VERSIONS AND THE COMMENT AS MEDIUM : three interviews

Published on November 26th, 2009


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Artworks which arise from collective processes on the internet lie in a continuum with other works, references and commentaries, leading to different versions and forms of one work. The Netherlands Media Art Institute challenged a number of artists to temporarily exchange the internet for the static space of the gallery. The question is of course how they make this transition. In brief e-mail and skype interviews (and one live interview) Annet Dekker asked the artists about the value of collaboration and of being able to comment on one another's work via internet.

Annet Dekker interviews Contant Dullaart, Harm van den Dorpel, Martijn Hendriks and Theo Watson

Part of the exhibition Versions @ Netherlands Media Art Institute in Amsterdam, November 2009

 

Since the rise of Web 2.0 the internet has become the pre-eminent domain of and locus for the development of collective authorship. Its speed, ease and omnipresence make the internet extremely well suited as a place for quickly launching ideas, responding to others, or adapting existing work and reusing it.

During the course of the last century collective authorship already played an established role in the visual arts, arising out of the development from closed to more open art forms, from static objects to dynamic processes, and from contemplative perception to active participation. From the ‘author as producer’ (Walter Benjamin, 1934) through the ‘death of the author’ (Roland Barthes, 1968) the concept of distributed or collective authorship became increasingly accepted.

Artworks which arise from collective processes on the internet lie in a continuum with other works, references and commentaries, leading to different versions and forms of one work. The Netherlands Media Art Institute challenged a number of artists to temporarily exchange the internet for the static space of the gallery. The question is of course how they make this transition. In brief e-mail and skype interviews (and one live interview) Annet Dekker asked the artists about the value of collaboration and of being able to comment on one another’s work via internet.

 

theo

collection F.A.T. Lab (2009)

VERSIONS : THEO WATSON

Interview by Annet Dekker
by e-mail

AD : Can you tell me about the origins of the online comment culture and its development?
TW : I see it as a weird hybrid of the open source collaboration model and the comment threads that live below news posts and YouTube videos. With open source projects a lot of the actual work is done as a series of responses to previous work. ‘Oh I see you added this feature, I took it one step further and added this…’. This group behavior where everyone chips in, has really been a driving force in improving open source projects. Rather than letting the work all fall on one person, it is done piece by piece by lots of people. This collaboration has been the norm for open source software development for quite a while, but what is interesting is to see this process be applied to internet art, experimental projects and web memes. It is like open source project development but for people more interested in pop culture and art than programming software tools. It is open source for the masses. It is what produced LOLcats [look-a-like sites], Rick Rolls [where web users are tricked into clicking on what they believe is a relevant link] and a million other time wasting things getting mass e-mailed around the world. It’s entertainment for the ‘board at work crowd’.

I think we may see more self organized groups like FAT which legitimize these time wasting projects we all secretly want to produce. I don’t really see it as pushing or stretching the definition of art more as just ignoring it all together. I am very curious to see where it all goes.

Is it possible to talk about comment as medium and could this lead to a shared or distributed aesthetics?
I guess the best way to describe comment as medium would be that the work is perpetually in a state of work in progress. This is where the programming terminology of revision numbers (or versions) can be applied to describe each iteration of the work. Often there is a goal to a project/collaboration. But like open source development it could get split into several sub projects and other people could pick it up later and take it further than was originally intended.

Do you think beforehand about the comments and do they influence your own artistic practice?
I generally don’t get to caught up in that discussion. I prefer to make something, throw it out there and see what people do with it. A lot of the discussion comes after the fact, with people making their own versions of the project, or taking what I did and going one step further.

How do you deal with comments by others and your own?
I try to keep a balance between being involved in the discussion and staying focused on making new projects. I think as an artist I can be a little secretive, I usually like to make an idea before discussing it. For me discussing it beforehand kills the energy to make it, so I prefer to make it, post it, and then participate in the discussion that follows.

