Interview with Christiane Paul: Renowned Theoretician and Curator of New Media Art

"The biggest challenge for me is to broaden the understanding of new media art's aesthetics, which is often perceived as geeky, obtuse and lacking a 'human touch". 

Above: Will Pappenheimer, Proxy, 5-WM2A, 2014. Screenshot from augmented reality application.

Christiane Paul is a renowned new media art theoretician, curator, and critic. She also serves as an Associate Professor at the School of Media Studies, The New School, and as Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Paul has written extensively and lectured internationally on new media arts. Her book, “Digital Art”, is a comprehensive survey on the developments in digital art from its appearance in the 1980s to the present day. .art Domains talked to Christiane Paul about the emergence of digital art, the material and immaterial, real and fake and the challenges associated with collecting and exposing new media art.

Christiane Paul

Which roots does digital art have in traditional art history?

Digital art has roots in two strands of history — 1) rule-based, «programmed» art and conceptual art and 2) kinetic / light / moving image art. Lev Manovich has argued that, during the years 1915 – 1928, the avant-garde artists and designers invented a whole new set of visual and spatial languages that became embedded in the commands and interface metaphors of computer software and now define the interaction with a computer (constructivist design, New Typography, avant-garde cinematography, film editing, photo-montage, etc.).

The “material/immaterial” is a topical discussion within digital art. You enriched this with the term “neomateriality”. Tell us a little bit about this.

The history of digital art has entailed an evolution of understanding the complex relationships between the material and immaterial in the digital medium. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Lucy Lippard theorized the dematerialization of the art object. While she did not explicitly talk about digital art, the art forms she examines — such as Fluxus and happenings — are today considered part of the lineage of digital art and emerged in a cultural climate that was infused by cybernetics and systems aesthetics.

Over the following decades, a slow process of rematerialization occurred. While we often perceive the digital as ‘immaterial’, it is in fact highly dependent on the materiality of hardware and network connections. Many artists, curators, and theorists have now pronounced an age of the ‘post-digital’ and ‘post-Internet’ that finds its artistic expression in works both deeply informed by digital technologies and networks, yet crossing boundaries between media in their final form.

The terms post-digital and post-Internet describe a condition of artworks and ‘objects’ that are conceptually and practically shaped by the Internet and digital processes — taking their language for granted — yet often manifest in the material form of objects such as paintings, sculptures, or photographs. The post-digital captures the embeddedness of the digital in the objects, images, and structures we encounter on a daily basis and the way we understand ourselves in relation to them. It denotes the process of seeing like and being seen through digital devices. I have used the term neomateriality to capture an objecthood that incorporates networked digital technologies and embeds, processes, and reflects back the data of humans and the environment, or reveals its own coded materiality and the way in which digital processes perceive and shape our world.

Are we moving to some kind of new reality guided by artists? Could this imply cutting ties with the “phenomenological/real” world and moving to a new hyperreal, ‘fake’ reality as described by post-modern philosophy?

Digital art is a medium comprising a broad spectrum of forms, ranging from large-scale installations, software art, and net art to virtual and augmented reality art as well as site-specific projects for mobile devices. Each of these forms has a very different relationship to ‘familiar’, physical reality and their aesthetic expressions do not necessarily align with the ‘hyperreal’.

You might also argue that artists always create and reflect on a “fake” reality, be it in paintings, photography, or video art. Digital simulation, which is only one of many possible expressions of a digital aesthetic, certainly veers into the realm of the hyperreal, but I wouldn’t say that artists naively steer into that direction.

Is the fear around the transition to a ‘fake’ reality reflected in their works?

Artists are the ones who critically engage with the ramifications of simulated realities, be it in political or aesthetic ways. Whether you look at the simulated realities of Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Jacolby Satterwhite, or Claudia Hart, they all explore the impact of digital representation in the context of art history and perception.

How does new media art redefine the concept of an art object? If ‘the medium is the message’, what would digital art’s message be?

As many other people I would argue that one cannot separate concept from form and that any medium in which an artwork materializes profoundly shapes its message. If an artist realizes a given concept both as a piece of net art and as an augmented reality project, the message will be different in each case, informed by the respective medium. Once again, it is difficult to make general statements about new media art. A work of software art redefines the concept of an art object in a different way than a piece of net art or an installation. On a more general level I would say that, depending on the form they take, new media artworks have the potential to redefine the object in that they can be interactive, participatory, real-time, and generative and each of these characteristics would once again shape the message.

What is the relationship between the copy and the original in new media art? Have these concepts been radically reimagined?

