Aleksandra Hirszfeld: What is your view of the condition of Polish theoretical thought in the field of New Media Art?
Ryszard W. Kluszczyński: It wasn’t until recently that theoretical thought on new media started developing in Poland. Few centres in Poland are active in this field. It is only in the context of reflection on film that the situation is relatively good. I’m thinking mainly of the team led by Andrzej Gwóźdź [University of Silesia professor - ed.] that is shaping up discourses of this kind. But if we are talking about art in a broader or narrower sense of the word, the area seems to be currently studied only by my team in Łódź, that is, Maciej Ożóg, who is currently focused on surveillance art, Marcin Składanek, exploring the field of meta design, Katarzyna Prajzner, who analyses the area between computer games and other narrational forms in contemporary culture, and Michał Derda-Nowakowski, whose research perspective is strictly anthropological. Of course, there are also Piotr Zawojski and Anna Maj in Silesia and a group of young researchers scattered around different universities, but their overall achievements to date form only a mere outline of a future system.
Why is that?
One of the reasons is that New Media Art in Poland remains on more or less the same level. In fact, only one art school has been consistently teaching this kind of course for about ten years now – the Poznań Academy of Fine Arts. In the other cities, things look much worse. In Kraków, something has been slowly evolving around Antoni Porczak but in reality the noble conservatism, so to speak, of the Kraków art community has not allowed the initiative to flourish. In Gdańsk, although the symptoms have been appearing for years, the thing remains in a nascent state. There is also a group of artists who have been exploring the area of New Media Art in their work, e.g. Piotr Wyrzykowski or Joanna Hoffman, but in fact NMA in Poland remains a rather traditional art, one whose authors employ rather unsophisticated forms of new media. In her book on NMA, Christine Paul proposes that we think about two forms of digital technology presence in the field of art. On the one hand, as media, and that is the actual, dynamic trend of new media arts in the world, and, on the other, as instruments, that is, as digital tools for expressing traditional artistic forms. In Poland, digital technologies continue to be treated instrumentally, and are used to create computer graphics or videos. More advanced forms remain rare.
Ryszard W. Kluszczyński
Professor, critic, curator. Head of the Department of Media and Visual Culture at Łódź University. Professor ordinarius of the Łódź Academy of Fine Arts, he also teaches at the Poznań ASP. Author of many books, including Film – sztuka Wielkiej Awangardy [Film – the art of the Great Avant-garde] (1990), Awangarda. Rozważania teoretyczne [The avant-garde. Theoretical reflections] (1997), Obrazy na wolności. Studia z historii sztuk medialnych w Polsce [Images at large. Studies in the history of media arts in Poland] (1998), Film – wideo – multimedia. Sztuka ruchomego obrazu w erze elektronicznej [Film – video – multimedia. Art of the moving picture in the electronic era] (1999, 2002), Społeczeństwo informacyjne. Cyberkultura. Sztuka multimediów [Information society. Cyberculture. Multimedia art] (2001, 2002). In January 2010, he published Sztuka interaktywna. Od dzieła-instrumentu do interaktywnego spektaklu [Interactive art. From the work-as-instrument to interactive spectacle].
Looking from the global perspective, is theory following practice or is practice following theory? Is New Media Art governed by the same rules as traditional art or do they evade standards?
It is a special field of art where theory and practice have to enter a dialogue with each other. In this case, as in traditional art, practice precedes theory as well: phenomena appear for which there are no names and concepts are coined only later. But if we look closely, we will see that practice has been developing in parallel with theory. It is not without reason that NMA is considered to be a cultural practice, not just an artistic one. The most interesting artists are very often theoreticians as well. Many have written PhD theses in various fields of science, which serve as excellent sources of knowledge. It is no accident that it is precisely these artists-theoreticians who practice this discipline of art. Gone are the times when, as in the 1990s, artists were backed by software developers, often outstanding ones. At some point, artists started writing software themselves. The new generation prepares not only the ideas but also their implementations – and that is the first step towards more theory-oriented thinking. If we develop our tools ourselves, we start thinking about them in a broader context and attempts to theorise begin. This is not pure theory, just as New Media Art is not a pure, theory-less art. However, there is no doubt that bi-directional work between theory and practice can be observed.
I asked about New Media Art for a reason. Interactive art, the subject of your latest book (Sztuka interaktywna. Od dzieła-instrumentu do interaktywnego spektaklu [Interactive art. From the work-as-instrument to interactive spectacle], WAiP, Warsaw 2010), is part of New Media Art. I think a very important aspect of the book is that in the introduction you outline a definition, or notion, of what we describe as NMA (you mention such things as technological, electronic, digital, interactive and networking media) – why is the concept so fluid and ambiguous? How do you define New Media Art?