Do you see the work as unique or is it part of a larger entity?
I see collaborative/remixed projects as a series of versions. The project itself is not just the first release. It is the whole collection of versions each with their own story. It makes the project a lot more interesting as it can evolve far beyond what was first conceived. The author is not one person but a whole team of people whose participation changes over time.

Is commenting a form of collaboration or is it something else?
I would say it is discussion and often this leads to collaboration but it may not even be realized by those involved. A lot of commenting is also critical and destructive but this serves its purpose too as those who are most critical can often post a response to show how they would do it and then they are part of the process.

What does appropriation mean in the time of comment culture?
I think the general attitude is that it is all up for grabs. I don’t think people think twice about taking a song or video and using it to make their point.

And what does this mean for the question of authenticity and originality?
I think the way people are acknowledged and credited really differs on a project by project basis. However I don’t think it really matters or applies. A lot of the time the work being made is not done for anyone else, just for the people who are making it.

Does comment culture surpass the scrapbook?
Hard to say, I think there is a wide range of work being made in this way and I think it is quite inconsistent in terms of motivation, goal and execution. Does it surpass the scrapbook? I don’t know, maybe not. But in a way it doesn’t matter, people are having fun with it.

How do you translate your work to a physical and static environment of a gallery space? Do the qualities of the collective online working process remain?
I guess it is not easy. In the same way looking at a 18th century oil painting as a 100 by 200 pixel image online is not the same as seeing it in person, trying to put an internet based project into a gallery might be just as awkward. Some things that work well are physical artifacts of online culture. Like Becky Stern’s framed canvas paintings of online Captcha systems [the images where you type the wonky letters you see to prove you are human] or actually making some of the hoax/photoshop projects that did so well online [YouTube glasses etc. ].

Trying to recreate that dynamic aspect of the internet in a gallery setting can be difficult though. Galleries typically tend to favor the static where as this work is ever changing and hard to understand when viewed at one moment in time. It is much better suited to being experienced online over longer periods of time and by which point you most likely have become part of the process.

Is the offline version an illustration or a reaction to the comment culture?
It is a partial illustration of comment culture.

 

martijn

Martijn Hendriks, Gradually Than Suddenly, 2009

VERSIONS : MARTIJN HENDRIKS

Interview by Annet Dekker
by e-mail

AD : Could you tell me about the origins of the online comment culture and its development?
MH : I think that what you characterize as online comment culture is really a very diffuse phenomenon. I think it exists somewhere between two other changes that are much clearer. On the one side there is the role that internet has begun to play as a source of images, texts and references for making new work. On the other side the internet has become a place where certain developments in art become visible more rapidly, for instance through art blogs like VVORK.

Because of this, it not only becomes clear more quickly when you are involved with similar themes or materials, but it also creates a ‘compulsion’ to place these similarities, or to react to them. That sometimes leads to interesting commentaries on each other’s work.

I don’t know if these networks are terribly long-lasting. The importance of that culture of shared references and reactions is always changing: sometimes you are particularly occupied with research for new work and it is good to look at a lot of things and see how other artists respond when you show a work-in-progress. At other times you have to stop with that and concentrate on your work. I know that that is entirely different for some, because for them the development of their work is more connected with responding to others, but for me it is important for me to be able to let go of that.

That artists show others their work-in-progress or ideas online is to some extent also a result of what is described as the post-studio condition. For many artists that I know, a lot of their research, and sometimes also of their work, takes place on their laptop. For many artists laptops are a sort of replacement for or extension of studios, and many people seek forms of online collaboration or other ways to exchange ideas. But for some time now you’ve been seeing artists whose practice is primarily digital or video returning again to the physical studio and an interest in materiality, authenticity and authorship. The interesting thing is that these two practices are beginning to exist alongside one another, and this poses the question of the relation between them.

