition, today, no technical or technological innovation emerges without an artist taking hold of it to distort or query it. In short, I wanted to bring together artists rarely found together: Cory Arcangel, Renaud-Auguste Dormeuil, Thibaut Brunet… All their works have a “digitality coefficient” — if only because the artist has gathered information from the Internet. All creation is impregnated with the digital! All the works shown have something digital in them, more or less visibly. And it’s not the fact that works were visibly digital that interested me, but the fact that the digital fashions art and the world.
Some theoreticians such as Lev Manovich think that we are seeing the end — or decline — of the idea of the medium, as we’re unable to create a coherent typology for artistic production in the 21st century. What do you think?
We can already consider the obsolescence of the digital medium even if it hasn’t yet truly joined the art circuits in that today we experience a type of hybridisation — and it’s precisely this hybridisation which places the concept into a crisis. I think that we are living in a period when the medium effectively has a tendency to fall apart, in that works are not entirely photographic, or pictorial, or digital, etc. Afterwards, I persist in believing in the idea of the medium.
Today, it seems necessary to think about the conservation and obsolescence of digital works, just as it is necessary to think about a history of digital art, which already dates back 50 years. How can “duration” in digital art be approached?
This remains a real issue. There are a few institutions that pay great attention to such questions, such as ZKM or the V2 Institute for the Unstable Media, in Rotterdam. Once again, things have become more complex and more porous. Longevity is definitely less important today in the art world in that we’ve seen a certain number of contemporary-art practices that don’t take conservation into consideration. Take, for example, the works of Damien Hirst, some of which are decomposing. Many works are going to disappear. The same issue comes up for the Nam June Paik’s cathode televisions for example. Land art works are also going to disappear if they haven’t already, but they are documented, so we can still keep traces of them. If the artist, during his lifetime, documents his work, namely via instructions or protocols, it then becomes easier to reactivate the works while respecting the original work. These protocol issues have already been largely raised by other artistic forms, such as conceptual art or performance. At the same time, I think that we need to accept that works disappear, such as the original Net art works, readable only by using the first versions of Netscape. Certain Net-art artists have even chosen to leave their works to fall behind — Shulgin for example. I think that the issue of longevity was broached at many conferences in the 1990s, then 2000s, and finally produced more reflection on the contexts of works than on the works themselves. A new generation of collectors has also emerged, who know how to buy works “programmed to fall into obsolescence”.
What is your vision for Variation?
I wish to defend artists through open scenography, whether the artists are represented by galleries or not, helped by producers or not. It’s important to work with the market and to present works so that they are exchanged without having to ask whether the gallery has the means to pay for its space or to produce. This is the particularity of Variation; it’s a fair which costs nothing to anyone — neither the visitor nor the artist nor the gallery, which doesn’t rent out a space or produce the works. The economic model works because the fair takes a percentage of what is sold — a hybrid model between the fair and the expo. For their acquisitions, big institutions turn to galleries, fairs, biennales — which are controlled by the market. I’m in favour of porosity between the art world and the market, between festivals and institutions, even between businesses, sponsors and artists. All this in aid of art and its preservation.