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July 26, 2006

Lauren Cornell

Paul Laster interviews Lauren Cornell, executive director of Rhizome, about digital art.

AK:  The term digital art casts a large umbrella as artists working in a variety of media now use computers in the process of making their work. How do you decide what to include and discuss at Rhizome?

LC:  You're raising a question of terminology, which is interesting. Digital, new media, electronic, or Internet art — these terms often overlap, subsume one another, or are used interchangeably. That terms are continually being captured and recaptured speaks to the emerging nature of this field. It's important to note that many artists just refer to what they're doing as art.

Rhizome takes the term new media, using it as a blanket term to encompass a wide range of practices that take emerging technology as a tool, produce it as an object, or reflect on its social or cultural resonance. We are committed to presenting a big picture of the field. However, we do maintain an emphasis on works that deal with the Internet or networked technologies. This is the work Rhizome started with, and it remains a priority; our commissions program gives out grants to Internet-based works, for instance, and our archive of art is comprised of digital works.

AK:  How do you exhibit new media art?

LC:  We try to demonstrate the breadth of forms new media art can take, so we exhibit it online and also in galleries, museums, or public spaces. Recent examples of shows in gallery spaces are Rhizome ArtBase 101 at the New Museum of Contemporary Art and All Systems Go! at the Scope Art Fair in New York. In both of these shows, we presented works that dealt with technology but manifested in forms as wide-ranging as wall drawings (a piece by Xylor Jane) to software (by John F. Simon, Jr., and Golan Levin) to large-scale, kinetic sculptures (Matt Barton and Paper Rad).

The online exhibitions we organize are important as they nurture Internet-based practice; at the same time, they open up new kinds of possibilities for curatorial practice. For instance, one guest curator, Michael Connor, explored the similarities between blogging and curating, and the temporality of the Internet as a medium in an exhibition that took the form of a blog, with entries scattered over two months. Our editor and curator Marisa Olson organized a show of animated GIFs (a file format that was common in the '90s and has since become a popular kind of Internet kitsch) on a MySpace page, which accompanied a show at Rx Gallery in San Francisco. The artists Mendi and Keith Obadike collected a range of works that explored the different kinds of sound art online. The list of possibilities stretches on.

Online programming also allows for linking to multiple discourses. This parallels a key difference in blogging versus print journalism. Artist and blogger Tom Moody can, for instance, discuss a book on the history of video games and, in the same entry, direct you to pictures of his nephew playing Super Mario 64, to conversations on video games happening concurrently online, and previous thoughts he's had on any aspect of gaming. Of course, print critics can ramble in associative ways, but bloggers can actually take you there. In the same way, online exhibitions can link to all kinds of material: artworks, relevant essays, or YouTube videos.

AK:  In the early days of digital art, there was a lot of excitement as artists, galleries, and institutions clamored to get involved with this new art form. The climate has since changed, and there doesn't seem to be as much interest or support. How do you stimulate awareness and assistance for new media art?

LC:  I actually think that interest in new media is now broader and deeper than before. The early craze around the first wave of Net art faded around the same time as the dot-com era busted. And it's true, the field did take a hit in terms of funding and support. I also think in general it was hard for people to enjoy the computer-based work of that era; viewing artwork on computers is often a psychological leap that is hard for people to make, and the Internet, which most of the works used, was quite a different, more confusing place then. In her essay "On the Vernacular Web," artist Olia Lialina describes it well, as a thin network of pages, ridden with error signs and the first kinds of online personal expression. This is a very different web and cultural moment than we have today. Now, the Internet is a mass medium, with billions of users and much more influence on culture, politics, and personal identity. The field of work that deals with the Internet or networked technologies has grown tremendously and, I believe, gained a wider relevance as digital media has become so much more common.

AK:  What are some of the more influential digital art projects from the past?

LC:  A lot of artists working today cite JODI (a collaboration between artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans) as an influence. JODI started producing work in the early '90s, and their projects (then and now) amplify the feelings of fear or helplessness people experience with computers or the web. Projects like OSS, for instance, explode your browser window into many little windows that careen and collide across the screen, and eventually crash your computer.