Is it possible to talk about comment as medium and could this lead to a shared or distributed aesthetics?
I don’t know if it is productive to understand new developments in the visual arts too quickly in terms of innovations in the field of media. I also don’t think that responding to someone else’s work or to a particular development means that you are working in a different medium. It is often tempting to analyze developments on internet before we have really seen where they are leading, or how they differ in content from parallel developments outside the internet, that are less directly accessible and public.

In many cases the comment culture does lead to a sort of ‘distributed aesthetics’ because it creates a sort of fragmented development of ideas that are related in a loose and changing manner. But, on the other hand, I think that has also led to a counter-movement in which there is a search for a focused, less fragmented practice.

Do you think beforehand about the comments and do they influence your own artistic practice?
The most interesting thing about comment culture – understood as the situation in which your work sometimes gets picked up and taken further by others and in which you yourself sometimes work with ideas that come from the work of others – is that choices become clear. Particularly when an artist begins to work with the same idea but gives an entirely different content to it, it is interesting to reflect on why you didn’t make the same choices yourself. A single idea can lead to different results. That reveals something about the interpretation or transformation that takes place among ideas, materials and media.

Is commenting a form of collaboration or is it something else?
It seems to me that it is a sort of dialogue in which it is not yet clear what language is being spoken, because that language is gradually being developed. The subject is also not always clear. Just as in many ordinary conversations, that emerges in the course of the dialogue.

What does appropriation mean in this time of comment culture?
Appropriation has long since ceased to have the transgressive power that it had thirty years ago, and the easy accessibility of visual material on the internet is undermining that side of appropriation still more. Appropriation has almost become matter-of-course. Presently, it is almost never the act of appropriation that is important, but what you do with the material. Found material no longer has such an exceptional status, but all the more things revolve around the specific use of that material. When you use material that comes from the internet, it is very easy for others to also use the same material, but perhaps to manipulate it differently. As a result, this sometimes creates a sort of discourse about certain images or about certain sources such as YouTube.

And what does this mean for the question of authenticity and originality?
The most logical answer would be that these concepts have become irrelevant, but that is really a cliché. It is precisely the opposite that is true. There is a sort of originality and authenticity to be found in very simple gestures such as the choice of an image or text, a minimal intervention in it, or simply the recontextualization of the material.

Is the offline version an illustration or a reaction to the comment culture?
The work must be able to stand on its own and break free from that culture. Just as it also has to break free of the studio. That is important for arriving at the work, but that is not what the work is about. And even if it is about that, that work must stand up alone in an exhibition. Even if viewers have no access to that studio or to the comments and the interchange that preceded it.

 

dullaart

Constant Dullaart, You Tube as a Sculpture (2009)

VERSIONS : CONSTANT DULLAART

Interview by Annet Dekker
by e-mail

AD : Could you tell me about the origins of the online comment culture and its development?
CD : I am fascinated by the dialect that is found in comments: the rapid-fire jokes, the celebration of bluntness and deliberately saying stupid things. It has a semantics that is different from existing spoken and written language. Internet makes it possible to show and share your work immediately. You don’t have to wait any more until it gets into a gallery. At the same time you couple the material that you use directly to the source: you manipulate an existing YouTube video and put it back on YouTube again. The medium is also your platform.

Is it possible to talk about comment as medium and could this lead to a shared or distributed aesthetics?
It seems to me that the comment is still in its infancy as a medium, so it is difficult to have any insight into that.

Do you think beforehand about the comments and do they influence your own artistic practice?
I do think about what people are going to say about my work, or how it perhaps is going to be copied – which has happened a couple of times. Secretly, of course, I hope that happens. The best possible thing is if it turns into an interesting discussion. The process in comments is interesting, such as trolling and breaching – breaking social codes in order to force a response. That’s something which I myself like to do too.

How do you deal with comments by others, and your own?
I can’t stand anonymous comments. If you have a comment, let people know who you are so they can reply.