I don’t think that digital art has redefined the relationship between copy and original quite as radically as one might think. Digital art no doubt makes copying easier than it has been for photography, film, video and audio but artworks created in all of these media can be reprinted and duplicated and have quite established conventions for editioning and certifying authenticity when it comes to collecting them. The most radical effect digital art may have had in that respect is that it has undermined the value of the notion of the ‘original’. I am getting the impression that a younger generation, for example young collectors, are much more open to licensing artwork through services such as Sedition (“limited edition art for your digital life”, as the tag line puts it) and streaming it on their devices.

For Walter Benjamin (the author of “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”), the presence of an artwork in time and space, “its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” constitutes the authenticity, and ‘aura’ of an art object, which is jeopardized by the creation of identical copies for this object. Is authenticity and aura destroyed through endless reproduction of digital art?

In his famous 1935 article “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”, Walter Benjamin indeed argues that reproduceable media such as film destroy the notion of aura, but I believe that one can see this from a different perspective. One could argue that the marks of time are the most significant factor in establishing aura. A movie from the Film Noir period or a classic by Antonioni or Agnes Varda, to name just a few examples, to me have a tremendous aura, no matter where in the world I see a copy of them. I would say the same for a piece of net art created for Netscape in the 1990s or a recent augmented reality piece, which also is a product of a specific moment in time. Benjamin’s text has been reconsidered in the context of the digital medium by Douglas Davis in his article “The work of art in the age of digital reproduction: (1991-95) and Bill Nichols in “The work of culture in the age of cybernetic systems” (1988).

What are the key challenges in your curatorial practices?

The biggest challenge for me is to broaden the understanding of new media art’s visual and conceptual language and aesthetics, as well as its context. Audiences often perceive it as geeky, obtuse, and cold, lacking a ‘human touch’, or have no framework for understanding generative, real time art. There is a lot of education needed to successfully translate this art for a mainstream audience. As people are increasingly exposed to technology this seems to slowly change. Providing technological infrastructure for exhibiting digital art is much less of a problem today. One of the challenges I very much appreciate and enjoy is the adaptation of a given work to a specific gallery environment. Many digital artworks are highly variable, and it is exciting to work with artists to make them come alive in a specific space.

What are the challenges in preserving, collecting and protecting IP rights for digital art?

Aesthetic challenges aside, digital art can be technologically demanding in its presentation, and institutions often didn’t have the infrastructure to show it. A lack of models for preservation and collection, as well as the fact that the art form was underrepresented on the market were other challenges in the past. We have seen a lot of progress in the latter areas over the past twenty years, in particular. Thanks to many initiatives and consortia there now are solid best practices and approaches for preservation in place, models for collecting have evolved, the art market pays more attention, and serious collectors specializing in this medium have emerged.

I personally have not encountered any challenges to the protection of IP rights for digital art. When it comes to these rights, the collection of digital art functions similar to film, video, and photography, which also often tend to be editioned. As works in other media, digital artworks that enter collections come with a certificate of authenticity and provenance is still important. The blockchain, the technology also used in cryptocurrencies to ensure the uniqueness of a transaction, has more recently emerged as a method of authenticating and recording a work’s provenance.

What are your thoughts on the idea of creating a comprehensive digital archive for high-quality copies of all the meaningful art objects (which .art Domains strongly supports)?

I think one needs to first unpack what constitutes a ‘digital archive’ and what the term ‘copy’ means in this context. I believe there is a tremendous need for archives of digital art that document, preserve, and historically contextualize digital art, which can only be a large-scale, collaborative endeavor between institutions and researchers. These archives could take on different forms: 1) they could be archives focused on documentation and contextualization of all forms of digital art; 2) they could be online archives of the art itself rather than documentation of it, which means that they could include only a certain portion of digital art (net art and software art, from games to more cinematic works); 3) they could be hybrid (physical and online) archives of all forms of digital art, from large-scale installations and immersive environments to ‘pure’ software, which would require substantial support and funds. Only the second form of the archive could consist of copies of the work. Both the second and third form of archive would need to address issues ranging from legal agreements with and compensation for artists to collaboration with conservation specialists that would work on the conservation of the artworks, be it storage, emulation, virtualization, migration, or recreation. Museum collections obviously are a form of archive that compensates artists through acquisition and takes on the artworks’ preservation, but digital art has not been collected enough.

What projects for conservation of new media art would you mention? What are the specificities of such archives?

One of the outstanding archives has been Rhizome’s ArtBase, founded in 1999 to preserve works of net art that were considered to have potential historical significance. The ArtBase includes projects such as software, code, websites, moving images, games, and browsers, and 100 of the ArtBase works are part of Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology, which retells and contextualizes the history of net art. Another notable example would be the Archive of Digital Art (ADA), which has documented the field of digital art since 1999 and provides a research-oriented overview of works at the intersection of art, science, and technology developed in cooperation with international media artists, researchers and institutions. Not all conservation efforts take the form of archives, and there have been numerous other preservation initiatives over the years, from DOCAM by the Daniel Langlois Foundation to the Digital Art Conservation initiative done by ZKM in Karlsruhe in collaboration with HEK in Basel and other institutions.