The first wave of Net artists in the '90s, which included JODI, was also preoccupied with how digital interfaces were standardizing. Curator and artist Alexei Shulgin invited dozens of people to make alternative versions of the Microsoft desktop for his project Desktop Is . This project was also significant for demonstrating ways artists could use the Internet to collaborate — Desktop Is was an individual art project by Shulgin and, at the same time, a group exhibition of artist-made desktops.

Influential works with new media and narrative include Every Shot, Every Episode by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, which broke down the '70s television show Starsky and Hutch into a hundred different categories; and My Boyfriend Came Back from the War and Some Universe by Olia Lialina, which were both evocative early experiments in online narrative. Lynn Hershman Leeson's diverse body of work has had a tremendous impact on artists working in many different mediums; her early conceptual performances are echoed in Internet-based performance pieces by artists such as Mouchette, Lee Walton, abe linkoln, and my colleague Marisa Olson. Of course, all of these artists and others who were around at the beginning (the list goes on and on) are still producing influential work, which isn't so surprising given the beginning wasn't that long ago.

AK:  Who are some of the interesting artists exploring new media today? What are the emerging trends?

LC:  Younger artists, who've come of age with the web, extend discourses such as Pop or conceptual art in compelling ways. The collage or installation of collectives such as Computer Princess and Paper Rad, for instance, speak to the particularly anarchic brand of pop culture online. Similarly, videos by German artist Kota Ezawa translates pop culture into digital animations by taking news footage or film clips using drawing software and re-creating the characters' movements. In their media-guided explorations of different environments, groups such as C5 and Center for Land Use Interpretation make new kinds of contributions to land or earthworks. The in-progess piece International Airport Montello by eteam, in which they galvanized the local community in Montello to stage the workings of an airport in an empty, open field, also speaks to this trend.

Artists like Cory Arcangel, Michael Bell-Smith, and MTAA carry over Internet aesthetics and principles into projects offline. This is evidenced in Cory Arcangel's performances, which often, in the spirit of DIY or open source, demystify the Internet or new media. Michael Bell-Smith's intricate videos and collage are comprised of appropriated digital imagery strung together much like a quilt. They are steeped in references to online culture, yet they resemble landscape paintings that reflect on identity and culture mediated by technology. In their recent "desktop modifications series," MTAA applied the notion of a modification (a hacking technique used for commercial games or software) to gallery furniture that they felt was similarly proprietary.

Not all new media is interested in a gallery context; Cat Mazza and Pre-emptive Media re-purpose existing technologies for use in many different kinds of contexts. Mazza's knitPro is a web application that translates digital images into knit, crochet, needlepoint, and cross-stitch patterns. Innovative projects such as these, and also experiments that aren't necessarily art, are important to the field. Eyebeam's OpenLab, which specializes in research and development, has produced projects that relate to mapping, 3D printing, viral media, and new media graffiti via the Graffiti Research Lab, are good examples.

I would also point to artists who use digital and analogue technologies to produce powerful, abstract video or multimedia environments such as Takeshi Murata, Nate Boyce, and LoVid.

AK:  What are your favorite blogs and websites for keeping abreast of current activities in new media?

LC:  I pay attention to sites like digg or YouTube — which are relevant as they reshape creative practice and collaboration online. I also look at the sites or del.icio.us feeds of my colleagues, friends, or artists — it's a geeky way of keeping in touch, I suppose. In terms of new media proper, highly trafficked blogs include we-make-money-not-art.com, which is a clearinghouse of new media projects; again Tom Moody's blog and artfagcity, which is run by the wise-cracking blogger Paddy Johnson. James Wagner and Barry Hoggard (bloggy) write avidly about contemporary art in general and have an eye on new media. Sites for important organizations such as Furtherfield, Sarai, or Turbulence continually present new projects that they are working to produce or commission. There are also online publications such as New Media Fix and Neural ; and new artist communities such as Perpetual Art Machine appearing all the time. Again the list goes on and on.

AK:  How are you celebrating Rhizome's tenth anniversary this year?

LC:  With a festival that starts August 7th. There will be events and exhibitions around New York, commissioned essays, and a new program of online exhibitions, co-presented with our affiliate the New Museum of Contemporary Art (we operate like an organization-in-residence there). It will be an opportunity to explore current trends and projects in the field; not a definitive survey by any means, but a gesture to how dynamic and thriving new media art is.

Check the website for upcoming information on the Rhizome Tenth Anniversary Festival.

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