The usefulness of the various concepts is purely contextual. I do not believe in any pure truth that you arrive at and then need to defend. The knowledge that we are building makes sense in certain contexts and that is why, for instance, in Poland, in teaching new media, I take video into account. Not only because contemporary video art is a digital art but because if I did not take video art into account in the context of NMA, there would be no place for it anywhere in Poland. It is not being viewed in the context of the traditional media, in the context of cinema, so the only chance to study it seriously, to write a history of the phenomenon, is to find a place of it, for instance, as part of NM. Without this kind of context, though, I think I would be inclined to think about NMA first of all in terms of interactive media, which in the meantime have become networking media. In the book, I choose the “digital media” option, also (though not only) because the term encompasses video, which today, as I have said, is predominantly a digital discipline.
Why do you consider interactivity an aspect of NMA important enough to write a separate book about it?
Jokingly, I could say I have written some books on the subject, the unexplored area has shrunk and only interactivity was left. Seriously, though, interactivity appears to me to be a particularly significant feature of media art, especially in the recent period.
Digital media, as Manovich tries to show, are in themselves, due to their technological character, interactive by definition. Of course, the way we construe this interactivity is changing because the forms of artistic practice are changing and the concepts that only a moment ago were most adequate in describing the state of affairs today require modification.
Interactive art. From the
work-as-instrument to interactive
spectacle, WSiP, Warsaw 2010We should, however, be wary of a certain tendency that has lately become rather commonplace; namely, interactivity is becoming a quasi-valuating category: if something is interactive, it means it is valuable. This, of course, has to be rebuked. The idea has been rather popular in certain circles because for several decades now a new social, or actually civilisational, community has been shaping up, founded on something that is being referred to as “the culture of participation”. It is something that [Henry] Jenkins writes about. Some have begun calling it the Web 2.0 or even Web 3.0 generation. What we are dealing with here is a new community of social praxis where there is no longer any sharp division between those who produce cultural or symbolic content and those who merely consume it. At this point, interactivity has turned out to be a new intellectual category that explains the phenomenon, a category that proves useful in describing certain tendencies that manifest themselves on many levels, whether in pop culture or in artistic culture, in interpersonal relations or in modes of communication. Interactive art is becoming a key that, I thought, needs to be described and referred to other important concepts.
In the book, you quote Tamás Waliczky: “If we approach the computer with our old way of thinking … we will … miss a magnificent opportunity to create a new world.” Is the problem of the originality of the final product an important aspect of interactive art?
Today, the problem of interactivity is a rather complex issue because we live in a culture of copying and remixing. What would originality mean today? You can use something that somebody else has created in an original or ingenious way. The traditional notion of originality has been challenged for decades now. Someone once wrote that originality is something we never succeed in achieving. When we think we are original, it only means we do not know the work we are inadvertently copying. Besides, globalisation reminds us that something can be original only in a certain context. A work can be original here but will be completely unoriginal somewhere else because someone did similar things there ten years ago. This immediately raises the question: if someone did similar things ten years ago in a completely different context, does this make what you are doing here and now unoriginal? I think originality, like many other concepts, is context-dependent. When we ask about originality, we should also be asking: in what context, for whom?
Does the concept matter at all in the context of interactive art?
First of all, we need to ask whether originality matters in art in general. If the answer is affirmative, then it also matters in interactive art, but perhaps other things, such as effectiveness, matter more to others. Art often aims not to delight us but to cause us to do something for others. In this situation, does it matter that something is original? What matters is whether it succeeds in mobilising us.
Let’s talk for a moment about the copy and the remix. What is the relationship between the practice of using existing elements and the production of new works of art? Could we discern a unique figure of repetition in the field of interactive art?
I do not know whether on this level we can discern anything in interactive art that could not be discerned in other disciplines. Especially that interactivity emerges from processes that have been rapidly developing elsewhere: in kinetic art, installation art or performance art, and those are disciplines that have proliferated in various areas of painting or action art. The relationship between, for instance, sculpture and installation is hard to pin down. So, in fact, something that relates to interactivity also relates to those disciplines of art that are somehow interconnected. I think repetition and originality are now essentially cultural categories and if there is anything unique in them, it is mainly due to the fact that they have become topical issues. In the era of digital technology, someone’s else work becomes material for our own. In his 1960 Literature of Exhaustion manifesto, John Barth wrote that everything had already been written and all we can do is manipulate it in a clever way: through collage, pastiche, and parody. We can refer to existing work in an original way but that is a completely different kind of originality than that which people used to have in mind when they believed that an original work is one that has no predecessor.