There is some debate on whether net art should be presented only online (because “it belongs on the Internet”) or find its home in physical museums and art institutions. Has the pandemic, which pushed for art institutions to go online, changed the angle of this discussion?

Screenshot of commissioned projects on artport.whitney.org, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s portal to Internet art.

The pandemic seems to have underscored that net art’s biggest strength is that it lives and “belongs” on the Internet. During the pandemic, net art emerged as the only art form that can be experienced in its native environment rather than as a reproduction, which brought the medium a lot of attention. I have been commissioning online art for the Whitney Museum’s artport website since 2001 and, while the schedule of the commissions did not change during the pandemic, they received much more media attention. Whether the increased interest in net art will inspire art institutions to lend more support to the art form remains to be seen. For the record, I believe that net art has a place in the gallery — since the Internet is not separate from physical structures — and have frequently shown it in galleries.

The majority of the online institutional projects that emerged during the pandemic has consisted of representations of already installed exhibitions and scheduled programming or collection holdings on websites, YouTube, Vimeo and Instagram live. Exhibitions now have an expanded online presence; talks with artists, tours, and screenings take place on online platforms; and museums showcase selections from their collection with commentary or personal stories on Instagram. Very few of these online ‘exhibitions’ are represented as 3D walkthroughs of galleries, and most projects were not created specifically for the online environment. One of the very few exceptions was We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces by the Chronus Art Center in Shanghai, which chose to replace a canceled physical exhibition with ad hoc commissions of net art that were then co-hosted in collaboration with a variety of institutions.

Screenshot of commissioned projects on artport.whitney.org, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s portal to Internet art.

From an ideological and philosophical point of view, what has changed in the arts with the emergence of AI and other cutting-edge technologies? How does new media art re-think the concepts of human consciousness and whether machines can eventually acquire consciousness? 

Installation view. The Question of Intelligence (Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, The New School). From left to right: Mary Flanagan, [Grace:AI], 2019 (11 dye sublimation prints on aluminum, 20 x 20 in. / 10 x 10 in., Electric Philosophy [Grace:AI], artist book, 8 x 8 in.); Harold Cohen, AARON, 1973– (Artificial intelligence software); Baoyang Chen, Zhije Qiu, Ruixue Liu, Xiaoyu Guo, Yan Dai, Meng Chen, Xiadong He, AI Mappa Mundi: An Interactive Artistic Mind Map Generator with Artificial Imagination, 2018–19 (AI painting system, interactive installation, dimensions variable); David Rokeby, The Giver of Names, 1990– (Interactive installation, software, computer system, projection, assorted toys and objects). Photo by Marc Tatti

While the term artificial intelligence was officially coined in the 1950s, the concept is almost 100 years old, and artists have been exploring it for many decades. Harold Cohen started creating AARON, the earliest artificial intelligence program for artmaking and one of the longest-running ongoing projects in contemporary art, in the late 1960s. Over the past years artificial intelligence has moved to the center of technology discussions due to the rapidly increasing role of ‘machine learning’ in data processing and decision making for the purposes of commerce, labor, surveillance, and entertainment, among other areas. My recent exhibition The Question of Intelligence gave a conceptual overview of different ways in which digital art has critically engaged with developments in artificial intelligence, and investigated the social and cultural transformations generated by AI. It specifically explored what constitutes intelligence and if and how it can be constructed by algorithms and machines.

There has been a surge of art in the field of AI, and many artists have examined and juxtaposed the ability of humans and machines to acquire and apply skills and knowledge, raising questions of what the encoding of ‘intelligence’ means for the state of being human. Many AI artworks explore the effects of the automation of our senses, investigating vision as it is reflected in image recognition; speech and voice in relation to issues of sentience and personality, as well as the construction of knowledge. These works often expose bias and contextual misunderstandings in machine learning and classification of images and text. Scientists are still trying to understand what constitutes consciousness, and many AI artworks have beautifully made the point that AI can at best acquire a form of machine rather than human ‘consciousness’.

Christiane Paul, giving a tour of her exhibition The Question of Intelligence (Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, The New School, February 7 – April 8, 2020).
From left to right: Harold Cohen, AARON, 1973– (Artificial intelligence software); Baoyang Chen, Zhije Qiu, Ruixue Liu, Xiaoyu Guo, Yan Dai, Meng Chen, Xiadong He, AI Mappa Mundi: An Interactive Artistic Mind Map Generator with Artificial Imagination, 2018–19 (AI painting system, interactive installation, dimensions variable).

Maria Efimova
Maria Efimova
is an orientalist who speaks Arabic and Hebrew. She spent a decade working with global media, shook hands with Benjamin Netanyahu and other political leaders. She is now taking a break from it all researching arts and philosophy.