Do you see your own work as unique or is it part of a larger entity?
I was raised with a strong sense of community. I see the importance of authorship as absolute, and that includes the importance of always giving the author’s name, but I also believe that knowledge and findings have to be shared, for the good of all.

Is commenting a form of collaboration or is it something else?
One can only call it cooperation if you have directly or implicitly asked for comments. There are for example people who encourage others to remix their work, after which it becomes part of another work. But, on the other hand, what I find interesting is to work without permission. That is where comments get interesting, unfiltered and uncensored. Often however comments are censored because the risk exists that the website moderator will be held responsible for providing the stage for racist content, for instance. That is unfortunate.

What does appropriation mean in this time of comment culture?
An an ordinary manner of collecting material that you can work with, almost not worth mentioning.

And what does this mean for the question of authenticity and originality?
Authenticity should be connected with the work, the idea or the concept, and not to the individual who is behind it, but in this society that seems to be impossible.

Does comment culture surpass the scrapbook?
Sometimes it does and sometimes not…

How do you translate your work to a physical and static environment of a gallery space? Do the qualities of the collective online working process remain?
They are really different worlds, with different languages and concepts. But that appears to be changing because there are more and more people on the web, and less and less g33ksp34k [internet jargon] being spoken. As a result, people understand what is going on on the web better, and that makes the translation to another space easier – but up to now there always still has had to be a text or an evening’s explanation.

Is the offline version an illustration or a reaction to the comment culture?
Sadly enough, often as an illustration.

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Harmen van de Dorpel, Relational Ecstatics, 2009

VERSIONS : HARMEN VAN DEN DORPEL
Interview door Annet Dekker
live in De Balie

Kun je iets vertellen over het ontstaan van de online comment culture en de ontwikkeling ervan?
Ik denk dat de online comment culture relevant is voor de manier waarop ik andere kunstenaars ontmoet. De kunstenaars waarvan ik het werk het leukst vind ontmoet ik niet in een café of op school, maar op internet. Je volgt elkaars werk en schrijft over elkaar. Aan de ene kant is dat vanuit interesse, maar ook omdat je denkt dat je dan dichter bij die persoon komt. Je denkt: eigenlijk zouden wij elkaar moeten kennen want we maken werk dat elkaar heel goed kan beïnvloeden. En geleidelijk gebeurt dat dan ook. Het is ook een bepaalde generatie denk ik: net een paar jaar afgestudeerd en zonder al te veel plannen. Die generatie begint op internet.

Maar het is geen consistente groep. Dat dacht ik vroeger wel, maar toen ik in New York was kwam ik in aanraking met mensen die elkaar nooit ontmoetten. Internet nodigt uit tot een onafhankelijke manier van werken. Na een tijdje wordt je vanzelf weer gevraagd om ook buiten internet te presenteren. Op een gegeven was daar voor mij ook een inhoudelijke noodzaak voor omdat de dingen die ik wil zeggen niet altijd op internet kunnen. Ik vind een offline comment over internet vaak veel interessanter omdat je er dan van buiten naar moet kijken, als een vertaling van virtualiteit naar materiaal. Wat is een digitaal object? Als het alleen maar in een computer blijft dan kan het een beetje navelstaren worden.

In hoeverre kun je spreken van het comment als medium en van het ontstaan van een nieuwe esthetiek, die ook wel ‘distributed aesthetics’ wordt genoemd?
Kunstenaars die internet gebruiken vinden daar op hun eigen manier beeld uit. Zo zoekt Constant Dullaart de schoonheid in amateurtaal, in toeval of in de default. Martijn Hendriks gebruikt internet als verlengstuk van de moderne kunstgeschiedenis. Ik zoek zelf meer het direct esthetische, haast decoratieve of schilderachtige van digitale beeldmanipulatie. Ik werk op een quasi schilderachtige, collage-achtige manier die misschien iets traditioneler is.
Een hele tijd was internet een nieuw gebied dat nog niet iedereen kende. Dus als kunstenaars daar iets mee gingen doen dan waren ze meer een soort technowizards of zoiets. Dan had je ook al die generatieve kunst en digitale dingen. En dat is nu gelukkig over. Nu kunnen we gewoon op een normale kunstmanier naar internet kijken en zien welke schoonheid dat heeft. Het is nu gewoon kunst en niet digitale kunst of gedistribueerde kunst.