What is the relationship between the development of interactive art and the changes capitalism is undergoing today? Has the fact that we live in times obsessed with communication and active participation, where, at least on the level of ideology, creativity is believed to be important, in a reality where we constantly have to be making choices and consumer decisions, has all that had an influence on the development of interactive arts?
I would’t look at these relationships in that way. What is the important context here are the cultural orders on which the different types of social activity are built. Their common foundation means that there are affinities between them. The contemporary transformations of the formula of capitalism do not affect the order of interactive art but they can provoke some artists to use interactive technologies in order to define their position towards something that, for instance, they do not accept. These orders have been clearly overlapping but, at the same time, they remain discrete because their purposes are different.
But some sort of influence must exist. There is a kind of interaction, isn’t there?
This interaction stems from the common soil from which it all grows, from a common context, common technology. In his Internet Galaxy, Manuel Castells proposes a vision of internet culture that includes all these aspects. Both the libertarian or counter-cultural one and that connected with new economics and new ways of creating wealth and manufacturing goods. What matters is not only that these spheres influence each other but that different spheres of activity develop using the same instruments. Note how difficult it is to discern between, for instance, advertising and art, and how people like Oliviero Toscani function perfectly well in both fields. At one time he is an artist and at another a marketing expert, and he insists he is far more important an artist than his colleagues who work for galleries only because they have a thousand viewers and he speaks to the millions. This is not true, in fact, but it shows how difficult it is to draw precise boundaries. An artist (I can’t recall his name) once proposed that we stop asking “what is it?” in the context of art and start asking “when does it appear?” instead. Some contemporary new media philosophers argue that even a question such as that can hardly be asked today, and that a new one has to be invented, and that would appear to be some sort of a solution.
In your book, alluding to Barthes’s theory, you mention the death of the author, the artist, as a subject fully responsible for a work of art. If the notion of authorship becomes blurry and is transfered partly to the recipient or the computer, should galleries today be promoting “artistic authorities”? How is the function and role of institutions changing? Should we continue creating and promoting authority figures in art or should we perhaps promote “phenomena”?
There is room for both. Even if it is indeed so that for several decades now, on various levels, due to a large extent also to new technology, we have been watching a gradual erosion of the category of the author; it hasn’t been eliminated completely, but has rather been gradually replaced by the category of authorship. It is also being added that this is “dispersed” authorship, divided between the many participants of a given event. If we think of art as an event rather than artefacts, then a given event often depends on all of its participants. It is not so, however, that one model has been squeezed out and completely replaced by another. I see it rather as a process of complementation. Contemporary culture is extremely hybrid, so alongside new media-based, interactive artistic concepts or practices, traditional ones, such as those based on the notion of “artist as demiurge”, have been doing great, too. Poland isn't the only country where academies and critics continue to promote the “artist” above all else as a brand that sells best.
The transition from object to event is an important aspect of interactive art. What has been driving this trend? Why has the recipient become so important? Why has an immobile object been replaced with an individual or collective experience or process?
The history of the avant-garde is one of the possible answers. Ever since the first exhibitions of early-20th-century artists, the dynamic aspects of art have been very strongly emphasised. “Happening art” or “performance art” had been practiced long before the terms were coined. Vladimir Mayakovsky, for instance, describes – and Viktor Shklovsky later analyses – the futurists, who even before World War I would put on yellow overalls and mingle with the Sunday crowd to provoke people with their oddness. The event, of course, was partly political, but there were chiefly artists there, manifesting their novel artistic attitude. Iin more recent times, the transition has certainly been driven by the development of digital technologies that reveal, in an extremely emphatic manner, the “non-finiteness” of the work, which can be altered, processed, and changed at any moment. Besides — and this is perhaps the most important aspect of the situation — social orders have also been developing in this direction. This is sometimes an effect of the deliberate efforts of certain circles. If consumer society is developing dynamically, if corporate orders produce objects that should be consumed with “respect”, then the only sensible answer is to transform them in your own way, change them into something that will have a different value than that defined by the producer. This leads to the creation of space for temporariness, impermanence. The crisis of the notion of essentialism in philosophy, the emphasis on how various contexts change the way we define and understand phenomena – all this means that a certain type of our desired activity of changing the world is bound up with change, with the aforementioned “non-finiteness”.
Is it the individual experience that dominates or the collective one? And does it even matter?
The areas of individual and collective experience have been changing and, in a way, merging. I think that Web individualism is precisely such a model that combines the two. Individualism as independently building relations with others. Not being inscribed into them but choosing and creating them. This is where the border between individualism and collectivism gets erased. “Do it yourself” gets replaced with “Do it with others”.