Denk je als kunstenaar van tevoren na over de invloed van comments op je eigen artistieke praktijk?
Mijn esthetiek is heel erg geïnspireerd door beeldgebruik op internet. Ik ben steeds meer de betekenis van mijn beeldmateriaal aan het ontkennen en daar heeft internet aan bijgedragen. Op internet is het beeld ontdaan van afkomst, context en van materiaal. Je kunt het bewerken hoe je wilt en er is oneindig veel van. Een beeld betekent steeds minder omdat er zo veel is. Beelden zijn geen betekenisdragers maar verzameling pixels die je kunt bewerken.

Hoe ga je zelf om met comments van anderen en van jezelf?
Uiteindelijk creëer je beeld van bestaand materiaal. Je pakt iets van de berg en je voegt het weer terug aan de berg. Ik zou het prima vinden als mijn werk opnieuw gemixed wordt, maar ik lever het niet zo aan dat mensen daar hun schaar in kunnen zetten. Ik denk niet dat het werk daar toe uitnodigt.

Zie je je eigen werk als uniek of maakt het deel uit van een groter geheel?
Soms zie ik mensen werk maken waarvan de werkwijze wel heel dichtbij de mijne komt. Maar dat vind ik ook niet zo erg. Het is wel leuk om daar de dialoog over aan te gaan. Zelf ben ik heel zorgvuldig en precies met credit en besteed ik er op internet heel veel aandacht aan. Heel traditioneel en ouderwets.

Wat betekent toe-eigening [appropriation] in deze tijd van comment culture?
Internet is een mediabrij geworden. De voornaamste verbinding tussen al die beelden is alleen nog maar subjectief en associatief en niet meer terug te brengen naar een historisch kader. Het is gewoon een kwestie van dat doet me daaraan denken en dat daaraan en dat was in een vorige eeuw en dit was gisteren en dit is in de jaren zeventig. Geschiedenis en context doen er niet meer toe. Het beeld is los komen te staan. We kijken wel serieus naar wat het beeld is en wat het kan betekenen, maar of het nou uit de vorige eeuw komt, dat is meer een interessant feitje. Maar het zijn allebei rondjes bijvoorbeeld en dat is waar het om gaat. De geschiedenis wordt steeds onbelangrijker en kleiner, je gaat dingen niet meer onthouden want je kunt ze veel makkelijker en sneller even opzoeken,

En wat betekent dat voor de vraag naar authenticiteit en oorspronkelijkheid?
Ik geloof heel erg in authenticiteit en vind het ook belangrijk. Oorspronkelijkheid is een nieuw idee, hoewel het geïnspireerd kan zijn door anderen, maar er is toch een soort vonk van originaliteit en echtheid. Je voel altijd meteen of het echt is of niet. Remixen is gewoon net zoiets als hoe iemand zijn kwast vast houdt.

Overstijgt de comment culture het scrapbookniveau?
Ik denk dat we eigenlijk aan het onderzoeken zijn wat digitale media nu zijn en hoe we dat vertalen. De website plato is gay die ik ben begonnen is bijvoorbeeld een commentaar op alle slideshows die we kennen van misdaad series of de fotocollage van een buurtcentrum waar ze de foto’s van de laatste bingoavond zo mooi door elkaar hangen. Al die verschillende beelden komen langs in een soort grote beeldstroom, over en door elkaar heen, waardoor alle beelden betekenis krijgen en gelaagd in kleur zijn. Er komt een verhaal naar boven dat er eigenlijk helemaal niet is. Hierdoor ontstaat iets nieuws.


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